IT has been shown in the course of the foregoing lectures, (1.) that penitence, though continually varying in its sensations, and outward expressions, must necessarily be life-long, its last utterance heard at the foot of the Eternal Throne, as the Voice of the Great Absolver pronounces before the assembled world the final acceptance of the elect soul; (2.) that the forgiving love of JESUS is the constant stimulus of an ever deepening contrition, and the reproving manifestations of the Spirit the quickening power of a gradually perfecting conversion; (3.) that the true tendency of the burdened spirit, both for its relief and its cleansing, is to acknowledge its dreaded secrets, that they may never more rise up against the soul to condemn it, that confessing what we once were, we may become what we were not; and (4.) that the penitent thus renewed seeks more and more ardently to offer up as a living sacrifice to GOD all of life or power that remains, to be some practical compensation for wasted gifts, and grace abused, wrecks strewn along the shore of the now hated past.
It has been, moreover, implied, that the amendment of life is an essential condition of every true conversion. But of this branch of the subject more needs to be said; for the practical transformation of the renewed nature must evidently be the most vitally substantial effect and criterion of a true penitence.
The two practical conditions of repentance, already fully dwelt upon, confession and satisfaction, equally presuppose amendment of life; for the acknowledgment of sin is but the clearing away of hindrances to attain a peaceful newness of life; and there can be no true self-sacrifice, which is not the expression of a heart more and more conformed to the will of GOD. Moreover, unless we take into account the solid groundwork of an amended life, there is the greatest possible danger of penitence evaporating in sentiment. Nature imitates grace in nothing more than in such manifestations. There are natural susceptibilities prone to tears, and quickly stirred to devotion; self-reproaches indulged as the mere relief of wounded pride, subtle gratifications of self-consciousness; even as there are sacrifices which cost nothing, implying no effort, bearing no stamp of the Cross, and conversions depending on mere change of outward circumstances, or accidental freedom from the proximate occasions of sin, implying no self-surrender of the dangerous pleasure or weak indulgence. Out of these constituents a delicate phantom-shape of penitence may be cheaply formed, the hollowness of which any real temptation quickly exposes.
On the other hand there may be ungrounded fears as to the truth of penitence, because the sorrow seems no greater than any other sorrow, nay, perhaps even less. Some passing earthly disappointment may have wrung from the heart a more sensible anguish, than the burden of all one's sins. It may be so without fault, for sentiment is not in our power. The impulses of the heart are nature's instincts. Contrition does not necessarily rise above ordinary sorrows, as a sorrow. In some natures the fountain of tears gushes readily; in others they never rise to the surface. Sensations vary as the temperament varies. Penitence would be dependent on the animal spirits, if such variations were the test of its power and its truth. But contrition is not to be measured by the sensible tenderness which accompanies it; its only true test is its strength of purpose. Contrition rises above all other sorrow by the determination of the will, by the inward setting of the silent heart in stern preparation to wait upon GOD; and its power is seen in the changes taking place in the higher regions of the soul, where great resolves maintain their sway, and self is being subdued through the strong grasp of faith fastening upon GOD. We do not judge of the movements of the great deep by the roar and splash of the waves which make their wild play upon the shore, but by the long silent roll far out at sea. And so, likewise, the secret current of the steadfast will, not the impulsive fluctuations of the tender sensibilities, is the true evidence of the requickened soul yielding itself to the inspirations of the HOLY SPIRIT, the inworking Presence of GOD. Thou canst shed no tears over thy grievous sin. Grant it. The eternal Judgment depends not on this variable tenderness of a creature's mould. But wouldest thou undergo all loss, bear all denial, use all effort, rather than knowingly consent to a single sin? Then be assured; thou hast passed from death to life, and GOD has enfolded thee within the powers of the world to come.
