CMF eZine

The online magazine of the Christian Military Fellowship.

Author: Henry Alford

Henry Alford (7 October 1810 – 12 January 1871) was an English churchman, theologian, textual critic, scholar, poet, hymnodist, and writer.  Alford was born in London, of a Somerset family, which had given five consecutive generations of clergymen to the Anglican church. Alford's early years were passed with his widowed father, who was curate of Steeple Ashton in Wiltshire. He was a precocious boy, and before he was ten had written several Latin odes, a history of the Jews and a series of homiletic outlines. After a peripatetic school course he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1827 as a scholar. In 1832 he was 34th wrangler and 8th classic, and in 1834 was made fellow of Trinity.  He had already taken orders, and in 1835 began his eighteen-year tenure of the vicarage of Wymeswold in Leicestershire, from which seclusion the twice-repeated offer of a colonial bishopric failed to draw him. He was Hulsean lecturer at Cambridge in 1841–1842, and steadily built up a reputation as scholar and preacher, which might have been greater if not for his excursions into minor poetry and magazine editing.  In 1844, he joined the Cambridge Camden Society (CCS) which published a list of do's and don'ts for church layout which they promoted as a science. He commissioned A.W.N. Pugin to restore St Mary's church. He also was a member of the Metaphysical Society, founded in 1869 by James Knowles.  In September 1853 Alford moved to Quebec Street Chapel, Marylebone, London, where he had a large congregation. In March 1857 Lord Palmerston advanced him to the deanery of Canterbury, where, till his death, he lived the same energetic and diverse lifestyle as ever. He had been the friend of most of his eminent contemporaries, and was much beloved for his amiable character. The inscription on his tomb, chosen by himself, is Diversorium Viatoris Hierosolymam Proficiscentis ("the lodging place of a traveler on his way to Jerusalem").

Matthew 13.3 Parables_The Tares of the Field Alford.jpg

Parables: The Tares of the Field

Parables:  The Tares of the Field

Matt. 13:3

“He spake many things unto them in parables.”

In considering and applying the sacred Doctrines relating to our blessed Lord’s Person and office, one of the chief sources of our knowledge must of necessity be found in His own discourses. He Himself said to the Jews, “I am, that which I speak unto you.” He is His own best expositor.

Now in studying His discourses, one peculiarity cannot fail to strike us, which they have even amongst the sayings of inspiration itself. All these sayings are equally true, but they are not all equally deep and manifold in their meaning. Some sayings, for example, of the Apostles, are very simple and plain, and clearly have but one reference, which everybody can perceive. Then again, if the Apostles’ sayings are difficult to understand, it is very often a difficulty of this kind: do they mean this, or do they mean that? or, out of three or four possible meanings, which shall we take? And one man understands them in one way, another man in another way; or perhaps in the course of time some laborious student hits upon a meaning which all agree upon afterwards, and so the difficulty is solved. I do not mean to say that such is always the case with the sayings of the Apostles: but it is beyond doubt their general character. If we now turn to the sayings of our Lord, here again we meet with many which are very plain and simple, and with many also which seem difficult to understand: but, easy or difficult, they all have this about them, that they are inexhaustible in their depths of wisdom, and in their applications to man and to man’s world. In the one case, the divine treasure was in earthen vessels: in the other, in a heavenly. In the one case, the Holy Spirit spoke by those who were limited in their powers and knowledge, and He adapted His divine inspiration to their human characteristics, and styles, of thinking and writing: in the other He spoke by One to whom the Spirit was not given by measure: who knew all things from the beginning; and to whom, even in the emptying of His glory, to which He submitted Himself in his humiliation, all the realities of things lay open. And hence too it is that, while we speak, and truly, of the peculiar style of writing of St. Paul or of St. John or of St. Peter, no one ever thought of attributing a style of speaking to our Lord. Our very feelings shrink from such an expression; which is no mean test of its being an improper one. The reason is, that His sayings are the very expressions of endless and fathomless truth; in human form indeed,—spoken with the tongue and written with the pen,—but spoken as man never spoke before,—written, when written down, as faithful remembrances of what He said, and unmodified by the individual style and character of those who recorded them. And pursuing the same thought, it is interesting and instructive to note, how the holy Evangelists have been guided to follow their individual bent, not in composing, but in choosing among, the discourses of our Lord: St. Matthew, who loves to write of Him as the King, and of His Gospel as the Kingdom of the heavens, giving us more those discourses which set forth his glory and majesty;—St. Luke, who presents Him to us as the gracious and immortal Savior, giving us mostly discourses full of his rich mercy and loving-kindness;—while St. John, whose object it is to set Him before us as the fullness of light and sustenance and life to man, as coming to his own and rejected by them, but as loving and loved by his disciples, follows his great scheme regularly onwards, by recording for us those discourses in which all these points are one after another brought forward.

After what has been said, another matter regarding our Lord’s sayings naturally comes to our thoughts. He who knew all truth in its purest and holiest forms,—what was His method of teaching? Let us first ask, whom had He to teach? And the answer is, He had various classes of persons, very differently affected towards Him, and very differently endowed with power to understand Him. First, there would be his own disciples, willing indeed to listen to and appreciate what He said, but mistaken in their view of that which He came to do, and quite unable as yet to take in any explanation of it. Then there were the common people, variously disposed;—for the most part hearing Him gladly, but dull of comprehension, and ready to be influenced by his enemies. Then there were these last, the Scribes and Pharisees, learned in the outward science of the law, eager for his halting, ready to catch hold of and press to the utmost against Him anything falling from his lips which should at all violate their formal and superstitious maxims of interpretation and practice.

How should the Allwise one, in his humiliation, and condescending to be as man among men, proceed in one way of teaching for all these so widely differing hearers? Should He lay before them naked spiritual truth, such as in the unfathomable depths of his own divine Being He contemplated? Alas, to say nothing of what those hearers were,—what human ear could hear, what human soul could bear it? Should He anticipate the teaching of the Spirit who was to come upon the Church, and set forth the mighty doctrines of atonement for sin, of justification by faith in Him, of sanctification by the indwelling of the Holy Ghost? Again, should He declare himself the fulfiller of the types of the law—the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world? Who among them could receive these things? When we hear, late on in his course on earth, that His very disciples questioned among themselves what the resurrection from the dead should mean, we may well imagine how hopeless, in the ordinary human methods of teaching, it would have been to introduce topics of this kind among his audience, before He had been lifted up on the Cross,—had risen from the tomb, or had sent down His Spirit from the Father. Once more;—should He become the stern and lofty moralist, and lay down to them the eternal limits of purity and of vice? Doubtless this was his office in a sense; and this He has done as none other ever has; but if it chiefly molded the form of his discourse, how were they to be gained to this teaching? He came to teach all, as He came to bless all, and to die for all. How many, think you, among those He addressed would have gathered round him to listen to the purest and truest of moral disquisitions? He, remember, was not one set to teach by institution of man’s device: one sure of an audience, and privileged to be dull: He came with a mission higher than that from men, to seek and to save: He was to draw men with the words of interest and sympathy;—to attach them, so that they would rise up from their occupation, leave their fishing and their tax-gathering, and go after Him.

