Sermon 11. Divine Decrees

"Hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown." Rev. iii. 11.

{117} [Note 1] THIS is the only Saint's day which is to be celebrated with mingled feelings of joy and pain. It records the fall as well as the election of an Apostle. St. Matthias was chosen in place of the traitor Judas. In the history of the latter we have the warning recorded in very deed, which our Lord in the text gives us in word, "Hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown." And doubtless many were the warnings such as this, addressed by our Lord to the wretched man who in the end betrayed Him. Not only did He call him to reflection and repentance by the hints which He let drop concerning him during the Last Supper, but in the discourses previous to it He may be supposed to have intended a reference to the circumstances of His apostate disciple. "Watch ye, therefore," He said, "lest coming suddenly, He find you sleeping."—I called Judas {118} just now wretched; for we must not speak of sinners, according to the falsely charitable way of some, styling them unfortunate instead of wicked, lest we thus learn to excuse sin in ourselves. He was doubtless inexcusable, as we shall be, if we follow his pattern; and he must be viewed, not with pity, but with fear and awe.

The reflection which rises in the mind on a consideration of the election of St. Matthias, is this: how easily God may effect His purposes without us, and put others in our place, if we are disobedient to Him. It often happens that those who have long been in His favour grow secure and presuming. They think their salvation certain, and their service necessary to Him who has graciously accepted it. They consider themselves as personally bound up with His purposes of mercy manifested in the Church; and so marked out that, if they could fall, His word would fail. They come to think they have some peculiar title or interest in His promises, over and above other men (however derived, it matters not, whether from His eternal decree, or, on the other hand, from their own especial holiness and obedience), but practically such an interest that the very supposition that they can possibly fall offends them. Now, this feeling of self-importance is repressed all through the Scriptures, and especially by the events we commemorate today. Let us consider this subject.

Eliphaz the Temanite thus answers Job, who in his distress showed infirmity, and grew impatient of God's correction. "Can a man be profitable unto God, as he that is wise may be profitable unto himself? Is it any pleasure to the Almighty, that thou art righteous? or is {119} it gain to Him, that thou makest thy ways perfect?" [Job xxii. 2, 3.] And the course of His providence, as recorded in Scripture, will show us that, in dealing with us His rational creatures, He goes by no unconditional rule, which makes us absolutely His from the first; but, as He is "no respecter of persons," so on the other hand righteousness and judgment are the basis of His throne; and that whoso rebels, whether Archangel or Apostle, at once forfeits His favour; and this, even for the sake of those who do not rebel.

Not long before the fall and treachery of Judas, Christ pronounced a blessing, as it seemed, upon all the twelve Apostles, the traitor included. "Ye which have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man shall sit in the throne of His glory, ye shall also sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel." [Matt. xix. 28.] Who would not have thought from this promise, taken by itself, and without reference to the eternal Rule of God's government, which is always understood, even when not formally enunciated, that Judas was sure of eternal life? It is true our Saviour added, as if with an allusion to him, "many that are first shall be last;" yet He said nothing to undeceive such as might refuse to consult and apply the fundamental law of His impartial providence. All His twelve Apostles seemed, from the letter of His words, to be predestined to life; nevertheless, in a few months, Matthias held the throne and crown of one of them.—And there is something remarkable in the circumstance itself, that our Lord should have made up their number {120} to a full twelve, after one had fallen; and, perhaps, there may be contained in it some symbolical allusion to the scope of His decrees, which we cannot altogether enter into. Surely, had He willed it, eleven would have accomplished His purpose as well as twelve. Why, when one had fallen, should He accurately fill up the perfect number? Yet not only in the case of the Apostles, but in that of the tribes of Israel also, if He rejects one, He divides another into two [Note 2]. Why is this, but to show us, as it would appear, that in this election of us, He does not look at us as mere individuals, but as a body, as a certain definite whole, of which the parts may alter in the process of disengaging them from this sinful world,—with reference to some glorious and harmonious design upon us, who are the immediate objects of His bounty, and shall be the fruit of His love, if we are faithful? Why, but to show us that He could even find other Apostles to suffer for Him,—and, much more, servants to fill His lower thrones, should we be wanting and transgress His strict and holy law?

This is but one instance, out of many, in the revealed history of His moral government. He was on the point of exemplifying the same Rule in the case of the Israelites, when Moses stayed His hand. God purposed to consume them, when they rebelled, and instead to make of Moses' seed a great nation. This happened twice [Note 3]. The second time, God declared what was His end in view, in fulfilling which the Israelites were but His instruments. "I have pardoned according to thy {121} word; but as truly as I live, all the earth shall be filled with the glory the Lord." Again, on the former occasion, He gave the Rule of His dealings with them. Moses wished for the sake of his people to be himself excluded from the land of promise: "If thou wilt forgive their sin:—and if not, blot me, I pray Thee, out of Thy book which Thou hast written. And the Lord said unto Moses, Whosoever hath sinned against Me, him will I blot out of My book." So clearly has He shown us from the beginning, that His own glory is the End, and justice the essential Rule, of His providence.

Again, Saul was chosen, and thought himself secure. His conduct evinced the self-will of an independent monarch, instead of one who felt himself to be a mere instrument of God's purposes, a minister of His glory, under the obligation of a law of right and wrong, and strong only as wielded by Him who formed him. So, when he sinned, Samuel said to him: "Thou hast done foolishly: thou hast not kept the commandment of the Lord thy God ... for now would the Lord have established thy kingdom upon Israel for ever. But now thy kingdom shall not continue: the Lord hath sought Him a man after His own heart." [1 Sam. xiii. 13, 14.] And again, "The Lord hath rent the kingdom of Israel from thee this day, and hath given it to a neighbour of thine, that is better than thou." [1 Sam. xv. 28.]

