Sermon 4. The Secret Power of Divine Grace

"The kingdom of God cometh not with observation; neither shall they say, Behold here, or behold there. For lo, the kingdom of God is within you." Luke xvii. 20, 21.

{47} WHAT our Lord announces in these words, came to pass: and we commemorate it to this day, especially at this season of the year [Note]. The kingdom of God was inaugurated by the Apostles, and spread rapidly. It filled the world: it took possession of the high places of the earth; but it came and progressed without "observation." All other kingdoms that ever were, have sounded a trumpet before them, and have challenged attention. They have come out "with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield." They have been the ravenous beast from the north, the swift eagle, or the swarming locusts. In the words of the Prophet, "Before them a devouring {48} fire, and behind them a burning flame. The appearance of them has been as the appearance of horses, and they ran like horsemen ... And the noise of their wings was as the noise of chariots and many horses running to battle." Such has ever been the coming of earthly power; and a Day will be, when that also will have a fulfilment and find its antitype in the history of heaven; for, when our Lord comes again, He too will come "with the word of command, and with the voice of an Archangel, and with the trumpet of God." This will be with observation; so will He end; so did He not begin His Church upon earth; for it had been foretold of Him, "He shall not contend nor cry out; neither shall any man hear His voice in the streets. The bruised reed He shall not break, and smoking flax He shall not extinguish, till He send forth judgment unto victory."

And that noiseless, unostentatious conquest of the earth, made by the Holy Apostles of Christ, became, as regards the Jews, still more secret, from the circumstance that they believed it would be with outward show, though He assured them of the contrary. The Pharisees looked out for some sign from heaven. They would not believe that His kingdom could come, unless they saw it come; they looked out for a prince with troops in battle array; and since He came with twelve poor men and no visible pomp, He was to them as a "thief in the night," because of their incredulity, and He was come and in possession before they would allow that He was coming.

But the coming of His kingdom would anyhow have been secret, even though they had not been resolved that it should not be so. And He tells us in the text the {49} reason why. "Neither shall they say, Behold here, or behold there. For lo, the kingdom of God is within you." You see, He tells us why He came so covertly. It could not be otherwise, because it was a conquest, not of the body, but of the heart. It was not an assault from without, but it was an inward influence not subduing the outward man through the senses, but, in the words of the Apostle, "bringing into captivity every understanding unto the obedience of Christ." Kingdoms of this world spread in space and time; they begin from a point, and they travel onwards, and range round. Their course may be traced: first they secure this territory, then they compass that. They make their ground good, as they go, and consolidate their power. Of course, the kingdom of Christ also, as being in this world, has an outward shape, and fortunes, and a history, like institutions of this world, though it be not of this world. It began from Jerusalem, and went forward to Scythia and to Africa, to India and to Britain; and it has ranks and officers and laws; it observes a strict discipline, and exacts an implicit obedience: but still this is not the full account, or the true process, of its rise and establishment. "The weapons of its warfare were not carnal;" it came by an inward and intimate visitation; by outward instruments, indeed, but with effects far higher than those instruments; with preaching and argument and discussion, but really by God's own agency. He who is Omnipotent and Omniscient, touched many hearts at once and in many places. They forthwith, one and all, spoke one language, not learning it one from the other so much as taught by Himself the canticle of the Lamb: or, if by men's teaching too, yet {50} catching and mastering it spontaneously, almost before the words were spoken. For time and space, cause and effect, are the servants of His will.

And so, voices broke out all at once into His praise, in the East and in the West, in the North and in the South: and the perplexed world searched about in vain, whence came that concord of sweet and holy sounds. Upon the first word of the preacher, upon a hint, upon a mere whisper in the air, a deep response came from many lips,—a deep, full, and ready harmony of many voices one and all proclaiming the Saviour of men. For the Spirit of the Lord had descended and filled the earth; and there were thrilling hearts, and tremulous pulses, and eager eyes, in every place. It was a time of visitation when the weak were to become strong, and the last become first. It was the triumph of faith, which delays not, but accepts generously and promptly,—according to the Scripture, "The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth and in thy heart; this is the word of faith which we preach." And thus, as Nineveh and Babylon were surprised of old by the army of the enemy, so was the world thus surprised by Him, who, in prophetic language, rode upon a white horse and was called "Faithful and True"; and, as it befell Egypt at the first Pasch, that there was not a house where there lay not one dead, so now, on this more gracious Passage there was not a house where there was not one alive. For the Highest had come down among them, and was everywhere; the Lord of Angels was walking the earth; He was scattering His gifts freely, and multiplying His Image: and, in this sense, as well as in that in which He spoke the words, "a man's {51} enemies were they of his own household." The despised, the hated influence insinuated itself everywhere; the leaven spread, and none could stay it; and in the most unlikely places, in the family of the haughty and fierce soldier, amid the superstitions of idolatry and the degradations of slavery, the noblest, and the ablest, and the fairest, as well as the brutish and the ignorant, one and all, by a secret power, became the prey of the Church and the bondsmen of Christ. And thus a great and wide-spreading kingdom flushed into existence all at once, like spring after winter, from within.

