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The Deceitfulness of Sin

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The Deceitfulness of Sin

“But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (Hebrews 3:13, ESV)

We are warned, in the passage in which these words occur, to beware lest any of us be hardened through the Deceitfulness of sin. It is to this last quality of sin, as connected with its manifold working, that I would to-day bespeak your attention.

I described it last Sunday as one of the worst symptoms of our spiritual disease, that the more a man is affected with it, the less, in many cases, does he know that he has it at all. And herein consists the deceitfulness of sin: not in making itself appear more important, but in making itself appear less important, than it really is. It is, as we saw, a deadly taint in our nature, ever stealing onward, requiring ever the most active check to be put upon it; never shrinking back, or declining, as a matter of course, but, on the contrary, as a matter of course always waxing, always flourishing: creeping about our pure thoughts, entangling our good resolves, binding down our holy aspirations; even until all becomes overborne by it, and confusion and helplessness and hopelessness set in, and self is exalted as supreme, and God is forgotten in the chambers of the heart, and the voice of the good Spirit becomes silent, and the darkness of the night gathers round, and the spoiler only waits without, certain of his prey. And mind I am not speaking now, I do not mean to speak to-day, of what men call great sinners, or of what are known as deadly and shameful sins: I speak of us all, I want to benefit all: I speak of the course of sin, its manifoldness, its deceitfulness, in us who, I will suppose, abstain at least from its outward and grosser manifestations: us, who are not murderers, not adulterers, not defrauders, not false swearers, but who are lovers of self, vain, envious, seekers of applause from men, careless, indolent, unwatchful, unfaithful to Christ. It is of the ordinary character of the average Christian man that I speak; in its infirmity, in its capriciousness, in its unwariness. May I be guided to speak aright, and you to judge what I say.

It will be plain to you that, in order to deal with such a subject profitably, I must not linger amidst mere general matters, but must enter into particulars, and exhibit sin in some of its various modes of attack and access to us. I must divide our life and its energies into its several departments, and shew how the manifoldness and deceitfulness of sin beset us in each one of them.

And for this purpose the most convenient division will be the most ordinary one. Our vital energy finds issue in three great ranges and regions: those of thought, of word, of deed. In each one of these there is duty, and there is fault. In each of them there is the voice of God speaking in our consciences, there is the written law of God guiding, confirming, furthering, that inward voice: in each of them there is in us the constant disposition to set conscience and to set God aside, and to become our own guides, our own masters. Let us then take each one of these in turn, and shew in each, how manifold sin is, how deceitful.

Sins of thought. How best may we place ourselves aright to consider these? It is not easy to turn inward, and be faithful witnesses to what passes within us. Nothing is so deceitful, nothing so apt to become a delusion, as the taking account of our own thoughts and feelings. Memory cannot copy faithfully the picture which has faded away, but overlays and tricks it out with fresh and unreal colors. What, for example, so utterly empty and unprofitable as religious diaries, experience-records, chronicles of past states of mind, unless indeed traced by a master-hand, and laid down with rare and self-denying faithfulness? This very fact shews, how busy sin is in our thoughts: how it is ever waking and watching, and turning even the infirmities of our memory into occasions for itself. In this very matter, how deep is its deceit—how subtle its craft! Take a more special example. Often we find in such records, often we find in ourselves, a disposition to exaggerate our own sinfulness. All is put down as bad: nothing could be worse. Slight errors are magnified into great sins: real sins blackened into unpardonable enormities. O meekness, we may be disposed to say,—O humility! But pause a moment, and enquire, Is this really so? When self is both the accuser and the accused, both the prisoner and the prosecutor;—when again the crime charged is past, and the act of charging it is present;—when all the discredit is looked upon as belonging to a former and infirm self, and all the credit as accruing to a present better self,—O how strong is the temptation to get at the comfortable inference, I was worse then, but I am better now! How the treacherous self-gratulation mingles even with humility, even with thankfulness to God! How it lurks in and pervades all such recollections,—from the glorious confessions of the great African Augustine to the flattest memoirs of the most common-place religionist of our puny time!

But we must not stay talking about the difficulty of dealing fairly with our thoughts, though this very difficulty illustrates our subject: we must enter in, and grapple with the difficulty itself. There is no question that our real thoughts can be got at, and their liability to sin justly measured, if we will spend time and trouble over it. And it must be remembered, that here in public, and in dealing with the matter on a large scale, we are not beset by the difficulty in its full strength: we are not dealing with our individual selves, whom we love, alas, not wisely but too well; we are dealing with our public self, so to speak; with our whole species, of which we are at least somewhat fairer, though by no means infallible judges.

