Topic - Apostolic Faith Sermon 22. The Gospel, a Trust Committed to Us Seasons - Trinity

"O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science, falsely so called; which some professing, have erred concerning the Faith." 1 Tim. vi. 20, 21.

{255} [Note 1] THESE words are addressed in the first place to the Ministers of the Gospel, in the person of Timothy; yet they contain a serious command and warning for all Christians. For all of us, high and low, in our measure are responsible for the safe-keeping of the Faith. We have all an equal interest in it, no one less than another, though an Order of men has been especially set apart for the duty of guarding it. If we Ministers of Christ guard it not, it is our sin but it is your loss, my brethren; and as any private person would feel that his duty and his safety lay in giving alarm of a fire or of a robbery in the city where he dwelt, though there were ever so many special officers appointed for the purpose, so, doubtless, every one of us is bound in his place to contend for the Faith, and to have an eye to its safe {256} custody. If indeed the Faith of Christ were vague, indeterminate, a matter of opinion or deduction, then, indeed, we may well conceive that the Ministers of the Gospel would be the only due expounders and guardians of it; then it might be fitting for private Christians to wait till they were informed concerning the best mode of expressing it, or the relative importance of this or that part of it. But this has been all settled long ago; the Gospel Faith is a definite deposit,—a treasure, common to all, one and the same in every age, conceived in set words, and such as admits of being received, preserved, transmitted. We may safely leave the custody of it even in the hands of individuals; for in so doing, we are leaving nothing at all to private rashness and fancy, to pride, debate, and strife. We are but allowing men to "contend earnestly for the Faith once delivered to the Saints;" the Faith which was put into their hands one by one at their baptism, in a form of words called the Creed, and which has come down to them in that very same form from the first ages. This Faith is what even the humblest member of the Church may and must contend for; and in proportion to his education, will the circle of his knowledge enlarge. The Creed delivered to him in Baptism will then unfold, first, into the Nicene Creed (as it is called), then into the Athanasian; and, according as his power of grasping the sense of its articles increases, so will it become his duty to contend for them in their fuller and more accurate form. All these unfoldings of the Gospel Doctrine will become to him precious as the original articles, because they are in fact nothing more or less than the {257} one true explanation of them delivered down to us from the first ages, together with the original baptismal or Apostles' Creed itself. As all nations confess to the existence of a God, so all branches of the Church confess to the Gospel doctrine; as the tradition of men witnesses to a Moral Governor and Judge, so the tradition of Saints witnesses to the Father Almighty, and His only Son, and the Holy Ghost. And as neither the superstitions of polytheism, nor the atheistic extravagances of particular countries at particular times, practically interfere with our reception of the one message which the sons of Adam deliver; so, much less, do the local heresies and temporary errors of the early Church, and its superadded corruptions, its schismatic offshoots, or its partial defections in later ages, impair the evidence and the claim of its teaching, in the judgment of those who sincerely wish to know the Truth once delivered to it. Blessed be God! we have not to find the Truth, it is put into our hands; we have but to commit it to our hearts, to preserve it inviolate, and to deliver it over to our posterity.

This then is the meaning of St. Paul's injunction in the text, given at the time when the Truth was first published. "Keep that which is committed to thy trust," or rather, "keep the deposit;" turn away from those "profane emptinesses" which pretenders to philosophy and science bring forward against it. Do not be moved by them; do not alter your Creed for them; for the end of such men is error. They go on disputing and refining, giving new meanings, modifying received ones, still with the idea of the True Faith in their minds {258} as the scope of their inquiries; but at length they "miss" it. They shoot on one side of it, and embrace a deceit of their own instead of it.