Such were the immediate concomitants of the first coming of Him, who was "the most abject of men," and "acquainted with infirmity," and whose "look was as it were hidden and despised," and "as one struck by God and afflicted." As the prophecy goes on to say, "He divided the spoil of the strong"; and if you ask me, my Brethren, how it was that He did this marvel? what was the way and the instrument of His grace in His dealings with the spirits which He had created?—I answer in brief, by referring back to the past history of our race. It is certain that man is not sufficient for his own happiness, that he is not himself, is not at home with himself, without the presence within him of the grace of Him who, knowing it, has offered that grace to all freely. When he was created, then his Maker breathed into him the supernatural life of the Holy Spirit, which is his true happiness; when he fell, he forfeited the divine gift, and with it his happiness also. Ever since he has been unhappy; ever since he has felt a void in his breast, and does not know how to satisfy it. He scarcely apprehends {52} his own need; only the unstudied, involuntary movement of his mind and heart show that he feels it, for he is either languid, dull, or apathetic under this hunger, or he is feverish and restless, seeking first in one thing, then in another, that blessing which he has lost. For a time, perhaps even till old age comes, he continues to form to himself some idol on which he may feed, and sustain some sort of existence, just as the weeds of the field or the innutritious earth may allay the pangs of famine. One man determines to rise in life, another is wrapt up in his family. Numbers get through the day and the year with the alternation of routine business and holyday recreation. Rich men are lavish in pomp and show; poor men give themselves to intemperance; the young give themselves up to sensual pleasures. They cannot live without an object of life, though it be an object unworthy of an immortal spirit.

Is it wonderful then, that, when the True Life, the very supply of the need of mankind, was again offered them in its fulness, that it should have carried power with it to persuade them to accept it? Is it wonderful that its announcement should have startled them, that its offer should have drawn them, that a first trial and a first fruit of the gift should have made them desirous of further and larger measures of it? This, then, is the secret of the triumph of the unearthly kingdom of God among the self-willed, self-wise children of Adam. Soldiers of this world receive their bounty-money on enlisting. They take it, and become the servants of an earthly prince; shall not they, much more, {53} be faithful, yes, even unto the death, who have received the earnest of the true riches, who have been fed with "the hidden manna," who have, in the Apostle's words, "been once illuminated, and tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come"? And thus it is that the kingdom of God spreads externally over the earth, because it has an internal hold upon us, because, in the words of the text, "it is within us," in the hearts of its individual members. Bystanders marvel; strangers try to analyze what it is that does the work; they imagine all manner of human reasons and natural causes to account for it, because they cannot see, and do not feel, and will not believe, what is in truth a supernatural influence; and they impute to some caprice or waywardness of mind, or to the force of novelty, or to some mysterious, insidious persuasiveness, or to some foreign enemy, or to some dark and subtle plotting, and they view with alarm, and they fain would baffle, what is nothing else but the keen, vivid, constraining glance of Christ's countenance. "The Lord, turning, looked on Peter:" and "as the lightning cometh out of the east, and appeareth even unto the west," such is the piercing, soul-subduing look of the Son of man. It is come, it is gone, it has done its work, its abiding work, and the world is at fault to account for it. It sees the result; it has not perceived, it has not eyes to see, the Divine Hand.

Nay, not the world only, but the Church herself, is oftentimes surprised, I may say, even perplexed, at the operation of that grace which is without observation, and at the miraculous multiplication of her children. The {54} net of Peter seems about to break, from the multitude of fishes, and is hard to draw to shore. So was it singularly in the first age, in the issues of that glorious history of primitive conversion on which I have been dwelling. "The Lord added daily to their society," says the text, "such as should be saved." This process went on for three centuries; then came a most bitter and horrible persecution; at length it ceased; and then with awful abruptness, rushing upon the wings of the wind, the overwhelming news was heard, that the Lord of the earth, the Roman Emperor, had become a Christian, and all his multitude of nations with him. What an announcement! no human hand did it—no human instrument of it, preacher or apologist, can be pointed out. It was not "Behold here, or behold there"—it was the secret power of God acting directly without observation upon the hearts of men. All of a sudden, when least expected, in the deep night of persecution, "as a thief," He came. All of a sudden, the Rulers of the Church had upon their hands the gigantic task, to which she alone was equal, that of bringing into shape and consistency a whole world. The event, and the almost fearful grandeur of it, had been visibly described by prophecy a thousand years before it. "Lift up thy eyes round about," was the word of promise to the Church; "lift up thy eyes, and see. All these are gathered together, they are come to thee. Thou shalt be clothed with all these as with an ornament, and as a bride thou shalt put them about thee. The children of thy barrenness shall still say in thy ears, The place is too strait for me, make me room to dwell in. And thou shalt say in thy {55} heart, Who hath begotten these? I was barren and brought not forth, led away, and captive, and who hath brought up these? I was destitute and alone; and these, where were they? Thus saith the Lord God, Behold I will lift up My hand to the Gentiles, and will set up My standard to the people. And they shall bring thy sons in their arms, and carry thy daughters upon their shoulders. And kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and queens thy nurses. They shall worship thee with their face towards the earth, and they shall lick up the dust of thy feet."

