Project Canterbury Six Sermons to Men Preached in St. Ignatius' Church
New York City
During Lent, 1888. By the Rev. Arthur Ritchie New York: American Bank Note Co., 1888.
SECOND SERMON. CHRISTIANS AND OTHER PEOPLE. ROMANS viii. 29, 30.
"For whom He did foreknow, He also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the first-born among many brethren. Moreover, whom He did predestinate, them He also called: and whom He called, them He also justified: and whom He justified, them He also glorified."
I suppose that almost every one of us has been asked at some time, perhaps more than once, of his life the question, "Are you a Christian?" and very likely he has not known just what to say in reply. For to one who understands the religion of the Catholic Church to be a Christian means simply to have been baptized. One's first impulse on hearing the question, "Are you a Christian?" is to smile at the ignorance or fanaticism of the questioner. In most cases it is fanaticism which prompts the question, for those who ordinarily ask it are those who have adopted a modern and subjective type of religion which makes the essence of Christian sincerity to consist in certain emotions and sentiments of devotion to and love towards God. Their question, "Are you a Christian?" means, Have you been converted? Have you consciously chosen God for your Saviour and dedicated yourself to Him in an act of loyalty and love? This sort of religion is very comforting and very real to many persons, yet one cannot but feel that it is a very unreliable sort of thing, just because it depends entirely upon our subjective states, our imagination and our feelings. And every one knows how easily the feelings are moved when the imagination has been excited; a stirring hymn, a pathetic story, an eloquent and sympathetic preacher, any of these may move the feelings to the highest pitch of emotion; but it is just as true that as one gets away from the excitement the emotion is very apt to cool, and the energy of purpose it aroused to relax itself. Every one can verify this in his own experience. How often have we done the most foolish things in moments of sudden enthusiasm, things we have sometimes had occasion very bitterly to regret afterwards; all because one part of our nature was allowed to act for the whole, and the consultation of the various parts was not first had to decide what course should be followed; for reason and conscience have as much right to be heard as our emotions, and to share in giving orders to the will.
What then is it to be a Christian? You and I might reply, "It is to have been baptized," but that seems rather too perfunctory an answer to give. Let us therefore look into the philosophy of this Christian profession and try to understand its full significancy.
Men do not like to admit the idea of God's predestination in any sense. They say the very thought of predestination destroys free will, for how can man be independent if all things are arranged for him by God beforehand, and if he be not independent how can he be morally responsible? It comes to fatalism. It may be however that we have a false conception of predestination. We believe that God rules the world directly and immediately. Our Bibles tell us that the very hairs of our head are all numbered, that not a sparrow falls to the ground without our heavenly Father's observation, that He gives fodder to the cattle and feeds the young ravens that call upon Him. What then does our knowledge of nature teach us of the operation of God's providence in the ordering of things?
How came it to pass that this world in which we live is one of the planets of our great sun, and had not its place far away in the sky circling about some other sun which we call a fixed star? Why was not our solar system, the sphere of such stupendous operations of God's Love, made the centre of the sidereal universe, instead of being only a little outlying part, of no apparent use or consequence among its millions of giant neighbors? We cannot answer these questions except by saying that God of His own wisdom ordered it so, and there was nothing to gainsay His will. It was predestination then.
Let us come down to the history of our own world. As we study that marvellous aggregation of life, which we call generically nature, we gradually group created things into four fundamental classes.
1. There are the innumerable types of what we call inorganic life, all mineral formations and whatever lacks organic existence.
2. In the next class above the inorganic substances we place vegetable life, with its own proper organism, its definite vital functions, so far removed from the mineral substances that we cannot believe any known power of nature can bridge the gulf which separates them. Nature knows no such process as spontaneous generation; the mineral never acquires vitality.
How then did it come to pass that some created existences are endowed with vital organism and some remain dull, senseless things, as the stones? God willed it to be so, and it was so. Is then the life of the plant more desirable than that of the stone? In one sense you say yes, for it is a higher type of existence; yet in another sense you say no, for each is perfect of its kind and craves no higher development. Indeed in one sense the plant seems less blessed in its life than the stone; for it is susceptible apparently of some sort of suffering, it pines when it has no water, it grows pale and shrivels when the sunlight reaches it not. But the happy stone with philosophic stoicism regards moisture and sunshine with equal indifference. Is not this predestination again, for what was there either in the plant or the stone which caused God to make one of organic constitution and leave the other inorganic?
3. A third type of created earthly life is that of the animal kingdom. It may be hard philosophically to draw the line between vegetable and animal life, but practically we all believe it to exist. The animal has much wider scope of being than the plant, a certain volition of his own apart from those functions which he performs by instinct, and a whole world of conscious sensations which make up the pleasure and pain of his existence. How did it happen that some creatures were made in animal life, and so many others in vegetable life only? You can give only one answer, God willed it. Are the animals then better off than the plants, by virtue of their higher organization? At first you reply yes, for every upward development seems to be an advantage; but afterwards one is half tempted to say no, seeing that their existence is full of so many more dangers and evil fortunes just because of their increased capacity of pain. Is God unjust that He should have willed so many of His creatures to have only vegetable life while others are admitted to the higher plane of animals? Nay, you say, for each class is perfect of its kind, and craves no higher state of existence than that it knows; therefore God did this, as all other things, well. Yet it is surely predestination in one sense.
4. Now we come to the fourth class of earthly creations, that of man. If it be impossible to say precisely in what man is fundamentally different from the brutes, at least we are satisfied that he is so. No one has ever yet been able to pass over the gap which separates the human species from the most human-like ape. Who then brought it to pass that so many creatures were made in the human type while millions of others know only the lesser types of animal life, with no hope of rising higher in the scale of creation? You reply, God. What influenced God to make you and me human beings and left the humble horses and dogs we daily pass in the street in that lower animal life? You cannot answer that. It was simply His will. That is predestination; for without any merit in any of them, of His own wise purpose, He made some creatures stones, some plants, some brutes, and some human beings. Are we then better off than the brutes? At first we reply, without hesitation, yes; then we think and say perhaps, Who knows? There are not wanting those who say that they envy the brutes; they have no sense of responsibility, no duty but that of seeking their food; if they have an hereafter it must be of peace and contentment, they can have no fear of hell. But this is morbid. We feel that we are far better off than the brutes because we have the consciousness of personal immortality, the hope of future blessedness. We should count it a hardship indeed to be reduced to the level of brute life now that we have known human life; but for them who have never known human life just as genuine happiness is possible as there may be for us, because having no capacity of understanding life higher than their own, they can have no sense of loss in not being able to attain its joys. Is God unjust that He did nofmake all of His creatures human beings? We do not feel so, we are satisfied with His goodness and His wisdom in having made all His creatures with the degree of happiness suited to their several capacities. Still it is predestination. The study of nature has led us thus far that we accept God's uninfluenced will in the formation of the world and the creation of every type of existence, without any sense of injustice, or interference with the free agency according to his kind, of the individual creature.
Let us now turn our attention to the history of our own race in the world. It seems almost demonstrable that God gave our first parents some sort of revelation about Divine things and spiritual duties. The universality of worship by sacrifice attests this in a very remarkable way, for how should man of himself ever have lighted upon the idea of pleasing his Maker by slaying animals before Him? But whatever primaeval revelation was given, men soon lost almost entirely its spiritual meaning, for idolatry became the practice of all nations.
i. Then we find God calling a certain man, named Abram, out of all the nations of the earth, and giving him a new and special revelation and blessing. Why Abram more than other holy men? They may have been few, but there were certainly others who feared God and served Him. There was Lot, called in the Bible "just" Lot, Abram's nephew; and there was Melchizedec, that mysterious king of Salem, a distinct type of our Lord, a priest also of the most high God. Yet Abram is chosen, and neither Lot nor Melchizedec. How can we explain it? St. Paul teaches us that Abram was chosen because of his extraordinary faith. But he was called before his great faith had been proved. No one doubts that Abram's trials of faith were real trials, that his free will was exercised and chose independently and meritoriously the will of God. Then in his case is illustrated the text, "Whom He did foreknow, He also did predestinate," for foreknowing Abram's faith, He predestinated him to that great place of being Father of the faithful.
2. Behold another and most extraordinary instance: the two sons of Isaac, Esau and Jacob. Esau was the elder, the one naturally to be chosen for the great promise of being ancestor of the Messiah; yet God chooses Jacob, the younger, and that before either of them had been born. St. Paul speaks very significantly upon this point, " But when Rebecca also had conceived by one, even by our father Isaac, (for the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of Him that calleth); it was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger." Yet who may venture to say there was injustice on God's part in giving Jacob the birthright rather than Esau? No one, because this birthright was a free gift of special favour over and above anything which either brother deserved, and God has the right to distribute His favours as He will. It was a clear case of predestination however, God foreknowing the loyalty of Jacob and also the irreligion of Esau. But no one may reasonably think that this foreknowledge of his conduct by God made Esau any the less a free agent and criminally profane, when, as the Apostle says, for one morsel of meat he sold his birthright.
3. Once again why should the people of the Jews have been chosen out of all nations of the world to be the race of which our Lord should come? The only answer is "God's predestination," for He foreknowing all they should do, yet sent our Lord among them that the writings of the Prophets might all be fulfilled in His person. Yet no one can suppose that the Jews were on this account less guilty in their treatment of their Messiah. God has thus abundantly illustrated both in our own experience in nature, and in the history of the world, that all those things which He chose to bring about, He predestinated from the first, and that without interfering with the proper liberty of each of his creatures.
But our text says something about a special predestination; "Whom He did foreknow, He also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of His Son." That is what we call predestination to Christianity, for to be conformed to the image of Christ is in the highest sense to be a Christian. And can we fail to see that it was all predestinated? Only one-third of the people in the world have nominally professed Christianity; probably another third have never even heard of the Gospel. Why then should you and I have been among Christian believers, instead of among the heathen millions of China? Nay rather why should we have been what we are rather than those miserable outcasts which swarm in the tenement houses of the worst parts of our own city, with hardly any more knowledge of God than the millions of China? Of course one may trace back family history and show just how we came to be where and what we are, but no one can go far enough back to make the result any different, we lose our threads long before we get back to Shem, Ham and Japheth; and the question remains, How came we to be such as we were born and not among earth's unfortunates? God's purpose according to election, is the only answer which can be given.
1. He destined us to hear the Gospel, to know the Christian faith, to have the possibilities of the Church's life for our own; He predestinated us to be conformed to the image of His Son. How do I know that? The text tells me, for it adds, "Whom He did predestinate, them He also called." Have you and I been called? Of course we have, from earliest childhood the claims of our Lord's religion have been constantly put before us. Then began the work of our human cooperation. A man does not answer until he has been called; but if the call is to be of any avail for him he must answer. That is the solemn charge which God brings against His people, " Because when I called ye did not answer." God's predestination does not take away man's free will; it only proceeds without it so far as to call some men, not by reason of any excellence of theirs above their fellows, out of the mass of humanity, to the knowledge of the Gospel. Then it remains for man's free will to answer or to give no heed to the call.
2. He adds further "Whom He called, them He also justified." Clearly the only reasonable sense in which this can be taken is that those who answered His call, He justified. But let us not overlook the meaning of this word "justified," In it we find the explanation of the whole Christian system. The climax of justification He declares to be sanctification, "Whom He justified, them He also glorified." For this glorification is none other than what is technically called Sanctification, the making of the sons of men full of holiness. In Colossians it is said, "When Christ, Who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with Him in glory." We cannot doubt that this means such radiant loveliness and spotless purity, such transcendent powers and unfading majesty as the angels have in heaven.
