Sermon XXVI. After Confirmation. Hebrews vi. 1. Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection.
THE principles of the doctrine of Christ, what they are--the exhortation to leave these principles, what it implies--and the duty of going on unto perfection, how it is to be fulfilled--these are the three topics which the text suggests for our attention.
First, the principles of the doctrine of Christ--What are they? To this the writer of the Epistle immediately furnishes an answer. They are those truths and duties which constitute the ground work of our religion, the foundation, as it is here called, of the Christian doctrine. These are, the necessity of repentance from dead works, and of faith towards God; the doctrine of baptism, referring to the two parts of the sacrament of baptism, its outward and visible sign, and its inward [389/390] and spiritual grace--in other words, the baptism of water, and the baptism of the Holy Ghost; the doctrine of laying on of hands, in which the obligations of baptism are assumed or renewed, and its benefits confirmed and assured; the doctrine of resurrection from the dead, of a coming period when notwithstanding the ravages of death, and the desolation of the grave, the soul and body shall again be united to enter upon a new course of existence; and lastly, the doctrine of eternal judgment, of that irreversible destiny, whether of happiness or of misery, which shall then be pronounced upon every individual, according to the actions and the character which had marked this transient but probationary life. These truths, and the duties which they suggest, lie at the very foundation of the Christian doctrine. Disbelieved, the whole fabric of religion falls to the ground; every motive to a holy life is enfeebled or nullified; the present becomes a mystery, the future a fable; God is as though he did not exist; man is without hope, and without God in the world. Believed, the scene is totally changed. Duties, responsibilities, hopes, fears, incentives to reflection, and motives to action, every where gather around the soul. Human life becomes elevated in importance, as being connected with results transcendently glorious, or tremendously awful. From a sense of danger arises solicitude respecting the means of [390/391] deliverance; and then the whole scheme of Gospel doctrine, the necessity of an atonement, faith in a Divine Redeemer, the need of the influence of the Holy Spirit, and the obligation to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling; these and all the other duties which a belief of our probation suggests, are felt and regarded in all their importance.
But if such is the value of these elementary truths, if such their efficacy and their power, what is intended or implied, in the second place, in the exhortation of the text, to leave these principles?
Most assuredly, it is not intended that these principles should be lost sight of or abandoned, forgotten or discarded. On the contrary, because they are the very elements and axioms of our belief, to them emphatically applies the direction which St. Paul gave to Timothy, "Continue thou in the things which thou hast learned, and hast been assured of." And also the exhortation contained in this Epistle, "Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering." When, therefore, we are enjoined in the text to "leave these principles of the doctrine of Christ," it clearly means, that considering them as fixed and established, we are to advance beyond them, that regarding them as that foundation of our religion which is not again to be laid, we are to proceed to raise upon them the superstructure of a holy  life. To this end indeed, and to this only, does the laying of any foundation serve. He who perpetually uproots that on which he should rear the superstructure, and he who neglects to proceed and build upon it, are alike foolish and inconsistent. The very labour they have expended does but serve to reprove them; and in the end they will find no advantage from all they have done; they will "lose those things which they have wrought," instead of receiving as they might, "a full reward."
The two points first proposed being thus rapidly disposed of, the one which remains, and that to which I shall chiefly call your attention, is "the duty of going on unto perfection." There are two senses in which this duty may properly be enjoined, and these are, first, in respect of knowledge, and then of obedience. First, as to knowledge. The only source of that knowledge which makes perfect the Christian, is "the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make us wise unto salvation, through faith which is in Christ Jesus;" and which are given, that the man of God may be perfect. The influence of knowledge upon conduct is necessary and involuntary; and of such avail is scriptural knowledge in forming the disposition, and in controlling the man, that even the little that is unavoidably, though it be unintentionally, acquired by the mass of the community in Christian lands, contributes very [392/393] essentially to meliorate its condition; by its principles, moulding the character; by its threatenings, restraining from evil; and by its promises and its hopes, exciting to good. And if this incidental knowledge of Scripture have so salutary an influence upon the outward behaviour, how strong a motive is presented to go on to the perfection of that knowledge, by which not only the external behaviour shall be regulated, but by which also shall be realized the divine and internal power which is ascribed to it in transforming the man. For the law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul. Whatever there be, then, that is efficacious or powerful in the knowledge of Scripture, to produce this result, is necessarily impaired and weakened by any imperfection of that knowledge; and where the first principles of that knowledge are unknown or disregarded, there is at once to be seen the fruitful source of irreligion and crime. But leaving the case of all others out of view, Christians are especially bound to go on unto perfection in the knowledge of Scripture truth; because there is so much in its representations and disclosures that is capable of inspiring confidence and consolation, and of furnishing motives to love and to obedience.