In like manner, Christ also, convicting the Jews out of their own mouth: "He will miserably destroy those wicked men, and will let out His vineyard unto other husbandmen, which shall render Him the fruits in their {122} seasons." [Matt. xxi. 41.] Consider how striking an instance the Jews formed, when the Gospel was offered them, of the general Rule which I am pointing out. They were rejected. How hard they thought it, St. Paul's Epistles show. They did not shrink from declaring, that, if Jesus were the Christ, and the Gentiles made equal with them, God's promise was broken; and you may imagine how forcibly they might have pleaded the prophecies of the Old Testament, which seemed irreversibly to assign honour and power (not to say temporal honour and power) to the Israelites by name. Alas! they did not seek out and use the one clue given them for their religious course, amid all the mysteries both of Scripture and the world,—the one solemn Rule of God's dealings with His creatures. They did not listen for that small still voice, running under all His dispensations, most clear to those who would listen, amid all the intricacies of His providence and His promises. Impressed though it be upon the heart by nature, and ever insisted on in Revelation, as the basis on which God has established all His decrees, it was to them a hard saying. St. Paul retorts it on their consciences, when they complained. "God," he says, "will render to every man according to his deeds. To them who by patient continuance in well-doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life; but unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the Truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath;—tribulation and anguish upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile; but glory, {123} honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile: for there is no respect of persons with God." [Rom. ii. 6-11.]

Such was the unchangeable Rule of God's government, as it is propounded by St. Paul in explanation of the Jewish election, and significantly prefixed to his discourse upon the Christian. Such as was the Mosaic, such also is the Gospel Covenant, made without respect of persons; rich, indeed, in privilege and promise far above the Elder Dispensation, but bearing on its front the same original avowal of impartial retribution,—"peace to every man that worketh good," "wrath to the disobedient;" predestining to glory, characters not persons, pledging the gift of perseverance not to individuals, but to a body of which the separate members might change. This is the doctrine set before us by that Apostle to whom was revealed in an extraordinary way the nature of the Christian Covenant, its peculiar blessedness, gifts, and promises. The New Covenant was, so far, not unlike the Old, as some reasoners in these days would maintain.

We are vouchsafed a further witness to it, in the favoured Evangelist, who finally closed and perfected the volume of God's revelations, after the death of his brethren. "Behold, I come quickly, and My reward is with Me, to give every man according as his work shall be … Blessed are they that do His commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city." [Rev. xxii. 12, 14.]

And a third witness that the Christian Election is, like the Jewish, conditional, is our Lord's own declaration, {124} which He left behind Him with His Apostles when He was leaving the world, as recorded by the same Evangelist. "If a man abide not in Me," He said, "he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them and cast them into the fire, and they are burned." And, lest restless and reluctant minds should shelter their opposition to this solemn declaration under some supposed obscurity in the expression of "abiding in Him," and say that none abide in Him but the predestined, He adds, for the removal of all doubt, "If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love." [John xv. 16.]

Lastly, in order to complete the solemn promulgation of His Eternal Rule, He exemplified it, while He spoke it, in the instance of an Apostle. He knew whom He had chosen; that they were "not all clean," that "one of them was a devil;" yet He chose all twelve, as if to show that souls chosen for eternal life might fall away. Thus, in the case of the Apostles themselves, in the very foundation of His Church, He laid deep the serious and merciful warning, if we have wisdom to lay it to heart, "Be not high-minded, but fear;" for, if God spared not Apostles, neither will He spare thee!

What solemn overpowering thoughts must have crowded on St. Matthias, when he received the greetings of the eleven Apostles, and took his seat among them as their brother! His very election was a witness against himself if he did not fulfil it. And such surely will ours be in our degree. We take the place of others who have gone before, as Matthias did; we are "baptized for the dead," filling up the ranks of soldiers, {125} some of whom, indeed, have fought a good fight, but many of whom in every age have made void their calling. Many are called, few are chosen. The monuments of sin and unbelief are set up around us. The casting away of the Jews was the reconciling of the Gentiles. The fall of one nation is the conversion of another. The Church loses old branches, and gains new. God works according to His own inscrutable pleasure; He has left the East, and manifested Himself Westward. Thus the Christian of every age is but the successor of the lost and of the dead. How long we of this country shall be put in trust with the Gospel, we know not; but while we have the privilege, assuredly we do but stand in the place of Christians who have either utterly fallen away, or are so corrupted as scarcely to let their light shine before men. We are at present witnesses of the Truth; and our very glory is our warning. By the superstitions, the profanities, the indifference, the unbelief of the world called Christian, we are called upon to be lowly-minded while we preach aloud, and to tremble while we rejoice. Let us then, as a Church and as individuals, one and all, look to Him who alone can keep us from falling. Let us with single heart look up to Christ our Saviour, and put ourselves into His hands, from whom all our strength and wisdom is derived. Let us avoid the beginnings of temptation; let us watch and pray lest we enter into it. Avoiding all speculations which are above us, let us follow what tends to edifying. Let us receive into our hearts the great truth, that we who have been freely accepted and sanctified as members of Christ, shall hereafter be judged {126} by our works, done in and through Him; that the Sacraments unite us to Him, and that faith makes the Sacraments open their hidden virtue, and flow forth in pardon and grace. Beyond this we may not inquire. How it is one man perseveres and another falls, what are the exact limits and character of our natural corruption,—these are over-subtle questions; while we know for certain, that though we can do nothing of ourselves, yet that salvation is in our own power, for however deep and far-spreading is the root of evil in us, God's grace will be sufficient for our need.

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1. The Feast of St. Matthias the Apostle.
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2. Rev. vii.
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3. Exod. xxxii. 32, 33. Numb. xiv. 20, 21.
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