Preached in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford, on the First Friday in Lent, February 28, 1868.
And if any man hear My words, and believe not, I judge him not: for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. He that rejecteth Me, and receiveth not My words, hath one that judgeth him: the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day.
THESE words form part of that last appeal to the Jewish people with which, according to St. John's account, our Lord's public ministry was closed. The raising of Lazarus and the entry into Jerusalem had precipitated that final condition of popular feeling towards Jesus which enabled the Sanhedrin to bring about His condemnation and death. On the one hand, "although Jesus had done so many miracles among them, yet the mass of the people did not believe in Him." On the other, "among the chief rulers many believed on Him, but because of the Pharisees they did not confess Him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue." To this little coterie of timid half-believers our Lord observes that to believe on Him is to believe on the Father, that to see Him is to see the Father; thus implying that, to refuse to honour and acknowledge Him was to dishonour and to disown the Father. To the larger unbelieving public, He proclaims the general law of responsibility for contact with truth. "If any man hear My words and believe not, I judge him not. . . . He that rejecteth Me, and receiveth not My words, hath one that judgeth him: the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day."
Remark the distinction which our Lord seemingly draws between Himself and the word which He speaks to men. Our Lord is the world's Saviour; yet His message is, cannot but be, its judge. It is not that our Lord contradicts Himself; He will really "come in His glory and all His holy Angels with Him, and then shall He sit upon the throne of His glory, and before Him shall be gathered all nations, and He will separate them one from the other, as a shepherd divideth the sheep from the goats." He is not denying that "the Father hath given all judgment unto the Son;" but He is explaining the principle upon which He will administer this judgment. An Oriental despot condemns or absolves according to personal tastes, caprices, preferences, dislikes; he administers not a law, but his own personal will. An English judge condemns or absolves in obedience to the law of the land whose servant he is: his duty is limited to ascertaining its real sense, and whether a particular case does or does not fall under its sentence. Now our Lord teaches the Jews that they will be judged hereafter, not as they might suppose by personal caprice, but by the fiat of inexorable law. It is true that in our Lord's case there is really no room for the distinction between the administration of a law and the giving effect to a personal will, since with Him the two absolutely coincide. His personal Will is the law of eternal truth and right. But He presents the subject to us in this way in order to enlighten and deepen our sense of responsibility. The truth which He has proclaimed among men is to be their real judge; it will sit upon the great white throne; it will be robed in the features, and proclaimed by the lips, of Christ; it will be the measure of men's bliss or the measure of their failure; it will utter the tremendous words, "Come, ye blessed of My Father," "Depart, ye cursed, into everlasting fire."
The responsibility which is incurred by contact with truth is a subject which runs through the whole of Holy Scripture. Of some books of the Bible it forms the ground-thought, the leading idea. Thus the main object of the Book of Deuteronomy, which we are reading just now in the daily lessons, is to represent as vividly and as forcibly as might be to the mind of Israel that vast responsibility which devolved upon it as the peculiar and selected people, to whose custody God had committed the priceless treasure of the Sinaitic revelation. Thus the main practical object of the Epistle to the Hebrews is to remind a Christian Church which was tempted to lapse into Judaism of the moral impossibilities of renewing the once enlightened who had fallen away, of the danger of practically counting the Blood of the covenant wherewith Christians are sanctified an unholy thing, and of thus doing despite to the Spirit of Grace, of the hopelessness of escape "if we neglect so great salvation." And man's responsibility for the receipt of truth is the burden directly or indirectly of most of our Lord's recorded teaching. It is a lesson conveyed by many of His parables, as by the Sower, the Talents, the Treasure hid in the field, the wishes of the lost Dives on behalf of his five brethren. It is the burden of His denunciation of the Pharisees; they knew a higher truth than they acted upon. It is to guide Apostles in their ministry, bidding them shake off the dust from their feet against cities that will not receive them, warning them not to cast pearls before swine. It determines the woe pronounced against Capernaum, against Chorazin and Bethsaida; Tyre and Sidon, pagan as they were, would certainly have repented had they witnessed the works which were wrought in Galilee. It furnishes the motive pleaded by Jesus in the prayer which He uttered on behalf of all who took part in His death: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do."
That a revelation of truth hidden from our natural faculties has been given by God is the belief of Christendom. It is impossible to say that God could not give, or that man could not receive such a revelation. That God would give it, is a presumption which naturally occurs to those who believe Him to be a Moral Being, and who have considered at all seriously the real wants of man. That He has given it is proved, partly by the varied correspondence of the Christian faith to the deepest wants of our nature, partly by such facts as miracles and unfulfilled prophecy, which are at once historically certain and strictly supernatural. And what this final revelation is, is no secret reserved for the privileged few; its deepest verities are on the lips of every child who can say the Creed, or who can read the New Testament.
