Sermon 3. Evangelical Sanctity the Completion of Natural Virtue Seasons - Lent

"Ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light: for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness and righteousness and truth." Eph. v. 8, 9.

{37} [Note 1] WHILE Christianity reveals the pardon of sin and the promise of eternal life through the mediation of Christ, it also professes to point out means for the present improvement of our moral nature itself. This improvement, we know, is referred in Scripture to the Holy Spirit, as a first cause; and, as coming from Him, both the influence itself upon the mind and the moral character formed under that influence are each in turn called "the spirit." Thus, St. Paul speaks of the law of "the spirit of life in Christ Jesus," [Rom. viii. 2.] and contrasts it with that character and conduct which are sin and death. He speaks too of receiving "the spirit of faith," [2 Cor. iv. 13.] or the temper of which faith is the essence; and in the {38} text, which is found in the Epistle for this Sunday, he refers to the outward manifestation or fruit of the same spirit, "goodness, righteousness, and truth." "Light" is another word, used as in the text—to express the same moral change which the Gospel offers us; but this title is proper to our Lord, who is the true Light of men. Christians are said to be "called into His marvellous light," to "walk as children of light," to "abide in the light," to "put on the armour of light." [1 Pet. ii. 9. 1 John i. 7; ii. 10. Rom. xiii. 12.] Another similar term is newness or renewal of mind. Indeed, it is quite obvious that the phraseology of the New Testament is grounded in such views of the immediate inward benefits to be conferred upon the Church on the coming of Christ.

2. What, then, is meant by this language? language, which, if great words stand for great ideas, and an Apostle does not aim at eloquent speech rather than at the simple truth, must raise our expectations concerning the fulness of the present benefits resulting to us in the present state of things from Christianity. That it is not mere ordinary religious obedience, such as the Holy Spirit may foster among the heathen; nor, on the other hand, miraculous endowment of which St. Paul speaks, when he prays that "the Father of glory" might give to the Ephesians "the spirit of wisdom and revelation," "enlightened understanding," "knowledge of the riches of the glory of the Saints' inheritance," [Eph. i. 17, 18.] this surely is evident without formal proof, and least of all need be insisted on in this place.

3. Nor, again, does the question find its answer in the {39} view of certain men of deeper piety than the mass of mankind,—of those, I mean, who, clearly perceiving that Christian morality and devotion are something extraordinarily excellent and divine, have sought to embody them in a strict outward separation from the world, a ceremonial worship, severe austerities, and a fixed adjustment of the claims of duty in all the varying minutić of daily conduct; and who, in consequence, have at length substituted dead forms for the "spirit" which they desired to honour.

4. Nor further may we seek an explanation of the difficulty from such men as consult their feelings and imaginations rather than the sure Word of God, and place that spiritual obedience, which all confess to be the very test of a Christian, in the indulgence of excited affections, in an impetuous, unrefined zeal, or in the language of an artificial devotion. For this view of spirituality, also, except in the case of minds peculiarly constituted, ends in a formal religion.

5. Moreover, the aspect of the Christian world affords us no elucidation of St. Paul's language concerning the great gift of grace. Far from concurring with Scripture and interpreting it for us, doubtless the manners and habits even of the most refined society are rather calculated to prejudice the mind against any high views of religious and moral duty. And this has been the case even from the Apostle's age, as may be inferred from his Epistle to the Corinthians, who could hardly have understood their own titles, as "sanctified in Christ," "called to be saints," [1 Cor. i. 2.] at the time that they {40} have among them, "debates, envyings, whisperings, swellings, tumults, uncleanness, lasciviousness," [2 Cor. xii. 20, 21.] unrepented of.

6. It is indeed by no means clear that Christianity has at any time been of any great spiritual advantage to the world at large. The general temper of mankind, taking man individually, is what it ever was, restless and discontented, or sensual, or unbelieving. In barbarous times, indeed, the influence of the Church was successful in effecting far greater social order and external decency of conduct than are known in heathen countries; and at all times it will abash and check excesses which conscience itself condemns. But it has ever been a restraint on the world rather than a guide to personal virtue and perfection on a large scale; its fruits are negative.