It is the efficacy and sufficiency of Christ's atonement, the covenant of mercy which he offers, the exalted promises, the all-sufficient hopes, of [393/394] the Gospel, which should be the subjects of our thoughts. In searching out these sacred mysteries, and meditating upon these sublime doctrines, we should find our delight. Leaving the first principles of the oracles of God, and going on to attain a more perfect knowledge of these celestial truths, reflecting upon them, and deducing from them our safety and our privileges, we advance from babes to men in Christ, and in their application, by the Holy Spirit, to our hearts, we become confirmed in our Christian character and profession, have peace in believing, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. But the exhortation of the text to go on unto perfection has reference, not merely to the higher and more perfect instruction in Christian doctrine in opposition to that which is elementary, but to that result of this instruction which I am next to consider, which is the perfection of Christian obedience.
What our practical duties are we cannot be ignorant, so long as it is in our power to recur to the teaching and direction of God's holy word-All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and it is affirmed to be profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect,; and the advantage which he is to derive from being thus perfect, is the knowledge of God's will; and the object to which he is to apply it, is [394/395] immediately alluded to in that: further description which is subjoined, "that he is thereby thoroughly furnished unto all good works."
I do not think it necessary now to insist upon the importance of going on unto perfection, as regards the fulfilling of the moral precepts, and the performance of all our relative duties. Of the nature of these, and of their binding obligation, we cannot be uninformed. Our Saviour laid down the rule and the extent of this obligation, when he said, "Be ye perfect, even as your Father who is in heaven is perfect." And it is no reason for not fixing high this standard of duty, that after our best endeavours, we shall continually have reason to acknowledge and lament how very far we fall short of it. Supposing these, however, to be fulfilled to the utmost of our power, there is still a perfection after which we are to aspire, which has respect to the graces of the Christian character. These are called in Scripture the fruit of the Spirit, which is in all goodness, and righteousness, and truth. And they are summed up in those ornaments of a meek and quiet spirit, love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance, against which there is no law, and of which it is declared 'that in the sight of God they are of great price. These are those qualities which make us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light; and being the [395/396] necessary result of knowledge and of grace, we are required and enjoined, in order that we may increase in them, to "grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ." The very name by which they are distinguished, as being the fruit of the Spirit, indicates their origin, and teaches us that they can only be attained by prayer to God for his Holy Spirit, and by the use of those means of grace through which he has appointed his influences to be received.
Thus have I endeavoured to give, in a summary view, the meaning of the text; and have shown that the principles of the doctrine of Christ there referred to, are those elements of revealed truth which lie at the foundation of our most holy religion; that we are to leave these, not by forsaking or disregarding them, but by advancing beyond them to the utmost of our power, to the full understanding of the Christian doctrine; and that we are to go on unto perfection, not only by aspiring to the highest degree of knowledge, feeling, and belief of scriptural truth, to which we can attain in this world, but also by giving these truths and discoveries their full and legitimate influence upon our lives, in obedience to all the moral precepts, fulfilment of all the relative duties, acquisition of all the Christian graces, and manifestation of those tempers, dispositions, principles, and hopes, which make [396/397] perfect the Christian character. And all this is to be done in reliance upon God's Holy Spirit, and in the use of those means of grace which he has appointed.
The subject is one which interests all Christians, but which particularly concerns those who, in the rite of confirmation, have voluntarily confessed the obligations of their baptism, and have publicly put on Christ. To them, therefore, I would now apply it. In assuming the obligation to live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world, looking for that blessed hope which Christians cherish, of the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ; in thus promising to live a virtuous and a religious life, you have done nothing which you were not bound to do, nothing which conscience did not command, and to which reason did not give her fullest assent. Thus far you have proceeded, actuated by a sense of duty; and because it is not to be doubted that your hearts and affections have gone with you in the act, it may be safely asserted, you have done well. Think not, however, that you have done all that is necessary. You have but laid the foundation upon which you are to build a superstructure, by God's grace, which shall be to his glory. You are to remember, therefore, that "ye have avouched the Lord to be your God, and ye have engaged to walk in his ways, and to keep his statutes, and his [397/398] commandments, and his judgments, and to hearken unto his voice. And the Lord hath avouched you to be his peculiar people, as he has promised you; and that you should keep all his commandments; and to make you high above all others in praise, and in name, and in honour; and that ye may be an holy people unto the Lord your God." Into such a covenant have ye entered with him, "who gave himself for you, that he might redeem you from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works." "As ye have, therefore, received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him, rooted and built up in him, and stablished in the faith as ye have been taught, abounding therein with thanksgiving." But be not content with what ye have done; rest not in the acknowledgment and profession which you have made; look to their intent and meaning; consider what important obligations they involve; and instead of being satisfied with having confessed these first principles and elements of Christian doctrine, leave them, and labour to go farther and farther in knowledge and in duty. In the language of the text, "go on unto perfection." It is greatly to be feared, that with too many the performance of any outward act of religious duty, is made the substitute for that to which it does but bind them. They have complied with a prescribed rite, and this is all that [398/399] can be required of them. Their conscience is pacified; their efforts cease. In the language of Jones of Nayland, "Some think they are learned enough in religion, though they never get beyond their catechism. Some never get so far. And it is common to plead in excuse, that little as their knowledge is, they know more good than they do, and have already more learning than they practice; not considering that the Scripture abounds with many great and excellent mysteries, which, though they have nothing practical in them, elevate the mind, and by bringing our affections nearer to God, dispose us to do his will with more love and cheerfulness, and consequently to do more of it, and to better effect. In this knowledge, therefore, the Christian must be progressive; he must go on from the beginning to the perfection of it."
