OF THE NECESSITY OF CONVERSION.
S. Matt. XVIII. 3. "Except ye be converted. . . . ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven."
THE Sacrament of Baptism does not confer the grace of impeccability. High as are the gifts therein bestowed they are not indefectible. The state of grace conferred therein, though in one sense complete in itself, as the new life of GOD within the soul, in another sense is a talent to be traded with, a treasure to be well guarded and added to, a germ to be cultivated and fostered until the end.
Therein we put on the LORD JESUS, but there are thieves and robbers to despoil us of that royal Robe. Therein we become members of CHRIST, but the diseased limb may be amputated from that holy Body. Therein are we the sons of GOD, but we may be disinherited on account of undutifulness and disobedience. Therein we are made inheritors of the kingdom of heaven, but we may become exiles and aliens for want of appreciation of our exalted citizenship. Therein our original sin is remitted, (and if adults, on our sincere repentance and faith, our actual sins also,) but no such assistance is thereafter bestowed as to free us from the necessity of watchfulness, or from the possible calamity of a grievous downfall. Therein we receive a pledge of eternal bliss and a title to the tree of life, but we are not exempt from the law of retribution that GOD will bring every thought, word, and deed to the bar of His great account. Therein the all-sufficient merits of our LORD are applied to our souls, but we have each of us the awful power of evacuating those merits, and of crucifying that LORD afresh by sin.
Yes, it is a fearful thought that the highest gifts of GOD may thus, by man's perverseness, be turned to man's destruction. It is awful to consider that circumstances may occur which may actually make a man the worse for the benefits which GOD has conferred upon him. It is terrible to think that even while we thank GOD "for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life, but above all, for His inestimable love in the redemption of the world, for the means of grace and for the hope of glory," we can bring ourselves by sin into such a condition, that our creation is a curse to us, and that it had been better for us never to have been born; that our preservation has only been the means of our adding sin to sin, and thus increasing our damnation; that the blessings of this life have become idols to us, drawing away our souls from the love it of the Supreme; that the means of grace, by impenitence and sacrilegious partaking, have been turned into poison to us; that the hope of glory has engendered recklessness and presumption; and that the very inestimable love of GOD in the redemption of the world, has become a savour of death to us, by our deliberate rejection of its terms.
Thus it is with the state of grace--with the habitual charity of the Christian. He not only s runs the risk of losing it, but he is in danger a of being the worse for it. Baptism is one of t those ordinances which confer what is called "character," or an indelible impress upon the spiritual man. One cannot become unbaptized again, and if we fail in our promises, we shall not be judged as strangers and aliens, but as perjured and apostate servants.
Now these thoughts are very serious ones, even f when we view them as laws of the kingdom of CHRIST external to us; but they become much more so when we come to consider their bearing upon our individual selves. For we are they for whom GOD hath done so much. We are they to whom the LORD hath intrusted such a treasure. We have been honoured with the dignity of son-ship by adoption. We have in privilege been exalted into heavenly places with CHRIST, and yet which of us has not sinned grievously and repeatedly,--which of us is not in deed as well as in word a miserable sinner?
What is the immediate result of such a conviction? What is the first prompting of the soul when first this undeniable truth is, by the help of the HOLY SPIRIT, brought home to the understanding? Must it not be that an immediate change must take place in us; that wheresoever we have offended, therein we must amend; that the evil affections which have caused us to err, must be renounced for those which will prompt us to obey; and that whereas we have been marring the image of GOD by sin and by carelessness, we must now set ourselves, by the grace of GOD, by all means to restore the same. Now this change is what the Church, in theological language, calls "conversion;" and it is to this that I would earnestly to-day call your attention. May the HOLY SPIRIT, Who, in the words of Antiquity, " strips away and devours our sins which are like thorns, and brightens that precious possession our souls," [S. Cyril.] give us grace to speak rightly, and to receive with meekness the truths of the holy Gospel.
