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The Reformed Episcopal Church a Witness-Bearer for God.

A Sermon for the 25th Anniversary of the Founding of the Reformed Episcopal Church.

Preached first on Sunday Morning, December 4th, 1898, at the First Church, New York.

By William R. Nicholson.

New York: no publisher, 1898.

Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2012

"Ye are My witnesses, saith the Lord," Isaiah xliii: 10.

A witness is, for the most part, a man of memory: not a speculatist, but a relator of fact, testifying what he has seen, or what by various means he has known. A witness is the voice of truth; at least such is the ideal: he testifies what he has seen or known just according as he has seen or known. A witness is a teacher in the service of present interests: he testifies of the past for the sake of the present. When Jehovah said to Israel, "Ye are My witnesses," He referred to them as those with whom He had had special dealings, and who had known of the dealings, and could tell of them; He referred to them as capable, in their testimony, of verifying His dealings, and winning belief from peoples round about; and He referred to them as thus fitted to instruct and guide the then existing generation.

What wealth of testimony Israel could furnish. How many and signal the salvations they had experienced at the hand of their covenant God—from Pharaoh, from Jabin, from Midian, from the Philistines, from Zerah, from Sennacherib, and the [3/4] like. What clear and unambiguous predictions they had heard from Him, and of which they were themselves the living fulfilment. The whole bulk of this testimony they could present under every recognized mark of antiquarian fact; and if Israel had been eager and prompt to give it full expression, all disbelief it had overwhelmed, save where the will might have erected itself in resolved rebellion against the truth. They would thus have set forth Jehovah in His supremacy as God, and have brought into view His Almighty loving care for His people. What other nation (so runs the challenge in the context) could array testimony like this? But "YE are My witnesses, saith Jehovah."

Hence, we are taught that witness-bearing for God is regarded by Himself as of the greatest importance. God must have His witnesses. He communicates with man by means of men. Our belief in His existence, indeed, is assured by reason of the intuitions He has implanted in the soul, and His eternal power and Godhead may be learnt from the physical universe; for the heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth His handiwork. But when He would make known His will concerning us, His provisions for our well being, and, in full force, His holiness, and justice, and love, and mercy, He uses chosen men as the media of the revelation. He might have written it all on the mountains and the valleys, on the trees and the waters; but no, His witnesses [4/5] are Moses, and David, and Isaiah, and John, and Paul, and others. So, when He called the Israelites and made them His "peculiar people," it was to secure the result that He should not be "left without witness;" and the children of Israel stood up for ages a light in a dark world because of their monotheism. Even His own eternal Son was made flesh and "was born to this end," that He "should bear witness unto the truth;" and His very name is "The Amen, the faithful and true witness." And Jesus said to His apostles, "Ye shall be witnesses to Me unto the uttermost part of the earth," and that "this Gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached in all the world for witness unto all nations, and then shall the end come." This implies that the obligation of witness-bearing should continue to the end, and, as St. Paul expresses it, all Christians must "hold forth the Word of life." Wherefore, to bear witness for God is the grandest of all duties, the most useful of all works, the most honorable of all distinctions. The very inner life of the Christian is involved in it; for the testimony of the lips is made eloquent only by the witness-breathing of character. If on any effort, any institution, any performance, you would pronounce the supreme eulogy, you must say, It is a witness for God.

My brethren, we are at the quarter-century anniversary of the founding of the Reformed Episcopal Church. It is a fit occasion of reviewing [5/6] the reasons for her being. Was she justified in her beginning to be? Is she justified in her continuing to be? The only touch-stone of these questions is this other question, Is she a witness for God? Is she such a witness as could not have been, if her founders, upon leaving the denomination whence they came, had distributed themselves in one or another of the then existing denominations, instead of instituting another distinct branch of the Church of Christ? I believe she is such a witness; and that with no infraction of the unity of Christ's Church. For unity is deeper than uniformity; nor has the Divine Head of the Church prescribed any particular forms, in connection with which alone the essential truths of the Gospel should be held and taught, and the ordinances be administered. He has left His people free, "provided the substance of the faith be kept entire," to associate themselves "according to the various exigencies of times and occasions," and has thus made possible the more emphatic re-affirming and the exalting into view of such parts of the truth as, in the whirl of time, may have been slurred or even, forgotten. I believe that the Reformed. Episcopal Church has a God-given place in Christendom, and that Jehovah is saying to her, as He said to Israel, "Ye are My witnesses."

This proposition be it our aim to verify and illustrate.

