Sermon 7. Contest between Faith and Sight

"This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith." 1 John v. 4.

{120} THE danger to which Christians are exposed from the influence of the visible course of things, or the world (as it is called in Scripture), is a principal subject of St. John's General Epistle. He seems to speak of the world as some False Prophet, promising what it cannot fulfil, and gaining credit by its confident tone. Viewing it as resisting Christianity, he calls it the "spirit of anti-Christ," the parent of a numerous progeny of evil, false spirits like itself, the teachers of all lying doctrines, by which the multitude of men are led captive. The antagonist of this great tempter is the Spirit of Truth, which is "greater than he that is in the world;" its victorious antagonist, because gifted with those piercing eyes of Faith which are able to scan the world's shallowness, and to see through the mists of error into the glorious kingdom of God beyond them. "This is the victory that overcometh the world," says the text, "even our Faith." And if we inquire what {121} are the sights which our faith sees, the Apostle answers by telling us of "the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is Truth." The world witnesses to an untruth, which will one day be exposed; and Christ, our Lord and Master, is the "Amen, the faithful and true witness," who came into the world "by water and blood," to "bear witness unto the Truth;" that, as the many voices of error bear down and overpower the inquirer by their tumult and importunity, so, on the other hand, Truth might have its living and visible representative, no longer cast, like the bread, at random on the waters, or painfully gained from the schools and traditions of men, but committed to One "come in the flesh," to One who has an earthly name and habitation, who, in one sense, is one of the powers of this world, who has His train and retinue, His court and kingdom, His ministering servants, bound together by the tie of brotherly love among themselves, and of zeal against the Prophets of error. "Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?" St. John then compares together the force of the world's testimony, and of that which the Gospel provides. "If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater; for this is the witness of God which He has testified of His Son;" as if "the spirit, the water, and the blood," spoke for God more loudly than the world speaks for the Evil one. In the very opening of the Epistle, he had set before us in another form the same gracious truth, viz., that the Gospel, by affording us, in the Person and history of Christ, a witness of the invisible world, addresses {122} itself to our senses and imagination, after the very manner in which the false doctrines of the world assail us. "That which was from the beginning, ... which we have looked upon, ... that which we have seen and heard, declare we unto you."

2. Now, here we have incidentally suggested to us an important truth, which, obvious as it is, may give rise to some profitable reflections; viz., that the world overcomes us, not merely by appealing to our reason, or by exciting our passions, but by imposing on our imagination. So much do the systems of men swerve from the Truth as set forth in Scripture, that their very presence becomes a standing fact against Scripture, even when our reason condemns them, by their persevering assertions, and they gradually overcome those who set out by contradicting them. In all cases, what is often and unhesitatingly asserted, at length finds credit with the mass of mankind; and so it happens, in this instance, that, admitting as we do from the first, that the world is one of our three chief enemies, maintaining, rather than merely granting, that the outward face of things speaks a different language from the word of God; yet, when we come to act in the world, we find this very thing a trial, not merely of our obedience, but even of our faith; that is, the mere fact that the world turns out to be what we began by actually confessing concerning it.

3. Let us now direct our attention to this subject, in order to see what it means, and how it is exemplified in the ordinary course of the world. {123}

And let us commence with the age when men are first exposed, in any great degree, to the temptation of trusting the world's assertions—when they enter into life, as it is called. Hitherto they have learned revealed truths only as a creed or system; they are instructed and acquiesce in the great Christian doctrines; and, having virtuous feelings, and desiring to do their duty, they think themselves really and practically religious. They read in Scripture of "the course of the world," but they have little notion what it really is; they believe it to be sinful, but how it acts in seducing from the Truth, and making evil seem good, and good evil, is beyond them. Scripture, indeed, says much about the world; but they cannot learn practically what it is from Scripture; for, not to mention other reasons, Scripture being written by inspiration, represents things such as they really are in God's sight, such as they will seem to us in proportion as we learn to judge of them rightly, not as they appear to those "whose senses are" not yet "exercised to discern both good and evil."

4. Under these circumstances, youths are brought to their trial. The simple and comparatively retired life which they have hitherto enjoyed is changed for the varied and attractive scenes of mixed society. Its numberless circles and pursuits open upon them, the diversities and contrarieties of opinion and conduct, and of the subjects on which thought and exertion are expended. This is what is called seeing the world. Here, then, all at once they lose their reckoning, and let slip the lessons which they thought they had so {124} accurately learned. They are unable to apply in practice what they have received by word of mouth; and, perplexed at witnessing the multiplicity of characters and fortunes which human nature assumes, and the range and intricacy of the social scheme, they are gradually impressed with the belief that the religious system which they have hitherto received is an inadequate solution of the world's mysteries, and a rule of conduct too simple for its complicated transactions. All men, perhaps, are in their measure subjected to this temptation. Even their ordinary and most innocent intercourse with others, their temporal callings, their allowable recreations, captivate their imaginations, and, on entering into this new scene, they look forward with interest towards the future, and form schemes of action, and indulge dreams of happiness, such as this life has never fulfilled. Now, is it not plain, that, after thus realizing to themselves the promises of the world, when they look back to the Bible and their former lessons, these will seem not only uninteresting and dull, but a theory too?—dull, colourless, indeed, as a sober landscape, after we have been gazing on some bright vision in the clouds—but, withal, unpractical, unnatural, unsuitable to the exigencies of life and the constitution of man?

