1. Now, my brethren, to plunge at once out of the parable and into the interpretation, I observe, in the first place, that pastors who are indeed to be pastors after God's own heart have all to pass into their pastorate through the school of experience. Preaching after God's own heart, and pastoral work of the same divine pattern, cannot be taught in any other school than the school of experience. Poets may be born and not made, but not pastors nor preachers. Nay, do not all our best poets first learn in their sufferings what afterwards they teach us in their songs? At any rate, that is certainly the case with preachers and pastors. As my own old minister once said to me in a conversation on this very subject, 'Even God Himself cannot inspire an experience.' No. For if He could He would surely have done so in the case of His own Son, to Whom in the gift of the Holy Ghost He gave all that He could give and all that His Son could receive. But an experience cannot in the very nature of things be either bestowed on the one hand or received and appropriated on the other. An experience in the unalterable nature of the thing itself must be undergone. The Holy Ghost Himself after He has been bestowed and received has to be experimented upon, and taken into this and that need, trial, cross, and care of life. He is not sent to spare us our experiences, but to carry us through them. And thus it is (to keep for a moment in sight of the highest illustration we have of this law of experience), thus it is, I say, that the apostle has it in his Epistle to the Hebrews that though Christ Himself were a Son, yet learned He obedience by the things that He suffered. And being by experience made perfect He then went on to do such and such things for us. Why, for instance, for one thing, why do you think was our Lord able to speak with such extraordinary point, impressiveness, and assurance about prayer; about the absolute necessity and certainty of secret, importunate, persevering prayer having, sooner or later, in one shape or other, and in the best possible shape, its answer? Why but because of His own experience? Why but because His own closet, hilltop, all-night, and up-before- the-day prayers had all been at last heard and better heard than He had been able to ask? We can quite well read between the lines in all our Lord's parables and in all the passages of His sermons about prayer. The unmistakable traces of otherwise untold enterprises and successes, agonies and victories of prayer, are to be seen in every such sermon of His. And so, in like manner, in all that He says to His disciples about the sweetness of submission, resignation, and self-denial, as also about the nourishment for His soul that He got out of every hard act of obedience,--and so on. There is running through all our Lord's doctrinal and homiletical teaching that note of reality and of certitude that can only come to any teaching out of the long and deep and intense experience of the teacher. And as the Master was, so are all His ministers. When I read, for instance, what William Law says about the heart-searching and heart-cleansing efficacy of intercessory prayer in the case of him who continues all his life so to pray, and carries such prayer through all the experiences and all the relationships of life, I do not need you to tell me where that great man of God made that great discovery. I know that he made it in his own closet, and on his own knees, and in his own evil heart. And so, also, when I come nearer home. Whenever I hear a single unconventional, immediate, penetrating, overawing petition or confession in a minister's pulpit prayer or in his family worship, I do not need to be told out of what prayer-book he took that. I know without his telling me that my minister has been, all unknown to me till now, at that same school of prayer to which his Master was put in the days of His flesh, and out of which He brought the experiences that He afterwards put into the Friend at midnight, and the Importunate widow, as also into the Egg and the scorpion, the Bread and the stone, the Knocking and the opening, the Seeking and the finding.
His children thus most dear to Him, Their heavenly Father trains, Through all the hard experience led Of sorrows and of pains.
And if His children, then ten times more the tutors and governors of His children,--the pastors and the preachers He prepares for His people.
