Witherspoon: The Spiritual Condition Is More Important Than Our Earthly Status

John Witherspoon (1723-1794) was a key Presbyterian minister during the Revolutionary War period in American history, and is regarded among the Founding Fathers. As the only active clergy to sign the Declaration of Independence, to sign the Articles of Confederation, approve the Constitution, and serve as Moderator of the General Assembly for American Presbyterians, Witherspoon established himself in sacred and secular history of this nation. He has an important treatise on the doctrine of being born again, or regeneration.

Witherspoon wrote movingly about preaching the Gospel to different socio-economic groups, especially the poor. Here is a longer passage, where after addressing the unique situation the Scriptures give to those suffering in poverty, he says:

But does not the Savior of sinners beseech you to be reconciled unto God? He entreats you to come unto Him that you may have life. He regardeth not the persons of men, but values a precious immortal spirit as much in a mean cottage as in a splendid palace. Your rags and nakedness can be no hindrance to your obtaining His favor. He counsels you “to buy of Him gold tried in the fire, that you may be rich, and white rainment that you may be clothed.”

But O consider that you are naturally much more loathsome by sin than by poverty. Humble yourselves deeply in the sight of God. Fly for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before you. Accept of a free pardon of all your sins through the blood of Christ, and of His Holy Spirit to enable you to love and serve Him. Rejoice in your portion as all-sufficient and full, and in the covenant of peace, as “ordained in all things and sure.” Go in the Spirit of adoption to your reconciled Father in Christ, and ask of Him your daily bread. Do not envy the prosperity of others, since it is not material whether you shall live in plenty and sleep on a bed of down, or live in straits and lie on a dung hill, compared to what shall become of you forever. But, above all, be not so mad as to envy sinners an unsanctified prosperity. Rather, when you see a man of opulence despising the Sabbath, or hear a wretch in a gilded chariot profaning his Creator’s Name, be ready to say, “Shall I complain of poverty, when my Lord and Master had not where to lay his head. No; let me, on the contrary, bless that adversity which caused me to consider. Let me be very thankful for that humble station which gives me access to communion with God, and does not waste my time with crowds of company. Who knows whether I should have retained my integrity, if I had been constantly surrounded with profane gaiety, swimming in pleasure, besieged by flatterers, solicited by sensualists, beset with temptations? O that I may be possessed of the pearl of great price, reconciled to God, united to Christ, adorned with divine grace, and that I may be my Redeemer’s at His second coming!”

Witherspoon

The whole Gospel plea is so moving, but it strikes me that his language is instructive in today’s problems. Witherspoon’s attitude toward his hearer’s earthly status – as those poverty stricken – is ultimately subsumed by the spiritual, future reality. “Do not envy the prosperity of others” seems to be nearly foolish in our world of categorizing everyone as either victim or victimizer, oppressed or oppressor, and learning how many intersections are present in one’s life. His urging to “…be not so mad as to envy sinners an unsanctified prosperity” seems calloused to the evils of this present age.

Instead of attempting to alter our station, status, or position in life, Witherspoon’s call sounds shocking: “Rejoice in your portion as all-sufficient and full, and in the covenant of peace, as ‘ordained in all things and sure.'” And to prove that our spiritual status is more important than our earthly one, Witherspoon reminds us that this is not only for future blessedness. It is equally true when we compare sinfulness to our evil standing. He contends that “…you are naturally much more loathsome by sin than by poverty.” Both in sin and sanctity, poverty and prosperity, what is spiritually true is more important than what is true of our earthly status.

As shocking as it sounds by modern standards, it also sounds, well… biblical.

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