Household Duties (4) - Noting and Repeating Sermons in Families. William Thomas (1593-1667).
The repeating of sermons, I shall endeavour to move Christians unto both by scripture and reason.
Scriptural Grounds for Sermon Repetition.
The first scripture I shall mention, is, Jer. 36. 2, 6 where the Lord first commands Jeremy to write all the words which he had spoken from the days of Josiah unto that day; and thereupon, Jeremy calls Baruch to write them from his mouth, and then commands him to read what he had written in the ears of the people, that so they might be brought to serious repentance for the preventing of their ruin; which shows, that things preached by Ministers (as Jeremy's sermons were in the Temple), or instructions delivered from Ministers mouths (as these words were now from Jeremy's mouth), being written and repeated, are of special use; and so may serve to recommend unto us both the writing and repeating of sermons.
1. The writing; that being here prescribed, and being so needful, that what is preached, may be rightly and fully repeated. And therefore, though the repeating be that which I intend to persuade here, yet I shall speak something of and for the writing of sermons, because that is of such use for the repetition; and answer what is most considerably objected against it.
Objection: Writing hinders hearing, that is, hearing with such attention and affection, and giving up the whole man to it, as there may be, if noting be laid aside, and hearing be the only work.
I answer, that as it is not in my thoughts to bind every one to noting, so neither is it my mind and sense, that any should be taken off from hearing with the best advantage, (I say, with the best advantage, all things considered); for I look upon hearing as a necessary duty, and a special part of our obedience, but upon repeating as an auxiliary exercise, and a part of our beneficial assistance. Besides all that can write, are not so able and apt for writing of sermons.
Nor does this, prejudice and take off the present business, which is repetition: for a diligent hearer may (if he please, and be so provident) write what he hears immediately after he has heard it, and so repeat it; or, if he write not at all, yet, being able to retain it in his memory, he may communicate it in repetition, by that ability; as the words which the man of God had spoken to Jeroboam against his altar were told, and (we may say) repeated, by the sons of the old prophet unto their father, 1 King. 13.11.
But here I shall offer (to prevent the neglect of so great an help as writing is) these considerations:
(i) Let every man deal truly; for the heart is deceitful above all things, and whilst one pretends (or perhaps, intends) a better hearing; yet he may, through the secret workings of corruption, forbear noting, because he is loth to take the pains which noting requires; yea, (it's possible) because he is not willing to be noted to be a sermon-noter, that being a thing which some will look upon, as too low for higher and more considerable persons.
(ii) Repetition is here spoken of (in special) as it is a family-edifying exercise, which if it be left to memory, uses to be as defective as the memory is slippery; or, (where there is less zeal, and piety is less pleasing) to be altogether omitted, and that by the omission of writing; which would both furnish the hearer for repetition, and make it minded, and make it easy, and so make it more willingly undertaken.
(iii) Writing shows an estimation of what we hear, and a resolution to preserve the remembrance of it; As when Hezekiah would show how he prized his cure, and that it was in his heart to preserve the memory of it, there was the writing of Hezekiah.
(iv) As hearing without noting, may more stir up affection; so noting with hearing more prevents distractions, which Satan, by the variety of objects, more easily raises and multiplies when the mind is not kept to the matter by the intention of the writer.
(v) Though by hearing without writing, the heart may be more moved, yet writing so imprints there that which is heard as that it is not so soon removed; for writing has with it a multiplied thinking of, and running over and over again (in the inward thoughts) that which is preached and heard, till it be written down, and so it sinks more deeply, and leaves in the heart a more lasting impression.
(vi) We are to hear for the time to come (Isa. 42.23). Now, hearing alone, is for present use; but, accompanied with writing, for after-use. The sermon written may be read and reviewed a month, or twelve months after; yea, it may remain for the use of others many years after we are dead. Hence the scripture when it would express the continuance of things, and the way of that continuance, saith, This shall be written for the generation to come, Psalm 102. 18. I do not say, it will be thus, if book after book be filled with notes, which few or none can read but the writer himself; but, thus it will be, if, what is written (for present) hastily, be after written out legibly, which, because leisure will not permit many to do (if we speak of copying out whole sermons,) therefore I would advise Christians to an easier and shorter course, and that is, when they have noted largely, to observe the whole, and then cull out, and write out fair the choicest passages, which may be done more fully or more briefly, as time will give leave, and as the sermons and Christians condition give cause and occasion. By this means, posterity (when they are in heaven) may reap the benefit of that which they heard delivered, and were so careful to lay up; yea, by writing out briefly profitable and acceptable words of all sorts, the surviving godly reader will be a great gainer by things so useful, and be much refreshed also with the variety of them.
If it be objected, that the case here was a special case, because Jeremy was shut up, and could not go to the House of the Lord; and therefore is not to be drawn to common use.