Now any one who looks attentively at what is being said and done around us, will see that here in England the minds of men are disposed towards Revelation in three different ways. "We leave out of account the multitudes of our great cities who have, alas! no mental relations towards it, since they are practically heathen. But of those who are not ignorant that a Revelation is asserted to have been intrusted to the Church of Christ, some are indifferent to the subject; others are distinctly hostile to its claim to be a real Revelation; while others are, with whatever degree of sincerity, believers. All the various shades of human feeling which bear upon religion fall under one of these main divisions. All the remarks which we hear in conversation, all the disquisitions that we read in newspapers, and reviews, and folios, all the secret thoughts of men that circle in the busy hive of souls around us, are ultimately reducible to one of these three relations--indifference, hostility, acceptance or submission. Let us consider briefly what aspects of human responsibility are suggested by each variety.
We are confronted first of all by a great mass of indifference to religious truth. By indifference I do not mean all listlessness on the subject of religion. There is indifference and there is indifference; there is the indifference of ignorance and the indifference of knowledge. Or rather the listlessness of ignorance ought not to be branded as properly indifference. When a man has never been brought into contact with truth, he has no relations towards it, and therefore not the specific relation of indifference. The callousness or contemptuousness which the heathen or the very ignorant may exhibit on spiritual subjects, is far less criminal than the indifference of Christendom, if indeed it be properly a crime at all; for it has never had the advantages which are apparently required in order to produce genuine indifference. A thick tradition of darkness, the growth of generations of vice and error, has settled down upon the multitudes whose case I am considering; nature and conscience have scarcely been permitted even for one moment to whisper their lessons and their protests; the nascent aspirations of the soul have been appropriated to the worship of some odious fetich, or have been at once killed back to the ordinary level of a life of consistent animalism. Let us leave these and such as these in the hands of the All-Merciful, not without a prayer that His Name may be better known upon the earth, not without a pang of self-reproach at the little which we have done for that Name and for our fellow-creatures. Whatever be the seriousness and anxieties of their case, at least they have not enjoyed a position which has enabled them really to cultivate indifference to the beauty and to the claims of revealed truth.
Genuine indifference is like those creatures which are only brought to light by the presence of a costly material which they foul and spoil. It requires a great opportunity, nothing less than a Divine Revelation. It is a famous specimen of the corruptio optimi. It corresponds in spiritual things to the darker enormities of advanced material civilisations; which could never have taken place, nay, could not have been devised, in primitive conditions of society. It is the growth of Christian climes, the hideous parasite which fastens itself upon generations which inherit the faith and love of the Christian centuries. It is found, in monstrous exuberance, among nations and in families which are eminently Christian. It must, forsooth, first stand in the very presence of Christ, that it may rise to the full proportions of its high-handed independence both of His Person and His Work. "If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin: but now they have no cloke for their sin."
Indifference is sometimes deliberate, sometimes not. Thus there is the indifference of some public men and journalists, who consider religion an admirable supplement to the police, as being well calculated to reconcile the poor to their lot in life, and to furnish them with motives for sober living, but who would not think of wasting time upon the inquiry whether religion affects themselves. Another form of indifference is that which assumes in an off-hand style that no one of the positive religions of the world is even likely to be true. It therefore advises all men, Moslems, Pagans, or Christians, to follow the religions in which they have been born, not as being true, but as being in their way, and containing perhaps a certain measure of relative as distinct from absolute truth. Then there is a very common form of indifference, which, admitting the Christian Revelation in general terms, professes to decide that while this or that doctrine is essential and fundamental, a third and fourth, resting upon precisely the same authority, is a matter of no consequence whatever. All of these kinds of indifference are in reality varieties of one great disease--a failure to see what is really due to the proved or even to the asserted presence and claims of a Revelation from God.
