Sermon 2. Saintliness not Forfeited by the Penitent Seasons - Sexagesima

"In nothing am I behind the very chiefest Apostles, though I be nothing." 2 Cor. xii. 11.

[Note] {14} SO says St. Paul, after recounting his privileges, his sufferings, and his services through many chapters, or rather through his whole Epistle. His Corinthian converts had learned to undervalue him, and he confesses that he was by himself as weak and worthless as they thought him. "I am the least of the Apostles," he says, "that am not meet to be called an Apostle, because I persecuted the Church of God." "Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves." And in the text he speaks of himself as being "nothing." Yet though such, viewed in himself, far other was he in fact, that is, in the grace of God, which had been shed upon him; or in his own words, "But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain, but I laboured more abundantly than they all; yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me." [1 Cor. xv. 9, 10.] Again, "But our sufficiency {15} is of God." And again, "My grace is sufficient for thee, for My strength is made perfect in weakness." And again, "I suppose I was not a whit behind the very chiefest Apostles." [2 Cor. iii. 5; xii. 9; xi. 5.] And in the text, "In nothing am I behind the very chiefest Apostles, though I be nothing."

And in both Epistles he enumerates in detail many of the fruits and tokens of this grace which had been given to him, who was once "a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious." "Even unto this present hour," he says, "we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwelling-place; and labour, working with our own hands: being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we suffer it: being defamed, we intreat: we are made as the filth of the earth, and are the offscouring of all things unto this day." Again, "In all things approving ourselves as the ministers of God, in much patience, in afflictions, in necessities, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labours, in watchings, in fastings; by pureness, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Ghost, by love unfeigned, by the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armour of righteousness on the right hand and on the left." And again, "Receive us; we have wronged no man, we have corrupted no man, we have defrauded no man." And again, "In labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft; ... in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness: … Who is weak, {16} and I am not weak? who is offended, and I burn not?" And again, "I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong." [1 Cor. iv. 11-13. 2 Cor. vi. 4-7; vii. 2; xi. 23, 27, 29; xii. 10.]

Is it possible to conceive a greater contrast than is placed before us in the picture of Saul the persecutor of the Church, and of St. Paul, Apostle, Confessor, and Martyr? Who so great an enemy of Christ? who so true a servant? Nor is St. Paul's instance solitary; stranger cases still have occurred in the times after him. Not unregenerate sinners only like him, but those who have sinned after their regeneration; not sinners in ignorance only, like him, but those who knew what was right and did it not; not merely the blinded by a false zeal and an unhumbled heart, like him, but sensual, carnal, abandoned persons; profligates, who sacrificed to Satan body as well as soul; these, too, by the wonder-working grace of God, have from time to time become all that they were not; as high in the kingdom of heaven as they were before low plunged in darkness and in the shadow of death. Such awful instances of Christ's power meet us every now and then in the course of the Church's history; so much so, that by a mistake, great but not unnatural, it has sometimes been laid down as a sort of maxim, "The greater the sinner, the greater the saint;" as if to have a full measure of Christ's cup, a man must first have drunken deeply of the cup of devils.

Such a doctrine of course is simply wicked and detestable; but still it derives some speciousness from {17} the instances like St. Paul to which I have alluded. Those instances seem to prove something, though not this doctrine; what they prove, it will befit this day, which is a sort of commemoration of St. Paul, briefly to consider.

They prove then this,—that no degree of sin, however extreme (unless indeed it reaches the unpardonable sin, the sin against the Holy Ghost, which of course falls without our subject,—but no degree of sin, which can be repented of), precludes the acquisition of any degree of holiness, however high. No sinner so great, but he may, through God's grace, become a saint ever so great. Great saints may become such, either after being, or without being, great sinners. We cannot argue from what a saint is at his close what he was at his beginning. Look through the lives of the Saints, and you will find that some became such after never turning from God, and others, after turning from Him; and it would be presumptuous to assert that in the catalogue there are not saints as great who have turned from Him and repented, as any of those who have been just persons from their youth up, needing no repentance.

This of course is a very different statement from saying the greater the sinner, the greater the saint. It is only saying that a man may rise as high as he once was low; that great sinners, when they turn to God,—not, in consequence will be greater saints than others, but that they are not hindered from being equal to those others in their saintliness, in spite of their sinning. But even such a statement may seem strong; so now some words shall be added by way of explanation. {18}

1. First, what is very plain, it is less likely, far less likely, that a great sinner should turn to God and become a great saint. It is unlikely that a gross sinner will listen to the Divine Voice at all; it is much to be feared that he will quench the grace which is pleading with him. Again, even if he follows the call so far as to repent, yet it is less likely still that the habits of sin which he has formed round his soul will so relax their hold of him, as to allow him to lay aside every weight. The probability is, that he has made his will so torpid, and his heart so carnal, and his views so worldly, that, even when his repentance is sincere, he will settle down in an inferior, second-rate sort of religion; he will have no fervour, no keenness, no elevation, no splendour of soul; he will not be able to pray; he will not be able to act on heavenly motives; but corruption will mingle with all he does. Now it stands to reason that the farther a man has gone wrong, the more he has to do to bring himself right; whereas, for the very same reason, he is less disposed than he was once, and less able, to set himself in earnest to the work. The more a man sins the stronger become his soul's enemies, and the weaker he becomes himself: a weight is taken off one end of the balance, and put upon the other; his disadvantage is double.

