Topic - Truth Sermon 15. Contest between Truth and Falsehood in the Church

"The kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind: which, when it was full, they drew to shore, and sat down, and gathered the good into vessels, but cast the bad away." Matt. xiii. 47, 48.

{206} IN the Apostles' age, the chief contest between Truth and Falsehood lay in the war waged by the Church against the world, and the world against the Church—the Church, the aggressor in the name of the Lord; the world, stung with envy and malice, rage and pride, retaliating spiritual weapons with carnal, the Gospel with persecution, good with evil, in the cause of the Devil. But of the conflict within the Church, such as it is at this day, Christians knew comparatively little. True, the Prophetic Spirit told them that "even of their ownselves should men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them;" that "in the last days perilous times should come." [Acts xx. 30. 2 Tim. iii. 1.] Also they had the experience of their own and former times to show them, as in type, that in the Church evil will {207} always mingle with the good. Thus, at the flood, there were eight men in the Ark, and one of them was reprobate; out of twelve Apostles, one was a devil; out of seven Deacons, one (as it is said) fell away into heresy; out of twelve tribes, one is dropped at the final sealing. These intimations, however, whether by instance or prophecy, were not sufficient to realize to them, before the event, the serious and awful truth implied in the text, viz.—that the warfare which Christ began between his little flock and the world should be in no long while transferred into the Church itself, and be carried on by members of that Church one with another.

This, I say, the early Christians did not see fulfilled, as our eyes see it; and so hard is it to possess ourselves of a true conviction about it, that even at this day, when it may be plainly seen, men will not see it. They will not so open and surrender their minds to Divine truth, as to admit that the Holy Church has unholy members, that blessings are given to the unworthy, that "the Kingdom of heaven is like a net that gathers of every kind." They evade this mysterious appointment in various ways. Sometimes they deny that bad men are really in God's Church, which they think consists only of good men. They have invented an Invisible Church, distinct and complete at present, and peopled by saints only,—as if Scripture said one word, anywhere, of a spiritual body existing in this world separate from, and independent of, the Visible Church; and they consider the Visible Church to be nothing but a mere part of this world, an establishment, {208} sect, or party. Or, again, while they admit it as a Divine ordinance, they lower its standard of faith and ho1iness, and its privileges; and, considering the communion of saints to be but a name, and all Christians to be about alike, they effectually destroy all notions, whether of a Church or of a conflict. Thus, in one way or other, they refuse to admit the idea, contained in the text, that the dissimilitude, the enmity, and the warfare which once existed between the world and the Church, is now transferred into the Church itself.

But let us try, with God's blessing, to get a firm hold upon this truth, and see if we cannot draw some instruction from it. The text says, that "the Kingdom of Heaven," that is, the Christian Church, "is like unto a net that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind." Elsewhere St. Paul says, "In a great house there are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth; and some to honour, and some to dishonour." [2 Tim. ii. 20.] Now, passages such as these admit of a very various application. I shall consider them here with reference to the contest between Truth and Falsehood in the Church.

Doubtless, in the eye of natural reason, it would be a privilege, were the enemies of Christ and of our souls separated from us, and did the trial of our faith take place on some broad questions, about which there could be no mistake; but such is not the fact "in the wisdom of God." Faith and unbelief, humbleness and pride, love and selfishness, have been from the Apostles' age united in one and the same body; nor can any means {209} of man's device disengage the one from the other. All who are within the Church have the same privileges; they are all baptized, all admitted to the Holy Eucharist, all taught in the Truth, all profess the Truth. At all times, indeed, there have been those who have avowed corrupt doctrine or indulged themselves in open vice; and whom, in consequence, it was easy to detect and avoid. But these are few; the great body in the Christian Church profess one and the same faith, and seem one and all to agree together. Yet, among these persons, thus apparently unanimous, is the real inveterate conflict proceeding, as from the beginning, between good and evil. Some of these are wise, some foolish. Who belong to the one, and to the other party, is hid from us, and will be hid till the day of judgment; nor are they at present individually formed upon the perfect model of good or evil; they vary one with another in the degree and mode of their holding to the one or the other; but that there are two parties in the Church, two parties, however vague and indefinite their outlines, among those who live, in one sense, as familiar friends, I mean, who eat the same spiritual Food, and profess the same Creed, is certain.

