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
III. The Application.
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.
1. Set up family religion.
1. Let those masters of families who have hitherto lived in the neglect of family religion be persuaded now to set it up, and henceforward to make conscience of it. I know it is hard to persuade people to begin even a good work that they have not been used to; yet, if God by his grace apply this word, who can tell but some may be wrought upon to comply with the design of it? We have no ill design in urging you to this part of your duty: we aim not at the advantage of a party, but purely at the prosperity of your families. We are sure we have reason on our side, and if you will but suffer that to rule you, we shall gain our point; and you will all go home firmly resolved, as Joshua was, that whatever others do themselves, and whatever they say of you, you and your houses will serve the Lord. God put it into, and keep it in, the imagination of the thought of your heart, and establish your way therein before him!
Proceed in the right method.
Proceed in the right method. First set up Christ upon the throne in your hearts, and then set up a church for Christ in your house. Let Christ dwell in your hearts by faith, and then let him dwell in your houses. You do not begin at the right end of your work, if you do not first give your ourselves unto the Lord. God had responded first to Abel, and then to his offering. Let the fear and love of God rule in your hearts, and have a commanding sway and empire there, and then set up an altar for God in your tents. For you cannot do that acceptably till you have first consecrated yourselves as spiritual priests to God, to serve at that altar.
And when your hearts, like Lydia’s, are opened to Christ, let your house, like hers, be opened to him too (Acts 16:14-15). Let there be churches in all your houses. Let those who have the stateliest, richest, and best furnished houses, reckon a church in them to be their best ornament. Let those who have houses of the greatest care and business, reckon family religion their best employment, and not neglect the one thing needful, while they are careful and cumbered about many things. Nor let those who have close and mean habitations be discouraged, for the ark of God long dwelt in curtains. Your dwelling is not so strait, but you may find room for a church in it. Church work is often chargeable, but you may do this church work cheap: you need not make silver shrines, as they did for Diana, nor lavish gold out of the bag, as idolaters did in the service of their gods (Isa. 46:6), no. “An altar of earth shall you make to your God” (Ex. 20:24), and he will accept it. Church work is accustomed to be slow work, but you may do this quickly. Put on resolution, and you may set up this tabernacle tonight, before tomorrow.
Would you keep up your authority in your family? You cannot do it better than by keeping up religion in your family. If ever a master of a family looks great, truly great, it is when he is going before his house in the service of God, and presiding among them in holy things. Then he shows himself worthy of double honour, when he teaches them the good knowledge of the Lord, and is their mouth to God in prayer, blessing them in the name of God.
Would you have your family relations comfortable, your affairs successful, and give an evidence of your professed subjection to the gospel of Christ? Would you live in God’s fear, and die in his favour, and escape that curse which is entailed upon prayerless families? Let religion in the power of it have its due place, that is, the uppermost place in your houses.
Suppress the resistance from your corrupt heart.
Many objections your own corrupt hearts will make against building these churches, but they will all appear frivolous and trifling to a pious mind that is stedfastly resolved for God and godliness. You will never go on in your way to Heaven, if you will be frightened by lions in the street. Whatever is the difficulty you dread, the discouragement you apprehend, in it, I am confident it is not insuperable, it is not unanswerable. But “he that observeth the wind shall not sow; and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap” (Eccl. 11:4).
Be not loath to begin a new custom, if it be a good custom, especially if it be a duty (as certainly this is), which, while you continue in the neglect of, you live in sin. For omissions are sins, and most come into judgment. It may be that you have been convinced that you ought to worship God in your families, and that this is a good thing to do, but you have put it off to some more convenient season. Will you now at last take occasion from this sermon to begin it? And do not defer so good a work any longer. The present season is without doubt the most convenient season. Begin this day! Let this be the day of your laying the foundation of the Lord’s temple in your house; and then consider, from this day and upward—as God by the prophet reasons with the people who neglected to build the temple (Hag. 2:18-19)—take notice whether God do not from this day remarkably bless you in all that you have and do.
Plead not your own weakness and inability to perform family worship; make use of the helps that are provided for you; do as well as you can when you cannot do so well as you would, and God will accept of you. You willingly write what is necessary for the carrying on of your trade, though you cannot write so fine a hand as some others can; and will you not be as wise in the work of your Christian calling, to do your best, though it be far short of the best, rather than not do it at all? To him who has but one talent, and trades with that, more shall be given. But from him who buries it, it shall be taken away. Be at some pains to make the Scriptures familiar to you, especially David’s Psalms, and then you cannot be to seek for a variety of apt expressions proper to be used in prayer, for they will be always at your right hand. Take with you those words, words which the Holy Ghost teaches, for you cannot find more acceptable words.