And, thus dealing, we may venture to say, that the great burden of our sins of thought will be found to consist in this, in a want of honest, conscientious adoption and following of what we know to be real and true;—in Scripture language, "an evil heart of unbelief." We are not unbelievers: the bare idea is dreadful to us: we hold and we cling to the glorious doctrines of our redemption: if an hour of trial came, I do not suppose we should desert them; there would be found, as there have ever been found in Christ’s Church, many ready to suffer, some even to die for them. But in spite of all this, it is too often certain that while the man, with his mind and his affections, thoroughly believes, the heart is, to a sad extent, an unbeliever. I mean that in the secret inmost chamber where ideas spring into life, where resolves are formed, and plans matured, the great truths which are believed are not given their due place, nor allotted their proper share. A man thoroughly believes that there will be a judgment of all things done in the flesh. But how often, in forming his plans and resolves, does he take this into serious account? How often, when called upon to decide on a course of conduct, does any one of us say within himself, How shall I give account of this to Him who is ready to judge the quick and the dead? Are not our determinations much more often principally brought about by considerations of a very different kind from this? Our own inclination, our worldly interest, the opinion of others, all these are first consulted, and first satisfied: if, when this is done, the path chosen happens to be that of duty and God’s will, we are ready enough to take credit for it, and to flatter ourselves upon it: if it turns out to be another path, we set to work, I am afraid, to invent some compromise wherewith conscience may be lulled into acquiescence. O for that clearness of inward vision, which shall ever see the great noonday sun of God’s presence shining upon every thought, detecting its errors and prejudices and self-leanings! O for that singleness of purpose which shall be able to labor by that light alone, disregardful of how the work will appear under the dim and artificial candle of human estimation! There is no prayer of which we have more constant and urgent need than this,—"Unite my heart to fear thy name:"—make it to be in its life-thinking and energizing, what it is in its reasoning, what it is in its praying, what it is in its confessing, what it is in its teaching of others.

Again: a man firmly and without hypocrisy believes in the great sacrifice of Christ for him. He knows he is bought with the price of the precious blood of the Son of God; that he is a baptized member of Christ, and bound to live for Him and to Him. And yet, when we come to motives, when we come to resolves within him, where does this belief appear? Are our thoughts governed, are they penetrated, are they constrained, by any such considerations? When selfish views spread before us in all their attractiveness, the fertile plains of Sodom tempting us to dwell in them, does the course of self-denial to which we are pledged instantly assert its claim—does our eye at once rise to the thorny upward path, and to Him who bore his Cross, and dropped his Blood along it? When the temper is roused by insult, when the pride is stung by contumely, when the self-opinion is buffeted by designed slight, and the tyrant fiend of revenge springs to his feet in a moment,—do our eyes see, or do they refuse to see, the Spirit of the Lord lifting His standard against him? Do we hear, or do we refuse to hear, amidst the rising gusts of passion, the still small voice "Learn of me, for I am meek and lowly of heart?"

I have purposely dwelt on this particular class of sins of thought, because they are the most subtle, the least guarded against, the most seldom held up for warning: because they poison the very springs of life itself: because they are manifold and deceitful in every one of us: because they are ever undermining the building which we are raising on the one Foundation, robbing us of our full reward, tarnishing the brightness of our future spiritual crown. O that we might each of us have grace to wake and watch against them, and apply ourselves in earnest to their removal and cure!

I now come to sins of word. And here I shall not speak of bad and unholy and impure words,—not of evil speaking, lying, and slandering: these are open and manifest: if we fall into these, we know it, we repent of it; but I shall speak of sins of word more beneath the surface, into which when we fall, we do not know it, of which, when we have fallen into them, we are little accustomed to repent.

