Sermon 15. Religious Faith Rational

"He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God: and being fully persuaded that, what He had promised, He was able also to perform." Rom. iv. 20, 21.

{190} THERE are serious men who are in the habit of describing Christian Faith as a feeling or a principle such as ordinary persons cannot enter into; a something strange and peculiar in its very nature, different in kind from every thing that affects and influences us in matters of this world, and not admitting any illustration from our conduct in them. They consider that, because it is a spiritual gift, and heavenly in its origin, it is therefore altogether superhuman; and that to compare it with any of our natural principles or feelings, is to think unworthily of it. And thus they lead others, who wish an excuse for their own irreligious lives, to speak of Christian Faith as extravagant and irrational, as if it were a mere fancy or feeling, which some persons had and others had not; and which, accordingly, could only, and would necessarily, be felt by those who were disposed that certain way. Now, that the object on which Faith {191} fixes our thoughts, that the doctrines of Scripture are most marvellous and exceeding in glory, unheard and unthought of elsewhere, is quite true; and it is also true that no mind of man will form itself to a habit of Faith without the preventing and assisting influences of Divine Grace. But it is not at all true that Faith itself, i.e. Trust, is a strange principle of action; and to say that it is irrational is even an absurdity. I mean such a Faith as that of Abraham, mentioned in the text, which led him to believe God's word when opposed to his own experience. And it shall now be my endeavour to show this.

To hear some men speak (I mean men who scoff at religion), it might be thought we never acted on Faith or Trust, except in religious matters; whereas we are acting on trust every hour of our lives. When faith is said to be a religious principle, it is (I repeat) the things believed, not the act of believing them, which is peculiar to religion. Let us take some examples.

It is obvious that we trust to our memory. We do not now witness what we saw yesterday; yet we have no doubt it took place in the way we remember. We recollect clearly the circumstances of morning and afternoon. Our confidence in our memory is so strong that a man might reason with us all day long, without persuading us that we slept through the day, or that we returned from a long journey, when our memory deposes otherwise. Thus we have faith in our memory; yet what is irrational here?

Again, even when we use reasoning, and are convinced of any thing by reasoning, what is it but that we trust {192} the general soundness of our reasoning powers? From knowing one thing we think we can be sure about another, even though we do not see it. Who of us would doubt, on seeing strong shadows on the ground, that the sun was shining out, though our face happened to be turned the other way? Here is faith without sight; but there is nothing against reason here, unless reason can be against itself.

And what I wish you particularly to observe, is, that we continually trust our memory and our reasoning powers in this way, though they often deceive us. This is worth observing, because it is sometimes said we cannot be certain that our faith in religion is not a mistake. I say our memory and reason often deceive us; yet no one says it is therefore absurd and irrational to continue to trust them; and for this plain reason, because on the whole they are true and faithful witnesses, because it is only at times that they mislead us; so that the chance is, that they are right in this case or that, which happens to be before us; and (again) because in all practical matters we are obliged to dwell upon not what may be possibly, but what is likely to be. In matters of daily life, we have no time for fastidious and perverse fancies about the minute chances of our being deceived. We are obliged to act at once, or we should cease to live. There is a chance (it cannot be denied) that our food today may be poisonous,—we cannot be quite certain,—but it looks the same and tastes the same, and we have good friends round us; so we do not abstain from it, for all this chance, though it is real. This necessity of acting promptly is our happiness {193} in this world's matters; in the concerns of a future life, alas! we have time for carnal and restless thoughts about possibilities. And this is our trial; and it will be our condemnation, if with the experience of the folly of such idle fancyings about what may be, in matters of this life, we yet indulge them as regards the future. If it be said, that we sometimes do distrust our reasoning powers, for instance, when they lead us to some unexpected conclusion, or again our memory, when another's memory contradicts it, this only shows that there are things which we should be weak or hasty in believing; which is quite true. Doubtless there is such a fault as credulity, or believing too readily and too much (and this, in religion, we call superstition); but this neither shows that all trust is irrational, nor again that trust is necessarily irrational, which is founded on what is but likely to be, and may be denied without an actual absurdity. Indeed, when we come to examine the subject, it will be found that, strictly speaking, we know little more than that we exist, and that there is an Unseen Power whom we are bound to obey. Beyond this we must trust; and first our senses, memory, and reasoning powers; then other authorities:—so that, in fact, almost all we do, every day of our lives, is on trust, i.e. faith.

But it may be said, that belief in these informants, our senses, and the like, is not what is commonly meant by faith;—that to trust our senses and reason is in fact nothing more than to trust ourselves;—and though these do sometimes mislead us, yet they are so continually about us, and so at command, that we can use {194} them to correct each other; so that on the whole we gain from these the truth of things quite well enough to act upon;—that on the other hand it is a very different thing from this to trust another person; and that faith, in the Scripture sense of the word, is trusting another, and therefore is not proved to be rational by the foregoing illustrations.

