By J. C. Ryle
(A charge to the ministers of Liverpool, November 4, 1890)
"Hold fast that which is good." 1 Thessalonians 5:21
My trumpet ought to give no uncertain sound. With abounding temporal prosperity, we seem, as a nation, to be sitting on the edge of a volcano, and at any time may be blown to pieces, and become a wreck and a ruin.
Worst of all, the air seems filled with vague agnosticism and unbelief. Faith languishes and dwindles everywhere, and looks ready to die. The immense majority of men, from the highest to the lowest, appear to think that 'nothing is certain in religion,' and that it does not signify much what you believe. Even in our Universities, the tendency to multiply the 'doubtful things' of Christianity, and to diminish the the essentials, appears to grow and increase every year. All the foundations of faith are out of course.
In times like these, I shall make no apology for charging you to beware of losing, insensibly, your grasp of Christian truth, and holding it with slippery and trembling fingers. I ask you, therefore, to hear me patiently this day, while I try to set before them a list of cardinal points on which I think it of essential importance to 'hold fast that which is good.' Of course I do not expect you all to agree with some of the things I am going to say. Far from it! I lay no claim to infallibility. But at any rate you will not be left in ignorance of my opinions.
I. First and foremost, let me charge you to hold fast the great principle that Christianity is entirely true, and the only religion which God has revealed to mankind.
In reviews, magazines, newspapers, lectures, essays, novels, and sometimes even in sermons, scores of clever writers are incessantly waging war against the very foundations of Christianity. Reason, science, geology, anthropology, modern discoveries, free thought, are all boldly asserted to be on their side. No educated person, we are constantly told nowadays, can really believe supernatural religion, or the plenary inspiration of the Bible, or the possibility of miracles. Such ancient doctrines as the Trinity, the Divinity of Christ, the Personality of the Holy Spirit, the Atonement, the obligation of the Sabbath, the necessity and efficacy of prayer, the existence of the devil, and the reality of future punishment, are quietly put on the shelf by many professing leaders of modern thought, as useless old almanacs, or contemptuously thrown overboard as lumber! And all this is done so cleverly, and with such an appearance of candor and liberality, and with such compliments to the capacity and nobility of human nature, that multitudes of unstable Christians are carried away as by a flood, and become partially unsettled, if they do not make complete shipwreck of faith.
The existence of this plague of unbelief must not surprise us for a moment. It is only an old enemy in a new dress, an old disease in a new form. Since the day when Adam and Eve fell, the devil has never ceased to tempt men not to believe God, and has said, directly or indirectly, 'You shall not die, even if you do not believe.' In 'the latter days' especially, we have warrant of Scripture for expecting an abundant crop of unbelief—'When the Son of Man comes, shall he find faith on the earth?' 'Evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse.' 'There shall come in the last days scoffers.' (Luke 18:8; 2Tim. 3:13; 2Pet. 3:3.) Here in England skepticism is that natural rebound from semi-popery and superstition, which many wise men have long predicted and expected. It is precisely that swing of the pendulum which far-sighted students of human nature looked for; and it has come.
But, as I tell you not to be surprised at the widespread skepticism of the times, so also I must urge you not to be shaken in mind by it, or moved from your steadfastness. There is no real cause for alarm. The ark of God is not in danger, though the oxen seem to shake it. Christianity has survived the attacks of Hume and Hobbes and Tindal; of Collins and Woolston and Bolingbroke and Chubb; of Voltaire and Paine and Holyoake. These men made a great noise in their day, and frightened weak people; but they produced no more real effect than idle travelers produce by scratching their names on the great Pyramid of Egypt. Depend on it, Christianity in like manner will survive the attacks of the clever writers of these times. The startling novelty of many modern objections to revelation, no doubt, makes them seem more weighty than they really are. It does not follow, however, that hard knots cannot be untied, because our fingers cannot untie them, or that formidable difficulties cannot be explained, because our eyes cannot see through or explain them. When you cannot answer a skeptic, be content to wait for more light; but never forsake a great principle. In religion, as in many scientific questions, said Faraday, the famous chemist, 'the highest wisdom is often a judicious suspension of judgment.'
When skeptics and infidels have said all they can, we must not forget that there are three great broad facts which they have never explained away; and I am convinced they never can, and never will. Let me tell you briefly what they are. They are very simple facts, and any plain man can understand them.