And I believe such sins will mainly be found, as regards our dealings with men, in stating or not stating the very truth of our sentiments and feelings and beliefs. I am not now speaking of hypocrisy, nor of any willful and conscious disingenuousness, but of a general want of clear and fearless truthfulness, which pervades, it seems to me, the conversation of so many even good and religious persons. The motive for this frequently is, an over-cautious fear of the consequences of what may be said, or its effect upon those to whom it is said; a sense of the duty of taking a side, and fancying that this cannot be done without acting the partisan, and supporting that side at all hazards, even to the peril of truth and fairness itself. And thus in religious matters difficulties are glossed over, great questions which really agitate men’s minds are kept out of sight, institutions merely human are held up as perfect, or their imperfections acknowledged indeed in the general, where no harm can be done, but denied in every particular when the pinch really comes. And so our holy Religion becomes a thing upheld merely because it is right and expedient that it should be, not because of its own claims to our allegiance: and the Bible is upheld, not with an humble and intelligent examination of its real meaning and undoubted difficulties, but with a blind dogmatic spirit, finding fault with honest investigation, breaking the bruised reed of incipient doubt, quenching the smoking flax of awakened enquiry. Now human nature cannot stand this, either in a man’s self, or in others to or of whom he thus speaks. In himself, the consequences are deplorable. How many men uphold a rigid formal set of sentiments which in their hearts they do not believe! How many men are thus living at variance with their own reason and conscience, divided against themselves, and therefore, whatever may seem, of necessity falling into ruin and spiritual decay! How grievous it is, how sad it has been often in our own times, to see men from whose mouths has gone forth for years the pure language of religious truth, at last making wreck of faith and practice—proved to have been but counterfeits! And this, not in all cases, but I am persuaded in very many cases, because they never dealt ingenuously and fearlessly with their own hearts and with mankind about them: they professed to be fighting in armour which they had never proved, and so the enemy was too strong for them.

"What then?" I hear some one say: "are we never to take the side of God till we can understand Him? till we can penetrate the darkness in which He shrouds himself? Are we never to confess or to strive for a doctrine of religion, till we thoroughly and clearly see our way into it and round it?" Nay, my brethren, I said not any such thing. We never can by searching find out God: we must acknowledge many doctrines, which we do not understand. All I demand is that we freely and fearlessly confess these to be weaknesses. By all means let us stand on the side of God, on the side of the Bible, on the side of the Church, which we believe to be the best exponent of God as revealed in the Bible: but let this be done humbly, ingenuously, truthfully: not fearing to confess that there are matters regarding God which are as yet dark to us, that there are things in the Bible of which we cannot give an account, that there are infirmities and imperfections even in the best human setting forth of the Church on earth. When will we learn, that the consideration of the consequences of what we say is not to be entertained, when justice and right require of us to speak and fear not? When will men come to feel, that the blessed Gospel of Christ never was and never can be the gainer by any false statement, any equivocation, any shrinking from dangerous truth or unwelcome fact? Doubtless it is misery enough to be an unbeliever, even though honest in unbelief; but a dishonest believer is worse and more miserable than an honest unbeliever. And yet how many of the former, it is to be feared, have, in the history of God’s Church, stood in high and holy places, and dictated, and persecuted: and how many of the latter might have been reclaimed and persuaded, had they been dealt with more in the spirit of Christ!

If again the effect of this timid untruthful religion be bad on a man’s self, much more is it hurtful and fatal on others. The world outside, seeing the questions which it is ever too ready to press on Christians evaded, or insufficiently met, forms its own conclusion, unjust indeed, but hardly to be wondered at, as to the reasons why the Gospel of Christ is upheld by us; attributes it to the love of our position, care for our emoluments, or mere habit and use, and not liking to see the old faith decay: instead of that which is the real motive even in those who thus feebly advocate it, love to God and to man, and thorough persuasion of its truth.

And now let us advance to sins of act and deed: doing what we ought not to do, leaving undone what we ought to do. And here again, being anxious to speak of the manifoldness and deceitfulness of sin, I will not deal Math known sins,—plain omissions or flagrant commissions,—but with those which we seldom think of or charge ourselves with. And this being so, it is plain that our attention will be almost entirely confined to sins of omission: as it is in course of these mainly that the attention is set to sleep, and the watchful guard is relaxed, and the standard of positive duty is lowered. One of the commonest omissions in the ordinary lives of Christian men is, the neglect of the words of the Master of all Christian men: the disuse of taking into account, as rules of conduct, the injunctions and precepts of Christ. Our lives are mainly spent in obedience to the common conventional rules set by the opinions and practices of those about us. Thanks to God, those about us form a community regulated in outward and plain matters by Christian rules: so that men’s lives have become, by the leavening influence of Christianity, a decent approximation to the tenor of the precepts of Christ. Still there are many things yet left, in which public usage or opinion says one thing, and the Lord Christ says plainly another: many as to which the world’s rule lays down nothing, but our divine Master lays down very much. It is in such matters, I believe, that we Christians are continually falling into sin. We think our actions good enough, if they will bear comparison with those of the society in which we move, and of the time in which we live: forgetful that our rule has been prescribed by One who speaks not on earth but from heaven: that our standard has been set for us in words which shall not have passed away when heaven and earth are no more.