Let us, then, understand faith in this sense of reliance on the words of another, as opposed to trust in oneself. This is the common meaning of the word, I grant;—as when we contrast it to sight and to reason; and yet what I have already said has its use in reminding men who are eager for demonstration in matters of religion, that there are difficulties in matters of sense and reasoning also. But to proceed as I have proposed.—It is easy to show, that, even considering faith as trust in another, it is no irrational or strange principle of conduct in the concerns of this life.

For when we consider the subject attentively, how few things there are which we can ascertain for ourselves by our own senses and reason! After all, what do we know without trusting others? We know that we are in a certain state of health, in a certain place, have been alive for a certain number of years, have certain principles and likings, have certain persons around us, and perhaps have in our lives travelled to certain places at a distance. But what do we know more? Are there not towns (we will say) within fifty or sixty miles of us which we have never seen, and which, nevertheless, we fully believe to be as we have heard them described? To extend our view;—we know that land stretches in every direction {195} of us, a certain number of miles, and then there is sea on all sides; that we are in an island. But who has seen the land all around, and has proved for himself that the fact is so? What, then, convinces us of it? the report of others,—this trust, this faith in testimony which, when religion is concerned, then, and only then, the proud and sinful would fain call irrational.

And what I have instanced in one set of facts, which we believe, is equally true of numberless others, of almost all of those which we think we know.

Consider how men in the business of life, nay, all of us, confide, are obliged to confide, in persons we never saw, or know but slightly; nay, in their hand-writings, which, for what we know, may be forged, if we are to speculate and fancy what may be. We act upon our trust in them implicitly, because common sense tells us, that with proper caution and discretion, faith in others is perfectly safe and rational. Scripture, then, only bids us act in respect to a future life, as we are every day acting at present. Or, again, how certain we all are (when we think on the subject) that we must sooner or later die. No one seriously thinks he can escape death; and men dispose of their property and arrange their affairs, confidently contemplating, not indeed the exact time of their death, still death as sooner or later to befall them. Of course they do; it would be most irrational in them not to expect it. Yet observe, what proof has any one of us that he shall die? because other men die? how does he know that? has he seen them die? he can know nothing of what took place before he was born, nor of what happens in other countries. How little, {196} indeed, he knows about it at all, except that it is a received fact, and except that it would, in truth, be idle to doubt what mankind as a whole witness, though each individual has only his proportionate share in the universal testimony! And, further, we constantly believe things even against our own judgment; i.e. when we think our informant likely to know more about the matter under consideration than ourselves, which is the precise case in the question of religious faith. And thus from reliance on others we acquire knowledge of all kinds, and proceed to reason, judge, decide, act, form plans for the future. And in all this (I say) trust is at the bottom; and this the world calls prudence (and rightly); and not to trust and act upon trust, imprudence, or (it may be) headstrong folly, or madness.

But it is needless to proceed; the world could not go on without trust. The most distressing event that can happen to a state is (we know) the spreading of a want of confidence between man and man. Distrust, want of faith, breaks the very bonds of human society. Now, then, shall we account it only rational for a man, when he is ignorant, to believe his fellow-man, nay, to yield to another's judgment as better than his own, and yet think it against reason when one, like Abraham, gives ear to the Word of God, and sets the promise of God above his own short-sighted expectation? Abraham, it is true, rested in hope beyond hope, in the hope afforded by a Divine promise beyond that hope suggested by nature. He had fancied he never should have a son, and God promised him a son. But might he not well address those self-wise persons who neglect to walk in the steps of his faith, in the {197} language of just reproof? "If we receive the witness of men" (he might well urge with the Apostle), "the witness of God is greater." [1 John v. 9.] Therefore, he "staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully persuaded that what He had promised He was able also to perform."

But it may be objected; "True, if we knew for certain God had spoken to us as He did to Abraham, it were then madness indeed in us to disbelieve Him; but it is not His voice we hear, but man's speaking in His name. The Church tells us, that God has revealed to man His will; and the Ministers of the Church point to a book which they say is holy, and contains the words of God. How are we to know whether they speak truth or not? To believe this, is it according to reason or against it?"

This objection brings us to a very large and weighty question, though I do not think it is, generally speaking, a very practical one; viz. what are our reasons for believing the Bible came from God? If any one asks this in a scoffing way, he is not to be answered; for he is profane, and exposes himself to the curse pronounced by St. Paul upon the haters of the Lord Jesus. But if a man inquires sincerely, wishing to find the truth, waiting on God humbly, yet perplexed at knowing or witnessing the deeds of scorners and daring blasphemers, and at hearing their vain reasonings, and not knowing what to think or say about them, let him consider the following remarks, with which I conclude.

