Topic - World, Worldliness Sermon 7. Faith and the World

"Though hand join in hand, the wicked shall not be unpunished: but the seed of the righteous shall be delivered." Prov. xi. 21.

{78} WHEN we hear speak of the wicked, we are apt to think that men of abandoned lives and unprincipled conduct, cruel, crafty, or profligate men, can alone be meant. This obtains almost universally; we think that evil, in any sufficient sense of the word, is something external to us, and at a distance. Thus in the case of children, when they hear of bad men and wicked men, they have no conception that evil can really be near them. They fancy, with a fearful curiosity, something which they have not seen, something foreign and monstrous, as if brought over the seas, or the production of another sphere; though, in truth, evil, and in its worst and most concentrated shape, is born with them, lives within them, is not subdued except by a supernatural gift from God, and is still in them, even when God's grace has brought it under. And so, when we grow up, whether we are thrown upon the world or not, we commonly do not understand that what Scripture says of sin, of its odiousness {79} and its peril, applies to us. The world itself, even though we see it, appears not to be the world; that is, not the world which Scripture speaks of. We do not discern, we do not detect, the savour of its sinfulness; its ways are pleasant to us; and what Scripture says of wickedness, and of misery as attending on it, does not, as we think, apply to the world we see.

And hence it is, that when we read, as in the text, of the short triumph and the overthrow of wickedness, when we read that "though hand join in hand, the wicked shall not be unpunished," we have a picture brought before us of some overbearing tyranny, or some perfidious conspiracy, or some bold and avowed banding against religion, some event of a generation or a century, and nothing short of it. And such specimens of evil doubtless are especially intended by the sacred writer; still, after all, much more is included in his meaning, much which is ordinary, much which we see before our eyes.

Can it indeed be otherwise? Is not the world in itself evil? Is it an accident, is it an occasion, is it but an excess, or a crisis, or a complication of circumstances, which constitutes its sinfulness? or, rather, is it not one of our three great spiritual enemies, at all times, and under all circumstances and all changes, ungodly, unbelieving, seducing, and anti-christian? Surely we must grant it to be so. Why else in Baptism do we vow to wage war against it? Why else does Scripture speak of it in the terms which we know so well, if we will but attend to them? St. James says, that "the friendship of the world is enmity with God," [James iv. 4.] so that "whosoever {80} will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God." And St. Paul speaks of "walking according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience;" [Eph. ii. 2.] and exhorts us not to be "conformed to this world," but to be "transformed by the renewing of our mind;" [Rom. xii. 2.] and he says that Christ "gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil world." [Gal. i. 4.] In like manner St. John says, "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him." [1 John ii. 15.] Let us be quite sure, then, that that confederacy of evil which Scripture calls the world, that conspiracy against Almighty God of which Satan is the secret instigator, is something wider, and more subtle, and more ordinary, than mere cruelty, or craft, or profligacy; it is that very world in which we are; it is not a certain body or party of men, but it is human society itself. This it is which is our greatest enemy; and this it is of which the text in its fulness speaks, when it says that "though hand join in hand, the wicked shall not be unpunished." It is powerful at present, but in the end it shall be overthrown; and then these its separate members "shall not be unpunished," but "the seed of the righteous shall be delivered."

Now I shall attempt an explanation of what may be supposed to be meant in the text by "hand joining in hand," and of the sense in which it is fulfilled in the course of human affairs in every age. The one peculiar and characteristic sin of the world is this, that whereas {81} God would have us live for the life to come, the world would make us live for this life. This, I say, is the world's sin; it lives for this life, not for the next. It takes, as the main scope of human exertion, an end which God forbids; and consequently all that it does becomes evil, because directed to a wrong end.