2. And in this sense I must certainly grant he never can be so great a saint as if he had never sinned; that is, the efforts which he must now make merely to undo what he has done, would, in that case, simply have told towards his advancement in holiness, and would of course have brought him forward to a higher point than they now enable him to reach. In this sense he can {19} never overtake himself, viewed as he would otherwise have been. He has lost time in going wrong, he has lost time and labour in retracing his way: as well might a man of thirty hope ever to overtake in years a man of forty, as a repentant sinner, whose feet are slowly bearing him out of the region of sin, to overtake what he might have been, had he always, with the same speed, moved along the narrow way. And of course it must be ever a matter of deep misery to him that he is not what he might have been, that he might have done more than he has done or now can do. But this is true of all men, even of the innocent and upright. The greatest saints might have been greater than they are. We may suppose a point of excellence, and that an attainable one, higher than the highest that has ever been actually attained by man. And again, in like manner, in the abstract, as we see by the parable of the prodigal son, doubtless those who have ever been with their Father are higher in God's favour than those who have left Him. But I am not speaking of possibilities or abstractions, but of facts. And I say, taking the points of holiness to which souls which have served God from their youth up have in fact attained, there is none so high but, as far as we are given to know or judge, has been attained by men who have sinned and repented, as St. Paul's instance shows us.

3. Again, in what I have said, it is of course at once implied that not so many attain high holiness after sinning, as after a life of innocence. Of those who have been saints, we must suppose the greater number are such as, more or less, have been preserved in holy {20} obedience from their baptism upwards; the few are those who, after their baptism, have sinned grievously, and repented, but still those few may, if St. Paul's instance be in point, rise to be as great saints as the many who, after their baptism, needed no repentance.

4. Further, it must not be supposed, because sinners have sincerely repented, that therefore they have no punishment for their past sins; and this puts a vast difference between the state of the innocent and the penitent. In this sense they never can be on a level: the one, if God so wills, is open to punishment, and the other is not; for God does not so pardon us, as not also to punish. When His children go wrong they are, in St Paul's words, "judged." He does not abandon them, but He makes their sin "find them out." And, as we well know, it is His merciful pleasure that this punishment should at the same time act as a chastisement and correction, so that "when they are judged they are chastened of the Lord, that they should not be condemned with the world." [1 Cor. xi. 32.] But still their visitation is of the nature of a judgment; and no sinner knows what kind, what number of judgments, he has incurred at the hands of the righteous Judge. I say that repentant sinners are in this respect different from innocent persons; that, it may be, God will bring punishment upon them for their past sins, as He very often does; and it may be God's will to make that punishment the means of their sanctification, as He did in St. Paul's case. Pain, distress, heaviness, may overwhelm them, may be their portion, may be necessary for their attaining {21} that holiness to which they aspire. But I am not speaking of the means by which they attain to holiness; I am not speaking of the circumstances or lot in which they are perfecting it, whether pleasant or painful; but of their holiness itself, present and to come: and I say, that the holiness to which at length they do attain, however they attain it, may be as great as that of those whose religious history has been altogether different, who have not sinned as they, nor suffered as they, nor struggled and toiled as they.

And, I will add, that it is our duty to love repentant sinners just as if they had not sinned. Those, who have never fallen as they, are not to suffer the thought of what those others were to rest on their minds, or to treat them in any degree (God forbid!) as if their approach were a pollution to them. If they are reconciled to God, surely they may well be reconciled to their brethren; if Christ condescends to be their meat and drink, surely the holiest of men need not scruple to wash their feet. I am now speaking of the inward feeling of our hearts towards them; for it is often a duty (at least for a time) to put an outward and ceremonial distinction between them and others. First, we cannot be certain, till after a while, that they are really repentant; thus the Apostles were "all afraid" of St. Paul at first, "and believed not that he was a disciple:" and next it may be necessary for their good (particularly when a Church does not enforce the discipline of penance), necessary for their good to put them under disadvantage, and for example sake. Yet all this outward distinction need not interfere with the feeling of our hearts towards them. {22} As we do not use unrestrained familiarity towards strangers as well as friends, or to inferiors or superiors, but only to our intimates, yet still may feel all Christian love towards them, so we surely may observe certain rules for a time, or for a permanence, towards those who have been open sinners, simply as a matter of duty, but not at all forgetting that in Christian privileges they are on an equality with ourselves, and may be, or are in the way to be, even our superiors in the kingdom of heaven. No one thing is more distinct from another than is the treating a person with distance or reserve from looking down upon him. And penitents often have actually put themselves into some new state or rank in life, which thus constituted their penance, and saved their brethren from the task of taking notice of their past sins, and enabled them to forget that they are penitents.