Next, what do they contend about? how and where is their conflict? The Apostles contended about the truth of the Gospel with unbelievers; their immediate successors contended, though within the Church, yet against open heresies, such as they could meet, confute, and cast out; but in after times, in our own day, now, what do the two secret parties in the Church, the elect and the false-hearted, what do they contend about? {210}

It is difficult to answer this question suitably with the reverence due to this sacred place, in which the language of the world should not be heard. Yet, in so important a matter, one would wish to say something. That contest, which was first about the truth of the Gospel itself, next about the truth of doctrine, is now commonly about very small matters, of an every-day character, of public affairs, or domestic business, or parochial concerns, which serve as tests of our religious state quite as truly as greater things, in God's unerring judgment—serve as powerfully to form and train us for heaven or for hell.

I say, that as the early Christians were bound to "contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints," so the trial of our obedience commonly lies in taking this or that side in a multitude of questions, in which there happen to be two sides, and which come before us almost continually; and, before attempting to explain what I mean, I would have you observe how parallel this state of things is to God's mode of trying and disciplining us in other respects.

For instance, how is our devotion to Christ shown? Ordinarily, not in great matters, not in giving up house and lands for His sake, but in making little sacrifices which the world would ridicule, if it knew of them; in abridging ourselves of comforts for the sake of the poor, in sacrificing our private likings to religious objects, in going to Church at a personal inconvenience, in taking pleasure in the society of religious men, though not rich, or noble, or accomplished, or gifted, or entertaining; {211} in matters, all of them of very little moment in themselves.

How is self-denial shown? Not in literally bearing Christ's Cross, and living on locusts and wild honey, but in such light abstinences as come in our way, in some poor efforts at fasting and the like, in desiring to be poor rather than rich, solitary or lowly rather than well-connected, in living within our income, in avoiding display, in being suspicious of comforts and luxuries; all of which are too trifling for the person observing them to think about, yet have their use in proving and improving his heart.

How is Christian valour shown? Not in resisting unto blood, but in withstanding mistaken kindness, in enduring importunity, in not shrinking from surprising and hurting those we love, in undergoing little losses, inconveniences, censures, slights, rather than betray what we believe to be God's Truth, be it ever so small a portion of it.

As then Christian devotion, self-denial, courage, are tried in this day in little things, so is Christian faith also. In the Apostles' age faith was shown in the great matter of joining either the Church, or the pagan or Jewish multitude. It is shown in this day by taking this side or that side in the many questions of opinion and conduct which come before us, whether domestic, or parochial, or political, or of whatever kind.

Take the most unlettered peasant in the humblest village; his trial lies in acting for the Church or against it in his own place. He may happen to be at work with others, or taking refreshment with others; and he {212} may hear religion spoken against, or the Church, or the King; he may hear voices raised together in scoffing or violence; he must withstand laugh and jest, evil words and rudeness, and witness for Christ. Thus he carries on, in his day, the eternal conflict between Truth and Falsehood.

Another, in a higher class of society, has a certain influence in parish matters, in the application of charities, the appointment of officers, and the like; he, too, must act, as in God's sight, for the Truth's sake, as Christ would have him.

Another has a certain political power; he has a vote to bestow, or dependents to advise; he has a voice to raise, and substance to contribute. Let him act for religion, not as if there were not a God in the world.

My brethren, I must not venture to keep silence in respect to a province of Christian duty, in which men are especially tried at this day, and in which they especially fail.

It is sometimes said that religion is not (what is called) political. Now there is a bad sense of the word "political," and religion is nothing that is bad. But there is also a good sense of the word, and in this sense whoever says that religion is not political speaks as erringly, and (whether ignorantly or not) offends with his tongue as certainly, as if in St. Paul's time a man had said it mattered not whether he was Christian or heathen; for what the question of Christian or no Christian was in the Apostle's day, such are questions of politics now. It is as right to take one side, and as {213} wrong to take the other, now, in that multitude of matters which comes before us of a social nature, as it was right to become a Christian in St. Paul's day, and wrong to remain a heathen.

