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.


S. MATT. xi. 6.


THE occasion on which these remarkable words were uttered was a sufficiently striking one. John was at this time imprisoned in the Castle of Machserus, a fortress belonging to Herod Antipas. The rumour of certain miracles of our SAVIOUR had gone "throughout all Judea and throughout all the region round about, and his disciples showed him all these things." The cure of the Centurion's servant, and the raising of the widow's son, by the chronology, seem to have been those which attracted their notice, upon which he sends two of them to our SAVIOUR, with the significant question, Art Thou He That should come? Art Thou That One of Whom it was said, "Yet a little while and He That shall come will come, and will not tarry?" Art Thou the Shiloh prophesied by the dying Patriarch? Art Thou He of Whom it was declared, "Behold your GOD will come with vengeance, even GOD with a recompense; He will come and save you?" Art Thou He of Whom it was written, "Remove the diadem, take off the crown; I will overturn, it shall be no more until He come Whose right it is?" Art Thou, in short, That Mystic Deliverer, prophesied of from age to age, the Expectation of the People, and their SAVIOUR?

But wherefore this question? We cannot for a moment suppose that the Baptist's faith had begun to waver under his own imprisonment, and the absence of earthly splendour in the SAVIOUR'S mission; we cannot believe that he had forgotten the hearing of the FATHER'S Voice, and the apparition of the Holy Dove at the Baptism of the Redeemer. Doubtless the LORD'S answer might convey satisfactory corroboration to his own deep-rooted and well-grounded convictions with regard to the MESSIAH, but we can never suppose that one so trained as the Blessed Precursor, brought up in that purity and seclusion which tends so much to foster the habit and strengthen the capacity of faith, should have so doubted of the truth of his own life-long convictions, as to have required this proof of the mission of Him Whom he had testified unto as "the Lamb of GOD That taketh away the sins of the world."

We must conclude, therefore, that this was done for the sake of his remaining stedfast adherents, for that faithful few, who, in spite of his bonds and imprisonment, as well as of the superior attractiveness of our SAVIOUR'S teaching, still clung to their old master. Many had already left his side to follow the Redeemer, and John had acquiesced in the change; but the hour of his departure might come soon; he knew that the evil influences of the vindictive Herodias were at work against him, and therefore he was desirous before his end to supply his most faithful adherents with such proofs of the mission of the SAVIOUR as that, in any case, in Him they might find a Master.

He accordingly sent them with the question I have mentioned; and how does our SAVIOUR answer it? Not by expressly informing them that Himself was the MESSIAH, as in the case of the Samaritan woman, but by referring them to the supernatural works of mercy, which they actually saw, or heard of on credible testimony, as the best proofs of the Divinity of His mission. "And in the same hour," says S. Luke in his account of this transaction, "JESUS cured many of their infirmities and plagues, and of evil spirits: and unto many that were blind He gave sight." Then naturally follow the words, "Go and show John again those things which ye do see and hear--the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the Gospel preached unto them."

These had been in prophecy the very conditions of the SAVIOUR'S advent: "Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as a hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing." And to these, on more occasions than one, did our LORD appeal: "For the works which the FATHER hath given Me to finish, the same works that I do bear witness of Me, that the FATHER hath sent Me." Nay, so deeply was the moral character of these works written upon His mission, so completely was the proof of His divine nature and advent bound up in the work of practical beneficence and kindness, that when in the synagogue of His own Nazareth, He declared to His astonished fellow-townsmen the nature of His divine claims, they were founded on this blessed fact, by saying "that the Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, because He hath anointed Me to preach the Gospel to the poor, He hath sent Me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised; to preach the acceptable year of the LORD."

A lesson this to Christians in these days of outward profession! If the SON of GOD Himself based His claims upon the life of supernatural benevolence He led, if it was to miracles of goodness, as much as of power, that He referred the disciples of John in attestation of His being the Shiloh, may we not in the same charity find the only proof of the sincerity of our own religious convictions? Profession is far easier than practice; and to talk religiously demands less of us than to act religiously. The Devil will ever try to ensnare us by blinding us to our real condition how we stand in GOD'S sight, and therefore we all need some crucial test which shall bring us down from our high imaginings, and show us what poor and imperfect beings we are at the best. This test is the imitation of CHRIST in the paths of practical holiness and in good works. Let a man try but for one day to follow our SAVIOUR Who went about doing good continually, and freeing those who were oppressed by the Devil; let a man but once try from the moment he rises in the morning to do as much good as he can, in imitation of our LORD'S example and in dependence on His grace, and he will not only see how little he has to value himself on even at the best, but also he will know how very far short his usual standard of practice--as well as the usual standard of that society, which is the world to him as influencing his opinions, comes of that holy and strict commandment implied in the following of JESUS.

