Sermon 8. God's Commandments not Grievous

"This is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not grievous." 1 John v. 3.

{97} IT must ever be borne in mind, that it is a very great and arduous thing to attain to heaven. "Many are called, few are chosen." "Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way." "Many will seek to enter in, and shall not he able." "If any man come to Me, and hate not his father and mother, and wife and children, and brethren and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple." [Matt. xxii. 14; vii. 14. Luke xiii. 24; xiv. 26.] On the other hand, it is evident to any one who reads the New Testament with attention, that Christ and His Apostles speak of a religious life as something easy, pleasant, and comfortable. Thus, in the words I have taken for my text:—"This is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not grievous." In like manner our Saviour says, "Come unto Me ... and I will give you rest … My yoke is easy, and My burden is light." [Matt. xi. 28-30.] Solomon, also, in the Old Testament, speaks {98} in the same way of true wisdom:—"Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her: and happy is every one that retaineth her … When thou liest down, thou shalt not be afraid: yea, thou shalt lie down, and thy sleep shall be sweet." [Prov. iii. 17-24.] Again, we read in the prophet Micah: "What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" [Micah vi. 8.] as if it were a little and an easy thing so to do.

Now I will attempt to show how it is that these apparently opposite declarations of Christ and His Prophets and Apostles are fulfilled to us. For it may be objected by inconsiderate persons that we are (if I may so express it) hardly treated; invited to come to Christ and receive His light yoke, promised an easy and happy life, the joy of a good conscience, the assurance of pardon, and the hope of Heaven; and then, on the other hand, when we actually come, as it were, rudely repulsed, frightened, reduced to despair by severe requisitions and evil forebodings. Such is the objection,—not which any Christian would bring forward; for we, my brethren, know too much of the love of our Master and only Saviour in dying for us, seriously to entertain for an instant any such complaint. We have at least faith enough for this (and it does not require a great deal), viz. to believe that the Son of God, Jesus Christ, is not "yea and nay, but in Him is yea. For all the promises of God in Him are yea, and in Him Amen, unto the glory of God by us." [2 Cor. i. 19, 20.] It is for the very reason that none of {99} us can seriously put the objection, that I allow myself to state it strongly; to urge it being in a Christian's judgment absurd, even more than it would be wicked. But though none of us really feel as an objection to the Gospel, this difference of view under which the Gospel is presented to us, or even as a difficulty, still it may be right (in order to our edification) that we should see how these two views of it are reconciled. We must understand how it is both severe and indulgent in its commands, and both arduous and easy in its obedience, in order that we may understand it at all. "His commandments are not grievous," says the text. How is this?—I will give one answer out of several which might be given.

Now it must be admitted, first of all, as matter of fact, that they are grievous to the great mass of Christians. I have no wish to disguise a fact which we do not need the Bible to inform us of, but which common experience attests. Doubtless even those common elementary duties, of which the prophet speaks, "doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God," are to most men grievous.

Accordingly, men of worldly minds, finding the true way of life unpleasant to walk in, have attempted to find out other and easier roads; and have been accustomed to argue, that there must be another way which suits them better than that which religious men walk in, for the very reason that Scripture declares that Christ's commandments are not grievous. I mean, you will meet with persons who say, "After all it is not to be supposed that a strict religious life is so necessary as is {100} told us in church; else how should any one be saved? nay, and Christ assures us His yoke is easy. Doubtless we shall fare well enough, though we are not so earnest in the observance of our duties as we might be; though we are not regular in our attendance at public worship; though we do not honour Christ's ministers and reverence His Church as much as some men do; though we do not labour to know God's will, to deny ourselves, and to live to His glory, as entirely as the strict letter of Scripture enjoins." Some men have gone so far as boldly to say, "God will not condemn a man merely for taking a little pleasure;" by which they mean, leading an irreligious and profligate life. And many there are who virtually maintain that we may live to the world, so that we do so decently, and yet live to God; arguing that this world's blessings are given us by God, and therefore may lawfully be used;—that to use lawfully is to use moderately and thankfully;—that it is wrong to take gloomy views, and right to be innocently cheerful, and so on; which is all very true thus stated, did they not apply it unfairly, and call that use of the world moderate and innocent, which the Apostles would call being conformed to the world, and serving mammon instead of God.