But there is no known process of human development which can promise us this. It is a higher grade of existence, as radically removed from the type of this present life of ours as that is from that of the beasts, or as animal life is from vegetable, or as organic types from inorganic. It means nothing less than a new sphere of creation, the most exalted and magnificent conceivable. Have we any type of it? Yes. After our Lord arose from the dead, He exhibited Himself as the type of this new humanity, glorified man, "Whom He justified, them He also glorified." In His body even our Lord declared how fundamentally different from and more excellent than ourselves in this life He was after the Resurrection; for He vanished and became visible again at will, He easily passed through closed .doors, He ascended up in the light air, He shone with glory inexpressible when St. John saw Him in the Revelation. This glorification of the human nature is the grand climax of God's predestination. But how is it to be brought about?
Our religion answers that question by telling us the significancy of justification. God's wonderful plan is to implant within our lives a germ of that glorified life. It is nothing else than a graft cut from the glorified human nature of the Lord Himself. When does God do this wonderful grafting of our lives with the glorious life of the Lord Christ? When one is baptized. Baptism is our engrafting with the germ of the new type of heavenly life. It is the first step in this justifying of which the text speaks, "Whom He called, them He also justified." Therefore the Apostle says, " For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ." This is the great mystery of Christianity, the gift of the heavenly life imparted to us in germ form in this life, but to be developed by God's grace until our old humanity shall have been completely swallowed up by it, and only the new life of our Lord in us remain. Then we shall be "conformed to the image of His Son," which was the purpose of God's predestination.
Do not understand me to say that Baptism is of itself justification. It is so far as God's purpose is concerned, but just so soon as man has the capacity of exercising his free will, to further or to oppose the gracious work of God, his justification goes forward or backward in accordance with the exercise of that free will. All that were justified in Baptism shall by no means attain to glorification, for where there is capacity of human will, it holds the balance of power between the old nature and the new.
Nevertheless you now see why it is that we say, "A Christian is one who has been baptized," because by Baptism God gives the germ of that higher life, the sharing of the life of our Lord Christ, to our fallen humanity. The work of justification has been begun by God in every baptized person, whether it shall be true that he who has been justified shall also be glorified depends upon man's free will whenever and wherever he has free will to exercise.
And predestination comes to this, that God of His own inscrutable purpose has predestined some men to know the Christian faith and to have the opportunity of Christian Baptism, and other men not so; even as He has willed that some of His creatures shall be stones, some plants, some beasts, some also human. Why is it hard to believe that His predestination includes also the chance of a higher type yet, conformity to the image of His Son?
Without doubt there are good Christians and bad Christians, those who have the germ of the glorious life of heaven developing in them, and those who are gradually killing it because they strive not after higher things. God predestinated them to grace indeed without their own will, but not to glory save by cooperation of their own will.
But solemn thoughts grow out of these considerations.
1. After all we cannot help a feeling of compassion for those who have not been predestinated to grace, the opportunity of the glorified life. We pity them because we do not comprehend all the facts. God is wiser than we, and far more pitiful; we may rest assured that there shall be no loss or sense of lacking for them, any more than the plant can mourn because it is not an animal, or the brute because he is not a man. The Angels shall not feel any sense of unfair discrimination because the Saints are greater in nearness to our Lord than they, no more shall unglorified human nature count its lot hard in the future world because it has not been conformed to the image of God's Son.
2. How solemn the thought of responsibility for those who are not Christians, yet living in a Christian land, and hearing the daily call of the Lord. For such have been predestinated to be conformed to the image of His Son, and yet they have not answered the call. The Font stands ready, Holy Baptism may be had for the asking in sincerity, and in this ordinance lies all the difference between Christians and other people.
3. Yet only one more word. To be a Christian does not mean of necessity glorification. Israel was called by the voice of the Master Himself, the tenderest, most moving voice ever heard in the world; yet it shall be more tolerable for the men of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for the unbelieving Israelite. And what so pitiable as the renegade Christian, the man whom God has predestinated, has called, has justified, desires to glorify, yet who by his disloyalty to the obligations of his high calling mars all that gracious predestinating love? Better to be a heathen man, unregenerate, for salvation is not denied to him, better to be a dull brute, better a noxious plant in the jungle, better a senseless stone, than an unfaithful Christian; "It had been good for that man if he had not been born."