The True Use of Warnings:
PREACHED AFTER THE
EARTHQUAKE AT WELLINGTON,
IN OCTOBER, 1848.
GEORGE AUGUSTUS, BISHOP OF NEW ZEALAND.
PRINTED BY REQUEST.
ST. JOHN'S COLLEGE:
PRINTED AT THE COLLEGE PRESS.
TO ALL THOSE
WHOSE HEARTS WERE TOUCHED
BY THE GREAT EARTHQUAKE
THIS SERMON IS DEDICATED
WITH THE EARNEST PRAYER
OF THEIR AFFECTIONATE FRIEND AND BISHOP,
THAT THE IMPRESSIONS OF THAT DAY
MAY NEVER BE EFFACED.
"Suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and the keeper of the prison came trembling, and fell down before Paul and Silas, and said, WHAT MUST I DO TO BE SAVED? Acts XVI, 29."
St. John's College.
May 8, 1849.
 A SERMON
EPHESIANS V, 15, 16.
SEE that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.
WHEN we think deeply of the Providence of God, we cannot fail to see in His works this wonderful point, that they are carried out with a beautiful regularity of system, and yet that they are liable to occasional interruptions. Both in the order and in the deviations the wisdom of God is manifested. The succession of seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night, is evidently the work of an allwise God and not less evidently was it His work, when, for the sin of man, all these laws were suspended for a time, when the windows of heaven were opened, and the fountains of the great deep were broken up, and every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the earth. The [1/2] faultless courses of the two great lights which God made to rule the day and the night declare the glory of their Maker; no less than when the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, in the days of Joshua, and hasted not to go down about a whole day. The power of God is visible in the law which he has laid upon the sea: Hitherto shalt thou come but no further, and here shall thy proud waves be staid; no less than when the sea stood in a wall on either side of the armies of Israel, and then returned in its strength to overwhelm the Egyptians. The same power of God is shewn by the earth when it drinks in the rain and the dew from heaven, as when the Lord ordained a new thing, and the earth opened her mouth to swallow up Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. God is known in the rustling of the trees in the cool of the day, or in the wind that breaketh the cedars of Libanus: at his will he reveals himself in the still small voice, or in the raging wind, in the earthquake or in the fire.
These are the lessons which God teaches us for the confirmation of our Faith, and for the guidance of our Practice. For, who can doubt the Providence of God, when he knows that there are powers in nature, which, if they were once unchained, could destroy mankind in a moment? There is a law which controuls the sea, that it should not overwhelm the earth, and a law which governs the wind, that it may not destroy the dwellings and cultivations of men; and there is a law which guides the lightning, that like the destroying angel in Egypt, it may pass over our house and leave us untouched; and there is a law which marks the place and the time at which the [2/3] pestilence that walketh in darkness will be stayed; and there is a law which confines the earthquake to its own appointed regions, while other countries, like our own mother country, know it only by name.
And yet all these Laws can be suspended by the same Power who made them, and again enacted as before. They are no blind or necessary laws, which go uniformly on throughout all successive ages. That they are for the most part regular, proves that they were enacted by a wise Lawgiver; that they are sometimes suspended, proves that that Lawgiver still lives, with power to alter the laws which he has made. I pray you mark how this thought confirms our faith. There is enough of regularity in the works of God to prove that they are not accidental; and there is enough of irregularity to prove that they are still under his daily government. And this ought to guide our practice no less than to confirm our faith. For all these laws to which we trust day by day, perfect and beautiful though they be, may be suspended in a moment. Not indeed that the sea will again overwhelm the earth, but that the earth, and all that is in it, may in a moment be burned up. The rising and setting of the sun, upon which all our plans are formed with entire confidence that the present order will continue, may suddenly cease, at the time when the sun will be turned into sackcloth, and the moon into blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord come.
Can we not see the hand of God in this merciful provision, that the very regularity of the Divine Providence should not lull us into a false security. For this [3/4] reason no doubt there are breaks and flaws appointed in work which seems so perfect, that, like a discordant note in a strain of beautiful music, they may arouse the mind which has grown careless from the perfect order and excellence of the system in which it is placed. There are evil accidents ordained of God that we may value his blessings, and there are evil days appointed for the same reason, that we may walk circumspectly, redeeming the time.
For this reason the warning to tremble is addressed to those that are at ease, to those of whom all men speak well, to those who are in a state of rejoicing. To such as these the prophet Joel cries, Blow ye the trumpet in Zion, and sound an alarm in my holy mountain: let all the inhabitants of the land tremble: for the day of the Lord cometh, for it is nigh at hand. To such as these St. Paul addresses his startling words, Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.
To redeem the time is the great duty which all these lessons are intended to teach. How many of us are trifling away our lives, without advancing a single step on the true path to heaven. How many are like those foolish five who slumbered and slept while the bridegroom tarried. At midnight the cry will be heard, Behold the bridegroom cometh: but they will not be ready to meet him. Warnings seem to be all in vain, for a warning is only laughed at when the danger is past; and so every merciful provision of God is cast away, and at the last the great day will come upon them unawares.
 To redeem the time; to walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, because the days are evil. How simple all these words are, how clear is the rule, how plain is the duty; and yet where are the wise among us who have already trimmed their lamps and girt up their loins, with the fixed resolution of a patient waiting for Christ? Where are those who are walking circumspectly, that is, accurately, exactly, as able to account for the time which they spend, whether it be used advantageously, or wasted unprofitably.