O that there were in any of us the habit of referring our questioning thoughts at once to His verdict whom we profess to serve; of guiding our actions simply, humbly, fearlessly, by His precept and His example! And in order for this, there would be no occasion to run counter in ordinary things to the habits and feelings of those about us: if we were earnest like Him, humble like Him, wise like Him, at whatever distance from His perfect example, we should recommend and adorn our unflinching course of Christian duty by quietness, by unobtrusiveness, by consideration for others, by knowledge what to say, and when, and to whom. It is not the busy protester against what other men do, it is not the man who is ever found up in arms against the usages of society, who does the good; but he who is gifted with sound judgment enough to overlook things indifferent, to join in practices which he himself would perchance not have chosen, if by so doing he may cheer, and bless, and hallow, and leaven, the society in which God has cast his lot. Here again I conceive good Christian men are often led, in our time, into sin. For O it is sin, to misrepresent the profession of a disciple of Christ by a morose and unsocial and forbidding aspect; it is sin, always to be found in opposition, and never in hearty concurrence, when schemes are proposed which interest and please others. If a man’s religion be so completely a matter of his own, of keeping himself so usually aloof from his brethren, all we can say is that it is not Christ’s religion, who pleased not himself: it is not St. Paul’s religion, who became all things to all men. An unsocial, uncomplying, individualizing life may be very flattering to pride: may serve as a salve to the conscience, and make a man fancy himself very good and pure; but there can be no doubt that such a course is a life-long sin, bringing dishonor on the blessed Gospel of Christ, and hardening men’s hearts against its influence.

It is time to draw to a close; and the special object which I would recommend to you1 to-day furnishes me with an eminent example of another branch of sins of omission on the part of Christian men. There are many things which Christ has expressly charged on His Church as positive and perpetual duties. The care of His poor, the instruction of His little ones, these are of this kind; and, not least among such, the evangelization of the whole world. Words cannot be more explicit than His parting command,—"Go ye into all the world: preach the Gospel to every creature." Whatever the time, whatever the appearance of things, whatever the state of the Church or the nations, whether hope or fear, exultation or dejection be our present attitude, these words change not: this holy command binds every Christian at every time. And remember the solemn words of Holy Writ—"To him that knoweth to do good and doeth it not, to him it is sin." You know, every one of you well knows, that each of us is bound to-day to bring to God his contribution,—great or small matters not half so much,—to this His Society, by which this Church of England is fulfilling our Lord’s behest. You know this. Are you going to do it? Because if, having this knowledge, you pass by and refuse to contribute, it is sin—a new stain on your own souls—a new mark against you in that book which shall be opened the next time we all stand together in God’s presence.

Think of this: and God give you grace to act accordingly.

But, though my time has run out, and I have said what I had to say on my subject, none of you I am sure will to-day grudge me a few words more. I little knew, when I wrote of times of national dejection, what deep occasion we should have for it before that sentence was uttered here. A prince and a great man has this day fallen in Israel. At the very time when the vessel of the state requires most careful guidance, and none can tell what dangers are before her, one of those nearest the helm has been mysteriously snatched away. When none thought it—when it seemed as if unbroken prosperity were almost the heritage of our royal family,—in one night our princely house is fatherless, our Queen a widow. I pause not to-day to draw out the solemn lessons which such an event suggests. The blow is too fresh—the effect too numbing just now. All I say is this: First, pray, loyally, fervently, constantly, for her whose great grief is now uppermost in all our thoughts: and secondly, waken more than ever at this solemn moment to the claim of our national Christian duties. Let not the astonishment of your present grief supersede your zeal for God’s work to which, you are called; rather let the softened heart, the stricken spirit, acknowledge God as nearer, His voice as more plainly heard: and in this and all duties to which He summons you, make you more ready to say, Lord, what wouldst thou have us to do?