But while I thus enforce the duty of leaving the first principles of the doctrine of Christ, there is one sense which has been already suggested, in which you are to be cautioned not to leave them; and that is, you are not to abandon or lose sight of them, not to forget them, never to cease to recur to them. You will often find it both needful and advantageous to look back to these rudiments of Christian belief, to see in them the great motives which first prompted your religious vows, and which may continually serve to give impulse to your piety, to recal you to your [399/400] neglected duty, to animate you in a course of renewed obedience. And, if forgetting that you have been cleansed from your old sins, giving yourselves up to the world, disregarding the promises of you baptism, you are tempted to hold lightly all the sanctions and obligations which bind you to a Christian life. If this should ever be your miserable experience, then go back again to these first principles of your duty. Listen to the word of God as it proclaims to every sinner of every degree, "except ye repent ye shall perish;" "without faith it is impossible to please God;" "except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God;" and bringing to mind your own assent to these truths, in the. solemn rite of laying on of hands, reflect that if your life be not devoted to the fulfilment of your obligations, not death itself shall screen you from its consequences; for that the hour is coming, when "all that are in their graves shall hear the voice of the Son of man, and shall come forth, they that have done good unto the resurrection of life, and they that have done evil to the resurrection of damnation;" that every one of us must give account of himself to God; that we must all stand before the judgment-seat of Christ, that every one may receive the things done in his body, whether they be good or bad. Let these certain and fearful truths, the very first principles of the Christian revelation, be [400/401] recalled and realized, and they must at least inspire apprehension and caution, if they do not produce reform. As a motive, however, to keep you back from such a state of neglect and of sin, as would make the recollection of these truths necessary, let me place before you that great danger which must attend your giving up yourselves to the service of sin, after the promises you have made, and the hopes you have professed. For it is impossible, says the apostle, in one of the verses immediately following the exhortation of the text, and the resolution to fulfil it, it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance.
I trust and pray that none of those who hear me will ever, by unholy and irreligious lives, go that awful length of crucifying the Lord afresh, and putting him to an open shame. But the best and the safest way to avoid this danger, is to shun the insensibility and the neglect which would lead to it, by taking the directly opposite course, and going on unto perfection. How we are to do this, has been already shown. And if there is that in the race which is set before you, which requires diligence, perseverance, watchfulness, and self-denial, remember that the end is [401/402] worthy of the effort; and that God, who has begun the good work in you, will carry you forward to its accomplishment. Be diligent, then, in studying the Scripture, and make its sacred truths promote the good of your souls. Let its glorious themes fire your imagination. Let them have their influence upon your understanding. Let them control your will. Let them ennoble and exalt all the desires and affections of your heart. The wider your knowledge of Scripture truth extends, 'the more will it gather around you motives to action and to exertion. Realizing its sublime and glowing promises of things hoped for, though not seen, the anticipation of their enjoyment will cause your faith to work by love, and purify the heart. Obedience, far from being irksome, will become a delight. Your spiritual perception being enlightened, you will worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. And thus habituated to contemplate and adore him, and beholding, as in a glass, the glory of the Lord, you will be changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord. In order to attain to this state of perfection, however, let me again remind you, the knowledge of Christian doctrines, and mental speculation upon them, are not all that is needed. Christianity is a practical system. It is in doing the will of God, that our Saviour has promised that you shall know of the truth and divinity of his [402/403] doctrine. And it is in keeping his commandments that you will testify your love to him, and procure the consolation and advantage of his presence with you. In walking in his statutes, in observing his ordinances, in seeking continually the increase of his Holy Spirit, in the means of his appointment, you are to press forward in your Christian course, to give yourselves up to the pursuit of God's favour, to go on unto perfection. The literal translation of the text from the original is, "let us be carried on to this perfection;" and the allusion of the verb which is here employed, seems to be to the motion of a ship under sail, carried forward by favourable winds. The image represents very clearly your duty, which is, having devoted yourselves to God's guidance, and embarked in his service, to yield to the impulses of his grace, "who worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure." God is ever ready, by the power of his Spirit, to carry you forward to every degree of knowledge and of grace, which is necessary to prepare you for an eternal weight of glory. It is for you to obey and to employ that power which he vouchsafes. My brethren, thus let us all make it our study to go on; not as though we had already attained, either were already perfect, but let us follow after, if that we may apprehend that for which also we are apprehended of Christ Jesus. Let us not count ourselves to have apprehended; but this one thing [403/404] let us do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, let us press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.
Thus manifesting the sincerity of our faith, and adding to it virtue and every Christian grace, we shall at last receive the end of our faith, even the salvation of our souls.