Again then, what method of teaching did He choose? How did He produce the wonderful effects of which we read? Before we fully answer, let us take into account one more circumstance very essential to be remembered. Never man spake like this man. Doubtless it was a spirit-penetrating and heart-stirring thing, to sit and hear that Teacher speak. O what it must have been to look but for once on that brow, calm as the evening sky; to hear but one saying uttered in that voice, whose every tone sunk with gentle persuasion into the very depths of the being! Well might the Lord Himself say to His disciples, “Blessed are the eyes that see the things that ye see, and the ears that hear the things that ye hear.” Still we know how variously even excellencies of speech and manner are interpreted, according to the feeling towards the speaker. What one enjoys and feels in his heart as simple earnestness, another turns away from and loathes as affectation: what one finds attractive, is repulsive to another. And doubtless so it was also in the case of our blessed Lord himself: His enemies, in order to remain his enemies, must have had their minds poisoned against him; and even his divine benignity, and his loving wisdom, can only have exasperated them more from time to time in their predetermined enmity to him. It was when this spirit of implacable hatred first began to manifest itself, when the Scribes and Pharisees began to ascribe to the influence of Satan our Lord’s gracious miracles, that He saw fit, in his wisdom, to adopt that peculiar method of teaching of which my text speaks. “He began to speak to them many things in parables.”

And what is a parable? I am not going to lay down all the distinctions which separate it from the fable, or the proverb, or the allegory: this has been excellently done by those who have written on the subject: but I will only say, bearing these distinctions in mind, that a parable is a fictitious story intended to convey spiritual truth, and is of a nature such that it is always taken from what might be actual life among men. Its form is grave, as its purpose is serious. It enters into the relations of life,—father and son, husband and wife, master and servant, king and people; into the operations of agriculture and commerce, the pursuits and ways of living among men, their differences, and their affections. In the highest sense of the word, but One Person could ever have worthily taught in parables, and that One was the Creator Himself. For it is required in such a story, that it should enter into the deep spiritual meanings which lie under all the relations and employments of life: and who knows these but God only? A mere man might make the parable fit the truth here and there: his applications of his tale might be doubted, might be criticized: he is commonly obliged to take a lower form for his instruction, and to put it into the mouths of unreasoning beings, as in the fable; thus leaving the region of reality, and missing all the deeper purposes of the other. But when our Lord spoke the parables in the Gospels, He himself tells us that He did it with the view of their carrying various shades of meaning, according as men’s hearts were or were not disposed to receive, or capable of apprehending them. They were in fact in this respect just what that world of beauty and truth is from which they were taken. The child rejoices in the flower that he has plucked: its gay colors delight him, its sweet scent is pleasing to him: the botanist makes the same flower a study, and classifies it, and examines its structure: the moralist, and the poet, and the painter, also claim it for the uses of instruction and of art. And so it may be with the parable. First there is the simple story, which may interest even the heart of an intelligent child. Which of us is there that does not remember his fresh interest when a father’s or a mother’s voice first told him of the sower going forth to sow, or of the lost sheep, or of the prodigal son, or of the wise and foolish virgins? Nor is this the case only with the young at one time of their lives: it is so with the simple and half-educated all their lives:—with often this exception, which will lead us on to the next step in those that hear,—that ever and anon some real event in their own lives, some joy or sorrow,—some overflowing of mercy, or some bitter drop of anguish in their cup,—seems to bring out new meaning from that which they fancied they knew before. As with the Æolian harp that has long sounded one chord only in the gentle breezes of ordinary life, at times like these the strong wind of God’s Spirit rushes over the strings and awakens new and higher harmonics, unheard before. And if this is so with them, what is it with those who love to think, and to weigh, and to delve into the deeper senses of those wonderful revelations of truth? Evermore by them are the Lord’s parables seen in many and shifting lights, evermore are they heard speaking to them new and rich counsel as their need requires. None have ever exhausted their depth, none have ever so discovered their reference and connection, that there are not new references and new connections left for others to discover. Not unfrequently, as for instance in the parables of the unforgiving servant who had himself been forgiven, and of the good Samaritan, great Christian doctrines lie beneath the surface of their tale: sometimes, as in those of the wicked husbandmen and of the barren fig-tree, they are pregnant with prophetic meaning which time shall bring out: sometimes again, as in those of the lost sheep, and of the rich man and Lazarus, they open to us glimpses into the unseen and unknown world: still more frequently, as in the great first parable of the sower, and in that of our gospel to-day, they describe to us the state of the Church of God, in the world, and at the end of the world. And as we study each of these, and place it in new lights and connections, more and richer meanings continually open to us, and will do so as long as we are in this realm of imperfect and still to be completed knowledge.

With these remarks before us, let us spend the remainder of our time in considering the parable which is contained in our gospel to-day; that of the Tares of the Field. It forms, as we well know, one of the most important of our Lord’s parables. Of itself it would take this rank, owing to the great and worldwide interest of its subject: and its importance is increased by its being one of those of which the great Teacher Himself has vouchsafed to give us a full and minute interpretation.

First let us notice what the parable is about. It is a likeness setting forth to us the kingdom of the heavens:—by which name the Christian dispensation, or the state of the Church of Christ on earth, is generally known in St. Matthew. It represents to us a field, which is explained to mean the world;—and a man who has sown good seed in it, who is said to be the Son of man, i.e. Jesus Christ, the incarnate Savior. This exactly agrees with what our Lord Himself tells us of His gospel;—that it should be preached before the end, in all nations. This preaching He himself began; and in His strength, and by His commission, His Apostles and those who have followed them have carried on, and still are carrying on. And that which is sown, the good seed, is the word of God;—the good news of the Holy Gospel. No one need be surprised, that this very seed should be said in the explanation to be the children of the kingdom, i.e. the true servants of Christ. For it is here, as in the parable of the sower: when the seed has fallen into the soil, and taken root, it becomes the plant, transforming the soil into itself: so that they into whose hearts the seed is dropped, when the seed grows, become themselves the plants which that seed produces. The main principle of life and action which we follow, is not part of us: we are part of it; and it is the root and center of our being. Thus then, and with this purpose, the good seed is everywhere dropped by the Great Sower and His servants.