And thus, before showing you what is meant by Christ's commandments not being grievous, I have said what is not meant by it. It is not meant that Christ dispenses with strict religious obedience; the whole language of Scripture is against such a notion. "Whosoever shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in {101} the kingdom of heaven." [Matt. v. 19.] "Whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all." [James ii. 10.] Whatever is meant by Christ's yoke being easy, Christ does not encourage sin. And again, whatever is meant, still I repeat, as a matter of fact, most men find it not easy. So far must not be disputed. Now then let us proceed, in spite of this admission, to consider how He fulfils His engagements to us, that His ways are ways of pleasantness.

1. Now, supposing some superior promised you any gift in a particular way, and you did not follow his directions, would he have broken his promise, or you have voluntarily excluded yourselves from the advantage? Evidently you would have brought about your own loss; you might, indeed, think his offer not worth accepting, burdened (as it was) with a condition annexed to it, still you could not in any propriety say that he failed in his engagement. Now when Scripture promises us that its commandments shall be easy, it couples the promise with the injunction that we should seek God early. "I love them that love Me, and those that seek Me early shall find Me." [Prov. viii. 17] Again: "Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth." [Eccles. xii. 1.] These are Solomon's words; and if you require our Lord's own authority, attend to His direction about the children: "Suffer the little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of God." [Mark x. 14.] Youth is the time of His covenant with us, when He first gives us His Spirit; {102} first giving then, that we may then forthwith begin our return of obedience to Him; not then giving it that we may delay our thank-offering for twenty, thirty, or fifty years! Now it is obvious that obedience to God's commandments is ever easy, and almost without effort to those who begin to serve Him from the beginning of their days; whereas those who wait a while, find it grievous in proportion to their delay.

For consider how gently God leads us on in our early years, and how very gradually He opens upon us the complicated duties of life. A child at first has hardly any thing to do but to obey his parents; of God he knows just as much as they are able to tell him, and he is not equal to many thoughts either about Him or about the world. He is almost passive in their hands who gave him life; and, though he has those latent instincts about good and evil, truth and falsehood, which all men have, he does not know enough, he has not had experience enough from the contact of external objects, to elicit into form and action those innate principles of conscience, or to make himself conscious of the existence of them.

And while on the one hand his range of duty is very confined, observe how he is assisted in performing it. First, he has no bad habits to hinder the suggestions of his conscience: indolence, pride, ill-temper, do not then act as they afterwards act, when the mind has accustomed itself to disobedience, as stubborn, deep-seated impediments in the way of duty. To obey requires an effort, of course; but an effort like the bodily effort of the child's rising from the ground, when he has fallen {103} on it; not the effort of shaking off drowsy sleep; not the effort (far less) of violent bodily exertion in a time of sickness and long weakness: and the first effort made, obedience on a second trial will be easier than before, till at length it will be easier to obey than not to obey. A good habit will be formed, where otherwise a bad habit would have been formed. Thus the child, we are supposing, would begin to have a character; no longer influenced by every temptation to anger, discontent, fear, and obstinacy, in the same way as before; but with something of firm principle in his heart to repel them in a defensive way, as a shield repels darts. In the mean time the circle of his duties would enlarge; and, though for a time the issue of his trial would be doubtful to those who (as the Angels) could see it, yet, should he, as a child, consistently pursue this easy course for a few years, it may be, his ultimate salvation would be actually secured, and might be predicted by those who could see his heart, though he would not know it himself. Doubtless new trials would come on him; bad passions, which he had not formed a conception of, would assail him; but a soul thus born of God, in St. John's words, "sinneth not; but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not." [1 John v. 18.] "His seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God." [1 John iii. 9.] And so he would grow up to man's estate, his duties at length attaining their full range, and his soul being completed in all its parts for the due performance of them. This might be the blessed {104} condition of every one of us, did we but follow from infancy what we know to be right; and in Christ's early life (if we may dare to speak of Him in connexion with ourselves), it was fulfilled while He increased day by day sinlessly in wisdom as in stature, and in favour with God and man. But my present object of speaking of this gradual growth of holiness in the soul, is (not to show what we might be, had we the heart to obey God), but to show how easy obedience would in that case be to us; consisting, as it would, in no irksome ceremonies, no painful bodily discipline, but in the free-will offerings of the heart, of the heart which had been gradually, and by very slight occasional efforts, trained to love what God and our conscience approve.

