THE ONE THING NEEDFUL
"Aod Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things; but one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her."— Lake, x. 41, 42.
Fob what are we placed in this world ? Is it to dwell here always? You cannot think so, when the millions of mankind that have appeared upon the stage of time are so many instances of the contrary. The true notion therefore of the present state is, that it is a state of preparation and trial for the eternal world; a state of education for our adnlt age. As children are sent to school, and youth bound out to trades, to prepare them for business, and qualify them to live in the world, so we are placed here to prepare us for the grand business of immortality, the state of our maturity, and to qualify us to live for ever. And is there a heaven of the most perfect happiness, and a hell of the most exquisite misery, just before us, perhaps not a year or even a day distant from us ? And is it the great design, the business and duty of the present state, to obtain the one and escape the other? Then what are we doing ? What is the world doing all around us ? Are they acting as it becomes candidates for eternity ? Are they indeed making that the principal object of their most zealous endeavors, which is the grand design, business, and duty of the present state ? Are they minding this at all adventures whatever else they neglect ? This is what we might expect from them as reasonable creatures, as creatures that love themselves, and have a strong innate desire of happiness. This a stranger to our world might charitably presume concerning them. But, alas! look upon the conduct of the world around you, or look nearer home, and where you are most nearly interested, upon your own conduct, and you will see this is not generally the case. No; instead of pursuing the one thing needful, the world is all in motion, all bustle and hurry, like ants upon a mole-hill, about other affairs. They are in a still higher degree than officious Martha, careful and troubled about many things.
Now to recall you from this endless variety of vain pursuits, and direct your endeavors to the proper object, I can think of no better expedient than to explain and inculcate upon you the admonition of Christ to Martha, and his commendation of Mary upon this head.
Martha was the head of a little family, probably a widow, in a village near Jerusalem, called Bethany. Her brother and sister, Lazarus and Mary, lived alone with her. And what is remarkable concerning this little family is, that they were all lovers of Jesus: and their love was not without returns on his side; for we are expressly told that Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus.— What a happy family is this! but O how rare in the world! This was a convenient place of retirement to Jesus, after the labors and fatigues of his ministry in the city; and here we often find him.
Though spent and exhausted with his public services, yet when he gets into the circle of a few friends in a private house he cannot be idle: he still instructs them with his heavenly discourse, and his conversation is a constant sermon. Mary, who was passionately devout and eager for instruction, would not let such a rare opportunity slip, but sits down at the feet of this great Teacher, which was the posture of the Jewish pupils before their masters, and eagerly catches every word from his lips. Though she is solicitous for the comfort of her heavenly guest, yet she makes no great stir to provide for him an elegant or sumptuous entertainment; for she knew his happiness did not consist in luxurious eating and drinking: it was his meat and drink to do the will of his Father; and as for the sustenance of his body, plain food was most acceptable to him. He was not willing that any should lose their souls by losing opportunities of instruction, while they were making sumptuous provision for him. Mary was also so deeply engaged about her salvation, that she was nobly careless about the little decencies of entertainments. The body and all its supports and gratifications appeared of very , small importance to her when compared with the immortal soul. All this she did with Christ's warm approbation, and therefore her conduct is an example worthy of our imitation.
Martha, though a pious woman, yet like too many among us, was too solicitous about these things. She seemed more concerned to maintain her reputation for good economy and hospitality than to improve in divine knowledge at every opportunity, and to entertain her guest rather as a gentleman than as a divine teacher and the Saviour of souls. Hence, instead of sitting at his feet with her sister in the posture of a humble disciple, she was busy in making preparations, and her mind was distracted with the cares of her family. As moderate labor and care about earthly things is lawful, and even a duty, persons are not readily suspicious or easily convinced of their guilty excesses in these labors and cares. Hence Martha is so far from condemning herself on this account, that she blames her devout sister for not following her example.