7. True it is, that in the more advanced periods of society a greater innocence and probity of conduct and courtesy of manners will prevail; but these, though they have sometimes been accounted illustrations of the peculiar Christian character, have in fact no necessary connexion with it. For why should they not be referred to that mere advancement of civilisation and education of the intellect, which is surely competent to produce them? Morals may be cultivated as a science; it furnishes a subject-matter on which reason may exercise itself to any extent whatever, with little more than the mere external assistance of conscience and Scripture. And, when drawn out into system, such a moral teaching will attract general admiration {41} from its beauty and refinement; and from its evident expediency will be adopted as a directory (so to say) of conduct, whenever it does not occasion any great inconvenience, or interfere with any strong passion or urgent interest. National love of virtue is no test of a sensitive and well-instructed conscience,—of nothing beyond intellectual culture. History establishes this: the Roman moralists write as admirably, as if they were moral men.

8. And, if this be the case, as I think it is, do we not compromise the dignity of Christianity by anxiously referring unbelievers to the effects of the Gospel of Jesus in the world at large, as if a sufficient proof of its divine origin, when the same effects to all appearance are the result of principles which do not "spring from the grace of Christ and the inspiration of His Spirit"? For it is not too much to say, that, constituted as human nature is, any very wide influence and hearty reception of given principles among men argues in fact their earthly character,—"they are of the world, therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them." [1 John iv. 5.] The true light of the world offends more men than it attracts; and its divine origin is shown, not in its marked effects on the mass of mankind, but in its surprising power of elevating the moral character where it is received in spirit and in truth. Its scattered saints, in all ranks of life, speak of it to the thoughtful inquirer: but to the world at large, its remarkable continuance on the earth is its witness,—its pertinacity of existence, confronting, as it has in {42} turn, every variety of opinion, and triumphing over them all. To the multitude it does not manifest itself [Note 2];—not that it willingly is hid from them, but that the perverse freedom of their will keeps them at a distance from it.

9. Besides, it must not be forgotten, that Christianity professes to prepare us for the next life. It is nothing strange then, if principles, which avowedly direct the science of morals to present beneficial results in the community, should show to the greater advantage in their own selected field of action. Exalted virtue cannot be fully appreciated, nay, is seldom recognized on the public stage of life, because it addresses itself to an unseen tribune. Its actual manifestations on this confused and shifting scene are but partial; just as the most perfect form loses its outline and its proportions, when cast in shadow on some irregular surface.

10. Let it be assumed, then, as not needing proof, that the freedom of thought, enlightened equitableness, and amiableness, which are the offspring of civilization, differ far more even than the piety of form or of emotion from the Christian spirit, as being "not pleasant to God, forasmuch as they spring not of faith in Jesus Christ, yea, rather, 'doubtless,' having the nature of sin."

11. How then, after all, must the gift be described, which Christianity professes to bestow? I proceed, in answer to this question, to consider what is said on the subject by Scripture itself, where alone we ought to look for the answer. Not as if any new light could be {43} thrown upon the subject, or any statements made, which have not the assent of sober Christians generally, but in order to illustrate and enforce an all-important truth; and, while at every season of the year practical views of Christianity are befitting, they are especially suggested and justified by the services of humiliation in which we are at present [Note 3] engaged.

12. The difference, then, between the extraordinary Christian "spirit," and human faith and virtue, viewed apart from Christianity, is simply this:—that, while the two are the same in nature, the former is immeasurably higher than the other, more deeply rooted in the mind it inhabits, more consistent, more vigorous, of more intense purity, of more sovereign authority, with greater promise of victory—the choicest elements of our moral nature being collected, fostered, matured into a determinate character by the gracious influences of the Holy Ghost, differing from the virtue of heathens somewhat in the way that the principle of life in a diseased and wasted frame differs from that health, beauty, and strength of body, which is nevertheless subject to disorder and decay.

13. That the spiritual and the virtuous mind are essentially the same, is plain from the text as from other Scriptures: "The fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness and righteousness and truth." Let us rather confine our attention to the point of difference between them; viz. that the Christian graces are far superior in rank and dignity to the moral virtues. The following may serve as illustrations of this difference:— {44}

14. (1.) Take at once our Lord's words, when enjoining the duty of love, "If ye love them who love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?" Or St. Peter's, on the duty of patience! "What glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God." [Matt. v. 46. 1 Pet. ii. 20.]