Alford, H. (1862). Sermons on Christian Doctrine. London: Rivingtons. (Public Domain)

The Deceitfulness of Sin

“But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (Hebrews 3:13, ESV)

We are warned, in the passage in which these words occur, to beware lest any of us be hardened through the Deceitfulness of sin. It is to this last quality of sin, as connected with its manifold working, that I would to-day bespeak your attention.

I described it last Sunday as one of the worst symptoms of our spiritual disease, that the more a man is affected with it, the less, in many cases, does he know that he has it at all. And herein consists the deceitfulness of sin: not in making itself appear more important, but in making itself appear less important, than it really is. It is, as we saw, a deadly taint in our nature, ever stealing onward, requiring ever the most active check to be put upon it; never shrinking back, or declining, as a matter of course, but, on the contrary, as a matter of course always waxing, always flourishing: creeping about our pure thoughts, entangling our good resolves, binding down our holy aspirations; even until all becomes overborne by it, and confusion and helplessness and hopelessness set in, and self is exalted as supreme, and God is forgotten in the chambers of the heart, and the voice of the good Spirit becomes silent, and the darkness of the night gathers round, and the spoiler only waits without, certain of his prey. And mind I am not speaking now, I do not mean to speak to-day, of what men call great sinners, or of what are known as deadly and shameful sins: I speak of us all, I want to benefit all: I speak of the course of sin, its manifoldness, its deceitfulness, in us who, I will suppose, abstain at least from its outward and grosser manifestations: us, who are not murderers, not adulterers, not defrauders, not false swearers, but who are lovers of self, vain, envious, seekers of applause from men, careless, indolent, unwatchful, unfaithful to Christ. It is of the ordinary character of the average Christian man that I speak; in its infirmity, in its capriciousness, in its unwariness. May I be guided to speak aright, and you to judge what I say.

It will be plain to you that, in order to deal with such a subject profitably, I must not linger amidst mere general matters, but must enter into particulars, and exhibit sin in some of its various modes of attack and access to us. I must divide our life and its energies into its several departments, and shew how the manifoldness and deceitfulness of sin beset us in each one of them.

And for this purpose the most convenient division will be the most ordinary one. Our vital energy finds issue in three great ranges and regions: those of thought, of word, of deed. In each one of these there is duty, and there is fault. In each of them there is the voice of God speaking in our consciences, there is the written law of God guiding, confirming, furthering, that inward voice: in each of them there is in us the constant disposition to set conscience and to set God aside, and to become our own guides, our own masters. Let us then take each one of these in turn, and shew in each, how manifold sin is, how deceitful.

Sins of thought. How best may we place ourselves aright to consider these? It is not easy to turn inward, and be faithful witnesses to what passes within us. Nothing is so deceitful, nothing so apt to become a delusion, as the taking account of our own thoughts and feelings. Memory cannot copy faithfully the picture which has faded away, but overlays and tricks it out with fresh and unreal colors. What, for example, so utterly empty and unprofitable as religious diaries, experience-records, chronicles of past states of mind, unless indeed traced by a master-hand, and laid down with rare and self-denying faithfulness? This very fact shews, how busy sin is in our thoughts: how it is ever waking and watching, and turning even the infirmities of our memory into occasions for itself. In this very matter, how deep is its deceit—how subtle its craft! Take a more special example. Often we find in such records, often we find in ourselves, a disposition to exaggerate our own sinfulness. All is put down as bad: nothing could be worse. Slight errors are magnified into great sins: real sins blackened into unpardonable enormities. O meekness, we may be disposed to say,—O humility! But pause a moment, and enquire, Is this really so? When self is both the accuser and the accused, both the prisoner and the prosecutor;—when again the crime charged is past, and the act of charging it is present;—when all the discredit is looked upon as belonging to a former and infirm self, and all the credit as accruing to a present better self,—O how strong is the temptation to get at the comfortable inference, I was worse then, but I am better now! How the treacherous self-gratulation mingles even with humility, even with thankfulness to God! How it lurks in and pervades all such recollections,—from the glorious confessions of the great African Augustine to the flattest memoirs of the most common-place religionist of our puny time!

But we must not stay talking about the difficulty of dealing fairly with our thoughts, though this very difficulty illustrates our subject: we must enter in, and grapple with the difficulty itself. There is no question that our real thoughts can be got at, and their liability to sin justly measured, if we will spend time and trouble over it. And it must be remembered, that here in public, and in dealing with the matter on a large scale, we are not beset by the difficulty in its full strength: we are not dealing with our individual selves, whom we love, alas, not wisely but too well; we are dealing with our public self, so to speak; with our whole species, of which we are at least somewhat fairer, though by no means infallible judges.