What a vast range of progressive life expands within the compass of the few brief words of the text; "I will arise, and go to my father!" The swine, the husks, the far country, the stranger citizen, all have passed from our view, as the penitent Prodigal utters the words, at which as by a magic spell the scene changes into the new creation of GOD. The words convey two ideas which embrace the full truth of an amended life. Amendment of life has its objective, as well as its subjective reality--what is outwardly apprehended, and what is inwardly attained. The eyes are purged to see, and the will is quickened to grasp what the eyes behold. In S. Paul's conversion there were two distinct operations. The scales dropped off from his eyes, and the strong energies of his resolute will were reversed. Most strikingly does S. Paul express with a singular terseness of language these two great concurrent facts, the objective and subjective changes in the history of his conversion. "I was not disobedient," he says, "to the heavenly vision." The heavenly vision entrancing him, was the objective reality of his renewed life. "I was not disobedient," was the expression of the correspondence of the inner man, the subjective reality, which sealed the truth of his acceptance with GOD. In every true conversion it is ever the same. The change is twofold. The penitent has passed into a new world, and within it he rises "from grace to grace, and from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the LORD."
Consider, first, how great is the objective change, the new world opened around the penitent, as he arises to go to his father. The vision of his father's home, and its many mansions of light and joy, the many forms of saints, and angels innumerable, fill the expanse now spread before him, with the ever growing manifestation of the eternal laws of righteousness, of truth, of purity, of love, the guidings of Providence, the secrets of grace, and the miracles of prayer. Earthly relationships are now transformed in GOD, having new claims for GOD, new joys in Him, Fresh sympathies and sweetnesses of a higher fellowship, new duties, new forms of service, spring up unexpectedly everywhere around his path with fresh stimulants to fresh activities. All nature is seen wearing a changed aspect; sweet flowers bloom where all before was barren; lights break through the darkest clouds; the mystery of trial and sorrow and pain, even of death, is unveiled, and all speaks of mercy. "Old things are passed away, behold all things are become new."
These new objects are revealed to the soul with the special design of raising it to a higher level, that the penitent may apprehend the purposes and operations of GOD, and faith thus quickened be enabled to cooperate with the grace now working in him. Such is the ordinary mode of GOD'S dealing with us. His Spirit reveals the truth, raises the soul to apprehend it, then excites the will in the consciousness of renewed powers and elevated views, to unite with the Will of GOD in a higher order of life. Instances of this law of grace occur in Holy Scripture. Such, e.g., was our LORD'S dealing with Martha. She was not, as Mary was, dwelling habitually in the sustained consciousness of a higher Presence, with a faith, therefore, prepared for miracles. She must be raised to this higher level, to enter into the mystery of her brother's resurrection. To produce this effect our LORD speaks to her. "JESUS saith unto her, Thy brother shall rise again. Martha saith unto Him, I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day." But this is an insufficient faith, and therefore our LORD continues; "JESUS said unto her, I am the Resurrection and the Life; he that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth in Me, shall never die. Believest thou this?" This higher view of faith in the present personal Life and life-giving power of the Incarnate GOD, visibly at work before her eyes, must be awakened and drawn forth from her soul. "Yea, LORD, I believe that Thou art the CHRIST, the SON of GOD, Which should come into the world." Yet still Martha's apprehension of the truth was but weak and fitful; and though for a moment she had caught this higher enthusiasm, she was again sinking back, even at the very crisis of the miracle, and our LORD again pauses at the brink of the tomb to save her from the imminent loss. Even as He said, "Take ye away the stone," she was interposing natural hindrances; "Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto Him, LORD, by this time he stinketh, for he hath been dead four days." She must be raised again to the height of miraculous power. "JESUS saith unto her, Said I not unto thee, that if thou wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of GOD?" And our LORD, stirred by the consciousness of the dull spiritual apprehension around Him, to which Martha had given vent, that He might sustain the frailty of nature in the hearts of all gathered by the tomb, continues to speak, even while the stone is being removed. "And JESUS lifted up His eyes, and said, FATHER, I thank Thee that Thou hast heard Me, and I knew that Thou nearest Me always, but because of the people which stand by, I said it, that they may believe that Thou hast sent Me."
Here, then, is one important law affecting the amendment of life. The penitent needs to be raised by inward illuminations into the consciousness of a new world, so as to correspond with the wonder-work of GOD. This primary truth is implied in all the practical lessons of Holy Scripture. It is the inner principle of S. Paul's exhortation, "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is GOD that worketh in you to will and to do of His good pleasure." The apprehension in the soul of the quickening power of GOD is the groundwork of the energy of will to work with Him. As we rise to the level of a living faith in the work of GOD, we are enabled to fulfil His call.
