THE PRACTICAL NATURE OF CHRISTIANITY.
S. LUKE I. 74.
"THAT WE BEING DELIVERED OUT OF THE HANDS OF OUR ENEMIES MIGHT SERVE HIM WITHOUT FEAR, IN HOLINESS AND RIGHTEOUSNESS BEFORE HIM ALL THE DAYS OF OUR LIFE."
THE causes why the SON of GOD took upon Him our nature transcend the intellect of the highest seraph. S. Peter, in describing the result "of the sufferings of CHRIST and the glory that should follow," declares that these are things "which the angels desire to look into;" as if those pure and holy beings, whose intellects are ever being exercised on the objects of faith, and who are ever drawing in torrents of knowledge and love from the wellspring of all science and affection, find in the contemplation of the Incarnation of CHRIST an inexhaustible subject for meditative adoration.
And truly, when we come to estimate how much is implied in this stupendous fact, we shall see that no created mind can grasp it in its fulness. That the incomprehensible Nature of GOD, the Very Word and Wisdom of the Eternal FATHER, should unite Itself to the nature of man, and should become a part of that creation which Himself had made, is a circumstance so mysterious, and so awful, that we may well believe angel and archangel, throne and domination, princedom and power, alike confess themselves vanquished, when they seek to penetrate the objects of this Divine condescension.
But enough has been revealed both to men and to angels, to show us that the Incarnation of CHRIST is not more astounding in its awfulness, than gracious in its winning loving kindliness. Enough has been revealed to us to show us, that while its effects in their extent transcend the furthest spheres, and in their greatness surpass the utmost stretch of created imagination, to us it is the manifestation of the mercy and grace of GOD, bringing salvation to our very doors, and touching our very selves with every heavenly benediction. For by the Incarnation GOD has given to us His only SON to be the redemption of that world which He had created--to be the righteousness and sanctification of those that are baptized and believe in Him--to be the way, the truth, and the life to those who seek Him--to be the spiritual food of those who approach Him at the holy altar--and to be the eternal reward and treasure of those who persevere unto the end.
It has been said that blessings to which we are accustomed lose their edge, and our gratitude is not keenly excited by those mercies which are habitual. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the blessed sunshine in which we bask, the cool air fanning the cheek, are all blessings which we do not appreciate, till we are in circumstances to feel the want of them. And if this be the case with regard to the gifts of nature, it is alas! still more the case with regard to the gifts of grace. Not only are we thankless, but we turn away from them--not only are we careless, but we are ungrateful. For just consider what it is to us, that the Blessed SON of GOD should have assumed our nature. It is nothing less than reconciliation between GOD and man--it is the annulling the worst part of the sentence of the fall--it is the re-opening of paradise--it is the assurance of present grace and protection, and the earnest of future happiness in bliss unspeakable. But all this conditionally. Conditionally on our repentance, faith, and love; and because it is conditionally, men turn away from these transcendent mercies. 'No,' say they, 'all this will not do for us; we want a Saviour, but one who will save us without trouble on our part. We do not want a SAVIOUR to deliver us from sin, but we insist upon one who will deliver us in sin. We wish, we desire present joys, and the indulgence of our own wills, and we resist, we reject, we spurn a religion that imposes other terms but these. Thus speaks the corrupt heart of man in treating of the mercies accorded to us by GOD in CHRIST. It is the deep utterance of the depraved soul remonstrating at the height of GOD'S holy hill, and the severity of His sacred law.
And as is always the case, that corrupt heart of man will seek to mould for itself a religious system which will in some sort pander to its depraved instincts. There will always be an attempt on the part of man to get to Heaven by some other way than the path of GOD'S commandments--the way of obedience for CHRIST'S sake. And accordingly in looking back upon the history of human nature, we shall find various attempts at meeting this peculiar craving.
Some would assert, that long ere we had been born an irresistible decree had gone out, appointing us either to everlasting happiness or everlasting shame; the logical result of which is, it matters not what we do or leave undone, we cannot alter the word that hath gone forth.
Others would teach us, that a strong assurance of being saved takes the place of all ordinances; and that if we only can persuade ourselves that we are in the grace of GOD, all is well. Now one cannot see how a conviction about ourselves, even if by chance it be a right one, can have any effect on the way we stand in GOD'S sight; but even granting that it could, how dangerous is it to trust to any such conviction, and how easily may we be deceived--nay, how sure are we to be deceived, seeing that the Scripture says, "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us."
Others, of a more imaginative turn, lean more to an emotional religion. If they take great delight in prayer--if they picture to themselves a bright idea of CHRIST in the midst of His celestial court--if after a solemn service their souls have been raised to heaven by the solemn chant and stately procession--if on hearing an eloquent preacher, they are overcome by a sense of their sins, then they fancy all is well, and that they are excellent Christians.
