Project Canterbury

Sermons Preached on Special Occasions, 1860-1889

by H. P. Liddon

London: Longmans, Green, and Co. 1897


Preached (before the Officers and Men of the London Rifle Brigade) in St. Paul's Cathedral, on Low Sunday, April 28, 1889.

2 Timothy ii. 3. A good soldier of Jesus Christ.

THE metaphor which the Apostle here chooses to describe the work of a primitive Christian Bishop, cannot but strike us as remarkable. He is writing to Timothy, whom he had appointed to take charge of the Church in Ephesus; and Timothy had a work to do which was in many respects hard and discouraging, while he would appear to have been by nature a man of somewhat soft and easy disposition, disposed rather to shrink from difficulty and danger than to look it in the face, and thus standing in some need of a bracing word of advice and warning such as the Apostle here addresses to him: "Thou therefore endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ."

But that the Apostle should put what he has to say into this precise form is not what we might have anticipated. Himself a servant of the Prince of Peace, and writing to another servant of the Prince of Peace, he might, we may think, have gone somewhere else for his metaphor than to the profession of arms. Was not the Gospel heralded from heaven as peace on earth among men in whom God is well pleased? Did not prophecy speak of Christ's coming as a time when men should beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning-hooks; a time when nation should not lift up sword against nation, neither should they learn war any more? And, however imperfectly this ideal might have been realised in later days, could there be any doubt that the general spirit and drift of Christianity is opposed to war? War, for example, is represented by St. James as the outcome and expression of insurgent and selfish desire. "From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not." This is a picture of the principle of aggressive war; and a Christian's business is, by way of contrast, to study the things that make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another.


How, then, are we to explain this honour which the Apostle puts upon the military profession, when he points to a soldier as embodying, at any rate, some of the qualities which he desires to see in a Ruler of the Church of God?

We cannot say, by way of reply, that the metaphor is so accidental or singular that stress ought not, in fairness, to be laid on it. For there is a great deal more religious language with a military colouring or flavour about it--not merely in the Old Testament but in the New. "Fight the good fight of faith," writes St. Paul to Timothy, "lay hold on eternal life." "Quit you like men," he bids the Corinthians; "quit you like men, be strong." "Your adversary the devil," exclaims St. Peter, "as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: whom resist steadfast in the faith." "So fight I," writes St. Paul to the Corinthians, "not as one that beateth the air;" in other words, "Every blow that I aim at my spiritual adversary tells." Or, to omit other illustrations, what can be more suggestive than that well-known passage in the Epistle to the Ephesians, in which the Apostle, chained as he is while writing to a Roman soldier, connects each portion of his warder's dross and accoutrements with some one of those graces with which a Christian must encounter the powers of evil? "We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; and your feet shod with the preparation of the Gospel of peace; above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God." Thus the girdle, the breastplate, the military sandals, the shield, the helmet, the sword of the Roman legionary, suggest--each of them--to the Apostle a separate Christian grace. He thinks of the Christian as engaged in a warfare no less real than that of the soldier; no less real, although it is a spiritual combat, and waged against invisible adversaries.

And, indeed, the high distinction assigned to soldiers in the Gospels prepares us for this language of the Epistles. We may not, indeed, forget such plain sayings of our Lord as, "If My kingdom were of this world, then would My servants fight; . . . but now is My kingdom not from hence;" or His healing the ear of Malchus, with the warning, "All they that take the sword shall perish by the sword." But there is no mistaking the honour put upon the two heathen soldiers who confessed Him--the one at Capernaum, as the Lord of nature, the other on Calvary, as the Son of God.

The centurion who was stationed, with a small company of men under his command, at Capernaum, was not apparently a convert to Judaism; although, undoubtedly, his intimacy with the Jewish elders and his generosity in building a synagogue imply a strong attraction to God's earlier Revelation. By what steps he had come to think that our Lord could heal his paralysed servant we do not know; but there can be no question as to the thoroughness with which, notwithstanding his pagan antecedents, he owned Jesus Christ as Lord and the Lord of nature. When our Lord offered to visit this centurion's house, in order to work the cure, the officer deprecated it on two grounds: he was not worthy of the honour, and the effort was not necessary. "Lord, I am not worthy that Thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed." If, as an officer, he could command the obedience of his men, Jesus could, no less surely, command that of the powers of nature; and when he had expressed this in a soldier's simple language, which we shall have to notice again presently, he was rewarded by the magnificent eulogy which our Lord addressed to those who followed Him, "Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel."