(i) The first fact is Jesus Christ Himself.If Christianity is a mere invention of man, and the Bible is not from God—how can infidels explain Jesus Christ? His existence in history they cannot deny. How is it that without force or bribery, without arms or money, without flattering man's pride of reason, without granting any indulgence to man's lusts and passions—He has made such an immensely deep mark on the world? Who was He? What was He? Where did He come from? How is it that there has never been one like Him, neither before nor after, since the beginning of time? They cannot explain it. Nothing can explain it but the great foundation-principle of revealed religion, that Jesus Christ is truly God, and that His Gospel is all true.
(2) The second fact is the Bible itself.If Christianity is a mere invention of man, and the Bible is of no more authority than any other uninspired volume, how is it that the book is what it is? How is it that a book written by a few Jews in a remote part of the earth, written at distant and various periods without concert or collusion among the writers; written by members of a nation which, compared to Greece and Rome, did nothing for literature—how is it that this book stands entirely alone, and that there is nothing that even approaches it, for high views of God, for true views of man, for solemnity of thought, for grandeur of doctrine, and for purity of morality? What account can the infidel give of this book, so deep, so simple, so wise, so free from defects? He cannot explain its existence and its nature on his principles. We only can do that—who hold that the book is supernatural, and is the book of God!
(3) The third fact is the effect which Christianity has produced on the world.If Christianity is a mere invention of man, and not a supernatural, Divine revelation, how is it that it has wrought such a complete alteration in the state of mankind? Any well-read man knows that the moral difference between the condition of the world before Christianity was planted, and since Christianity took root—is the difference between night and day; the difference between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of the devil. At this very moment I defy anyone to look at the map of the world, and compare the countries where men are Christians—with those where men are not Christians, and to deny that these countries are as different as light and darkness, black and white. How can any infidel explain this on his principles? He cannot do it. We only can who believe that Christianity came down from God, and is the only Divine religion in the world.
Whenever you are tempted to be alarmed at the progress of infidelity, look at the three facts which I have just mentioned, and cast your fears away! Take up your position boldly behind the ramparts of these three facts, and you may safely defy the utmost efforts of modern skeptics. They may often ask you a hundred questions you cannot answer, and start clever problems about geology, or the origin of man, or the age of the world, which you cannot solve. They may vex and irritate you with wild speculations and theories, of which at the time you cannot prove the fallacy, though you feel it. But be calm and fear not. Remember the three great facts I have named, and boldly challenge them to explain them away. The difficulties of Christianity no doubt are great; but, depend on it, they are nothing compared to the DIFFICULTIES OF INFIDELITY.
II. In the next place, let me charge you to hold fast the authority, supremacy, and Divine inspiration of the whole Bible.
About the authority of that blessed book I need not say much. I am addressing men who have answered the solemn questions of the Ordination Services, and subscribed the Thirty-nine Articles. By so doing you have declared your belief that the Scriptures are our Church's rule of faith and practice. The clergyman who preaches and teaches anything which flatly contradicts the Bible, appears to me to forget his own pledges, and deals unfairly with the Church of which he is a minister.
About the inspiration of the Bible I feel it necessary to speak more fully. It is, unhappily, one of the chief subjects of controversy in the present day, and one about which you have a right to know what I think.
The subject of inspiration is always important. It is the very keel and foundation of Christianity. If Christians have no Divine book to turn to as the warrant of their doctrine and practice, they have no solid ground for present peace or hope, and no right to claim the attention of mankind. They are building on a quicksand, and their faith is vain. If the Bible is not given by inspiration throughout, and contains defects and errors—it cannot be a safe guide to heaven. We ought to be able to say boldly, 'We are what we are, and we do what we do, and teach what we teach—because we have here a book which we believe to be, altogether and entirely, the Word of God.'
The subject without doubt is a very difficult one. It cannot be followed up without entering on ground which is dark and mysterious to mortal man. It involves the discussion of things which are miraculous, supernatural, above reason, and cannot be fully explained. But difficulties must not turn us away from any subject in religion. There is not a science in the world about which questions may not be asked which no one can answer. It is poor philosophy to say we will believe nothing—unless we can understand everything! We must not give up the subject of inspiration in despair, because it contains things 'hard to be understood.'