In the present discipline of the Church, it must needs be, that many who are present at the services, nay who partake of the Holy Communion, are not only liable to frailties and faults, which are grievously displeasing to Almighty GOD, but also are actually guilty of sins, which in the early times would have been visited by open penance and expulsion from the Church, and which are still equally hateful to the ALMIGHTY, although He reserves His judgment of them till the future state. The English Church yearly deplores this relaxation of discipline in her Ash-Wednesday service, and none but GOD can gather up the reins. Doubtless it is a thing to be deplored from the low and lax morality which it allows among those who still are in the communion of the Church; but the most serious evil is that, necessarily, if the sin be not searched out here and repented of, it stands over to the next world, and then we know how much more severe will be GOD'S visitation in anger.
But we must take things as they are. I repeat that in the present state of things, there are many admitted to the privileges of the Church who are or have been guilty of such sin as destroys the soul, and that that sin is not really repented of. Without want of charity, I may therefore infer that in every congregation there are many who, at least secretly, have broken GOD'S holy law, have exposed themselves to His just anger, and if they were to perish this instant, would perish in their sins. Were their real lives shown up, even to their fellow-men, they would sink into the earth for shame; were they to hear of in others the very same acts, which in their self-love they excuse themselves in committing, they would be loud in condemnation. Even their outward acts are not such as will bear the inquisition of GOD or of man; and what shall we say of their inward hearts, of their actual dispositions, of their tempers, of their motives?
"Covetousness is idolatry," yet there are avaricious and money-loving people among us. We are "to flee fornication," yet there are those among us who live the life of the lower animals, in the indulgence of their unholy passions. We are to "judge not, that we be not judged," yet there be those whose whole talk and conversation is censoriousness of others. We are to "love one another," yet there be many who nourish revenge and ill-will, and harsh judgment. We are to be "sober and vigilant," yet there are those who exceed Christian moderation; and if they do not actually intoxicate themselves, yet night after night they drink far more than is good either for mind, body, or estate. We are bound to be "true and just in all our dealings," yet there are many tradesmen and merchants who go with the multitude in practising the common dishonesties incidental to their calling. We are told that "our adorning is not to be the adorning of gold and silver, but of a meek and quiet spirit" yet there be those who dress far above their station, who hold out lures to take men's souls withal, who put upon their backs what would support an honest family for weeks, and who, for the sake of gay clothing, will sacrifice what should be woman's most precious possession. We are told to "rejoice in the LORD," yet there be those who indulge in a repining, envious spirit, grudging to others the gifts both of GOD and of man. We are told to "render to all their due, honour to whom honour" yet there be those who are so inflated with their own consequence, and so pragmatical and self-sufficient, that they respect the authority neither of heaven nor of earth. We have the highest authority for the fact that "liars shall have their portion in the lake of brimstone," yet what so common as a lie for the most trivial occasion, as an excuse, or to save oneself the slightest trouble. We are to be content with the "lot of life in which GOD hath placed us," yet the noblest souls among us are the slaves of ambition, and we prostitute to the powers of the world those rich and fresh feelings which should raise our hearts to GOD. We were made for the one purpose of "serving and adoring the Supreme," yet how many never really pray to Him or worship Him at all; and of those who do so serve Him, how utterly unworthy are their performances, and how far short are they of what He requireth!
You see, then, that without breach of charity, GOD'S ambassador is safe in assuming that in every Church there are many unconverted persons. That many have fallen away from the grace of their baptism; that they have become habitual and consuetudinary sinners; that their consciences have ceased to alarm them; and that without thinking about it at all, or without having their peace of mind disturbed, they are in the broad road that leadeth to destruction. Their declension has been so gradual, and, perhaps, so early; they have prospered in the world, and have had nothing really to bring them to a sense of sin; they have, perhaps, had good-natured and benevolent dispositions, and so have, all along, mistaken nature for grace; they have measured themselves by the corrupt standard of the world's morality; they have checked any whispers of the HOLY SPIRIT, by putting off their consideration to a more convenient season; and thus, without being really aware of it, they are, in fact, living on in a state of enmity with GOD; with the channels of grace, the sacraments, obstructed; with their very devotions regarded as an abomination, and every means for their good turned into an occasion of falling.
