Sermon 9. The State of Grace

"Being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ; by whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God." Rom. v. 1, 2.

{133} THERE are many men, nay the greater part of a Christian country, who have neither hope nor fear about futurity or the unseen world; they do not think of it at all, or bring the idea of it home to them in any shape. They do not really understand, or try to understand, that they are in God's presence, and must one day be judged for what they are now doing, any more than they see what is going on in another quarter of the world, or concern themselves about what is to happen to them ten years hence. The next world is far more distant from them than any future period of this life or any other country; and consequently, they have neither hope nor fear about it, for they have no thought about it of any kind.

There are others who feel no fear whatever, though they profess to feel much joy and transport. I cannot sympathize with such, nor do I think St. Paul would, {134} for he bids us "work out our own salvation with fear and trembling;" nor St. Peter, who bids us "pass the time of our sojourning here in fear." [Phil. ii. 12. 1 Pet. i. 17.]

But there are others who seem only to fear, or to have very little joy in religion. These are in a more hopeful state than those who only joy and do not fear at all; yet they are not altogether in a right state. However, they are in an interesting state. I purpose to describe it now, and to make some remarks upon it.

It is certainly the duty, as it is the privilege, of every Christian to have his heart so fixed on Christ as to desire his coming; yet, alas! it too often happens that when we say, "Thy kingdom come," our sins rise up before our minds, and make our words falter. Now the persons I speak of are in so sad and uncomfortable a state of mind, as to be distressed whenever they think of the next world. They may be well-living, serious persons, and have ever been such from their youth; yet they have an indefinite sense of guilt on their minds, a consciousness of their own miserable failings and continual transgressions, such as annoys and distresses them, as a wound or sore might, when they think of Christ's coming in judgment. A sense of guilt, indeed, every one, the best of us, must have. I am not blaming that, but I speak of such a sense as hinders those who feel it from rejoicing in the Lord. They have one thought alone before their minds, the great irregularity of their lives; they come to Church, and try to attend, but their thoughts wander; the day passes, and it seems to them unprofitable. They have done God no service. Or {135} again, they have some natural failing which breaks out from time to time, and grievously afflicts them on recollection. Perhaps they are passionate, and are ever saying what they are sorry for afterwards; or they are ill-tempered, and from time to time put every thing about them into confusion, and make every one unhappy by their gloomy looks and sullen words; or they are slothful, and with difficulty moved to do any thing, and they are ever lamenting wasted hours, and opportunities lost. The consequence is, that their religion is a course of sorrowful attempting and failing, self-reproach, and dryness of spirits. They are deeply sensible how good God is, and how wonderful His providence; they really feel very grateful, and they really put their trust where it should be put. But their faith only leads them to see that judgment is a fearful thing, and their sense of God's mercies to say, "How little grateful am I." They hear of the blessings promised to God's true servants after death, and they say, "Oh, how unprepared am I to receive them."

Now no one will fancy, I should trust, that I am saying any thing in disparagement of such feelings; they are very right and true. I only say they should not be the whole of a man's religion. He ought to have other and more cheerful feelings too. No one on earth is free from imperfection and sin, no one but has much continually to repent of; yet St. Paul bids us "rejoice in the Lord alway;" and in the text, he describes Christians as having peace with God and rejoicing in hope of His glory. Sins of infirmity, then, such as arise from the infection of our original nature, and not from {136} deliberation and wilfulness, have no divine warrant to keep us from joy and peace in believing.

Now, then, the question is, how the persons in question come to have this defective kind of religion.

1. In the first place, of course, we must take into account bodily disorder, which is not unfrequently the cause of the perplexity of mind I have been describing. Many persons have an anxious self-tormenting disposition, or depression of spirits, or deadness of the affections, in consequence of continued or peculiar ill-health; and though it is their study, as it is their duty, to strive against this evil as much as they can, yet it often may be impossible to be rid of it. Of course, in such cases we can impute no fault to them. It is God's will; He has willed in His inscrutable purpose that they should not be able to rejoice in the Gospel, doubtless for their ultimate good, to try and prove them; as any thing else may be a trial, as ill-health itself is such. They should not repine. It is an undeserved mercy that they have the Gospel brought near to them at all, that they have the prospect of heaven, be it faint or distinct; and they must be patient under their fears, and try to serve God more strictly.