And, thus dealing, we may venture to say, that the great burden of our sins of thought will be found to consist in this, in a want of honest, conscientious adoption and following of what we know to be real and true;—in Scripture language, "an evil heart of unbelief." We are not unbelievers: the bare idea is dreadful to us: we hold and we cling to the glorious doctrines of our redemption: if an hour of trial came, I do not suppose we should desert them; there would be found, as there have ever been found in Christ’s Church, many ready to suffer, some even to die for them. But in spite of all this, it is too often certain that while the man, with his mind and his affections, thoroughly believes, the heart is, to a sad extent, an unbeliever. I mean that in the secret inmost chamber where ideas spring into life, where resolves are formed, and plans matured, the great truths which are believed are not given their due place, nor allotted their proper share. A man thoroughly believes that there will be a judgment of all things done in the flesh. But how often, in forming his plans and resolves, does he take this into serious account? How often, when called upon to decide on a course of conduct, does any one of us say within himself, How shall I give account of this to Him who is ready to judge the quick and the dead? Are not our determinations much more often principally brought about by considerations of a very different kind from this? Our own inclination, our worldly interest, the opinion of others, all these are first consulted, and first satisfied: if, when this is done, the path chosen happens to be that of duty and God’s will, we are ready enough to take credit for it, and to flatter ourselves upon it: if it turns out to be another path, we set to work, I am afraid, to invent some compromise wherewith conscience may be lulled into acquiescence. O for that clearness of inward vision, which shall ever see the great noonday sun of God’s presence shining upon every thought, detecting its errors and prejudices and self-leanings! O for that singleness of purpose which shall be able to labor by that light alone, disregardful of how the work will appear under the dim and artificial candle of human estimation! There is no prayer of which we have more constant and urgent need than this,—"Unite my heart to fear thy name:"—make it to be in its life-thinking and energizing, what it is in its reasoning, what it is in its praying, what it is in its confessing, what it is in its teaching of others.

Again: a man firmly and without hypocrisy believes in the great sacrifice of Christ for him. He knows he is bought with the price of the precious blood of the Son of God; that he is a baptized member of Christ, and bound to live for Him and to Him. And yet, when we come to motives, when we come to resolves within him, where does this belief appear? Are our thoughts governed, are they penetrated, are they constrained, by any such considerations? When selfish views spread before us in all their attractiveness, the fertile plains of Sodom tempting us to dwell in them, does the course of self-denial to which we are pledged instantly assert its claim—does our eye at once rise to the thorny upward path, and to Him who bore his Cross, and dropped his Blood along it? When the temper is roused by insult, when the pride is stung by contumely, when the self-opinion is buffeted by designed slight, and the tyrant fiend of revenge springs to his feet in a moment,—do our eyes see, or do they refuse to see, the Spirit of the Lord lifting His standard against him? Do we hear, or do we refuse to hear, amidst the rising gusts of passion, the still small voice "Learn of me, for I am meek and lowly of heart?"

I have purposely dwelt on this particular class of sins of thought, because they are the most subtle, the least guarded against, the most seldom held up for warning: because they poison the very springs of life itself: because they are manifold and deceitful in every one of us: because they are ever undermining the building which we are raising on the one Foundation, robbing us of our full reward, tarnishing the brightness of our future spiritual crown. O that we might each of us have grace to wake and watch against them, and apply ourselves in earnest to their removal and cure!

I now come to sins of word. And here I shall not speak of bad and unholy and impure words,—not of evil speaking, lying, and slandering: these are open and manifest: if we fall into these, we know it, we repent of it; but I shall speak of sins of word more beneath the surface, into which when we fall, we do not know it, of which, when we have fallen into them, we are little accustomed to repent.