Look into your own hearts. Do not say, "So and so applies to my neighbour," but say, "How much of this applies to me? Can I really say that nothing of this touches me? Am I indeed a converted man? Have I so repented of my past sins as really to believe that they are remitted? Have I sorrowed after a godly sort? Are my relapses becoming fewer and fewer? Am I bringing forth fruits meet for repentance, the only poor amends and satisfaction that it is in my power to make? Am I really turning away from, my past sin, and walking closer and closer with my GOD? Am I beginning to take less interest in the things that formerly led me astray, and do I find a satisfaction in the pure and spiritual delight of walking humbly with my GOD?"
There are many, then, within the Church of the Redeemed to whom the preacher must cry in the words of the Precursor, and of Him Whose way he heralded, "Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." Sad is it the same cry which awakened the Jews for the last time before their final reprobation should be necessary to arouse us, who now dwell in the full light of the privilege and presence of GOD, yet so it is. It is as needful now as then. Nay, forsomuch as all Christians, however great sinners they may be, bear about with them that regenerate nature, against which they have sinned; and having been redeemed by the Blood of the Covenant, have hitherto trampled it under foot, it is even more necessary that, in these days, in a Christian country, within the precincts of the holy Church itself, in the presence of the altar, and in the sanctuary of the Most Highest, His anointed servant should still have the same message to deliver--should still call upon men to amend their ways--should still summon them to be converted and live.
But how to repent? how to be converted and live? First of all, by searching and diligent self-examination face your difficulties; like a bankrupt, (and who so like a bankrupt as he who owes ten thousand talents and has nothing to pay) make a statement of your whole account with GOD; see how long and in how many respects you have offended Him; try to recollect the number of times you have erred in each case, and if that exceed your computation, estimate the years, and the months, and the days, in which you have indulged the evil habit, till in all its vileness it has become a very part of your nature. Follow out your sins into their different ramifications, and trace them into their fatal consequences, in the effects they have had on others, and so endeavour, as far as in you lies, to apprehend what you really have become; what you indeed are in the eyes of GOD and of His holy angels.
And then go to GOD for the grace of a true contrition. It will avail you nothing to know your sins, unless you are heart-sorry for them j and this heart-sorrow none but GOD can give you. Go to Him in the first instance, and you have at least begun your conversion to GOD. There is more for you to do hereafter; but at least begin by seeking from Him a sense of your sins. The mere commotion of the sensitive spirit in itself, unsupported by the discipline of the Church, and by the strengthening of the principle, is not enough; but still it is somewhat, and it is the first step. Pray then, each of you, whoever has sinned, pray for a hearty sorrow of sin;--the sorrow that work-eth repentance not to be repented of; the sorrow that engendereth zeal, and indignation, and holy revenge, and clearing of oneself, and the other results which the HOLY SPIRIT works in the truly contrite.
I am loth to define what degree of manifest sorrow is necessary to the destruction of sin. Some religionists demand that there shall be a sensible change attended with much commotion of the inward man, and that a period of excitement must intervene between what they term the old and the new man. An opposite school maintains that attrition, that is, a slight sorrow caused by the consequences of our sins in this life, if accompanied by confession, and the use of the means of grace, suffices to the remission of the past. I cannot think that either of these is the right view. On the one hand, I hold that there are many cases where a real process of amendment goes on without those violent emotions described, and that a real hatred and abhorrence of sin is produced by degrees within the soul, on such wise that it is impossible to say at what time the change actually took place; on the other hand, I cannot believe that any earthly sorrow, "the sorrow that worketh death" even though aided by the means of grace, can take the place of that contrition inwrought by the Spirit of GOD, which is the true foundation of every conversion. In any case, the result is the best proof; if we see a real change of life we may argue there is a real change of heart; if we find that we come to hate the thing that is evil, and that insensibly what we relished before ceases to have a hold upon us; if we find that we gradually become more and more weaned from the world, and its pomps, and its cares, more dead to the flesh and the lusts thereof, more valiant in resisting the Evil One and his angels, then we may believe--the absence of sensible emotion notwithstanding--that we are indeed, being converted.