But this is not the only sowing that takes place. The sower of the good seed has an enemy. His enemy came while men slept, and sowed the seed of noxious weeds over the field. This wicked act is an exercise of malice not without example even in our own times. I have myself known such a thing willfully done, and made the subject of legal damages.

Now notice the doctrine herein contained. This enemy, our Lord expressly tells us, is the devil. While men slept,—not, while the Son of man slept,—while, not the Great Head of the Church, who never slumbers, but they who were His infirm and imperfect ministers, slept,—came this enemy, this arch-enemy of God and man, and sowed his evil seed. I told you last Sunday that if you believed in Christ at all, you must also be prepared to believe in a spiritual world;—in good and evil spirits, both employed in us, and around us. And observe here His own distinct assertion of this:—of the good by and by;—of the evil here. These children of the wicked one,—these tares that spring up in the field of the Church, are the sowing of God’s enemy, the devil:—of him who is ever counterworking the blessed work of the Son of man and His agents. Nothing can be more plainly declared as a truth for us by our Lord, than this.

But we proceed. When the wheat came up, and put forth its fruit, then appeared the tares also. And now comes the difficulty felt by the servants of the owner of the field; “Didst thou not sow good seed? Whence then came the tares?” And so it ever is and will be in the Church. The Gospel is good; its preaching is good; the ordinances and sacraments are good; good seed is sown, and Christ sows it. And yet how is it, that evermore in the Church there are multitudes of bad men, unholy men, unbelieving men, growing among good men, looking like good men, partaking of all the rich privileges of membership of Christ? How, and whence, came they? Hear the Lord’s answer: “An enemy hath done this.” “They are the children of the wicked one:” none of Christ’s sowing: no growth out of the sacraments and means of grace: no result of men trying to be righteous overmuch: nothing of the kind: but distinctly, and as matter of fact, the result of the devil’s work counteracting Christ’s work. And yet silly shallow men, with all this taught and forewarned them, stand and look on upon the Church, and in the spirit of an unbelief they have not the courage to profess, whisper about, “What is the use of all this stir about the Church,—all this praying and preaching and sacraments and ordinances? We don’t see that men are made much better by it: we can point out as bad men among Churchmen, even among ministers, as any that are found in the world outside.” And suppose you can. Did He who founded the Church, and who saw all her course before Him, ever lead you to expect otherwise? Nay, has He not here expressly told us it would always be so? That this is no excuse for the sins of Churchmen, we see by the awful end of the parable; but it is an accounting for what will ever be found in the Church,—the mixture of good and bad men.

But we now come to another feature. The servants are not only surprised, but offended, by this state of things: scandalized, that their lord’s field should grow evil weeds with the wheat: “Wilt thou then that we leave our work and go and gather them up?” Now this question represents the mind of a very large party in Christ’s Church in all ages. Its acts are stamped on her history: and not only so, but they are among us in our own time also. Make the Church pure, say they: count those only the Church, who are converted to God, and live by faith in Christ: let us have a close communion; none at our Table, who answer not to our test. O how prevalent is this spirit; not among one party only, but among all parties: and how busy it ever is in men’s hearts and practices.

But let us hear the answer. He said unto them, “Nay: lest while ye gather together the tares ye root up with them the wheat also.” Memorable and blessed words! How do we know, how does any man on earth know, the good from the bad, so as to be able to say, as between two men of outwardly correct life, which is, and which is not, a servant of God? What folly it is, as well as sin, to make the use of certain religious words and phrases, or the use of certain devotional practices or postures of outward reverence, the test of inward spiritual good in a man! What hypocrite cannot put on either of these, as much as may be required of him? And is not every age full of sad examples of hypocrites who do, and end by bringing open disgrace on the party which adopts them?

But look on the other side. “Lest ye root up the wheat with them.” How many genuine servants of God have been discouraged, dejected, robbed of their hope, and perhaps of their faith too, by this narrow and unchristian zeal! “He is not one of us: his words and gestures and religious practices are not ours: therefore he does not belong to Christ.” This is what our religious leaders and writers on either side think and say every day. And what is the effect? Discouragement, coldness of hearts, deadness to Christ’s work, general distrust of one another. But what does our Lord command? “Leave both to grow together till the harvest.” Feed both, love both, anathematize none, exclude none: make tares into wheat if you will, but destroy not God’s wheat by making it into tares. For there is not the slightest fear that any tares will ever be gathered into God’s barn at His harvest. Vex not and fret not yourselves. He knows His own; He knows those who are not. At the season of the harvest, He will say to his reapers, “Collect first the tares and bind them in bundles in order to burn them.” “So,” our Lord tells us, “will the holy angels go forth at the end, and will collect out of His kingdom all the causes of offence, and will cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be the great weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Let not us then anticipate that final separation, but rather take care above all things that at that time He find us bringing, or having brought forth, good fruit to His praise. Blessed are they who shall be thus found at His coming. For He who is all mercy and grace, and who spoke this parable, not to denounce judgment, but that place for repentance would be given to all, ends it with gracious and joyous words: “Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”[1]



[1] Alford, H. (1862). Sermons on Christian Doctrine (pp. 120–133). London: Rivingtons. (Public Domain)

Miracles of Power Alford Mat 8.7 Hosea Title.jpg

Mirales of Power

Miracles of Power

Matt. 8:27

“What manner of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?”

This is our third sermon on our Lord’s miracles as illustrating the doctrines of His sacred Person and office. And we have to notice in it another class of those wonderful works, not indeed wholly distinct from those which have already come before us, but distinct in their leading features and character. The two miracles in our Gospel to-day are emphatically instances of His Power. Not that the power shewn in turning water into wine, in cleansing the leper, in healing the centurion’s servant, was one whit less than that exerted in the stilling of the storm, and in the casting out the legion of devils at Gergesa: but that in the former miracles, Love and Mercy seem to stand out as the prominent features, whereas here, above all other things, the sense of almighty Power is carried irresistibly into our minds as we read. And such seems to have been the impression made on the beholders in each case. The men in the ship exclaimed, “What manner of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey Him?” The Grergesenes besought Him to depart out of their coasts;—fearing the presence of one so mighty, and whose might had been shewn in a manner working them worldly loss.

We will then treat these miracles to-day mainly in this light—as proofs of His power: but not only so—we will also take up and turn to account such other incidental lessons from them as occur by the way while we proceed.