Indifference to Revelation as a whole is too common to be treated as extraordinary. Yet in itself it is sufficiently surprising. Think what is man's position in this world. At best he has a few short years of life--threescore and ten. If man were here an eternally existent being; if he had perfect command of all the forces around him; if his gold or his chemistry could ensure for him a perpetual youth,---indifference to the revelation of a state of life beyond his sight would be less surprising. But, left to himself, man stands face to face with one great certainty, surrounded by uncertainties of the most anxious description. The one certainty is death: "It is appointed unto all men once to die." Face to face with death, man preserves his instinct, his sense of immortality; but to what will that immortality introduce him? Left to himself, man's future is darkness, a darkness which is only broken by the lurid lights of his terrified imagination. This being the case, Revelation presents herself as unveiling the unknown future, in the name and with the authority of God. She proclaims that the Author of the universe has really broken its silence; that His Mind is expressed in human words; that it is possible to ascertain exactly the meaning of what He has said; that beyond death there is the judgment, and heaven and hell; and that on this side of death there is the conflict with sin, and the Cross of Christ, and the light and strength of the Spirit, and the resources of prayer, and the power of the Sacraments. Yet, in presence of this announcement, men are indifferent. They are passing through life; they are passing from youth to manhood, and from manhood to old age; they rise daily betimes in the morning, and they late take rest, and eat the bread of carefulness; they are intelligent, enterprising, industrious, and, as regards a vast variety of questions which are bounded by the horizon of time, they are thoughtful. Yet, standing face to face with the great proclamation of God's Life and Love which is made by Christendom, "they will not be learned nor understand, but walk on still in darkness." It is the mystery of a moral paralysis: "The heart of this people is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes have they closed; lest they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should be converted, and I should heal them."
How much of the thought, how much of the writing, how much of the conversation of our day, are but disguised echoes of the perpetual colloquy between the claims of Revelation and the spirit of indifference? Let us listen to the accents of that never-ceasing dialogue, with which all are more or less familiar, in which indifference, fatigued by the presence of an importunate visitor, endeavours to silence her by a feint of argument and remonstrance.
Revelation begins with God. "There is one Being," she says, "Who is unlike all else; Who is above all else; Who is the Author of their existence to all besides Himself; Who upholds all around Him in the life which He has given them; Who can neither be enriched nor impoverished; Who is alone perfectly holy, adorable, blessed; Who is eternal Self-existence, eternal Thought, eternal Love, Three yet One, the Almighty, All- wise, All-loving God." And indifference rejoins: "That is a large and intricate speculation; the problems which it raises are very numerous; they have no sufficiently practical interest for me."
Revelation continues: "This glorious Being is the tender and loving Father of men; He has created man-kind in a special sense for Himself. Man is so fashioned that he can only find the true rest and satisfaction of his being in God. This is the real secret of human destiny; this is the true key to, and interpretation of, all human yearnings and aspirations. And this gracious God is within reach of His creatures: to know Him, to love Him, to commune with Him, is the highest, nay, it is the true privilege of intelligent life." And indifference languidly observes: "That is a mystical view of existence; it is rather overstrained; it is fanciful: I do not care to engage in a tissue of reveries."
Revelation rejoins: "Unless man reaches this higher life, it were better not to have lived at all. Apart from union with the Blessed God, life is a hideous nightmare. And left to himself, man cannot reach, that union. Man is fallen; he has been bruised and wounded; he has lapsed into self-caused misery and ruin. Yet the eternal Love broods over the creature even in its degradation; and the Divine and Everlasting Son has laid aside His glory; He has been born as an Infant; He has died upon the Cross. His precious Blood still avails to wipe out all the foulest impurities; His life-giving grace still has power to restore His servants to the image of the Holy One." And indifference mutters: "Is not that notion of the fall and of sin rather morbid; and would not a more moderate view of human shortcomings be able to dispense with the offering of so costly an atonement?"
Revelation continues: "At least, O man, thou must die; and thou carriest within thyself the secret of thy immortality. Thou canst not kill out every hope, every fear within thee, that tells of a future to which I have the key. Thou canst not utterly give the lie to that implanted sense of right and wrong, which points to a law, to a lawgiver, and to a throne of judgment. At least consider the great Hereafter--that Hereafter which I proclaim to be necessarily one endless wail of agony or one rapture of endless bliss." And indifference smiles its stupid or its cynical smile. ' There would be something in your appeal," it says, "if you Christians were all agreed; but while you are engaged in an endless series of controversies among yourselves, sensible people may be content to keep their judgments in suspense, and to listen to your theories of the future without disquietude."
Such is indifference in the presence of Revelation. It would seem almost earnest as it brandishes its appeal to the divisions of Christendom, in the face of the Love of God, speaking to it in the Church and from the Bible. Yet it forgets that, however mournful and sinful these divisions are, they are as far as possible removed from justifying indifference. They are so many affirmations, however mistaken in their particular forms, of one supreme truth--the paramount importance of religion. However much Christians may differ among themselves, they are at least all agreed as to the preliminary fact that a Revelation from God does exist, and that to know as much about it as possible is a matter of vital necessity for man. In truth, the objections of indifference are not the language of men in earnest, but of men who are languidly fencing against the importunities of an unwelcome subject. They are like the pleas which almost benumbed travellers are said sometimes to have urged in favour of lying down in the snow to sleep and to die, when some friend has insisted upon the certain danger, and has entreated them at any cost to keep moving on. To indifference, the constant proclamation by the Church of Christ of the good news revealed from heaven, is at best but as an antiquated poetry, or as "the sound of one that has a pleasant voice and can play well upon an instrument." Despite the rapid onward rush of time, despite the voices of love and warning and menace that sound around it, indifference sits in utter unconcern, as if balancing itself in sport over the brink of eternity, and wondering in a languid way what might possibly come of it, if perchance it should lose its footing.