2. But, again, the uncomfortable state of mind I have described, sometimes, it is to be feared, arises, I will not say from wilful sin, but from some habitual deficiency which might be corrected, but is not. It is very difficult of course to draw the line between sins which are (as it were) the direct consequences of our old nature, and those which are more strictly and entirely our own, yet there is a class which rises above the former, though {137} it would be harsh to call them wilful. The sins I speak of arise partly through frailty, partly through want of love; and they seem just to have this effect, of dimming or quenching our peace and joy. Such, for instance, are recurring and stated acts of sin, such as might be foreseen and provided against. Anger, on the contrary, may overtake a man when he least expects it. Indolence may show itself in a difficulty or inability to fix his mind on the subject which ought to occupy it, so that time goes and nothing is done. Ill-temper may fall upon him like a spell, and bind his faculties, so that his very attempts to break it may make him seem more gloomy, untoward, and disagreeable, from the appearance of an effort and struggle. Such need not be more than sins of infirmity. But there are sins which happen at certain times or places, and which a man ought to prepare for, and overcome. I do not say that he must overcome them this time or that, but he must be in a state of warfare against them, and must be tending to overcome them. Such, for instance, is indolence in rising from his bed. Such, again, is a careless, irregular, or hurried way of saying private prayer. Such is any habitual excess in eating or drinking. Such is running into temptation,—going again and again to places, or among people, who will induce him to do what he should not, to idle, or to jest, or to talk much. Such is extravagance in spending money. All these laxities of conduct impress upon our conscience a vague sense of irregularity and guilt. The absence of a vigilant walk, of exact conscientiousness in all things, of an earnest and vigorous warfare against our spiritual {138} enemies, in a word, of strictness, this is what obscures our peace and joy. Strictness is the condition of rejoicing. The Christian is a soldier; he may have many falls; these need not hinder his joy in the Gospel; he must be humbled indeed, but not downcast; it does not prove he is not fighting; he has enemies within and without him; he has the remains of a fallen nature. But wilful sin in any shape proves that he is not an honest soldier of Christ. If it is habitual and deliberate, of course it destroys his hope; but if it be less than deliberate, and yet of the nature of wilful sin, it is sufficient, though not (we trust) to separate him at once from Christ, yet to separate him from the inward vision of Him. The same result will follow, perhaps irremediably, where men have been in past life open or habitual sinners, though they may now have repented. Penitents cannot hope to be as cheerful and joyful in faith as those who have never fallen away from God; perhaps it is not desirable they should be, and is a bad sign if they are. I do not mean to say that in the course of years, and after severe humiliation, it is not possible for a repentant sinner to feel a well-grounded peace and comfort, but he must not expect it. He must expect to be haunted with the ghosts of past sins, rising from the charnel-house, courting him to sin again, yet filling him the while with remorse; he must expect "a trembling heart, and failing of eyes, and sorrow of mind," [Deut. xxviii. 65.] misgivings about his safety, misgivings about the truth of religion, and about particular doctrines, painful doubts and difficulties, so that he is forced to {139} grope in darkness or in cold and dreary twilight. I do not say there are not ways of escaping all this misery at a moment, but they are false ways; but if he continues in the true and narrow way, he will find it rough and painful; and this is his fit correction.