But there is another and even more blessed conversion than that of the sinner from his sin. It may be asked can anything be more blessed than that a soul that has been for a time the captive of the Evil One, should be again set free; or that the soils which have defiled it should be washed out in that Fountain opened for unclean-ness and sin? Yes, dear brethren, there is a more blessed conversion even than that; and it is expressed in the words of the Psalm: "They shall go from strength to strength, until unto the GOD of gods appeareth every one of them in Zion."
It was said just now, that, while in one sense the baptismal gift was a complete one, in another sense it was a progressive one; that it was the germ of the future plant; the faint sign of life of the wild slip grafted into the good olive tree. Now this second blessed conversion is a consequence of this. There are some few favoured souls, so enriched with the gifts of the Divine Master, that, while they are guilty of such little sins and frailties as are incident to their connexion with a fallen race, yet never actually forfeit the favour of GOD, or commit such sins as for the time kill the soul. There are alas! few such, yet, (blessed be GOD) they are to be found. And yet even here there is a conversion. I speak with great diffidence here, as one trying to play a melody he is not familiar with; but I seem to see in what this must consist. Doubtless it must be in the gradual weaning of the heart from all undue clinging to earthly things: in the gradual detachment of the soul from creatures, and its attachment to the Supreme end of its Being, the Almighty and True GOD. Doubtless it must be in the more keen, intellectual appreciation of the Beauty and Holiness of GOD, in the quickening of that faith, which is the evidence of things not seen, the substance of things hoped for, in the intense realization of the unseen world in all its august forms of loveliness and truth. Doubtless it must consist in the more complete and voluntary submission of the will to the Sovereign will of GOD, and the complete resignation of every earthly wish and aspiration at the Feet of our Adorable Redeemer. Doubtless it must be found in the adolescence and ripening of the soul, in the quickening into life of those emotions to God-ward, which find their faintest image in the affections here below. Doubtless it must be in closer approximation to GOD, as to the eternal Rule of right, the ineffable Righteousness, by Which all things are governed in wondrous order, and in obedience to Which is the creature's only happiness.
Such a process as this may be seen in the course of a long and trying sickness; but it may take place without the loving discipline of the scourge. Which of the young has not the capacity for such a course as this? O it were a blessed day, if now one of these were from this time to be thus devoted to GOD; to be given up in heart and soul to His perfect service; to begin that stricter course of walking with GOD, which I have, at second-hand as it were, attempted to describe to you; to commence that closer and higher conversion to GOD, which begun in infirmity of man on earth, will be perfected in the strength of GOD in Heaven.
But in one or other of these senses, conversion is incumbent on all of us. Improvement is a process in every one. It was in answer to the ambitious question of the Disciples, "which is greatest in the kingdom of Heaven?" that our LORD uttered these remarkable words. Much must they have astonished the imperfect Apostles whose minds were still full of the prospect of some brilliant earthly sovereignty as their anticipation of the kingdom of heaven. Doubtless it sounded harsh to their ears; and the little child, to whose simplicity, faith and obedience they were to become like, must have seemed a strange type of celestial perfection. Even so it is now. The proud heart of man does not like to admit even to itself the necessity of a mighty and radical change coming over it before it is fit for the radiant courts on high. A theory of predestination which has settled the matter for us ere we were born, or a religion of emotion substituted for daily duty, or the deadly opiate of self-satisfaction and self-righteousness,--any of these is more pleasing to man than the path of daily discipline, and of daily improvement. Yet the rule is without exception: "Except ye be converted, ..... ye cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven." How then do you stand in this respect, at this time? Measuring yourselves by this time last year, are you living nearer to GOD than you did then, or are your lives laxer, your hearts colder, your prayers fewer and more languid, your attachment to creatures closer? In whatever state you are, recollect that the time is short. GOD in His infinite mercy has spared us hitherto, to bring forth the fruits of repentance, to live the life of faith, and to keep His holy commandments; but the night cometh when no man can work. The present, and the present only, is your own; and the text tells you how you are to employ it: "Except ye be converted..... ye cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven."