Sermon IX. The Interest of the Heathen in the Mediation of Christ. [A Sermon for the Epiphany Season.] St. John x. 16. And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.
THE festival of the Epiphany, from which this and several succeeding Sundays are dated in the calendar, derives its name from a Greek word signifying "the appearance of a light;" and the festival itself, which is celebrated on the twelfth day after Christmas, was instituted to commemorate "the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, by the appearing of a miraculous light or star, which conducted the magi to the place of his abode."
This supernatural evidence of the birth of the Saviour, which was vouchsafed to the wise men of the East, was a clear indication of the interest [114/115] of the whole Gentile world in the coming of Christ, and is in accordance with the hymn of the angelic host, who, while they announced to the, Jewish shepherds, "Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy," added this declaration also, "which shall be to all people."
The original promise, my brethren, that "the seed of the woman should bruise the serpent's head," was made to our first parents as the representatives of all their posterity, to all of whom the blessings of Christ's salvation were intended to be dispensed. It was not until that wickedness and increasing corruption of mankind, which had already caused the destruction of the old world by the deluge, threatened again to overspread the new race of men which God had spared, and in the universal establishment of idolatry, to efface the knowledge of the true God, and of his promises, that Abraham was chosen to be the depository of that knowledge, and to preserve in his family the revelation of that mercy, which in his seed was to be conveyed to men. Even in this act, however, the advantage of the promises was not confined to that family alone, to which they were given in trust; but in choosing Abraham to be the father of a peculiar and highly privileged people, God declared to him, "In thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed." Still the great advantages which the Jewish nation possessed in being made the depository of [115/116] the promises, in knowing the will and being intrusted with the oracles of God; in the establishment of his government and worship among them; in the deliverances which he vouchsafed them; and in their victories over other nations, who were driven out of their lands, that they might be planted in; all these, and many other circumstances which were peculiar in their case, operating upon their ignorance, their prejudice, and their national pride, induced them, in process of time, to believe that they alone were the favourites of heaven; and that while it was sufficient to ensure their safety, and to make God propitious, that they had Abraham to their father; all who did not possess that distinction, had no claims to the mercy of God, but were to be considered as outcasts from his favour--people whom he had abandoned as unworthy of his regard. But while such was the popular delusion which made the nation more anxious to preserve the evidence of their descent from Abraham, than to improve to God's glory the great privileges which they possessed, the prophets and the inspired men had larger views of God's purposes, as extending to all the nations of the earth, of whom he was the common father. Regarding this goodness of the universal Parent, to be realized in sending the Messiah to be the Saviour of the world, Isaiah predicted the event which we now celebrate, when he said, "The Gentiles shall come to thy [116/117] light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising." David says, in the person of God, speaking to the Messiah, in the second Psalm, "Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession." And Malachi, in the same person, declares, "From the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same, my name shall be great among the Gentiles; and in every place incense shall be offered unto my name, and a pure offering: for my name shall be great among the heathen, saith the Lord of hosts."
That at the time of the calling of Abraham, the knowledge of the true God was not entirely lost, but, together with his promises of a Divine Redeemer, was preserved and cherished by many, is extremely probable. Shem, the progenitor of Abraham, was then living, and was most probably that Melchisedec, who met Abraham and blessed him. He is called the priest of the most high God, as in those early days, the patriarch, or father of each family, was also its king and its priest: and during the protracted period of life which was then enjoyed, was enabled to communicate to a large posterity, true notions of his character, of his worship, and of his revealed will. Great as this patriarch was, by reason of his age, and of his office, so that even Abraham paid tithes unto him, in recognition of his priesthood, by [117/118] which also he prefigured the Messiah; yet, on the other hand, in token of the interest which he, with all the world, had in the Saviour who was to descend from Abraham, he "blessed him that had the promises."
Job, too, who lived not the from the time of Abraham, appears, most evidently, to have had very clear views of the character of God, and of the future coming of a promised Redeemer. And when Abraham sojourned in Gerar, although he thought, "Surely the fear of God is not in this place," yet he afterwards perceived that Abimelech, its king, had a just reverence for his name, when he expressed his fear lest his own improper conduct should bring sin and punishment on himself and his kingdom. All these, with other instances that might be mentioned, are proofs that the knowledge and fear of God, and the opportunity of securing his favour, were not confined to the chosen people, but extended to others who enjoyed not all their covenant privileges.