Now, first, whatever such profane persons may say {198} about their willingness to believe, if they could find reason,—however willing they may profess themselves to admit that we daily take things on trust, and that to act on faith is in itself quite a rational procedure,—though they may pretend that they do not quarrel with being required to believe, but say that they do think it hard that better evidence is not given them for believing what they are bid believe undoubtingly, viz. the divine authority of the Bible,—in spite of all this, depend upon it, (in a very great many cases), they do murmur at being required to believe, they do dislike being bound to act without seeing, they do prefer to trust themselves to trusting God, even though it could be plainly proved to them that God was in truth speaking to them. Did they see God, did He show Himself as He will appear at the last day, still they would be faithful to their own miserable and wretched selves, and would be practically disloyal to the authority of God. Their conduct shows this. Why otherwise do they so frequently scoff at religious men, as if timid and narrow-minded, merely because they fear to sin? Why do they ridicule such conscientious persons as will not swear, or jest indecorously, or live dissolutely? Clearly, it is their very faith itself they ridicule; not their believing on false grounds, but their believing at all. Here they show what it is which rules them within. They do not like the tie of religion; they do not like dependence. To trust another, much more to trust him implicitly, is to acknowledge oneself to be his inferior; and this man's proud nature cannot bear to do. He is apt to think it unmanly, and to be {199} ashamed of it; he promises himself liberty by breaking the chain (as he considers it) which binds him to his Maker and Redeemer. You will say, why then do such men trust each other if they are so proud? I answer, that they cannot help it; and, again, that while they trust, they are trusted in turn; which puts them on a sort of equality with others. Unless this mutual dependence takes place, it is true, they cannot bear to be bound to trust another, to depend on him. And this is the reason that such men are so given to cause tumults and rebellion in national affairs. They set up some image of freedom in their minds, a freedom from the shackles of dependence, which they think their natural right, and which they aim to gain for themselves; a liberty, much like that which Satan aspired after, when he rebelled against God. So, let these men profess what they will, about their not finding fault with Faith on its own account, they do dislike it. And it is therefore very much to our purpose to accustom our minds to the fact, on which I have been insisting, that almost every thing we do is grounded on mere trust in others. We are from our birth dependent creatures, utterly dependent;—dependent immediately on man; and that visible dependence reminds us forcibly of our truer and fuller dependence upon God.

Next, I observe, that these unbelieving men, who use hard words against Scripture, condemn themselves out of their own mouth;—in this way. It is a mistake to suppose that our obedience to God's will is merely founded on our belief in the word of such persons as {200} tell us Scripture came from God. We obey God primarily because we actually feel His presence in our consciences bidding us obey Him. And this, I say, confutes these objectors on their own ground; because the very reason they give for their unbelief is, that they trust their own sight and reason, because their own, more than the words of God's Ministers. Now, let me ask, if they trust their senses and their reason, why do they not trust their conscience too? Is not conscience their own? Their conscience is as much a part of themselves as their reason is; and it is placed within them by Almighty God in order to balance the influence of sight and reason; and yet they will not attend to it; for a plain reason,—they love sin,—they love to be their own masters, and therefore they will not attend to that secret whisper of their hearts, which tells them they are not their own masters, and that sin is hateful and ruinous.

Nothing shows this more plainly than their conduct, if ever you appeal to their conscience in favour of your view of the case. Supposing they are using profane language, murmurings, or scoffings at religion; and supposing a man says to them, "You know in your heart you should not do so;" how will they reply? They immediately get angry; or they attempt to turn what is said into ridicule; any thing will they do, except answer by reasoning. No; their boasted argumentation then fails them. It flies like a coward before the slight stirring of conscience; and their passions, these are the only champions left for their defence. They in effect say, "We do so, because we like it;" perhaps they even {201} avow this in so many words. "He feedeth on ashes; a deceived heart hath turned him aside, that he cannot deliver his soul, nor say, Is there not a lie in my right hand?" [Isa. xliv. 20.]

And are such the persons whom any Christian can in any degree trust? Surely faith in them would be of all conceivable confidences the most irrational, the most misplaced. Can we allow ourselves to be perplexed and frightened at the words of those who carry upon them the tokens of their own inconsistency, the mark of Cain? Surely not; and as that first rebel's mark was set on him, "lest any finding him should kill him," in like manner their presence but reminds us thereby to view them with love, though most sorrowfully, and to pray earnestly, and do our utmost (if there is ought we can do), that they may be spared the second death;—to look on them with awe, as a land cursed by God, the plain of Siddim or the ruins of Babel, but which He, for our Redeemer's sake, is able to renew and fertilize.

For ourselves, let us but obey God's voice in our hearts, and I will venture to say we shall have no doubts practically formidable about the truth of Scripture. Find out the man who strictly obeys the law within him, and yet is an unbeliever as regards the Bible, and then it will be time enough to consider all that variety of proof by which the truth of the Bible is confirmed to us. This is no practical inquiry for us. Our doubts, if we have any, will be found to {202} arise after disobedience; it is bad company or corrupt books which lead to unbelief. It is sin which quenches the Holy Spirit.

And if we but obey God strictly, in time (through His blessing) faith will become like sight; we shall have no more difficulty in finding what will please God than in moving our limbs, or in understanding the conversation of our familiar friends. This is the blessedness of confirmed obedience. Let us aim at attaining it; and in whatever proportion we now enjoy it, praise and bless God for His unspeakable gift.

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