And I believe such sins will mainly be found, as regards our dealings with men, in stating or not stating the very truth of our sentiments and feelings and beliefs. I am not now speaking of hypocrisy, nor of any willful and conscious disingenuousness, but of a general want of clear and fearless truthfulness, which pervades, it seems to me, the conversation of so many even good and religious persons. The motive for this frequently is, an over-cautious fear of the consequences of what may be said, or its effect upon those to whom it is said; a sense of the duty of taking a side, and fancying that this cannot be done without acting the partisan, and supporting that side at all hazards, even to the peril of truth and fairness itself. And thus in religious matters difficulties are glossed over, great questions which really agitate men’s minds are kept out of sight, institutions merely human are held up as perfect, or their imperfections acknowledged indeed in the general, where no harm can be done, but denied in every particular when the pinch really comes. And so our holy Religion becomes a thing upheld merely because it is right and expedient that it should be, not because of its own claims to our allegiance: and the Bible is upheld, not with an humble and intelligent examination of its real meaning and undoubted difficulties, but with a blind dogmatic spirit, finding fault with honest investigation, breaking the bruised reed of incipient doubt, quenching the smoking flax of awakened enquiry. Now human nature cannot stand this, either in a man’s self, or in others to or of whom he thus speaks. In himself, the consequences are deplorable. How many men uphold a rigid formal set of sentiments which in their hearts they do not believe! How many men are thus living at variance with their own reason and conscience, divided against themselves, and therefore, whatever may seem, of necessity falling into ruin and spiritual decay! How grievous it is, how sad it has been often in our own times, to see men from whose mouths has gone forth for years the pure language of religious truth, at last making wreck of faith and practice—proved to have been but counterfeits! And this, not in all cases, but I am persuaded in very many cases, because they never dealt ingenuously and fearlessly with their own hearts and with mankind about them: they professed to be fighting in armour which they had never proved, and so the enemy was too strong for them.

"What then?" I hear some one say: "are we never to take the side of God till we can understand Him? till we can penetrate the darkness in which He shrouds himself? Are we never to confess or to strive for a doctrine of religion, till we thoroughly and clearly see our way into it and round it?" Nay, my brethren, I said not any such thing. We never can by searching find out God: we must acknowledge many doctrines, which we do not understand. All I demand is that we freely and fearlessly confess these to be weaknesses. By all means let us stand on the side of God, on the side of the Bible, on the side of the Church, which we believe to be the best exponent of God as revealed in the Bible: but let this be done humbly, ingenuously, truthfully: not fearing to confess that there are matters regarding God which are as yet dark to us, that there are things in the Bible of which we cannot give an account, that there are infirmities and imperfections even in the best human setting forth of the Church on earth. When will we learn, that the consideration of the consequences of what we say is not to be entertained, when justice and right require of us to speak and fear not? When will men come to feel, that the blessed Gospel of Christ never was and never can be the gainer by any false statement, any equivocation, any shrinking from dangerous truth or unwelcome fact? Doubtless it is misery enough to be an unbeliever, even though honest in unbelief; but a dishonest believer is worse and more miserable than an honest unbeliever. And yet how many of the former, it is to be feared, have, in the history of God’s Church, stood in high and holy places, and dictated, and persecuted: and how many of the latter might have been reclaimed and persuaded, had they been dealt with more in the spirit of Christ!

If again the effect of this timid untruthful religion be bad on a man’s self, much more is it hurtful and fatal on others. The world outside, seeing the questions which it is ever too ready to press on Christians evaded, or insufficiently met, forms its own conclusion, unjust indeed, but hardly to be wondered at, as to the reasons why the Gospel of Christ is upheld by us; attributes it to the love of our position, care for our emoluments, or mere habit and use, and not liking to see the old faith decay: instead of that which is the real motive even in those who thus feebly advocate it, love to God and to man, and thorough persuasion of its truth.

And now let us advance to sins of act and deed: doing what we ought not to do, leaving undone what we ought to do. And here again, being anxious to speak of the manifoldness and deceitfulness of sin, I will not deal Math known sins,—plain omissions or flagrant commissions,—but with those which we seldom think of or charge ourselves with. And this being so, it is plain that our attention will be almost entirely confined to sins of omission: as it is in course of these mainly that the attention is set to sleep, and the watchful guard is relaxed, and the standard of positive duty is lowered. One of the commonest omissions in the ordinary lives of Christian men is, the neglect of the words of the Master of all Christian men: the disuse of taking into account, as rules of conduct, the injunctions and precepts of Christ. Our lives are mainly spent in obedience to the common conventional rules set by the opinions and practices of those about us. Thanks to God, those about us form a community regulated in outward and plain matters by Christian rules: so that men’s lives have become, by the leavening influence of Christianity, a decent approximation to the tenor of the precepts of Christ. Still there are many things yet left, in which public usage or opinion says one thing, and the Lord Christ says plainly another: many as to which the world’s rule lays down nothing, but our divine Master lays down very much. It is in such matters, I believe, that we Christians are continually falling into sin. We think our actions good enough, if they will bear comparison with those of the society in which we move, and of the time in which we live: forgetful that our rule has been prescribed by One who speaks not on earth but from heaven: that our standard has been set for us in words which shall not have passed away when heaven and earth are no more.