By the Faith is evidently meant, as St. Paul's words show, some definite doctrine; not a mere temper of mind or principle of action, much less, vaguely, the Christian cause; and accordingly, in his Second Epistle to Timothy, the Apostle mentions as his comfort in the view of death, that he had "kept the Faith." In the same Epistles he describes it more particularly as "the Form" or outline "of sound words," "the excellent deposit;" phrases which show that the deposit certainly was a series of truths and rules of some sort (whether only doctrinal, or preceptive also, and ecclesiastical), and which are accurately descriptive of the formulary since called the Apostles' Creed [Note 2]. And these same sacred truths which Timothy had received in trust, he was bid "commit" in turn "to faithful men," who would be "able to teach others also." By God's grace, he was enabled so to commit them; and they being thus transmitted from generation to generation, have, through God's continued mercy, reached even unto us "upon whom the ends of the world are come."

I propose in what follows, to set before you the account given us in Scripture of this Apostolic Faith; being led to do so on the one hand by the Day, on which we commemorate its fundamental doctrine, and {259} on the other, by the mistaken views entertained of it by many persons in this day, which seem to require notice.

Perhaps it may be right first to state what these erroneous opinions are; which I will do briefly. They are not novel, as scarcely any religious error can be, and assuredly what has once or twice died away in former times will come to its end in like manner once more. I do not speak as if I feared it could overcome the Ancient Truth once delivered to the Saints; but still our watchfulness and care are the means appointed for its overthrow, and are not superseded, but rather encouraged, and roused, by the anticipation of ultimate success.

It is a fashion of the day, then, to suppose that all insisting upon precise Articles of Faith is injurious to the cause of spiritual religion, and inconsistent with an enlightened view of it; that it is all one to maintain, that the Gospel requires the reception of definite and positive Articles, and to acknowledge it to be technical and formal; that such a notion is superstitious, and interferes with the "liberty wherewith Christ has made us free;" that it argues a deficient insight into the principles and ends, a narrow comprehension of the spirit of His Revelation. Accordingly, instead of accepting reverently the doctrinal Truths which have come down to us, an attempt is made by the reasoners of this age to compare them together, to weigh and measure them, to analyse, simplify, refashion them; to reduce them to system, to arrange them into primary and secondary, to harmonize them into an intelligible dependence upon {260} each other. The teacher of Christianity, instead of delivering its Mysteries, and (as far as may be) unfolding them, is taught to scrutinise them, with a view of separating the inward holy sense from the form of words, in which the Spirit has indissolubly lodged them. He asks himself, what is the use of the message which has come down to him? what the comparative value of this or that part of it? He proceeds to assume that there is some one end of his ministerial labours, such as to be ascertainable by him, some one revealed object of God's dealings with man in the Gospel. Then, perhaps, he arbitrarily assigns this end to be the salvation of the world, or the conversion of sinners. Next he measures all the Scripture doctrines by their respective sensible tendency to effect this end. He goes on to discard or degrade this or that sacred truth as superfluous in consequence, or of inferior importance; and throws the stress of his teaching upon one or other, which he pronounces to contain in it the essence of the Gospel, and on which he rests all others which he retains. Lastly, he reconstructs the language of theology to suit his (so-called) improved views of Scripture doctrine.

For instance, you will meet with writers who consider that all the Attributes and Providences of God are virtually expressed in the one proposition, "God is Love;" the other notices of His Unapproachable Glory contained in Scripture being but modifications of this. In consequence, they are led on to deny, first, the doctrine of eternal punishment, as being inconsistent with this notion of Infinite Love; next, resolving such expressions as the "wrath of God" into a figure of speech, {261} they deny the Atonement, viewed as a real reconciliation of an offended God to His creatures. Or again, they say that the object of the Gospel Revelation is merely practical, and therefore, that theological doctrines are altogether unnecessary, mere speculations, and hindrances to the extension of religion; or, if not purely injurious, at least requiring modification. Hence you may hear them ask, "What is the harm of being a Sabellian, or Arian? how does it affect the moral character?" Or, again, they say that the great end of the Gospel is the union of hearts in the love of Christ and of each other, and that, in consequence, Creeds are but fetters on souls which have received the Spirit of Adoption; that Faith is a mere temper and a principle, not the acceptance for Christ's sake of a certain collection of Articles. Others, again, have rested the whole Gospel upon the doctrines of the Atonement and Sanctification. And others have seemed to make the doctrine of Justification by Faith the one cardinal point, upon which the gates of life open and shut. Let so much suffice in explanation of the drift of the following remarks.