2. Again, though I will not put those two collegiate shepherds against one another, yet, in order to bring out the whole truth on this matter, I will risk so far as to say that where we cannot have both Knowledge and Experience, by all means let us have Experience. Yes, I declare to you that if I were choosing a minister for myself, and could not have both the book-knowledge and the experience of the Christian life in one and the same man; and could not have two ministers, one with all the talents and another with all the experiences; I would say that, much as I like an able and learned sermon from an able and learned man, I would rather have less learning and more experience. And, then, no wonder that such pastors and preachers are few. For how costly must a thoroughly good minister's experience be to him! What a quantity and what a quality of experience is needed to take a raw, light-minded, ignorant, and self-satisfied youth and transform him into the pastor, the tried and trusted friend of the tempted, the sorrow- laden, and the shipwrecked hearts and lives in his congregation! What years and years of the selectest experiences are needed to teach the average divinity student to know himself, to track out and run to earth his own heart, and thus to lay open and read other men's hearts to their self-deceived owners in the light of his own. A matter, moreover, that he gets not one word of help toward in all his college curriculum. David was able to say in his old age that he fed the flock of God in Israel according to the integrity of his heart, and guided them by the skilfulness of his hands. But what years and years of shortcoming and failure in private and in public life lie behind that fine word 'integrity'! as also what stumbles and what blunders behind that other fine word 'skilfulness'! But, then, how a lightest touch of a preacher's own dear-bought experience skilfully let fall brightens up an obscure scripture! How it sends a thrill through a prayer! How it wings an arrow to the conscience! How it sheds abroad balm upon the heart! Let no minister, then, lose heart when he is sent back to the school of experience. He knows in theory that tribulation worketh patience, and patience experience, but it is not theory, but experience, that makes a minister after God's own heart. I sometimes wish that I may live to see a chair of Experimental Religion set up in all our colleges. I fear it is a dream, and that it must have been pronounced impracticable long ago by our wisest heads. Still, all the same, that does not prevent me from again and again indulging my dream. I indulge my fond dream again as often as I look back on my own tremendous mistakes in the management of my own personal and ministerial life, as well as sometimes see some signs of the same mistakes in some other ministers. In my dream for the Church of the future I see the programme of lectures in the Experimental Class and the accompanying examinations. I see the class library, and I envy the students. I am present at the weekly book-day, and at the periodical addresses delivered to the class by those town and country ministers who have been most skilful in their pastorate and most successful in the conversion and in the character of their people. And, unless I wholly deceive myself, I see, not all the class--that will never be till the millennium--but here and there twos and threes, and more men than that, who will throw their whole hearts into the work of such a class till they come out of the hall in experimental religion like Sir Proteus in the play:
Their years but young, but their experience old, Their heads unmellowed, but their judgment ripe.
It is quite true, that, as my old minister shrewdly said to me, even the Holy Ghost cannot inspire an experience. No. But a class of genuine experimental divinity would surely help to foster and develop an experience. And, till the class is established, any student who has the heart for it may lay in the best of the class library for a few shillings. Mr. Thin will tell you that there is no literature that is such a drug in the market as the best books of Experimental Divinity. No wonder, then, that we make such slow and short way in the skilfulness, success, and acceptance of our preaching and our pastorate.
3. But, at the same time, my brethren, all your ministers' experience of personal religion will be lost upon you unless you are yourselves attending the same school. The salvation of the soul, you must understand, is not offered to ministers only. Ministers are not the only men who are, to begin with, dead in trespasses and sins. The Son of God did not die for ministers only. The Holy Ghost is not offered to ministers only. A clean, humble, holy heart is not to be the pursuit of ministers only. It is not to His ministers only that our Lord says, Take up My yoke and learn of Me. The daily cross is not the opportunity of ministers only. It is not to ministers only that tribulation worketh patience, and patience experience, and experience hope. It was to all who had obtained like precious faith with their ministers that Peter issued this exhortation that they were to give all diligence to add to their faith virtue, and to virtue knowledge, and to knowledge temperance, and to temperance patience,--and so on. Now, my brethren, unless all that is on foot in yourselves, as well as in your ministers, then their progress in Christian experience will only every new Sabbath-day separate you and your ministers further and further away from one another. When a minister is really making progress himself in the life of religion that progress must come out, and ought to come out, both in his preaching and in his prayers. And, then, two results of all that will immediately begin to manifest themselves among his