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The Work of Christ in the World

Four Sermons Preached before the University of Cambridge
On the Four Sundays Preceding Advent in the Year of Our Lord 1854

By George Augustus Selwyn, D.D.
Bishop of New Zealand, Formerly Fellow of St. John's College, Cambridge

Cambridge: Macmillan, 1855.



Kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers.

THE subject which we proposed last Sunday, and one, I think, of no small importance in the present day, was the tendency of religious zeal, if not duly guarded and controlled, to occasion strife among Christian men, and discontent with our existing institutions of Church and State. I endeavoured to shew how such feelings tend to exaggerate the importance of minute points of doctrine, or rules of discipline; so as to make men of sensitive minds willing even to give up vast fields of practical usefulness, if they cannot be satisfied upon every speculative question.

The simple remedy suggested, was to look first to the work; to think of the woe pronounced upon him who preaches not the Gospel; and the [17/18] sentence upon the unprofitable servant who hides his talent in the ground; and then to fear, lest in seeking for a minute agreement with our fellow-servants in the verbal definition of our duty, we should be tempted to leave the duty itself undone, or even to desert the Church in which we have covenanted to discharge it. And we guarded this recommendation against any charge of latitudinarian indifference to abstract truth of doctrine, by asserting, that in the abeyance of all the real tribunals of doctrine, that is, of the general councils of the Church catholic, and of the council of our own branch of the Church, the best remaining security for truth of doctrine is real, scriptural, and united work. And in this assertion we relied upon the promise of our blessed Lord, that "if any man will do His Father's will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God*;" [* John vii. 17.] and upon the other promise in the Sermon on the Mount, that, "if thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light+." [+ Matt. vi. 22.]

In following out the same line of thought, we are naturally led to the consideration of the great duty of obedience, second in importance only to faith, and proceeding from it: and that in the covenant which we made with God in baptism, when the question had been asked: "Dost thou believe?" there followed immediately the other: "Wilt thou [18/19] obey*?" [* Baptismal Service.]--And what is more likely than, that in an age of religious zeal, many doubts and questions should arise about a duty so important as this, and that in endeavouring minutely to adjust our duty of obedience to God and man, difficulties should arise of the same kind as those which meet us at every step when we attempt to define accurately by human language the doctrines of God.

On this point the cardinal mistake seems to lie in making our obedience to depend upon our power to determine with exactness the bearing of each duty upon the other, and the nature and boundaries of each. If this precision of adjustment cannot be attained, it seems as if some thought themselves absolved from all duty of obedience. Thus the most conscientious minds, from a mistaken sense of duty, are often most in danger of the sin of disobedience.

Yet we may look upon it as a happy age, in which the chief errors arise from an excess of conscience: and such faults must be treated lovingly and with tenderness, because they have their seat in the finer processes of the heart's best affections. And in this spirit let us pray to be enabled to regard them: not harshly repelling every brother who has felt the unsettling power of this age of lawless speculation; but charitably weighing his [19/20] conscientious scruples, and assisting to remove them. And the first thing necessary, is to recognize the difficulty of the question; for there is scarcely any question more really difficult than the limits of obedience, as due respectively both to God and man. For the duty of obedience to God rests upon an unchangeable and eternal law, ordained by a Father, "with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning*;" [* James i. 17.] and a Saviour, "the same yesterday, to-day and for ever+." [+ Heb. xiii. 8.] The ordinances of that eternal law all have their origin in the sacrifices of the Lamb, fore-ordained before the foundation of the world; who "offered Himself to God" by an "eternal spirit." The partakers of that grace are men whose names, throughout eternity, have been written in the Lamb's book of life, chosen out of all nations and kingdoms to be the children of God: and "if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ#." [# Rom. viii. 17.] The mediator of that law, and the steward of those ordinances is the Bride of Christ, the Church, which the Son of God has purchased with His own blood; a Church which has received the commission to "go into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature§," [§ Mark xvi. 15.] and with it the promises, that "her Lord will be with her always, even to the end [20/21] of the world*," [* Matt. xxviii.20.] and "that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it+." [+ Matt. xvi, 18.] And whithersoever this Church may go, she can carry with her no other law than that which was received by the disposition of angels, and written with the finger of God, and proclaimed by prophets, and preached by Him who spake as never man spake, and given by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and sealed by the blood of martyrs, and guarded against change by the solemn warning of the last of the apostles, when he closed the sacred volume: "If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book; and if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life#" [# Rev. xxii. 18, 19.] This is the obedience which we owe to God, to His Son, to His law, to His gospel, and to His Church; and all these are eternal and unchangeable; the same in every age and at every place.