Depend upon it, my brethren, if time, and money, and speech, and thought, and position, and influence, are things for which a moral being like man must give account, that account must be given more fully, more searchingly for contact with the gift of gifts--the revealed truth of God. Most of us, indeed, have been cradled in it, more or less nursed and fed by it, from our youth up. But even to have met truth on our path in life once, once only, is to have entered on a new set of moral circumstances. It is to have passed from the condition of Tyre and Sidon to the condition of Chorazin and Bethsaida. It is to have ceased to be in the sight of Eternal Justice what we were, and to have become something that we were not. To have met truth is to have met one who cannot henceforth desert us for ever if she would, and who, if we suffer her not to aid and cheer us like the strong and tender friend that she is, will nevertheless not altogether leave us, even though she be driven for the present from our sight with quiet contempt and scorn, or with open violence and outrage. It is to have met one towards whom we may, alas! come to feel as towards a personal enemy, who dogs our steps through life, unveiling the well-known features at each crisis of difficulty and of sorrow, and who rises before us at the last with the stern visage and accents of an unwelcome phantom, to reproach us for not being what we might have been, to judge us for being what we are. For truth will sit in judgment, not simply on the throne of the universe, but on a private tribunal erected by conscience in the sanctuary of each single soul. If Christ were not coming visibly to judge us from the clouds of heaven, conscience would invest His spoken word with a judicial power; conscience would, robe His message of loving-kindness and mercy in the habiliments of justice; conscience would wring from her reluctant Judge the irreversible sentence, the sentence of the spoken word, upon those who have heard it, when the day of attention, and acceptance, and obedience has passed away.
Awake, then, thou that sleepest the sleep of indifference: arise! Indifference is a levity against which the solemnities of life and death utter their perpetual protest. Thou must look Revelation in the face; thou must give heed to a voice which speaks in the name of the Author of thy being; thou canst not for ever ignore the one subject which should ever have the deepest interest for thinking men; thou must in the name of reason and prudence, no less than in that of natural piety, banish the spirit of indifference with a "Get thee behind me, Satan."
When a man ceases to be indifferent on the subject of Revelation, it is possible enough that he may become hostile. And in one sense hostility is better than indifference. It has more moral nerve; it is, in its way, earnest; and it thus promises better for the future. For it implies at least interest in, and attention directed towards, its object. It may be much more vexatious and bitter than indifference in its dealings with Christians, yet withal nearer to the Kingdom of Heaven. Saul of Tarsus, when breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, was already on the eve of his Conversion.
And here let me at once say what is always unpopular, but is nevertheless true, that in a Christian country hostility to Revelation is more frequently than not of moral origin, albeit disguised in an intellectual dress. By this I do not mean that all who reject Christianity have committed enormous crimes, or that all who accept it are high-minded and pure. But if a man is living in one known sin, to which he clings, and which Christianity tells him will shut him out from God's presence hereafter, he has a powerful motive for wishing the Gospel to be untrue. The will has a subtle but strong purchase over the understanding in matters of belief: "Every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light," not because the light has less to be said for it than darkness, "but lest his deeds should be reproved." Accordingly, as a matter of fact, "This is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men love darkness rather than light"--again, I say, not because darkness is intellectually more respectable than light, but--"because their deeds are evil." This does not merely apply to men who are in the habit of committing, and who love to commit, great offences which are condemned by the conventional standard of society. The principle is of much wider application; it applies to states of mind which we condone habitually in ourselves and others, and which, nevertheless, have a most powerful share in determining our attitude towards Revelation.
(a.) Consider, for instance, the general state of mind which is produced by affluent circumstances in the middle and upper classes of English society, at least during the early and middle years of life, while health is still unimpaired, and friends have not yet begun their long procession to the tomb. This state of mind is one of sincere satisfaction with this world just as it is; with its masses of poverty and suffering at the base of the social pyramid; and with a well-to-do class at the top, where life is curtained and pillowed in all the products of a high material civilisation. This satisfaction is not thankfulness to God expressing itself in active forms of charity; it is the tranquil sense of material comfort which would on no account be disturbed, either by the thought of the present care of others, or by the prospect of its own future unsettlement and collapse.
