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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.



That they may all be one, as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.

WE have been occupied on three former occasions with a rapid survey of the field of Christian work, as it lies before us in England and in the Colonies, and our attention has been drawn incidentally to some of the much-disputed questions of the present day, with a view to shew their insignificance, not indeed in themselves, but as compared with the work itself; and so to encourage a spirit of practical zeal, rather than of speculative inquiry. We come to-day to consider the Mission field, the last and widest application of the subject.

In the Ramsden Sermon of this year on the words of the second Psalm, every effort and all success in missionary work was referred to the [53/54] intercession of the Son of God, in answer to whose prayers we believe that the Father has given Him "the heathen for his inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for his possession*." [* Psal. ii. 8.]

The words of the text place before us another missionary prayer of the Son of God, offered up at that most solemn time when Judas was approaching to betray Him, and when He knew that His hour was come. May our hearts, which have been so cast down by the death of friends and countrymen, seek for comfort in the thought of the death of the Saviour of the world; for in the midst of war there is no other refuge in which we can fly, but to the Prince of Peace, and to His Gospel.

We may see Him still, by the eye of faith, praying, at the right hand of God, that all may be one; and commanding the rulers of this world to put up their swords into the sheath, and enjoining His own servants not to fight for Him, because His kingdom is not of this world. And we can believe Him to be still speaking to us in the words of the dying legacy which He left to His disciples, "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid+." [+ John xiv. 27.] And we can hear Him sending out His disciples on the same embassy of peace: "Peace [54/55] be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you*." [* John xx. 19 and 21.]

This is our commission, to bring good tidings and to publish peace: to preach God reconciling the world to Himself, and men at peace with one another. And especially when the missionary to the heathen comes back from his intercourse with simple tribes in the dawn of Christianity, among whom his constant endeavour has been to teach the truth, pure and undefiled, and as it is in Jesus; and when he finds himself in the midst of controversy, such as he knows would unsettle the minds of his native converts, and teach them to doubt rather than to believe, he is naturally led to plead earnestly with his own brethren and countrymen, that they would, in the words of the thirty-fourth psalm, "Seek peace, and ensue it."

For I would ask one plain and pointed question of all who profess to be guided by the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to take His will for their law: Does our blessed Lord approve of all this bitterness of controversy? Is its tone or its language like the words of Him who, though He spake as never man spake, yet left us an example how and what we should speak. While we are multiplying causes for division, can we be acting in the spirit of our Lord's prayer that "all may be one"?

[56] I am well aware that the power of that prayer is often frittered away by being explained as meaning nothing more than an inward and spiritual union of hearts between Christian men, and not an outward conformity of action, or unity of system. But certainly the first Christians were not content with this, when they not only thought alike, but acted alike, when "all that believed were together," and continued "daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart*;" [* Acts ii. 44 and 46.] and when the multitude of them that believed was of one heart and of one soul; neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had all things common+." [+ Acts iv. 32.]

But we must seek for a higher reason still for believing it to be our duty, not only to think, but also to act together. For our Lord Himself prays, "that we all may be one, as He and the Father are one." No one, surely, will maintain that the union of the Father and the Son is only an inward and spiritual union, and not an union in act and deed; no one will separate the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, by which the Lamb was foreordained to die, or the eternal Spirit by which the Son "offered Himself without spot to God#," [# Heb. ix. 14.] from the actual completion of this mystery of godliness, [56/57] when the Father gave His only-begotten Son to die for sinners: and when the Son, to do His Father's will, became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. There was no division between the Father and the Son, either in the eternal counsel, or in the actual completion. If, in the extremity of His mortal agony, He prayed that, "if it were possible, the cup might pass from Him," it was but for a moment; and the next words followed immediately: "Nevertheless, not my will, but thine, be done*." [* Luke xxii. 42.] It follows then, I think, that all those who would live after their Lord's example, ought to be united in act, as well as in heart.

There is yet another practical reason contained in our blessed Lord's missionary prayer, and that is, that the unity of all Christians was to be the sign by which the world would be led to believe that God had sent Him. "That they all may be one, that the world may believe that Thou hast sent me." And exactly to the same point are our blessed Lord's words in John xiii. 35: "By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if you have love one to another." And history teaches us that this was the evidence which was powerful with the pagans in old time, when they exclaimed with astonishment, "Behold, how these Christians love one another."

[58] I leave it to others to judge of the effect of divisions here at home. Some may think that zeal is quickened, and that therefore good is done, by the rivalry of religious opinions; and they quote Phil. i. 18, where St Paul rejoices, "that in every way Christ is preached." But though St Paul there rejoices that Christ is preached, even though it were "of envy and strife," of "contention," and "in pretence," must we not believe that he would have rejoiced infinitely more if he could have seen all men agreeing to preach Christ of "good will," and "of love," "sincerely," and "in truth"? It is one thing to rejoice in the overruling Providence of God which brings good out of evil; and it is another and a widely different thing, to acquiesce in the evil, because by God's Providence it has been made the means of good. The same Lord, who prayed that all might be one, foretold that His Gospel should not bring peace upon earth, but rather division*. [* Luke xii. 51.] And yet there is no one of us who doubts on which side is the mind of Christ, or whether His example points to peace or to division, to the olive-branch or to the sword.

Perhaps even on this lower ground of practice and experience, if we were to go below the surface, we should find a vast amount of unsuspected evil, resulting directly from the speculative and controversial [58/59] manner in which religion is taught. If it could be proved that the crowded congregations of our churches and chapels of all religious persuasions represent fairly and fully the state of religion in the mass of the people, we might then rejoice with St. Paul, even in the midst of much strife and contention, that in any way Christ is preached. But if we have reason to suspect, or rather to know, that under this fair and visible surface of religion, agitated indeed by waves, but sparkling with sunbeams from heaven, there lies a dark and stagnant, and unfathomable depth of infidelity; millions who believe nothing; and if we have reason to think that their unbelief is caused by our divisions, and that they would have been brought home to Christ, if they had seen us more loving and more united among ourselves, both in doctrine and in practice, then indeed, if this be so, we may well tremble, lest these controversies, which we excuse, as incentives to zeal, should be found to have been stumbling-blocks to our brethren, and we the men by whom the offence came.

I speak of course with diffidence of anything that relates to the state of religion in England, but I am bold to speak of that which I have seen and heard in the Mission field. There, I assert without fear of contraction, schism is looked upon as an acknowledged evil. There may be the utmost [59/60] charity and brotherly kindness among the missionaries themselves; but that is not enough: no inward and spiritual unity can act as an outward evidence: the keen-sighted native convert soon detects a difference of system; and thus religion brings disunion instead of harmony and peace.

I seem then to be justified in drawing you to this conclusion, that religious strife is wrong in principle, and also proved experimentally to be injurious to the progress of the Gospel. We make a rule never to introduce controversy among a native people, or to impair the simplicity of their faith. If the fairest openings for missionary effort lie before us, yet if the ground has been pre-occupied by any other religious body, we forbear to enter. And I can speak with confidence upon this point, from observation ranging over nearly one-half of the Southern Pacific Ocean, that wherever this law of religious unity is adopted, there the Gospel has its full and unchecked and undivided power: wherever the servants of Christ endeavour to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace, there the native converts are brought to the knowledge of one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all.*". [*Ephes. iv. 5, 6.]

Nature has so divided our Mission field, that each labourer may work without interference [60/61] with his neighbour. Every island, circled with its own coral reef, is a field in which each missionary may carry out his own system with native teachers, trained under his own eye, and obedient to his will; grateful and loving men, with no pride of private judgment to interfere with their teacher's plans; children in obedience, but men in action: ready at a moment to put their lives in their hands, and go out to preach to the Gospel to other islands, and there to encounter every danger that pestilence, or famine, or violence, may bring upon them: with no weapon but prayer, and with no refuge but in God. It is my happy lot to visit these island missions, some occupied by missionaries of our own race, and some by native teachers; and to see the work of the Gospel in every state of progress, from the simple teacher just landed from his mission-ship among a people of unknown language and savage manners, to the same teacher, after a few years, surrounded by his scholars and ministering in his congregation, his chapel and dwelling-house built by their hands, and himself supported by their offerings.