One cause of difficulty lies in the fact that the Church has never defined exactly what inspiration means, and consequently many of the best Christians are not entirely of one mind. I am one of those who believe that the writers of the Bible were supernaturally and divinely enabled by God, as no other men ever have been, for the work which they did, and that, consequently, the book they produced is unlike any other book in existence, and stands entirely alone. Inspiration, in short, is a miracle. We must not confound it with intellectual power, such as great poets and authors possess. To talk of Shakespeare and Milton and Byron being inspired, like Moses and Paul, is to my mind, almost profane!
Nor must we confound it with the gifts and graces bestowed on the early Christians in the primitive Church. All the apostles were enabled to preach and work miracles—but not all were inspired to write. We must rather regard it as a special supernatural gift, bestowed on about thirty people out of mankind, in order to qualify them for the special business of writing the Scriptures; and we must be content to allow that, like everything miraculous, we cannot entirely explain it, though we can believe it. A miracle would not be a miracle—if it could be explained! That miracles are possible, I do not stop to prove here. I never trouble myself on that subject, until those who deny miracles have fairly grappled with the great fact, that Christ rose again from the dead. I firmly believe that miracles are possible, and have been wrought; and among great miracles I place the fact that men were inspired by God to write the Bible. Inspiration, therefore, being a miracle. I frankly allow that there are difficulties about it which at present, I cannot fully solve.
The exact manner, for instance, in which the minds of the inspired writers of Scripture worked when they wrote—I do not pretend to explain. I have no doubt they could not have explained it themselves. I do not admit for a moment that they were mere machines holding pens, and, like type-setters in a printing-office, did not understand what they were doing. I abhor the 'mechanical' theory of inspiration. I dislike the idea that men like Moses and Paul were no better than organ-pipes, employed by the Holy Spirit, or ignorant secretaries—who wrote by dictation what they did not understand. I admit nothing of the kind. But I do believe that in some marvelous manner the Holy Spirit made use of the reason, the memory, the intellect, the style of thought, and the peculiar mental temperament of each writer of the Scriptures.
How and in what manner this was done, I can no more explain than I can the union of two natures, God and man, in the Person of our blessed Lord Jesus Christ. I only know that there is both a Divine and a human element in the Bible, and that, while the men who wrote it were really and truly men, the book that they wrote and handed down to us is really and truly the Word of God. I know the result—but I do not understand the process. The result is, that the Bible is the written Word of God; but I can no more explain the process, than I can explain how the water became wine at Cana, or how five loaves fed five thousand men, or how the Apostle Peter walked on the water, or how a few words from our Lord's lips raised Lazarus from the dead. I do not pretend to explain miracles, and I do not pretend to explain fully the miraculous gift of inspiration.
The position I take up is, that while the Bible-writers were not 'machines,' as some sneeringly say—they only wrote what God taught them to write. The Holy Spirit put into their minds thoughts and ideas, and then guided their pens in writing and expressing them. Even when they made use of old records, chronicles, pedigrees, and lists of names, as they certainly did, they adopted, used, and compiled them under the direction of the Holy Spirit. When you read the Bible, you are not reading the unaided, self-taught composition of erring men like yourselves—but thoughts and words which were given by the eternal God. The men who were employed to write the Scripture 'spoke not from themselves.' They 'spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.' (2 Pet. 1:21.) He who holds a Bible in his hand should remember that he holds not the word of man—but of God. He holds a volume which not only contains—but is God's Word!
In saying all this, I would not be mistaken. I only claim complete inspiration for the original languages in which the books of the Scripture were written. I admit fully that transcribers and translators were not infallible, and that occasional mistakes may have crept into the sacred text, though amazingly few. When, therefore, some critics object to a word or a verse here and there, reason would tell us—that we should bear with them patiently, and agree to differ. Difficulties about the meaning of many places in the Bible, apparent discrepancies, obscure passages, no doubt, there always will be. But the book, as a whole, contains nothing that is not true.