But the rule of obedience to man has no such absolute uniformity; because the law itself is continually changing. There was a duty of obedience in Joseph to the Pharaoh who placed him at his own right hand; and in Moses to the other Pharaoh who knew not Joseph; and there was a [21/22] duty of obedience which Naaman owed to Benhadad, and which the three children owed to Nebuchadnezzar, and which Daniel owed to Darius. And there was an obedience which the Apostles owed to the Jewish magistrates, and an obedience which in the time of the worst of the Roman emperors, St. Paul acknowledged to be due, as to powers ordained of God; and in remembrance of which, St. Peter, in the same times of Pagan rule, taught all men to "fear God and honour the King*." [* 1 Pet. ii. 17.] In the midst of this ever-varying succession of human governments, and change of human laws, one invariable principle cleared up all doubt, and guided the actions of all the servants of God: "We ought to obey God rather than men.+." [+ Acts v. 29.]

And yet there was no straining at gnats or magnifying scruples. No man courted martyrdom to shew his zeal for God. Daniel did not fly in the King's face, or pray in the corners of the streets, that he might be seen of men; and so die the death of a braggart, rather than a martyr. Spies had to peep into his house to prove that he was disobeying the king's decree. Neither did Elisha straiten the cords of conscience, when he bade Naaman go in peace, and, if duty bound him wait upon his master, even in an idol temple: nor [22/23] did St. Paul encourage minute scruples of conscience, when he allowed his Christian converts to eat without asking questions for conscience' sake, because to them an idol was nothing in the world; reserving only the case of anything that might be a stumbling-block to others, and for that case enacting the rigid rule, "to eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest he should make his brother to offend*." [1 Cor. viii. 23.]

There is then a repose of conscience which is far removed from laxity, and which offers, I believe, the true solution of many of the most intricate problems of our mixed state as servants and subjects both of God and man. It is true that the Son of God Himself has said: "No man can serve two masters+:" [+ Matt. vi. 24.] but it is also true that the Spirit of God has said" "Fear God: Honour the King#." [# 1 Pet. ii. 17.] There must then be a harmony between the two duties, the duty to God, and the duty to man, however they may seem to be brought into conflict: and how shall that harmony be found?

There was a harmony between the two duties, when the captive maid from the land of Israel said to her mistress: "Would God my lord were with the prophet that is in Samaria§;" [§ 2 Kings v. 3.] and when Daniel greeted the king who had thrown him into the [23/24] lion's den, with the loyal salutation: "O King, live for ever*." [* Dan. vi. 21.]

And there was a harmony between the two duties when the Son of God commanded tribute to be paid to all to whom it was due; to the temple which had been made a den of thieves; and to the Cæsar, by whose power the scepter had departed from Israel.

And there was the same harmony, when the men who gnashed upon Stephen with their teeth, heard him pray, "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge+;" [+ Acts vii. 60.] and when they looked upon that man of God, as he gazed stedfastly up to heaven, and "saw his face as it had been the face of an angel#." [# Acts vi. 15.]

But most of all was there a harmony between the duties to God and man, when He who is both God and man fulfilled the whole law, and was obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross: when the Son, equal to the Father as touching his Godhead, learned obedience by the things that He suffered. God and man were alike obeyed, and all righteousness was fulfilled, when the Son of God prayed in his agony, "Father, not my will, but thine, be done§;" [§ Luke xxii. 42.] and when the Lamb of God was dumb before his shearers: "when he was reviled, yet reviled not again; when he suffered, yet [24/25] threatened not; but committed himself to Him that judgeth righteously*." [* 1 Pet. ii. 23].

Thus out of the mist of controversy, and cloud of conflicting duties, a clear beam of light seems to fall upon a handwriting nailed to our Saviour's Cross: "That love is the fulfilling of the law+." [+ Rom. xiii.10.] "If you love me, keep my commandments." The captive maid, who prayed for her master, the martyrs, who loved and blessed their persecutors, and prayed for their murderers, found the true and only solution of a question which has perplexed all ages, and still perplexes our own. By that spirit of patient love they drew near to Him who fulfilled every law both of God and man, and by His perfect obedience made satisfaction for the transgressions of the world.

With such examples before us, as the captivity of Israel, the persecution of the prophets and martyrs, and above all, the death of the Son of God Himself, it surely can be no reasonable ground of wonder that the Church should still have something to bear. Would it be the better for her to be so entirely exempt from every kind of cross, as to have no fellowship with the sufferings of her Lord? And yet many seem to be dissatisfied, if they cannot at once have every thing as they could wish; and seem to make their adhesion to their own Church [25/26] depend upon the removal of all their objections, or the adoption of all their plans.

There is reason to fear that a great delusion often lurks under this plea of conscience. An over-scrupulous conscience may often be the mere veil for a lack of charity. If a man really loves his Church, and honours his Queen; if he loves his neighbour whom his position in the Church enables him to assist; if he is a clergyman and loves his poor and his school; real heart-strings are not so ready to part asunder for every trifling difference of opinion or pressure of circumstances. There is nothing so tenacious as love. "Charity beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.*." [* 1 Cor. xiii. 7.]

But what after all is it that we have to bear? Is it the Royal Supremacy that has become so grievous in our Church, that for that cause we should fly to the Church, in which, "Religion with her own hands administers a kingdom of this world;" and in which , as it has been well said by a modern writer, "The throne depends not on the will, the wisdom, the affections, or even the indifference of the people, but is wholly and undisguisedly sustained, in despite of their aversion, and in constant fear of their resistance, by foreign arms+"? [+ Gladstone, On the Royal Supremacy, p. 28.] [26/27] To such a connexion as this between Church and State, shall we fly for refuge from our own?

No, brethren, let us rather seek for comfort in judging ourselves and mourning over our past neglect. Let us take to ourselves, as members of the Church, the blame of most of the difficulties which now complicate our relations with the State. The powers of the world, since they embraced the Gospel, have not been backward in assisting the Church. There was no lack of zeal in Darius, when his own conscience was convinced, to make a decree that men should tremble and fear before the God of Daniel. The council of Nice [sic] had no reason to complain of a want of support from Constantine. Church and State united in their efforts at the Reformation to secure truth of doctrine, and to enforce it upon all men.

But was the Church alive to the evil consequent upon connexion with the State? that it was not so much the danger of interference with her doctrines, or of controul over her courts, or of abuse of her patronage, or of confiscation of her revenues: but it was the danger that the secondary motives to action should be put in the place of the highest: that preferment should be more thought of than the love of souls: that court favour should be more valued than the praise of God: that the Gospel should be preached to the rich more willingly than [27/28] to the poor: that permanent endowments and secular rank, and domestic ease, should abate the fervour of ministerial zeal: and thus the Church should become less the Church of the people, while the people was entering more and more into possession of the powers of the State.

All this took place, because, at the Reformation, a great principle was enunciated, but not carried out. The Bible was opened, but it was not taught. Private judgment was recognized, but it was not guided or informed. Bishopricks were not multiplied, nor parishes subdivided as the population grew. Cathedrals were furnished with the means of usefulness, but they were allowed to remain inactive. The Church was to be the Church of the people, and yet vast masses were left to grow up in ignorance. Then came the difficulty of the connexion between Church and State: because the Church was no longer the mother of all the people.

Why should we wonder that difficulties meet us at every step in such a state of things as this? If secular tribunals usurp the jurisdiction of the Church; if the voices of her great council is silenced; if dissenters are admitted into our universities; if men of all religious opinions are elected to serve in parliament; if now, for the first time, the census of the population represents, however, erroneously, the multiplicity of our divisions; let us not disguise [28/29] the conviction, painful though it may be, that all these things are the inevitable results of years of past neglect. We might have kept the ground which others have won.

But the Church is not therefore lost. Her doctrines are not compromised. Her creeds are not abrogated. Her articles are not convicted of error. No decision of any incompetent tribunal, no pressure of external power, no fire of persecution, no straitness of bondage, can affect the eternal truth, which God has for ever united with His Church; and which no man can sever from it. It touched no point of the eternal truth of God, whether Darius prohibited prayer--or again, commanded all nations to tremble and fear before the God of Daniel. The truth was not lost, because Ahab killed the prophets of the Lord. The Church did not prosper less under the heathen emperors than when kings become her nursing fathers, and queens her nursing mothers. The Church was not lost, when she awoke from her trance, and "found herself Arian." The eternal truth did not perish in the great schism which rent asunder the East and West, and silenced, perhaps for ever, the ecumenical councils of the Church. No judgment was pronounced on the real nature of the sacrament, or the real duty of obedience, when three bishops were sentenced at the stake, or seven to imprisonment. Such [29/30] judgments, so far as they were inconsistent with the eternal law of God, were simply null and void; annulled in the court of heaven, even before they were pronounced by the lips of man.