Jesus turns upon her with just severity, and throws the blame where it should lie. Martha, Martha ! There is a vehemence and pungency in the repetition, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things. " Thy worldly mind has many objects, and many objects excite many cares and troubles, fruitless trouble and useless cares. But one thing is needful; and therefore dropping thy excessive care about many things, make this one thing the great object of thy pursuit. This one thing is what thy sister is now attending to, while thou art vainly careful about many things; and therefore, instead of blaming her conduct I must approve it. She has made the best choice, for she hath chosen that good part which shall not be taken away from her. After all thy care and labor, the things of this vain world must be given up at last, and lost for ever. But Mary hath made a wiser choice; the portion she hath chosen shall be hers for ever."
But what does Christ mean by this one thing which alone is needful ?
I answer, it must mean something different from, and superior to all the pursuits of time. The one thing needful must mean the salvation of the soul, and an earnest application to the means necessary to obtain this end, above all other things in the world. The end, namely, salvation, will be granted by all to be necessary, and the necessity of the end renders the means also necessary. If it be necessary you should be for ever happy, and escape everlasting misery, it is necessary you should be holy; for you can no more be saved without holiness, than you can be healthy without health, see without light, or live without food. And if holiness be necessary, then the earnest use of the means appointed for the production and improvement of holiness in us must be necessary too; for you can no more expect to become holy without the use of these means, than to reap without sowing, or become truly virtuous and good by chance or fatality. To be holy in order to be happy, and to use all the means of grace in order to be holy, is therefore the one thing needful.
It may also be called the one thing needful, to intimate that this is needful above all other things. It is a common form of speech to say of that which is necessary above all other things, that it is the one or only thing necessary: so we may understand this passage. There are what we call the real necessaries of life, such as food and raiment; there are also necessary callings and necessary labors. All these are necessary in a lower sense; necessary in their proper place. But in comparison of the great work of our salvation, they are all unnecessary; if we be but saved, we may do very well without them all. This is so necessary, that nothing else deserves to be called necessary in comparison of it. I add further, this one thing may be said to be necessary, always, or for ever. The necessaries of this life we cannot want long, for we must soon remove into a world where there is no room for them; but holiness and salvation we shall find needful always: needful under the calamities of life; needful in the agonies of death; needful in the world of spirits; needful millions of ages hence; needful to all eternity; and without it we are eternally undone. This is a necessity indeed! a necessity in comparison of which all other necessities are but superfluities. I hope by this short explication I have cleared the way through your understandings to your hearts, and to your hearts I would now address myself.
My first request to you is, that you would make this passage the test of your characters, and seriously inquire whether you have lived in the world as those that really and practically believe that this is the one thing of absolute necessity. Are not all the joys of heaven and your immortal souls worth the little pains of seriously putting this short question to your consciences? Review your life, look at your hearts, and inquire, has this one thing lain more upon your hearts than all other things together r Has this been, above all other things, the object of your most vehement desire, your most earnest endeavors, and eager pursuit ? I do not ask you whether you have heard or read that this one thing is necessary, or whether you have sometimes talked about it. I do not ask whether you have paid to God the compliment of appearing in his house once a week, or of performing him a little lip-service morning and evening in your families, or in your closets, after you have served yourselves and the world all the rest of your time, without one affectionate thought of God. I do not ask whether you have performed many actions that are materially good, and abstained from many sins. All this you may have done, and yet have neglected the one thing needful all your lives.
