Project Canterbury

Are You Being Converted?

A Course of Sermons on Serious Subjects.
by Alexander Penrose Forbes, D.C.L.

Bishop of Brechin.

London: Joseph Masters, Aldersgate Street, 1856.


SERMON V.
DOMESTIC TRIALS IN MATTERS OF PRINCIPLE.

S. MATT. x. 34.

"THINK NOT THAT I AM COME TO SEND PEACE UPON EARTH! I CAME NOT TO SEND PEACE, BUT A SWORD. FOR I AM COME TO SET A MAN AT VARIANCE AGAINST HIS FATHER, AND THE DAUGHTER AGAINST HER MOTHER, AND THE DAUGHTER-IN-LAW AGAINST HER MOTHER-IN-LAW. AND A MAN'S FOES SHALL BE THEY OF HIS OWN HOUSEHOLD."

ONE of the indirect proofs of the Christian religion is the plainness with which its Divine Founder announced its feeblenesses and its failures. While impostors have ever sought to win votaries to their cause by glowing pictures of eventual success, Christianity from the beginning proclaimed itself as a system full of disappointments. Its Founder was not to be a victorious prince, but a man of sorrows; its first propagators were not to be learned, but the scum of the earth; its grasp of the kingdoms of the earth was to be partial and transitory, and even its effect upon the individual man was still to be compatible with much frailty and constant backsliding. The prevalence of sin in the souls of the faithful, the existence of scandals in the Church of CHRIST, the defilement of the Bride, were all contemplated by the Incarnate Word in the Prophecies in which He announced the future condition of that sublime kingdom which He came upon earth to found. Ever as the disciples strove for precedence, He pressed upon them His coming Passion, and oft as He sent them forth to teach and to preach, He warned them that there should be many who would reject their words. And not only did He prophesy a certain rejection of His teaching by reason of the wickedness and uncouthness of those who heard His good word, but He also distinctly contemplated in that word itself certain inseparable accidents, which He knew would profoundly affect its reception. While He proclaimed a gospel of faith, of hope, and of love, He the GOD of Truth failed not to announce facts capable of shaking all of these. Did He enjoin the virtue of faith? yet did He tell of false signs capable of deceiving (if it were possible) the very elect. Did He preach hope? while He brought life and immortality to light in His Gospel, yet did He say so little definitely with regard to the nature of the future state, that the Church still lacks information of what sort its glory shall be: whether it be material or immaterial, when we are admitted to its fulness, where and in what place it is, and of what consist its pleasures. Did He inculcate a religion of love? from the same lips proceed such words as my text, announcing the painful trials and dissensions which attend the profession of the true faith. "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth! I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household."

Very soon, do we find traces of the fulfilment of the SAVIOUR'S prediction. The bitter hostility with which the educated classes, the Pharisees and the Sanhedrim, received the new doctrine, manifests to us what sorrow its advance must have created in families. The stiff-necked Jewish nature, ever intense, ever bigoted, must have manifested itself in many shapes, and (what we should term) unamiable phases, as the leaven of the gospel penetrated the households of the House of Israel. When we hear of the conversion of "the myriads" of Jews mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles; when we read of many of the priests being converted to the simplicity of the faith of JESUS, we may conceive what heartburnings and jealousies must have pervaded the whole mass of the Hebrew society. So much so, that at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, we find that a new brotherhood had been created; the older ties of blood had been severed, and a new fraternity of adherence to the Apostles' doctrine and fellowship had taken their place, so that the Christians lived together as an united body, and by so doing escaped at Pella the miseries of the awful siege.

And still more was this the case, as the fifth empire invaded that which had gone before; as the stone cut without hands from the mountain smote the image of which the feet were iron and clay; as the Cross of CHRIST triumphed over the Roman Eagles. Then a revolution took place in society such as never had taken place before, and attended with the throes and pangs of a mighty convulsion. But a few years after the ascension of our LORD, according to the ecclesiastical historian an old Hebrew fisherman might be seen entering the Babylon of the west by the Appian way, and locating himself amid the Jewish dealers near the palace of the Senator Lateranus; and a short time after the same date, according to a better authority, we know for certain of a mean-looking scribe, of infirm aspect but of wondrous energy, who dwelt two whole years in his own hired house and received all that came unto him. Such teaching soon began to tell; before Paul the aged was beheaded, the sound of the gospel was being whispered in C├Žsar's palace. Pudens, who is mentioned in one of the Epistles, was a near relation of the Emperor, and the canon of Scripture is hardly closed, before an effete and corrupted Heathenism trembling for its existence before the aggression of the Church, demands in the accents of terror and alarm, that the Christians should be cast unto the lions.

Pitilessly on the true faith fell the storm of persecution. Ten different times before the conversion of Constantine did the world receive the Church as it had received her Divine Spouse. Like Him she came to bless; like Him she came to announce the certainty of a future state evidenced by the resurrection from the grave; like Him, she came to proclaim a pure and holy morality, in the obedience to which was happiness; and for this the world lit the fires, and prepared the rack, and made ready the sword to destroy her.

