A Church in the House
A Sermon Concerning Family Religion
Preached in London, April 16, 1704
by Matthew Henry
Full sermon pdf here.
“With the church that is in their house.“
1 Corinthians 16:19
II. Motivation to family religion.
I come now, II. To offer some motives to persuade you thus to turn your families into little churches. And O that I could find out acceptable words with which to reason with you, so as to prevail! “Suffer me a little, and I will show you” what is to be said “on God’s behalf” (Job 36:2), which is worth your consideration.
1. God will dwell in your home.
1. If your families be little churches, God will come to you, and dwell with you in them; for he has said concerning the church, “This is my rest for ever, here will I dwell” (Ps. 132:14). It is a very desirable thing to have the gracious presence of God with us in our families, that presence which is promised where two or three are gathered together in his name. This was it that David was so desirous of, “O when wilt thou come unto me?” (Ps. 101:2). His palace, his court, would be as a prison, as a dungeon to him, if God did not come to him, and dwell with him in it. And cannot your hearts witness to this desire, you who have houses of your own? Would you not have God come to you, and dwell with you in them? Invite him, then, beg his presence, court his stay. Nay, he invites himself to your houses by the offers of his favour and grace. Behold, he stands at the door and knocks (Rev. 3:20), it is the voice of your beloved, open to him (Songs 5:2), and bid him welcome, meet him with your “Hosanna, blessed is he that cometh” (Mark 11:9). He comes peaceably, he brings a blessing with him, a blessing which he will cause to rest upon the habitations of the righteous (Ezek. 44:30). He will command a blessing, which shall amount to no less than “life for evermore” (Ps. 133:3). This presence and blessing of God will make your relations comfortable, your affairs successful, your enjoyments sweet; and behold, by it all things are made clean to you. This will make your family comforts double comforts, and your family crosses but half crosses; it will turn a tent into a temple, a cottage into a palace. “Beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth” (Ps. 48:2), are the houses in which God dwells.
Now the way to have God’s presence with you in your houses, is to furnish them for his entertainment. Thus the good Shunammite invited the prophet Elisha to the chamber she had prepared for him, by accommodating him there with a bed and a table, a stool and a candlestick (2 Kings 4:10). Would you furnish your houses for the presence of God, it is not expected that you furnish them as his tabernacle was of old furnished, with blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine linen, but set up and keep up for him a throne and an altar, that from the altar you and yours may give glory to him, and from the throne he may give law to you and yours. And then you may be sure of his presence and blessing, and may solace yourselves from day to day in the comfort of it. God will be with you in a way of mercy while you are with him in a way of duty; “If ye seek him he will be found of you” (2 Chron. 15:2). The secret of God shall be in your tabernacle, as it was in Job’s (Job 29:4), as it is with the righteous (Ps. 25:14; Prov. 3:32-33).
2. God will make your home a sanctuary.
2. If you make your houses little churches, God will make them little sanctuaries; nay, he will himself be to you as a little sanctuary (Ezek. 11:16). The way to be safe in your houses, is to keep up religion and the fear of God in your houses; so shall you dwell on high, and “the place of your defense shall be the munition of rocks” (Isa. 33:16). The law looks upon a man’s house as his castle, religion makes it truly so. If God’s grace be the “glory in the midst” of the house, his providence will make “a wall of fire round about it” (Zech. 2:5). Satan found it to his confusion, that God made a hedge about pious Job, about his house, and about all that he had on every side, so that he could not find one gap by which to break in upon him (Job 1:10). Every dwelling place of mount Sion shall be protected as the tabernacle was in the wilderness, for God has promised to create upon it a cloud and smoke by day, and the shining of a flaming fire by night, which shall be a defense upon all the glory (Isa. 4:5). If we thus dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of our life, by making our houses his houses, we shall be hid in his pavilion, in the secret of his tabernacle shall he hide us (Ps. 27:4-5).
Wherever we encamp, under the banner of Christ, the angels of God will encamp round about us, and pitch their tents where we pitch ours. And we little think how much we owe to the ministration of the good angels, that we and ours are preserved from the malice of evil angels, who are continually seeking to do mischief to good people. There are terrors that fly by night and by day, which they only who abide under the shadow of the Almighty can promise themselves to be safe from (Ps. 91:1, 5). Would you insure your houses by the best policy of insurance, turn them into churches, and then they shall be taken under the special protection of him who keeps Israel, and neither slumbers nor sleeps; and if any damage come to them, it shall be made up in grace and glory. The way of duty is without doubt the way of safety.
Praying families are kept from more mischiefs than they themselves are aware of. They are not always sensible of the distinction which a kind Providence makes between them and others; though God is pleased sometimes to make it remarkable, as in the story which is credibly related of a certain village in the Canton of Bern in Switzerland, consisting of ninety houses, which in the year 1584, were all destroyed by an earthquake, except one house, in which the good man and his family were at that time together praying. That promise is sure to all the seed of faithful Abraham. “Fear not, I am thy shield” (Gen. 15:1). Wisdom herself has passed her word for it: “Whoso hearkeneth to me,” wherever he dwells, he “shall dwell safely, and shall be quiet from” all real evil itself, and from the amazing, tormenting “fear of evil” (Prov. 1:33). Nothing can hurt, nothing needs frighten, those whom God protects.