This is a thing which seems easy to say, but which should be steadily considered. In this respect the temptations of the world differ from temptations of the flesh. The flesh is not rational, nor appeals to reason; but the world reasons. The works of the flesh are such as St. Paul describes them,—variance, hatred, murders, adulteries, uncleanness, and drunkenness. Pride, cruelty, wrath, revenge, obstinacy, sensuality, are works of the flesh. They are the spontaneous fruit of the unrenewed mind, as thorns and thistles are the natural growth of the earth. But the case is different as regards the world. The world has many sins, but its peculiar offence is that of daring to reason contrary to God's Word and will. It puts wrong aims before itself, and acts towards them. It goes wrong as if on principle, and prefers its own way of viewing things to God's way. When Eve saw that the forbidden fruit was good for food, she was tempted through the flesh; and when the serpent said, "Ye shall not surely die," he used the temptation proper to the world—false reason.

Now you will see this by taking a survey of the world, and seeing how and why it disobeys God. God, in Scripture, says one thing; the world says another. God says that we should live for the life to come; the world says that we should live for this life. How is it {82} able to say so? what are the arguments it uses? Let us consider.

Men seem made for this world; this is what prevails on them to neglect the next world: they think they have reason for concluding, they think they see, that this world is the world for which they are to labour, and to which they are to devote their faculties. And therefore they persist in denying that they must live for the next world. It is not that they profess to run counter to God's Word, but they deny that He has said that they must live directly for the next world. As the Israelites did not avowedly cast off the God of Abraham when they worshipped the golden calf, but professed to worship Him under that symbol, so men generally, when they pursue this world as their supreme good, and as their god, deny that they are disowning their Lord and Maker, but maintain that He wishes them to worship Him by means of and in this world.

Now these are the sort of considerations which seduce them to think that this world is all in all:—

1. For instance, there are a number of faculties and talents which seem only to exist in this world, and to be impossible in another. Consider the varieties of mental gifts which are in active exercise on all sides of us, and you will see what I mean; such as talent for business, or talent for the useful arts, mechanical talent. Or, again, consider the talents which go to make up a great warrior. They seem as if evidently made for this world, and this world only. If such ability is not to be used, it may be asked, why is it given? If a person lives only for the next world, what is the use of it? {83} Our aim then, they say, must be an aim of this life, our end of action must be in this world, because our talents point that way. Talents are not necessary for religion, talents are not necessary for preparing for the life to come; yet they are given, therefore they are given for this life. Thus men argue: I do not say that they bring out their full meaning in words; but this is the argument latent in their minds. They say or think that if religion disowns the wisdom of this world; if it disowns, as its real and true ground, power, and rank, and might, and knowledge, and ability,—which it does; then, all these things may disown religion, do not belong to religion, need not aim at religion. It parts with them, they part with it. Religion, therefore (they say), is not for this world. It is a private thing for each man's own conscience, but not for society, not for acting upon on a large scale. And this, both because man has faculties which religion does not deign to make its instruments; and also because these faculties do not exist beyond this life, and therefore, if they are to be employed, must be employed here.

2. Another consideration of the same kind, which is adapted to influence men of this world in the same direction, if they give their minds to consider the matter, is the existence of national character. This seems to them to be a providential mark of what this world is intended to be. The character of one individual may be accidental, and may arise from his own caprice or wilfulness; but when a whole multitude are one and the same, this cannot arise from themselves, it must arise from their very nature, it must be a token of {84} the will of God. That character, they say, whatever it is, must be pleasing to God. Now one nation is manly, and another is brave but cruel, and a third sagacious, and a fourth energetic and busy. These then, it is argued, are the qualities of mind for which this life is intended. Where was there ever a religious nation? or, at least, how is it possible, in the nature of things, that nations, differing as they do, and so complete in their differences, should have been intended for one form or creed? Religion, then, is for the next world, not for this. No (thus men seem to proceed), energy and activity, enterprise, adventure, rivalry, and invention,—war, politics, and trade,—these are what men are made for here; not for faith, fear, humiliation, prayer, self-discipline, penance, tenderness of conscience, sanctity. It is very well if individuals feel themselves called this way; but it is a private matter for themselves, not to be urged on others. Or again, if we look at the religion of different men, one developes one set of ideas, another another; one adopts a strict creed, another is free and bold. All religions then are matters of opinion, because they are matters of disposition and habit.