I. [7] Our Church is a witness for God in that she bears her own peculiar testimony to the Bible. We rejoice that, in their creeds and confessions, the various evangelical churches are loyal to Holy Scripture. Its supreme authority and all-sufficiency they have inscribed on their denominational banners; all agreeing that it "containeth all things necessary to salvation, so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith." So far, bravo for the cause of truth. This same conception of Scripture the Reformed Episcopal Church entertains and expresses, and is thus a member of the evangelical concert. But she goes further, and declares that "not only does Holy Scripture contain the oracles of God, but it is itself the very oracles of God." Not only is the Bible the court of last resort, but every part of it, in the original tongues, is an integrant constituent of the court of last resort. The whole of the Bible is the Book of God. This, too, is implied by the evangelical churches, but they have not expressly so said. Meanwhile, the exigency of present-day thought demands for answer so categorical an affirmation. The churches of the Lutheran Reformation met the demands of their times. The great controversies of those years, for the most part, revolved about the question, Are the doctrines of the Romish Church taught in the Bible? And so those churches testified that what cannot be proved by [7/8] the Bible is not to be required as an article of faith in order to salvation. Now, however, the storm-centre of discussion is this, What portions of the Bible are God's own? Men are saying that such and such portions of the Book are of human invention, and are either false, or irrelevant, or at best, but curious relics of antiquity; and even the sacred page is now sometimes so printed and variously colored as to become a painted pattern of commingled truth and error. And this defamatory idea of Scripture has crawled into the very churches, and is at work, more or less, leavening many professed Christian minds with the slime of the old serpent. The struggle of the Reformation time was to shut the gates against the putting into the Bible what does not belong to it; the struggle of to-day is to shut the gates against the taking out of the Bible what does belong to it. And is it for nothing in God's providence that our Church stands as a living fact, speaking with no bated breath her testimony to the integrity of the Book? Does not the time call for her? Is she not an answer to the call? And is not God honored?

For the moment one assails the wholeness of the Scriptures, he thereby does his best to throw an element of uncertainty into every part of them. By what standard shall I decide that this teaching of the book is from God, but that teaching of the same book is not from God? Is the human understanding infallible? And is prejudice dead? Nay, [8/9] do not minds differ? What I might regard as God's own utterance, your prepossession of thought might fling from you as impertinent or worthless. And so the book would be reduced to shreds and tatters, and mankind, would have no Bible at all. Not so did Jesus estimate Scripture. "The Scripture cannot be broken," He said: not a single word of Scripture, was what He said. These sixty-six books forming the one Book have come down to us, each with the impress of the Divine authority. The Council of Nice did not undertake, as is sometimes slanderously reported, to decide what books were Divinely inspired, but what books were received as inspired by the apostles and apostolic men. The question before them was one purely historical. So, then, these sixty-six books, every one, we take as Holy Scripture, not a word of which can be broken. It is the distinct and formal assertion of this which is the peculiar witness of the Reformed Episcopal Church to the Bible. And therein hear we not the address from on high, Ye are My witnesses?

II. Our Church is a witness for God in that she hears her testimony to the Bible doctrine of the Christian ministry. Whatever doctrine of the ministry a Church holds is the tap-root of much of her character and history. The high priestly notion is as a wet-nurse to the pride and vanity of the human heart. Its stubborn tendency is to simulate a huge God-like separateness between clergy and laity, to claim for the minister [9/10] a presumptuous standing betwixt the sinner and the Saviour, to suckle the clerical mind with arrogance and overbearing, to distil into the soul the very essence of worldliness, and, for securing an answerable sphere of action, to glorify formalism and multiply rites and ceremonies. The priestly notion is ever moving to the shutting off the multitude from that unobstructed access to the Saviour which is the glory of the Gospel; and if it be followed to its ultimate logical outcome, as it is apt to be, it culminates in the errors and the tactics of the Romish Church. This view of the ministry is an enemy to Gospel piety and a dishonor to God.

The Bible doctrine of the Christian ministry is declared by Paul where he says (Eph. iv: 11), that the Risen Lord "gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers." Personally, the apostles and prophets have passed away, though, influentially, they still live. Evangelists, pastors and teachers we have among us. And these, if truly such, are every one directly given by Christ Himself, for it is only some, not all Christians, who are thus given; that is, they are individually chosen and called by the Holy Ghost. So, every true minister of the Gospel is one who has been personally selected therefor by the Lord Himself. This it is which makes the true minister; not his having behind him an unbroken line of ordinations reaching back to the beginning. And when, by certain indications, the call of the Holy Ghost [10/11] is evidenced in any man, then is it required that the Christian people shall recognize him as God's messenger, and do their best to uphold him; which is the Church's part in a call to the ministry, and the whole of her part. This makes of the ministry a direct spiritual embassage from God, and, if followed to its logical outcome, makes of the minister simply a brother beloved, a teacher humble and burning with his message, a pastor meekly shepherding the flock.