Now to such a state of mind the eternal future is not a welcome thought. Hell, of course, is out of the question; and fresh from our drawing-rooms, and our theatres, and, it may be, our casinos, we read our Histories of Civilisation, or our Histories of Rationalism in Europe, with sympathy and admiration, and pronounce hell a phantom which belongs to barbarous ages when men loved torture for its own sake, and were burnt for witchcraft. Even heaven is not so certainly welcome, since the ascertained accounts of heaven do not tally accurately with our conceptions of a really enjoyable, that is to say, a materialised existence. That repose in perpetual adoration of the Source of Light and Love seems tame and dull beside our round of excitements stimulated by and lavished upon created things; and in our secret hearts we prefer our present well-to-do life of comfort to the Paradise of the Bible. Thus wealth clogs all the finer spiritual sensibilities of the soul, and you see men. as the Psalmist says, whose hearts are "as fat as brawn," literally so cased and padded in the things of this life as to have lost altogether their sense of the supernatural.
It was said by a great economist, Richard Cobden, of whom his countrymen, and all Christians, must ever speak with respect, whether or not they agree with his political opinions: "Sir, when I go to church, there is one prayer which I say with my whole soul, 'In all time of our wealth, good Lord, deliver us!'" Ay! we have much reason to pray that prayer. "Deliver us from the quiet selfishness, deliver us from the grosser temptations, but deliver us, above all, from the blinding, numbing, paralysing power of easy circumstances, which make death and the great realities beyond it an unwelcome thought." If a man would deal fairly with revealed truth, he must at least enfranchise his will from slavery to the material. How solemnly does the voice of the great Apostle break in upon the tenor of our easy, comfortable existence: "This I say, brethren, the time is short: it remaineth that both they that have wives be as though they had none; and they that weep as though they wept not; and they that rejoice as though they rejoiced not; and they that buy as though they possessed not; and they that use this world as not abusing it; for the fashion of this world passeth away."
(b.) A second mental habit which makes men hostile to Revelation is personal vanity. There is the vanity which refuses that original act of submission to God, without which faith cannot exist. And there is the commoner form of vanity, which turns Revelation into conversational capital. A man belongs, for instance, to a family in which the names of God and Christ have been honoured by the piety of generations, and are still honoured by his nearest relatives. How easy to make a reputation for independent thought! A few smart sayings about the Pentateuch gathered from the last sceptical writer, a few witticisms at the expense of the holy men who are held up to our reverence in the Bible, a few imposing, perhaps not very solid, generalisations about the laws by which religions are said to grow into shape and to attain a world-wide authority,--these constitute the stock-in-trade of the domestic Celsus or Porphyry of the nineteenth century. In the absence of any sufficient check, they go a great way to produce the impression which he desires to create--the impression that he is an independent thinker upon religious questions, and that his thought is upon the whole adverse to Revelation. It may be that when he begins to talk he does not exactly mean all that he says; but he talks himself into unbelief by a process which, alas! is only too easy. He is obliged to say strong things in order to create the desired impression about his independence, and in time he gets to believe the strong things which he says; they are indented upon his mind by the mere force and vehemence of constant repetition. Thus his hostility to Revelation is, in truth, not of intellectual so much as of moral origin; he has done truth an injustice, and he gets unconsciously to dislike what he has wronged. And his real fault has been a defective sense of responsibility. He has to feel that this talk on solemn subjects is a matter for which he will have to answer; that he will have to answer for talking in such a sense at all, and especially for talking, as is most probably the case, on the strength of very imperfect information.
(g.) Then, again, there is sometimes the want of sufficient firmness and courage, especially in a place like this. Some men drift into a state of mind hostile to, or at any rate prejudiced against, religious truth, simply under the pressure of self-confident and brilliant declamation. They hear first one doctrine argued down, as they think completely, and then another. They are, perhaps, victims of the fallacy of many questions. They are thus beaten back from point to point, and they lose their faith by a piecemeal process. And it is, of course, much easier, as Hooker long ago remarked, to attack truth than to defend truth. A few sharp and incisive epigrams, which make a lodgment for themselves in the memory, are easily uttered--epigrams against orthodoxy in general, epigrams against the power of the Sacraments, epigrams against the efficacy of prayer, epigrams against the work of the Holy Spirit and the atoning virtue of Christ's Death, epigrams against the authority of Scripture, epigrams against the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, epigrams against the existence of God. Nothing is easier of production than sayings of this kind, and they leave a sting even when they do not represent an argument. And those who hear them are distinctly responsible for making head, if I may so speak, against a pressure which has no real right to influence conviction. It is especially important, in these days, that those who would assail our faith in detail, should be forced to say how much of positive truth they themselves admit as certain. If they admit nothing, they plainly are not in a position to enter upon the question at all. If they admit only a few elemental truths, they admit enough to enable you to put them on the defensive. For so strict and close is the interconnection of truth, with truth, that their scant admissions may easily furnish the premisses of the truths which their epigrams would condemn. And those who can do so, in a firm yet humble spirit, are responsible for at least making good their position against these fugitive assailants.