To this I answer two things,
I. That the case may quickly be such at any time, as that which is described here; For:
(a) No man knows how soon Ministers may be shut up, (as Jeremy here was), that they cannot speak to their ordinary hearers. And,
(b) Hearers know not how soon they may be shut up, either by sickness or restraint, that they cannot come to Ministers, and therefore, it's wisdom to make use of the present liberty, in writing down, and laying up, present instructions; that so, though interaction with Ministers be interrupted or removed, yet their sermons being (as they say) in black and white, their former intercourse with them, and hearing of them, may in this way, make some comfortable amends, and serve for a profitable supply: whereas, if old sermons be forgotten, and new sermons cannot be gotten; Christians are like to be at a sad loss, yea, though there be printed sermons to be had; for, howsoever they may be very profitable, yet they may not be so suitable to the times and their state as those which they have heard, and which (perhaps) were prepared at first with respect to their condition.
II. I answer, that in the course taken here, to write from the mouth of Jeremy what was to be read by Baruch, we are not only to consider the occasion, but the end and use, which was, that by reading the words written in the ears of all Judah, they might thereby be moved to such humiliation and reformation, as that the evil they heard pronounced might not come upon them (Jer. 36.6): Now, albeit, that occasion was a more special occasion, yet this end is a common end: which, whilst it lets us see that the writing and reading of sermons preached, is a good means (yea, God’s means) to work the heart to goodness, it does thereby persuade us to imitation, and, attaining the same end, to take the same course; which if it be done more solemnly in a day of humiliation (as then it was), it is probable it will prevail the more.
Thus far I have spoken (by occasion of this scripture) with special respect to the writing of sermons: and now I shall briefly add that here is recommended,
2. The Repeating of them. Because, for that reason it was that the words spoken by the mouth of Jeremy must be written by Baruch, to wit, that they might be read and repeated to those to whom they were first delivered, by the mouth of Baruch, and the remainder of the Chapter shows also that they were again read and repeated before the nobles and the king.
And this declares the use of noting sermons, which is not to lay them up in books, and there leave them; but to repeat and communicate them to others: Indeed, it's true, that what was done here, was done by the Lord’s direction; and, what was read here, was read in the Lord’s House; But, there being no just cause to appropriate this course (for the substance of it) to any time or people, we have reason to say, that this Divine direction, at this time, casts an honour and an approbation upon the same course (in the generality) at all times; and God’s end in this reading and repeating in his house, justly minds us of the benefit that may be had from it in our own houses; I mean, according as the matter is which is preached, written, and repeated; for, it is not always of that kind that these words here were; but, whatever sort of matter it be, this writing and repeating is a way to make it more familiar to us, and fruitful in us. Thus of this scripture.
The second scripture that I shall mention, is (Col. 4.16.) where the Apostle orders first, that the Epistle written to the Colossians should be read among them; And then that they should cause it to be read also in the church of the Laodiceans; for, it was not written (as one saith) to Colossians as Colossians, (for the substance of it) but to the Colossians as Christians, and so, it was for the use of Christians generally, albeit, there was (it's like) a special respect in it to other churches in the same country, and namely, that of Laodicea: which, it is conceived, laboured under the same spiritual diseases that the Colossians did, and sure were in danger of being taken with those errors that are mentioned in the second chapter of that Epistle.
Now, as this scripture makes much for the reading of scripture; and for the communicating of holy instructions by one church to another: so (by the like reason, and for the same ends) it recommends also the impart∣ing of the things of God, once delivered by Ministers (as this Epistle was by Paul) by one Christian to another; and that especially, where their interest, opportunity, and charge lies most, which we know to be in their respective families.
Unto the two former scriptures, I shall add one general sentence more, which though I intend not to insist upon, yet ingenuity and piety will make it helpful to this holy exercise; the words are these, God hath spoken once, twice I have heard this (Psalm 62. 11), which howsoever it may be understood of our hearing twice, because God speaks to us twice (Job 33.14), yet it is also a good interpretation, and very suitable to the words (as they are rendered in our translation) which Calvin (writing upon those words) recites; to wit, that, though God speak but once, yet, we should hear it twice; that is, revolve it, ponder it, and make ourselves to hear it again and again; which will be aptly applied to the matter in hand, if we say, that when God speaks once, that is, by his Minister in preaching, then we are to hear twice; that is, (as by meditation in our hearts, so also, by repetition) wherein there is apparently a second hearing) in our houses.
These are the scripture grounds for family repetition.
Grounds from Reason
I proceed now to the reasons that may be given of this labour of love, and whereby the minds of godly persons may be confirmed in this practise of piety.
In the first place, I shall lay down a general reason drawn from the manifold profit that arises from sermon repetition; For thereby:
1. The sermon is better understood by a second scanning.
2. Better remembered, by a new recalling, 2 Pet. 1.13, 15.
3. Better digested, and nourishing better by chew∣ing the cud (Lev. 11 3), is, by fetching up that spiritual food again which is already received, but not sufficiently prepared; and therefore it must be gone over again, that being well concocted the soul may prove the better by it.