3. Again, where there is no room for supposing the existence of wilful sins, past or present, this fearful anxious state of mind arises very commonly from another cause in one shape or other—from not having a lively sense of our present privileges; and this is the subject to which I shall call your attention. Many indeed, finding that Scripture says great things about the joy which true Christians have in the Gospel, think it consists in their having personally and individually an assurance of their absolute predestination to eternal life; or at least of their being now in a state of salvation, such that, were they at once to die, they would be sure of heaven. Such a knowledge of course would inspire great joy if they had it; and they fancy that the joy of the Christian does arise from it. But since they have it not, and only think they have it, it is obvious what extravagances will follow from the notion instead of real benefit; what perversion of the Gospel, what rashness, presumption, self-exaltation, and intemperate conduct. Such persons of course claim the more consolatory parts of Scripture, such as the text, for themselves. They forcibly take them from more sober Christians, as if they were their own, and others had no right to them, nay, as if others had no right to explain them, to comment on them, or to have an opinion about them; as if they alone could understand them, or feel them, {140} or appreciate them, or use them. What is the consequence? better men are robbed of their portion; their comfortable texts are gone, they acquiesce in the notion (too readily) that these texts are not theirs; not that they exactly allow that they belong to the enthusiastic persons who claim them, but they think they belong to no one at all, that they belonged indeed to St. Paul, and to inspired or highly gifted men, but to no one now.

And this conclusion is strengthened by the circumstance, that men of duller and less sensitive minds are willing to give them up. There are persons highly respectable indeed, and serious, but whose religion is of a dry and cold character, with little heart or insight into the next world. They have strong sense and regular habits; their passions are not violent, their feelings not quick, and they have no imagination or restless reason to run away with their thoughts or to perplex them. They do not grieve much or joy much. They do joy and grieve, but it is in a way, in a certain line, and not the highest. They are most excellent men in their line, but they do not walk in a lofty path. There is nothing unearthly about them; they cannot be said to be worldly, yet they do not walk by things unseen; they do not discern and contemplate the next world. They are not on the alert to detect, patient in watching, keen-sighted in tracing the movements of God's secret Providence. They do not feel they are in an immense unbounded system with a height above and a depth beneath. They think every thing is plain and easy, they have no difficulties in religion, they see no recondite and believe in no hidden meanings in Scripture, {141} and discern no hints there sympathetic with guesses within them. Such men are used to explain away such passages as the text; to be "at peace with God," to "have access into the grace in which we stand," to "rejoice in hope of the glory of God,"—to them have little or no meaning. Their joy does not rise higher than what they call a "rational faith and hope, a satisfaction in religion, a cheerfulness, a well-ordered mind, and the like,"—all very good words, if properly used, but shallow to express the fulness of the Gospel privileges.

What with the enthusiastic, then, on the one hand, who pervert the texts in question, and with the barren-minded on the other, who explain them away, Christians are commonly left without the texts at all, and so have nothing to contemplate but their own failings; and these surely are numerous enough, and fit to make them dejected.

Observe, then, what religion becomes to them,—a system of duties with little of privilege or comfort. Not that any one would have cause to complain (God forbid!) though it had no privilege; for what can sinners claim to whom it is a great gain to be respited from hell? Not that religion can really be without privilege; for the very leave to serve God is a privilege, the very thought of God is a privilege, the very knowledge that Christ has so loved the world as to die for it is an inestimable privilege. Religion is full of privileges, involved in the very notion of it, and drawn out on the right hand and on the left, as a man walks along the path of duty. He cannot stir this way or that, but he {142} awakens some blessed and consoling thought which cheers and strengthens him insensibly, even if it does not so present itself to him, that he can contemplate and feed upon it. However, in the religious system I speak of, the privilege of obedience is concealed, and the bare duty prominently put forward; the privileges are made vague and general rather than personal; and thus a man is almost reduced to the state of natural religion, in which God's Law is known without His Gospel. Under such circumstances, religion becomes little more than a code of morals, the word and will of an absent God, who will one day come to judge and recompense, not the voice of a present and bountiful Saviour.