Thus Christ's commandments, viewed as He enjoins them on us, are not grievous. They would be grievous if put upon us all at once; but they are not heaped on us, according to His order of dispensing them, which goes upon an harmonious and considerate plan; by little and little, first one duty, then another, then both, and so on. Moreover, they come upon us, while the safeguard of virtuous principle is forming naturally and gradually in our minds by our very deeds of obedience, and is following them as their reward. Now, if men will not take their duties in Christ's order, but are determined to delay obedience, with the intention of setting about their duty some day or other, and then making up for past time, is it wonderful that they find it grievous and difficult to perform? that they are overwhelmed with the arrears of their great work, that they are entangled and stumble amid the intricacies of the Divine system which has {105} progressively enlarged upon them? And is Christ under obligation to stop that system, to recast His providence, to take these men out of their due place in the Church, to save them from the wheels that are crushing them, and to put them back again into some simple and more childish state of trial, where (though they cannot have less to unlearn) they, at least, may for a time have less to do?

2. All this being granted, it still may be objected, since (as I have allowed) the commandments of God are grievous to the generality of men, where is the use of saying what men ought to be, when we know what they are? and how is it fulfilling a promise that His commandments shall not be grievous, by informing us that they ought not to be? It is one thing to say that the Law is in itself holy, just, and good, and quite a different thing to declare it is not grievous to sinful man.

In answering this question, I fully admit that our Saviour spoke of man as he is, as a sinner, when He said His yoke should be easy to him. Certainly, He came not to call righteous men, but sinners. Doubtless we are in a very different state from that of Adam before his fall; and doubtless, in spite of this, St. John says that even to fallen man His commandments are not grievous. On the other hand, I grant, that if man cannot obey God, obedience must be grievous; and I grant too (of course) that man by nature cannot obey God. But observe, nothing has here been said, nor by St. John in the text, of man as by nature born in sin; but of man as a child of grace, as Christ's purchased possession, who goes before us with His mercy, puts the {106} blessing first, and then adds the command; regenerates us, and then bids us obey. Christ bids us do nothing that we cannot do. He repairs the fault of our nature, even before it manifests itself in act. He cleanses us from original sin, and rescues us from the wrath of God by the sacrament of baptism. He gives us the gift of His Spirit, and then He says, "What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" and is this grievous?

When, then, men allege their bad nature as an excuse for their dislike of God's commandments, if, indeed, they are heathens, let them be heard, and an answer may be given to them even as such. But with heathens we are not now concerned. These men make their complaint as Christians, and as Christians they are most unreasonable in making it; God having provided a remedy for their natural incapacity in the gift of His Spirit. Hear St. Paul's words; "If through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many … Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound: that as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life, by Jesus Christ our Lord." [Rom. v. 15-21.]

And there are persons, let it never be forgotten, who have so followed God's leading providence from their youth up, that to them His commandments not only are not grievous, but never have been: and that there are such, is the condemnation of all who are not such. {107} They have been brought up "in the nurture and admonition of the Lord;" [Eph. vi. 4.] and they now live in the love and "the peace of God, which passeth all understanding." [Phil. iv. 7.] Such are they whom our Saviour speaks of, as "just persons, which need no repentance." [Luke xv. 7.] Not that they will give that account of themselves, for they are full well conscious in their own hearts of sins innumerable, and habitual infirmity. Still, in spite of stumblings and falls in their spiritual course, they have on the whole persevered. As children they served God on the whole; they disobeyed, but they recovered lost ground; they sought God and were accepted. Perhaps their young faith gave way for a time altogether; but even then they contrived with keen repentance, and strong disgust at sin, and earnest prayers, to make up for lost time, and keep pace with the course of God's providence. Thus they have walked with God, not indeed step by step with Him; never before Him, often loitering, stumbling, falling to sleep; yet in turn starting and "making haste to keep His commandments," "running, and prolonging not the time." Thus they proceed, not, however, of themselves, but as upheld by His right hand, and guiding their steps by His Word; and though they have nothing to boast of, and know their own unworthiness, still they are witnesses of Christ to all men, as showing what man can become, and what all Christians ought to be; and at the last day, being found meet for the inheritance of the saints in light, they "condemn the world," as Noah did, and become "heirs {108} of the righteousness which is by faith," according to the saying, "This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith." [1 John v. 4.]