Our Lord had been all day speaking that great series of parables, opening with the parable of the Sower, which we find in Matt. 13, five chapters after this in which our narrative occurs. It would appear, that St. Matthew does not relate these events in their order. For we are positively told by St. Mark that this miracle took place on the evening of the day when all those parables were spoken. Our Lord was wearied out with the long day’s teaching, probably in the heat and glare of the beach of the lake. We see from the minute and beautiful touches in St. Mark’s narrative, how the multitudes had been for some days pursuing Him about, eager for His teaching and healing, till that frame which, though it bore the Divinity, was itself limited and liable to exhaustion, was well nigh crushed with toil: till his near relations, seeing His unsparing exertions, came out to lay hold on Him, thinking that He was beside himself, carried away by self-sacrificing enthusiasm. “Let us cross,” He said to his disciples, “to the other side of the lake.” They embarked in the boat, probably Simon Peter’s, which He commonly used, other small boats also accompanying them. St. Mark adds, “they took Him with them in the boat as He was,” without any preparation, perhaps even too weary to take refreshment. They spread for Him in the stern the cushions commonly used on the rowers’ benches, and, exhausted as He was, He laid him down, and slept the sleep of the weary. I have enlarged on this scene, that we may have the whole blessed truth of the matter vividly before us. Behold him in his humanity;—handle him in your thoughts, and see that it is He himself. This is indeed no pretended man; no god in disguise, as the heathens sometimes fabled of in their legends. Nay this is a veritable human frame, worn out with toil: not a form assumed for an apparition of thirty years on earth, but the form, as indissolubly united to the Person of him who bore it, as this of mine, and these of yours, are united to each of us. And observe, that in its union, it is very man: not, except at special times when He pleased, lifted up to superhuman capacity by the indwelling Godhead, not ordinarily able to endure without fatigue, to subsist without food, to renovate itself without sleep: but as was necessary for the Bearer of man’s infirmities, for the Sympathizer with man’s troubles, for the great Consoler of all who need consolation, like his brethren in all things, with one only most necessary and most teaching exception.

And so He sleeps on: and the oars plash regularly in the falling twilight, till at length one quarter of the sky gathers darker than is wont, and suddenly there bursts down on the inland sea from its bordering valleys one of those squalls of wind, well known as the chief perils of all lake navigation. The tempest quickly, in those confined spaces, lashes the water into fury: the little vessel labors among the breakers, which begin dashing over her sides, and she is soon rapidly filling. Still, the weary passenger sleeps. So, and yet not so, did Jonah sleep in the sides of the ship, when he was fleeing from the face of God: for there may be deep sleep of different kinds. One may be calm in danger from apathy or unbelief, and another from blessed faith and reliance. Shall we not say of this Sleeper, that his slumber was deep and undisturbed, because it never had been broken by the start of guilt, or the working thoughts of terror? Shall we not feel that the beautiful words of our Poet are true of Him only,—

“He feared no danger, for He knew no sin?”

Such was the manhood of the Lord in its infirmity and in its perfection: in its weakness, and in its strength.

But meanwhile the disciples are filled with terror. Their boat is beginning to sink: and He, who they knew could save them, is all unconscious of their common danger. They awake him with something of reproach: “Master, Master, carest thou not that we perish?” It is not as it was to Jonah, “Awake, thou sleeper, and call upon thy God:” they know thus much, that He has power to save them: but they wonder that that power should not have been exerted before it came to this. Their call to Him is variously given by the Evangelists; as above,—or as in the gospel for this Sunday, “Lord, save us: we perish;” or as by St. Luke, “Master, master, we perish.” “The sense is the same in all,” says St. Augustine; “in all, they wake the Lord, and beseech Him to save them; nor is it worth our while to enquire, which of these contains the actual words said to Christ rather than the others. For whether they used any one of these three expressions, or some other words which none of the Evangelists has related, but amounting to the same verity of meaning, what has it to do with the matter in hand?” It had been well, if these remarks had always been borne in mind by those who compare the gospels one with another; they would have ensured its being done more in the freedom of the spirit, and not so much in the bondage of the letter.

The Lord is not slow to answer to their cry, though He reproaches them as being of little faith. They who had seen so many of His wonderful works, and who knew the love which He had for them, should have known also that He was not one whose power could be in this manner taken at a disadvantage, or whose care for His own could be thus defeated. But none of us, my brethren, can say that their conduct was not natural. I fear we all are of little faith: for I am sure we should all have done likewise. In the account in St. Matthew’s gospel, this rebuke of His comes before the act of power: in St. Mark and St. Luke, it follows it. Whether it went before or followed, the certainty that it was given, and the lesson in it for us, are the same.

But now let us fix our attention on that which was done: for surely we are reading a narrative which stands alone in the history of our world. This man who, but a moment since, was fast asleep from weariness, rose and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace, be still.” We all know the effect of a sudden lull in the raving of the storm: the perfect peace which seems to take the place of the war of the elements: the sense of thankfulness and surprise with which we look abroad into the stillness. What then must this have been, when it was the instantaneous effect of the command of a human voice? “There was a great calm.” No ordinary calm: not as usual after the cessation of a tempest, the waves still tossing with their disquiet, but half-appeased; but the lake became as in the calm of the breathless noon,—it instantaneously put on the glassy surface of the misty morn, or the long level lines of the solemn twilight. As before, in the Lord’s first miracle, nature was silently endowed with powers not her own,—her slow processes anticipated,—her ordinary requirements superseded: so now, at His spoken word, her own powers are suspended, and their exercise forbidden. And as in that case imagination fails to trace the procedure of the creative act, so here of the repressive. We hear the wind, and cannot tell whence it cometh and whither it goeth: but He knows: the necessity that there is for the air to rush hither and thither, filling up its void places,—where this exists, and why, He has it all in his thoughts: and what He commands, He works also. It was not in sober reality, as the wondering shipmen expressed it: the winds and the sea were not animated beings, who heard and obeyed, so that He should have no part in that which was done, but to command it;—far otherwise: it was all His doing. He who spoke was present in the far-off mountain passes whence the winds issued forth: He made the gathering eddies stand still, and stanched the pouring mist. The result was seen, the workmanship was hidden. He worked as God ever works: His ways were in the vast deep, and His path in the trackless air; the great calm, the accomplishment of that which was done, was the least thing that was wrought;—was but the token, that God had passed by, and nature was silent.

And so, my brethren, we have our blessed Lord in His weakness and in His strength: in His weariness as man, and His unwearyingness as God: in His tired sleep, and in His unslumbering watchfulness. “What manner of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey Him?”

Turn we now to another aspect of His glorious Person and office. “They came to the other side, into the land of the Gergesenes.” It was a land of limestone cliffs, pierced, as not uncommonly, into hollow caves, which were used in that country for the burying-places of the dead. Dwelling in those tombs, disputing possession with the wild beasts of the wilderness, were two creatures scarcely human, though bearing the forms of men. On one of these wretched ones is our attention specially concentrated. Terrible indeed is the description of him by the Evangelists: “When He was come out of the ship, immediately there met Him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit, who had his dwelling among the tombs, and no man could tame him, no not with chains; because that he had been often bound with fetters and chains, and the chains had been plucked asunder by him and the fetters broken in pieces: neither could any man tame him. And he wore no clothes; but always night and day he was in the mountains, and in the tombs, crying, and cutting himself with stones, exceeding fierce, so that no man might pass by that way.” Was ever description more wild and fearful?