And this may in one sense be called a bondage,—a bondage, yet without thereby disparaging the excellence and perfection of God's law. Men at this day so boldly talk of the bondage of the law, that if you heard them, you would think that the being under that law was in itself a misery or an inferior state, as if obedience to God's commandments were something low and second best. But is it really so? then are the Angels in a very low state. The highest blessedness of any creature is to be under the law, the highest glory is obedience. It is our shame, not our privilege, that we do not obey as the Angels do. Men speak as if the Gospel were glorious, because it destroyed the law of obedience. No; it destroyed the Jewish law, but not the holy law of God therein contained and manifested. And if that Holy Word, which "endureth for ever in heaven," which is co-eternal with God, is a bondage to us, as it is by nature, so much the more shame for us. It is our great {143} sinfulness, not any inherent defect in the law, which makes it a bondage; and the message of the Gospel is glorious, not because it releases us from the law, but because it enables us to fulfil it,—fulfil it (I do not say wholly and perfectly), but with a continual approximation to perfect obedience, with an obedience running on into perfection, and which in the next world will rise into and result in perfection. This is St. Paul's account of it, "Being not without law to God," he says, "but under the law to Christ." [1 Cor. ix. 21.] Again, "Not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law," that is, that kind of obedience to the law to which he by himself attained, "but that which is through the faith of Christ," [Phil. iii. 9.] that high and spiritual obedience which faith in Christ, aided by the grace of Christ, enabled him to accomplish. And in another place, "The commandment which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death ... The Law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good. Was then that which is good made death unto me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good, that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful ... The law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin." And again, "What the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh; that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit." [Rom. viii. 3, 4.] {144}

When then I say that religion, considered as a law or code of morals, is a bondage, let no one suppose me to countenance that presumptuous and unchristian spirit, which seems to exult in being through Christ free (as it thinks) from the law, instead of being bound and able through Christ to obey it more perfectly. The glory of the Gospel is, not that it destroys the law, but that it makes it cease to be a bondage; not that it gives us freedom from it, but in it; and the notion of the Gospel which I have been describing as cold and narrow is, not that of supposing Christianity a law, but of supposing it to be scarcely more than a law, and thus leaving us where it found us. He who thinks it but a law, will of course be fearful and miserable. The commandment of God will seem true, but to him, a helpless sinner, hard and uninviting; and though it is still his duty to try to obey, and he will do so, if he be Christ's in heart, yet he will do so sadly and sorrowfully, his memory continually embittered, and his conscience laden with fresh and fresh sins. Two thoughts alone will be before him, God's perfections and his own sinfulness; and he will feel love and gratitude indeed to his Almighty Lord and Saviour, but not joy. He will look upon the message of the Gospel as a series of conditions. He will consider the Gospel as a covenant, in which he must do his part, and God will assuredly do His. Now, salvation, doubtless, is conditional, and the Gospel is a covenant. These words are as good and as true as the word "law;" but then salvation is not merely conditional, nor the Gospel merely a covenant; and those who think so, unless they have peculiarly happy minds, will obey in {145} a certain dry, dull, heavy way, without spring, animation, life, vigour, and nobleness. And if possessed of sensitive, gentle, affectionate minds, they will be very likely to sink into despondency and fear. And they are the prey or the mockery of every proud, self-confident boaster, who passes by on the other side, boldly proclaiming himself to be elect and safe and possessed of a joyful assurance, and that every one else, who does not make as venturesome a profession as he, is carnal and a slave of Satan, or at least in a state far, far below himself.