Again, consider the new life awakened within the penitent soul, in correspondence with the heavenly vision. There are three chief stages of the life of GOD in the soul, from its first dawning to its meridian height of glory. They are known in spiritual theology as the purgative, the illuminative, and the unitive. How marvellously throughout its wondrous course is the soul's renewed life identified with the life of the incarnate GOD! These three stages of spiritual advancement correspond with three distinct mysteries in our LORD'S life; for it behoved Him to be made like unto His brethren in all things, and He is like them in this, which is essential to a creature's state, the progressive development of the powers of renewed Humanity.
The three mysteries which correspond with our three successive stages of advancing life, are His Circumcision, His Baptism, His Ascension. Our LORD'S Circumcision exhibited the truth, that the law of purity, of perfect cleansing, was fulfilled in man's nature. His Baptism was the increased endowment of His Humanity with the fullest illuminations of the HOLY GHOST. There was yet again a further development of the glory of His Humanity, when He assumed its spiritual, heavenly condition, in which He ascended to His FATHER'S side, and in the Flesh was seated at His Right Hand. The powers fulfilled in our renewed life are imperfect, but yet true, expressions of these different orders of life thus manifested in the Incarnate GOD, and are the same in kind, however inferior in degree. The changes in Himself are the archetypes of the progressive developments of spiritual life in His Elect.
It is not that one stage of progress ceases, as the other begins; or that you can draw a broad distinctive line between the one and the other; or that when an advanced stage is reached, there is no recurrence to the practice of the one preceding it. Practically they run into each other, and intermingle one with the other; and neither the one nor the other, in this life, is ever perfected. We are at best but imperfect disciples in each stage of amendment; and yet the one is, in its characteristic features, essentially distinct from the other. There is also a progress in the order in which the one succeeds the other, one rising to greater height than another. Thus, necessarily, the purgative way takes the first place. It commences as we first arise to struggle out of sin. The cleansing away of former sins, the striving against evil thoughts, the purifying of unclean affections, the restraining of undisciplined tempers, the mortification of intemperate appetites, the extinction of ill-will, of jealousies, of selfishness, of covetousness--these are samples of the first earnest work which await the penitent in the earlier part of his course. It is the first stage of his life, in union with the mystery of our LORD'S Circumcision. As these inward stragglings subside, and the renewed spirit, conscious of its own powers, strong in its recovered purity, stretching forward to the things which are before, gives itself to the study of virtue, of the graces in their different kinds, the increase of spiritual knowledge and holiness; as e.g., obedience to rule, patience under pain, peacefulness under humiliation, thankfulness under trial, largeness of charity, sweetness of forbearance, the balanced discipline of the will, a life of recollection and heavenly-mindedness, are being formed--the illuminative way is reached, in which the mystery of our LORD'S Baptism is being fulfilled.
But yet beyond these developments of virtue and knowledge there rises the further height, when the soul is set to fulfil all its service in unison with GOD, to bring each thought into obedience to CHRIST, to think as GOD thinks, to work as GOD works, to have the same designs, the same ends, to have His glory so constantly before the mind, so to see Him in everything, so to refer everything to Him, and unite the will so closely to His, that life becomes more and more lost in GOD, one with Him, hidden with CHRIST in Him. It is the mystery of our LORD'S Ascension fulfilled in the union of the life of His elect and His own, as He now liveth with the FATHER, "far above all principality and power, and every name that is named, whether in this world or in that which is to come."