Such a knowledge and fear of God, my brethren, more or less perfect, must have long continued among the gradually corrupting nations of the earth; and when, at last, overlooking those proofs of an eternal power and godhead, which were manifest in the creation of the world, and might be understood by the things that were made, the nations of the earth became vain in [118/119] their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened; when not liking to retain God in their knowledge, they no longer glorified him as God nor were thankful, but changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever: even then they were not all necessarily abandoned to destruction, nor so totally lost to the knowledge of their duty, as to make it impossible for those who sincerely do sired to do so, to acquire the favour of God Amidst all the corruption and darkness of their outward circumstances, they possessed the inward directory and guide, the work of the law the distinction between virtue and vice, which revelation confirms, written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thought, the mean while, accusing or else approving one another. When, therefore, the Gentiles, who had not the law, did by nature the thing, contained in the law, these having not the law, were a law unto themselves.
Of neither the Gentiles of former times, there-fore, nor of the Heathen nations Of our own day can it be said, that they were ever so totally de graded as to be excluded from obeying God, or to make it impossible for them to enjoy his favour, and to be accepted through the merits of that [119/120] salvation which his blessed Son purchased for all mankind.
On the contrary, that he who is the God not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles, will so reasonably weigh the circumstances in which all his creatures are placed, and so consider their actions and their dispositions, according to the light which they possess, we have the explicit declaration of St. Paul--"God will render to every man according to his deeds: to them, who by patient continuance in well-doing, seek for glory and honour, and immortality, eternal life; but unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation, and wrath, tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil; of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile; but glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good; to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile. For as many as have sinned without law"--without the rule of conduct which revelation furnishes--"shall also perish without law"--without being judged by revelation, for their want of which great allowance will be made, and their punishment will be less. "And as many as have sinned in the law," or under the light of revelation, "shall be judged by the law"--by the rule of revelation; their guilt being aggravated by the advantages which they enjoyed, and their punishment being greater in proportion to their guilt. "For not the hearers [120/121] of the law are just before God"--not those merely who enjoy the light of revelation are esteemed just in the sight of God, "but the doers of the law"--they who, whether with or without the light of revelation, perform the things which it enjoins; these shall be justified in the day when God will judge not the outward circumstances, but the secret dispositions and inward inclinations of men by Jesus Christ, according to the Gospel.
My brethren, let us here pause for a moment, and regarding this rule of God's government, consider how we are affected by it.
Gentiles though we be, we are now, by possessing the advantages of revelation, in the same circumstances which formerly distinguished the Jews, and like them, boasting of high and glorious privileges, we are apt to think and speak of the condition of the heathen, as being in the last degree dangerous and lamentable. But if our argument be true, what is the fact? I answer, That our danger and our responsibility as much exceed their's, as our privileges and advantages are greater than their's. To the Jew, first, will the strict requirement of the law be applied, and then a milder test to the unenlightened Gentile. To the Christian first, and most strictly, will the requirement of the Gospel be applied; and then, more indulgently, the law of nature, or of conscience, to the Hindoo and the savage. And [121/122] while we, born in a Christian land, blessed with1 Christian light, encouraged by Christian motives to obey the reasonable will of God, according to his revelation of mercy in the Gospel; while we, with all our knowledge, and all our privileges, may forfeit our salvation for habitually refusing to be guided by the light which we possess; the ignorant Hindoo, who, in the darkness by which he is surrounded, presents his body to be crushed by the car of the idol, or he who terminates his life in the waters of the Ganges, from a principle of religious duty, and from obedience to the imaginary will of God, may, by the merits of a Saviour, of whom he never heard, and for the sincerity of his devotion to God, in whose worship, and in whose will, he never was instructed, be raised among the just, and received into everlasting glory. And here, perhaps, some will take up the objection of the chosen people, and say, "What advantage then hath the Jew?" or, in our case, What profit is there of being made members of the Christian Church? What motive is there for evangelizing the world? And why should any effort be made to extend the knowledge of the truth?" If our privileges will procure us no favour at the judgment; and if the want of these privileges will be no disadvantage to the GENTILES, what is the pre-eminence of the Jew above the Gentile," and what the advantage of the Christian over the Heathen? To [122/123] this question, St. Paul has replied--"Much every way, chiefly because that unto them were committed the oracles of God."
The clearer knowledge of our duty which is there revealed, and the better motives to its performance, together with the awful sanctions of retribution and of judgment, by which they are enforced, the freedom from debasing superstitions, and from vain and cruel rites, the more worthy notions of the character of God, and of the nature of his moral government, the banishing of those dread apprehensions, and fearful uncertainties in respect of the future, which oppress the darkened mind, and the implanting in their place of the blessed consolations of an enlightened faith, and the certain disclosures of a better life; these, together with those means of grace by which that life to come may be secured, are most manifest and important advantages.
