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.


ACTS xxiv. 25.


A STRIKING contrast this to the usual customs of men! Before ordinary tribunals the prisoner stands fearing, awaiting in anxiety the doom which announces his future destination, while the judge in all the dignity of the ermine sits as the impersonation of that Divine Justice which he represents, calm and serene. But here the scene is reversed. Surrounded by all the pomp of the Roman legionaries, encircled by a glittering court, and attended by obsequious courtiers, accompanied by his beautiful companion in guilt, and seated in the curule chair of the delegated magistracy of the empire city of the world, Felix trembles; while from the place where the common prisoners are detained, from among the gaolers and sergeants of the judgment hall, the prisoner, "in bodily appearance weak and in speech contemptible," stands as the master of the situation, pouring forth in all the invective of indignant virtue, his telling denunciations of sin.

Nor can we doubt, what were the arguments he used in this strange reversion .of the ordinary ways of man. Versed as the Apostle of the Gentiles was in the learning of the old world, as we know from the quotations of classic authors, which we find in the inspired Epistles, we need not hesitate to believe that he employed that learning in appealing to his heathen auditor by authorities with which that magistrate was familiar. The sages of heathendom had spoken well of righteousness and temperance, and had defined the measure both of justice and continence, while in all the darkness of idolatry and superstition, the deep-rooted belief in a judgment to come, had never entirely disappeared. Doubtless the Apostle appealed to that wondrous system of morals, which enounced three hundred years before by the instructor of Alexander, has told most profoundly on nineteen centuries of the Christian Church, and which even now in these days of enlightenment still forms the foundation of the ethical instruction of the best and wisest of the moderns. Doubtless he appealed to the true following of nature in which all the heathen placed the chiefest good, and showed how virtue was indeed its own reward, and vice the perversion of the end of man. Doubtless he collected all that poet had sung, or sage had pondered on the mysterious consummation of all things--the deep law of retribution, so universal, so overbearing all things, that men in their ignorance deemed it to be Deity--while in fact it was only deep response of the human soul to the obscured but never wholly abandoned truth, that "GOD shall bring every deed into judgment, whether it be good or whether it be bad."

But the Apostle rested not there. He did not content himself by basing his morals on that system of the fitness of things and appropriateness to the nature of man, which formed the foundation of the previous philosophies; or by speculating upon or questioning the various conflicting views which agitated the human heart as to the principles of human conduct; or by quoting the old traditions of the Stygian stream, and the Elysian fields, and the inexorable judges of the lower world. All these things doubtless were used as legitimate appeals to the royal adulterer before whom he spake, yet it was but the prelude to his oration. His real theme was a nobler and a higher one; his speech was of justice and continence and judgment to come, but it was a different speech from that which had ever before come from sage or sophist. It was the announcement of the eternal righteousness of GOD, manifested in the Person of Him who is the LORD our Righteousness. It was the proclamation of the great law of temperance, for that " they that are CHRIST'S have crucified the flesh with the affections thereof." It was the solemn declaration of the impending judgment of GOD, " when the Son of Man shall come in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then shall He sit upon the throne of His glory; and before Him shall be gathered all nations,"--GOD having now clearly revealed "that He hath appointed a day in the which He will judge the world in righteousness by that Man whom He hath ordained; whereof He hath given assurance unto all men, in that He hath raised Him from the dead."

Well might Felix tremble. Condemned even by the heathen annalist for cruelty and unholy passion, branded even by uninspired historians as infamous in his life and habits, living with this Brasilia in open violation of the decencies of life, full of rapine and avarice, an execrable specimen of the worst of Roman Procurators, it was doubtless an unusual event for him to hear the truth so plainly. Here were no mincing expressions or courtly blandishments. Here was no flattery of sin in state, or worldly accommodation to the morals of the court; but in accents of fearful earnestness, in the burning eloquence of intense conviction, on poured the torrent of truth, carrying fear and terror and confusion into his dismayed soul. One by one the barriers of his self-love are destroyed; excuse after excuse, palliation after palliation are swept away; the conscience becomes awakened, the fearful looking for judgment is manifested; for the first time he saw himself in the true light in which GOD saw him; for the first time he realized the results of a whole life of rapine and abomination; "and Felix trembled."