If, then, a man is careful to endeavour by God's help to clear out of his way the moral difficulties which impede belief in our Lord and His Gospel, he will find that the purely intellectual ones are much more easily disposed of. Thus a perfectly humble man will be saved from making many mental mistakes. He will not think of assuming that there must be no difficulties in God's revelation of Himself to His creature; that God, if He is seen at all by the soul, must be seen all round; that there must be no clouds and darkness round about Him. He will not make his own thoughts about, and feelings towards, truth the measure of truth itself. He will remember that Revelation rests upon the authority of God, and is independent of the thoughts of men about it, even though it was at first given through human minds. He will feel in modern language that Revelation is objectively true, whether he realises it subjectively or not. One great cause of hostility to Revelation is that the mental temper of a large number of persons in our day is eminently and exclusively subjective. Each man makes his own thought the measure of all things. Each admits truth only so far as truth is in harmony with his personal idiosyncrasies. Truth is only to be true upon the condition that it is felt. Christ may be present in His Sacrament, if He is felt to be present; not else. Scripture may be inspired, if you can feel the glow of its inspiration; not else. The Holy Spirit may sanctify, if you can measure and map out the exact track of His influence; not else. Jesus Christ may be Divine, if, as you survey His human character, you can feel His Divine majesty; not else. God may be what you desire Him to be; He may be Benevolence without justice, Wisdom or Power without liberty of action, a Providence dealing with general laws, yet not a Providence taking account of each hair of the head and of each sparrow that falls to the ground. The subjective spirit indeed does not receive God as He has revealed Himself. It remodels Him; it makes its own god. You only know what it means by God when you have examined the particular mind which names Him. The subjective temper accepts this attribute and rejects that; it admires this dispensation, and it is dissatisfied with that; it can approve of one doctrine, but it takes exception against another. It is checked by no sense of impropriety or grotesqueness; it is hampered by no suspicion that it is perpetually engaged in a work to which it is necessarily unequal. It is in truth dealing all along with its own human impressions, not with Divine realities; and it talks, appropriately enough, not about religious truth but about religious views. It goes on its way, offering its kaleidoscope of over-changing views as a substitute for that glorious creed which was once for all delivered to the saints; and it ends--in another European country it may be said wellnigh to have ended--in that deep pit of materialism, where the belief in invisible truth is killed out altogether.
Now this habit of mind must disappear when a man has realised the moral bearings of his own place in the universe. The faith is easy of acceptance when man believes that God is the Centre of the intellectual universe, and that he himself is but an atom, moving in an infinitely distant orbit around the Sun which lightens and attracts it. The faith is difficult when self is regarded in good faith as the sun and centre of all things; while God, or rather a nebulous view about God, along with views and theories many about things and persons divine and human, move around this central self. Such a habit of mind is not an intellectual curiosity so much as a moral fault; it disappears when the moral atmosphere has been purified by the quickened sense of responsibility. I do not say that no intellectual difficulties will remain when moral errors have been abandoned--far from it. Difficulties are only what we might expect in a religion which, like Christianity, mounts to the very throne of God, and embraces in its sacred writings the earliest annals of man, and penetrates into all the departments of human life and interest. But these difficulties, if not explained by patient study, will be reasonably set aside when due weight is allowed to the immense presumptions in favour of a Revelation, and to the actual evidence that one has been given. We can believe, if we are not predisposed morally against belief. This is one reason why faith is made so much of in the New Testament; it is a test of our moral fidelity to natural light. And for nothing are we more responsible than for the duty of preparing the way of the Lord in the soul by making a clean sweep of all those dispositions which indispose us to receive Him.
The third relation in which men stand toward revealed truth is that of acceptance and submission. Many of yourselves, my brethren, have by God's grace "embraced from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered unto you." But does your responsibility end here--with the mere act of acceptance? Does it not rather assume proportions of the gravest and most momentous kind? Surely, unless the talent of truth may lie safely idle; surely, unless the warnings of Revelation itself are to be a dead letter; it is certain that those who have received it are responsible for at least three distinct forms of effort with regard to it.
(a.) We are responsible, first of all, for thinking much about it.