And now shall I prevail with you in this matter! I am loath to leave you unresolved, or but almost persuaded. I beg of you, for God’s sake, for Christ’s sake, for your own precious souls’ sake, and for the children’s sake of your own bodies, that you will live no longer in the neglect of so great, and necessary, and comfortable a duty as this of family worship is. When we press upon you the more inward duties of faith and love, and the fear of God, it cannot be so evident that we succeed incur errand as it may be in this. It is certain that you get no good by this sermon—but it is wholly lost upon you—if after you have heard it, or read it, you continue in the neglect of family religion, and if still you “cast off fear, and restrain prayer before God” (Job 15:4). Your families will be witnesses against you that this work was undone. And this sermon will witness against you, that it was not for want of being called to do it, but for want of a heart to do it when you were called. But I hope better things of you, my brethren, and things that accompany salvation, though I thus speak (Heb. 6:9).
2. Revive family religion.
2. Let those who have kept up family worship formerly, but of late have left it off, be persuaded to revive it. This, perhaps, is the case of some of you. You remember the kindness of your youth, and the love of your espousals, a time was when you sought God daily, and delighted to know his ways, as families who did righteousness, and forsook not the ordinances of your God, but now it is otherwise. The altar of the Lord is broken down and neglected, the daily sacrifice is ceased, and God has kept an account how many days it has ceased, whether you have or not (Dan. 8:13-14). Now God comes into your houses seeking fruit, but he finds none, or next to none. You are so eager in your worldly pursuits, that you have neither hearts nor time for religious exercises. You began at first frequently to omit the service, and a small matter served for an excuse to put it by, and so by degrees it came to nothing.
Oh that those who have thus left their first love, would now remember whence they are fallen, and repent, and do their first works! (Rev. 2:5). Inquire how this good work came to be neglected; was it not because your love to God cooled, and the love of the world prevailed? Have you not found a manifest decay in the prosperity of your souls since you let fall this good work? Has not sin got ground in your hearts and in your houses? And though, when you dropt your family worship, you promised yourselves that you would make it up in secret worship, because you were not willing to allow yourselves lime for both, yet have you not declined in that also? Are you not grown less frequent, and less fervent, in your closet devotions too? Where is now the blessedness you have formerly spoken of? I beseech you to lay out yourselves to retrieve it in time. Say as that penitent adulteress, “I will go and return to my first husband, for then it was better with me then now” (Hos. 2:7). Cleanse the sanctuary, and put away the strange god. Is money the god, or the belly the god, that has gained possession of thy heart and house? Whatever it is, cast it out. Repair the altar of the Lord, and begin again the daily sacrifice and oblation. Light the lamps again, and burn the incense. Rear up the tabernacle of David which is fallen down, lengthen its cords, and strengthen its stakes, and resolve it shall never be neglected again as it has been. Perhaps you and your families have been manifestly under the rebukes of Providence, since you left off your duty—as Jacob was, while he neglected to pay his vow. I beseech you, hear at length the voice of the rod, and of him who has appointed it, for it reminds you of your forgotten vows, saying, “Arise, go up to Bethel, and dwell there” (Gen. 35:1). Let the place thou dwellest in ever be a Bethel, so shall God dwell with thee there.
3. Be awakened to more zeal and constancy.
3. Let those who are remiss and negligent in their family worship be awakened to more zeal and constancy. Some of you perhaps have a church in your house, but it is not a nourishing church. It is like the church of Laodicea, neither cold nor hot. Or like the church of Sardis, in which the things that remain are ready to die, so that it hath little more than a name to live. Something of this work of the Lord is done for fashion sake, but it is done deceitfully. You have in your flock a male, but you vow and sacrifice unto the Lord a corrupt thing. You grow “customary” in your accustomed services, and bring the torn and the blind, the lame and the sick, for sacrifice, and you offer that to your God which you would scorn to offer to your governor. And though it is but little you do for the church in your house, you think that too much, and say, “Behold what a weariness is it!” You put it off with a small and inconsiderable scantling of your day, and that the dregs and refuse of it. You can spare no time at all for it in the morning, nor any in the evening, till you are half asleep. It is thrust into a corner, and almost lost in a crowd of worldly business and carnal conversation. When it is done, it is done so slightly, in so much haste, and with so little reverence, that it makes no impression upon yourselves or your families. The Bible lies ready, but you have no time to read. Your servants are otherwise employed, and you think it is no matter for calling them in. You yourselves can take up with a “word or two of prayer,” or rest in a lifeless, heartless tale of words. Thus it is every day, and perhaps little better on the Lord’s Day; no repetition, no catechising, no singing of psalms, or none to any purpose.
Is it thus with any of your families? Is this the present state of the church in your house? “My brethren, these things ought not so to be” (James 3:10). It is not enough that you do that which is good, but you must do it well. God and religion have in effect no place in your hearts or houses, if they have not the innermost and uppermost place. Christ will come no whither to be an underling; he is not a guest to be set behind the door. What comfort, what benefit can you promise to yourselves from such trifling services as these; from an empty form of godliness without the power of it?
I beseech you, sirs, make a business of your family religion, and not a by-business. Let it be your pleasure and delight, and not a task and drudgery. Contrive your affairs so that the most convenient time may be allotted both morning and evening for your family worship, so that you may not be unfit for it, or disturbed and straitened in it; herein wisdom is profitable to direct. Address yourselves to it with reverence and seriousness, and a solemn pause; that those who join with you may see and say, that God is with you of a truth, and may be struck thereby into a like holy awe. You need not be long in the service, but you ought to be lively in it; not slothful in this business, because it is the business for God and your souls, but “fervent in spirit, serving the Lord” (Rom. 12:11).
4. Adorn and beautify family religion in your behavior.
4. Let those who have a church in their house, be very careful to adorn and beautify it in their conversation. If you pray in your families, and read the Scriptures, and sing Psalms, and yet are passionate and froward with your relations, quarrelsome and contentious with your neighbours, unjust and deceitful in your dealings, intemperate and given to tippling, or allow yourselves in any other sinful way, you pull down with one hand what you build up with the other. Your prayers will be an abomination to God, and to good men too, if they be thus polluted. “Be not deceived, God is not mocked” (Gal. 6:7).
See that you be universal in your religion, that it may appear that you are sincere in it. Show that you believe a reality in it, by acting always under the commanding power and influence of it. Be not Christians upon your knees, and Jews in your shops. While you seem saints in your devotions, prove not yourselves sinners in your conversations. Having begun the day in the fear of God, be in that fear all the day long. Let the example you set your families be throughout good, and by it teach them not only to read and pray, for that is but half their work, but by it teach them to be meek and humble, sober and temperate, loving and peaceable, just and honest—so shall you adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour—and those who will not be won by the word, shall be won by your conversation (1 Pet. 3:1). Your family worship is an honour to you, see to it that neither you nor yours be in any thing a disgrace to it.
5. Establish family religion in your home first.
5. Let those who are setting out in the world set up a church in their house at first, and not defer it. Plead not youth and bashfulness. If you have confidence enough to rule a family, I hope you have confidence enough to pray with a family. Say not, “The time is not come, the time that the Lord’s house should be built,” as they did who “dwelt in their ceiled houses,” while God’s house lay waste (Hag. 1:2, 4). It ought to be built immediately. And the longer you put it off, the more difficulty there will be in the doing of it, and the more danger that it will never be done.
Now you are beginning the world (as you call it), is it not your wisdom as well as duty to begin with God? Can you begin better? Or can you expect to prosper if you do not begin thus? The fuller our heads are of care about setting up house, and setting up shop, and settling in both, the more need you have of daily prayer, that by it you may cast your care on God, and fetch in wisdom and direction from on high.
6. Practice family religion everywhere.
6. In all your removals be sure you take the “church in your house” along with you. Abraham often removed his tent, but wherever he pitched it, there the first thing he did was to build an altar. It is observable concerning Aquila and Priscilla, of whose pious family my text speaks, that when Paul wrote his epistle to the Romans they were at Rome; for he sends salutations to them thither, and there it is said they had a church in their house (Rom. 16:5). But now, when he wrote this epistle to the Corinthians they were at Ephesus, for thence it should seem this epistle bore date, and here he sends salutations from them; and at Ephesus also they had a church in their house. As wherever we go ourselves we must take our religion with us, so wherever we take our families, or part of them, we must take our family religion with us. For in all places we need divine protection, and experience divine goodness. “I will therefore that men pray every where” (1 Tim. 2:8).
When you are in your city-houses, let not the business of them crowd out your family religion, nor let the diversions of your country-houses indispose your minds to these serious exercises. That care and that pleasure are unseasonable and inordinate, which leave you not both heart and time to attend the service of the church in your house.
