Lecture III. The Reproof of the Spirit the Power of Conversion.
OUR LORD had been speaking of His own removal into the unseen world, the consequent Advent of the Blessed Comforter, and the gain that would thence ensue to His elect. "It is expedient for you that I go away." Among other blessings, destined to flow forth on the coming of that Blessed Spirit, depended the hope of a true conviction of sin. Our LORD speaks of the effect of the HOLY SPIRIT'S Advent, as though there had been no consciousness of sin awakened till then; because, by contrast of the greater work wrought by His Presence, all former convictions would seem to have been as nothing. "He shall reprove the world,"--as though the world had not been reproved before. This reproving, or convincing, as the word more strictly means, which the Spirit would effect in the heart of the world, or rather in all hearts capable of receiving it, embraced three objects together, which are represented as co-extensive, and alike continuous--sin, righteousness, and judgment. ['Elegcw, certis et indubitatis arguments alicui aliquid persuadeo et demonstro ac dissentientes refuto. (Schleus.) "He will not only convict the world of sin, in not believing the Gospel, but of sinfulness generally; by showing that it needed so great a sacrifice as My Death to reconcile it to GOD, and that all who do not receive Me as their SAVIOUR are yet in their sins, and in danger of perdition. Ep. Cyril. (Maldonat.)" "The word signifies in the New Testament a process of argument, generally public, by which an offender is proved to be such, and is 'pricked to the heart,' and 'smitten in conscience,' and put to shame, and brought to repentance by salutary rebuke and reproof, or although callous in himself, yet manifestly proved and convicted as a sinner in the eyes of others." (Dr. Wordsworth in loc.)] The revealing to the soul of man the fulness of his sins,--the revealing the completeness of the righteousness of GOD,--the revealing the completeness of GOD'S condemnation of evil,--are set before us as a threefold ' work advancing together, and perfected together.
As we know our LORD'S righteousness, which was to be manifested in its completeness only in His union with the FATHER at His Ascension,--"because I go to the FATHER, and ye see Me no more,"--and the fulness of GOD'S righteous judgment on all that He hateth,--"because the prince of this world is judged"--so do we know the full extent of sin, which is the loss and contradiction of that righteousness, and the object of that condemnation. Thus the knowledge of sin must continue to increase, as the knowledge of GOD'S righteousness and of GOD'S judgments increases; and as this more perfect sense of sin increases, so will penitence increase.
The first lecture spoke of the slowness with which the sense of sin breaks in upon the soul's consciousness, first as a mere fact in a child's history, needing to be explained; then in its outward misery and punishment; and lastly in its inward experience, as a diseased condition of the soul.
But even when sin is thus revealed as an inner corruption affecting the whole state of the soul, how slowly does this light break in, how slowly pass from one form of sin existing in us to another! Throughout the Old Testament history, as was before observed, the slow and imperfect conviction of sin is one of the most striking facts it reveals regarding the condition of man. This may be the case even after deadliest sins. Most commonly indeed deadly sin aggravates the natural incapacity of the conscience, and is followed by an insensibility far beyond what is caused by ordinary faults. In David's case, before any consciousness of sin could be awakened, a prophet's solemn remonstrance, and the touching parable of the ewe lamb, were needed. So dark, so slow to apprehend was even an inspired soul.1 How striking, on the contrary, is the state which S. Paul describes in the Corinthian disciples, who, as a whole body stirred together, sorrowed bitterly over the sin of one of their members. Only one had sinned; but S. Paul addresses them all as alike concerned, alike quickened to the most anxious sensitiveness, though only awakened by sympathy with a brother's fall. "For behold this self-same thing, that ye sorrowed after a godly sort, what carefulness it wrought in you, yea, what clearing of yourselves, yea, what indignation, yea, what fear, yea, what vehement desire, yea, what zeal, yea, what revenge. In all things ye have approved yourselves to be clear in this matter." The Spirit of GOD had come with a power unknown before, and worked this new fervour of penitence.