It is not unnecessary to say this. Some Christians hold the faith in a very superficial way, with the very tips of their fingers--as if it were a matter of phrase and form rather than of spirit and life. They receive it indeed as a precious possession, and then they put it aside, very respectfully, high up on a shelf in their minds. Now and then they take it down, once a week, just to see that it is there; now and then some vagrant bandit, in the mere wantonness of destructive enterprise, tries to take it from them, and they defend it at least with obstinate courage. But they treat it rather as if it were a precious curiosity than as a loved and revered friend. And therefore when they talk about it, they use a few set phrases which they have learned up, and beyond the precincts of which they do not venture. Of the truth which these phrases guard they have no real living hold: they do not see with their mental eye its strength or its beauty, or the interdependence of its several parts, the necessity of each portion to the whole, the vital force which runs through it, and which carries with it the assurance of a final and world-wide victory. They are not in any sense at home with it; and the consequence is, that when unbelievers or half-believers hear these Christians talk about religion, they get an impression that Christians do little else than manipulate a set of phrases which they do not understand, and that "orthodoxy" is a matter which belongs rather to propriety of expression than to energetic spiritual life.
One reason, brethren, is that we are not sufficiently alive to our responsibilities to truth. For instance, as a generation we are not earnest students of Scripture; few of us have that keen interest in it which was universal in the ancient Church, when its several books could only be procured in manuscript and with some considerable difficulty. We have such abundant opportunities of studying it that we might almost seem to despise them; just as those who live in Oxford often neglect to see chapels and libraries which strangers from the antipodes study with the keenest interest; just as the wealthy will often profess themselves weary of the very sight of luxuries which are the envy of the poor. But when at the judgment-seat of Christ we stand face to face with the generations to whom a manuscript of Scripture was a possession infinitely more precious than the masterpiece of a great painter would be to ourselves, and who felt that no amount of time and labour was misspent in the effort to understand it; nay, when we stand face to face with the millions who in this country earn their daily bread by hard toil, and it may be sharp suffering, and to many of whom a few fragments of time devoted to the study of the words of Christ appear in the light of a rare and almost priceless luxury;--how shall we answer for the use we have made of our vast and varied opportunities? "The word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day." How truly, how severely, if so it be, that we have not even roused ourselves to ascertain its meaning!
Another reason of our superficial hold on truth is, that we Christians do not meditate. Many men only think of meditation as if it were a dreamy, listless process, unworthy of those who, as men and as Christians, have a serious work to do in life. But meditation is not Tityrus lying at ease under the shade of a wide-spreading beech-tree; it is David, hunted for his life, yet deliberately pausing ever and anon to contemplate and to praise the Divine attributes of Justice and Mercy; it is St. Paul, spending three years as a solitary recluse in the Arabian desert, that he may be nerved with a Divine strength for the conversion of the world and for his martyrdom; it is St. John, an exile and a prisoner for the name and patience of Jesus, reading in the opened heavens the coming history of the Church. Meditation is an intense act of the whole soul moving forth to welcome and to embrace truth; it is intelligence marking out the exact limits and range of truth; it is affection embracing truth for the sake of its fair and matchless beauty; it is will, sternly resolving to express truth in act and life. Meditation to be of real service ought to be just as regular and systematic as prayer; and when this is so, each of the great doctrines of the faith, each of the acts, and sayings, and sufferings of our blessed Lord, each of the means of grace, become to the soul familiar things, and not, most assuredly, despised or thought lightly of, because familiar. Ten minutes or a quarter of an hour of meditation each day is not much for a Christian to give to God; but the man who gives even this, knows by experience at the end of a year that he has thus acquired quite a new grasp and sight of revealed truth. He sees how impossible it is to add to it, how yet more impossible to mutilate it. Between it and all other thought there is in his mind the sharpest line of demarcation. Scripture is no longer a dead letter to him, but a "living creature;" he sees in Scripture, not a mere collection of documents relating to a distant time, to events and to states of mind which have passed away, but the perpetual Voice and Mind of One with Whom his soul holds constant communion, and in Whose light he traces with clear eye the certainty and the symmetry of the faith.
(b.) We are responsible, too, for propagating the faith.