Many of these islands I visited in their days of darkness, and therefore I can rejoice in the light that now bursts upon them, from whatever quarter it may come. I feel that there is an episcopate of love, as well as of authority; and that these simple teachers, scattered over the wide ocean, are objects [61/62] of the same interest to me that Apollos was to Aquila. I find them instructed in the way of the Lord, fervent in spirit, speaking and teaching diligently the things of the Lord; and if in anything they lack knowledge, it seems to be our duty to expound to them "the way of God more perfectly*:" [* Acts xviii. 26.] and to do this, as their friend and brother, not as "having dominion over their faith, but as helper of their joy+." [+ 2 Cor. i. 24.] Above all other things, it is our duty to guard against inflicting upon them the curses of our disunion, lest we make every little island in the ocean a counterpart of our own divided and contentious Church.

And further, I would point to the Mission field as the great outlet for the excited and sensitive spirit of the church at home. There are minds, by nature intolerant of rule, in whom not even the spirit of the Gospel can implant an acquiescence in anything which they believe to be an error. In them learning and research only multiply the causes which make them dissatisfied with the state to which God has called them. They have placed before their minds an ideal perfection which can never be realized on earth. They burn with a zeal for God which cannot bear to be confined. Shall we taunt such men as rebels to their Church, and drive them out on one side or the other, as their [62/63] peculiar opinions lead them towards Rome, or towards Dissent? Such men would be the very salt of the earth, if they would but go out into the Mission field. There are five hundred millions of heathen still waiting for the Gospel. Surely, in the crowded cities of India or of China, in the vast plains of Africa, or among the unnumbered islands of the Pacific Ocean, there can be a place found where every tender conscience may be free, according to its own judgment, to serve God, and to win souls to Christ. Oh! if the world could but be peopled with such men! In the words of Moses: "Would God that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them*." [* Numb. xi. 29.] Would that they could hear a voice saying to them, "Depart, for I will send thee far hence into the Gentiles+." [+ Acts xxii. 21.] Thus would they find satisfaction for their zeal in the free and unbounded range of the Mission field; and the Church at home released from her heartburnings and suspicions, would still rejoice to number them among the most faithful of her sons.

But how, you will ask, shall truth of doctrine be maintained, if we tolerate in the Mission field every form of error, and provide no safeguard for the purity of the faith? I answer first, that, as running water purifies itself, so Christian work is [63/64] seen, under God's blessing, to correct its own mistakes. We have no reason to believe that God judges with severity the work of willing but feeble instruments. There may be a special blessing upon the mission work for that very reason, because its agents, like the first apostles, are often uninstructed men. When I reflect that it is only forty years since the first missionary landed in New Zealand, and that, for the first ten years or more, the work was carried out by lay catechists, and yet that the whole nation, so far as I am able to judge, comparing man with man, are as worthy as the name of Christians, as our own people of England, I cannot see reason to doubt the outpouring of the Spirit of God upon every missionary work undertaken in simple faith, or to fear lest that Spirit should fail to fulfil, to those who need it most, the promise, that He will guide them into all truth. We read that there were disciples at Ephesus who were baptized with the baptism of John. It pleased God to send to them St Paul to baptize them in the name of the Lord Jesus*. [* Acts xix.] Apollos did his best to teach "diligently the things of the Lord, knowing only the baptism of John+." [+ Acts xviii. 25.] It pleased God, in like manner, to send to him Aquila and Priscilla, to expound to him the way of God more perfectly.

[65] But it may be said that the danger of error will come from the men of learning, who may go out to seek in the Mission field the peace which they fail to find at home. No: the work itself will humble them. They must be content to teach something very far short of that ideal and transcendental precision of doctrine, which the power of at least four expressive languages, blended in one, has enabled them to state with a force and accuracy, eloquent indeed to all who can understand, but incapable of being translated into any native language, or explained to any simple people. Their work also will correct its own errors, as it did in the case of the most learned of the apostles. They will go among their people, "not with excellency of speech or of wisdom" but determined not to know anything among them, save Jesus Christ and Him crucified.*. [1 Cor. ii. 1.] Their speech and preaching will not be with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstrations of the Spirit and of power+. [+ 1 Cor. ii. 4.]