But the gates of hell prevailed not against her. Gradually the leaven proceeded to leaven the whole lump. Gaining an inch at a time, and never receding, Christianity was in its spirit eminently aggressive. Cast down by persecution, it rose from the flames more pure, more attractive more winning than ever. Conquest by suffering was the act of CHRIST. Conquest by suffering was the banner of the Church. "Thou hast showed Thy people heavy things; Thou hast given us a drink of deadly wine. Thou hast given a token for such as fear Thee, that they may triumph because of the truth. Therefore were Thy beloved delivered."

If such was the political aspect of the conquest of the world by Christianity, you may picture to yourselves what went on within the houses of individuals. It is true that heathenism had much weakened all domestic ties, for S. Paul, in his awful account of the iniquities of the heathen world, describes them as being "without natural affection;" but still, in proportion as a heathen was sincere, and lived up to his light, would he still retain the good qualities of nature, and so the better man he was as a heathen, the more acutely would he feel the aggression of Christianity. Nay, if he sincerely believed, as he openly professed, that Christianity was another word for Atheism, (as was the common charge brought against it); the best feelings of his nature, his piety to GOD, and his love for those around him, would alike be shocked and injured by the circumstance.

You see then, dear brethren, how fully history confirms the truth of the Blessed SAVIOUR'S prediction of the effects of the Gospel. It remains for us to consider, whether beyond this historical fulfilment, there be any more immediate and personal one, whether these words of the SON of GOD apply to Christianity in all times, and therefore how we are to regard these things in the practical aspect with which we should all wish to study the sacred Scriptures.

We must lay it down as a rule of universal application that all Scripture speaks to every age and generation of men. Being the Word of GOD it finds an echo in the breast of every child of Adam, made in the image and likeness of GOD. Those modern theories which speak of the holy word as being of a temporary nature, or as being an accommodation to the prejudices of the people for whom it was written, are not to be listened to. The knowledge of GOD being a revelation, cannot be improved like the steam-engine or telegraph, and therefore the vehicle in which that revelation is brought to us, must of necessity be of eternal adaptation. Accordingly the closer we stick to the letter of Scripture the nearer we shall be to the Divine truth. Thus has the Church ever dealt with it, being its witness and keeper; and while the figurative and mystical sense of the Bible may tend to warm the devotion and open up fields of thought to the pious contemplative, we must not forget the sanctity of the letter or undervalue those engrafted words which are able to save our souls.

Now with this sense of the exact applicability of the Holy Scripture to every age of the world, and therefore to our own individual cases, let us at once proceed to gather what our LORD intended from the words of the text, "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household."

The antagonism between worldliness and true Christianity is uncompromising. In whatever shape the former may exist, either overtly in actual sin, or secretly in a carnal spirit, or an imperfect faith, these two must ever be at variance; Esau and Jacob must ever strive against each other. The world will try by persecution, violence, mockery, calumny, and temptation, to assault its antagonist, while earnest Christianity will use a holy constraint in seeking to destroy that which offends the Majesty of heaven. It will not be content with an avowed neutrality, but it will never rest till by gentleness and love it has subdued and vanquished its enemy. When CHRIST enters a worldly household, either in the person of a new inmate, or by the conversion to GOD of one who has been hitherto in sin, then begins that struggle towards which I have directed your attention. It may not always be evident, for first of all, there is something very winning in goodness, which draws to itself all that is negative and indifferent which comes within its influence; and secondly, this sort of work is sometimes so deep and so thorough, that it goes on " while men sleep," as the Gospel describes it; but generally speaking, a crisis will come, when in the shape of a painful duty on the one hand, or an aggravated assault on the other, the difference becomes manifested, and then comes the Cross of CHRIST in one of its sharpest forms,--then comes the pain of contra-riant duties and sorrows through the affections--then comes a state of suffering, which nothing can assuage or comfort, but the thought of Him, Who, "when His time was near at hand that He should be offered up, steadily set His Face to go up to Jerusalem."

We gather then from what has gone before, that one consequence of the consistent practice of true Christianity may very likely be, that we have much to endure from the society in the midst of which we live, from those who are bound to us by propinquity of place and many other relations, some as near as those which are mentioned in the text. It remains for us to consider how such a state of circumstances is to be treated.

It is evident that in a matter of pure principle, the course is clear, though perhaps exquisitely painful. One must do one's duty to CHRIST at every risk, to the plucking out of a right eye, and to the cutting off of hand or foot. When it is a question of right or wrong, one's only answer is, "How can I do this great wickedness, and sin against GOD?"

Consequently, in all such difficulties, our first question is to look the matter steadily in the face, and see that what we have to do and what we have to abstain from, is really for the cause of CHRIST--that we are putting nothing into the scale of the balance but His honour and glory.

And next we must endeavour to divest the question of all extrinsic and foreign elements. We must not let other matters, strange to it, mix themselves up with the duty to be done, or with the evil to be abstained from.