And such is the doctrine attested by our Church. Her words are, Those ministers "we judge lawfully called and sent, which be moved to this work by the Holy Ghost, and are duly accredited by the Lord's people." We are glad to say that other Churches proclaim the same doctrine. Circumstances, however, have made our testimony trenchantly striking, and have given it a peculiar saliency; for just the opposite view is what characterizes the Church whence we came, and is one of the declared chief reasons of our emigration therefrom. From this point of view our witness is a focus of fire. Moreover, there is a curious fact which brightens the light. The Protestant Episcopal Church, in one of her Articles of Religion, declares that "Orders has not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God." Now, according to custom, the visible sign of ordination to the ministry would be the "laying on of hands;" but says that Article, Neither the laying on of hands nor any other ceremony has been appointed of God [11/12] to betoken introduction into the ministry. The laying on of hands the Church may use; she is free to do so. It is a simple and beautiful ceremony. But God has not appointed it. Wherefore the alleged Divine authority of tactual succession all the way from the apostles is a mere figment. This is the express decision of that Church herself. She herself being the judge, cut up by the roots is the so-called Apostolic Succession, and therefore the priestly theory of the ministry. Alas, that Article of hers she has covered over and smothered with her ordination offices. Accordingly, then, as this is known, and because of our close relations with her, our Church's doctrine of the ministry emphasizes the other's inconsistency and recession from the truth, and identifies herself with that glorious galaxy, the British Reformers. Nohow else than by herself as an organized Church, could this testimony be so effectively given.

III. The Reformed Episcopal Church is a witness for God in that she witnesses to her own simplicity toward Christ. Singleness of affection for the Lord Jesus is the spinal cord of all God-inspired piety. He is the Alpha of the Bible and its Omega, too. He is for sinners the only light of truth to chase away their darkness, the only way of mercy, the only salvation, the only food for soul-growth, the harmony of all things, the universal victory. Whatever the subject of thought, whatever the duties to be done, whatever [12/13] the sorrows to be borne, whatever the conflicts to be waged, whatever the events to be adjusted, the only test of each and all is "the truth as it is in Jesus." We cannot serve God, we cannot honor Him, we cannot essentially benefit men, except we are conscious of Him who is "the Way, the Truth, and the Life." Simplicity toward Christ, then, singleness of affection for Him, allegiance to His person, His wisdom, His blood, His righteousness —this is the tiptop of all virtue and of glory to God.

Now that our Church does so appreciate Christ might be inferred, with somewhat of force, from her doctrine of the Christian ministry. But abundantly she shows it elsewhere. What an illumination of the Saviour are her Articles of Religion, which are as so many foci of the sun-rays of the Bible. There she attests the Deity of Christ and the Persons of the adorable Three-One, the evil and helplessness of man's condition by nature, and God Incarnate, His sin-atoning death, His resurrection from the dead. There she attests the most precious sacrifice of Christ, "whereby our ransom was fully paid, the law fulfilled, and God's justice satisfied," the consequent salvation of believers in Him "without any merit or deserving on their part," yea, their "pardon, acceptance, son-ship, sanctification, redemption and eternal glory." There she attests the sinner's free and instant access to the Saviour by faith, which, she says, is "simply reliance or dependence on Christ;" that [13/14] there is no intermediary of any sort betwixt the sinner and the Saviour, neither priest nor sacrament; that Baptism and the Lord's Supper are not gates of entrance into eternal life, but representations, and are the promises of God as dramatized to the eye; that the sinner is to lay hold directly on Christ and possess Him as his Saviour; that then the sacraments are means of grace, just as is the reading of the promises or the outpouring of prayer; and that in whomsoever is this simple trust there is also purity of heart and consecration of life. There she attests the work of the Holy Ghost as carried on with the things of Christ in convincing of sin, in regenerating men, in developing Christians. There she attests what calamitous errors are purgatory and penance, invocation of saints, auricular confession, and the like, in that they are contradictory of the redemption in Christ and compromising to His sole mediatorship. And there she attests the Second Coming of Christ as the blessed hope of the Church, when "He will take to Himself His great power, and shall reign" on the earth. Thus is it Christ all along. Never was spouse truer to her husband than this Church to Jesus. Meanwhile, in her Declaration of Principles, she converges attention upon the spiritual and the Divine in Christian religion. And when we connect this her fulness of the Gospel, which is her heritage in common with many churches, with her uniqueness of position as previously shown, two things appear—her own real share in [14/15] witnessing for God, and her peculiarity as a witness.