Is it then a hope too unreasonable to be entertained that the power which will heal the divisions of the Church at home, may come from her distant fields of missionary work? It is not in vain that the Son of God is praying at His Father's right hand that all may be one. Are not the words of Isaiah fulfilled? "Lift up thine eyes round about, [65/66] and see: all these gather themselves together; they come to thee*;" [ Isai. xlix. 18.] "a great multitude whom no man can number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues+," [+ Rev. vii. 9.] all come to Christ, to the one central fountain of living water. And if these be the signs that His second advent is at hand, shall the world come to an end, and the Church meet its God, in a state of religious bitterness, in which every one of us would be afraid to die? Shall strife embitter the last days of that Church for which Christ Jesus prayed with his dying breath that it might be one? As we approach nearer to the day when all things will be revealed, surely we ought to be able to read with a clearer light the Oracles of God, and see more distinctly the way that leads to heaven. But if the light within us be darkness, if the increase of knowledge, the multiplication of Bibles, the study of the original languages of Holy Scripture; if every aid that history, and geography, and science give to the interpretation of the Word of God, or to the general enlargement of the mind, if all these aids to knowledge leave us still as much in doubt as before; ever questioning what the truth is, but never finding the answer; it does not follow that the Bible is not truth, or that Christ is not light; but that the light in us is darkness: and the cause of the darkness is, because the eye [66/67] is not single. We have bodies of Christian men ranged in battle array one against another, to maintain their own opinions: we have hard words of controversy, which few understand and fewer still define; we have names of party, which we fling about like firebrands: we have separate interests to maintain,--trusts bequeathed for the propagation of the opinions of the founder--names of men--and rights of property--and titles of honour;--and it is no wonder if, in this strange medley of perplexities, we cannot find the truth which we profess to seek. But let any two men meet in the spirit in which Aquila met Apollos, really to seek by prayer for the Spirit of God to guide them into all truth; let them set aside every human prejudice, and strive to have that mind in them which is in Christ Jesus: let them take the Bible, and the Bible only, as their guide, and humbly use every aid which God has given them for the understanding of His Word: in such a course of inquiry, who can doubt that as they draw nearer every day to Christ, they will also be united one with another? And to desire this unity of heart and of act, to pray for it, to "seek peace, and ensue it*," [* 1 Pet. iii. 11.] is no less the duty of every Christian than faith itself.

And now, my dear friends and brethren, and especially the younger members of this University, [67/68] I commend you to the grace of God's Holy Spirit, which alone can comfort you under the sorrows, and strengthen you in the trials of the life which is opening upon you. Gird up the loins of your soul, for these are no common times in which your lot is cast. Young men of the present day have need of the firmness and of the faith of martyrs. Into whatever profession you may enter, your powers will be tested to the uttermost. When death comes close to us in its most dreadful forms, brothers, kinsmen, friends, lost in a moment, what stronger argument can we have to teach us always to live in such a state, as never to be afraid to die?

And if it please God to call you to a more peaceful lot, to the work of the ministry in England--in the colonies--or in the mission field, you will learn to think all things light, which you can do or suffer in the cause of Christ, when you see what the service is which the world exacts. And yet our work also has no narrow compass. I go from hence, if it be the will of God, to the most distant of all countries--to the place where God, in answer to the prayers of His Son, has given Him "the heathen for His inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for His possessions*." [* Psal. ii. 8.] There God has planted the standard of the Cross, [68/69] as a signal to His Church to fill up the intervening spaces, till there is neither a spot of earth which has not been trodden by the messengers of salvation, nor a single man to whom the Gospel has not been preached. Fill up the void. Let it be no longer a reproach to the universities that they have sent so few missionaries to the heathen. The Spirit of God is ready to be poured out upon all flesh; and some of you are His chosen vessels. Again I say, Offer yourselves to the Primate of our Church. The voice of the Lord is asking: "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" May every one of you who intends, by God's grace, to dedicate himself to the ministry, answer at once:

"Here am I; send me. [Isai. vi. 8].


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