The practical amendment of life needs great definiteness. Definite tests are requisite in order to measure its reality and its power. The two following tests are suggested, as being applicable to every form of life. First, it is not enough that a besetting sin be overcome; it is necessary to a true conversion, that the sin be replaced by its opposite virtue. Moses is an instance of this complete change. His early history marks him as naturally a man of a high impetuous temper. His slaying the Egyptian, and then the charge of his Hebrew brother,--"Intendest thou to kill me as thou killedst the Egyptian?"--prove this. But years of solitary musing and adversity in the wilderness, and revelations of GOD impressing themselves upon his mind, had worked a transformation of character; and Scripture records of him in later life, that he was "the meekest man in all the earth." Not only had the impetuous undisciplined temper been subdued, it had given way to its opposite grace. And yet as a warning to show the strength of the original passion, and the possibility of the return of the long-past evil, unless still watched against, even in a state of grace, his fall, which cost him the bitter loss of the sight of the land of promise, was a relapse into this one sin of earlier days, when, vexed and weary with the provocations of a complaining people, "he spake unadvisedly with his lips." But this was the one only mote upon the otherwise bright shining of his steadfast grace. It is a remarkable fact, that as the leading Prophet of the Old Covenant exhibited this power of transforming grace, as a pattern to those who should come after, so the chief Apostle of the New Covenant exhibited a similar instance, and in his case without any known fall to mar its perfectness. S. Peter was in early life signally marked by heedless-ness. Never, perhaps, was there a man more rashly vaunting, or more impulsively self-reliant; and he fell through these faults. Yet if we may judge of his after-character by the tone and precepts which specially distinguish his writings, no one of the Apostles exhibited more prominently the graces of watchfulness, lowliness, and sobriety. These graces, as a general tone, pervade his Epistles, and are expressed in frequent injunctions.
We may regard it therefore as a certain test of true repentance, that in proportion as any marked fault of early life, any one cause of our many falls, becomes not only weakened, but replaced by its opposite--in proportion as where we were weak, we are becoming strong, where we are, however slowly and inadequately, gaining on the defeated foe by the advancing steps of a triumphant Power from above,--there the signs of a true conversion are manifest. The strong one is not only expelled from his fortress, it is being taken possession of by One yet stronger.
The second test, also universally applicable, is the grace of humility. When the natural tendencies of self-assertion and self-glorifying, the pride of life, are yielding to the growth of lowliness and simplicity, a true conversion is being worked. It is to be carefully noted, that the tendency to self-aggrandisement, the wish "to be as gods," was developed within the soul of man--how arising we know not--even before the state of supernatural righteousness, the Paradisaical condition of man's nature, was lost. Pride was a cause, not a consequence, of the Fall. It is, therefore specially inherent and rooted in us; unlike other sins, such as lust and untruthfulness, which have grown out of the first sin, not stirred or at work previously to the Fall. The present hold which pride has upon our nature is connected with this fact. As it awoke before the first transgression, so it remains underlying all other impulses of evil, stimulating them, as if it were one's very self. On this account it may have been,--because our life, throughout all our race, has this fundamental evil at work within it,--that our LORD came in a state so marked by lowliness and self-sacrifice. It might seem to have been the one end of His manifestation of Himself--that in every aspect of His life He might teach this law, as a perpetual contradiction to man's primary and most characteristic sin. Scripture dwells upon it as though it were the one lesson which His sacrifice of Himself was intended to enforce. "He died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto Him Who died for them, and rose again." He Himself selects it as the special distinguishing grace which was to be His true characteristic likeness. When He bids us copy Him, it is in this particular form of life; "Learn of Me, for I am meek and lowly of heart." We cannot, therefore, but regard this grace as an essential, universal test of an amended life. Our life is amended just in proportion as we cease to assert self, to put self forward; as we grow in the attainment of the opposite state, self giving way, silently retiring, more and more being hidden even, if possible, from oneself; tire spirit of unceasing sacrifice, which delights to be in itself nothing, unobservedly offering all that one is, or can do, before the Sacred Presence in Which we ever move, the Beginning and Ending of our life.