But unhappily the battle of inspiration does not end here. A school of men has risen among us, who boldly deny the inspiration of large portions of the Old Testament. The book of Genesis, for example, is declared by some to possess no Divine authority, and to be only a collection of interesting fictions. I can find no words to express my entire disagreement with such theories. I maintain firmly—that the Old Testament is of equal authority with the New, and that they stand or fall together. You cannot separate them, any more than you can separate the warp and woof in a piece of woven cloth. The writers of the New Testament continually quote the words of the Old Testament, as of equal authority with their own, and never give the slightest hint that these quotations are not to be regarded as the Word of God. The thrice-repeated saying of our Lord, taken from Deuteronomy, 'It is written,' when tempted by the devil, is deeply significant and instructive. (Mat. 4:5-10).
But this is not the whole of my objection to these modern theories. I contend that attacks on Genesis in particular involve most dangerous consequences. They tend to dishonor our Lord Jesus Christ and His apostles. That they regard the events and persons mentioned in Genesis as real, historical, and true, and not fictitious—is clear to any honest reader of the New Testament. Now, how can this be explained if Genesis is, as some say, a mere collection of fictions? You cannot explain it except on the supposition that our Lord and His apostles were ignorant, and did not know as much as modern critics do—or else that they secretly suppressed their knowledge in order to avoid offending their hearers. In short, they were either fallible or fallacious, deceived or deceivers. God forbid that we should adopt either one conclusion or the other! I frankly confess that my whole soul revolts from these modern teachings about Genesis.
When I read that our Lord Jesus Christ is 'One with the Father,' that 'In Him are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,' that He is 'the Light of the world,' my mind cannot conceive the possibility of His being ignorant, as latter-day theories about Genesis certainly imply. That blessed Savior to whom I am taught to commit my soul, in the very week that He died for my redemption, spoke of the Flood and the days of Noah as realities! If He spoke ignorantly, with Calvary in full view, it would shake to the foundation my confidence in His power to save me, and would destroy my peace. I abhor the idea of an ignorant Savior! From all distrust of any part of the Bible—may you ever be delivered. How any English clergyman can read a lesson from Genesis in church, if he does not believe its inspiration, I cannot understand. And how after this he can gravely ascend the pulpit, select a text from Genesis, preach a sermon on the text, and draw lessons from it, when he does not believe in his heart that the text he has chosen was given by inspiration; this, I say, is one of those things which fill my soul with amazement, and make me tremble for the ark of God.
Well and wisely has this age been called 'an age of downgrade theology.' The man who only admits a partial inspiration of the Bible, has been justly compared to one with his head in a fog and his feet on a quicksand. From theories like these may you ever be preserved!
III. In the next place, let me charge you to hold fast the old doctrine of the sinfulness of sin, and the corruption of human nature.
I can find no words to express my sense of the vastness and importance of this subject. It is my firm conviction that a right knowledge of sin lies at the root of all saving religion. The first thing that God does when He makes man a new creature in Christ—is to send light into his heart, and show him that he is a guilty sinner. The material creation in Genesis began with 'light,' and so also does the spiritual creation. I have an equally firm conviction that a low and imperfect view of sin, is the origin of most of the errors, heresies, and false doctrines of the present day. If a man does not realize the extent and dangerous nature of his soul's disease, you cannot wonder if he is content with false or imperfect remedies. I believe that one of the chief wants of the Church in the nineteenth century has been, and is, clearer, fuller teaching about sin.
Sin, I need not remind any Bible reader, consists in doing, saying, thinking, or imagining anything that is not in perfect conformity with the mind and law of God. 'Sin,' as the Scripture says, is 'the transgression of the law.' (1 Jo. 3:4.) The slightest outward or inward departure from absolute mathematical parallelism with God's revealed will and character, constitutes a sin, and at once makes us guilty in God's sight. The Ninth Article of our Church declares that sin is 'the fault and corruption of the nature of every man that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusts always contrary to the spirit; and, therefore, in every person born into the world, it deserves God's wrath and damnation.'
Sin, in short, is that vast moral disease which affects the whole human race, of every rank and class and name and nation and people and tongue, the plague of rulers and statesmen, the divider of Churches, the destroyer of family happiness, the cause of all the miseries in the world.
Now I am obliged to declare my conviction, that the extent and vileness and deceitfulness of sin are a subject which is not sufficiently brought forward in the religious teaching of these days. I do not say it is ignored altogether. But I do say that it is not pressed on congregations in its Scriptural proportion. The consequences are very serious.