5. For consider how little is said in Scripture about subjects which necessarily occupy a great part of the attention of all men, and which, being there unnoticed, become thereby the subject-matter of their trial. Their private conduct day by day; their civil, social, and domestic duties; their relation towards those events {125} which mark out human life into its periods, and, in the case of most men, are the source of its best pleasures, and the material of its deepest affections, are, as if purposely, passed over, that they themselves may complete the picture of true faith and sanctity which Revelation has begun.

6. And thus (as has already been said) what is primarily a trial of our obedience, becomes a trial of our faith also. The Bible seems to contain a world in itself, and not the same world as that which we inhabit; and those who profess to conform to its rules gain from us respect indeed, and praise, and yet strike us withal in some sort as narrow-minded and fanciful; tenderly to be treated, indeed, as you would touch cautiously any costly work of art, yet, on the whole, as little adapted to do good service in the world as it is, as a weapon of gold or soft clothing on a field of battle.

7. And much more, of course, does this delusion hang about the mind, and more closely does it wrap it round, if, by yielding to the temptations of the flesh, a man predisposes himself to the influence of it. The palmary device of Satan is to address himself to the pride of our nature, and, by the promise of independence, to seduce us into sin. Those who have been brought up in ignorance of the polluting fashions of the world, too often feel a rising in their minds against the discipline and constraint kindly imposed upon them; and, not understanding that their ignorance is their glory, and that they cannot really enjoy both good and evil, they murmur that they are not allowed to essay what they do not wish to practise, or to choose for themselves in {126} matters where the very knowledge seems to them to give a superiority to the children of corruption. Thus the temptation of becoming as gods works as in the beginning, pride opening a door to lust; and then, intoxicated by their experience of evil, they think they possess real wisdom, and take a larger and more impartial view of the nature and destinies of man than religion teaches; and, while the customs of society restrain their avowals within the bounds of propriety, yet in their hearts they learn to believe that sin is a matter of course, not a serious evil, a failing in which all have share, indulgently to be spoken of, or rather, in the case of each individual, to be taken for granted, and passed over in silence; and believing this, they are not unwilling to discover or to fancy weaknesses in those who have the credit of being superior to the ordinary run of men, to insinuate the possibility of human passions influencing them, this or that of a more refined nature, when the grosser cannot be imputed, and, extenuating at the same time the guilt of the vicious, to reduce in this manner all men pretty much to a level. A more apposite instance of this state of soul cannot be required than is given us in the celebrated work of an historian of the last century, who, for his great abilities, and, on the other hand, his cold heart, impure mind, and scoffing spirit, may justly be accounted as, in this country at least, one of the masters of a new school of error, which seems not yet to have accomplished its destinies, and is framed more exactly after the received type of the author of evil, than the other chief anti-Christs who have, in these last times, occupied the scene of the world. {127}

8. The temptation I have been speaking of, of trusting the world, because it speaks boldly, and thinking that evil must be acquiesced in, because it exists, will be still stronger and more successful in the case of one who is in any situation of active exertion, and has no very definite principles to secure him in the narrow way. He was taught to believe that there was but one true faith, and, on entering into life, he meets with numberless doctrines among men, each professing to be the true one. He had learned that there was but one Church, and he falls in with countless religious sects, nay, with a prevalent opinion that all these are equally good, and that there is no divinely-appointed Church at all. He has been accustomed to class men into good and bad, but he finds their actual characters no how reducible to system; good and bad mixed in every variety of proportion, virtues and vices in endless combinations; and, what is stranger still, a deficient creed seemingly joined to a virtuous life, and inconsistent conduct disgracing a sound profession. Further still, he finds that men in general will not act on high motives, in spite of all that divines and moralists profess; and his experience of this urges him, till he begins to think it unwise and extravagant to insist upon the mass of mankind doing so, or to preach high morals and high doctrines; and at length he looks on the religious system of his youth as beautiful indeed in itself, and practical perhaps in private life, and useful for the lower classes, but as utterly unfit for those who live in the world; and while unwilling to confess this, lest he should set a bad example, he tacitly concedes it, never {128} is the champion of his professed principles when assailed, nor acts upon them in an honest way in the affairs of life.