But the onward advance of an amended life ceases not till we have reached even unto the FATHER. To take the full view of amendment of life, our thoughts must rise to the developments, of which the boundless capacities of renewed humanity will be hereafter receptive, which can be attained only within the regions of the Infinite and the Eternal. In the possibilities of the ever increasing advancement of our renewed life in other worlds, lies one of our truest encouragements, when we mourn the slowness and imperfections of our progress in this world. Our greatness is not so much in what we here attain, but in what we may attain hereafter. And so our trust for the present is not so much the actual gain, but our tendency towards a future gain. The possible reach of grace is too great to be compassed by any present rule. The measure of the stature of CHRIST is too vast, to suppose that any present attainment can be adequate to the conception realized. All is now "in part." "Now we know in part, and we prophesy in part." Only "when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away." Even S. Paul says of himself; "Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect, but I follow after." "I count not myself to have apprehended; but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of GOD in CHRIST JESUS." When we would try ourselves, even though it be the latest experience of the departing saint, it is rather as to what we tend to be, than what we are, that we judge ourselves. We judge of the future by the tendencies of the present. The upward growth will be according to the bent of the lower stem. We cannot see GOD, but we can see what tends towards GOD. The mystical ladder's ascending steps are within our gaze. The Form of the Everlasting, Who standeth above, is shrouded in the inscrutable darkness.
We are at best like tropical plants struggling beneath ungenial skies with stunted growth, which can bear no fruit, nor expand into flower, but which if transplanted into the regions of the sun would develop into richest foliage and abundant produce. The poor deformed races of men who creep along the frozen seas, if removed to the sunny south, rise to a nobler stature and developed powers. This same law nourishes Christian hope, through the belief, that the faint feeble beginnings of this season of struggles and fears, while the corruptible body weigheth down the soul, far off from GOD, when transferred to more genial skies, shall, if not here, yet there, expand into their predestined fulness, and all whose eyes shall then behold GOD, shall grow into the perfect likeness of GOD, in the power of the vision of GOD. "We shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is."
We are saved more by hope, than by actual attainment; more by dispositions forming, by tastes cherished, by movements onward, than by conquests completely gained, or ends completely compassed. We measure the knots, and mark the direction of our voyage; we are not at the haven where we would be. We judge by the yearnings still breathing, the efforts still being made, to reach our FATHER'S home, not restless, or anxious overmuch to know the exact distance still intervening. We judge by the signs that we are still upon our way, rather than the actual sight of our long-sought end. You mourn that you have not attained the graces you seek; you are ashamed to speak of the littleness of your amendment. Be it so. But can you feel assured, that the character which is being formed in you is true to your vocation; that the increases of grace are growing as surely as the concentric rings which on the trunk of the oak show the annual increase of its bulk; that the character being formed in you is such as would, in the more congenial atmosphere of your heavenly FATHER'S home, surely assume the very form and likeness of CHRIST, even as the risen body shall be "fashioned after His glorious body?" Then surely all is well.
But we must ever bear in mind that we are on our probation. The Scriptures reveal one primary law of the mystery of life, which serves to reconcile many conflicting phenomena of our present state, when it declares that "whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." The history of Providence is the reconciling together of mercy and truth; that as now we are partakers of mercy, forbearing us, forgiving us, obliterating the past, renewing the future, so truth will at last fulfil its own demands, and only "he that is righteous shall be righteous still, and he that is holy shall be holy still;" while "he that is unjust shall be unjust still," and "he that is filthy shall be filthy still." Though in our FATHER'S house there are many mansions, and the SON is gone to prepare a place for us; yet "not anything can enter there that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie; but only they which are written in the Lamb's Book of Life." The highest joy reserved for the creature in heaven, the joy of our LORD, is not the joy of those who have never known sin. It has been beautifully said, that the pearls on the gates of Paradise are the tears of penitents. [I am indebted for this thought to Dr. Neale.] The entrance into the heavenly city is through penitential sorrows turned into eternal joys. And surely the joy of our LORD, the joy over which angels rejoice, is the mingled strain of hearts which, as they are lost in GOD, still bear the memory of how great has been the forgiveness of how great sins, to whom heaven is all the more precious because of the hell out of which they have been raised, who are penetrated with the consciousness of undeserved compassion, while being filled with rapture at the bliss into which they are translated, in whom the consciousness of forgiving love, and of grace perfected in Divine beauty, melt into one fulness of ecstasy. It is the joy in which the sense of sorrow and fear past enhances the sense of present ensured endless beatitude: the joy of rest after toil; of certain acceptance after long anxieties. It is the joy of the redeemed, who sing the new song, saying, "Thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to GOD by Thy Blood, out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation;" of those who "have come out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb;"" and who therefore are "before the throne of GOD, and serve Him day and night in His temple: and He that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them."