Doubtless this was in our SAVIOUR'S mind, when He added those significant words of the text: "And blessed is he whosoever shall not be offended in Me." As if His heart were moved as He thought of the many, who, in spite of all these gracious proofs of His Messiahship, in spite of the undeniable evidence of well-authenticated miracles, corroborated by the fact that such miracles had also been the subject of prophecy many hundred years before--should so deprave their wills as to reject His pretensions, and to be offended at Himself and His doctrine. He knew, as none else did, the depraved heart of man, for He had made it, though He had made it upright; and He foresaw, that in spite of every manifestation of His love and His justice--of His tenderness and His severity, the many should reject Him. "Sanctify the LORD of Hosts Himself: and let Him be your fear, and let Him be your dread. And He shall be for a sanctuary: but for a stone of stumbling and for a rock of offence to both the houses of Israel; for a gin and for a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many among them shall stumble and fall, and be broken, and be snared, and be taken. Bind up the testimony. Seal the law among My disciples."

Now the sources of offence at CHRIST will be twofold. They will proceed from errors, either in the intellect or in the heart. They will be suggested either by want of faith or by want of love. They will manifest themselves either in misbelief or in evil or inadequate practice.

1st. Of the offence of CHRIST from the intellect. "The natural man receiveth not the things of GOD because they are spiritually discerned." The fall has left such traces in darkening the soul of man, that there is always a tendency to error in this respect--an error which can only be repaired by an exertion of divine grace. Accordingly it becomes almost an essential of the articles of faith, that they have each their peculiar difficulty of acceptance by the mind of fallen man. This is specially the case with regard to the natures and person of our SAVIOUR. It is hard to the unrenewed mind to believe that the Son of the Carpenter is the great GOD Who made heaven and earth. It is hard to believe that the Eternal Word and Wisdom of the FATHER hath been manifest in the form of an obscure peasant of Galilee. Time has made little change, and the question still arises, "Whence then hath this man all these things?" Men are still offended at Him, and stumble at His doctrines, just as the people did "when He came into His own country." Men still start aside at the statement of many of the supernatural truths of His holy religion--which in one sense is but Himself in another form--for He is the Incarnate Truth,--just as when on the occasion of His sermon on the Sacrament at Capernaum, "many of His disciples went back and walked no more with Him." Here then we see one great characteristic of a living faith--that it walks not by sight. It cannot be denied that in this country there is a great deal of practical Saduceeism--that there is a hard sceptical questioning spirit which submits the faith to the intellect, and on the principle of taking nothing for granted, gradually doubts away the whole Christian revelation. No conviction will endure such treatment as this, and Christianity especially being a supernatural system, proposed to us on the authority of GOD, and as such, to be submitted to, will fall upon and crush any one who thus attempts to master it by his mere reason. No, my brethren, recollect that faith is the gift of GOD and of a heavenly origin. It is not within the compass of your own attainment, at least by the ordinary methods of attaining human science; you cannot read yourselves, nor argue yourselves, nor reason yourselves into faith; faith is a grace infused into you by GOD, and as to its attainment or increase follows the divine laws, whereby His other gifts are bestowed upon us, "Open thy mouth wide and I shall fill it," is His own gracious promise.

The unlikelihood, or difficulty of acceptance of a Christian doctrine, is no argument against its truth; for, confessedly, "GOD'S ways are not as our ways, nor His thoughts as our thoughts." In fact, a truth will cease to be matter of faith, and become matter of science, if this element of difficulty be removed out of it. The correlative of this is the habit of submission, and this is indeed the only attitude which man can take in reference to the truths of GOD. He may devise corroborative arguments for his already-formed conviction, but no study of what are called the evidences of religion ever made a man a Christian whose will was to be a sceptic. The only position which the believer can safely take is his place at the foot of the Cross. Contrite and chastened in heart and will, with single eye and body full of light, he may then gaze on the Truth visibly set forth crucified before His eyes, and in that sight of love and shame, in that spectacle of agony and condescension, in that manifestation of the depths of the riches, both of the wisdom and knowledge of GOD--he may learn that His judgments are unsearchable and His ways past finding out.

In the presence of GOD crucified out of love to us, all thoughts of rationalism fade away as the morning dew; doubts and questionings are silenced, and before the eye of the entranced believer, the different verities of the true religion, the atonement and satisfaction of CHRIST; His Presence by His Spirit within the Holy Church; His life-giving energy in the Sacraments of the Gospel; His mercies conveyed to us through the ministry of reconciliation; His perpetual mediation at the FATHER'S Right Hand; His intimate connexion with His mystical Body; the evidences of His love and the manifestations of His justice; His tenderness; His condescension; His intimate sympathy--all flit in tangible shape, gladdening his heart and beckoning him on to those happy times, when not by faith but by active fruition, he shall enter into the joy of His LORD.

But 2ndly. The heart may supply material for the offence of CHRIST as well as the intellect. CHRIST may be a scandal and rock of offence to us not only by the unlikelihood and strangeness of His doctrines but by the austerity and strictness of His precepts. So it was in the days of His visible appearance; so it is now. How did He receive the young ruler who professed to have a desire to inherit eternal life? He bid him go and sell his goods, and give them to the poor. Here was the offence of the Cross. "When he heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had many possessions." When he propounded His great law of purity, that it standeth not in meats and drinks, but that defilement consisted in that which proceeded out of the mouth of man, the Pharisees were offended. When He laid down the clear law of Church and State in the matter of the tribute money, the courtier Herodians offended, "marvelled, and left Him, and went their way."