3. I have spoken of nations, because the argument then can be made to look specious; but men generally apply it to the case of individuals. They go into the world, and they find individuals of this or that character, and not religious; and hence they argue that religion is but a theory, because it is not on the face of society. This is what they call seeing life and knowing the world, and it leads them to despise strict principle and religious conduct as narrow-minded. They say that religion is {85} very well for a domestic circle, but will not do for the world; for they take men as facts, as they might take the materials of the physical world, stones or vegetables; as if they were what they were, and could not be otherwise; and as one cannot change the elements, but must take them for what they are, and use them, so they think we ought to deal with human beings. And as a person would be called a theorist, who cherished certain ideas about the natural world, to which the facts of that world did not answer, so they think a man a mere dreamer, who says that men ought not to be what they confessedly are; who comes to them with a doctrine which is above them, refuses to deal with them as he finds them, and tries to raise them, and change them, and to make them what they are not. As they would think a man a madman who waited for rivers to have done flowing, or mountains to make way before him, so they think it obstinate, impracticable, perverse, and almost insane, to run counter to the natural man, to thwart his wishes, to condemn his opinions, and to insist on his submitting to a rule foreign to him. Great philosophers have said, that in the case of the material creation we overcome nature by yielding to it, and because this is true of matter, the world would have it in the same sense true of mind.

4. Another consideration which the world urges in its warfare against religion, as I have already implied, is, that religion is unnatural. It is objected (what indeed cannot be denied, and is almost a truism) that religion does not bring the elementary and existing nature of man to its highest perfection, but thwarts and impairs {86} it, and provides for a second and new nature. It is said, and truly, that religion treats the body hardly, and is severe with the soul. How different is the world, which conceives that the first object of life is to treat our inferior nature indulgently, that all methods of living are right which do this, and all wrong which do not! Hence men lay it down, that wealth is the measure of all good, and the end of life; for a state of wealth may be described as a state of ease and comfort to body and mind. They say that every act of civil government is wrong, which does not tend to what they thus consider to be man's happiness; that utility and expedience, or, in other words, whatever tends to produce wealth, is the only rule on which laws should be framed; that what tends to higher objects is not useful or expedient; that higher objects are a mere dream; that the only thing substantial is this life, and the only wisdom, to cherish and enjoy it. And they are so obstinate in this their evil view of things, that they will not let other people take their own view and rest in it; but are bent on making all men (what they call) happy in their way. In their plans of social and domestic economy, their projects of education, their mode of treating the poor, the one object which they think sufficient for happiness is, that men should have the necessaries of life according to their condition. On the other hand, they think that religion in all its duties clashes with this life, and is therefore unnatural. Almsgiving they think the virtue of a barbarous or half-civilized or badly-managed community. Fasting and watching are puerile and contemptible, for such practices interfere with nature, which {87} prompts us to eat and sleep. Prayer again is a mere indolence. It is better, they say, to put the shoulder to the wheel, than to spend time in wishing it to move. Again, making a stand for particular doctrines is thought unnecessary and unmeaning, as if there were any excellence or merit in believing this rather than that, or believing any thing at all.

These are some of the arguments on which the world relies, in defending the interests of this life against those of the next. It says, that the constitution of our body and the powers of our mind tend towards an end short of the next life; and therefore that religion, or the thought of the next world, is unnatural. I answer by admitting that religion is in this sense unnatural; but I maintain that Christ came to bring in a higher nature into this world of men, and that this could not be done except by interfering with the nature which originally belongs to it. Where the spiritual system runs counter to the natural, the natural must give way. God has graciously willed to bring us to heaven; to practise a heavenly life on earth, certainly, is a thing above earth. It is like trying to execute some high and refined harmony on an insignificant instrument. In attempting it, that instrument would be taxed beyond its powers, and would be sacrificed to great ideas beyond itself. And so, in a certain sense, this life, and our present nature, is sacrificed for heaven and the new creature; that while our outward man perishes, our inward man may be renewed day by day.