I am not saying which side is right and which is wrong, in the ever-varying course of social duty, much less am I saying that all religious people are on one side and all irreligious on the other (for then would that division between good and evil take place, which the text and other parables assure us is not to be till the Day of Judgment); I only say there is a right and a wrong, that it is not a matter of indifference which side a man takes, that a man will be judged hereafter for the side he takes.

When a man (for instance) says that he takes part against the King or against the Church, because he thinks kingly power or established Churches contrary to Scripture, I think him as far from the truth as light is from darkness; but I understand him. He takes a religious ground, and, whatever I may think of his doctrine, I praise him for that. I had rather he should take a religious ground (if in sincerity) and be against the Church, than a worldly selfish ground, and be for it; that is, if done in earnest, not in pretence, I think it speaks more hopefully for his soul. I had rather the Church were levelled to the ground by a nation, really, honestly, and seriously, thinking they did God service in doing so (fearful indeed as the sin would be), than that it should be upheld by a nation on the mere ground of maintaining property, for I think this a much greater sin. I think that the worshipper of mammon will be {214} in worse case before Christ's Judgment-seat than the mistaken zealot. If a man must be one or the other (though he ought to be neither), but if I must choose for him, I had rather he should be Saul raging like a wild beast against the Church, than Gallio caring for none of these things, or Demas loving the present world, or Simon trafficking with sacred gifts, or Ananias grudging Christ his substance, and seeking to be saved as cheaply as possible. There would be more chance of such a man's conversion to the Truth; and, if not converted, less punishment reserved for him at the last day. Our Lord says to the Church of Laodicea, "I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will cast thee from My mouth!" [Rev. iii. 15, 16.]

Men, however, generally act from mixed motives; so I do not mean that they are at once in a fearful peril, or as bad as fanatical revolutionists, for having some regard to the security of property, while they defend what is called the Church Established;—far from it, though I still think it would be better if the thought of religion absorbed all other considerations:—but I am speaking against an avowed doctrine maintained in this day, that religion has nothing to do with political matters; which will not be true till it is true that God does not govern the world, for as God rules in human affairs, so must His servants obey in them. And what we have to fear more than any thing else at this time is, that persons who are sound on this point, and do believe that the concerns of the nation ought to be carried on {215} on religious principles, should be afraid to avow it, and should ally themselves, without protesting, with those who deny it; lest they should keep their own opinion to themselves, and act with the kindred of Gallio, Demas, Simon and Ananias, on some mere secular basis, the mere defence of property, the security of our institutions, considered merely as secular, the maintenance of our national greatness; forgetting that, as no man can serve two masters, God and mammon, so no man can at once be in the counsels of the servants of the two;—forgetting that the Church, in which they and others are, is a net gathering of every kind; that it is no proof that others are to be followed and supported in all things, because they happen to be in it and profess attachment to it; and that though we are bound to associate in a general way with all (except, indeed, such as openly break the rules of the Church, heretics, drunkards, evil livers, and the like, who ought of course to be put out of it), yet we are not bound to countenance all men in all they do, and are ever bound to oppose bad principles—bound to attempt to raise the standard of faith and obedience in that multitude of men whom, though we disapprove in many respects, we dare not affirm to be entirely destitute of the life of the Holy Ghost, and not to suffer friend or stranger to take part against the Truth without warning him of it according to our opportunities.

Lastly, this union of the True and the False in the Church, which I have been speaking of, has ever existed in the governing part of it as well as among the people at large. Our Saviour sets this truth before us in the {216} twenty-third chapter of St. Matthew's gospel, in which He bids His hearers obey their spiritual rulers in all lawful things, even though they be unworthy of their office, because they hold it—obey "as unto the Lord and not to men." "The Scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat; all, therefore, whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do: but do not ye after their works, for they say, and do not." And no one can read, ever so little, the history of the Church since He was on earth, without perceiving that, under all the forms of obedience and subordination, of kind offices and social intercourse, which Christ enjoins, a secret contest has been carried on, in the most sacred chambers of the temple, between Truth and Falsehood;—rightly, peaceably, lovingly by some, uncharitably by others, with a strange mixture at times of right principles and defective temper, or of sincerity and partial ignorance; still, on the whole, a contest such as St. John's against Diotrephes, or St. Paul's against Ananias the High Priest, or Timothy's against Hymeneus and Alexander. Meantime, the rules of ecclesiastical discipline have been observed on both sides, as well as the professions of faith, as conditions of the contest; nevertheless, the contest has proceeded.