Now there are various reasons for insisting on this subject. One reason is thereby to enforce the following parallel truth; for if it is true that a sinner may become a saint, it is at least as true that an innocent person, who has never fallen into gross sin, notwithstanding need not be a saint. It frequently happens that repentant sinners become more holy and pleasing to God than those who have never fallen. There are a multitude of persons who go through life in a safe, uninteresting mediocrity. They have never been exposed to temptation; they are not troubled with violent passions; they have nothing to try them; they have never attempted great things for the glory of God; they have never been thrown upon the world; they live at home in the bosom of their families, or in quiet situations; {23} and in a certain sense they are innocent and upright. They have not profaned their baptismal robe in any remarkable way; they have done nothing to frighten their conscience; they have ever lived under a sense of religion, and done their immediate duties respectably. And, when their life is closed, people cannot help speaking well of them, as harmless, decent, correct persons, whom it is impossible to blame, impossible not to regret. Yet, after all, how different their lives are from that described as a Christian's life in St. Paul's Epistles! I do not mean different in regard to persecutions, wanderings, heroic efforts, and all that is striking and what is called romantic in the Apostle's history; but (if I must condense all I mean in one word) in regard to unselfishness. All the peculiarity of a Christian consists in his preferring God and his neighbour to self,—in self-denial for the sake of God and his brethren; according to St. Paul's words "None of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself; but whether we live, we live unto the Lord, and whether we die, we die unto the Lord; whether we live, therefore, or die, we are the Lord's." But how many there are who live a life of ease and indolence, as far as they can—or, at least, who, far from setting the glory of God before them, as the end of their being, live for themselves, not to God! And what especially lulls their consciences in so doing, is the circumstance that they have never sinned grossly; forgetting that a mirror is by nothing more commonly dimmed than by the small and gradual accumulations of daily impurities, and that souls may silently be overspread and choked up with mere dust, till they reflect back no portion of {24} the heavenly truths which should possess them. And thus, while they dream life away, others who started with them, first, being overtaken by pride or passion, fall into sin, and lose their way; and then are shocked and terrified, and manage to regain it, and run forward impetuously, and pass by them; and the last become first, and the first last.

I have also enlarged on this subject for the sake of those (how many they are!) who are conscious to themselves that they have, by wilful sinning, lost the fulness of that blessedness which baptism conveyed to them. Oh, happy they, who have not this consciousness, yet without on that account ceasing to be watchful and fervent in spirit! O my brethren, make much of your virginal state, if you possess it, and be careful not to lose it; lose not the opportunity of that special blessedness, which none but they can have who serve God from their youth up in consistent obedience. What is passed cannot be recalled. Whatever be the heights of holiness to which repentant sinners attain, yet they cannot have this pearl of great price, not to have sinned. No true penitent forgets or forgives himself: an unforgiving spirit towards himself is the very price of God's forgiving him. Yet still, though sinners never can be to themselves as if they had not sinned, though they cannot so rid them of their past sins, as to be sure that those sins will not, in the words of Scripture, find them out, and bring retribution upon them; yet, as regards the love of God and of their brethren, in this respect, they are, on their repentance, in the condition of just persons who need no repentance. Let this comfort and {25} encourage all penitents,—they may be high, they may be highest in the kingdom of heaven; they may be, like St. Paul, not a whit behind the chiefest. Keen indeed must be the discipline which brings them to that lofty seat. Not by languid efforts, not without great and solemn trials is it reached; not without pain and humiliation, and much toil, will they make progress towards it; but it can be gained. This is their great consolation,—it is in their grasp; they have not forfeited, they have but delayed, they have but endangered and made difficult, the prize of their high calling in Christ Jesus. Let them turn to God with a perfect heart; let them beg of Him that grace which wrought so powerfully in the blessed Apostle; let them put on the whole armour of God, that they may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all to stand. Let them be sure that, if they have but the will for great things, they have the power. Let them meditate upon the lives of the Saints in times past, and see how much a resolute unflinching will did for them. Let them aim at God's glory; let it be their daily prayer that God may be glorified in them, whether in their life or in their death, whether in their punishment or in their release, in their pain or in their refreshment, in their toil or in their repose, in their honour or in their dishonour, in their lifting up or in their humiliation. Oh, hard it is to say this, and to endure to put one's self into God's hands! Yet He is the faithful God, not willingly afflicting the sons of men, but for their good; not chastising us, but as a loving Father; not tempting us, without making a way to escape; not implanting {26} the thorn in our flesh, save to temper the abundance of His revelations. Whatever be our necessary trial, He will bring us through it—through the deep waters, through the thick darkness—as He guided and guarded the blessed Apostle; till we in turn, whatever be our past sins, shall be able to say, like him, "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith; henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, shall give me at that day." [2 Tim. iv. 7, 8.]

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