(Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1845).
(Preached on the Wednesday Afternoon, Oct. 29.)
1 KINGS xvii. 18.
And she said unto Elijah, What have I to do with thee, O thou man of God? art thou come unto me to call my sin to remembrance, and to slay my son?
HERE we have the heathen widow of Sarepta acknowledging some great principles, which lie at the root of all true religion, yet which many Christians in effect deny: the contrariety between God and Sin: the searching power of His visitations, and the way in which His judgments find us out.
The Prophet Elijah, one whose intercession had such aweful power with God, that, as an ancient Saint has observed, God speaks as if He could not send rain upon the earth, until Elijah had prayed that it might come:--this wonderful person had come to a poor widow's house, and being there most charitably received, had brought with him God's especial blessing: so that the widow and her only son were fed many days--as it may seem, three whole years--by miracle, in answer to his prayer. At the end of that time the boy falls sick and dies; and presently the mother begins to have other thoughts of her inmate Elijah, and the effect of his abiding there, from any which she had had before. As if a veil should suddenly draw up, or light burst into a darkened room, and manifest to a man some glorious or fearful presence, of which he was till then unconscious, or only half conscious: and at the same time shew to him all the foul corners of the room, the spots and blemishes and impurities by which he was surrounded: it would fill him with awe and terror, with confusion and amazement. Such is the searching effect of God's visitations upon hearts tender and open to notice them.
So it was with the widow of Sarepta: her thoughts flew back in a moment to the sins, perhaps the forgotten sins, of years gone by: evil which she thought she had repented of and throughly put away, began anew to vex and haunt her: like a bitter taste in a feverish mouth, so the remembrance of her past life troubled her, and would not let her rest; she felt how utterly inadequate had been all her past repentance, all her good works, and how much darker and more intolerable her sins than she had ever yet imagined; and then came the thought, "All this I have done, these evil motions I have encouraged, these checks of conscience I have disregarded, these poor, mean, indevout ways I have had, and have pleased myself in them; and all the while God was so near me: nay, now for three whole years His especial messenger has been dwelling in my house. No wonder if a sore judgment come upon me; no wonder if so aweful a presence do in an especial manner recall my sins both to God's remembrance and to my own: causing them to be in God's sight far worse than they otherwise would have been, and at last, by this severe visitation, giving them even in my own sight something like their true and horrible shape." Somewhat in this way we may understand the widow's cry,"Art thou come to call my sins to remembrance?"
And whereas she adds, "to slay my son," we may observe upon this how God's afflictions always find us out, as it has been said, in the very tenderest part. As a wise and considerate father, who knows how to soothe and how to chastise, takes care never to chastise but in earnest, but so aims and tempers his blows, that each one shall tell, and produce its effect: such are the visitations of His Almighty Providence. "God shall wound the head of his enemies, and the hairy scalp of such an one as goeth on still in his wickedness." He knows what is nearest men's hearts--how to touch them as the apple of an eye. How often do afflicted persons find cause to complain with holy Job, "The thing which I greatly feared is come upon me, and that which I was afraid of is come unto me!" The very loss or care which they most dreaded and most anxiously prayed against, that is it which overtakes them. The whole of life is changed by one blow. And they are made to acknowledge God's searching power and presence, not only by the depth and force of the calamities which He sends, but also by the keen and subtle way in which they are adapted to each particular case: every one having that special trouble allotted to him, which His Maker knows to be most critically suited to his condition. Thus the widow of Sarepta loses her only son: Jacob is tried by separation from Joseph, the favourite child of his old age: Moses had one darling object, on which all his hopes and imaginations were fixed--the entering into the Land of Canaan--and that one object was denied him: David, whose heart overflowed with family affection, lost one son after another by miserable and shameful deaths; and even to the day of his death the sword never departed from his house. Thus God's judgments have ever made themselves known, in general by awakening the thought, what a thing it is to sin in His Presence; in particular by pointing, in one or other of their circumstances, to the very sins which especially need to be repented of.
So we should expect, on looking to Holy Scripture: and such we find to be the case, as with fear and trembling we endeavour to trace the order of Divine Providence, in our own and our brethren's experience. However carefully persons may have been trained in the fear of God and in the conviction of His hatred of sin, they are but too certain, if left to themselves, to have those wholesome impressions deadened within them. In the ordinary state of men's health and spirits, they are sanguine, impatient of prudential and serious thought, unwilling, for various reasons, to meditate deeply on the aweful side of God's Truth. They too easily sin and repent, and persuade themselves of their being but where they had been. Their evil thoughts, words, and actions pass over them too lightly: they do not make themselves felt as a sore burthen, too heavy for them to bear.