More signal was the confession of that other centurion, who was in command of the soldiers on Mount Calvary, and of whom we are reminded by the sculpture which now adorns the choir of this Cathedral. Of his antecedents, too, we know nothing: we know nothing of any preparatory struggles towards the light which he may have made before or at the time. But this we do know, that it was not one of the children of Abraham, not one of the religious leaders of Israel; it was not priest, or prophet, or Pharisee, or Scribe, who made the great confession of faith in presence of the Crucified. "Truly this was the Son of God" was the utterance of a rude warrior, whose days had been passed among his heathen comrades in their barrack at the castle of Antonia, amidst drill, and military games, and long, intricate disputes with the quarrelsome Jews who lived hard by in Bezetha, or in the valley between the Temple and Mount Zion, and in much else, it may be, which would have been inevitable in a pagan soldier's life. What an unanticipated, what a signal honour, that such an one, standing at the foot of the Cross, should first repeat the truth which is the very heart of the Creed of Christendom,--that He Who died in shame and pain at the hands of sinners, and for their redemption, is Himself none other than the Son of the Highest!


The relation between the military profession and religion, thus traceable in Scripture, reappears in the history of the Church. If, in her higher moments, the Church has done her best to check or to condemn bloodshed, as when St. Ambrose excommunicated the Roman Emperor Theodosius, at the height of his power, for the slaughter at Thessalonica, she has distinguished between the immediate instruments of bloodshed and the monarchs or governments who were really responsible for it. If, in the first centuries of the faith, Christians were often unwilling to serve in the Roman army, and in some cases preferred martyrdom to doing so, the reason was that such service was then so closely bound up with pagan usages, that to be an obedient soldier was to be a renegade from the Christian faith. [Compare Tertullian, De corona militis, 11, and De idololatria, 19; although he is not always of this opinion, Apol. 37. 42.] When this difficulty no longer presented itself, Christians were ready, like other citizens, to "wear weapons and serve in the wars." So long as warfare is defensive, or devoted not to the aggrandisement of empire, but to maintaining the peace and good order of the world, the Christian Church, while deploring its horrors, cannot but recognise in it at times a terrible necessity. When St. Leo of Rome or Charles Martel set their faces against the destructive inroads of Barbarism, they had behind them all that was best and purest in Christendom; and the rise of the military orders--the Knights of the Temple and of St. John of Jerusalem--marks a yet closer intimacy, the form of which was determined, no doubt, by the ideas of the twelfth century, rather than of our own, between a soldier's career and the profession of religion. We cannot pass that noble home of the law, the Temple, without remembering that it was once tenanted by an order of soldiers, bound by religious obligations, and devoted to the rescue and care of those sacred spots which must always be dear to the heart of Christendom. Until the closing years of the last century it was almost universally assumed that the dreadful charges had really been established on the strength of which the Templars were put to death and their estates were forfeited; and that the suppression of the order, if disfigured by needless cruelty, was substantially an act of justice. Even so late a writer as Dean Milman, although strongly inclining to do so, hesitates altogether to acquit the Templars; [History of Latin Christianity, vol. v. p. 357.] but more recent investigations, especially in Germany, leave no doubt of their innocence. [Cf. Der Untergang des Templer-Ordens mit urkundlichen und kritischen Beitriägen von Dr Konrad Schottmüller. Berlin. 1887.] The order in whose establishment St. Bernard took such pleasure, and whose rules he so largely framed, was a real, and, on the whole, a noble endeavour to combine in one the Christian and the soldier; and perhaps, in the whole history of Christendom, there is no more tragical crime than that by which, in order to gratify the avarice of an unscrupulous king, aided by the authority of a weak and interested pope, the order was abolished. [See his famous Sermo ad Milites Templi.]

In our own day we are familiar with purely missionary organisations, both within and without the Church, which take the name of armies, and would invest the good which they attempt, or achieve, with such appeals to the imagination as are made by describing all their proceedings in military language. This is not the place or the time to discuss their work; but the form which it takes is another and a very recent illustration of the relation which Christians have always felt to exist between the career of a soldier and the life and work of a Christian.


Here, then, let us ask ourselves the question, What are the qualities which are common to a good soldier and a good Christian? The answer will explain and justify the language of the Apostle.

i. The first is that each--the Christian and the soldier--does his work well in the exact degree of his devotion to his commander. The greatest generals have been distinguished by the power of inspiring an unbounded confidence in and attachment to themselves: this is true in different senses, of Alexander, of Hannibal, of Caesar, of Napoleon. Of Hannibal and Napoleon it is especially true: it compensated to the former for his great inferiority in numbers during the long struggle which he carried on, unsupported, against the power of Rome: it was not forfeited by the latter, even when his reckless expenditure of life in his military operations was almost unparalleled. The strength of a general is the attachment of his men; the strength of an army, attachment to their general. Where this exists there is no waste of time and thought in discontented criticism, no hesitation between the receipt of an order and obeying it; nay, even if the commander be mistaken, the confidence which he inspires will often go far, by the enthusiasm which it creates, to cancel the effect of his error. To have unbounded confidence in his leader--to be willing to follow him anywhere at any moment--is practically the first virtue of a soldier.