Again others fancy, that by the strict performance of some one or two religious duties, they may compound for the infraction of others. If they are strict in Church-going, they are censorious about their neighbours; if they are charitable to the poor, they exceed Christian moderation in eating and drinking; if they are clear-sighted in matters of principle, they indulge themselves in hard thoughts of others. These, and many such anomalies, constantly exist; and there is a tendency in the human mind to keep a sort of debtor and creditor account with GOD, and to set so much goodness in one sort, against so much sin in another.
Now in all these errors (as in most errors) there is just such a spice of truth as may commend it to our perverted consciences. It is true GOD by His prescience knows our future; but it is also true that He has left our wills in some sort free, and that no one will be lost but for his own fault. It is true that an assurance of peace and comfort in the HOLY GHOST is often accorded by GOD to Christians, even while on earth, but we may not rest on that. It is true that the emotions and the imaginations are to be sanctified as well as the intellect and the memory; but it is a balancing truth that mere fine feeling will not serve us, and that not they that cry "LORD, LORD, shall enter into the kingdom, but he that doeth the will of My FATHER." Lastly, it is to a certain degree true that the existence of one or two high qualities may by the mercy of GOD cure the rest of the soul by its sedulous exercise, and so subdue the whole man eventually to the dominion of faith; but it is also true that he that offendeth in one point is guilty of all, and that GOD claims the whole heart, and not a divided allegiance.
Now the text meets all these mistakes by asserting what has been one great end of the coming of CHRIST. It there declares that the oath and purpose of mercy, which from the hour of the fall dwelt within the heart of GOD, and which was in due time manifested in His blessed SON, was that He should destroy the works of the devil, and make us the sons of GOD and heirs of eternal life; in other words, that is in the words of my text, "that we being delivered out of the hands of our enemies might serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our life."
In these short words we get much food for serious meditation. Our religious course shall be approved for the merits of CHRIST, as I said before on certain conditions. 1. That we shall be delivered out of the hands of our enemies. 2. That we may serve Him, and that without fear. 3. That this service is one of righteousness and holiness. And lastly, that such service is to be a progressive one, continuing so long as we poor sinners are on our trial.
Now each of these deserves a few minutes' thought.
1. The first blessing GOD gives us is deliverance from our enemy. Man's worst enemy is the devil and sin. Now in one sense it may be said that we are not freed from these, for temptation besets the path of the Christian all through life, and S. Paul gives us a graphic account of the wrestling we have, not against flesh and blood, but against wicked spirits in high places. Nay, the best and holiest of men must with shame confess that they day by day offend their good LORD, and can only cry for mercy in the terms of the publican. But on the other hand, it must be borne in mind that since the coming of CHRIST the power of the devil on earth is much diminished, our LORD having seen him like lightning fall from heaven, and having by His descent into hell triumphed over the dismal powers of despair and hell. Strong as temptation is, we know that no one is tempted beyond what he is able to resist, and if he have recourse to the Passion of CHRIST he will obtain not only a victory but a crown. Nay more, under the gospel we must not say that there exists a dire necessity of sinning unto death, else we should destroy much of the responsibility of man. If under the old law some walked in all the ordinances of the law blameless, surely under the glorious gospel of CHRIST, with all the aids and helps He so liberally bestows on us, there should be some, who like the Church of Sardis, "walk in white."
But this at least all must allow, that whatever must be said of frailties and imperfections, deliberate wilful sins must entirely be renounced, if we would seek to appropriate to ourselves the results of the blessed incarnation of the Holy SON of GOD. However free are the promises of the gospel, they are not for impenitent sinners. Impenitence and hardness of heart shut the portals of the Divine mercy.
2. The next result of CHRIST having come in the flesh is, that we may serve Him without fear. The perpetual sacrifice of CHRIST not only impetrates pardon for a suppliant world, but also merits grace sufficient for the salvation of all. To every son of Adam sufficient grace is given to save him, though, alas! we see too many neglect so gracious a gift. But if the work of CHRIST be thus enabling, you see, dear brethren, what an obligation it lays on you to occupy with that precious talent. GOD has done all this in order to enable you to render to Him that service, which is not only perfect freedom, but which is the true end and happiness of the creature, the very purpose for which all things were called into being.
And this service is without fear. The relation with GOD into which we are brought through His Divine SON is a filial one. We have received the adoption of sons, and therefore the more we act as dutiful children, the more we shall love our kind parent; and when love is perfect then we are told it casteth out fear.
Now by serving GOD without fear, I would not have you for a moment believe that any familiarity with the Awful Being, or with anything belonging to this holy service, is here countenanced. The fear that is cast out by perfect love is distrust of His goodness and mercy, or the dread of ever being separated from His holy care. But we are not for a moment to believe that any supposed advance in the spiritual life entitles us to take liberties with the honour of Him, at whose sight the whole earth trembleth.