And as this increased sensitiveness to sin is clearly seen on a broad scale, in the latter days of man's history, the same is true in the individual soul's life. We have one conscience laid bare to us, the workings of a wonderful grace of GOD in the record of one great mind, bequeathed in its details for the thoughtful study of all mankind. It is the history, indeed, of one as yet unbaptized; but that early history of preventing grace which developed into the exalted spiritual gifts of the great teacher of Western Christendom is, in its deep strugglings, far beyond that of most of the regenerate in their efforts for deliverance. S. Augustine, in his "Confessions," is a notable sign how slowly and with what uncertainties, how irresolutely and through what long intervals, with what reluctance and misgivings, with what partial views and clouded visions, by what gradual, intermittent, conflicting processes of illumination, and strugglings of the unrenewed mind, repentance forces its way,--the Divine love ever preserving him so that he could not draw back, yet evil still retaining its deceitful hold; fresh lights of grace ever illumining him, but large portions of his soul still remaining so dark. He wills, and then soon wills no more; he demands of GOD to be freed from his bondage, and at the same time fears lest GOD should hear him, and his prayers be answered. Yet all the while he was advancing on towards the increasing light, his soul quickened to see more and more of its foulness, as it saw more and more of the righteousness of GOD, till at last the light flashed in with power overbearing all obstacles; and final deliverance had come.
Few of us there are but must remember the first strong sense of sin smiting us. The immediate cause may have been a sentence in a book, or some one's chance remark, or an unexpected rebuke, or a sudden fear, a flash of light breaking in, we know not how, but it awakened a dormant sense. It was a crisis that can never be forgotten. Such is the experience not merely of those plunged in deadly sins, habitually, passionately indulged; but, even if any of us were free from these, still the history of the eventful change has ever been the same. There are regenerate souls, blessed be GOD, that have been kept remarkably calm, progressing under a continuous, careful discipline, in a life gradually unfolding into the glory of the quiet reign of grace over nature. Still, even in these rarer cases, yea, in all who have known the reproving power of the Spirit, a like conviction is experienced. There remains an undying remembrance of this crisis in their history, the first strong smiting of the conscience, from whence they date a change which has determined the most momentous issues of their soul's life. We may call this change, in these lighter cases, a renewal, to distinguish it from the transition from yet more grievous sins, ordinarily understood as conversion; but it is a crisis in all alike never to be forgotten. From that hour the spirit of self-condemnation, then awakened, spreads and enlarges into the ever-growing convictions of a true penitence. It is accompanied, in every really quickened soul, with the feeling that there is much yet behind on which the Spirit's reproof will eventually fall; that the very condition of advance is the seeing sins undiscerned before, and understanding faults that never appeared to be faults till now. And as the blessed vision of our LORD'S life grows within the soul, the past penitence that seemed once to be complete, is more and more felt to be a very hypocrisy, at least an utter falling short of what one's real sin called for; the increasing perception of His holiness acting on the soul as an ever-fresh incentive to ever-deepening repentance.
The earliest token of the reproof of the Spirit within the soul is the gift of sorrow, through the newly awakened consciousness of personal guilt. It has been often observed that our LORD never smiled. How could He smile, Whose Eye was ever gazing on sin, and its consequences of misery; Whose Mind always saw His Passion, as the fruit of sin, with a vivid unchanging consciousness? And sorrow kindred with His own is an inalienable ingredient of the inner life quickened to see sin revealed within itself, and the more so, as it is more perfectly being formed after His likeness; for the more clearly the soul sees Him, the more truly it sees its own sin, which caused His sorrow. "Godly sorrow," i.e., the sorrow according to GOD, the Divine sorrow, "worketh repentance unto salvation, not to be repented of;" i.e., continues to work as an ever-present impulse, a perpetual, active agent within the inner depths of the soul, continually advancing the penitence which is perfected only when salvation, which "knows no place for repentance, is secured.
There are changes in the character of the sorrow, marking the progressive working of the Spirit, of Whose Presence it is the blessed fruit. At first impetuous, impatient as to too easy forgiveness, eager for mortification and self-revenge, incapable of rest, excitable, absorbed, at times gloomy, fearful, with dark, troubled visions, and exaggerated, austere judgments,--such is the conscience-stricken sinner's earlier sorrow. This, however, is but transient. It subsides into a calmer state; it becomes humble, accompanied with solemn and reverential, not uneasy, fears of GOD'S inscrutable judgments, tender, sober, quiet, dealing gently, not indulgently, with self; not as before, gushing into tears, yet with tears never far off; quickly melting into prayer, with self-reproaches rising often to the surface, but soon sinking down into hidden depths; never demonstrative, yet always thoughtful; never downcast at falls, but tending ever to greater watchfulness; nor seeking consolation, because possessing its own hidden manna, which it would not barter away for any joy; trembling even at the joy of GOD, lest it lose its own sweet sadness, treasured as the very safeguard of its life. [I have borrowed some expressions from Mr. Faber's description of this stage of the spiritual life, in his "Growth in Holiness."] Penitential sorrow is like the torrent from the mountain, at first rushing down its steep bed among the rocks, afterwards more quietly stealing and winding amidst the still pastures. But this more quiet flow of "godly sorrow" is often broken. In its later stages, even in advanced souls, something of the violence of its early state will at times manifest itself. Gushes of renewed anguish will be awakened at some vivid kindling of Divine love, or at a fresh sight of some perhaps comparatively trivial fault, now grieving the soul as bitterly, as of old it mourned the deadly fall. The faint shades of lingering imperfection have assumed to the quickened consciousness the proportions of a deadly sin, because the eyes of the renewed spirit have been more keenly purged; and seeing more truly the righteousness of GOD, and feeling more acutely the judgment of GOD, the soul trembles now at the very least variance from His perfect will. But the quieter sorrow has become the abiding normal state, and settles down, as faith grows, to be a ground of character, and a special sanctity.