And is it otherwise with a Christian? What is the deepest secret of the Christian life if it be not an unbounded confidence in the Captain of our salvation, Jesus Christ our Lord? Devotion to His Person, undoubting belief in His Word, readiness to do and to endure whatever He may order--this is to be a practical Christian. One of the earliest professions of this loyalty, by one who, perhaps, had not weighed the full meaning of his words, but who yet expressed the true Christian temper, is, "Master, I will follow Thee whithersoever Thou goest." The Commander-in-Chief of Christians deserves this whole-hearted devotion. For He, our Captain, Himself has grappled with the enemy: He has overcome the world: He has spoiled principalities and powers, making a show of them openly: He has, through death, destroyed him that had the power of death, that is, the devil, and delivered them who, through fear of death, were all their lifetime subject to bondage. For those who believe in Him, it is an obvious duty to trust and follow a Leader Who has Himself borne the brunt of the conflict, and Who, while He gives His orders, extends His generous care and help to the last and weakest straggler in His vast host. Certainly a Christian is a good soldier in the degree in which he is thus mindful of the distinction and of the obligations which attach to wearing the uniform of our Lord Jesus Christ.

2. The second virtue in a soldier is courage. In the conventional language of the world, a soldier is "gallant," just as a lawyer is "learned," and a clergyman is "reverend:" whatever be a man's real character, the title, belongs to him by right of his profession. There are virtues in which a soldier may be wanting without damage to his military reputation. But courage is not one of them. Not to be at his post in the hour of danger, for any reason short of a distinct call of duty, or sheer bodily weakness, has ever meant for a soldier professional ruin: the one matter which must be above suspicion is his character as a brave man. No doubt courage, as a soldier possesses or requires it, is often largely a physical excellence; presupposing a certain nervous organisation in the body, as well as the tenacity and unyieldingness of the will, in face of danger. But, in its higher forms, it is much more than physical, since it involves a complete subjection and sacrifice of the physical instinct of self-preservation to a felt present moral necessity for effort or resistance; and this sublimer aspect of the quality it is which men have honoured as something altogether distinct from the courage of an animal; as a virtue which asserts in man's complex nature the decided superiority of the soul or character. From Thermopylae to Balaclava, history presents us with not a few examples of this high excellence, which almost make us forget the dreadful character of war itself in the spectacle of the moral elevation whereof those who take part in it may sometimes be capable.

Now, courage is scarcely, if at all, less necessary to a good Christian than to a good soldier. Certainly the Christian needs and employs a distinct variety--so to put it--of the virtue. The courage which he mostly needs is moral rather than physical; passive rather than active. But it is not therefore less really courage. He cannot, indeed, without disloyalty to the law of Christ, return evil for evil, or blow for blow; he must let the man who has taken his cloak take his coat also, and turn the other cheek to the assailant who has smitten the one. This may at first sight appear to belong to a moral ideal which has nothing to do with courage; which is, in fact, very poor-spirited. But side by side with the precepts to give way where selfish interests only are at stake are the precepts to resist unflinchingly where principle is concerned,--where anything is in question that touches God's truth or honour. It was observed with surprise in the early days of Christianity that the same men whose meek, unresisting bearing provoked the jests and taunts of their pagan critics, were absolutely fearless when they were summoned to choose between offering a little incense to the statue of the Caesar, or dying by a death of torture. And, indeed, moral courage does not go always hand in hand with physical courage. You may meet with men who would, without a second thought, lead a storming party to the breach, but who quail before the polished ridicule of a club or a drawing-room, even when they have no doubt whatever of the truth or excellence of that which provoked it, and no particular respect for the persons from whom it comes. Courage is, at least, as much needed by the soldier of Jesus Christ as by the soldier of the Queen, if he would vanquish first of all himself and his own passions; and then, in his Master's Name, the world around him.

What is the secret spring of this courage? Not, in the long-run, natural doggedness or pluck; but reliance on a Higher and protecting Power. It was an ancient warrior who exclaimed, "Blessed be the Lord my Strength, Which teacheth my hands to war, and my fingers to fight; my Hope and my Fortress, my Castle, and my Deliverer, my Defender in Whom I trust, Who subdueth my people that is under me." "Though an host of men were laid against me, yet shall not my heart be afraid; and though there rose up war against me, yet will I put my trust in Him."