9. Or, should he be led by a speculative turn of mind, or a natural philanthropy, to investigate the nature of man, or exert himself in plans for the amelioration of society, then his opinions become ultimately impressed with the character of a more definite unbelief. Sometimes he is conscious to himself that he is opposing Christianity; not indeed opposing it wantonly, but, as he conceives, unavoidably, as finding it in his way. This is a state of mind into which benevolent men are in danger of falling, in the present age. While they pursue objects tending, as they conceive, towards the good of mankind, it is by degrees forced upon their minds that Revealed Religion thwarts their proceedings, and, averse alike to relinquish their plans, and to offend the feelings of others, they determine on letting matters take their course, and, believing fully that Christianity must fall before the increasing illumination of the age, yet they wish to secure it against direct attacks, and to provide that it no otherwise falls than as it unavoidably must, at one time or other; as every inflexible instrument, and every antiquated institution, crumbles under the hands of the Great Innovator, who creates new influences for new emergencies, and recognizes no right divine in a tumultuous and shifting world.

10. Sometimes, on the other hand, because he takes the spirit of the world as his teacher, such a one drifts away unawares from the Truth as it is in Jesus; and, {129} merely from ignorance of Scripture, maintains theories which Scripture anathematizes. Thus he dreams on for a time, as loth to desert his first faith; then by accident meeting with some of the revealed doctrines which he learned when a child—the Incarnation, or the eternal punishment of the wicked—he stumbles. Then he will attempt to remove these, as if accidentally attached to the Scripture creed,—little thinking that they are its very peculiarities and essentials, nor reflecting that the very fact of his stumbling at them should be taken as a test that his views coincide but in appearance with the revealed system altogether; and so he will remain at the door of the Church, witnessing against himself by his lingering there, yet missing the reward bestowed even on the proselyte of the gate in heathen times, in that he might have "known the way of righteousness," yet has "turned from the holy commandment delivered unto him."

11. And some there are who, keeping their faith in the main, give up the notion of its importance. Finding that men will not agree together on points of doctrine and discipline, and imagining that union must be effected on any terms, they consent to abandon articles of faith as the basis of Christian fellowship, and try to effect what they call a union of hearts, as a bond of fellowship among those who differ in their notions of the One God, One Lord, One Spirit, One baptism, and One body; forgetful of the express condemnation pronounced by our Saviour upon those who "believe not" the preaching of His servants [Mark xvi. 16.]; and that {130} he who denieth the Son, the same hath not the Father [1 John ii. 22.].

12. And others, not being able to acquiesce in the unimportance of doctrinal truth, yet perplexed at the difficulties in the course of human affairs, which follow on the opposite view, accustom themselves gratuitously to distinguish between their public and private duties, and to judge of them by separate rules. These are often such as begin by assuming some extravagant or irrelevant test for ascertaining the existence of religious principle in others, and so are led to think it is nowhere to be found, not in the true Church more than in the sects which surround it; and thus, regarding all men (to speak generally) as equally far from the Truth, and strangers to that divine regeneration which Christ bestows on His elect few, and, on the other hand, seeing that men, as cast together in society, must cooperate on some or other principles, they drop the strict principles of Scripture in their civil relations, give no preference to those who honour the Church over those who profess opinions disrespectful towards it; perhaps take up the notion that the State, as such, has nothing to do with the subject of religion; praise and blame according to a different standard from that which Christianity reveals; and all this while cherish, perhaps, in their secret thoughts a definite creed, rigid in its decisions, stimulating in its influence, in spite of the mildness, and submissiveness, and liberality of sentiment, which their public mode of speaking and acting seems to evidence. {131}

13. Nor are even the better sort of men altogether secure from the impression of the world's teaching, which is so influential with the multitude. He truly is a rare and marvellous work of heavenly grace, who when he comes into the din and tumult of the world, can view things just as he calmly contemplated them in the distance, before the time of action came. So many are the secondary reasons which can be assigned for and against every measure and every principle, so urgent are the solicitations of interest or passion when the mind is once relaxed or excited, so difficult then to compare and ascertain the relative importance of conflicting considerations, that the most sincere and zealous of ordinary Christians will, to their surprise, confess to themselves that they have lost their way in the wilderness, which they could accurately measure out before descending into it, and have missed the track which lay like a clear thread across the hills, when seen in the horizon. And it is from their experience of this their own unskilfulness and weakness, that serious men have been in the practice of making vows concerning purposes on which they were fully set, that no sudden gust of passion, or lure of worldly interest, should gain the mastery over a heart which they desire to present without spot or blemish, as a chaste virgin, to Christ.