O that there were in any of us the habit of referring our questioning thoughts at once to His verdict whom we profess to serve; of guiding our actions simply, humbly, fearlessly, by His precept and His example! And in order for this, there would be no occasion to run counter in ordinary things to the habits and feelings of those about us: if we were earnest like Him, humble like Him, wise like Him, at whatever distance from His perfect example, we should recommend and adorn our unflinching course of Christian duty by quietness, by unobtrusiveness, by consideration for others, by knowledge what to say, and when, and to whom. It is not the busy protester against what other men do, it is not the man who is ever found up in arms against the usages of society, who does the good; but he who is gifted with sound judgment enough to overlook things indifferent, to join in practices which he himself would perchance not have chosen, if by so doing he may cheer, and bless, and hallow, and leaven, the society in which God has cast his lot. Here again I conceive good Christian men are often led, in our time, into sin. For O it is sin, to misrepresent the profession of a disciple of Christ by a morose and unsocial and forbidding aspect; it is sin, always to be found in opposition, and never in hearty concurrence, when schemes are proposed which interest and please others. If a man’s religion be so completely a matter of his own, of keeping himself so usually aloof from his brethren, all we can say is that it is not Christ’s religion, who pleased not himself: it is not St. Paul’s religion, who became all things to all men. An unsocial, uncomplying, individualizing life may be very flattering to pride: may serve as a salve to the conscience, and make a man fancy himself very good and pure; but there can be no doubt that such a course is a life-long sin, bringing dishonor on the blessed Gospel of Christ, and hardening men’s hearts against its influence.

It is time to draw to a close; and the special object which I would recommend to you1 to-day furnishes me with an eminent example of another branch of sins of omission on the part of Christian men. There are many things which Christ has expressly charged on His Church as positive and perpetual duties. The care of His poor, the instruction of His little ones, these are of this kind; and, not least among such, the evangelization of the whole world. Words cannot be more explicit than His parting command,—"Go ye into all the world: preach the Gospel to every creature." Whatever the time, whatever the appearance of things, whatever the state of the Church or the nations, whether hope or fear, exultation or dejection be our present attitude, these words change not: this holy command binds every Christian at every time. And remember the solemn words of Holy Writ—"To him that knoweth to do good and doeth it not, to him it is sin." You know, every one of you well knows, that each of us is bound to-day to bring to God his contribution,—great or small matters not half so much,—to this His Society, by which this Church of England is fulfilling our Lord’s behest. You know this. Are you going to do it? Because if, having this knowledge, you pass by and refuse to contribute, it is sin—a new stain on your own souls—a new mark against you in that book which shall be opened the next time we all stand together in God’s presence.

Think of this: and God give you grace to act accordingly.

But, though my time has run out, and I have said what I had to say on my subject, none of you I am sure will to-day grudge me a few words more. I little knew, when I wrote of times of national dejection, what deep occasion we should have for it before that sentence was uttered here. A prince and a great man has this day fallen in Israel. At the very time when the vessel of the state requires most careful guidance, and none can tell what dangers are before her, one of those nearest the helm has been mysteriously snatched away. When none thought it—when it seemed as if unbroken prosperity were almost the heritage of our royal family,—in one night our princely house is fatherless, our Queen a widow. I pause not to-day to draw out the solemn lessons which such an event suggests. The blow is too fresh—the effect too numbing just now. All I say is this: First, pray, loyally, fervently, constantly, for her whose great grief is now uppermost in all our thoughts: and secondly, waken more than ever at this solemn moment to the claim of our national Christian duties. Let not the astonishment of your present grief supersede your zeal for God’s work to which, you are called; rather let the softened heart, the stricken spirit, acknowledge God as nearer, His voice as more plainly heard: and in this and all duties to which He summons you, make you more ready to say, Lord, what wouldst thou have us to do?

Alford, H. (1862). Sermons on Christian Doctrine. London: Rivingtons. (Public Domain)



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