And if God is the secret of physical, much more is He of moral courage. Moral courage is based on these words of our Lord, "Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do; but fear Him Who, after He hath killed, hath power to cast into hell." It is based, too, on the certainty of God's present help. "Thou therefore, my son," writes St. Paul to Timothy, "be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus." "I can do all things," he assures the Philippians, "through Christ Which strengthened me." And of these Philippians he desires to hear that, "with one mind," they are "striving together for the Faith of the Gospel; and," he adds, "in nothing terrified by your adversaries: which is to them a manifest token of perdition, but to you of salvation, and that of God." Have we not all received this equipment of Divine assistance when we were devoted to Christ in Baptism? Let us ponder the familiar words, "We receive this child into the congregation of Christ's flock, and do sign him with the sign of the Cross,"--why?--"in token that hereafter he shall not be ashamed to confess the Faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under His banner against sin, the world, and the devil; and to continue Christ's faithful soldier and servant unto his life's end." [Public Baptism of Infants.] If the Christian life means anything, it means a life of courage.

3. A third excellence in a soldier is the sense of discipline. Without discipline an army becomes an unmanageable horde, one part of which is as likely as not to turn its destructive energies against another. And nothing strikes the eye of a spectator, as he watches a regiment making its way through one of the great thoroughfares of London, more than the contrast presented by the unvarying, I had almost said the majestic, regularity of its onward movement, and the bewildering varieties of pace, gesture, direction, costume, of the motley crowd of curious civilians who flit sporadically around it. Discipline in an army is not merely the perfection of form, it is a condition of power. Numbers and resources cannot atone for its absence; but it may easily make numbers and other resources powerless. We Englishmen naturally think of the squares at Waterloo; but the lesson is written in large characters in all history.

What discipline meant for that great people whose arms enabled it to impose its laws and language on the ancient world, and to whose work we moderns, whether we know it or not, are in so many ways so largely indebted, we learn from the words of the centurion at Capernaum, whom we have already had before us. When the centurion would profess his faith in our Lord's power over the forces of nature, he naturally bethinks him of the discipline of the Roman legion, with which, from his earliest manhood, he had been familiar. Before his soldier's mind there rises the picture of the legion, with its six tribunes--"chief captains" they are called in our version--commanding it by turns; its subdivision into ten cohorts, each of which was in turn subdivided into three maniples, while these again each contained two centuries; bodies which should have consisted of a hundred men, but which practically sometimes nearly sank to fifty. He himself was in command of one of these centuries there in Capernaum; and his thoughts travelled to the cohort which was always stationed at Jerusalem, and then to the headquarters of the Roman army of occupation at Caesarea. He knew how perfect was the order which still prevailed in the forces that had subdued the world. "I," he exclaimed, "am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say unto this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it." Himself under superior officers, he knew what it was to obey. Having soldiers under him, he knew how his commands were obeyed. He could not doubt, in view of his own experience, that the powers of nature, which were under the orders of Jesus Christ, would obey His word. His habit of mind, accustomed by turns to obedience and to command, and capable of command because accustomed to obey, was already, as Tertullian said of the human soul, naturally Christian.

For discipline is not less a Christian than a military virtue. St. Paul thinks of faith itself as obedience; his great phrase, "the obedience of faith," illuminates his idea of its real character. And the Epistles abound in warnings against any who "walk disorderly, and not after the tradition which ye have received of us." Christians are warned, "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give an account." And the precept is very comprehensive which rules that all things be done "decently and in order."

There is, of course, this difference between the discipline of the Church of Christ and that of the army--that the former requires a personal and moral, not less than an outward compliance with its prescriptions. When indefensible claims have been put forward by Church authority, or flagrant evils have displayed themselves in the Church's practical system, a revolt of the Christian conscience takes place which, for the time being, is fatal to discipline. So it was at the Reformation, which involved the rejection of an usurped authority. So, to a certain extent, it is now, when our final courts of appeal in cases of doctrine and discipline cannot, as at present organised, be defended on the lines of Christian principle. But, further, it must be owned that the temper of modern Christians of itself very frequently makes discipline more difficult than has been the case in former days. The sense of personal responsibility, which is so valuable an ingredient in true religious life, has been exaggerated into forms of religious self-assertion on the part of individual men and groups of men; and this self-assertion becomes inconsistent with what St. Paul calls "the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." The common Church is shattered into a thousand sects; the common faith of Christendom tends more and more to be resolved into a multitude of separate views, as numerous as are the several minds which apprehend it. Even within our own portion of the Church, we must admit that we are very far from obeying the Apostolic rule in the matter of discipline, and that in this matter we have needful lessons to learn from the army.