St. Paul, I repeat, bids us hold fast the faith which is entrusted to our custody; and that Faith is a "Form of sound words," an "Outline," which it is our duty, according to our opportunities, to fill up and complete in all its parts. Now, let us see how much the very text of Scripture will yield us of these elementary lines of Truth, of the unchangeable Apostolic Rule of Faith, of which we are bound to be so jealous.

Its essential doctrine of course is what St. John terms {262} generally "the doctrine of Christ," and which, in the case of every one calling himself Christian, is the profession necessary (as he tells us) for our receiving him into our houses. St. Paul speaks in much the same compendious way concerning the Gospel Faith, when he says, "Other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus, the Christ." However, in an earlier passage of the same Epistle, he speaks more explicitly: "I determined not to know anything among you save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified." Thus the Crucifixion of Christ was one essential part of the outline of sound words, preached and delivered by the Apostle. In his Epistle to the Romans, he adds another article of faith: "If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised Him from the dead, thou shalt be saved." Here then the doctrine of the Resurrection is added to that of the Crucifixion. Elsewhere he says: "There is One God, and one Mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all to be testified in due time; even whereunto I am ordained a preacher." Here Christ's Mediation and Atonement are added as doctrines of Apostolical preaching. Further, towards the end of an Epistle already quoted, he speaks still more distinctly of the Gospel which he had preached, and had delivered over to his converts; and which, he adds, all the other Apostles preached also. "I put into your hands, first of all, what had before been put into mine, how that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third {263} day according to the Scriptures." [2 John 9-11. 1 Cor. iii. 11; ii. 2. Rom. x. 9. 1 Tim. ii. 5-7. 1 Cor. xv. 3, 4.] Here we find an approximation to the Articles of the Creed, as the Church has ever worded them.

But the letter of Scripture gives us still further insight into the subjects of the Sacred Deposit, of which St. Paul speaks in the text. In the course of the very Epistle in which it occurs, he delivers to Timothy a more explicit "Form of sound words" than any I have cited from his writings. He writes to tell him "how to conduct himself in the Church of the Living God," which he had to govern, and how to preserve it as "the pillar and ground of the Truth;" and proceeds to remind him what that Truth is. "God was manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of Angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory." Here is mention, among other doctrines, of the Incarnation and the Ascension. It seems then to have been an article of the original Apostles' Creed, that Christ was not a mere man, but God Incarnate. In like manner, when the Ethiopian asked to be baptized, and Philip said he might if he "believed with all his heart," this was his confession: "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God." This, it should be observed, is his confession, after Philip had "preached unto him Jesus." [1 Tim. iii. 15, 16. Acts viii. 35-37.]

Now, let us pass on to the very words in which that Baptism itself was administered; words which the Eunuch might not understand indeed at the time, but {264} which were then committed to him to feed upon in his heart by faith, and, by the influence of the grace at the same time given, gradually to enter into. Those words were first ordained by Christ Himself, as some mysterious key by which the fountains of grace might be opened upon the baptismal water,—"In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost;" and they show that not only the doctrine of Christ, but that of the Trinity also, formed an essential portion of the Sacred Treasure, of which the Church was ordained to be the Preacher. Lastly, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, we are presented with an enumeration of some other of the fundamental Articles of Faith which the Apostles delivered. St. Paul therein speaks of "the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of Faith towards God, of the doctrine of Baptisms, and of Laying on of hands, and of Resurrection of the dead, and of Eternal Judgment." [Matt. xxviii. 19. Heb. vi. 1, 2. [Note 3]]