What then is it, that these little ones of Christ lack, who, without wilful sin, past or present, on their consciences, are in gloom and sorrow? What is the doctrine that will quicken them, and make their devotion healthy? What will brace them and nerve them, and make them lift up their heads, and will pour light and joy upon their countenance till it shines like the face of Moses when he came down from the Mount? What but the great and high doctrines connected with the Church? They are not merely taken into covenant with God; they are taken into His Church. They have not merely the promise of grace; they have its presence. They have not merely the conditional prospect of a reward; for a blessing, nay, unspeakable, fathomless, illimitable, infinite, eternal blessings are poured into their very hearts, even as a first step and an earnest from God our Saviour, of what He will do for those who love Him. They "are passed from death unto life," and are the children of God and heirs of heaven. Let us steadily contemplate this comfortable view, and we shall gain {146} strength, and feel cheerful and joyful in spite of our sins. O fearful follower of Christ, how is it thou hast never thought of what thou art and what is in thee? Art thou not Christ's purchased possession? Has He not rescued thee from the devil, and put a new nature within thee? Did He not in Baptism cast out the evil spirit and enter into thee Himself, and dwell in thee as if thou hadst been an Archangel, or one of the Seraphim who worship before Him continually? Much and rightly as thou thinkest of thy sins, hast thou no thought, I do not say of gratitude, but of wonder, of admiration, of amazement, of awful and overpowering transport, at what thou art through grace? When Jacob woke in the morning, his first thought was not about his sins or his danger, though he rightly felt both, but about God;—he said, "How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." [Gen xxviii. 17.] Contemplate then thyself, not in thyself, but as thou art in the Eternal God. Fall down in astonishment at the glories which are around thee and in thee, poured to and fro in such a wonderful way that thou art (as it were) dissolved into the kingdom of God, as though thou hadst nought to do but to contemplate and feed upon that great vision. This surely is the state of mind the Apostle speaks of in the text when he reminds us who are justified and at peace with God, that we have access to His royal courts, and stand in His grace, and rejoice in hope of His glory. All the trouble which the world inflicts upon us, and which flesh cannot but feel, sorrow, pain, care, bereavement, these avail not to disturb the {147} tranquillity and the intensity with which faith gazes upon the Divine Majesty. All the necessary exactness of our obedience, the anxiety about failing, the pain of self-denial, the watchfulness, the zeal, the self-chastisements which are required of us, as little interfere with this vision of faith, as if they were practised by another, not by ourselves. We are two or three selves at once, in the wonderful structure of our minds, and can weep while we smile, and labour while we meditate.

And if so much is given us by the first Sacrament of the Church, what, think we, is given us in the second? O, my brethren, let us raise and enlarge our notions of Christ's Presence in that mysterious Ordinance, and we shall understand how it is that the Christian, in spite of his infirmities, and not forgetting them, still may rejoice "with joy unspeakable and full of glory." For what is it that is vouchsafed to us at the Holy Table, when we commemorate the Lord's death? It is, "Jesus Christ, before our eyes evidently set forth, crucified among us." [Gal. iii. 1.] Not before our bodily eyes; so far, every thing remains at the end of that Heavenly Communion as it did at the beginning. What was bread remains bread, and what was wine remains wine. We need no carnal, earthly, visible miracle to convince us of the Presence of the Lord Incarnate. We have, we trust, more faith than to need to see the heavens open, or the Holy Ghost descend in bodily shape,—more faith than to attempt, in default of sight, to indulge our reason, and to confine our notion of the Sacrament to some clear assemblage of words of our own framing. We have faith and love enough, in {148} St. Paul's words, to "discern the Lord's Body." He who is at the right hand of God, manifests Himself in that Holy Sacrament as really and fully as if He were visibly there. We are allowed to draw near, to "give, take, and eat" His sacred Body and Blood, as truly as though like Thomas we could touch His hands and thrust our hand into His side. When He ascended into the Mount, "His face did shine as the sun, and His raiment was white as the light." [Matt. xvii. 2.] Such is the glorious presence which faith sees in the Holy Communion, though every thing looks as usual to the natural man. Not gold or precious stones, pearls of great price or gold of Ophir, are to the eye of faith so radiant as those lowly elements which He, the Highest, is pleased to make the means of conveying to our hearts and bodies His own gracious self. Not the light of the sun sevenfold is so awfully bright and overpowering, if we could see as the Angels do, as that seed of eternal life, which by eating and drinking we lay up in our hearts against the day of His coming. In spite then of all recollections of the past or fear for the future, we have a present source of rejoicing; whatever comes, weal or woe, however stands our account as yet in the books against the Last Day, this we have and this we may glory in, the present power and grace of God in us and over us, and the means thereby given us of victory in the end.

Such are the thoughts which fill the heart with joy, yet without tending in consequence to relax our obedience, for a reason already mentioned, viz. that strictness of life, exact conscientiousness, is the tenure of our {149} privileges. They are ours to possess, that is our glory; they are ours to lose, that is our solicitude. We can keep them, we have not to gain them,—but we shall not keep them without fear and trembling; still we have them, and there is nothing to hinder our rejoicing in them while we have them. For fear has reference to the future; and that we may lose them tomorrow (which God forbid), but supposing it, is no reason why we should not rejoice in them today.

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