In his work, Reluctant Saint?: A Theological Biography of Fletcher of Madeley, Patrick Streiff has provided for the English world an authoritative work on the life and theology of John Fletcher by delving into the archival material. Streiff indicates that his work has not dealt sufficiently with the many manuscripts of Fletcher’s sermons. Indeed, there are more than 400 manuscript sermons; most of these have not appeared in print. Most are in English but some of them are in French. The form of these sermons varies; there are a few full-length manuscript sermons but most are outlines of sermons.
The goal of this article is to present to the public a previously unpublished sermon in order that the readers may understand and appreciate the benefit of these sermons. Seventy-nine of Fletcher’s sermons are available at the Shropshire County Archives. The majority of these are holographs in outline form which come from Fletcher’s ministry at Madeley; the uniqueness of these sermons in comparison with the sermons found in other archives is that Fletcher includes a list of selected hymns which follow frequently just after the title of the message and precedes a citation of the biblical text for the sermon. The hymns have been chosen from A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists.
The sermon below is numbered 200 and is one of many which Fletcher preached during his twenty-five year tenure at the Madeley parish church There is no evidence that he used this sermon during his evangelistic forays into other parts of England.
It is the opinion of commentators and divines universally (so far as I have been able to learn) that in the text before us, there is a most pointed reference to the Grecian Games particularly the Olympic Games—so called because they were celebrated in the vicinity of Olympia, a town of Peloponnesus and because they were celebrated, every fourth year in honour of Jupiter Olympius, the greatest of the heathen gods. These games consisted chiefly in boxing, wrestling, leaping, throwing the dart, and racing. It is to the last of these games, that is that of racing that the apostle chiefly refers in this passage.
The great design of the author of this epistle was to afford comfort to the believing Hebrews in their complicated afflictions, while persued by their raging persecutors. Persecuted with the utmost cruelty for their attachment to the cause of Jesus Christ; they were in extreme danger of growing very weary and faint in their minds. To prevent this if possible the apostle reminds them of the glorious recompense and presents to their attention some of the most illustrious examples of men and women of faith in the preceding chapter, and then viewing all those who have already entered into their reward, now spectators looking upon us, engaged now in the Christian race, he exclaims “Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.”
In discoursing on these words I shall endeavour through divine assistance to direct our serious attention to the following particulars especially, that is:
I. The Christian’s race as here expressed.
II. The directions given by the apostle, by attention to which this race may be successfully accomplished.
III. The considerations suggested by the apostle to stimulate professing Christians to run this race with increasing zeal and activity. And,
The race which Christian believers are here exhorted to run, is, I conceive, a two-fold race. That is, it is first, a race of Christian experience. Note: (1) This implies something more than good desires, and pious resolutions; (2) and the pardon of all our past sins; And (3) The entire renewal of all our hearts by the Holy Spirit. See Phil. 3.13-14.
And, secondly, it is a race of Christian practice. By Christian practice, I mean: (1) Holy obedience to Christ; (2) Some professing Christians ridicule the doctrine of holiness. And (3) the necessity of Christian practice is evident from the judgment, Matthew 7.21 and Revelation 22.14.
First, we are to “lay aside every weight;” that is as some of the old versions have it “everything that presseth down.” [The source for Fletcher’s citation is what is commonly called the “Geneva Bible.” An edition of the Geneva Bible was published in 1608]. (1) Look at a man attempting to run. (2)Worldly mindedness is of all other things the most inimical to God.
Secondly, we are to lay aside “the sin that easily beset us.” The sin that “hangeth so fast on us” is to be given up—that is, that which entangles. See a man who is trying to run a race with a long garment. The well adapted sin must be laid aside: (1) The sin of our constitution; and (2) The sin of our profession or occupation.
Thirdly, this race is to be run with zeal and diligence. This much is implied in the word to run. When we speak of a person running, it bespeaks of zeal and diligence.
Fourthly, this race is to be run in faith: “Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith.”
And, fifthly, this race must be run with patience. We shall need patience in affliction, in trials from the work, and from our Christian brethren, etc.
But we must remark, sixthly, that the word “upomonhs” signifies patience but also perseverance and endurance. This perseverance is able to keep us to the end, Matthew 24.13, Revelation 2.10.
I proceed, to notice the considerations suggested by the apostle to stimulate professing Christians to run this race with increasing zeal and activity.
First, the illustrations point to the example of our blessed Lord: “Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Here too is an allu-sion to the judge of the world. Many have mislaid their way by looking at the inconsistent conduct of men.
And secondly, the countless multitudes who have already arrived in the heavens are looking on as “A cloud of witnesses.” Perhaps in this cloud you have some who were near to you; they are now looking on as observers while you run your race.
First, we remark there were certain qualifications required in those who were admitted to the heavenly race. So unless you break off your sins by confession and repentance, “ye shall all likewise perish.”
Secondly, let those who have repented take all the encouragement and run with patience the race that is set before us. Behold the crown reached out to you; it is not a cheap leaf, or wreath composed of parsley, olive, laurel, or fading flowers; but a crown which is “incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you.”
John William Fletcher, sermon on Hebrews 12.1-2. Shropshire County Archives, ref. P180 (2280/16/64). Kind thanks are hereby expressed to the Revd Henry Morris, Vicar of Madeley, and to the Madeley parish for permission to publish this sermon. The italics indicate additions by the present editor.