And as it is the most dreadful of its whole class, so let us take it as a type of the whole class, and ask ourselves, what was this which is here spoken of—this possession by evil spirits? And observe, that I am not now going into the general enquiry, which is a very wide one; but am asking the question with a view to our Lord Himself—His truth, His mercy, and His power. I may simply then and in a word say that whoever believes in Him at all, must also believe in the existence and agency of both good and evil spirits. For it is again and again certified to us both by His words and by His actions. There is no getting over this, or explaining it away. If such men as these, and the rest on whom his miracles wore wrought, were not possessed by devils at all, but were only madmen,—and if He, in what He said and did, was only countenancing a popular delusion, why then I say, all trust in Him and in His words, is gone: He was no true Teacher, no pure and sinless Savior: for He must have acted and spoken dangerous and blasphemous falsehoods. I speak thus strongly, to shew you how vain is the attempt to separate these cases from Himself and his teaching. Reject them, if you like: but you reject Him with them. Doubt and disbelieve, if you will, the existence of an unseen spiritual world about us and in us; but in doing so you doubt and disbelieve Him by whose holy Name you are called, and to whom you owe all you have both here and hereafter.

Well then, with this caution, we will speak as we believe, and simply assume the fact as certain, that these men were, or rather this man,—seeing that the second bears no prominent part,—was the wretched victim of possession by devils, the peculiar disease and burden of that age of the world. Evil spirits had entered into and taken possession of him. They used his voice, his thoughts, his limbs, for their unholy purposes. He was not his own master, but their slave. And this miserable state gave rise to a sort of double personality, not altogether unknown, be it observed, to those even now who study the more desperate forms of insanity. In this condition, while the man sometimes besought for deliverance, the demon broke in with his superhuman confessions that Jesus was the Son of God. We have this latter feature in the history before us. The evil spirits know the Son of God: and through the voice of their victim they pray Him not to torment them before the time. They know His lordship over them—they know that a day is coming, when He will adjudge their everlasting doom. Among the doctrines regarding His Person, notice this well. He is Lord of heaven and earth and hell:—of the evil spirits, as well as of His holy angels:—and He is their judge, and will pronounce their sentence in the end.

And now, for I deny it not, we come to matters of detail, strange, and passing our comprehension. The request on the part of the devils that they might not be sent out of the country,—or not into the deep,—but into the swine,—the permission given,—the destruction of the herd,—all this has time out of mind furnished ground of cavil to the unbeliever, and of reverent question to the enquiring Christian. But what wonder if we find ourselves out of our depth, when introduced but for a moment into the spirit world, of which we know absolutely nothing by any research or experience of our own? Rather should we receive such notices as these as each lifting some portion of the veil which hides that world from us, and teaching us by analogy how to think and judge of it. For instance, we are at least informed by this narrative, that certain evil spirits were then suffered to abide, tempting men, in certain portions of the earth; we see that the grosser animal nature, as well as that of men, is able to receive their attacks and incursions:—and we gather that it pleased our Lord, for reasons no doubt understood and sufficient at the time, to permit this to take place, and to destroy the swine in the waters. Among such reasons at once occurs to us this;—that the fact may have furnished more perfect assurance to the restored man himself, and to the neighborhood around, of his complete deliverance: and as it has well been said, what wonder that He who ordains that myriads of animals should daily be slaughtered for the sustenance of men’s bodies, should on this occasion have permitted the destruction of a few, for the better health of their souls?

But let us now turn to another and a very different spectacle, to him that had had the legion, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed, and in his right mind. O blessed result! blessed, in the fact itself; blessed, in the lesson which it echoes onwards through the ages of Time. Yes, my brethren, even thus it is that every one of us must fare at His hands, if we would be healed and live. We, thank God, have fallen in other times than those. His blessed Gospel, next to His holy Presence, has won its way on earth. He subdued the enemy for us—He saw him as lightning fall from heaven; and the softening and humanizing influences of his descended Spirit have followed. But there is a Satanic possession of which the world is not rid, and never will be, till He comes to judge it. We were all born in sin, and children of wrath; and though in Christ’s church we have become the children of grace, yet is the old Adam not thoroughly driven out; yet is the law of sin still found active in our members, and furnishing material for our spiritual enemy to work on:—yet are we in that divided state, that the good which we would do, that we cannot: and the evil which we would not, that we do: even yet is the best of us in that condition which forced from the great Apostle that exceeding bitter cry, “O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” Who, but He that rebuked the winds and the waves, and there was a great calm,—who but He that changed the fierce demoniac into a humble disciple,—He of whom the Apostle spoke, when he replied to his “who shall deliver,” with “I thank God, through Jesus Christ our Lord?”

O Thou Stiller of the tempest, Thou Conqueror of the enemy for us, hear us, and save! In all time of our tribulation: in all time of our wealth: in the hour of death and in the day of judgment, good Lord, deliver us.[1]



[1] Alford, H. (1862). Sermons on Christian Doctrine (pp. 108–119). London: Rivingtons. (Public Domain)

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Miracles: Water Made Wine

Miracles:  Water Made Wine

“This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth his glory.” (John 2:11)

It is very instructive, particularly when any course of teaching like our present one is undertaken, to notice the way in which the Church has chosen the passages of Scripture which are to be read on the different Sundays. I told you, that in our series of doctrinal sermons I should follow the great events of our Lord’s life as brought before us by the Church. Now let us observe what she has done for us about this time of the year. We have passed the nativity of Christ: His circumcision: His manifestation to the Gentiles. Last Sunday the Gospel contained the narrative of the only event recorded as having happened during His youth. On that I did not preach to you: both because I had once treated it fully before, and because I had already said so much on the perfect manhood of our Lord, which that wondrous story most concerns.

But now let us observe the six following Sundays, beginning with this one, the second after Epiphany. Today we have for our Gospel the miracle of the water turned into wine: next Sunday, the healing of the leper and of the centurion’s servant, which occur together in Matt. 8: the Sunday after, the three miracles of the stilling the storm, the casting out the devils at Gadara, and the destruction of the swine, which also occur together in the same chapter. Then on the next Sunday, the fifth after Epiphany, we have the parable of the tares of the field: and missing the sixth, which occurs but seldom, and has a peculiar subject of its own, on Septuagesima Sunday we have another parable, that of the laborers in the vineyard: and on the next, Sexagesima, that of the Sower: the next Sunday to that introducing the solemn season of Lent with a Gospel pointedly announcing our Lord’s sufferings for our sins.