And this service is in holiness and righteousness. Holiness has been defined to be purity and strength, the clean heart and the strong will dedicated as an offering to GOD; and righteousness is the same as justice, and may be taken either for that one great quality whereby we render both to GOD and to man what is due, or else for that habitual charity, that condition of being in the grace of GOD; which contains the whole cycle of the Christian duties.
Now some modern systems have represented the effects of the fall of Adam and his descendants as so complete, that even the power of GOD has failed to restore them; holding that man is not as we say "very far gone from original righteousness" but utterly and irredeemably depraved, they have been driven to invent a theory whereby they may explain the phenomenon of salvation. They have adopted what is termed the theory of imputation, which maintains that in the case of those who are saved, they themselves remain in their native depravity, but the merits of CHRIST are imputed to them, are apprehended by them, and so they are saved. Now if by the expression, the imputation of the merits and righteousness of CHRIST, they mean that those merits and that righteousness is the cause of all that is good in man; if they mean that except in communion and fellowship with CHRIST, there can be nothing worthy to endure the strict judgment of GOD; if they mean that of ourselves we are nothing, and that out of CHRIST we have no rest or stay, they say well and truly, only they express themselves ambiguously. But if by the expression, the imputation of the merits of CHRIST, they mean that a man need not, or indeed cannot be good and holy; if they hold that man's justification by a sort of theological fiction, is not the making a man just by GOD, but the supposing him so when he is not; if they deny the mighty process of the work of the HOLY GHOST, whereby men from being sinners do really and truly become holy, meek, and pious, then, I say, they are advocating a doctrine which strikes a blow at the root of Christian morality. The right account of the process is to say, with our great Divine, Bishop Pearson, that righteousness is not imputed but imparted to us, the work being the work of CHRIST within us, and then CHRIST crowns His own work in us with an eternal reward.
Assuming then that the operation of the Incarnation of the SON of GOD works in man a real change of nature, transforming by its mighty power that which is evil into a real, though imperfect, likeness to Himself; the text shows us that this is a process continuing all the days of our life. It says, "That we being delivered out of the hands of our enemies should serve GOD without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him, all the days of our life."
Now this is what I wish to impress upon you very solemnly--First, that no man is really safe till his trial is over; and secondly, that holiness and righteousness in man must be essentially progressive, and that no one may sit down contented with that unto which he hath attained. Now it is a very awful thought that a man may be in the straight road now, and yet that at some future time he may fall away and be lost. Your own experience of the world will remind you of eases where men after living for thirty or forty years walking, so far as man could judge, in all the ordinances of the LORD blameless, have by some external or internal circumstance, as by the commission of some one sin, or the yielding in some great temptation, or again by the loss of fortune, or the removal of some elevating home influence, or by the sudden addition to their properties, have, as the common expression is, "forgotten themselves," and have taken to evil courses in which they died. What takes place occasionally in such wise that men may see it, takes place still oftener with regard to secret sins. All at once a blight comes over the soul, temptation is admitted, the man falls--repeats the act again and again-- forms the evil habit--drugs his conscience and is lost. "All his righteousness that he hath done shall not be mentioned; in his trespass that he hath trespassed, and in his sin that he hath sinned, in them shall he die." My brethren, should not this make us humble, should it not make us watch and pray lest we enter into temptation; should it not make us humbly thankful for the merciful warning, "Be not high-minded, but fear."
And next, we must be ever advancing. This is described in the words of the beautiful Psalm, "They shall go from strength to strength until unto the GOD of Gods every one of them appeareth in Sion." It takes a long and a weary time to destroy the traces of old sin and form ourselves upon the model of the new man. Even at the end we shall be far short of the ensample proposed to us, but still there is comfort in the thought, that even if we are not now what we ought to be, there is no necessity for staying as we are. GOD is ever calling us and aiding us in our faintest efforts at obeying that call. He mercifully deals with us both by prosperity and by adversity, if we only will submit to His loving discipline. He uses the most ordinary circumstances of our daily lives as a means of drawing us nearer to Him if we will but walk by faith and see His gentle Hand in all that belongs to us. Nay, if we be truly repentant, He will use even our past sins to deepen our sorrow and to increase our humility. No circumstance of life happens without Him, and no moment passes without His impress.
With this feeling of the tender care and interest of the ALMIGHTY in our individual welfare, we shall be encouraged to go on unto perfection. The means of grace assist us; the hope of glory cheers us on. The mighty and life-giving SPIRIT pleads for us. The Eternal High Priest, at the FATHER'S Right Hand, mediates in our behalf. Divine grace assists us; the strong-armed Sacraments bear us up; all nature and all grace combine to bless those who shall be heirs of salvation. With such aids we need not be faint-hearted; what we have to do is to strive and to pray--to work while it is called to-day in the strength of CHRIST; and to offer to the Eternal FATHER a constant prayer for guidance, strength, and heavenly benediction; "O send out Thy light and Thy truth that they may lead me and bring me unto Thy holy hill and to Thy dwelling."