If, indeed, men will urge that religion is against nature, as an objection to religion, certainly we must become infidels at once; for can any thing be so marvellously {88} and awfully beyond nature, both the nature of man and the nature of God, as that the Eternal Son of God should take flesh and be born of a virgin, and suffer and die on the cross, and rise again? Let us cease, then, to fear this taunt, that religion makes us lead an unnatural or rather supernatural life, seeing it has no force, except it withal persuade us to disown our Saviour, who for us took on Him another nature not His own, and was in the economy of grace what by His Divine generation from the Father He could not be.

5. But to proceed: the strongest argument which the world uses in its favour, is the actual success of its experiment in cultivating the natural faculties of body and mind; for success seems a fresh mark of God's will, over and above the tendencies of nature. This is what influences men most especially to neglect the words of Scripture. Any thing that is used for an end unsuited to it is likely to fail; but human nature, when used for this world, does not fail, but does its work well, and therefore it seems as if it ought so to be used. For instance, we argue that a certain animal is the work of God; why? because its parts fit in together and sustain one another. We bring it as a proof of design, a proof that it is made by God, and does not come of chance, that its teeth and its claws are fitted to its nature and habits, and to each other. Now human society, or this world our enemy, seems in like manner to bear about it marks of design, and therefore to come from God. Enter the mixed multitude of men, and see how they go on. Men may or may not have the fear of God before their eyes, yet they seem to go on equally well either way. Each has his {89} own occupation, his own place; he may be an irreligious and immoral man, a scoffer, or covetous, or heartless, or he may be serious and correct in his conduct, yet none of these things interfere much one way or the other with the development of our social state, the formation of communities, the provisions for mutual protection, the interchange of good offices, and the general intercourse of man with man. Punctuality, honesty, business-like despatch, perseverance, sobriety, friendliness, trust in each other, steady cooperation, these are the sort of virtues which seem sufficient for carrying on the great empires of the world; what a man's character is besides, seems nothing to the purpose. Each nation testifies to each, north to south, and east to west, as to what is enough, and what is required, and Christianity is not included in the list of requisites. East and west, north and south, are of different religions,—here there is no agreement; the form of religion may be this or may be that, and the world goes on the same; but the value of such qualities as I have named is acknowledged every where. If these did not constitute the true excellence of our nature, it is argued, they would not be enough to live by. No vital part can be wanting in the world, because, in fact, it has life.

I am obliged to state this in an abstract way, and cannot proceed to instances, because I should become familiar. But let any one betake himself to the world, and go through but one day in it; let him consider the course of occurrences through which he passes, only by taking a journey and passing day or night among strangers, or at an inn; and he will recognize what I {90} mean. He will understand what this argument is, which the very face of society presents; viz. that religion is not needed for this world, and therefore is of no great importance.

Now, let it be observed, what I have already implied, men of the world do not deny the existence and power of God. No; they only hold this—(I do not mean in words, but implicitly)—they hold, I say, not that there is not an Almighty Ruler, whose subjects they are, but they deny in their hearts all that is meant by religion, or religious service; they deny their duty towards God; they deny His personal existence, and their subjection to Him. Yes; and if they are obliged at any time to own the existence of religious duty, then they say, to get rid of the subject, in an insincere way, lightly, heartlessly, sometimes scoffingly, that the best kind of religion is "to do their duty in this world," that this is the true worship of God; in other words, that the pursuit of money, of credit, of power, that the gratification of self, and the worship of self, is doing their duty. This unbelief you see in a variety of shapes. For instance, many persons openly defend the aim at rising in the world, and speak in applause of an honourable ambition; as if the prizes of this world were from heaven, and the steps of this world's ladder were the ascent of Angels which Jacob saw. Others, again, consider that their duty lies simply in this,—in making money for their families. The soldier thinks that fighting for his King is his sufficient religion; and the statesman, even when he is most blameless, that serving his country is religion. God's service, as such, as distinct from the {91} service of this world, is in no sense recognized. Faith, hope, love, devotion, are mere names; some visible idol is taken as the substitute for God.