Now I would have every one who hears me bring what I have said home as a solemn truth to his own mind;—the solemn truth, that there is nothing indifferent in our conduct, no part of it without its duties, no room for trifling, lest we trifle with eternity. It is very common to speak of our political and social privileges as rights, which we may do what we like {217} with; whereas they merely impose duties on us in God's sight. A man says, "I have a right to do this or that; I have a right to give my vote here or there; I have a right to further this or that measure." Doubtless, you have a right—you have the right of freewill—you have from your birth the birthright of being a free agent, of doing right or wrong, of saving yourself or ruining yourself; you have the right, that is, you have the power—(to speak plainly) the power to damn yourself; but (alas!) a poor consolation will it be to you in the next world, to know that your ruin was all your own fault, as brought upon you by yourself—for what you have said comes to nothing more than this; and be quite sure, men do not lose their souls by some one extraordinary act, but by a course of acts; and the careless, or rather, the self-sufficient and haughty-minded use of your political power, this way or that, at your pleasure, which is now so common, is among those acts by which men save or lose them. The young man whom Solomon speaks of, thought he had a right to indulge his lusts, or, as the rich man in the Gospel, to "take his ease, eat, drink, and be merry;" but the preacher says to him, "Rejoice, O young man in thy youth; and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes: but know thou, for all these things God will bring thee into judgment." [Eccles. xi. 9.]

So, again, many a man, when warned against the sin of leaving the Church, or of wandering about from one place of worship to another, says, "he has a right to {218} do so." So it is, he has a strange notion that it is an Englishman's right to think what he will, and do what he will, in matters of religion. Nay, it is the right of the whole world, not ours alone; it is the attribute of all rational beings to have a right to do wrong, if they will. Yet, after all, there is but one right way, and there [are] a hundred wrong ways. You may do as you will; but the first who exercised that right was the devil when he fell; and every one of us, when he does this or that in matters between himself and his God, merely because he wills it, and not for conscience' sake, is (so far) following the devil's pattern.

Now let us put aside these vain fancies, and look at our position steadily. Every one of us here assembled is either a vessel of mercy or a vessel of wrath fitted to destruction; or rather, I should say, will be such at the Last Day, and now is acting towards the one or the other. We cannot judge each other, we cannot judge ourselves. We only know about ourselves whether or no we are in some measure trying to serve God; we know He has loved us and "blessed us with all spiritual blessings in Christ," and desires our salvation. We know about others around us that they too have been blessed by the same Saviour, and are to be looked on as our brethren, till, by word or deed, they openly renounce their brotherhood. Still it is true that the solemn process of separation between bad and good is ever going on. The net has at present gathered of every kind. At the end of the world will be the final division; meanwhile there is a gradual sorting and sifting, silent but sure, towards it. It is also true that all the matters {219} which come before us in the course of life are the trials of our faith, and instruments of our purification. It is also true that certain principles and actions are right and others wrong. It is true, moreover, that our part lies in finding out what is right, and observing and contending for it. And without judging of our brethren's state, and, again, without being over-earnest about little matters, it is our duty plainly to witness against others when we think them wrong, and to impress our seriousness upon them by our very manner towards them; lest we suffer sin in them, and so become partakers of it.

If all this be true, may God Himself, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, enable us heartily to act upon it! May He give us that honesty and simplicity of mind, which looks at things as He views them, realizes what is unseen, puts aside all the shadows and mists of pride, party-feeling, or covetousness; and not only knows and does what is right, but does it because it knows it, and that not from mere reason and on grounds of argument, but from the heart itself, with that inward and pure sense, and scrupulous fear, and keen faith, and generous devotion, which does not need arguments, except as a means of strengthening itself, and of persuading and satisfying others.

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