What can be the cause? Are there no warnings? Yes: but they are not rightly applied. Warnings are not sent by God to guard us against a present danger--and yet that men think so is plain from this, that when the danger is past, we fall back again into our old course of life. A sick man sends for his minister because he fears death, but too often all his resolutions are broken when he is again restored to health. What meanest thou O sleeper? arise, call upon thy God, if so be that God will think upon us, that we perish not. This is the cry of the seaman ready to perish; but when the storm has ceased, he is the same careless liver as before. Men tremble, and fast, and pray, while the earth is quaking under their feet: when the prison walls are being shaken to their foundations, the jailor falls down on his knees, and cries, What must I do to be saved? but many deny that they feared at all when the earth is again still, and rebuild their fallen dwellings as if they would last for ever.
All this arises from the entire misconception of the nature of a warning. There is no real danger in an earthquake, in a fire, in a storm, in lightning, in a deluge, [5/6] beyond that of the slightest disease, of the most trifling wound, or even of mere old age. A man's body can die but once, and he may.die in his bed. But these wonders are the visible works of God, suspending the course of the laws of nature, to make His lessons more strikingly impressive upon men. It is not to teach us to build houses that shall be proof against the earthquake or the fire; or against which floods may beat or winds blow in vain but it is to teach us to build our real house upon the rock of Christ, and to fly to that city which hath foundations whose builder and maker is God. So likewise of the flood. When God let loose the raging sea upon the earth, it was not to teach men to fly to the mountain tops, or to build towers of Babel that should reach to the clouds: but it was to teach them to listen to the preachers of righteousness, and to fly for refuge within the ark of Christ's Church. And so also of pestilence: it is not a warning to us to study more deeply the laws of contagion, or to enforce more strictly the rules of quarantine; though all these be good and wise in their way; but the mission of the pestilence that walketh in darkness, and of the sickness that destroyeth at noonday, is to warn men that their days are numbered, that there is a death which cannot be shunned, that there are diseases which can be healed only by the Physician of the soul.
Observe how our erring thoughts distort and pervert the purposes of God, as if the whirlwind, the earthquake, the lightning, or the pestilence were ordained for no other purpose than to kill. This is the thought of men who fear death, but do not fear judgment. They set [6/7] themselves to study how they may escape the death, and thereby they miss the warnings which were sent to prepare them for the judgment. A world of science and ingenuity is spent, in one sense wasted, upon measures of precaution, but when the uttermost has been gained, what is it but that they will die in their beds--and after that the judgment? Are there no precautions necessary for this, for the earthquake that will open every prison door of the grave; for the lightning that will come out of the East and shine to the West at the coming of the son of man; for the fire by which the earth and all that is therein will be burned up; for the tempest which will rage, when Christ shall come in all the glory of his Father, making the clouds his chariot, and riding upon the wings of the wind?
There is but one precaution against these things, and that not of science but of faith; to come trembling and fall down before the feet of Christ, and say, "What must I do to be saved?"
See that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.
My Christian brethren, let us all confess that we have wasted our time, and not redeemed it. We have not hitherto walked circumspectly: we have not looked minutely and strictly upon every moment as it flies, as the man of business looks upon every piece of money which passes through his hands; and therefore we have been like the fools who prepared no oil for their lamps, rather than the wise, who held themselves always ready for the bridegroom's coming. What is the cause of this neglect? are not the [7/8] days evil enough? Do we wait for more signs, before we will believe? We have had the earthquake: and on the selfsame day we have had the rushing mighty wind. We cannot go up to one of the hills by which we are surrounded without seeing what the fire of God has wrought in days of old. Here indeed the flame is quenched, but go elsewhere, and you may see the whole earth steaming like a cauldron with the fervent heat within; a visible type of that lake of fire which is the portion of devils. By what arm are these powers chained that they should not harm us, or what should hinder that they should be again let loose. The very thought may make us tremble; yet what is there to be feared in these things. Fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.
If we look from the land of the earthquake and the volcano, to our own mother country; with the thought of flying back thither for refuge from the dangers which we fear, there too we find the warnings of God as foretold by Christ himself. Why have we looked for many months with such intense interest for letters from home, but because in Europe all the laws of social order have been disturbed, and the fountains of the great deep of human society have been broken up? Our Lord's prediction in Luke xxi, 10, has been literally fulfilled within our own knowledge during the past year.
"Nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and great earthquakes shall be in divers places, and famines, and pestilences, and fearful sights and great signs shall be from heaven."
We have known all these things; within the last twelve months they have all been fulfilled; but what is [8/9] the lesson which they teach? Surely not to fear the evil of the times, or the tumult of the elements, for the chain is loosened by which God binds his creatures, but it is not broken. It is not man, or earthquakes, or fire, or pestilence, or famine, or death, that we are taught to fear, but God--an offended God--and judgment to come. The true wisdom is to fear God, and to have no other fear.
Such was the lesson which our Lord himself taught his disciples: "When ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars, be not terrified, for these things must first come to pass, but the end is not by and by."
These things must first come to pass. This is the appointed course of God's providence. When it will be completed we know not. The end is not by and by. Far be it from the true preachers of the Gospel to follow those false prophets who in all ages have deceived mankind by telling them that the end draweth near; that the day of judgment is at hand. A deathbed repentance is at best of doubtful efficacy, whether it be the deathbed of a single sinner, or the deathbed of the world. If I knew that any one of you would die tonight, I would not use that argument till the last moment, when every other had failed. My reason would be, because it is an argument addressed not to a man's faith, but to his fears. And so also of judgment to come. If the signs of Christ's second coming were now evident, if these convulsions both of nature and of society were clearly seen to be the pangs attending upon the deathbed of the world, it would be the preacher's first and highest duty to warn his hearers to redeem the time which still remains for the exercise of that pure and [9/10] spiritual faith which is the evidence of things unseen, before we pass into a state, in which we shall be capable only of that lower and less blessed faith with which Thomas believed because he had seen, or of that unblessed and lowest faith, with which the Devils believe and tremble.