Thus we have before us, as there are this year five Sundays after Epiphany, three Sundays of miracles, and three of parables. And this circumstance will guide me in choosing our subjects for those Sundays.

Our Blessed Lord’s Person is the great center of all Christian doctrines. According as you do, or do not, see clearly who He is, and what was and is His work, you will or will not be sound in the faith, and led on to true and blessed belief in the other great verities of His religion. I shall need therefore no apology for devoting these six Sundays to the subjects thus pointed out to us; three to our Lord’s miracles,—three to His parables and discourses. May God guide me to speak, and you to hear, that which is according to His will, and the mind of His Spirit.

We are then to speak of CHRIST’S MIRACLES.
And first, WHAT IS A MIRACLE? This is a most important question: for on the right answer to it depends, whether we understand or not of what use Christ’s miracles were when they were wrought, and what purpose they are intended to serve for us now, and for the Church to the end of time. A miracle is an interference with the common course of nature by some power above nature. Thus an earthquake or a volcanic eruption is not a miracle, because it is a result, though an unusual result, of natural causes: a comet is not a miracle, because it is, though a rare thing in nature, yet brought about by no divine interference, but occurring in the course of nature herself. Divine interference might exalt either of these into miracles, by specially announcing them as sent for a purpose: as the prophetic voice of Samuel did thus exalt into a miracle the thunderstorm in the wheat harvest, when he foretold it as a sign of God’s anger for Israel’s sin. The healing of a disease is not a miracle, if brought about by ordinary means, although we know that God’s blessing must be given on those means; but it is a miracle, if it is produced by a word, or a touch, and would at once shew that he who did it possessed some power greater than that of nature, and of man, nature’s servant. Some power greater, I said: and I said it purposely: for all miracles do not come from God: some come from God’s enemy and ours, the devil, and from his agents and subordinate powers. The magicians of Egypt were able to perform the same miracles as Moses, up to a certain point: and we have it from the lips of our Lord himself, that the Antichrist of the latter days, when he shall appear, shall shew signs and wonders, so as to deceive, if it were possible, even the elect of God. St. Paul also speaks of the same Antichrist as “him whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and might and lying wonders.” Mere miracles then are no proof of a divine mission, but only of some power from heaven or hell superior to that of man, and of nature in her ordinary working.

I shall have occasion to return to this point again by and by, and to say a good deal upon it. Meantime one general remark must be made here in the outset. It will be plain to you that any one who believes in a personal Author and Governor of nature, will have no difficulty in believing in miracles. The same Almighty Being who made and upholds nature, can interfere, whenever it pleases Him, with the ordinary course of nature, which He has Himself prescribed. To say that He cannot do this, is to deny His almightiness, and consequently His existence. To say that He never will be pleased thus to interfere, is manifestly foolish and presumptuous in the extreme: we cannot set bounds to His purposes, nor tell beforehand how He may be pleased to accomplish them. It does not follow, because we have never witnessed an unusual exertion of His power, that such never take place. By the same argument we might refuse to believe any wonderful thing which we have not ourselves seen. Then again, every one who believes in the existence of spirits and powers of evil must allow that they exist and act only by permission of God, and for mysterious purposes of His. And the trial of our faith and obedience is certainly one of those purposes. There is then no antecedent difficulty in believing that miraculous powers are granted, or have been at certain times granted, to these evil spirits, to exercise the faith of men: and Scripture positively assures us that such is the case. Whenever a man refuses to believe in miracles, one of two things must be the case: either, believing the possibility of miracles, he does not think the evidence enough on which the miracle is sought to be established; or, disbelieving their possibility, and thinking no evidence sufficient to establish them, he must, if he be consistent, also disbelieve the existence of,—or the continued government of the world by,—an Almighty Creator and Upholder. We, while we believe the evidence of the Scripture miracles to be sufficient to prove them to be facts, take the former course, with regard to the recorded miracles of the Saints of the Church of Rome, and to those which she from time to time reports in our own days: we believe well-attested miracles, but we do not believe these, which we find will not bear the test of a searching examination into their facts. The unbeliever takes the latter course, when he refuses to receive the miracles related in Holy Scripture, on the ground of its being impossible or improbable that they should have happened. I say, the unbeliever; meaning he who rejects Christ and Christianity: for it is clearly impossible to receive Christ as the Savior, and not to credit those very works to which He constantly appealed for the truth of His mission.

But now it is time to return to the more interesting matter which we just now left. If there are good and had miracles,—miracles of divine goodness, and miracles of lying spirits,—one thing must be very plain to us: viz. that by miracles alone no man can be proved to be sent from God. He may be proved to be sent either from God, or from God’s and man’s enemy: but miracles alone will not determine which.

And now we have come to the point as regards our blessed Lord Himself. Our enquiry to-day, on which we wish to gain some information for ourselves, is, What were our Lord’s miracles, as regards their place in His great work? They held a very important place, but they did not hold the chief place, in the evidences of His mission. He often appeals to them in proof that He came from God: but He does so in a peculiar manner, and one very instructive to us. He himself actually at one time had to reply to the charge that he wrought them by Satanic influence. “This man casteth out devils by Beelzebub the prince of the devils.” And the way in which He answered the accusation is most instructive. He did it, not by appealing to the greatness, or even to the beneficence of his miracles alone, but by asserting that if it were so, Satan would be divided against himself. Our Lord was his well-known opponent,—the man of truth, the man of purity, the man of God; whose meat and drink it was to do God’s will; and the idea of Satan working by means of this man would imply that Satan was his own enemy, and therefore could not stand, but must have an end. And this is just the course which our Lord ever took with regard to His miracles. You will find it in St. John’s Gospel most plainly set forth. There the Evangelist’s purpose evidently is, not merely to relate the events as they happened, and the discourses as they were delivered; but so to collect and group them together that they may best illustrate our blessed Lord’s purpose and method of manifesting himself to men. And you will ever find Him in that Gospel insisting on this point in all His conflicts and controversies with the Jews,—that His life was holy and blameless; that He was a good man, and spoke good, and did good, and shewed them good. This was the great and firm basis on which Jesus rested for the acceptation of his ministry and mission; that none could convict him of sin; that He was like God, and of God. And now came in His miracles; not as chief proofs, but as proofs in aid, of this pure and holy life and mission. They were wonderful works; they were suspensions of the course of nature: this shewed Him to be one endowed with supernatural power. He turned water into wine:—He spoke and the winds were silent:—He commanded diseases with a word. So far the power might be from above or from beneath. But, coupled with his holy and blameless life, and his love for God, and obedience to God, these works of power took another character, and became signs, St. John’s usual word for them; signs whence He came: they could have but one source,—they could not be from Satan; He could not be a magician, in league with the powers of evil:—they were proofs that He was what he asserted himself to be,—from God, and the Son of God:—they became, when viewed together with the consistent and unvarying character of his teaching and life, most valuable and decisive evidences to his Messiahship. “No man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him,” said the Jewish Rabbi to Him: “the works which the Father hath given me to finish, the same works that I do, bear witness of me that the Father hath sent me.”