And so it hath been since those days. S. Paul speaks of the offence of the Cross as an expression or habit of thought quite familiar to his Galatian converts, while S. Peter asserts that to them that believe, CHRIST is precious, but unto them which be disobedient He is a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence, even to them which stumble at the word. As it was in these days, so it is now. Thousands and thousands live in the most extreme contempt of the law of our LORD, either by open rebellion against His precepts, or by the most supreme indifference to them. How many are there in this country who live without GOD in the world; indeed, when we hear people talking of the good which has been done when speaking of the improvement of the upper classes, we must mourn over that great mass of Godless workmen who live from one year's end to another without even attending to their duty or participating in the means of grace. Such may be counted by thousands; and my experience tells us that matters are getting worse. The day was when no honest artizan could bear to be without his Sunday suit; now there are hundreds, both of weavers and mechanics, who have so completely lost the sense of their obligation in this respect, that they make no exertion to provide themselves with fitting habiliments, but live on contentedly, careless, and un-awakened, till some illness comes, and they are hurried off unprepared to their final account. The condition of the working classes in this respect fills one with sorrow and with fear. Sad is it that labour, the merciful discipline of life and the special appointment of fallen man, as the penance for sin, should thus be perverted from the merciful purpose of Him Who ordained it. Fearful when we remember that the wicked shall be cast into hell, and all the people that forget GOD.

But there is a worse class in this respect than the profligate and careless workman who spends his earnings in intoxication and brutal indulgence, I mean that large class of respectable people, who, without throwing off all practice of religion, while they for decency's sake and from human respect, perform its external duties, do in fact rebel against its severity and shape to themselves an easy Gospel--a relaxed rule suited to that importunate world of which they are the willing slaves. I say that this is worse than the Godlessness to which I have alluded, for such as these sin against light, and yet I have reason to believe that such a state of things is far more common than we think for. Compare any point now with the stricter view of the early Church and you will see how the torrent of human custom has borne men away from the shore of divine truth. Take the measure of the manifestation of sorrow for past sin now deemed necessary, and compare it with the yearlong repentances of primitive times; or take the different estimate of the danger of riches and earthly comfort., and measure it by those ancient renunciations even of innocent and lawful pleasures from the dread that they might draw away the heart from GOD; or consider what a complete dead letter such a text as this has become among us, "If any man will follow Me, let him deny himself daily and take up his cross and follow Me." Ah, my brethren, you see how this touches you! Beware of a relaxed Gospel. It is better to aim high and fail a hundred times, than to sit down in the complacency of a religion which has shaken hands with the world, and which is more dangerous than open impiety, because it lulls the conscience to sleep. Believe me that this is the special manifestation of the scandal of the Cross in these days, and that every one who thus shapes his religious practice to what is pleasant to himself, and agreeable to his neighbours, is in fact offended in his LORD.

It is a great grace not to be offended in CHRIST: Full of benediction as the Gospel is, our LORD is no squanderer of His favours. His honours are not made cheap by indiscriminate liberality, though all who are worthy are sure to receive them. He has declared that certain conditions of the soul, poorness of spirit, sorrow for sin, meekness, purity, a peaceable spirit, a merciful heart, hunger after righteousness, and the suffering of persecution for His sake, are blessed states. These are the highest conditions of the Christian character. They are the clearest evidences of the heavenly temper manifested here on earth. They are therefore blessed; addressed even here by the style and title of the world to come.

Now observe, that our LORD, sparing as He is of such honours and weighing well His words, has added yet another beatitude, "Blessed is he whosoever shall not be offended in Me."

"Not to be offended in CHRIST," I repeat it, is therefore a high grace of the Gospel--a grace difficult of attainment--a grace eagerly to be sought after. O may you, my brethren, never be offended in CHRIST. May you cultivate those feelings of submission both in mind and heart which make the Gospel in all its intellectual and moral severity a savour of life, and not a savour of death, unto those who encounter it. May you chasten your souls to receive those truths which seem folly to the carnal mind, but which are the powers of the world to come to those who accept them. May you receive and obey the holy law of GOD, not only in its gentler but in its severer aspect, and may you count all things but loss in comparison of the mercy of being found in CHRIST and of the privilege of keeping His Commandments!

And in so doing, you have the assurance that you are of the blessed, "Hath He said, and shall He not do it?" He hath solemnly accorded to you by anticipation the honours and benediction of the future world. Be not offended in CHRIST, and you are blessed here--blessed in being in the state of grace--blessed in the full assurance of faith--blessed in the special protection of GOD and His holy Angels--blessed in the special illumination of His Spirit--blessed in His actual indwelling.

Be not offended in CHRIST, and you shall be blessed hereafter--blessed in the enjoyment of pleasures which eye hath not seen, nor ear heard--blessed in the bright society of the holy saints and angels--blessed in the life of perpetual peace and adoration round the throne--blessed in partaking of the fruit of the tree of life--blessed in the Beatific Sight and Enjoyment of GOD, ultimate end of all creation, and the crown reward of the victory over sin.

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