One result, I am persuaded, is the immense increase of that sensuous, ceremonial, formal kind of Christianity, which has swept over England like a flood in the last forty years, and carried away so many before it. I can well believe that there is much that is attractive and satisfying—in this system of religion, to a certain order of minds, so long as the conscience is not fully enlightened. But when that wonderful part of our constitution is really awake and alive, I find it hard to believe that a sensuous, ceremonial Christianity will thoroughly satisfy us. A little child is easily quieted and amused with gaudy toys and dolls and rattles, so long as it is not hungry; but once let it feel the cravings of nature within, and we know that nothing will satisfy it but food. Just so it is with man in the matter of his soul. Music and singing and flowers and banners and processions and beautiful vestments and and man-made ceremonies of semi-Romish character, may do well enough for man under certain conditions. But once let him awake and arise from the dead, and he will not rest content with these things. They will seem to him mere solemn triflings—and a waste of time!
Once let him see his sin, and he must see his Savior, in order to obtain rest for his soul. He feels stricken with a deadly disease; and nothing will satisfy him but the Great Physician. He hungers and thirsts; and he must have nothing less than the bread of life. I may seem bold in what I am about to say—but I fearlessly venture the assertion, that one half of the semi-Romanism of the last forty years would never have existed, if English people had been taught more fully and clearly the nature, vileness, and sinfulness of sin.
I believe the likeliest way to cure and mend this defective kind of religion is to bring forward more prominently, and expound more frequently, the Ten Commandments as the true test of sin. They really seem to me to have fallen into the rear of late, and, with the exception of the sixth and eighth, to receive less attention than they deserve. Let us try to revive the old teaching in nurseries, in schools, in training colleges, in universities. Let us not forget that 'the law is good if a man use it lawfully,' and that 'by the law is the knowledge of sin.' (1Ti. 1:8; Rom. 3:20, Rom. 7:7) Let us bring it to the front once more, and press it on men's attention. Let us expound and beat out the Ten Commandments, and show the length and breadth and depth and height of their requirements. It is the way of our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount. It was the way of great divines like Andrews and Leighton and Hopkins and Patrick, whose works on the Commandments are classics to this day.
We would do well to walk in their steps. We may depend upon it, men will never truly come to Christ, and stay with Christ, and live for Christ—unless they feel their sins, and know their need of a Savior. Those whom the Holy Spirit draws to Christ are those whom the Spirit has convinced of sin. Without real conviction of sin, men may seem to come to Christ and follow Him for a season—but they will soon fall away and return to the world.
I commend this point to your private consideration. I suspect that the prevailing desire to make things pleasant to hearers, and the fear of giving offence by plain speaking, have much to say to the neglect of the law in this day. But the testimony of the Bible is clear—'BY the law is the knowledge of gin.' (Rom. 3:20, Rom. 7:7). The words of Lightfoot are most deeply true, "The consciousness of sin is the true pathway to heaven."
IV. In the next place, let me charge you to hold fast the great foundation-principle of Scripture: that forgiveness of sins is only given to man through the atoning death of Jesus Christ on the cross.
This is a deep and solemn subject; but there is such an immense amount of strange doctrine floating in the air about it, that I dare not pass it over. It seems to me to lie so near the roots of the Gospel, that it is my duty not to be silent.
So far as I can understand, the theory of many appears to be—that it is the incarnation, rather than the sacrifice; the human nature that Christ took on Him rather than the death He died—which is intended to be the chief ground of hope for our souls. It seems to be held that the blood which 'cleanses from all sin' is not so much the life-blood which Christ shed when He died, as the blood of human nature of which He became partaker when He was born into the world, and by partaking ennobled all Adam's race, and made salvation possible for fallen man.
As to the old doctrine that the blood which flowed on Calvary was the ransom paid for our souls and the price of our redemption from the punishment due to our sins, it seems to be thrown aside by many like an obsolete dogma, unworthy of these latter days. Some even sneer at it as 'blood theology,' and tell us that Christ's death was only the death of a great martyr, and a grand example of perfect submission to God's will—but not a propitiation for sin.
Now I know not what some of you may think of the theory I have tried to delineate; but I must plainly say that I cannot for a moment admit that it is true, and will bear the test of calm examination. The subject is one about which I dare not call any one master.