But I ask you, whether this one thing needful has been habitually uppermost in your hearts, the favorite object of your desires, the prize of your most vigorous endeavors, the supreme happiness of your souls, and the principal object of your concern above all things in the world ? Sirs, you may now hear this question with stupid unconcern and indifference; but I must tell you, you will find another day how much depends upon it. In that day it will be found, that the main difference between true Christians and the various classes of sinners is this:—God, Christ, holiness, and the concerns of eternity, are habitually uppermost in the hearts of the former; but, to the latter, they are generally but things by the by; and the world engrosses the vigor of their souls, and is the principal concern of their lives. To serve God, to obtain his favor, and to be happy for ever in his love, is the main business of the saint, to which all the concerns of the world and the flesh, must give way; but to live in ease, in reputation, in pleasure, or riches, or to gratify himself in the pursuit and enjoyment of some created good, this is the main concern of the sinner. The one has made a hearty resignation of himself, and all that he is and has, to God, through Jesus Christ; he serves him with the best, and thinks nothing too good for him. But the other has his exceptions and reserves: he will serve God willingly, provided it may consist with his ease, and pleasure, and temporal interest; he will serve God with a bended knee, and the external forms of devotion; but, with the vigor of his spirit, he serves the world and bis flesh. This is the grand difference between a true Christian and the various forms of half-christians and hypocrites. And certainly this is a difference that may be discerned. The tenor of a man's practice, and the object of his love, especially of his highest love and practical esteem, must certainly be very distinguishable from a thing by the by, and from the object of a languid passion, or mere speculation. Therefore, if you make but an impartial trial, you have reason to hope you will make a just discovery of your true character. Brethren, I beseech you, by one means or other, to bring this matter to an issue, and let it hang in suspense no longer. Why are you so indifferent how this matter stands with you ? Is it because you imagine you may be true Christians, and obtain salvation, however this matter be with you ? But be not deceived; no man can serve two masters, whose commands are contrary; and ye cannot serve God and Mammon, with a service equally devoted to both. If any man love the world with supreme affections, the love of the Father is not in him. Be not deceived, God is not mocked; whatsoever a man soiveth, that shall he reap ;— if you sow to the flesh, of the flesh shall you reap corruption. ; miserable harvest indeed! But if you sow to the spirit, you shall of the spirit reap life everlasting. Therefore you may be sure that if you live after the flesh, you shall die; and that you can never enjoy the one thing needful unless you mind and pursue it above all other things.
But I shall not urge you further to try yourselves by this test. I take it for granted the consciences of some of you have determined the matter, and that you are plainly convicted of having hitherto neglected the one thing needful. Allow me then honestly to expose your conduct in its proper colors, and tell you what you have been doing while you were busy about other things, and neglected this one thing needful.
1. However well you have improved your time for other purposes, you have lost it all, unless you have improved it in securing the one thing needful. The proper notion of time is, that it is a space for repentance. Time is given us to prepare for eternity. If this is done, we have lived long enough, and the great end of time and life is answered, whatever else be undone. But if this be undone, you have lived in vain, and all your time is lost, however briskly and successfully you have pursued other things. And, believe me, time is a precious thing. So it will appear in a dying hour, or in the eternal world, to the greatest spendthrift among you. Then, O for a year, or even a week, or a day, to secure that one thing which you are now neglecting! And will you now waste your time, while you enjoy it ? Shall so precious a blessing be lost ? Time was given you to secure an eternity of happiness, but you have spent it in adding sin to sin, and consequently in treasuring up wrath against the day of wrath. And is not your time then a thousand times worse than lost ? Let me tell you, if you continue in this course to the end, you will wish a thousand times, either that you had never one hour's time given you, or that you had made a better use of it.
2. Whatever else you have been doing, you have lost your labor with your time, if you have not labored above all things for this one thing needful. You have perhaps toiled through many anxious and laborious days, and your nights have shared in the anxieties and labors of your days. But if you have not labored for the one thing necessary, all your labors and all the fruits of it are lost.
But this is not all. Not only your secular labor is lost, but all your toil and pains, if you have used 'any in the duties of religion, they are lost likewise. Your reading, hearing, praying, and communicating; all your serious thoughts of death and eternity—all your struggles with particular lusts and temptations—all the kind offices you have done to mankind—all are lost; since you have performed them by halves with a lukewarm heart, and have not made the one thing needful your great business and pursuit. All these things will not save you; and what is that religion good for which will not save your souls? What do those religious endeavors avail which will suffer you to fall into hell after all ? Certainly such religion is vain.