And besides this, too many of us, for the last two or three generations especially, have blinded themselves, or have been not unwillingly blinded, concerning the doctrine itself, of sin bringing punishment. Granting that in itself it is so, yet to the believing Christian, they think, it is not so. The virtue of the blessed Cross in their estimation is that their punishment is already borne for them, and whatever affliction befals, they look upon as a mere trial of faith, to make their crown brighter; they do not consider it as falling on them for their sins: they do not welcome it, and humble themselves to receive it, as part of the healing though bitter process, by which Almighty God intends to save their souls at the last. In short, their notion of a Redeemer is, One Who has suffered to exempt them from all punishment, not, One by the communication of Whose merits their punishments and troubles obtain a healing power.
For reasons like these, even well-disposed persons do not in general represent God to themselves as "a God of judgment," a God angry with sinners. But when it is their own turn to suffer, when He lays His hand on them in earnest, the case is presently altered. To-day, perhaps, you are tolerably easy in the remembrance of your past transgressions: you are rather sorry for them, but they do not very much trouble you: you see no reason, notwithstanding those sins, why you may not do well enough. And this, either from sanguine animal spirits, and a natural flow of cheerful thoughts, or because you have been taught that if you are in a state of justification, it is no better than a sort of unfaithfulness, and distrust of Almighty God, to be vexing and punishing yourself for sins past.
Thus it is with you to-day: but what if before this time tomorrow, Almighty God should strike you down, or any one whom you dearly love, with a sore sickness? What if you should be watching by him in pain, or mourning over his untimely death? more especially if your conscience smite you for some past undutifulness towards him. What if you should have to bethink yourself, "I might and ought to have warned him, and out of sloth I let the matter pass:" or, still worse, "I should have set him a Christian example, but my conduct has but helped to encourage him in sin?" What if you have positively used him ill? What if he were near and dear to you, and you have reason to think that your wickedness drew down the judgment upon you, as it were through him, and so you are in a measure answerable for his pain? How will the sins then return to your memory, which you have allowed yourself to forget, foolishly imagining that God would forget them too! How will you wish and pray for but one hour, wherein to practise real charity towards his soul--to make up in some measure for the sin and neglect and unkindness of time past. What if you must think that one, brought by God within your influence, might have had a higher place in everlasting glory, had you been faithful to your trust?
Or suppose the pain and danger your own: what will be your thoughts, if God spare your understanding, of your own past life? Surely you will then make, in your conscience at least, a heartier and a fuller confession than ever you have done yet. You will mean what you say when you call yourself a miserable sinner: mean it more earnestly than at any time before. You will wonder at your own blindness and folly, first in doing such things, then in caring for them so little after you had done them. You will loathe yourself in your own sight for all the evils you have committed. O blessed and kindly pains, desirable loathing, sickness not unto death, but unto life! when by feelings such as these it seems good to the All-merciful God to improve penitence, before imperfect though sincere, and to prepare His unworthy children for His nearer Presence in the other world!
Yet, be these throes of penitence never so surely pledges of mercy, we are still to regard them as pledges of judgment too. All the miseries of this life, however sanctified, however mitigated by the exceeding grace of God, are yet to us in some sense tokens and signs of the wrath to come: even as its innocent joys and solaces are tokens and assays of heavenly delight. The sickness and languor of the body, we know by the Psalms, represent to us, in figure and mystery, the far more miserable sickness and languor of the soul: its functions disordered, its inward senses clouded, all its appetites and aversions depraved by sin. The death of the outward man, the separation for a time of soul and body, what is it but a faint shadow of the horrible second death, the eternal separation of both soul and body from God? The reproach and reviling of bad and spiteful persons is as a kind of distant echo of the evil spirits, accusers of the brethren, exulting over them that are lost: the grave and sorrowful censure of the good may give us some notion how the Angels will look and speak, when in the last day they will be forced to depart finally from any of their charges, as unable to do them any more good for ever. In like manner, Scripture gives reason to believe that all the other miseries of this life, thirst, hunger, cold, restlessness, and most especially burning heat and gnawing pain, and whatever feelings of desolation, despair, and anguish, do at any time overwhelm the heart, each one has its counterpart in that future world of misery. And by whatsoever temporal calamity it may please God to try us, while He graciously permits and invites us, on the one hand, to soothe and sanctify it, by bringing it to receive virtue of the Cross of Christ, so on the other hand we do according to His will, by using ourselves, in such visitations, to tremble at the thought of there being a time and place, where the whole misery and unutterably more will be present, but no Cross to heal or assuage it.