A temptation often arises to think that sorrow for sin is gone, or is weaker, because it is less sensational. But is not a similar change to that which takes place in godly sorrow, manifested likewise in the truest natural love? Love is at first all impetuous sentiment, restless, greedy of extreme expressions, violent in its flow. Does it not become a deeper, more exalted passion, just in proportion as it becomes a well of life springing up in constant duty, unfailing kindness, self-denying charities, fervent prayer? It has lost indeed something of its demonstrativeness; it has gained a more perfect hold on the sources of a higher life. So neither has godly sorrow failed, because it has become a calmer law of duty, and made penitence less of an excitement, more of a conformity with a higher righteousness.
The sign of the increasing power of the reproof of the Spirit is shown in the efforts aroused to overcome the actual working of sin within the soul. S. Augustine has said that, while we are certain of the reality of our sin, we cannot be as absolutely certain of the truth of our penitence. Nor indeed can we prove our repentance so directly as we prove our sin. We may have an assurance of its truth as real and as convincing; but we can only prove it by inference derived from its practical fruits. When the Spirit's work of conviction has reached such a depth within us, that the source out of which sin arises is known, and is being healed, we have the surest possible evidence of its reality.
But here an explanation is needed. Sin does not arise from pure malice. However corrupted the nature of man, he does not love sin as sin. Such an extreme perversion belongs only to demons. It has even been doubted whether the malice of demons reaches to the direct love of sin. But in man the sinful love is for the weakness, the self-indulging tendency that leads to evil, not to the evil viewed nakedly in itself. We love the pleasure which GOD has forbidden, but not because He has forbidden it; the pleasure, not the very stain or guilt of it. We love the gratification of the passion, but not the impurity that results. We love the profit of the unjust bargain, not the actual injustice. We love the revenge because of the gratification of the false sense of honour, but not the criminal spirit of retaliation in itself. We should always desire to separate the two, were it possible. Even the abandoned sinner would desire, were it practicable, to separate off the injury done to GOD, and the ruin caused to his own nature, from the immediate gratification of the sinful impulse. In a word, we wish to please ourselves, and yet not to sin. It is because the two things are practically inseparable, and the desire of self-gratification carries the soul beyond the fear of the sin, that we sin. Without loving the sin, nay even while hating it, we sin nevertheless. We sin, because of the satisfaction which the sin procures; because the sinner loves the cause and source of sin, loves the passion of the hour, and so spite of himself, spite of his better mind, spite of his wish to please GOD, were the pleasing Him consistent with pleasing self, he sins. [I am indebted to Bourdaloue's sermons for some thoughts of which I have availed myself in this and the two following lectures.]
We see here the first principle of our fall. The weak tendency to indulgence is the matter or cause of sin, not the malice. It is not therefore by the hatred of sin, as sin, that we can distinguish the imperfect from the true penitent; for even hardened sinners may retain this hatred of sin, as sin.
By what sign, then, can we discern a true from a false penitence? It is by the cutting off, actually and effectually mortifying in ourselves, whatever we discern to be the cause of sin, that which foments it, what causes it to subsist; by removing what S. Paul calls "the body of sin," its matter, its form within us; by striking at the weakness which, yielding, causes sin. It is by the renunciation of the manifold seductive enthralling objects and influences which to the carnal mind form the false sweetness of life; by fleeing the occasions which excite in our hearts the poisonous desires; by the severe determination, the sacred violence which forces the soul from the enchanting spell of vanity, or lust, or sloth, or pride, or self-love, with which the syren's harp charms the conscience to sleep, and leads the higher nature of the child of GOD as a willing captive in its train of voluptuous votaries. In a word, it is that circumcision of the heart, which not pausing at a mere superficial change of outward action, strips from off the inner sensitive heart that clinging besetting -disposition, which to the individual soul is the whole cause and origin of the sin.