Observe then, how many Articles of that Faith, which the Church has ever confessed, are incidentally brought before us as such, and delivered as such in very form, in the course of Scripture narrative and precept;—the doctrine of the Trinity; of the Incarnation of the Son of God, His Mediatorship, His Atonement for our sins on the Cross, His Death, Burial, Resurrection on the third day, and Ascension; of Pardon on Repentance, Baptism as the instrument of it, Imposition of hands, the General Resurrection and the Judgment once for all. I might also appeal to such passages as that in the First {265} Epistle to the Corinthians, where St. Paul says, "To us there is one God the Father … and one Lord Jesus Christ;" [1 Cor. viii. 6.] but I wished to confine myself to texts in which the doctrines specified are expressly introduced as portions of a Formulary or Confession, committed or accepted, whether on the part of Ministers of the Church at Ordination, or of each member of it when he was baptized.

It may be proper to add, that the history of the Primitive Church altogether concurs in this view of the nature of Gospel Faith which Scripture sets before us. I mean we have sufficient evidence that, in matter of fact, such Creeds as St. Paul's did exist in its various branches, not differing from each other, except (for instance) as the Lord's Prayer in St. Matthew's Gospel differs from St. Luke's version of it; that this one and the same Faith was committed to every Christian everywhere on his baptism; and that it was considered as the especial trust of the Church of each place and of its Bishop, as having been received by continual transmission from its original Founder, whether Apostle or Evangelist.

Enough has been already said by way of proving from Scripture how precise, positive, manifold, are the Articles of our Faith, and how St. Paul insists on this their definiteness and minuteness; enough to show that we may not slur them over, nor heap them together confusedly, nor tamper with them, with the profaneness either of carelessness or of curious disputing,—in a word, that they are sacred. But this sacred character of our trust may {266} be shown by several distinct considerations, which shall now be set before you.

1. First, from the very circumstance that it is a trust. The plain and simple reason for our preaching and preserving the Faith, is because we have been told to do so. It is an act of mere obedience to Him who has "put us in trust with the Gospel." Our one great concern as regards it, is to deliver it over safe. This is the end in view, which all men have before them, who are anyhow trusted in worldly matters. "It is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful." [1 Cor. iv. 2.] Our Lord had said, that "this Gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached in all the world as a witness unto all nations." Accordingly, His Apostle declares, speaking of his persecutions, "None of these things move me, ... so that I might finish ... the Ministry which I have received of the Lord Jesus, fully to witness the Gospel of the grace of God." And again, when his departure is at hand, he comforts himself with the reflection, that he has "kept the Faith." [Matt. xxiv. 14. Acts xx. 24. 2 Tim. iv. 7.] To keep the Faith in the world till the end, may, for what we know, be a sufficient object of our preaching and confessing, though nothing more come of it. Hence then the force of the words addressed to Timothy: "Hold fast," "keep;" "This charge I commit unto thee;" "continue thou in the things entrusted thee;" "put the brethren in remembrance;" "commit thou the same to faithful men;" "refuse profane and old wives' fables;" "shun profane vain talking;" "avoid foolish and unlearned questions." Were there no other reason for the Articles of the {267} Creed being held sacred, their being a trust would be sufficient. Till we feel that we have a trust, a treasure to transmit, for the safety of which we are answerable, we have missed one chief peculiarity in our actual position. Yet did men feel this adequately, they would have little heart to indulge in the random speculations which at present are so familiar to their minds.

