“Man’s husbandry and God’s bounty” by Benjamin B. Warfield
The address that follows comes from B. B. Warfield’s Faith & Life (Banner of Truth, 1974), a collection of discourses delivered at Sunday afternoon classes with the students of Princeton Seminary intended to explore the deeper currents of Christian faith and life. This is a challenging and encouraging piece based on 1 Corinthians 3:5-9 that I read while preparing for a sermon a few weeks ago. The repeated refrain of Warfield’s address is that God gives the increase.
Man’s husbandry and God’s bounty
1 Cor. 3:5-9: – “What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Ministers through whom ye believed; and each as the Lord gave to him. I planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. So then neither is he that planteth anything, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase. Now he that planteth and he that watereth are one: but each shall receive his own reward according to his own labour. For we are God’s fellow-workers; ye are God’s husbandry, God’s building.”
These verses form a natural section of this Epistle. The Corinthians had sent a letter to the Apostle, making inquiries on several important matters. But when the Apostle came to make reply, he had matters to speak to them about which were far more important than any of the questions asked in their letter. Trusty friends had reported to him the serious deterioration which the Corinthian Church was undergoing, the strange, as we may think them, and certainly outbreaking, immoralities into which they were falling. Chiefest of these, because most fundamental and most fecund [fruitful] of other evils, was the raging party spirit, which had arisen among them. Greek-like, the Corinthians were not satisfied with the matter of the simple Gospel, in whatever form, but had begun to clothe its truths (and to obscure them in the act) in philosophical garb and rhetorical finery; and had split themselves into factions, far from tolerant of one another, rallying around special teachers and glorifying each, a special mode of presentation. So far has this gone that the rival parties had long ago broken the peace of the Church, and were threatening its unity.
Paul devotes himself first of all to the shaming of this spirit and the elimination of its results. In doing so he cuts to the roots. He begins with a rebuke of the violence of the Corinthians’ party spirit, sarcastically suggesting that they had made Christ, who was the sole Redeemer of God’s Church and in whom were all, a share; and so parcelled Him out to one faction – as it others had had Paul to die for them and had been baptized in his name, and so on. He then sets himself seriously to refute the whole basis of their factions and to place firmly under his readers’ feet the elements of the truth. To do this, he first elucidates the relation of wisdom – philosophy and rhetoric, we would say now – to the Gospel; pointing out that the Gospel is not a product of human wisdom and is not to be commended by it; although, no doubt, it proclaims a Divine wisdom of its own to those who are capable of receiving it. Thus he destroys the very nerve of their strife. Then, with our present passage, he turns to the parallel occasion of their strife and explains the relation of the human agents through which it is propagated to the Gospel. This he declares to be none other than the relation of hired servants to their husbandry of the good-man of the farm. Proceeding to details, Paul and Apollos, he declares, are alike but servants, each doing whatever work is committed to him, work which may no doubt differ, externally considered, in kind, though it is exactly the same in this – that it is nothing but hired service, while it is God that gives the increase. There is no difference in this respect; not that the work is not deserving of reward; reward, however, not as if the increase was theirs but only proportioned to the amount of their work as labour. The harvest is God’s; that harvest which they themselves are. They, the labourers, are fellow-labourers only, working for God. They, the Corinthians, do not belong to them; they are God’s husbandry, God’s building.
Thus the Apostle not only intimates but emphatically asserts that the Church of God is not the product of the ministry; no, nor is any individual Christian. Every Christian and the Church at large is God’s gift. God sets workmen to labour in His vineyard; and rewards them richly for their labour, paying each all his wages. But these labourers, it is not theirs to give the increase, nor even to choose their work. It is theirs merely to work and to do each the special work which God appoints. The vineyard is God’s and so is the increase, – which God Himself gives.
Now, looking at this general teaching of the passage in a broad and somewhat loose way, we see that the following important truths are intimated.
(1) Christianity is a work which God accomplishes in the heart and in the world. It may even be said to be the work of God: the work that God has set Himself to do in this dispensation, and hence the second creation.