But, indeed, this her witness to Christ is even yet fuller and more fervent. She has a liturgical worship; a liturgy which she has abraded of certain excrescences, and brought into full conformity with her Articles and Principles; and which, besides, she has so guarded as to render it not repressive of free prayer. Now this her liturgy is all alive with the Gospel turned into prayer. Her doctrines have fallen upon their knees, her principles are as sweet incense floating upward into the nostrils of the Almighty. And while her simplicity toward Christ is thus being devoutly attested, the sentiment of spiritual beauty is awakened in herself. She loves her liturgy, her "common prayer," her inheritance from the ages. "A thing of beauty is a joy forever." The enchanting power of the old formulas, their suffusion with the fervor of salvation, their penitence and their joy, their historic venerableness, their rhythm both of words and sense, and withal their educating power for extemporary prayer wherein out of the stored abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh wisely and mightily—by all this not only she uttereth her witness for God, she feels it, she prays it, and she sings it, too.

Oh, to my mind this Church of ours is a very ideal of a Church of Christ: so variously equipped for her work as a witness for God, and, as regards the exigencies of the present time, "speaking the [15/16] truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth;" and as attractive in her spirituality and catholicity, as she is sublime in the courage of her convictions, and rich in her endowments. The youngest of her evangelical sisters, and worthy of being described in her twenty-fifth years as, like the stripling David in perhaps his twentieth year, "ruddy, and withal of a beautiful countenance, and goodly to look to," yet is she fitted, with her "smooth stones from the brook," to do valiantly in the fight against the Philistines of to-day. God bless her! Amen!

But now a Church like ours imposes upon her members solemn obligations. The work of a witness is to witness. True, the Church's witness is written; but the writing may sleep in silence. True, the Church's witness is spoken and prayed and sung in her assemblies; but her assemblies are indoors. Despite the writing, despite the assemblies, the world about us may be but slightly affected. Her witness the Church must consummate in the activity of her members. The old Liberty Bell hung in its belfry complete in its capacities of sound; but its clapper was still. How was it that, at the moment of the vote for the great Declaration, suddenly it voiced the event, and sent the news of Independence ringing in listening homes and expectant streets? There was a hand that rang it. We, the Church's members, must enable her to speak to the world.

[17] First, we need to be intelligent of her. What is she? What her identity with other churches? What her differences? How fit a witness for God is she? Are we intelligent enough to think of her to our own sublime satisfaction, and speak of her to the winning of the sympathy of others?

Next, we should be talking much of her. Why shouldn't we? Are we afraid of being sectarian? We cannot be, if only we conceive of her fairly. Denominational we are, and should be; but are the soldiers of one regiment sectarian because they prefer their own regiment to any other? Are they not all equally lovers of the country? Yes, on all proper occasions we should talk of our Church, and the more we intelligently talk of her, the more will burn within us the fire of Divine love. Talk of her at home; talk of her in the Sunday school, in the Christian Endeavor; talk of her, though unobtrusively, in social gatherings; talk of her in the privacy of intimate friendship; talk of her, as occasion may serve, in the public meeting and in the press.

Thirdly, we should be strong in the Gospel temper of positive affirmation; not drifting about between torturing doubt and miserable negations, but fixed in downright and determined testimony. We should be sure of our faith, sure of Jesus, sure of the Holy Spirit, sure of salvation; men and women of destiny. This is the manliness of a Christian, it is his deep humility, too. And it is the temper of achievement, for while men despise counterfeits, they are fascinated by the [17/18] bravery of confidence. Thus we shall overslaugh the criticisms of us, and impress those who hear us; we shall command their attention, stir their brains, warm their hearts, and win many to church fellowship with us.

Lastly, we should cherish the feeling of being designated of God as His witnesses. That God is particularizing us and calling us—it is a holy feeling, self-searching, tremulous, exalted, God-serving. It is as the spirit of the war-horse whose "neck is clothed with thunder," as "he goeth on to meet the armed men." That one is chosen of God to be a missionary of God—this realization makes one fearless, makes one loyal, freshens one with spiritual force, heartens one with the delight of required work. Oh, hear that word out of heaven, "Ye are My witnesses."

Brethren beloved, Jesus is coming. The time is short. Difficulties thicken. Opposition grows. Laxity of faith and devotion is one of the foretold antecedents of the approaching King: as Jesus said, When the Son of man cometh, shall He find faith on the earth? Oh, be true to the entire Word of God. Be true to the Scriptural idea of the Christian ministry. Be true to Christ. The fight is tremendous. But Jesus is tremendous. The Holy Spirit is tremendous. Ring the bell of your Church's witness; and when that trumpet-sound, The Bridegroom cometh! shall break upon the world, bell and trumpet shall blend in one, AND YE SHALL SIT DOWN AT THE MARRIAGE SUPPER OF THE LAMB.

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