Nay, we must, for the very duty's sake, be very complaisant and kindly in everything else, and show by all our acts and deeds, that we love our neighbours as ourselves, and that we should in all things do their pleasure, saving always our allegiance to CHRIST. We must pray to GOD to enlist our human and natural, tempers on the side of peace, and to give us opportunities of showing our affection by many a winning mark of kindness, so as to show the reality and practical nature of that which we have to make a stand about. However deep the sore may be, consistency and love will conquer in the long run. Error is not so strong as truth, and prayer has no limits as to its efficacy, but the faith of him who prayeth.

But put the matter in another light. Our SAVIOUR has prophesied a certain unhappy consequence which accidentally attends the profession of true Christianity, not from any fault of that Christianity, but from the sinfulness of human nature. This unhappy consequence has occurred in my case; how (the believer must ask himself) must I meet it?

First of all, by acquiescence. It is the Cross which JESUS CHRIST has laid upon me in order to conform me to His likeness by suffering. Perhaps in everything else I am very prosperous; perhaps I have friends, and wealth, and success, and many other blessings, and this one sorrow is the mark of my predestination. Perhaps, but for this, I should be without chastisement; that condition which S. Paul describes as being incompatible with true sonship to GOD.

I must therefore bear it, just as I would any other misfortune sent to me by GOD. I must receive it at the hands of JESUS CHRIST, and pray to Him that no sin on my part may prevent it, or any of the other afflictions of this time, working in me an exceeding weight of glory. I must beseech Him to sanctify it to me, just as I would pray Him to sanctify to me some severe bodily ailment, or the bereavement of one whom I loved well.

And next, by patient continuance in the well doing. There is always a danger of failing in matters of principle, for the devil lays out all his strength upon this matter. If he conquers in this matter the field is won. The natural casuistry of the corrupt human heart, the strong pleadings of human love, nay, the very lapse of time itself, and the silent flitting of the passing hours, will all tend to undermine the resolution, and soften the soul. The devil will try to inject scruples arising from contrariant duties; he will urge me to reconsider the question, and see whether it really involves a matter of principle; he will suggest what peace and comfort there will be if I yield this one little thing; he will threaten me with the future consequences if I persist in this unamiable obstinacy; in short, he will neglect no means of seducing me from my high purpose. What need, then, what constraining necessity of prayer, for a true and steady heart, for a firm resolution, and strong will, valiant for the truth that is in JESUS. " Hold Thou me up, that my footsteps slip not: 0 knit my heart unto Thee, that I may fear Thy Name."

Furthermore by a more general and real religiousness of the whole heart. Every individual sin by so much weakens the soul and impairs the resolution. When then a soul is thus called by CHRIST to suffer for Him, she stands elevated on a pinnacle of privilege, and must take heed lest she fall. Her lapse will be a greater one, if she do fall, by reason of the searching nature of the trial which to CHRIST has subjected her. She has the chance of becoming eminently holy, and therefore risks the loss of all. She is called to the glorious vocation of suffering for her LORD, and therefore she must walk worthy of that vocation. She has the means; she hears the summons to the closest walk with GOD; she has the earnest of future glory. "If we suffer with Him, we shall also reign with Him."

The situation, then, demands no ordinary watchfulness. It is a position of no ordinary trial. Yet I am much mistaken if it is not a state of things very common in the present state of society both among rich and poor. The complications of civilized life, the political aspect of the times and many extraneous circumstances, apparently quite beside the question, do in fact bear upon it, and the laxity of the discipline of the visible Church is not without its effect upon it also. Beyond what has been said before, it is very difficult to lay down rules to meet every case under all circumstances. Each case must be taken on its own grounds, and CHRIST'S battle be fought upon the specialty. It is strange and mysterious in how many ways the devil assaults us, especially where the outward conventionalities preserve us from the grosser sins. I never can sufficiently press this upon you, that you do not escape trial as you rise in the social scale; only the trial becomes infinitely more subtle, and the spiritual state is infinitely more endangered. S. Paul tells us, not many great, not many wise, are called; and our SAVIOUR Himself is still more emphatic, "How hardly shall they that be rich enter into the kingdom of heaven." I should be unfaithful to my office, if in addressing a congregation of persons who, in the main, are in easy if not affluent circumstances, I did not press upon them that there are special dangers with regard to such in the way of eventual salvation. I know it is unpopular to do so, for men do not like being disturbed in their wonted self-complacency, but the servant of GOD must be no respecter of persons, and is charged with the souls of the rich as well as with those of the poor.

But, be the assault and temptation as subtle as ever the devil designed as a masterpiece of craft, however ingenious may be the complication and contrariance of duties with which he would perplex you, close as may be the ties which he may enlist in his favour, blessed will your case be if in the end you are faithful. It is the end of the trial that wins the crown for the sake of JESUS CHRIST. When we consider the crown in store for us, we shall be the better able to endure the pains that must be undergone to wear it; but even here on earth, consistency and winning affection will tell upon your temper in the end; if CHRIST does send a sword instead of peace, when you most unflinchingly do your duty, He will afford the medicaments which heal the wounds which it inflicts; if He sets men at variance on points of principle, He will bind up closer the ties of the rest of the conduct in more enduring affection; if He causes that a man's foes are those of his own household, He will in the end from that very household bring forth models of edification and spiritual assistance, to the great increase of His own glory and the good of many souls.


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