And now, my hearers, do you believe this, or do you not? If you do, will you, dare you, still go on in the same course ? If you do not believe it, let me reason the matter with you a little. You will not believe that all the labor and pains you have taken all your life have been quite lost; no, you now enjoy the fruits of them. But show me now, if you can, what you have gotten by all that stir you have made, that will follow one step beyond the grave, or that you can call your own to-morrow? Where is that sure, immortal acquisition that you can carry with you into the eternal world ? Were you to die this hour, would it afford you any pleasure to reflect that you have lived a merry life, and had a satiety of sensual pleasures, or that you have labored for riches and honors, and perhaps acquired them? Will this reflection afford you pleasure or pain ? Will this abate the agony of eternal pain, or make up for the loss of heaven, which you willfully incurred by an over-eager pursuit of these perishing vanities ? But,
3. This is not all. All your labor and pains have not only been lost while you have neglected this one thing, but you have taken pains to ruin yourselves, and labored hard all your lives for your own destruction. You may indulge the carnal mind, and walk after the flesh, and yet hope no bad consequences to follow: but God has told you that to be carnally minded is death, and that if you live after the flesh you shall die. No enemy in the whole universe could do you that injury without your consent which you are doing to yourselves. To tempt you to sin is all the devil can do; but the temptation alone can do you no injury ; it is consenting to it that ruins you; and this consent is your own voluntary act.
4. If you have hitherto neglected the one thing needful, you have unmanned yourselves, acted beneath, and contrary to your own reason, and in plain terms behaved as if you had been out of your senses. If you have the use of your reason, it must certainly tell you for what it was given to you. And, I beseech you, tell me what was it given you for but to serve the God that made you, to secure his favor, to prepare for your eternal state, and to enjoy the supreme good as your portion ? Where was your reason when your dying flesh was preferred to your immortal spirit? Was reason your guide when you chose the trash of this perishing world, and sought it more than the favor of God and all the joys of heaven ? What have you done all your life to make a wise man think you truly reasonable ? Is that your reason, to be wise to do evil, while to do good you have no knowledge; or to be ingenious and active about the trifles of time, while you neglect that great work for which you were created and redeemed ? Can you be wise and not consider your latter end? Nay, can you pretend to so much as common sense, while you sell your eternal salvation for the sordid pleasures of a few fleeting years ? Have you common sense, when you will not keep yourselves out of everlasting fire ? What can a madman do worse than willfully destroy himself? And this you are doing every day. And yet these very persons are proud of their madness, and are apt to fling the charge of folly upon others, especially if they observe some poor weak creatures, that though it be but one in five hundred, fall into melancholy, or lose their reason for a time, while they are groaning under a sense of sin, and anxious about their eternal state; then what a clamor against religion and preciseness, as the ready way to make people run mad! then they even dare to publish their resolution, that they will not read and pore so much upon these things, lest it should drive them out of their senses. O miserable mortals! is it possible they should be more dangerously mad than they are already ? Do you lay out your reason, your strength, and time in pursuing vain shadows, and in feeding a mortal body for the grave, while the important realities of the eternal world and the salvation of your immortal souls are forgotten or neglected ? Do you sell your Saviour with Judas for a little money, and change your part in God and heaven for the sordid pleasures of sin, which are but for a season ? and are you afraid of seriously reflecting upon this course, that you may reform it, for fear such thoughts should make you mad ? What greater madness than this can you fear? Will you run from God, from Christ, from mercy, from the saints, from heaven itself, for fear of being mad! Alas! you are mad in the worst sense already. Will you run to hell to prove yourselves in your senses ? He was a wise and good man who said, " Though the loss of a man's understanding is a grievous affliction, and such as I hope God will never lay upon me, yet I had a thousand times rather go distracted to Bedlam with the excessive care about my salvation, than to be one of you that cast away the care of your salvation for fear of being distracted, and will go among the infernal Bedlams into hell for fear of being mad."
It would be easy to offer many more considerations to expose the absurdity and danger of your conduct in neglecting the one thing necessary, but these must suffice for the present hour. And I only desire you to consider further, if this be a just view of the conduct of such as are guilty of this neglect, in what a miserable, pitiable condition is the world in general! I have so often tried the utmost energy of my own words upon you with so little success as to many, that I am grown quite weary of them. Allow me, therefore, for once, to borrow the more striking and pungent words of one now in heaven ; of one who had more success than almost any of his cotemporaries or successors in the important work of converting sinners from the error of their way, and saving souls from death; I mean the incomparable preacher, Mr. Baxter, who sowed an immortal seed in his parish of Kidderminster, which grows, and brings forth fruit to this day. His words have, through the divine blessing, been irresistible to thousands; and O that such of you, my dear hearers, whose hearts may have been proof against mine, may not be so against his also!
" Look upon this text of Scripture," says he, " and look also upon the course of the earth, and consider the disagreement ; and whether it be not still as before the flood, that all the imaginations of man's heart are evil continually. Were it possible for a man to see the affections and motions of all the world at once as God seeth them, what a pitiful sight it would be! What a stir do they make, alas, poor souls! for they know not what! while they forget, or slight, or hate the one thing needful. What a heap of gadding ants should we see, that do nothing but gather sticks and straws ! Look among persons of every rank, in city and country, and look into families about you, and see what trade it is they are most busily driving on, whether it be for heaven or earth ? and whether you can discern, by their care and labor, that they understand what is the one thing necessary. They are as busy as bees, but not for honey; but in spinning such a spider s web as the besom of death will presently sweep down. They labor hard; but for what ? for the food that perisheth, but not for that which endureth to everlasting life. They are diligent seekers; but for what ? Not first for God, his kingdom and righteousness, but for that which they might have had as an addition to their blessedness. They are still doing ; what are they doing ? Even undoing themselves by running away from God, to hunt after the perishing pleasures of the world. Some of them hear the word of God, but they presently choke it by the deceitfulness of riches, and the cares of this life. They are careful and troubled about many things/ but the one thing that should be all to them is cast by as if it were nothing. Providing for the flesh and minding the world is the employment of their lives. They have no covetousness for the things which they are commanded earnestly to covet. Come at any time into their company and you may talk enough, and too much, of news, or other men s matters, of their worldly business, sports, and pleasures; but about God and their salvation, they have so little to say, and that so heartlessly, and by the by, as if they were things that belonged not to their care and duty, and no whit concerned them. Talk with them about the renovation of the soul, the nature of holiness, and the life to come, and you will find them almost as dumb as a fish. The most understand not matters of this nature, nor much desire or care to understand them. If one would teach them personally, they are too old to be catechised or learn, though not too old to be ignorant of the matters they were made for and preserved for in the world. They are too wise to learn to be wise, and too good to be taught how to be good, though not too wise to follow the seducements of the devil and the world, nor too good to be the slaves of Satan and the despisers and enemies of goodness. If they do any thing which they call serving God, it is some cold and heartless use of words to make themselves believe that for all their sins they shall be saved; so that God will call that a serving their sins and abominations, which they will call a serving God. Some of them will confess that holiness is good, but they hope God will be merciful unto them without it; and some do so hate it, that it is a displeasing, irksome thing to them to hear any serious discourse of holiness; and they detest and deride those as fanatical, troublesome precisians, that diligently seek the one thing needful; so that if the belief of the most may be judged from their practices, we may confidently say, that they do not practically believe that ever they shall be brought to judgment, or that there is any heaven or hell to be expected; and that confession of the truth of the Scriptures and the articles of the Christian faith are no proof that they heartily take them to be true. Who can be such a stranger to the world as not to see that this is the case of the greatest part of men ? And, which is worst of all, they go on in this course against all that can be said to them, and will give no impartial, considerate hearing of the truth, which would recover them to their wits, but live as if it would be a felicity to them in hell to think that they came thither by willful resolution and in despite of the remedy." that they imagine necessary, not to their life, but to their ease, their honor, or pleasure ! Bat what is this necessity when compared to that which I am now urging upon you ? To escape everlasting misery, and to secure everlasting salvation, this is the grand necessity! And shall not this grand necessity prevail upon you to work out your salvation, and make that your great business, when a far less necessity, a necessity that will last but a few years, at most, sets you and the world around you upon such hard labors and eager pursuits for perishing vanities ? If you do not labor or contrive for the bread that perisheth, you must beg or starve; but if you do not labor for the bread that endureth unto everlasting life, you must burn in hell for ever. You must suffer hunger and nakedness unless you take care to provide food and raiment; but you must suffer eternal banishment from God and all the joys of his presence, if you do not labor to secure the one thing needful. Without the riches of the world you may be rich in faith, and heirs of the heavenly inheritance. Without earthly pleasures you may have joy unspeakable and full of glory in the love of God, and the expectation of the kingdom reserved in heaven for you. Without health of body you may have happiness of spirit; and even without this mortal life you may enjoy eternal life. Without the things of the world you may live in want for a little while, but then you will soon be upon an equality with the greatest princes. But, without this one thing needful, you are undone, absolutely undone. Your very being becomes a curse to you. O then let this grand necessity prevail with you!