Let me here be an advocate also for those families whose masters are often absent from them, for their health or pleasure, especially on the Lord’s Day, or long absent upon business. And let me beg these absent masters to consider, with whom they leave those few sheep in the wilderness (1 Sam. 17:28), and whether they do not leave them neglected and exposed. Perhaps there is not a just cause for your absence so much, nor can you give a good answer to that question, “What doest thou here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:9). But if there be a just cause, you ought to take care that the church in your house be not neglected when you are abroad, but that the work be done when you are not at home to do it.
7. Let inferior relatives help promote family religion.
7. Let inferior relatives help to promote religion in the families where they are. If family worship be not kept up in the houses where you live, let so much the more be done in your closets for God and your souls: if it be, yet think not that will excuse you from secret worship. All is little enough to keep up the life of religion in your hearts, and help you forward toward heaven.
Let the children of praying parents, and the servants of praying masters, account it a great privilege to live in houses that have churches in them, and be careful to improve that privilege. Be you also ready to every good work, make the religious exercises of your family easy and pleasant to those who perform them, by showing yourselves forward to attend on them, and careful to attend to them, for your backwardness and carelessness will be their greatest discouragement. Let your lives also be a credit to good education, and make it appear to all with whom you converse, that you are every way the better for living in religious families.
8. Singles are not exempt from this duty.
8. Let solitary people, who are not engaged in families, have churches in their chambers, churches in their closets. When every man repaired the wall of Jerusalem over against his own house, we read of one that repaired over against his chamber (Neh. 3:30). Those who live alone, out of the way of family worship, ought to take so much the more time for their secret worship, and, if possible, add the more solemnity to it. You have not families to read the Scriptures to, read them so much the more to yourselves. You have not children and servants to catechise, nor parents or masters to be catechised by; catechise yourselves then, that you may “hold fast the form of sound words,” which you have received (2 Tim. 1:13). “Exhort one another” (Heb. 3:13), so we read it, παρακαλεῖτε ἑαυτοὺς—“exhort yourselves,” so it might as well be read. You are not made keepers of the vineyards, and therefore the greater is your shame if your own vineyard you do not keep. When you are alone, yet you are not alone, for the Father is with you, to observe what you do, and to own and accept you, if you do well.
9. Choose roommates wisely.
9. Let those who are to choose a settlement, consult the welfare of their souls in the choice. If a church in the house be so necessary, so comfortable, then “be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers” (2 Cor. 6:14), who will have no inclination for the church in the house, nor assist in the support of it, but instead of building this house, pluck it down with their hands (Prov. 14:1). Let apprenticeships and other services be chosen by this rule, that “that is best for us which is best for our souls;” and therefore it is our interest to go with those, and be with those, with whom God is (Zech. 8:23). When Lot was to choose a habitation, he was determined therein purely by secular advantages (Gen. 13:11, 13) and God justly corrected his sensual choice, for he never had a quiet day in the Sodom he chose, till he was fired out of it. The Jewish writers tell of one of their devout rabbis, who being courted to dwell in a place which was otherwise well accommodated, but had no synagogue near, he utterly refused to accept the invitation, and gave that text for his reason: “The law of thy mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver” (Ps. 109:72).
10. Befriend other Christian families.
10. Let religious families keep up friendship and fellowship with each other, and as they have opportunity assist one another in doing good. The communion of churches has always been accounted their beauty, strength, and comfort, and so is the communion of these domestic churches. We find here, and in other of Paul’s epistles, kind salutations sent to and from the houses that had churches in them. Religious families should greet one another, visit one another, love one another, pray for one another, and as becomes households of faith, do all the good they can one to another. Forasmuch as they all meet daily at the same throne of grace, and hope to meet shortly at the same throne of glory, to be no more, as they are now, divided in Jacob, and scattered in Israel.
11. Have comfort in family religion.
Lastly, Let those houses that have churches in them, flourishing churches, have comfort in them. Is religion in the power of it uppermost in your houses? And are you and yours serving the Lord, serving him daily? Go on and prosper, for the Lord is with you while you be with him. See your houses under the protection and blessing of heaven, and be assured that all things shall work together for good to you. Make it to appear by your holy cheerfulness that you find God a good master, wisdom’s ways pleasantness, and her paths peace; and that you see no reason to envy those who spend their days in carnal mirth, for you are acquainted with better pleasures than any they can pretend to. Are your houses on earth God’s houses? Are they dedicated to him, and employed for him? Be of good comfort, his house in heaven shall be yours shortly: “In my Father’s house there are many mansions” (John 14:2); and there is one, you may be sure, for each of you, who thus “by a patient continuance in well doing, seek for glory, honour, and immortality” (Rom. 2:7).