He had lived year by year in sin; he had deadened the natural conscience within him; he had been untrue to the light of nature bestowed upon every man; unholy custom had made his vices a very part of himself; comparing himself with himself there had been nothing to disturb his complacency, or to alarm his fears; flattered, pandered to, in the habitual excitement of pleasure and power, there was no room for the small still voice of the heart appealing to him. But now, in the person of an ignoble prisoner, a new light burst in upon him. The law of that GOD in whom he but half believed, stands revealed in its awful austerity; the rule of right, which he had despised and had daily violated, exhibits itself as the condition of every creature's well being; the vague fears of the future, which he had drowned in the lusts and occupations of this life, assume form and vividness and consistency; the conviction of an avenging justice and truth, ready to exact the uttermost farthing for every violation and shortcoming, forces itself upon his reluctant understanding; and in the midst of his pomp and glory Felix trembles.

Felix had now the offer of salvation,--that offer which at some time in his life is freely, for the merits of CHRIST, put within the reach of every child of Adam. A wholesome dread of the judgments of GOD is often the gracious means whereby the sinner is recovered. Some manifestation of the tremendous anger of the Supreme for His violated law, is many times the evidence of the tender mercy of our dear Redeemer, and thus, by a miracle of lovingkindness, the very existence of the eternal punishment of GOD becomes a gracious motive for repentance. Thus it was with Felix. It was his hour of grace. He might, like Sergius Paulus, have been converted to the Faith, and been a new demonstration of the Apostle's influence over the rich and powerful of this life; he might have been among the first-fruits of the kings of the earth, who were to become the foster-parents of the infant Church; his name might now have been written in heaven among the hosts of those who have a share in the Second Resurrection, and he might, even now,have been swelling the chant of the Redeemed within the choir of the New Jerusalem. But he failed in his trial. He put aside S. Paul's appeal as an impertinence, though not without some traces of respect; he was ashamed of his momentary emotion; he again hardened his heart. He answered, " Go thy way for this time, when I have a convenient season, I will call for thee." Alas! he knew not that that convenient season never was to come. He knew not that this was the last appeal of the Maker of his soul and body. He knew not that then the HOLY SPIRIT was abandoning His creature, and leaving him to himself for ever. There are many lessons which we may derive from this history of Felix: for although one must bear in mind that he was no Christian, and therefore had neither the light, nor the graces, nor the responsibilities, nor the criminality of you Christians, yet still human nature is human nature, and the case of the baptized who have fallen into sin, is alas! not entirely different from those who have never known the truth. Nay, in one sense, their case is even worse; for to have sinned against the good influences of the HOLY GHOST, is a more serious thing than to have done despite to the light of nature; and to have fallen away from the powers of the world to come, is worse than to have failed in the purpose for which man was created. Accordingly Felix (heathen though he was) may read a lesson to us who are the children of the kingdom.

And the first lesson we gather is the danger to one's soul of one's earthly position. We have described the life of splendour and luxury of the Roman Procurator; but splendour and luxury are not required to make the circumstances of life exercise a deadening and blinding effect upon our spiritual condition. Human custom is more dangerous than we think for. Which of us can honestly say that we have never taken the way of the world as our rule of practice, or said that a thing is sure to be right because other people do it. Nay, which of us can say that the mere fact, that we ourselves have been used to a certain course of action, has not often been our excuse in doing what is absolutely wrong: "I make it my rule to do so and so"--"I make it my rule never to do so and so." How often do such silly and worthless expressions as these serve to justify us to our own minds in courses which are far from right; in hardness to the poor, in avarice, or the like. Indeed, whether our standard of morals be our own view of these things, or the public opinion of those around us, we shall find that too generally our condition is that of Felix. We let day after day pass by, living as at random, falling into temptation when it comes, esteeming its absence merit on our parts, gradually accumulating a load of unrepented, because forgotten, sin, and allowing vicious practice after vicious practice, unattended to, because habitual, gradually to eat the heart out of all our religion, till we are lulled into a false security, and esteem ourselves safe, because we will not take the trouble to look into our own spiritual state, or examine our daily conduct by the rule of GOD'S commandments.