And will God Almighty thus be defrauded of what is due to Him? Will He allow the seductions of this world's sophistry, against which He has Himself warned us, to excuse us in His sight at the last day? Will it be sufficient to acquit us at His judgment-seat for neglecting His Word, that we have trusted the world? for scoffing at faith, that we have lived by sight? Will it compensate for neglecting the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, that we have been Pantheists? is not this our very calling as Christians, to live by faith? If we do not, it is mere trifling to call ourselves Christians at all. The world promises that, if we trust it, we cannot go wrong. Why? because it is so many—there are so many men in it; they must be right. This is what it seems boldly to say,—"God cannot punish so many." So it is, we know, in human law. The magistrate never can punish a very great number of the community at once; he is obliged to let the multitude of culprits escape him, and he makes examples;—and this is what we cannot help fancying God will do. We do not allow ourselves to take in the idea that He can, and that He has said He will, punish a thousand as easily as one. What the poor and ignorant man, who lives irreligiously, professes, is what all really profess. He, when taxed with neglect of religion, says that "he is as good as his neighbours," he speaks out; he speaks abruptly, but he does but say what multitudes feel who do not say it. They think that this world is too great an evil for God to {92} punish; or rather that therefore it is not an evil, because it is a great one. They cannot compass the idea that God should allow so great an evil to exist, as the world would be, if it is evil; and therefore, since He does allow it, it is not an evil. In vain does Scripture assure them that it is an evil, though God allows it. In vain does the whole Psalter, from beginning to the end, proclaim and protest that the world is against the truth, and that the saints must suffer. In vain do Apostles tell us, that the world lieth in wickedness; in vain does Christ Himself declare, that broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there be that go in thereat. In vain do Prophets tell us, that in the end the saints shall possess the kingdom,—implying they do not possess it now. In vain is the vast judgment of the Deluge; in vain the instant death of the first-born in Egypt, and of the hosts of Sennacherib. No, we will not believe; the words of the Tempter ring in our ears,—"Ye shall not surely die!" and we stake our eternal interests on sight and reason, rather than on the revealed Word of God.

O how miserable in that day, when the dead bones rise from their graves, and the millions who once lived are summoned before their Omnipotent Judge, whose breath is a fiery stream, and whose voice is like the sound of many waters! How vain to call upon the rocks to fall on us; or to attempt to hide ourselves among the trees of the garden, and to make our brother's sin cover our own; when we are in His presence, who is every where at once, and is as fully and entirely our God and Judge, as if there were no other creature but each of us in the whole world! Why will we not learn here, what then {93} to a certainty we shall discover, that number is not strength? Never was a greater fallacy than to suppose that the many must necessarily be stronger than the few; on the contrary, power is ever concentrated and one, in order to be power. God is one. The heathen raged, the people imagined a vain thing; the kings of the earth and the rulers joined hands and took counsel together; and Christ was one. Such is the Divine rule. "There is one body and one Spirit," and "one hope," and "one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all." No; the number of the wicked will be but an increase of their misery; they will but crowd their prison.

Let us then leave the world, manifold and various as it is; let us leave it to follow its own devices, and let us turn to the living and true God, who has revealed Himself to us in Jesus Christ. Let us be sure that He is more true than the whole world, though with one voice all its inhabitants were to speak against Him. And if we doubt where the truth lies, let us pray to Him to reveal it to us; let us pray Him to give us humility, that we may seek aright; honesty, that we may have no concealed aims; love, that we may desire the truth; and faith, that we may accept it. So that when the end comes, and the multitudes who have joined hands in evil are punished, we may be of those who, in the words of the text, are "delivered." Let us put off all excuses, all unfairness and insincerity, all trifling with our consciences, all self-deception, all delay of repentance. Let us be filled with one wish,—to please God; and if we have this, I say it confidently, we shall no longer be {94} deceived by this world, however loud it speaks, and however plausibly it argues, as if God were with it, for we shall "have an unction from the Holy One," and shall "know all things."

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