3. Without family religion, sin and wickedness rule.
3. If you have not a church in your house, it is to be feared that Satan will have a seat there. If religion do not rule in your families, sin and wickedness will rule there. “I know where thou dwellest,” says Christ to the angel of the church of Pergamos, “even where Satan’s seat is” (Rev. 2:13); that was his affliction: but there are many whose sin it is, by their irreligion and immorality they allow Satan a seat in their houses, and that seat a throne. They are very willing that the strong man armed should keep his palace there, and that his goods should be at peace; and the surest way to prevent this, is by setting up a church in the house. It is commonly said, that where God has a church, the devil will have his chapel, but it may more truly be said in this case, where God has not a church, the devil will have his chapel. If the unclean spirit find the house in this sense empty, empty of good, though it be swept and garnished, “he taketh to himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there” (Mat. 12:45).
Terrible stories have been told of houses haunted by the devil, and of the fear people have had of dwelling in such houses. Verily those houses in which rioting and drunkenness reign, in which swearing and cursing are the language of the house, or in which the more spiritual wickednesses of pride, malice, covetousness, and deceit have the ascendancy, may truly be said to be haunted by the devil, and they are most uncomfortable houses for any man to live in. They are holds of foul spirits, and cages of unclean and hateful birds, even as Babylon the great will be when it is fallen (Rev. 18:2).
Now the way to keep sin out of the house, is to keep up religion in the house, which will be the most effectual antidote against Satan’s poison. When Abraham thought concerning Abimelech’s house, “Surely the fear of God is not in this place,” he concluded no less but “they will slay me for my wife’s sake” (Gen. 20:11). Where no fear of God is, no reading, no praying, no devotion, what can one expect but all that is bad? Where there is impiety there will be immorality; they who restrain prayer, cast off fear (Job 15:4). But if religious worship have its place in the house, it may be hoped that vice will not have a place there. There is much of truth in that saying of good Mr. Dod, “Either praying will make a man give over sinning, or sinning will make a man give over praying.” There remains some hope concerning those who are otherwise bad, as long as they keep up prayer. Though there be a struggle between Christ and Belial in your houses, and the insults of sin and Satan are daring and threatening, yet as long as religion keeps the field, and the weapons of its warfare are made use of, we may hope the enemy will lose ground.
4. Family religion makes the home peaceful and comfortable.
4. A church in the house will make it very comfortable to yourselves. Nothing more agreeable to a gracious soul than constant communion with a gracious God; it is the one thing it desires, to “dwell in the house of the Lord” (Ps. 23:6); here it is as in its clement, it is its rest for ever. If, therefore, our houses be houses of the Lord, we shall for that reason love home, reckoning our daily devotion the sweetest of our daily delights, and our family worship the most valuable of our family comforts. This will sanctify to us all the conveniences of our houses, and reconcile us to the inconveniences of it. What are Solomon’s gardens, and orchards, and pools of water, and other delights of the sons of men (Eccl. 2:5-6, 8), in comparison with these delights of the children of God?
Family religion will help to make our family relations comfortable to us, by promoting love, preventing quarrels, and extinguishing heats that may at any time happen. A family living in the fear of God, and joining daily in religious worship, truly enjoys itself. “Behold how good and how pleasant a thing it is for brethren” thus “to dwell together;” it is not only like ointment and perfume which rejoice the heart, but like the holy ointment, the holy perfume, wherewith Aaron the saint of the Lord was consecrated; not only like the common dew to the grass, but like the dew which descends upon the mountains of Zion, the holy mountains (Ps. 133:1-3). The communion of saints in that which is the work of saints, is without doubt the most pleasant communion here on earth, and the liveliest representation, and surest pledge, of those everlasting joys which are the happiness of the spirits of just men made perfect, and the hopes of holy souls in this imperfect state.
Family religion will make the affairs of the family successful; and though they may not in everything issue to our mind, yet we may by faith foresee that they will at last issue to our good. If this beauty of the Lord our God be upon us and our families, it will prosper the work of our hands unto us, yea, the work of our hands it will establish; or however, it will establish our hearts in that comfort which makes everything that occurs easy (Ps. 90:17; 112:8).
We cannot suppose our mountain to stand so strong but that it will be moved; trouble in the flesh we must expect, and affliction in that from which we promise ourselves most comfort. And when the Divine Providence makes our houses houses of mourning, then it will be comfortable to have them houses of prayer, and to have had them so before. When sickness, and sorrow, and death come into our families (and sooner or later they will come), it is good that they should find the wheels of prayer going, and the family accustomed to seek God. For if we are then to begin this good work when distress forces us to it, we shall drive heavily in it. They who pray constantly when they are well, may pray comfortably when they are sick.