people. Some of his people will visibly, and still more will invisibly, make corresponding progress with their minister; while some others, alas! will fall off in interest, in understanding, and in sympathy till at last they drop off from his ministry altogether. That is an old law in the Church of God: 'like people like priest,' and 'like priest like people.' And while there are various influences at work retarding and perplexing the immediate operation of that law, at the same time, he who has eyes to see such things in a congregation and in a community will easily see Hosea's great law of congregational selection in operation every day. Like people gradually gravitate to like preachers. You will see, if you have the eyes, congregations gradually dissolving and gradually being consolidated again under that great law. You will see friendships and families even breaking up and flying into pieces; and, again, new families and new friendships being built up on that very same law. If you were to study the session books of our city congregations in the light of that law, you would get instruction. If you just studied who lifted their lines, and why; and, again, what other people came and left their lines, and why, you would get instruction. The shepherds in Israel did not need to hunt up and herd their flocks like the shepherds in Scotland. A shepherd on the mountains of Israel had nothing more to do than himself pass up into the pasture lands and then begin to sing a psalm or offer a prayer, when, in an instant, his proper sheep were all round about him. The sheep knew their own shepherd's voice, and they fled from the voice of a stranger. And so it is with a true preacher,--a preacher of experience, that is. His own people know no voice like his voice. He does not need to bribe and flatter and run after his people. He may have, he usually has, but few people as people go in our day, and the better the preacher sometimes the smaller the flock. It was so in our Master's case. The multitude followed after the loaves but they fled from the feeding doctrines, till He first tasted that dejection and that sense of defeat which so many of His best servants are fed on in this world. Still, as our Lord did not tune His pulpit to the taste of the loungers of Galilee, no more will a minister worth the name do anything else but press deeper and deeper into the depths of truth and life, till, as was the case with his Master, his followers, though few, will be all the more worth having. The Delectable Mountains are wide and roomy. They roll far away both before and behind. Immanuel's Land is a large place, and there are many other shepherds among those hills and valleys besides Knowledge and Experience and Watchful and Sincere. And each several shepherd has, on the whole, his own sheep. Knowledge has his; Experience has his; Watchful has his; and Sincere has his; and all the other here unnamed shepherds have all theirs also. For, always, like shepherd like sheep. Yes. Hosea must have been something in Israel somewhat analogous to a session-clerk among ourselves. 'Like priest like people' is certainly a digest of some such experience. Let some inquisitive beginner in Hebrew this winter search out the prophet upon that matter, consulting Mr. Hutcheson and Dr. Pusey, and he will let me hear the result.
4. Now, my brethren, in closing, we must all keep it clearly before our minds, and that too every day we live, that God orders and overrules this whole world, and, indeed, keeps it going very much just that He may by means of it make unceasing experiment upon His people. Experiment, you know, results in experience. There is no other way by which any man can attain to a religious experience but by undergoing temptation, trial, tribulation:- experiment. And it gives a divine dignity to all things, great and small, good and bad, when we see them all taken up into God's hand, in order that by means of them He may make for Himself an experienced people. Human life on this earth, when viewed under this aspect, is one vast workshop. And all the shafts and wheels and pulleys; all the crushing hammers, and all the whirling knives; all the furnaces and smelting-pots; all the graving tools and smoothing irons, are all so many divinely-designed and divinely-worked instruments all directed in upon this one result,--our being deeply experienced in the ways of God till we are for ever fashioned into His nature and likeness. Our faith in the unseen world and in our unseen God and Saviour is at one time put to the experiment. At another time it is our love to Him; the reality of it, and the strength of it. At another time it is our submission and our resignation to His will. At another time it is our humility, or our meekness, or our capacity for self-denial, or our will and ability to forgive an injury, or our perseverance in still unanswered prayer; and so on the ever-shifting but never-ceasing experiment goes. I do beseech you, my brethren, take that true view of life home with you again this night. This true view of life, namely, that experience in the divine life can only come to you through your being much experimented upon. Meet all your trials and tribulations and temptations, then, under this assurance, that all things will work together for good to you also if you are only rightly exercised by means of them. Nothing else but this growing experience and this settling assurance will be able to support you under the sudden ills of life; but this will do it. This, when you begin by experience to see that all this life, and all the good and all the ill of this life, are all under this splendid divine law,--that your tribulations also are indeed working within you a patience, and your patience an experience, and your experience a hope that maketh not ashamed.