This duty is not a specialty of certain societies, or of missionaries, or of clergymen. It belongs to Christians as Christians. If a Christian believes with the Apostles of Christ that there is "none other Name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved," he cannot, as a humane as well as a sincere man, refrain from making efforts to spread that Name among his fellow-creatures. He will not be daunted either by vulgar denunciations against proselytism, or by the sneers which are so often levelled against the efforts of our missionary societies. Their efforts may be in many ways feeble and unsatisfactory; but the cause which they represent is one as to which no Christian can dare to be indifferent. If his faith be not self-communicative, it is already paralysed, dying or dead. How indeed could it be otherwise than self-communicative? How can a man seriously believe that he has been bought from sin and death by the priceless Blood of the Eternal Son, that he is sanctified and quickened by His Spirit and His Sacraments, that he has access to the Father through a union with the Son, effected by the Spirit,--how can he look forward with tranquil thankfulness to death, and with a good hope, if not without awe, to judgment, and yet not desire to communicate these blessings to his fellow-creatures? An absence of interest in the spiritual state of those around us, or of the heathen, is a certain proof that we ourselves have no vital hold upon the great truths of Redemption. Holding those truths, we owe the communication of them, as opportunity may arise, to others--to servants, to friends, to relations, to the poor, to the heathen, to all who know them not, yet who, like ourselves, have to encounter life and death. Thus we too are "debtors both to the Greeks and to the barbarians, both to the philosophers and to the unwise." We are not indeed to throw Divine pearls before human swine; but the fear of doing this may be reasonably and rightly entertained, while yet it leaves us more opportunities than we can use for making God's way "known upon the earth and His saving health among all nations." Ah! "we believe the faith," it has been said, "when we are willing to die for it." If Christ our Lord, compassionating our weakness, does not ask our blood, at least He has a right to our time, to our money, to our efforts, to our interest, to our prayers.
(g.) Above all, if I may so speak, we are responsible for living the faith.
Who of us that knows himself truly, or that knows even some measure of truth about himself, must not feel keen pain and shame when he reflects on this department of his Christian responsibility? Who of us must not feel that there is some justice (at least some) in the vaunt of the opponents of Christ, that while Christians make profession of a high and unearthly creed, they live very much like everybody else--self-seeking or aimless lives, with no mark of the Cross, no Print of the Nails visible upon them? Nay more, is it so, that while Christ's Name is on our lips, our hearts are given to that which He has for ever condemned, and which, He has told us, must shut men out from His presence for ever? Are we "conformed to this world," or have we been "transformed by the renewing of our minds"? Do we "live after the flesh," or do we "by the Spirit mortify the deeds of the body"? Is our life that of men who have "put off the old man with his deeds, and who have put on the new man, who after God is created in righteousness and true holiness"? Do we "crucify the flesh with the affections and lusts"? Is this systematic crucifixion of our evil inclinations at least as real a business with us as keeping our accounts and making our way in life? Is prayer, and all that bears on it, a matter of interest as keen and enduring as the course of public events, or daily occupations and amusements? Do we consider what it is to live in a lost world as the family and representatives of our crucified Lord? In short, do we in any sense "walk worthy of the vocation wherewith we are called"? Are we "doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving our own selves"?
Brethren, if it is worth our while to be Christians at all, it is worth our while to be Christians in downright earnest. Nothing is gained either in this world or in the next by being a half-Christian, who believes in those fragments of the creed which are not rejected by the irreligious opinion of the day, and who selects for practice certain duties and precepts which do not inconvenience him. In this supreme concern, as in all lesser concerns, it is simple prudence to be thoroughgoing--"to bring every thought into the obedience of Christ"--to "present our bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is our reasonable service." It has been said that if Christians led Christian lives, the world would be converted in spite of itself in the course of a few years. And certainly the most formidable opponents of Christ our Lord are not the arguments and sneers of His intellectual adversaries, nor yet the gigantic sins of those who own no allegiance to Him. His worst foes are they of His own household, who, by their sins and inconsistencies, "crucify to themselves the Son of God afresh, and put Him to an open shame."
"The word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day." It will judge our indifference; it will judge our prejudices and our rejection of light; it will judge our inconsistencies. If we have never been real students of Holy Scripture--if we have never meditated before--let us begin this Lent. Let us set apart a fixed period of time daily for the study of the Mind of God in Holy Scripture. If we have never done anything to spread Christ's Name among our fellow-creatures, let us begin this Lent. If we have never brought our lives into something like harmony with the law and spirit of Jesus Christ, let us begin this Lent. If we have never repented of soul-destroying sins, let us repent this Lent. Let us begin, while yet we may, while the word of Christ, speaking in the Gospel, speaking in the Church, is still our friend and guide. One day that word will judge us; it judges us already even now. Let us think, if not of this present judgment, at least of that last award, and take our parts. Let us think of it as the goal to which hour by hour we are moving onwards, face to face with an ever-accumulating weight of responsibility for known truth; let us think of it as that which may be to us, through our Saviour's mercy, if we will, not the dreaded knell of doom, but the first tidings of the dawn of the eternal morning.