But can we liken our own difficulties to the deep and heart-searching trials of those former days? "We have not yet resisted unto blood." "Consider Him that endured such contradiction of sinners against Himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds*." [* Heb. xii, 3, 4.]

If it be true that the eternal law of God is enshrined in imperishable monuments, and that the gates of hell will never prevail against His Church, what have we to fear from any changes of human laws, or any errors in the judgments of man? Rather let us take a calm and loving view of all around us: of our Queen upon the throne, and upon her people of every class.

Surely no one will liken the Royal Supremacy as it now is, to the same power as it was of old. What earthly type can more duly represent the sovereignty of heaven than the simple majesty which all revere, not for its outward signs of power, but for the inherent sanctity of the Lord's anointed. The time is within the memory of us all, when the foundations of the deep of anarchy seemed to be broken up, to overwhelm all Christendom with the flood of lawless [30/31] passions. At that time it pleased God, not for our goodness, but in His own wisdom, to take a little child, and set her in the midst: and her throne remained unshaken in the "day of great slaughter, when the towers fell," and when "kings with their armies did flee and were discomfited."

To that throne the Church pays her willing homage. Modern changes may affect the personal supremacy which we all acknowledge to be due to the Lord's anointed; ministerial responsibility, the power of parliament, extension of empire, the multiplicity of sects--all may affect the counsels with surround the throne; but it is the throne itself to which we yield our allegiance, as to a power ordained of God.

Nor would we add one single care to those which now surround the rulers of the State. In times of pestilence and war, we come down from our synthetic controversies, from Church and State, and parliaments, and all the complex problems of our body politic, to the elementary particle of our Christian commonwealth, to the individual soul. This is not a time to rend the Church with questions, when all ought to unite on every side to stay up her hands in prayer for her bleeding and dying children. All other questions of the day give place to this: In what state of heart are our brethren whom we send out to die? On that narrow peninsula on which all [31/32] thoughts are fixed, there are twenty-five thousand men who own the Queen's supremacy, and obey it to the death. Oh! what would we now give to be assured that every man who has fallen on the field of battle was prepared to die! They once were children in our schools; would that we had taught them more. They were quartered in our peaceful towns; would that we had cared for them more. Our own pupils and our own parishioners are among those who may already have gone up to the deadly breach: was it a "forlorn hope," or was it a "hope full of immortality"?

Such thoughts as these will send us out into the dark masses of our uninstructed people, there, under God's grace, to repair by earnest work an evil which admits of no other remedy. Let the Church do its duty; and the State and the Church may again be one. High over our heads is the law of God, eternal and unchangeable; in our hands is the transcript of that law given by the inspiration of God himself; far back in remote antiquity are the records of councils such as will never meet again, the voice of a Church united in itself; and here in our Prayer-Book, stamped with the seal of Church and State, are prayers which lead us on from baptism to the grave, and through the grave to heaven: and creeds and articles, to fix the young or the wandering mind upon the fundamental truths of our most [32/33] holy faith: and above all, there is the Holy Communion to make us one with Christ, as Christ is with God; and to unite us all, as brethren, one with another.

Surely it is our bounden duty to receive this treasure into our hearts, and then to go out into our families, our neighbourhoods, our parishes, our schools, among our children and god-children, servants and labourers; to prisons, and hospitals, and workhouses, and almshouses, even into the highways and hedges, and there to deal with every single soul as if our own lives depended upon the issue. If this be done, the Church will soon, by God's blessing, reabsorb all dissent within herself; for every sect is still part of the Church; "they have departed for a season, that we might receive them for ever, as brethren beloved, both in the flesh and in the Lord*." [* Philem. 16.]

No time was ever more favourable than the present, when the vast stream of emigration relieves the pressure of that annual increase, which formerly absorbed all efforts made for church extension, and left the arrear as great as before. Now, every effort must tell; every church and school that is built will be an augmentation of force. And may God move this great University to be foremost in the work of Christianizing England. Fill all your [33/34] chairs of science, follow up every hidden law of nature, and trace out the minutest particles of matter, and every microscopic form of animated life; but let it be done only by men whose profession it is, and a few chosen scholars to hand down the torch of science from generation to generation; but teach the rest of this vast body, not to follow in the footsteps of men whom they can never overtake, nor to waste their time in verifying results, which they may safely take upon trust, from those who have proved them; but to devote themselves to the study of man, and of man's soul, and of the works of God, as seen in their noblest exercise, in the salvation of the world.

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