15. This contrast between ordinary and transcendant virtue, the virtues of nature and the virtues of Christianity, may be formally drawn out in various branches of our duty. For instance; duties are often divided into religious, relative, personal; the characteristic excellence in each of those departments of virtue being respectively faith, benevolence and justice, and temperance. Now in Christianity these three are respectively perfected in hope, charity, and self-denial, which are the peculiar fruits of the "spirit" as distinguished from ordinary virtue. This need not be proved in detail; it is sufficient to refer to St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, and his first to the Corinthians. These three cardinal graces of the Christian character are enforced by our Saviour, when He bids us take no thought for the morrow; do as we would be done by; and deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him [Matt. vi. 34; vii. 12; x. 38.].

16. Other virtues admit of a similar growth and contrast. Christian patience is contrasted with what is ordinary patience in the passage from St. Peter just cited. St. John speaks of the "love of God casting out fear;" and whatever difficulty may lie in the interpretation of these words, they are at least clear in marking the transcendant {45} quality of the Christian grace, compared with the ordinary virtue, as seen under former dispensations of religion. And in the Epistle to the Hebrews, the inspired writer contrasts the elementary objects of faith with those which are the enjoyment of a perfect and true Christian; the doctrines which spring from the Atonement being the latter, and the former such as the Being of a God, His Providence, the Resurrection and eternal judgment.

17. (2.) In the next place, we may learn what is the peculiar gift of the Spirit even without seeking in Scripture for any express contrast between graces and virtues, by considering the Christian moral code as a whole, and the general impression which it would make on minds which had been instructed in nothing beyond the ordinary morality which nature teaches. Such are the following passages—we are bid not to resist evil, but to turn the cheek to the smiter; to forgive from our hearts our brother, though he sin against us unto seventy times seven; to love and bless our enemies; to love without dissimulation; to esteem others better than ourselves; to bear one another's burdens; to condescend to men of low estate; to minister to our brethren the more humbly, the higher our station is; to be like little children in simplicity and humility. We are to guard against every idle word, and to aim at great plainness of speech; to make prayer our solace, and hymns and psalms our mirth; to be careless about the honours and emoluments of the world; to maintain almost a voluntary poverty (at least so far as renouncing all superfluous wealth may be called such); {46} to observe a purity severe as an utter abhorrence of uncleanness can make it to be; willingly to part with hand or eye in the desire to be made like to the pattern of the Son of God; and to think little of friends or country, or the prospects of ordinary domestic happiness, for the kingdom of heaven's sake [Note 4].

18. Now, in enumerating these maxims of Christian morality, I do not attempt to delineate the character itself, which they are intended to form as their result. Without pretending to interpret rules, which the religious mind understands only in proportion to its progress in sanctification, I may assume, what is enough for the present purpose, that they evidently point out to some very exalted order of moral excellence as the characteristic of a genuine Christian. Thus they are adequate to the explanation of the Apostle's strong language about the Spirit of glory and God [Note 5] as the present gift gained for us by our Saviour's intercession, which in the text is evidently declared to be a moral gift, yet as evidently to be something more than what is meant by ordinary faith and obedience.

19. (3.) And next, let us see what may be gained on the subject by examining the lives of the Apostles, and of their genuine successors. Here their labours and sufferings attract our attention first. Not that pain and privation have any natural connexion with virtue; but because, when virtue is pre-supposed, these conditions exert a powerful influence in developing and elevating {47} it. Considering St. Paul's ready and continued sacrifices of himself and all that was his in the cause of the Gospel, could the texture of his religion bear any resemblance to that weak and yielding principle which constitutes the virtue of what we now consider the more conscientious part of mankind? He and his brethren had a calm strength of mind, which marked them out, more than any other temper, to be God's elect who could not be misled, stern weapons of God, purged by affliction and toil to do His work on earth and to persevere to the end.