But besides that our Lord’s miracles came in aid of His spotless and holy life to prove Him the Son of God, they have a distinct and most important meaning and teaching of their own. This will be best introduced by for a moment comparing them with the thousands of reported heathen and middle-age miracles which have been reported in history and legend. What was the meaning and import of all these? What good did they do? What result came of them? Can any instruction be got from them, or is any meaning for men’s souls concealed beneath them? But with every one of our Lord’s miracles, this is otherwise. They are full of goodness to the bodies and souls of men. Each of them has its own fitness as adapted to His great work, and to the will of the Father which He came to accomplish. Each one tends, in its place, as St. John says of this one in our Gospel, to manifest forth His glory: shews forth some gracious attribute, some deep sympathy: testifies to Him as the light, or life, or consolation, or sustenance, of man and man’s world. Let us take general instances, which we shall be able afterwards to follow out into particulars, in the miracles which are brought before us in the Gospels for these three Sundays.

Sin is, as we have seen, the great disease of our nature, which this divine Savior came to heal. Bodily disease is not only a type, it is the consequence of sin. So that when our Lord puts forth His hand to heal, or speaks the words which are followed by healing, He is forwarding, at the same time that He is prefiguring and illustrating, His healing power for the whole world, for men’s bodies and souls alike: when He raises the dead, He is conquering Death, the result of sin, and He is giving a foretaste of the day when all that are in the grave, shall hear His voice: when He feeds the five thousand or the four thousand in the wilderness, He himself teaches us that He is not only doing a beneficent act to men’s bodies, but is teaching them that He is the Bread of life for their souls: when He casts out devils in relief of the peculiar spiritual affliction of that time, He is teaching us that He came to destroy the works of the devil. Some of the miracles are acted parables: similar lessons of instruction are conveyed by them to those which at other times He expressed in his teaching. We have a notable example of this in the miracle of the withering fig-tree, in which He sets forth to us, in connection with his well-known parable, the barrenness, and the punishment, of unfruitful Israel.

So that our Lord’s miracles form a precious and most important body of proofs of his holy mission and his Sonship of God: and not only this, but they come powerfully in aid of his discourses, in setting before us the truth of his divine Person and Work. We know his Power by them; we are assured of his Wisdom and his Love. The faithful soul, in its wants and its weaknesses, finds these testimonies to his loving-kindness a rich treasure-house of personal comfort.

I will devote the rest of my sermon to considering how this is so with regard to the class of miracles to which that in our Gospel to-day belongs.

That class is a very remarkable one. And it is especially worthy of note, that our Lord should choose a miracle of such a character with which to open his whole course of supernatural working. For it is one in which we have not the healing of disease, not the abolition of death, not the freeing men from any of the plainer and more obvious consequences of sin, but the supply of a want which was not a need, the ministering to mere festive joy, not to destitution and distress. It may at first sight appear strange that such a miracle should be selected by our Lord as one especially calculated to manifest forth his glory, and to cause his disciples to believe on him. There is then all reason why we should closely examine it and try to discern its worthiness for such a place and office.

Our first observation shall be this: that whereas other of our Lord’s miracles concern some particular portion of human infirmity, or divine power and mercy, we might well expect this one, which was to begin and head them, to convey a lesson of a more general nature respecting both ourselves and Him who wrought it. And such indeed it does convey. We see Him here as the true source of all joy and happiness: we see Him in his highest and most blessed influence on man and that which belongs to man. For He came, as we insisted last Sunday in preaching to you on the universality of His Gospel, to heal and elevate and bless our whole nature, in all its wants, all its employments, all its joys.

And what is it that we find Him here doing? The holy estate of marriage was instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency. It is an institution still in full force among us, and dating from before the time of the first ravages of sin. Sin indeed has abused it, and counterfeited it, and interfered with its blessedness: but for all that, its own holiness and purity, and capability for blessing and elevating humanity, still remain for those who use it aright, in the faith and fear of God, and in holy forbearance and love. What occasion then so fitting for the Son of God to shew his divine power of blessing and hallowing humanity, as that of a marriage? He might have entered the abode of sickness and healed with a word, as often afterwards: He might have stood over the bed of death and called back the parted spirit: each of these miracles would have had, as each ever has, its own deep and blessed significance: but we may venture to say, that neither of them would have spread so wide, or risen so high, in its manifestation of the Redeemer’s glory, as did this one. Those would regard more the means whereby the great work of Redemption was to be accomplished,—the healing of sin, the overcoming of death: but this shews us the blessed work completed, and in its most glorious result. “These things speak I to you that your joy may be full.” This was the tendency of his discourses, and of the writings of his apostles:—and thus, in ministering to the fulness of human joy, He is going further, and shewing more completely the glory of his Incarnation in our nature, than if He had ministered to human sorrow,—because under Him and in His Kingdom, all sorrow is but a means to joy,—all sorrow ends in joy. “Ye now therefore have sorrow,” He says to His disciples of their orphan state in the world: “but I will come and see you again, and ye shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you.”

Take yet another view of this miracle. The gift which our Lord bestowed in it is ever used in Scripture, however it has been perverted by man’s evil and sinful lusts, as setting forth to us the invigorating and cheering effects of the Spirit of God on man’s heart. “The Lord will make a feast of wines on the lees well refined:”—“Come ye, buy wine and milk without money and without price:”—these are the prophetic representations of the rich blessings of the Christian covenant. And so our Lord, in opening His treasure of these rich blessings, does so by imparting the lower gift, the type of His better and more lasting bestowal. And St. John has thought it worth while to record, that the wine which He bestowed was the best of its kind, as all His gifts are better than any other gifts: as His works of nature and His works of grace are ever the best and the noblest, marvels of skill and mercy:—for He doeth all things well.

All this was manifesting forth His glory, and the character of His work on earth: and so it was, when He turned water into wine, the baser element into the nobler, the weaker into the stronger. For thus He ever does with all that is merely ours, when He comes with His transforming power and His heavenly grace. By that power the weak becomes strong, the earthly becomes heavenly, the transitory becomes abiding and eternal. It is He alone who can turn the mere flashes of human joy into a holy and steady flame which even the grave shall not extinguish: He alone, who can change the sorrow of the world, which worketh death, into godly sorrow, which bringeth forth the peaceable fruits of righteousness:—who bestows the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.