(2) Shifting the emphasis a bit, we perceive that the passage emphasizes the fact that Christianity is a work which is accomplished in the heart and in the world directly by God.
(3) Men are but God’s instruments, tools, “agents” (ministers) in performing this work. They do not act in it for God, that is, instead of God; but God acts through them. It is He that gives the increase.
(4) All men engaged in this work are in equally honourable employment. If one plants and another waters and another reaps, it is all “one.” They are all only fellow-labourers under God; equal in His sight and to be rewarded, not according to what they did, but according to how they did it. This would not be true if man made the increase; but the reaper no more makes the harvest than the sower. Nor would it be true if the reaper had the increase. But it is not the reaper’s “field.” He is a hired labourer, not an owner. It is God’s field. Each gets his wages; little or much according to the quality of his work. Wages are measured by labour, not results. And therefore it is all one to you and me, as labourers in God’s field, whether He sets us to plough, plant, water or reap.
Looking at these truths in turn:
What an encouragement it is to the Christian worker to know that Christianity is, so to speak (in the figure of the text), the crop which God the great husbandman has set Himself to plant and to raise in this “season” in which we leave. Therefore this dispensation is called “the year of salvation.” And therefore, when pleading a little later with these same Corinthians to receive the grace of God not in vain, Paul clinches the appeal with the pointed declaration that now, this dispensation, is that accepted time, that day of salvation, at last come, to which all the prophets pointed, for which all the saints of God had longed from the beginning of the world. It is therefore again, leaving the figure, that this same Apostle declares that our Lord and Saviour has for the whole length of this dispensation assumed the post of the Ruler of the Universe, in order that all things may be administered for the fulfilment of His great redemptive purpose; in order that all things may, in a word, be made to work together for good to those that love Him. In a word, God is a husbandman in this season which we call the inter-adventual period; and the crop that He is planting and watering and is to reap is His Church.
No wonder our Saviour declared the Kingdom of Heaven like unto a sower who went forth to sow; who spread widely the golden grain, and reaped it too, a harvest of many-fold yield. For God’s husbandry cannot fail. Other husbandmen are not in this wholly unlike their hired servants: they plant and water, – but they cannot compel life; and what may be the results of their labour they know not. The floods may come, the winds may blow, the sun may parch the earth, the enemy may destroy the grain. But God gives the increase. It is therefore that the Redeemer sits on the throne, that floods and rain and sun – all the secret alchemy of nature – may be in His control, that “all things shall work together for good to them that love Him.” There, I say, is our encouragement. Christianity is the work of God, the work He has set Himself to do in this age in which we live. As we go forth as His servants to plant and water, we may go upheld by a deathless hope. The harvest cannot fail. When the sands of time run out and God sends forth His reapers, the angels, there will be His harvest thick on the ground – and the field is the world. The purpose of God stands sure. We may not be called to see the end from the beginning. But if God calls you and me to plant or to water, it is our blessed privilege to labour on in hope.
All this is just because the result is not ours to produce or to withhold. It is God that gives the increase. As Christianity is the work which God has set before Himself to accomplish in this age; so Christianity in the world and in the heart is a work which God alone can accomplish. It is not in the power of any man to make a Christian, much less to make the Church – that great organized body of Christ, every member of which is a recreated man. Why, we cannot make our own bodies; how much less the body of Christ! If in this work Paul was nothing and Apollos nothing, what are we, their weak and unworthy successors! This is the second great lesson our passage has to teach us; or, rather, we may better say this is the great lesson it teachers, for it was just to teach this that it was written. The fault of the Corinthians was that they had forgotten who was the husbandman, who alone gave the increase. Hence their divisions, making Christ only the share of one party, while others looked to Paul or Apollos or Cephas, just as if they stood related to the harvest in something of the same way as Christ. Nay, says Paul, Christ alone is Lord of the harvest. It is God alone who can give the increase.