The voice of true penitence says; "I know my weakness. I watch against it. I avoid its occasions. I resist its sway. I use all means to struggle against it. I mortify its gratifications. I cling to GOD in it. I cry to Him. And this all the more, as I feel it the more. I lay hold with the deeper resolve, the more I feel my sinking in the waters. And by His grace it is being subdued, its influence in me is lessened." How contrary to this is a false, or self-pleasing penitence! This is seen when the soul, notwithstanding its professions, its resolutions, even its earnest prayers, exposes itself to the same temptations, allows itself in the same occasions, places itself in the same perils, watches indolently, uses little mortification, while yet mourning its falls; and having thus but a faint hold on GOD, when the critical hour of trial comes, as surely soon it reappears, sins again and again, because the weakness prevails as of old. The Spirit's convicting, reproving work is in such a case but partially done. He has revealed to the startled soul the evil concealed within. He has opened the fount of tears. But He has not stirred the energies of resistance. He has not awakened the slumbering powers of true self-denial. The better mind is forming; not its power of self-discipline, its strength of self-renunciation and self-sacrifice. The Spirit has reproved the heart of sin, but not of righteousness, not of judgment.
It is on account of this eventful difference, that the groundwork of spiritual honesty needs to be deeply laid The great test of sincerity is awfully enforced in our SAVIOUR'S words: "The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!'" To know one's own weakness, to know that this weakness involves sin; and yet to shrink from the needful effort, from cutting off the dangerous occasion,--what is this but hypocrisy? To confess one's weakness, and the fall it caused, to seek for absolution and peace; and yet no change to follow,--what but the hypocrite's false anodyne? To be honest with GOD is, alas! one of the rarest gifts. There is a subtle dishonesty, which is one of the most frequently besetting sins of the devout. Convictions of sin are not wanting. Tears are not wanting. Resolutions are not wanting. The vision of righteousness and of judgment is ever present to the mind. What is wanting is the honest dealing with one's own weaknesses and the occasions of our falls. As it is the triumph of the revealing power of the Spirit, to show to the soul its real self, to show selfishness its special character of selfishness, so it is the triumph of the transforming power of the Spirit, to save the soul from the consequences of its own characteristic weakness, constraining and empowering it to turn away from the ensnaring object, to refuse to yield to the seductive sweetness.
We have marked the progress of the work of penitence through the Spirit's blessed agency. We have seen how penitence becomes real, and advances to its end through the same agency. But we have as yet no experience of a perfection in which penitence has not its work to do. We in truth advance, as the sense of sin becomes more keen, and faults are more earnestly resisted. And these are the only conditions of a true repentance. Not the greatest sinner, but the greatest saint, is therefore the most perfect penitent.
It has been before remarked, how the HOLY SPIRIT selects for His instruments in revealing His mind, special persons who are themselves distinguished for the practical manifestation of the truths revealed. S. John the Baptist was the great preacher of repentance, and his "raiment of camel's hair," his "girdle about his loins," his meat of "locusts and wild honey," tell of an inner man mortifying his flesh in the deepest humiliation of penitential sorrow. While he cleansed the multitudes who confessed before him the sins of their renounced lives, was not his own power laid in the fact that his lifelong work had been by vigil, and prayer, by loneliness and abstinence, to purge away the darkness of the flesh that hid from his longing gaze the blessed vision of the promised Messiah? And yet he was sanctified from his mother's womb. Of all men "born of woman there was none greater than John the Baptist." And he went before the very Face of the LORD, His chosen messenger, to prepare His way. Of what then had he to repent? What exemption from sin may have been involved in the special gift of the HOLY GHOST almost coeval with his conception, is not revealed; but even if no actual sin were committed by the Saint, if his sanctification from the womb guarded him from any single fall, yet he bore within him the fount, the cause, of all possible sin, the outgoings of which he read, if not in his own consciousness, yet in the records of humanity around him. He felt, he saw, through his greater light, the seeds of evil within himself. He could sit beside the sources of human corruption, and mourn over the consciousness of weakness, the liability to every hateful thing hidden within him. He had to watch the constant possibility of a fall, and thus could trace within himself the very kindred marks which bound him to the sinful race. He had learnt to reprove the sin which lurked, though perpetually restrained, within himself, and so disciplined he could all the more earnestly reprove its outgoings in the world.