(1)I cannot reconcile the theory with scores of plain texts in the New Testament, in which the forgiveness of sins, salvation, justification, reconciliation, redemption, deliverance from wrath to come, and peace with God—appear to be inseparably connected with the sufferings and death of Christ, and not with His life. The expression in Romans, 'We shall be saved by his life' (Rom. 5:10), is sometimes quoted as a reply to what I am saying. But that text does not mean anything but Christ's life of intercession, and it is like the words in Hebrews—'He is able to save to the uttermost, seeing that he ever lives to make intercession.' (Heb. 7:25.) When Moses and Elijah appeared in the Transfiguration, the one subject they were heard speaking about was our Lord's 'decease,' and not His life. (Luk. 9:31.) When the saints in Revelation are shown to us in vision as singing a new song before the throne, the theme of it was, 'You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by your blood.' (Rev. 5:9.)
(2)I cannot reconcile the theory with the uniform teaching of the Old Testament dispensation about the way of access to God. The great principle which, like a red line, runs through the whole Mosaic ceremonial, is the absolute necessity of sacrifice. Day after day, all the year round, and especially at the Passover, the Jew was taught by emblems and figures that 'without shedding of blood' there was no safety for the soul, and 'no remission of sins.' If the Mosaic system was meant to keep before the mind of Israel, by types and figures, the great future sacrifice of the Lamb of God on Calvary, and redemption by His blood, I can quite see its reasonableness. But if the vicarious death of Christ was not to be the main purpose of His coming into the world, the incessant slaughter of innocent animals on Jewish altars for fourteen hundred years, appears to my eyes an unnecessary waste of animal life, inconsistent with God's mercy towards all His creatures, and admitting of no satisfactory explanation.
I may not dwell longer on this solemn subject. If time permitted, I might remind you how the 'story of the cross' and the blood has always been found the most effective weapon in the mission field all over the globe. But the time limit will not allow me. If others are content to turn away from the 'old paths' of redemption by blood and substitution, and to rest on a vague hope that, somehow or other, they will be saved by Christ's incarnation, I am not their judge. Give me rather for my faith the standing-place of the noble army of Martyrs and the goodly company of Reformers, namely, the blood and passion of Christ. I dare not launch forth into a world unknown on any other plank but this!
V. Let me charge you, in the next place, to hold fast sound and Scriptural views of the work of the Holy Spirit.
Faith in the Holy Spirit, we must always remember, is as truly a part of Christianity as faith in Christ. Every child who repeats the Church Catechism is taught to say, 'I learn to believe in God the Holy Spirit, who sanctifies me and all the elect people of God.' Furthermore, the work of the Holy Spirit, though mysterious, will always be known by the fruits He produces in the character and conduct of those in whom He dwells. It is like light which can be seen, and fire which can be felt, and wind which causes noticeable results. Where there are no fruits of the Spirit, there is no presence of the Spirit. Those fruits, I need not tell you, are always the same, conviction of sin, true repentance, lively faith in Christ, and holiness of heart and life.
Now I believe this kind of truth about the work of the Holy Spirit needs strongly to be pressed on congregations in the present day. I am afraid there are myriads of professing Christians throughout the land, who really know nothing about the Holy Spirit. They seem to think that as baptized members of a great ecclesiastical corporation, that they possess all the privileges of members. But of the work of the Spirit on their own individual hearts, of conversion, repentance, and faith—they know nothing at all. They are spiritually asleep and dead—and unless they awake are in great danger. To arouse such people to a sense of their unsatisfactory condition, to stir them to see that if the Holy Spirit indwells them, they ought to know something of Him by inward experience, and never rest until they feel this. This is work which I am convinced every clergyman ought to keep continually in view, and I entreat you to do so this day. Not only preach Christ—but take care that you also preach the Holy Spirit.
While we are thankful for the increase of public religion, we must never forget that, unless it is accompanied by private religion, it is of no real solid value, and may even produce most mischievous effects. Incessant running after sensational preachers; incessant attendance at hot, crowded meetings protracted to late hours; incessant craving after fresh excitement and highly-spiced pulpit novelties—all this kind of thing is calculated to produce a very unhealthy style of Christianity; and, in many cases, I am afraid, the end is utter ruin of soul. For, unhappily, those who make public religion everything, are often led away by mere temporary emotions, after some grand display of ecclesiastical oratory, into professing far more than they really feel. After this, they can only be kept up to the mark, which they imagine they have reached, by a constant succession of religious excitements. By and by, as with opium-eaters there comes a time when their dose loses its power, and a feeling of exhaustion and discontent begins to creep over their minds. Too often, I fear, the conclusion of the whole matter is a relapse into utter deadness and unbelief, and a complete return to the world. And all results from having nothing but a public religion! Oh that people would remember that it was not the wind, or the fire, or the earthquake, which showed Elijah the presence of God—but 'the still small voice.' (1Ki. 19:12.)