The benevolent wish to disseminate these advantages can never be wanting in those who duly appreciate their value; and lest unfortunately any who enjoy them, should be unmindful of their obligation to extend them, there remains the imperative injunction of Christ himself, than which there can be no higher motive to compel the exertions of Christians, "Preach the Gospel to every creature."
Thus much, my brethren, is sufficient to show us distinctly what is our duty in relation to the [123/124] Heathen world. But to suppose that any among them shall be allowed to perish for our neglect of that duty, is most unreasonable, since it would be to visit upon them the sin and disobedience for which we alone are responsible, and which, we do not sufficiently remember, will hereafter be most strictly laid to our account. That Jesus Christ died for them, as well as for us, is evident from the argument which has just been considered. And this fact was declared by Caiaphas, the high priest of the Jews themselves, when advising to take Christ and to kill him, he prophesied "that Jesus should die for that nation; and not for that nation only, but that also he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad," to wit, the righteous men of all Gentile lands. And benighted as then were the Heathen nations, and despised as they were by the Jews, and cast off as they are even now thought to be by many Christians, yet looking up to God who made them, though ignorant of his Son who redeemed them, it was and is their privilege to trust in him, and say, "Doubtless thou art our Father, though Abraham be ignorant of us, and Israel acknowledge us not." Of the sufficiency of Christ's redemption to save the universal race of man, there is no Christian, of our communion at least, that entertains a doubt; for in the language of our Church, "The offering of Christ once made, is that perfect redemption, [124/125] propitiation, and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual." [Article xxxi.] If that salvation could be made effectual only where it is clearly revealed, or fully understood, can we believe that before the coming of Christ the knowledge of it should have been limited to so few, and they so imperfectly acquainted with its nature, or that since the coming of Christ, he should have left its promulgation to be carried on so gradually, with such limited means, and to be combatted by so many obstacles as it has had to contend with? That the promulgation of the Gospel is highly desirable, is evident from a view of its nature, of its motives to holiness, and of the consolations which it imparts; and that to extend it is a duty constantly binding upon us, has been already shown. But that the knowledge of it is so absolutely necessary to salvation, that they who have never heard of its good tidings must perish, is most abhorrent to suppose. Were that the case, must we not believe that he who, on the day of Pentecost, imparted the gift of tongues, and the knowledge of languages, to give the Gospel a necessary establishment and settlement in the world, would also have perpetuated those gifts in the Church, or have instructed those who possessed them, to record the history of the Gospel in the languages of Parthians, and Medes, [125/126] and Elamites, and would, at that very time, have miraculously conveyed it to every nation under heaven?
That he did not thus make the Gospel known, is to us a sufficient proof that his scheme of mercy could be carried on without necessarily depending upon its promulgation. He whose wisdom is far above out of our sight, works by means which we cannot understand. His purposes are sure, though often but gradually developed. Thus his intention to save mankind is declared to be an eternal purpose, which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord. Yet what numbers, in successive generations, died before the fulness of time had come, and without having actually seen his salvation! And while we would have conjectured that the atonement for sin should have immediately followed the transgression which made it necessary, God determined otherwise, and it was only in the end of the world, that "Christ appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself."
Still, my brethren, by virtue of that sacrifice, it was possible in every age of the world, for God to be just and yet justify the sinner. The application of the mercy of God, purchased by the merits of Christ, who is called "The Lamb slain from the foundation of the world," could ever, and can now, be made to the case of every individual, by him who knows their motives, their [126/127] desires, their prevailing character, with a just reference to their situation, opportunities, and actual circumstances, and to the obstacles and advantages of all his creatures.
The Gospel is presented to men as a scheme of mercy and grace, which makes due allowance for necessary hinderances, as well as for human frailty; and while it uniformly requires sincerity of intention, and a diligent use of the best means which are afforded to know the will of God, and a hearty desire to perform it; asks neither perfect obedience, nor perfect knowledge, where their attainment is impossible. "That servant which knew his Lord's will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes; but he who knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him will much be required; and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more." The advantages of justification through the blood of Christ, will, therefore, not be confined to them alone, who have enjoyed the light of revelation; but while to the Heathen, who ignorantly worships "the unknown God," will be mercifully dispensed the benefits of the Gospel, he will not be rigorously judged by its rules, but by the spirit of obedience which it requires. "God is not an hard master, reaping where he has not sowed, and gathering [127/128] where he has not strawed." "In every nation," therefore, whether blessed with the light of revelation or not, "he that feareth God, and worketh righteousness, is accepted of him." Saved by a Redeemer of whom they never heard, and washed by the blood of him who "tasted death for every man," "many shall come from the east, "and from the west, and from the north, and from the south, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of God." Admitted into the great body of the Church triumphant in heaven, though strangers to the privileges of the Church on earth, they shall verify the words of the Saviour, "Other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold and one shepherd." And when all these are gathered in, then also shall be realized the sublime vision which St. John, in his banishment, was permitted to behold, and then shall be sung this new song of praise, "Thou art worthy, for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation."