This, sinners, is a true representation of your case, drawn by one that well knew it and lamented it. And what do you now think of it yourselves ? What do you think will be the consequence of such a course ? Is it safe to persist in it? or shall I be so happy as to bring you to a stand? Will you still go on, troubling yourselves with many things ? or will you resolve for the future to mind the one thing needful above all ? I beseech you to come to some resolution. Time is on the wing, and does not allow you to hesitate in so plain and important an affair. Do you need any further excitements ? Then I shall try the force of one consideration more, contained in my text, and that is necessity. Eemember necessity, the most pressing, absolute necessity, enforces the care upon you. One thing is needful, absolutely needful, and needful above all other things. This, one would think, is such an argument as cannot but prevail. What exploits has necessity performed in the world! What arts has it discovered as the mother of invention ! What labors, what fatigues, what sufferings has it undergone! What dangers has it encountered! What difficulties has it overcome! Necessity is a plea which you think will warrant you to do any thing and excuse any thing. To obtain the necessaries of life, as they are called, how much will men do and suffer! Nay, with what hardships and perils will they not conflict for things
Therefore, to conclude with the awakening and resistless words of the author I before quoted, " Awake, you sluggish, careless souls! your house over your head is in a flame! the hand of God is lifted up! If you love yourselves prevent the stroke. Vengeance is at your backs, the wrath of God pursues your sin, and woe to you if he find it upon you when he overtaketh you. Away with it speedily! up and begone; return to God; make Christ and mercy your friends in time, if you love your lives! the Judge is coming! for all that you have heard of it so long, yet still you believe it not. You shall shortly see the majesty of his appearance and the dreadful glory of his face; and yet do you not begin to look about you, and make ready for such a day ? Yea, before that day, your separated souls 168
shall begin to reap-as you have sowed here. Though now the partition that stands between you and the world to come do keep unbelievers strangers to the things that most concern them, yet death will quickly find a portal to let you in; and then, sinners, you will find such doings there as you little thought of, or did not sensibly regard upon earth. Before your friends will have time enough to wrap up your pale corpse in your winding-sheet, you will see and feel that which will tell you to the quick, that one thing was necessary. If you die without this one thing necessary, before your friends can have finished your funeral, your souls will have taken up their places among devils in endless torments and despair, and all the wealth, and honor, and pleasure that the world afforded you will not ease you. This is sad, but it is true, sirs; for God hath spoken it. Up therefore and bestir you for the life of your souls. Necessity will awake even the sluggard. Necessity, we say, will break through stone walls. The proudest will stoop to necessity: necessity will make men do any thing that is possible to be done. And is not necessity, the highest necessity, your own necessity, able to make you cast away your sins, and take up a holy and heavenly life? O poor souls! is there a greater necessity of your sin than of your salvation, and of pleasing your flesh for a little time than of pleasing the Lord and escaping everlasting misery ?" O that you would consider what I say! and the Lord give you understanding in all things. Amen.