2. This sense of the seriousness of our charge is increased by considering, that after all we do not know, and cannot form a notion, what is the real final object of the Gospel Revelation. Men are accustomed to say, that it is the salvation of the world, which it certainly is not. If, instead of this, we say that Christ came "to purify unto Himself a peculiar people," then, indeed, we speak a great Truth; but this, though a main end of our preaching, is not its simple and ultimate object. Rather, as far as we are told at all, that object is the glory of God; but we cannot understand what is meant by this, or how the Dispensation of the Gospel promotes it. It is enough for us that we must act with the simple thought of God before us, make all ends subordinate to this, and leave the event to Him. We know, indeed, to our great comfort, that we cannot preach in vain. His heavenly word "shall not return unto Him void, but shall prosper in the thing whereto He sent it." Still it is surely our duty to preach, "whether men will hear, or whether they will forbear." We must preach, as our Lord enjoins in a text already quoted, "as a witness." Accordingly He Himself, before the heathen Pilate, "bore witness unto the truth;" and St. Paul conjures us to keep our sacred charge as in the presence of Him, {268} who "before Pontius Pilate witnessed a good confession." Doubtless, His glory is set forth in some mysterious way in the rejection, as well as in the reception of the Gospel; and we must co-operate with Him. We must co-operate so far, as to be content to wound as well as to heal, to condemn as well as to absolve. We must not shrink from being "a savour from death unto death," as well as of "life unto life." We must stedfastly believe, however painful may be the duty, that we are in either case offering up a "sweet savour of Christ unto God both in them that are saved, and in them that perish." We must learn to acquiesce and concur in the order of God's providence, and bear to rejoice over great Babylon and her inhabitants, when the wrath of God has fallen upon her.

This consideration is an answer to those who would limit our message to what is influential and convincing in it, and measure its divinity by its success. But I have introduced it rather to show generally, how utterly we are in the dark about the whole subject; and therefore, as being in the dark, how necessary it is to gird our garments about us, and hold fast our treasure, and hasten forward, lest we betray our trust. We have no means of knowing how far a small mistake in the Faith may carry us astray. If we do not know why it is to be proclaimed to all, though all will not hear, much less do we know why this or that doctrine is revealed, or what is the importance of it. The grant of grace in Baptism follows upon the accurate enunciation of one or two words; and if so much depends on one sacred observance, even down to the letter in which it is committed to us, {269} why should not at least the substantial sense of other truths, nay, even the primitive wording of them, have some especial claim upon the Church's safe guardianship of them? St. Paul's Articles of Belief are precise and individual; why should we not take them as we find them? Why should we be wise above that is written? Why should we not be thankful that a work is put upon us which is so plainly within our power, to hold the Gospel Truths, to count and note them, to feed upon them, to hand them on? However, wilful and feverish minds have not the wisdom to trust Divine teaching. They persist in saying that Articles of Belief are mere formalities; and that to preach and transmit them is to miss the conversion of the heart in faith and holiness. They would rather rouse emotions, with the view (as they hope) of changing the character. Forgetful that tempers and states of mind are things seen by God alone, and when really spiritual are the work of His Unseen Spirit, and beyond the power of man to insure or ascertain, they put upon themselves what a man cannot do. They think it a light thing to be sowers of that heavenly seed, which He shall make spring up in the hearer's heart to life eternal. They are willing to throw it aside as something barren and worthless, as the sand of the sea-shore; and they desire to plant simply the flowers of grace (or what appear such) in one another's hearts, as though under their assiduous culture they could take root therein. Far different is the example set us in the services of the Church! In the Office for Baptism the Articles of the Creed are recited one by one, that the infant Christian may be put in charge of every jot and {270} tittle of the sacred Covenant, which he inherits. In the Communion Service, in the midst of its solemn praises to the God of all grace, when Angels and Archangels are to be summoned to join in the Thanksgiving, Articles from the Creed are recited, as if by way of preparation, with an exact doctrinal precision, according to the Festival celebrated,—as for instance on this day. And in the Visitation of the Sick, he whom God seems about to call away, is asked, not whether he has certain spiritual feelings within him (of which he cannot judge), but, definitely and to his great comfort, whether he believes those Articles of the Christian Faith, one by one, which he received at Baptism, was catechized in during his childhood, and confessed whenever he came to worship God in Church. It is in the same spirit that the most precise and systematic of all the Creeds, the Athanasian, is rather, as the form of it shows, a hymn of praise to the Eternal Trinity; it being meet and right at festive seasons to bring forth before our God every jewel of the Mysteries entrusted to us, to show that those of which He gave us we have lost none.