And now to what do the remarks I have been making tend, but to this?—to humble every one of us. For, however faithfully we have obeyed God, and however early we began to do so, surely we might have begun sooner than we did, and might have served Him more heartily. We cannot but be conscious of this. Individuals among us may be more or less guilty, as the case may be; but the best and worst among us here assembled, may well unite themselves together so far as this, to confess they have "erred and strayed from God's ways like lost sheep," "have followed too much the devices and desires of their own hearts," have "no health" in themselves as being "miserable offenders." Some of us may be nearer Heaven, some further from it; some may have a good hope of salvation, and others, (God forbid! but it may be), others no present hope. Still let us unite now as one body in confessing (to the better part of us such confession will be the more welcome, and to the worst it is the more needful), in confessing ourselves sinners, deserving God's anger, and having no hope except "according to His promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord." He who first regenerated us and then gave His commandments, and then was so ungratefully deserted by us, He again it is that must pardon and quicken us after our accumulated guilt, if we are to be pardoned. Let us then trace back {109} in memory (as far as we can) our early years; what we were when five years old, when ten, when fifteen, when twenty! what our state would have been as far as we can guess it, had God taken us to our account at any age before the present. I will not ask how it would go with us, were we now taken; we will suppose the best.

Let each of us (I say) reflect upon his own most gross and persevering neglect of God at various seasons of his past life. How considerate He has been to us! How did He shield us from temptation! how did He open His will gradually upon us, as we might be able to bear it! [Note] how has He done all things well, so that the spiritual work might go on calmly, safely, surely! How did He lead us on, duty by duty, as if step by step upwards, by the easy rounds of that ladder whose top reaches to Heaven? Yet how did we thrust ourselves into temptation! how did we refuse to come to Him that we might have life! how did we daringly sin against light! And what was the consequence? that our work grew beyond our strength; or rather that our strength grew less as our duties increased; till at length we gave up obedience in despair. And yet then He still tarried and was merciful unto us; He turned and looked upon us to bring us into repentance; and we for a while were moved. Yet, even then our wayward hearts could not keep up to their own resolves: letting go again the heat which Christ gave them, as if made of stone, and not of living flesh. What could have been done more to His vineyard, that He hath not done in it? [Isa. v. 4.] "O My people {110} (He seems to say to us), what have I done unto thee? and wherein have I wearied thee? testify against Me. I brought thee up out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed thee out of the house of servants; ... what doth the Lord require of thee, but justice, mercy, and humbleness of mind?" [Micah vi. 3-8.] He hath showed us what is good. He has borne and carried us in His bosom, "lest at any time we should dash our foot against a stone." [Ps. xci. 12.] He shed His Holy Spirit upon us that we might love Him. And "this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments, and His commandments are not grievous." Why, then, have they been grievous to us? Why have we erred from His ways, and hardened our hearts from His fear? Why do we this day stand ashamed, yea, even confounded, because we bear the reproach of our youth?

Let us then turn to the Lord, while yet we may. Difficult it will be in proportion to the distance we have departed from Him. Since every one might have done more than he has done, every one has suffered losses he never can make up. We have made His commands grievous to us: we must bear it; let us not attempt to explain them away because they are grievous. We never can wash out the stains of sin. God may forgive, but the sin has had its work, and its memento is set up in the soul. God sees it there. Earnest obedience and prayer will gradually remove it. Still, what miserable loss of time is it, in our brief life, to be merely undoing (as has become necessary) the evil which we have done, instead of going on to perfection! If by God's grace we {111} shall be able in a measure to sanctify ourselves in spite of our former sins, yet how much more should we have attained, had we always been engaged in His service!

These are bitter and humbling thoughts, but they are good thoughts if they lead us to repentance. And this leads me to one more observation, with which I conclude.

If any one who hears me is at present moved by what I have said, and feels the remorse and shame of a bad conscience, and forms any sudden good resolution, let him take heed to follow it up at once by acting upon it. I earnestly beseech him so to do. For this reason;—because if he does not, he is beginning a habit of inattention and insensibility. God moves us in order to make the beginning of duty easy. If we do not attend, He ceases to move us. Any of you, my brethren, who will not take advantage of this considerate providence, if you will not turn to God now with a warm heart, you will hereafter be obliged to do so (if you do so at all) with a cold heart;—which is much harder. God keep you from this!

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1 Cor. x. 13.
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