5. Family religion is an inheritance to your children.
5. A church in the house will be a good legacy, nay, it will be a good inheritance, to be left to your children after you. Reason directs us to consult the welfare of posterity, and to lay up in store a good foundation for those who shall come after us to build upon; and we cannot do this better than by keeping up religion in our houses. A family altar will be the best entail; your children will for this rise up, and call you blessed, and it may be hoped they will be praising God for you, and praising God like you, here on earth, when you are praising him in heaven.
You will hereby leave your children the benefit of many prayers put up to heaven for them, which will be kept (as it were) upon the file there, to be answered to their comfort, when you are silent in the dust. It is true of prayer, what we say of winter, “It never rots in the skies.” The seed of Jacob know they do not seek in vain, though perhaps they live not to see their prayers answered. Some good Christians, who have made conscience of praying daily with and for their children, have been encouraged to hope that the children of so many prayers should not miscarry at last: and thus encouraged, Joseph’s dying word has been the language of many a dying Christian’s faith, “I die, but God will surely visit you” (Gen. 50:24). I have heard of a hopeful son, who said he valued his interest in his pious father’s prayer far more than his interest in his estate, though a considerable one.
You will likewise hereby leave your children a good example, which you may hope they will follow when they come into houses of their own. The usage and practice of your families is commonly transmitted from one generation to another; bad customs are many times thus entailed. They who burnt incense to the queen of heaven, learnt it of their fathers (Jer. 44:17). And a vain conversation was thus received by tradition (1 Pet. 1:18). And why may not good customs be in like manner handed down to posterity? Thus we should make known the ways of God to our children, that they may arise and declare them to their children (Ps. 78:6), and religion may become an heirloom in our families. Let your children be able to say, when they are tempted to sit loose to [i.e. be careless or indifferent about] religion that it was the way of their family, the good old way, in which their fathers walked, and in which they themselves were educated and trained up—and with this they may answer him who reproaches them. Let family worship, besides all its other pleas for itself, be able in your houses to plead prescription. And though to the acceptableness of the service, it is requisite that it be done from a higher and better principle than purely to keep up the custom of the family, yet better so than not at all. And the form of godliness may by the grace of God at length prove the happy vehicle of its power (2 Tim. 3:5), and dry bones, whilst unburied, may be made to live (Ezek. 37). Thus “a good man leaveth an inheritance to his children” (Prov. 13:22), and “the generation of the upright shall be blessed” (Ps. 112:2).
6. Family religion contributes to the prosperity of the church in the nation.
6. A church in the house will contribute very much to the prosperity of the church of God in the nation. Family religion, if that prevail, will put a fare of religion upon the land, and very much advance the beauty and peace of our English Jerusalem. This is that which I hope we are all hearty well-wishers to; setting aside the consideration of parties, and separate interests, and burying all names of distinction in the grave of Christian charity, we earnestly desire to see true catholic Christianity, and serious godliness in the power of it, prevailing and flourishing in our land. To see knowledge filling the land, as the waters cover the sea, to see holiness and love giving law, and triumphing over sin and strife. We would see cause to call your city, “the city of righteousness, the faithful city” (Isa. 1:26), “thy walls Salvation, and thy gates Praise” (Isa. 60:18). Now all this would be effected, if family religion were generally set up and kept up.
When the wall was to be built about Jerusalem, it was presently done by this expedient, every one undertook to repair over against his own house (cf. Neh. 3:10 ff). And if ever the decayed walls of the gospel Jerusalem be built up, it must be by the same method. Every one must sweep before his own door, and then the street will be clean. If there were a church in every house, there would be such a church in our land as would make it a praise throughout the whole earth. We cannot better serve our country than by keeping up religion in our families.
Let families be well catechised, and then the public preaching of the word will be the more profitable, and the more successful. For want of this, when we speak ever so plainly of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God, to the most we do but speak parables. The book of the Lord is delivered to them who are not catechised, saying, “Read this,” and they say, “We are not learned” (Isa. 29:12), learned enough in other things, but not in the one thing needful. But our work is easy with those who from their childhood have known the Holy Scriptures.
If every family were a praying family, public prayers would be the better joined in, more intelligently, and more affectionately; for the more we are used to prayer, the more expert we shall be in that holy and divine art of “entering into the holiest” (Heb. 10:19) in that duty. And public reproofs and admonitions would be “as a nail in a sure place” (Isa. 22:23), if masters of families would second them with their family discipline, and so clench those nails.
Religious families are blessings to the neighbourhood they live in, at least by their prayers. A good man thus becomes a public good, and it is his ambition to be so. Though he see his children’s children, he has small joy of that if he do not see peace upon Israel (Ps. 128:5-6). And therefore postponing all his own interests, and satisfactions, he sets himself to seek the good of Jerusalem all the days of his life. Happy were we if we had many such.
That which now remains, is to address myself to you upon the whole matter by way of exhortation; and I pray you let my counsel be acceptable to you; and while I endeavour to give everyone his portion, let your consciences assist me herein, and take to yourselves that which belongs to you.