3. Lastly, the sacred character of our charge is shown most forcibly by the sanction which attends it. What God has guarded by an Anathema, surely claims some jealous custody on our part. Christ says expressly, "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; and he that believeth not shall be damned." [Mark xvi. 16.] It is quite clear, that in our Lord's meaning, this belief included the reception of a positive Creed, because He gave one at the time,—that sovereign Truth, from which all {271} others flow, which we this day celebrate, the Faith of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Three Persons, One God. This doctrine then, at least, is necessary to be believed by every one in order to salvation: and that certain other doctrines are also necessary, is plain from other parts of Scripture; as, for instance, our Lord's Resurrection, from St. Paul's words to the Romans [Note 4]. Now, this doctrine of the Resurrection, which closed our Lord's earthly mission, is evidently at a wide interval in the series of doctrines from that of the Trinity in Unity, which is the foundation of the whole Dispensation; so that a thoughtful mind, which fears to go wrong, will see reason to conclude even from hence, that perchance the doctrines which go between the two—the Incarnation, for instance, or the Crucifixion—are also essential parts of saving Faith. And, in fact, various passages of Scripture, as we have already seen, occur, in which these intermediate Articles are separately made the basis of the Gospel. Again, let St. Paul's language to the Galatians be well considered, who had departed from the Faith in what might have seemed but a subordinate detail, the abolition of the Jewish Law. "Though we, or an Angel from heaven," he says, "preach any other Gospel unto you, than that which we have preached unto you, let him be Anathema. As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other Gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be Anathema." [Gal. i. 8, 9.] The state of the case then is this:—we know that some doctrines are necessary to be believed; we are not told how many; and we have {272} no powers of mind adequate to the task of solving the problem. We cannot give any sufficient reason, beside the revealed word, why the doctrine of the Trinity itself should be essential; and if it is essential nevertheless, why should not any other? How dangerous then is it to trifle with any portion of the message committed to us! Surely we are bound to guard what may be material in it, as carefully as if we knew it to be so; our not knowing it, so far from being a reason for indifference, becoming an additional motive for anxiety and watchfulness. And, while we do not dare anticipate God's final judgment by attaching the Anathema to individual unbelievers, yet neither do we dare conceal any part of the doctrines guarded by it, lest haply it should be found to lie against ourselves, who have "shunned to declare the whole counsel of God."

To conclude.—The error against which these remarks are directed, viz. that of systematizing and simplifying the Gospel Faith, making much of one or two articles of it, and disparaging or dismissing the rest, is not confined to this province of religion only. In the same spirit, sometimes the Ordinances, sometimes the Polity of the Church, are dishonoured and neglected; the Doctrine of Baptism contrasted with that of inward Sanctification, precepts of "decency and order" made light of before the command to evangelize the heathen, the injunction to "stand in the old ways" broken with a view to increase the so-called efficiency of our ecclesiastical institutions. In like manner, by one class of reasoners the Gospels are made everything, by another the Epistles. In all ages, indeed, consistent obedience {273} is a very rare endowment; but in this cultivated age, we have undertaken to defend inconsistency on grounds of reason. On the other hand hear the words of Eternal Truth. "Whosoever shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven; but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven." [Matt. v. 19.]

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Notes

1. The Feast of the Holy Trinity.
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2. Vide also, among other passages, 1 John ii. 21-27, which refers to nothing short of a definite doctrine; e.g. "Let that therefore abide in you, which ye have heard from the beginning." Again, 2 Tim. ii. 18, "Who concerning the Truth have erred, saying that the Resurrection is past already, and overthrow the faith of some."
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3. Vide also 2 Tim. ii. 16-18, above referred to.
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4. Rom. x. 9.
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