My Brethren, you know our Lord spoke, when He went away, of coming back, not only suddenly, but soon. Well, in the sense in which I have been speaking, He is ever coming. Again and again He comes to His Church; He ever comes as a strong warrior, bringing in with Him fresh and fresh captives of His arrows and His spear. That same marvel of an inward work in the souls of men on a large scale, which He wrought at the first, He is ever reiterating and renewing in the history of the Church down to this day. Multitudes are ever pouring into her, as the fish into Peter's net, beyond her own thought and her own act, by the immediate and secret operation of His grace. This is emphatically the case now. It is seen on a large scale all over Christendom. Fifty years ago religion seemed almost extinguished. To the eyes of man, it was simply declining and wasting away all through the last century. There were indeed in that century saints and doctors and zealous preachers and faithful populations, as heretofore, but these the world could not see. The political power and social {56} influence of religion was ever less and less; and then at last a European revolution came, and in man's judgment all was lost. But in its deepest misfortunes began its most wonderful rise; a reaction set in, and steadily has it progressed, with every sign of progress still. And in its progress the same phenomenon, I say, reveals itself which we read of in the history of former times; for while the Holy Church has been praying and labouring on her own field, converts, beyond that field, whom she was not contemplating, have been added to her from all classes, as at the beginning. Germany and England, the special seats of her enemies, are the very scenes of this spontaneous accession. To the surprise of all that know them, often to their own surprise, those who fear the Church, or disown her doctrines, find themselves drawing near to her by some incomprehensible influence year after year, and at length give themselves up to her, and proclaim her sovereignty. Those who never spoke to a Catholic Priest, those who have never entered a Catholic Church, those even who have learned their religion from the Protestant Bible, have, in matter of fact, by the overruling Providence of God, been brought through that very reading to recognize the Mother of Saints. Her very name, her simple claim, constrains men to think of her, to enquire about her, to wish her to be what she says she is, to submit to her; not on any assignable reason, save the needs of human nature and the virtue of that grace, which works secretly, round about the Church, without observation.

My Brethren, there are those who imagine that, when we use great words of the Church, invest her with {57} heavenly privileges, and apply to her the evangelical promises, we speak merely of some external and political structure. They think we mean to spend our devotion upon a human cause, and that we toil for an object of human ambition. They think that we should acknowledge, if cross-examined, that our ultimate purpose was the success of persons and parties, to whom we were bound in honour, or by interest, or by gratitude; and that, if we looked to objects above the world or beyond the grave, we did so with very secondary aims and faint perceptions. They fancy, as the largest concession of their liberality, that we are working from the desire, generous, but still human, of the praise of earthly superiors, and that, after all, in some way or other, we are living on the breath, and basking in the smile, of man. But the text, and the train of thought which I have been pursuing, remind us of the true view of the matter, were we ever likely to forget it. The Church is a collection of souls, brought together in one by God's secret grace, though that grace comes to them through visible instruments, and unites them to a visible hierarchy. What is seen, is not the whole of the Church, but the visible part of it. When we say that Christ loves His Church, we mean that He loves, nothing of earthly nature, but the fruit of His own grace;—the varied fruits of His grace in innumerable hearts, viewed as brought together in unity of faith and love and obedience, of sacraments, and doctrine, and order, and worship. The object which He contemplates, which He loves in the Church, is not human nature simply, but human nature illuminated and renovated by His own supernatural {58} power. If He has called the visible Church His spouse, it is because she is the special seat of this divine gift. If He loved Peter, it was not simply because he was His Apostle, but because Peter had that intense, unearthly love of Him, and that faith which flesh and blood could not exercise, which were the fitting endowments of an Apostle. If He loved John, it was not as merely one of the Twelve, but because he again was adorned with the special gift of supernatural chastity. If He loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, it was not only as His friends and guests, but for their burning charity, and their pure contrition, and their self-sacrificing devotion. So it is now: what He creates, what He contemplates, what He loves, what He rewards, is (in St. Peter's words) "the hidden man of the heart," of which the visible Church is the expression, the protection, the instrumental cause, and the outward perfection.

And therefore, applying this great truth to our own circumstances, let us ever bear in mind, my Brethren, that we in this place are only then really strong, when we are more than we seem to be. It is not our attainments or our talents, it is not philosophy or science, letters or arts, which will make us dear to God. It is not secular favour, or civil position, which can make us worthy the attention and the interest of the true Christian. A great University is a great power, and can do great things; but, unless it be something more than human, it is but foolishness and vanity in the sight and in comparison of the little ones of Christ. It is really dead, though it seems to live, unless it be grafted upon the True Vine, and is partaker of the secret supernatural {59} life which circulates through the undecaying branches. "Unless the Lord build the House, they labour in vain that build it." Idle is our labour, worthless is our toil, ashes is our fruit, corruption is our reward, unless we begin the foundation of this great undertaking in faith and prayer, and sanctify it by purity of life.

(28th Sunday after Pentecost, 1856. Preached in the University Church, Dublin.)

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Note

The first pages of this Sermon are borrowed from the author's "Sermons on Subjects of the Day," No. xxi.
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