Thus do the Scriptures confirm those ideas which reason, and the character of God, dictate upon this subject. They show that the benefits of the sacrifice of Christ, which, before his coming, were extended to many who but very [128/129] indistinctly understood its nature, are also extended to those among the heathen who, trusting in the mercy of God, though ignorant of the redemption through his Son, endeavoured to live to his glory, by obeying the light of that inward directory which none are so debased as not to know and perceive.
"God is the equal Father of all his creatures, for he hath made of one blood all nations of men to dwell on all the face of the earth." All are alike guilty in his sight, for "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God;" "being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. And he is the propitiation for our sins, and not for our's only, but for the sins of the whole world."
My brethren, while we reflect on the great goodness of God to mankind in general, and while our hearts dilate at the view of a scheme of mercy fitted for the salvation of the whole human race, let us, in conclusion, turn our thoughts upon ourselves, and ascertain how we have improved the great benefits with which we, more especially, have been favoured. What immense privileges do we enjoy! What opportunities to know God and to serve him according to his revealed will! Do our lives correspond with our advantages? Is eternal life, which is so distinctly offered to us, the object after which we aspire 1 And do we, by patient continuance in well doing, seek for [129/130] glory, and honour, and immortality'! Or is it true, that with the light of knowledge shining broadly upon our path, we walk in ways of darkness, refusing to "come to the light," lest our deeds should be reproved; voluntarily "choosing darkness rather than light, because our deeds are evil?" Shall it be, that while God will have all men to be saved, while Jesus Christ has opened the kingdom of heaven for all who obey him, we, who see him to be "the way, the truth, and the life," should so perversely abstain from receiving, embracing, and following him, as to cause him to say, "Ye will not come to me that ye might have life?"
Shall the ignorant heathen, obeying what he imagines to be the will of God, and faithfully improving his one talent, receive the commendation, "Well done, good and faithful servant;" and shall we, having a clear revelation of what God requires, waste the ten talents with which we are intrusted; and having continually disobeyed his will, and neglected to improve our great advantages, be finally rejected as unworthy of his favour, and so be of that unhappy number who will prove these words of our Saviour true, "There are last that shall be first, and there are first that shall be last?"
I would press these considerations upon all who are sensible that they are living in habits inconsistent with what God permits, or neglecting [130/131] duties which he enjoins. They who dwell in heathen lands, though they may greatly disobey the will of the Most High, may plead ignorance of his requirements, and their plea may be accepted. But among Christians there can be no ignorance but that which proceeds from wilfulness and neglect, nor can any excuse be offered for not serving God, which will not carry with it its own condemnation. Look around, my brethren, upon those on whom the claims of religion are continually enforced. Mark the indifference with which they hear its sublime and awful truths. See them rising into life, advancing to years of thoughtfulness and maturity, and even declining into age, with their danger and their duty ever represented to them, and by every variety of motive pressed upon their consideration, and yet refusing to use the means of grace put in their power, and remaining careless, worldly, uninfluenced, unrenewed.
Compare these persons with the miserable inhabitants of Pagan lands, who have no light shining around them to lead them to God, while their understandings, their reason, their conscience, are darkened as to their religious duty, of which perhaps no single lesson, but from corrupt tradition, has ever been communicated to them. Ask yourselves what indulgence is too great for a merciful God to extend to the latter. Reflect what severity is too great to be visited upon the [131/132] former. And if your conscience pronounces you to be of the number who have long and often neglected the calls of God, and the obligations which he has so distinctly revealed, let a sense of gratitude to him for having so long spared you in your sin, mingling with penitence for your past errors and transgressions, induce you, now while you may, to listen to his voice, with a firm purpose of future obedience, that being reclaimed, and made new creatures in Christ Jesus, "you may daily increase in his Holy Spirit more and more, until you come unto his everlasting kingdom;" and are received into that one fold of which he who laid down his life for the sheep, is the good and gracious Shepherd.