The next lesson we get from Felix's conduct is one closely connected with this. It is the miserable effect which indulged sin has in darkening the soul and destroying the conscience. All sin is essentially deceiving; and in the case of this unhappy magistrate, we have a specimen of what is daily taking place among ourselves. Nothing is more common for a person to say, "I can't see that such a thing is wrong;" and because they cannot so see, they fancy there is no criminality in their acts. Many fancy that there is no criminality in an act, so as it does not offend the conscience. It is the commonest thing in the world for people to make light of some of GOD'S commandments, because these commandments do not commend themselves to the individual sense of right and wrong. I have heard men gravely defend irregularities in their domestic relations, because they saw no harm in such courses; and with regard to sins of the intellect, nothing is more common than for men to suppose that because men do not recognize their fault as such, they are therefore blameless. They who hold these views (and I am sorry to say they are extensively prevalent) forget that GOD'S law is a rule of life external to us, and that no casuistry upon our parts, no special pleading in behalf of our pet iniquities, no tenderness with regard to our bosom sins, can make the slightest difference in the sight of Him, Who is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity, and Who will by no means clear the guilty.

Felix had lived much like other governors. We know from the most eloquent of the Romans what lives the provincial magistrates of the great empire led, how the subjected states groaned under their extortions and violence. If he thought at all on the subject, he found plenty of precedents in those who had gone before him, and in those who lived near him, for every particular of his conduct. His ways were those of his neighbours, and therefore his conscience never spoke the truth to him. Rapine became habitual to him; others had made their fortunes out of the province, why should not he? others had sold justice and taken bribes, why need his hands be cleaner than his "most excellent" predecessors? others had used their high office for the gratification of their passions, why should he be more continent than they? Thus, doubtless, he went on from bad to worse, gradually deadening the spiritual life within him, till conscience slumbered for the time, and till sinning gave him neither uneasiness or pain.

Again, we learn from the case of Felix to distrust mere religious emotions. ''Felix trembled." The governor was profoundly moved, yet it had no permanent effect upon him. Now I am not one of those who undervalue the effect of strong excitation of the Spirit in certain conditions of the soul. The very existence and widespread prevalence of Wesleyanism, shows how strong an element this is in human nature, even in the undemonstrative Englishman. I believe that that party did not get fair play in the last century, and were driven from the communion of the Church by the want of kindliness and wisdom on the part of the prelates of those days. There will always be individuals, who from temperament will be ever more accessible by a religion of emotion than by a religion of principle. It is also true that certain races are apt, in matters of religion, to feel more than they reason; and, therefore, I hold it to be most unphilosophical, entirely, and in a wholesale fashion, to condemn those phases of the religious life which exhibit themselves in strong commotion of the heart and spirit.

But still they are not to be trusted. I have heard such states of mind described as "a parenthesis in a very bad life, both before and after;" and it is generally found by experience that the system of "revivals" though in some states not ineffective of good, does not leave much permanent result. Emotion is sent by GOD, and therefore in itself must be good, but it is a means to an end. The mere feeling oneself a sinner, or the mere feeling oneself saved, cannot possibly affect our condition in GOD'S sight one way or other; but emotion is sent to break up the barren and dry ground of the human heart, to prepare it for that seed of good principle and steady obedience, which watered with the rain of heaven, even the grace of GOD, and nourished with the rich juices extracted from corruption, that is sanctified by the death of CHRIST, brings forth some thirty fold, some sixtyfold, and some a hundredfold, hereafter to be stored in the heavenly garner. Yes! my brethren, remember that to feel good is not to be good; that neither excitement, nor warm passion, nor the poetry of religion, can take the place of doing justly, and loving mercy and walking humbly with thy GOD.

But the great lesson to be derived from this striking incident in S. Paul's history, is the danger of procrastination. "When I have a convenient season I will send for thee." We know not whether Felix at the time had a bonĂ¢ fide intention of sending for the Apostle again, or whether he merely used this as a courteous method of getting rid of an importunate adviser. It was probably the former, considering the relative social condition of the two parties; but it matters not, for in either alternative we may read a lesson to ourselves. The result is the same, whether we put off our repentance with the full intention of changing at some future time, or whether we make a false excuse to ourselves to deaden our remorse. In either case the end is the same: as a fact we do not repent, though of course the one is more criminal than the other. Now when we come to think of it, we shall see how very prevalent is this sin of procrastination in regard to the affairs of our immortal souls.