14. Let the above be taken as a few illustrations out of many, of the influence exerted, and the doctrine enforced, in the school of the world; that school which we all set out by acknowledging to be at enmity with the school of Christ, but from which we are content to {132} take our lessons of practical wisdom as life goes on. Such is the triumph of Sight over Faith. The world really brings no new argument to its aid,—nothing beyond its own assertion. In the very outset Christians allow that its teaching is contrary to Revelation, and not to be taken as authority; nevertheless, afterwards, this mere unargumentative teaching, which, when viewed in theory, formed no objection to the truth of the Inspired Word, yet, when actually heard in the intercourse of life, converts them, more or less, to the service of the "prince of the power of the air, the spirit which now worketh in the children of disobedience." It assails their imagination. The world sweeps by in long procession;—its principalities and powers, its Babel of languages, the astrologers of Chaldęa, the horse and its rider and the chariots of Egypt, Baal and Ashtoreth and their false worship; and those who witness, feel its fascination; they flock after it; with a strange fancy, they ape its gestures, and dote upon its mummeries; and then, should they perchance fall in with the simple solemn services of Christ's Church, and hear her witnesses going the round of Gospel truths as when they left them: "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life;" "Be sober, be vigilant;" "Strait is the gate, narrow the way;" "If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself;" "He is despised and rejected of men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief:"—how utterly unreal do these appear, and the preachers of them, how irrational, how puerile!—how extravagant in their opinions, how weak in their reasoning!—and if they profess to pity and {133} bear with them, how nearly does their compassion border on contempt!

15. The contempt of men!—why should we be unwilling to endure it? We are not better than our fathers. In every age it has been the lot of Christians far more highly endowed than we are with the riches of Divine wisdom. It was the lot of Apostles and Prophets, and of the Saviour of mankind Himself. When He was brought before Pilate, the Roman Governor felt the same surprise and disdain at His avowal of His unearthly office, which the world now expresses. "To this end was I born, … that I should bear witness unto the Truth. Pilate saith, What is Truth?" Again, when Festus would explain to King Agrippa the cause of the dispute between St. Paul and the Jews, he says, "The accusers ... brought no accusations of such things as I supposed, but certain questions against him of their own superstition, and of one Jesus, which was dead, whom Paul affirmed to be alive."

16. Such, however, are the words of men, who, not knowing the strength of Christianity, had not the guilt of deliberate apostasy. But what serious thoughts does it present to the mind, to behold parallels to heathen blindness and arrogance in a Christian country, where men might know better, if they would inquire!—and what a warning to us all is the sight of those who, though nominally within the Church, are avowedly indifferent to it! For all of us surely are on our trial, and, as we go forth into the world, so we are winnowed, and the chaff gradually separated from the true seed. This is St. John's account of it. "They went out from {134} us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not of us." And our Lord stands by watching the process, telling us of "the hour of temptation which shall come upon all the earth," exhorting us to "try them which say they are apostles, and are not," and to "hold fast that which we have, that no man take our crown."

17. Meanwhile, it is an encouragement to us to think how much may be done in way of protest and teaching, by the mere example of those who endeavour to serve God faithfully. In this way we may use against the world its own weapons; and, as its success lies in the mere boldness of assertion with which it maintains that evil is good, so by the counter-assertions of a strict life and a resolute profession of the truth, we may retort upon the imaginations of men, that religious obedience is not impracticable, and that scripture has its persuasives. A martyr or a confessor is a fact, and has its witness in itself; and, while it disarranges the theories of human wisdom, it also breaks in upon that security and seclusion into which men of the world would fain retire from the thought of religion. One prophet against four hundred disturbed the serenity of Ahab, King of Israel. When the witnesses in St. John's vision were slain, though they were but two, then "they that dwelt on the earth rejoiced over them, and made merry, and sent gifts one to another, because these two prophets tormented them that dwelt on the earth." Nay, such confessors have a witness even in {135} the breasts of those who oppose them, an instinct originally from God, which may indeed be perverted into a hatred, but scarcely into an utter disregard of the Truth, when exhibited before them. The instance cannot be found in the history of mankind, in which an anti-Christian power could long abstain from persecuting. The disdainful Festus at length impatiently interrupted his prisoner's speech; and in our better regulated times, whatever be the scorn or malevolence which is directed against the faithful Christian, these very feelings show that he is really a restraint on vice and unbelief, and a warning and guide to the feeble-minded, and to those who still linger in the world with hearts more religious than their professed opinions; and thus even literally, as the text expresses it, he overcomes the world, conquering while he suffers, and willingly accepting overbearing usage and insult from others, so that he may in some degree benefit them, though the more abundantly he loves them, the less he be loved.

(Preached on Sunday afternoon, May 27, 1832, in the Author's turn as Select Preacher.)

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