4. One more characteristic of the military spirit is the feeling of comradeship. All over the world a soldier recognises a brother in a soldier. Not only members of the same regiment, of the same corps, of the same army and country, but combatants in opposing armies are conscious of a bond which unites them, in spite of their antagonism; and the officers and men of hostile armies have been known to engage in warm expressions of mutual fellowship as soon as they were free to do so by the proclamation of peace. This generous and chivalrous feeling, which survives the clash of arms, confers on a soldier's bearing an elevation which we cannot mistake. When, in the later years of his life, Marshal Soult, who had been in command in the Peninsula, visited this country, he came to St. Paul's Cathedral; and the monument which most interested him, and which had been recently erected in yonder south transept, was that of Sir John Moore, the hero of Corunna. Soult--says one who witnessed it--stood for some time before the monument; he could not speak; he could hardly control himself; he was, in fact, in a flood of tears.

Certainly it was meant to be so in the Church. "By this shall all men know that ye are My disciples, if ye have love one towards another." And so it was in the Church in the main--though with some admitted and noticeable exceptions--in days when the heathen could exclaim, "See how these Christians love one another!" If it is not so now, at least, on such a scale and so generally as to witness for Christ and to impress the unbelieving world, let us each take shame to himself for his share, whatever it be, in so serious a failure. But this, at any rate, we know, that brotherly kindness is a more imperative rule in the Church than in the army; and that now, as heretofore, there are not a few Christians who do their best to obey it. The violations of the law of love, as of all laws, have, from the nature of the case, a publicity which is denied to its wide and sincere observance.


These observations apply to all forms of military service; but the presence of our London Brigade in St. Paul's to-day makes one more observation natural on the subject of the Volunteer movement. There are more reasons than one why the Volunteer movement should be looked upon with interest by those who have at heart the interests of Religion. It not only adds greatly to the strength of the country, and so, indirectly, to whatever of religious effort is associated with the wellbeing and enterprise of England throughout the world: it strengthens the country without involving those drawbacks which, from a moral point of view, are more or less and inevitably associated with large standing armies. A Volunteer force, while capable of rendering invaluable service in the defence of our homes, cannot easily be employed, like the great armies of the Continent, for the furtherance of an aggressive or ambitious policy. And, moreover, the volunteer is a soldier who does not thereby cease to be a civilian; and, if this should be held to imply any professional inferiority--a point on which obviously I could not venture an opinion--it is not without decided moral advantages. The conscripts who made up the vast hosts which the first Napoleon poured across Europe, from Madrid to Moscow, were young men, taken from their homes almost in boyhood, and necessarily exposed to the mischiefs which the early removal of domestic influences surely involves. If these evils are now generally lessened by systems of shortened service, they cannot be held to be altogether done away with.

The volunteer soldier lives not in barracks, but at home; and he enjoys those great advantages which the effort and discipline of a soldier's life confers, without forfeiting the aids to purity and unselfishness which belong to the duties and restraints of home. This does not mean that he escapes that sacrifice of time, and it may be of health, which military service often exacts; and the widows and orphans of our volunteer forces have a claim upon the charitable assistance of the country, all the more emphatic in that the time and toil of their departed relatives have been unremunerated, excepting by a sense of duty.

Of this let us be sure--that the chief virtues of a soldier are also, in their substance, the virtues of a Christian. Loyalty to our chief, courage in the discharge of duty, obedience to discipline, and a brotherly feeling for all comrades,--these constitute common ground between the soldiers of the earthly and those of the heavenly army. At no time has the army of this country been wanting in men, of all ranks, who have afforded bright examples of whatever is courteous and gentle, as well as resolute and unyielding, in the Christian character. And, indeed, the good soldier, like the centurion Cornelius, is always in a fair way, to say the least, to become a good Christian; while the good Christian, as such, cannot but cherish the virtues which are the excellence of the soldier. But there is an important difference between the services. The one ends, if not before, yet certainly at the moment of quitting this earthly scene; the last possible point of contact that even a Wellington can have with the profession of his choice is seen in the devices on his coffin, and the epitaph on his grave. The other service--that of Jesus Christ--although under changed conditions, lasts on into that world to which death is but an introduction, and which our Great Captain has opened to us by His Death and His Resurrection from the dead. Let us recognise, in ourselves or in others, the high honour which must always attach to wearing the uniform of the Queen; but let us also endeavour, whether we wear it or not, to be or to become, each of us while he may, good soldiers of Jesus Christ.

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