20. And let us view such men as these, whom we rightly call Saints, in the combination of graces which form their character, and we shall gain a fresh insight into the nature of that sublime morality which the Spirit enforces. St. Paul exhibits the union of zeal and gentleness; St. John, of overflowing love with uncompromising strictness of principle. Firmness and meekness is another combination of virtues, which is exemplified in Moses, even under the first Covenant. To these we may add such as self-respect and humility, the love and fear of God, and the use of the world without the abuse of it. This necessity of being "sanctified wholly," in the Apostle's language, is often forgotten. It is indeed comparatively easy to profess one side only of moral excellence, as if faith were to be all in all, or zeal, or amiableness; whereas in truth, religious obedience is a very intricate problem, and the more so the farther we proceed in it. The moral growth within us must be symmetrical, in order to be beautiful or lasting; hence mature sanctity is seldom {48} recognized by others, where it really exists, never by the world at large. Ordinary spectators carry off one or other impression of a good man, according to the accidental circumstances under which they see him. Much more are the attributes and manifestations of the Divine Mind beyond our understanding, and, appearing inconsistent, are rightly called mysterious.

21. (4.) A last illustration of the special elevation of Christian holiness is derived from the anxious exhortation made to us in Scripture to be diligent in aiming at it. There is no difficulty in realizing in our own persons the ordinary virtues of society; nay, it is the boast of some ethical systems that they secure virtue, on the admission of a few simple and intelligible principles, or that they make it depend on the knowledge of certain intellectual truths. This is a shallow philosophy; but Christian perfection is as high as the commands and warnings of Scripture are solemn: "Watch and pray;" "many are called, few chosen;" ''strait is the gate, and narrow is the way;" "strive to enter in," "many shall seek," only; "a rich man shall hardly enter;" "he that is able to receive it, let him receive it;" [Matt. vii.; xix.; xxii.; xxvi. Luke xiii.] and others of a like character.

22. Such, then, is the present benefit which Christianity offers us; not only a renewal of our moral nature after Adam's original likeness, but a blending of all its powers and affections into the one perfect man, "after the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ." Not that heathens are absolutely precluded from this transformation {49} from sin to righteousness; nor as if we dare limit the actual progress made by individuals among them; nor, further, as if it were not every one's duty to aim at perfection in all things under any Dispensation; but neither the question of duty nor that of God's dealings with heathen countries has come under consideration here; but what it is that Christians have pledged to them from above on their regeneration; what that great gift is of Christ's passion, of which the Apostles speak in language so solemn and so triumphant, as at first sight to raise a difficulty about its meaning.

28. Considering, then, the intense brightness and purity of that holiness to which we are called, and on the other hand our ignorant and sensual condition, as we are really found, our Church teaches us to put away from ourselves the title of "Saint," and to attribute it to such especially as "have laboured and not fainted;" [Rev. ii. 3.] those who, like the Apostles and primitive martyrs, have fought a good fight, and finished their course, and kept the faith.

24. Nor let it seem to any one, that, by so doing, the timid Christian is debarred of his rights and discouraged; or, on the other hand, that the indolent are countenanced in low views of duty by setting before them what they may consider a double standard of virtue. For indolent minds will content themselves with the performance of a meagre heartless obedience, whether or not a higher excellence is also proposed to them. And as to the sincere but anxious disciple of Christ, let it relieve his despondency to reflect that on him as much {50} as on the matured saint, have been bestowed the titles of God's everlasting favour and the privileges of election. God's will and purpose are pledged in his behalf; and the first fruits of grace are vouchsafed to him, though his character be not yet brought into the abiding image of Christ. While the distance from him of the prize must excite in him an earnest desire of victory and a fear of failure, there is no impassable barrier between him and it, to lead him to despair of it. And there is a point in a Christian's progress at which his election may be considered as secured; whether or not he can assure himself of this, at least there may be times when he will "feel within him the working of the spirit of Christ, mortifying the flesh, and drawing up his mind to high and heavenly things." Thus St. Paul on one occasion says, "Not as though I had attained;" yet, far from desponding, he adds, "I press towards the mark for the prize." Again, at the close of his life, he says, "Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness." [Phil. iii. 12-14. 2 Tim. iv. 8.]