Confessedly to turn closer to GOD, or again to turn away from sin, alike require an effort. Most of us have enough religious sense within us to acknowledge the necessity of these processes in the abstract, and, in fact, most of us really intend to do them. But then comes the work of Satan. He says, "Repent, but not yet! put off till to-morrow such and such a religious duty; you will have equal opportunity at some future time to do what your conscience urges you to do now, but which your will rebels at as burdensome to flesh and blood." Thus is it that the tempter secures many a victim. "Observe the opportunity," saith the wise man; and again, "Make no tarrying to turn unto the LORD, and put not off from day to day, for suddenly shall the wrath of GOD come forth, and in thy security thou shalt be destroyed, and perish in the day of vengeance." 0 that men would learn the value of time. Nothing is more valuable, yet nothing is so lightly esteemed. Its measure is GOD alone, for in well spent time GOD is to be attained unto. The hour passes, and the hour is given to practise repentance, and to obtain grace. The hour passes, and in it the treasures of Divine mercy are freely opened to the Christian. O time, so despised by men in life, how will it be regretted at the hour of death! What a sickening thought will then be the misspent hours; the days, and weeks, and years, (each given for working out our salvation,) spent in frivolous pursuits, in mere listless idleness, or worse than all, in sin! What would the departing spirit then give for the power of living over again one of these neglected periods of time; but in vain! What would he not exchange for the opportunity once more being afforded him of redeeming that time, of which he has found that the days are evil? Wherefore "Defraud not thyself of the good day, and let not the part of a good desire overpass thee."

You say that you will give yourself to GOD, but at a later period. Now is not this almost intrenching upon the prerogative of GOD, who hath kept the times, and the seasons, in His own power? You calculate upon days, when the very hours are not your own. You presume upon the mercy of GOD, that because He has given you time and space for repentance up till now, for the very reason that you have neglected Him hitherto, He will accord you more. And above all, you presume on fresh grace being given you, because you have done despite to it hitherto, as if neglect and contempt of the inspirations of GOD were the means of drawing down fresh blessings from on high upon you, and of moving the ALMIGHTY to bestow upon you those privileges which you desire, but which you will not concern yourselves to be at pains to seek. "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in the grave, whither thou goest."

In conclusion. The same Apostle, who in the midst of his bonds, and surrounded by the factious opponents among his own countrymen, was so carried away by zeal for souls and by the force of truth, as to reason before the haughty Roman, of justice, and continence and judgment to come, still from His throne in heaven presses the same arguments on us. Being dead he yet speaketh.

Not to heathen magistrates, stained with every vice and crime, but to Christians one by one, his sermon is still of righteousness, temperance, and the awful day of doom. Sad is it that they who are one with CHRIST, and who have been raised with Him into heavenly places, should still need that these first principles of the elements of morality should constantly be forced upon them. Yet, alas! so it is. The preacher of the word must still enforce the same elementary lessons. He must remind you of the obligation of righteousness, of the necessity of unreserved and entire obedience to the holy law of GOD. He must impress upon you that temperance which arises from the true spirit of Christian mortification, for ye are dead, and your life is hid with CHRIST in GOD. He must sound in your ears in season and out of season, that it is appointed unto man once to die and after that the judgment, when for every thought, word, and deed, from the first moment of reason, to the parting breath, each of us shall have to render a strict account.

He does all this, and yet in how many cases does he this in vain. Yes, believing men can hear unmoved and unconcerned that which caused a profligate heathen to tremble upon his own judgment-seat; and will not that profligate heathen rise up in the judgment against those easygoing well-to-do Christians, who with hearts as fat as brawn, hear unmoved and unconcerned, the terrors and the tender mercies of the LORD; the denunciation of His enduring wrath; the glad tidings of His unspeakable mercy; who remain cold and hardened, whether we speak to them of GOD'S justice or of His love, and who are so utterly insensible to these things that they do riot even trouble themselves to put them off to a more convenient season. Strange infatuation! Unaccountable hardness of heart! Alas! the day must come when these things must have an effect upon them, but it will be the great and terrible day of the LORD GOD Almighty. The day will come when they will know of righteousness and temperance, but when there is no scope for the practice of the one or the other. The day will come, when they will be convinced of the final retribution by the fearful signs of its actual advent. Let us at least be wise in time. Let us so tremble at the thought of them, that in that hour we need not to tremble. Let us be so just and continent now, that then the enemy may find nought to accuse us. Let us so redeem the time, that in the great day we may be accepted, for the merits of JESUS CHRIST our LORD, to Whom, &c.

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