So again, those who watch the turns of a sickness, still more he who experiences it, seem in a very aweful way to be taught in Whose Hands they are, how entirely He knows their frame, which way they may most effectually be comforted or tormented. It is a matter very earnestly set forth in some parts of the Book of Deuteronomy. God threatens His own people, that as they were nearer to Him than others, so, if they offended, His plagues would touch them more nearly: according to the rule laid down in one of the Prophets: "You only have I known of all the families of the earth, therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities." Agreeably to which, after the Lord had enumerated one after another all the worst calamities, and had threatened all to the wilful and froward Israelites, thus He closes the dreadful list: "Also every sickness and every plague, which is not written in the book of this law, them will the Lord bring upon thee, until thou be destroyed." He opens all the treasure house of His wrath: we seem to look down an endless avenue of miseries, each one more piercing and thrilling, each striking deeper home, than the last. We are made to feel, what the punishment of the ungodly must be, how infinite Power and heart-searching Knowledge do indeed combine to inflict it.
Then consider, in addition to all this, that the Person so threatening is our Father, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ; our Father by Redemption and Regeneration, as well as by His first creation of us. All men may perceive what a pang it is to a tender and affectionate parent, when he is obliged to chastise a son severely: and we are the more entirely certain, how deeply he must hate and abhor the faults which he so corrects. Nor is it the Father alone Who threatens, but according to the incomprehensible union of the Three Persons in the One adorable Godhead, the Son also, the Incarnate Son, He speaks the Words of Terror also. His Incarnation, Cross and Passion, as they cause Him mysteriously to know our frame and be touched with a feeling of our infirmities, so we may believe that in some equally mysterious manner they qualify Him to pour out vengeance at the last. "God hath given Him," we read, "authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man." And Scripture speaks very emphatically of "the wrath of the Lamb," as something over and above the wrath of God sitting on His Throne. As though the saving Cross, if rejected, would crush a person with intolerable weight.
Could we once give our minds in earnest to this thought, it might help us more than we can well imagine to understand God's intense hatred of sin. He hates it so eternally, so essentially, that even that deep yearning love of His, which drew Him down from Heaven to take our nature upon Him, and submit Himself to all the miseries of man; His Agony and Bloody Sweat, His Cross and Passion, His Precious Death and Burial, all in a manner is over-mastered and comes to nothing, when we go on in impenitence. There is no wrath like the wrath of the Lamb: even as there is no sin like the sin against the Holy Ghost the Comforter. No expectation of man's heart so fearful, as that of beholding the sign of the Son of Man, the saving Cross, in the firmament, and feeling that to him it brings no salvation, but judgment.
These are indeed distressing and alarming thoughts, yet on consideration, who could wish it otherwise? The question has been well asked, "Would we be deceived in our calculation of the anger of the Almighty against sin? Would we wish to think that it is not exceeding sinful? Is there not something within, which sooner or later must bring us to the Psalmist's reflection, "Surely thou wilt slay the wicked, O God?" A person may indeed, by continued deliberate sinning, bring his heart and mind into such a condition, that he may wish there were no punishment for sin. But this is in fact wishing there were no God. If we turn with horror from such a thought, if we could not wish God to be less Pure, less Holy, less Perfect, in a word, less God, even if we were thereby safe from perishing, let us also turn, with glad submission of heart, towards Him and His fatherly chastisements, patiently conforming ourselves to His eternal Law, that sooner or later, those who have sinned must suffer: and thankfully remembering, that as He knows how to wound, He is also able to heal. The depth of His wounds are the depth of His love, in reaching the depth of our sins. The punishments in His left Hand are a token of the rewards in His right: Hell itself is the counterpart of Heaven. If you cling to the last part of His final sentence, "The righteous shall pass into life eternal," you must humbly and tremblingly receive the first part also, "The wicked shall go away into everlasting punishment."
Instead therefore of blindly and foolishly wishing that things could be ordered otherwise, let us endeavour with all our hearts to conform ourselves to His righteous and everlasting decrees. As we discipline children and brute creatures to expect pain after transgression, so let us discipline our own childish minds. We have sinned, alas! grossly, wilfully sinned: let us make up our minds to expect punishment. When it comes, let us thankfully submit ourselves to it: too happy if it visit us in time, and so give us hope that we may be spared in eternity. If God's judgments seem slow to come: if by His unmerited indulgence, health and ease, quiet and abundance, comfort and affection, dwell around our homes: let us fear, knowing our own unworthiness, how it may be with us hereafter: let us dread exceedingly the sentence of the rich man, to have his "good things in his lifetime:" let us pray that it be not said of us as of the Pharisees, "They have their reward."