25. The subject which has come before us naturally leads on to one or two reflections, with which I shall conclude.

On the one hand, it suggests the question, Are there in this age saints in the world, such as the Apostles were? And this at least brings us to a practical reflection. For, if there are such any where, they ought to exist in our own Church, or rather, since the Apostles were men of no higher nature than ourselves, if there are not {51} among us such as they were, no reason can possibly be given for the deficiency, but the perverse love of sin in those who are not such. There are Christians who do not enjoy a knowledge of the pure truth; and others, who wander without the pale of the divinely privileged Church of Christ; but we are enabled justly to glory in our membership with the body which the Apostles founded, and in which the Holy Spirit has especially dwelt ever since, and we are blessed with the full light of Scripture, and possess the most formally correct creed of any of the Churches. Yet, on the other hand, when we look at the actual state of this Christian country, it does not seem as if men were anxiously escaping the woe, which, first pronounced on an apostate Apostle, assuredly hangs over them. They do not appear to recognize any distinction between natural and spiritual excellence; they do not aim at rising above the morality of unregenerate men, which, though commendable in heathen, is not available for Christian salvation. And they are apt to view Christian morality as a mere system, as one of the Evidences for Revealed Religion, and as a mark of their superior knowledge in comparison with Jews and Pagans, far more than as it enjoins on them a certain ethical character, which they are commanded to make their own.

26. When, moreover, to the imperative duty, which lies upon us, of being true Christians, and to the actual signs of carelessness and unbelief which the Christian world exhibits, we add the extreme difficulty of turning from sin to obedience, the prospect before us becomes still more threatening. It is difficult even to form a {52} notion of the utter dissimilarity between the holiness to which we are called and the habits which we still imperceptibly form for ourselves, if we leave the tendencies of our nature to take their spontaneous course. What two things are more opposed to each other than a mind revelling in the keen indulgence of its passions, and the same mind, when oppressed with self-reproach and bodily suffering, and loathing the sins in which it before exulted? Yet, great as this contrast is, remorse does not more differ from profligate excess, than both of them differ from a true religious habit of mind. As the pleasure of sinning is contrary to remorse, so remorse is not repentance, and repentance is not reformation, and reformation is not habitual virtue, and virtue is not the full gift of the Spirit. How shall we limit the process of sanctification? But of these its higher stages deliberate sinners are as ignorant, and as ignorant of their ignorance, as of those "heavenly things," to which our Saviour refers.

27. And lastly, when the shortness of our probation is added to the serious thoughts already dwelt upon, who shall estimate the importance of every day and hour of a Christian's life in its bearing on his eternal destiny? Not that life is not long enough to ascertain each man's use of his own gifts,—rather, our probation could not be materially longer, for our nature is such, that, though life were ten times its present length, yet our eternal prospects would, as it appears, still be decided by our first start on its course. We cannot keep from forming habits of one kind or another, each of our acts influences the rest, gives character to the mind, narrows its freewill {53} in the direction of good or evil, till it soon converges in all its powers and principles to some fixed point in the unbounded horizon before it. This at least is the general law of our moral nature; and such fearful expression does it give to every event which befalls us, and to every corresponding action of our will, and especially with such appalling interest does it invest the probation of our early years, that nothing but the knowledge of the Gospel announcements, and above all of the gracious words and deeds of our Redeemer, is equal to the burden of it. And these are intended to sustain the threatenings of the visible system of things, which would overwhelm us except for the promise, as the hearing of the promise on the other hand might puff us up with an unseeming presumption, had we no experience of the terrors of Natural Religion.

28. The day, we know, will come, when every Christian will be judged, not by what God has done for him, but by what he has done for himself: when, of all the varied blessings of Redemption, in which he was clad here, nothing will remain to him, but what he has incorporated in his own moral nature, and made part of himself. And, since we cannot know what measure of holiness will be then accepted in our own case, it is but left to us to cast ourselves individually on God's mercy in faith, and to look steadily, yet humbly, at the Atonement for sin which He has appointed; so that when He comes to judge the world, He may remember us in His kingdom.

(Preached on Sunday afternoon, March 6, 1831, by appointment of the Vice-Chancellor.)

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1. [This discourse was not published in former editions, as having been written in haste on a sudden summons to preach.]
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2. Vide John xiv. 21-23.
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3. Lent.
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4. Matt. v. 28, 37, 39, 44; vi. 25; xii. 36; xviii. 3, 8, 35; xix. 12, 29; xx. 27. Rom. xii. 9, 16. 1 Cor. vi. 18-20. Gal. vi. 2. James v. 13.
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5. 1 Pet. iv. 14.
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