So must it always be. Penitence will deepen as the saint advances to his perfectness, because the brightening illumination has contrasted the more vividly with even the hidden seminal forms of sin, and weaknesses of the flesh in which the still imprisoned spirit lingers. As was observed before, the deepest act of penitence will surely be within the vail, when the soul sees its LORD, and in His unvailed Righteousness experiences at length the true and adequate expression of sorrow, f the full hatefulness of the law of unrighteousness in himself, as he abases himself in his last penitential act before the Face of the living GOD. "What the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, GOD sending His own SON in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit." Though we walk in the power of the Spirit, we are still encompassed with the infirmities of the flesh; and the sainted soul needs still to be clothed in sackcloth, even while the sevenfold light of the glory of GOD is shed around the brow. How striking is it that the very last, the closing gift of the Spirit, of which Isaiah speaks, and which our LORD appropriated to Himself, is the "fear of the LORD!" Is it that this more penitential grace closes the series, because it is the basis on which the others rest; or that, when perfected, it becomes, as embodying all true creaturely consciousness, the highest expression of all? Or is it as being a vital need for our safety, mercifully mentioned last, in order that it may rest latest and freshest on the heart? Even our LORD "was heard, in that He feared." So true He was to the created nature which He assumed into His Godhead, that He would rest His own acceptance on the truth of this most creaturely attribute of His humility, and thus sanctify and honour the grace which best becomes the state of penitence.
There was a time when the title of sanctity would never be granted unless beneath the outward garb, even though it were of richest materials, the penitential vest, the shirt of discipline, was seen. It might have been a mere outward form, or assumed often with rude and repulsive aspect; but it symbolized a deep inner truth. The feeling was grounded on a Divine instinct. It had caught the profound scriptural truth, that even after all outward need of penance had seemingly passed, it was only because it had become more habitual, to be found as the abiding grace of the soul, its hidden but constant clothing; the inner penitence guarding the secret life, and become the strength and safety of its developed sanctity, the assurance of its sincerity, of its consistency, of its deep penetrating lowliness.
Therefore it is that Lent returns again and again, and will unceasingly re-appear, till the last Easter break on the ransomed world, ever the most welcome season, because the redeemed soul then afresh pours forth its renewed tears in union with the Passion of the Man of Sorrows, and re-invigorates its strength in the deepening foundations of a more complete humiliation, rising through lowlier, soberer fears to greater heights of heavenly ardour, and closer communion with GOD.
The Voice of the Spirit is then heard speaking more and more clearly; "This is the way, walk ye in it, when ye turn to the right hand, or when ye turn to the left." It is the voice of Divine reproof never ceasing in this day of our probation, that at last reproof may be heard no more. It awakens the ever rising confession, the "I have sinned," echoing on into the silence of the invisible world, that the, "Thou shalt not die," may at length be heard from the Eternal Throne. It is the fear which has lost all its torment, mingling still in the perfect love which has cast out all its fearfulness.
The words of reproof, if thus accepted and understood, are welcomed as the most precious accent of the Voice of the Blessed Spirit. It smites that it may heal. "Whom the LORD loveth He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth." It is the Voice which is ever perfecting His work of love, converting the soul,--whether it speaks directly from GOD Himself, inwardly reproving, or, more searching still, through the instrumentality of others, our fellow-creatures. It is still the one greatest assurance of mercy saving our life, lest in our sins we perish, lest the unrebuked fault follow us to the grave, left to mar our transformed state, our hope of likeness to Himself. The warning, the check, the humiliation is seen to be the highest form of love, love hidden for a time,' to be soon recognized. Its pain has quickly passed; its saving virtue penetrates and works, the assurance of a continual advance, the parent of lowliness, the pledge of every fault being overcome, the seal of the promised indwelling of the Spirit, the proof of our LORD'S Ascension to complete His triumph in His redeemed. The faithful are bidden thus to strive together for their common hope, not suffering sin to remain, mutually quickening one another, as in one Body they draw near. "Come," the unceasing witness pleads, "and let us return unto the LORD: for He hath torn, and He will heal us; He hath smitten, and He will bind us up." And the promise is quickly fulfilled; "Then shall we know, if we follow on to know the LORD: His going forth is prepared as the morning; and He shall come unto us as the rain, as the latter and former rain unto the earth."