Paul had reason to know this in his own experience. He knew how he had been gathered into the Kingdom. He was soon to acquire new reason for acknowledging it, in that journey of his from Ephesus to Macedonia, in which, while his heart was elsewhere, all unknown to himself God was leading him in triumph, compelling ever-increasing accessions to his train. Nor did he ever stint his declaration of it. Thus, take that passage (Eph. 2:10), where he, completing a long statement of God’s gracious dealings with Christians in quickening them into newness of life, without obscurity or hesitation outlines the whole process as a creative work of God. “For it is by grace that ye are saved, through faith: nor is this of yourselves, it is God’s gift; not of works, lest some one should boast. For we are His workmanship – creatures – created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath afore prepared that we should walk in them.” This is Paul’s teaching everywhere: that as it is God who created us men, so it is God who has recreated us Christians. And the one in as direct and true a sense as the other. As He used agents in the one case – our natural generation (for none of us are born men without parents), so He may use instruments in the other, our spiritual regeneration (for none of us are born Christians where there is no Word). But in both cases, it is God and God alone who gives the increase.
Let us not shrink from this teaching; it is the basis of our hope. Though we be Pauls and Apolloses we cannot save a soul; though we be as eloquent as Demosthenes, as subtle as Aristotle, as convincing as Plato, as persistent as Socrates, we cannot save. And though we be none of those, but a plain man with lisping lips, that can but let fall the Gospel truth in broken phrases – we need no eloquent Aaron for our prophet. We need only God for our Master. It is not we who save, it is God; and our place is not due to our learning or our rhetoric or our graces, it is due to the honouring of God, who has mercy on whom He will have mercy, and whom He will, He hardens.
Hence we have the great consolation of knowing that the responsibility of fruitage to our work does not depend absolutely on us. We are not the husbandman; the field is not ours; its fruitage is not dependent on or limited by our ability to produce it. All Christian ministers are but God’s “agents” (for that is the ultimate implication of the term used), employed by Him to secure His purposes; God’s instruments, God’s tools. It is God who plans the cultivation, determines the sowing and sends us to do it. Now this is to lower our pride. Some ministers act as if they owned the field; they lord it over God’s heritage. More feel as if they had produced all the results; made, “created,” the fruit. They pride themselves on the results of their work and compare themselves to others’ disadvantage with their neighbours in the fruits granted to their ministry. This is like a reaper boasting over the sower or ploughman, as if he had made the crop it has been allowed him to harvest. Others feel depressed, cast down, at the smallness of the fruitage it has been allowed them to see from their work, and begin to suspect that they are not called to the ministry at all, because the work given them to do was not reaping. And herein is the consolation: just because we are not doing God’s work for Him, but He is doing His own work through us; just because we do what work He appoints to us; not we but He is responsible for the harvest. All that is required of stewards is that they be found faithful.
Hence – and this is the final and greatest consolation to us as ministers – it ought to be a matter of indifference to us what work God gives us to do in His husbandry. Reaping is no more honourable than sowing; watering no less honourable than harvesting. Men disturb themselves too much over the kind of work they are assigned to, and can scarcely believe they are working for God unless they are harvesting all the time. But in the great organized body of labour it is as in the organized body to which Paul compares the Church later: if all were reapers, where were the sowing, where were the cultivating, where the watering? And if no sowing, and no watering, where were the reaping? It is not ours to determine what work we are to do. It is for us to determine how we do it. For none of us will fail of our wages and the wages are not proportioned to the kind of work, as if the reaper because he reaped would have all the reward. The field is not his, and the harvest is not his. He does not get the crop because he reaped it. He gets just what the planter and waterer get, his wages.
Wages, I say, not proportioned to the kind of work, but to the labour he does. Each one, says Paul, shall receive “his own reward” according to his own labour. The amount of labour, not the department of work, is the norm of our reward. What a consolation this is to the obscure workman to whom God has given much labour and few results; reward is proportioned to the labour, not the results! And this for a very good reason. God apportions the work on the one hand and gives the increase on the other. But it is we that do the labour. And, of course, we are rewarded according to what is done by us, not God. Let us then labour on in whatever sphere God gives it to us to labour, content, happy, strenuous, untiring, determined only to do God’s work in God’s way; not seeking to intrude into work to which He has not appointed us, and not repining because He has given us this work and not that. Each one to his own labour, and God the rewarder of all!