I desire to lift up a warning voice on this subject. I want to see no decrease of public religion, remember; but I do want to promote an increase of that religion which is private between each man and his God, and that religion which is most beautifully exhibited at home. I want to see more attention paid to those passive graces which are the truest evidence of the work of the Spirit. To be religious among the religious, and spiritual among the spiritual, all this is comparatively easy. But to adorn the Gospel, and be Christlike, in the midst of a large family circle of unconverted and uncongenial relatives; to be always patient, gentle, loving, kind, unselfish, good-tempered; this is the grandest fruit of the Holy Spirit. We need more of this kind of religion. The root of a plant or tree makes no show above ground. If you dig down to it and examine it, it is a poor, dirty, coarse-looking thing, and not nearly so beautiful to the eye as the fruit or leaf or flower. But that despised root, nevertheless, is the true source of all the life, health, vigor, and fertility which your eyes see, and without it the plant or tree would soon die. Now, private religion is the root of all vital Christianity. Without it we may make a brave show in the meeting or on the platform, and sing loud, and shed many tears, and have a name to live, and the praise of man. But without it we are dead before God.
Our forefathers had far fewer means and opportunities than we have. Full religious meetings and crowds, except occasionally in a large room or in a field, when such men as Whitefield or Wesley preached, these were things of which they knew nothing. Their proceedings were neither fashionable nor popular, and often brought on them more persecution and abuse—than praise. But the few weapons they used, they used well. I have a strong impression that they had among them more of the presence of the Holy Spirit than we have. In quantity of religious profession we have far surpassed them; in quality, I fear, we are sadly behind. With less noise and applause from man, they made, I believe, a far deeper mark for God on their generation than we do, with all our conferences, and meetings, and mission rooms, and halls, and multiplied religious appliances. Their converts, I suspect, like the old-fashioned cloths and linens, wore better and lasted longer, and faded less and kept color, and were more stable and rooted and grounded than many of the new-born babes of this day.
And what was the reason of all this? Simply, I believe, that they gave more attention to private religion than we generally do. There was more deep, solid work, quiet work of the Holy Spirit, among them. There was more private Bible-reading and private prayer. They walked closely with God, and honored Him in private, and so He honored them in public. Oh, let us follow them—as they followed Christ! Let us exhort our people to go and do likewise. Let us honor the Holy Spirit more than we have done.
After all, there is a world to come—a life after death, an eternity either in heaven or hell. We must all die at last, and stand before the judgment-seat of Christ, when we rise again. Never, never let us cease to maintain and proclaim these great realities, whether men will hear or whether they will forbear.
VI. Let me charge you, in the last place, to hold fast the teaching of Scripture about the state of man after death.
This is a very solemn and painful topic, and flesh and blood naturally shrink from its contemplation. But so many strange doctrines are floating in the air about the whole subject, that I dare not refuse to consider it. The language of the Bible about 'judgment to come' and the future punishment of those who die impenitent, appear to me so distinct, that I do not see how it can be explained away. Those who object to the doctrine of future punishment, talk loudly about love and charity, and say that it does not harmonize with the merciful and compassionate character of God. But what says the Scripture? Who ever spoke such loving and merciful words as our Lord Jesus Christ? Yet His are the lips which three times over describe the consequence of impenitence and sin, as 'the worm that never dies, and the fire that is not quenched.' He is the Person who speaks in one sentence of the wicked going away into 'everlasting punishment,' and the righteous into 'life eternal.' (Mar. 9:43-48; Mat. 25:46)
Who does not remember the Apostle Paul's words about charity? Yet he is the very Apostle who says the wicked 'shall be punished with everlasting destruction' (2 Th. 1:9). Who does not know the spirit of love which runs all through John's Gospel and Epistles? Yet the beloved Apostle is the very writer in the New Testament who dwells most strongly, in the book of Revelation, on the reality and eternity of future woe! What shall we say to these things? Shall we be wise above that which is written? Shall we admit the dangerous principle that words in Scripture do not mean what they appear to mean? If so, where are we to stop? Is it not far better to lay our hands on our mouths and say, 'Whatever God has written must be true!' 'Even so, Lord God Almighty, true and righteous are your judgments.' (Rev. 16:7.)