And more than this: if we be wise, we shall judge ourselves in time, not waiting for Him to judge us. We shall prevent his afflictions by afflicting ourselves. Hear the great teacher of our Western Church. "If thou beginnest to judge thyself, to be displeased with thyself, God will come to have mercy upon thee. If thou willest to punish thyself, He will spare. He who performeth penitence well, is his own chastener. He must be severe to himself, that God may be merciful to him." And again", "God hateth sin. If thou too hatest in thyself what God also hateth, thou art thus far united in some sort by thy will to God, in that thou hatest that in thyself which God also hateth. Exercise severity on thyself, that God may intercede for thee, and not condemn thee. For sin is certainly to be punished. This is due to sin, punishment, condemnation. Sin is to be punished either by thee or by Him. If it is punished by thee, then it will be punished without thee; but if it is not punished by thee, it will be punished with thee." The more God spares us, the more it concerns us to suspect, and chasten, and deal rudely with ourselves. Fasting is more especially the duly of those, who are in a condition to fare sumptuously every day. But even the poorest of you, my brethren, though his daily meals be fasts, may yet find ways of denying himself. If you take your hard lot willingly, and humbly offer it up as a sacrifice to God in union with His All-Holy and meritorious Sufferings:--this will no doubt be in His sight a Fast, an acceptable day unto the Lord, though in your actual meal you make no difference. Or if not in meals, in ten thousand other ways, which an earnest and dutiful mind will discover for itself, the work may be carried on of sober and religious penitence. In dress, in diversions, in employment, in waiting on others, in ordering our own ways when alone, the good and gracious Providence of God will always supply to a willing and dutiful mind ways of self-denial, little in themselves, but altogether most effectual in promoting our spiritual life: just as each breath we draw is but for a moment, yet, by breathing, life and its functions are preserved.
Blessed for evermore be our gracious God and Father, Who hath provided us so amply, whichever way we turn, with what we most need: occasions of self-denial and of drawing nearer to Him: means of chastising ourselves, and preventing His Judgment. And, O my brethren, great and heavy is the burthen which we go on heaping for ourselves against the Last Day, so long as we neglect such ever-present tokens of the watchful help of our Divine Lord, such special helps to perfection in His Service.
I thought it good to set before you these few plain remarks, on the certainty of punishment, though it be with forgiveness, after sin: now at such a time as this, when the Almighty is, we trust, visiting this place, and drawing nearer to it, as in other ways, so also by the consecration of this Church to His Son's honour. Because if any one thing is more certain than another in the order of God's Providence, it is this: that the nearer He comes, the more severely must we expect to answer for what we do amiss. Times therefore of special favour are times of special jeopardy also; they call for intenser watchfulness, deeper humility, more unwearied warfare against our appetites and passions. May He give us grace so to take them! May it please Him, this day, to touch our hearts with earnest longing after true inward penitence, whereby being effectually joined to our Lord, and made partakers of His Cross, we may find and gather "the peaceable fruit of righteousness."
And be not too much cast down, nor blame yourself too sharply, if when you have besought God to admit you to penitence, and He has heard the prayer, and begins to chasten, you find the Cross heavy and uneasy, and naturally pray and strive to have it taken off again. You must not at once condemn yourself hereupon, as if your repentance were altogether unreal. No doubt there have been Saints, who in eager love towards our Saviour, and in anxious fear of themselves, have welcomed all kinds of penal suffering, have refused to be relieved, when humanly speaking they might have been. But the more usual process (and it is not an unhealthy one) is this: God touches the sinner's heart with anguish and fear, and he prays for a portion in the Cross; and when he is taken at his word, and the Cross is held out to him, nature shrinks back, and he prays again that it may be withdrawn, or greatly tempered to his hold: but neither prayer is wrong, neither unblessed, if resignation go along with both; if the first be accompanied with a wise and humble petition, to be "always prepared for what His Providence may bring forth," the other humbly laid at His Feet, with a hearty endeavour to have no will but Hisd.
Whoever shall walk by these rules, humbly and simply, as he began with the widow of Sarepta to own God's Presence, calling his sin to remembrance, so shall he end with her in full and entire Faith: receiving back his blessings in this world or in another; and owning, from his own joyful experience, that the Word of the Lord in the mouth of His Saints is Truth.
Grant, we beseech Thee, Almighty God, that we, who for our evil deeds do worthily deserve to be punished, by the comfort of Thy grace may mercifully be relieved; through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.