4. Better laid up in the heart, by harrowing after the first sowing, unto which meditation and repetition may be compared, whereby any thing harder is broken, and the seed sown is covered and kept safe. Writing without reciting, lays the sermon up in the book, and there leaves it; but repetition houses it in the heart, which is the proper place where it ought to dwell, (Col. 3.16. Psalm 119.11).
5. Better expressed in the life, by those fresher and stronger impressions in the heart, which the calling of that we have heard to mind and to a new consideration, leaves behind it. Now the better impressions there be within, and the more the word is wrought into the heart, the better expressions and the more holy fruit there will be without; for, Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaketh; Matt. 12. 34. And so the hand worketh, the foot walketh, and the whole man acteth. Thus in general.
In the next place I shall make use of some more particular reasons of repetition, and that, both in regard of ourselves, and others.
In regard of our selves, there are three things considerable:
1. That this reviewing of sermons, and spending more of our time and thoughts upon them is an effectual means of growing up in a right knowledge of religion; for, the abilities and studies of Ministers (especially their scripture studies) are much summed up in their sermons, which (therefore) being first attentively heard, (which writing ties the hearer unto), and afterward more deliberately considered of, in the repetition, do thereby possess the hearer in a good degree with the Minister's sufficiency; besides that, he frees himself also from that sad imputation of being ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth (2 Tim. 3.7). Hence it is, that the Bereans were so careful of, and are so much commended for, not only an hearing with all readiness of mind, but also a taking up of what they had heard into their thoughts afterward, searching the scriptures whether those things were so; yea, hence also Ministers themselves, do write and preach the same things again and again, because (whatsoever tediousness there be in it in itself, and to themselves, yet) they are sure it is safe for their people (Phil. 3. 1), and a great preservative against the infection of error, which is so much against Christians safety and salvation, 1 Cor. 15.1, 2.
2. It is to be carefully considered and weighed, that faithful Ministers and provident Pastors speak to the diseases of their people (Ezek. 34. 4), as Paul did to the disease of the Romans, which was a backwardness in receiving the faith; and so the Apostle James, to the disease of those to whom he wrote, which was, though they received and professed the faith, yet to be careless of a godly life, and those good works wherein faith (if it be not a dead faith) is fruitful; upon this ground, I infer, that albeit there be many printed sermons which Christians may very profitably read (and ought so to do) yet, the matter of them is not like to be so proper to, and fitted for, their spiritual condition as the sermons of their own Pastor, who (being such a one as he ought to be) is (like Paul,) diligent to know their particular state, and constitution, and solicitous to dispense and administer that Instruction which is most suitable thereunto.
3. And every hearer should very seriously take this to heart, that he is to give a special account of the sermons which himself hears, as being therein more concerned and more charged, then in those that are preached to other hearers. As the great works of God should, in that very respect, move us the more, because our own eyes have seen them (Deut. 11.2, 7, 8. Judg. 2. 7). So the words of God also, because our own ears have heard them. A King’s charge in the subjects own hearing, works much for obedience, notwithstanding all tentations to the contrary. The sermons preached to us, are our talents which we are to trade withal, as those of whom it shall shortly be demanded what we have gained. Now every man’s reason will tell him, that of that whereof he is to give a special account, it behoves him to take and make a special account, which easily falls into noting, and repetition.
In regard of others also, this course is very considerable, it being much for the spiritual good and growth of those who have not heard, to hear and have (though at second hand) the things heard by others. Hence godly and devout Christians have ever been careful of this communication. As bees bring what they have gotten abroad, home to their hive, so do good hearers, to their house and family; and, as they that go to the market, bring with them bodily provision for the rest of the household that have not been there, so does a provident hearer spiritual provision; By which means, the same good effect may arise which we find wrought upon the Samaritans, by what the woman of Samaria testified unto them concerning the Messiah, which was that many of the Samaritans believed on him for the saying of that woman; that is, that was a good preparation and excitation to their after full and firm believing; of which they give this ac∣count to the woman, Now we believe, not because of thy saying, for we have heard him ourselves. Accordingly, Christians communicating and repeating in the ears of others the good instructions they have heard and noted themselves, may stir up in others holy affections, and prepare their hearts unto the Lord; but then, all comes to perfection and to a solid setting of the soul in frame by hearing in their own persons from the Ministers of Christ, that which hath been before repeated and testified to them by the hearing of others.
To conclude, I doubt not, but divers have found by their experience, (I am sure, I have found it by my own) that sermons have divers times come nearer the heart, and under more observation in the repetition than in the first hearing. Not but that the word preached by the messenger of the Lord of Hosts, is the principal and highest means of edification and salvation; but yet, (besides, that every man sees more by a review then at first sight), God is pleased so far to show his liking of the conscientious use of every Christian exercise and assistance, as to follow it with a sensible addition of spiritual profit; so that, the searching hearer is the noble and the thriving hearer (Acts 17.11, 12). And to this experience I shall leave the religious reader thereby to make up what might be further spoken, for the confirmation, and commendation of this godly family exercise.