I lay no claim to any peculiar knowledge of Scripture. I feel daily that I am no more infallible than the Pope of Rome. But I must speak according to the light which God has given to me, and I do not think I would do my duty if I did not raise a warning voice on this subject, and try to put our ministers on their guard. Six thousand years ago, sin entered into the world by the devil's daring falsehood—'You shall not surely die!' (Gen. 3:4.) At the end of six thousand years, the great enemy of mankind is still using his old weapon, and trying to persuade men that they may live and die in sin, and yet at some distant period may be finally saved. Let us not be ignorant of his devices. Let us walk steadily in the old paths. Let us hold fast the old truth, and believe that, as the happiness of the saved is eternal, so also is the misery of the lost.
(i) Let us hold it fast in the interest of the whole system of revealed religion.What was the use of God's Son becoming incarnate, agonizing in Gethsemane, and dying on the cross to make atonement—if men can be finally saved without believing on Him? Where is the slightest proof in Scripture, that saving faith in Christ's blood can ever begin after death? Where is the need of the Holy Spirit, if sinners are at last to enter heaven without conversion and renewal of heart? Where can we find the smallest evidence that any one can be born again after death, and have a new heart—if he dies in an unregenerate state? If a man may escape eternal punishment at last, without faith in Christ or sanctification of the Spirit, sin is no longer an infinite evil, and there was no need for Christ to die on Calvary!
(2) Let us hold fast the doctrine of future eternal punishment, for the sake of holiness and morality.I can imagine nothing so pleasant to men, as the fallacious theory that we may live in sin—and yet escape eternal perdition; that although we 'are slaves to many wicked desires and evil pleasures' while we are here in this world, we shall somehow or other, all get to heaven hereafter! Only tell the young man who is 'wasting his substance in riotous living,' that there is a heaven at last, even for those who live and die in sin, and he is never likely to turn from evil. What does it signify how he lives, if there is no 'judgment to come?' Why should he repent and take up the cross—if he can get to heaven at last without trouble?
(3) Finally, let us hold it fast for the sake of the common hopes of all God's saints.Let us distinctly understand that every blow struck at the eternity of punishment, is an equally heavy blow at the eternity of reward. It is impossible to separate the two things. No clever theological definition can divide them. They stand or fall together. The same language is used, the same figures of speech are employed, when the Bible speaks about either condition. Every attack on the duration of hell is also an attack on the duration of heaven. It is a deep and true saying, 'With the sinner's fear—our hope departs.'
I turn from this section, with a strong sense of its painfulness. I feel keenly, with Robert M'Cheyne, that 'it is a difficult subject to handle lovingly.' But I turn from it with an equally strong conviction, that if we believe the Bible, we must never give up anything which it contains. From hard, austere, and unmerciful theology, Good Lord, deliver us! If men are not saved, it is not because God does not love them, and is not willing to save them—but because they 'will not come to Christ.' (Joh. 5:40.) But we must not be wise above that which is written. No morbid liberality, so called, must induce us to reject anything which God has revealed about the next world. Men sometimes talk exclusively about God's mercy and love and compassion, as if He had no other attributes, and leave out of sight entirely His holiness and His purity, His justice and His unchangeableness, and His hatred of sin. Let us beware of falling into this delusion. It is a growing evil in these latter days.
Low and inadequate views of the unutterable vileness and filthiness of sin, and of the unutterable purity of the eternal God, are fertile sources of error about man's future state. Let us think of the mighty Being with whom we have to do, as He Himself declared His character to Moses, saying, 'The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, patience and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity, and transgression, and sin.' But let us not forget the solemn clause which concludes the sentence—'And who will by no means clear the guilty.' (Exo. 34:6-7.) Unrepented sin is an eternal evil, and can never cease to be sin; and He with whom we have to do is an eternal God!