But more manifestations of His glory yet remain behind. He did all this simply by His own creative power. And the process was hidden from human view. In the vessels, or in pouring from vessel to vessel, did His power in a moment work that wondrous change, which is yearly during a whole season wrought by Him in nature, when the moisture of the earth is taken up by the vine, circulates as sap in the branch and the bud and the bloom, becomes ripened into the juice of the grape,—and yet more, being by man’s labor gathered, pressed, fermented, put by, after years mellows into the good wine. He, who commonly creates by means and secondary causes, can do without them when He will; will do without them, when it pleases Him, in the bringing about of His great purposes.

Yet again. There is something in the very order of His course here which is instructive to us. “Thou hast kept the good wine until now,” says the ruler of the feast. Ever His best, last:—not even His best first, as the world, anxious for present shew, present effect, careless about the distant future. It is not His way to be very gracious at first, and then to cool towards His people: to invite them to Him, and then fall back from them: His mercies are new every morning: He giveth more grace,—grace for grace: and evermore those who have loved Him longest love Him best, those who have served Him longest can tell most of His loving-kindness. He keeps His best until last. Never, till we sit down in the Kingdom of God, shall we know the fulness of joy which is in His presence, and the pleasures which are at His right hand. There none will be disappointed: every one will know and confess that He has kept His best bestowal, till body and soul and spirit were ready to be filled full with it.

But lastly, all this He will do, not at our time, but at His own. See how His blessed Mother urged him forward, being convinced in her own believing heart that He could and would do, what He eventually really did. But mark the reproof which even she earned from Him—“Woman, what have I to do with thee? mine hour is not yet come.” And so do many of us, my brethren, without half her faith and clearness of insight into His purposes, often urge Him forward for our own ease or consolation, or as we fancy, for His greater and speedier glorification: but the same answer awaits us,—if not from His lips, yet from His Providence: we shall be thrust back, and kept standing without and disappointed of our earnest wish, till His time is come: and then, but not till then, will He help us, and clear us, and justify us, and save us, and glorify us:—then when we are fittest,—then when His will is ripest,—then, when it is best.

Such, my beloved, are some of the lessons to be learned, some of the rich consolations to be drawn, from this one miracle of our Blessed Lord. Notice the effect in our text:—His disciples believed on Him. O may this same result be produced on every one of you. You have heard in these sermons of your deep need of Him,—of His eternal Godhead,—His grace in becoming man for you,—and now to-day of His glory as manifested by His miracles generally, and by this one in particular. And to what purpose shall I have spoken and you have heard these things, unless some hearts here be brought to receive Him for their Savior and Lord: to trust in His power and mercy, to thirst for a share in His glory?

Go and think of Him, and pray to Him, and serve Him: strive by prayer, by obedience, by patience and hope in believing, for more of His spirit and His likeness, that one day your vile body may be changed, by a far more wonderful miracle, to be as His glorious body, according to the mighty working whereby He is able even to subdue all things unto Himself.

Alford, H. (1862). Sermons on Christian Doctrine (pp. 82–96). London: Rivingtons. (Public Domain)

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The Universality of the Gospel

The Universality of the Gospel

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28


WE have advanced thus far in our statements of Christian doctrine. Our race is universally tainted with the disease of sin, and guilty in God’s sight. But it has pleased Him, of His infinite mercy, to provide a remedy as wide and universal as the disease. The eternal Son of God has taken our nature upon him, and in it wrought out on our behalf a perfect obedience, even up to the point of suffering the penalty of the sin of mankind. On this His work, anticipated as complete in the divine counsels, we asserted that the very existence of this our world depended, and that He does at the present moment, and ever, uphold all things in the sight of the Father by virtue of the eternal redemption which He has wrought for man.
Now our subject to-day, naturally suggested by the Epiphany, or Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, is a very simple, but a very instructive and edifying one: the fact that, in the offer made to us of the acceptance for ourselves of this redemption and all its manifold blessings, there is absolutely no difference between one man and another, but all have a right to it alike, all are alike invited to share it, all have common capacity for receiving it.

Who, you may say to me, does not know this? Why preach us a sermon about so plain and acknowledged a fact? I answer, because it was one of the most wonderful revelations of God to man when it was first made, however plain it may seem now: and also, because, however plain it may seem now, thousands of those who think it so plain, do not understand it, do not feel it, do not act upon it.

First, it was a most wonderful thing, when God revealed it to mankind. All the ages which had passed since the Creation had been putting wider and wider difference between man and man,—between nation and nation, between men’s bodies, and between men’s souls. One nation was God’s people, worshipping they knew what, in communion with the Father of Spirits, walking in the light of conscience and of revelation: another was building altars to the unknown God, bowing down to images graven by art and man’s device, but at the same time acute and trained and instructed to the highest power of the human intellect: a third had almost cast off all religion, but had taken for its acts the governing of the world and the humbling the haughty, and ruled far and wide with its laws and its arms. Then again, one man was much more different from another than we know any thing of under the more equalizing influences of modern times; the conqueror and the vanquished, the master and the slave, the learned and the unlearned,—there was a far wider gap between these than there ever can be under the power of enlightened Christian public opinion, by which all have rights, all have instruction,—and injustice, and cruelty, and grossness, can hardly abound among us. But that a remedy for the evil of the world should be proposed which would suit equally all and each of these,—which could be taken alike, and taken in the same form, by the despot and his bondsman, by the master and his slave, by the learned and ignorant, by the Jew and Gentile,—this was the wonderful thing which had never been revealed to man before; and much trouble and time it cost, before man could receive it.

First came the difficulty about Jew and Gentile. The conflict about it raged long even in the apostolic church itself. It required a heart as fervid, and a spiritual sight as keen and single as that of St. Paul, to see the truth at once, and unflinchingly to maintain it, even against Apostles, when they wavered and dissimulated. How difficult must it have been for one born and bred a Jew, ever to take in the truth that he was to have one Lord, one faith, one baptism, with a man that was born and bred and remained a Gentile! How almost impossible to make such an one ever to bring himself to allow, that the Gentile, without fulfilling any one requirement of the law, was yet to be an heir of God’s covenant promises in their highest sense, just as much and as completely as he himself, a circumcised Jew, an Hebrew by descent inheriting from Abraham! We can little imagine the widening of the view, and enlarging of the heart, and breaking down of prejudices, necessary before such a truth could be taught to a man. We cannot even devise an example in modern times which should teach us this. Every thing about us tends to widen our view, to open our hearts, to diminish our prejudices: but every thing around them tended to shut up their hearts, to narrow their view, and to fortify them in every adverse feeling. One week, they saw the Gentile taking part in his abominable idol rites; the next they might be called on to pass to him the kiss of peace as a Christian brother. It was the first great trouble in the infant church: a trouble which divided even holy Apostles asunder, and which some think was ultimately the cause of the persecution to death even of St. Paul himself.

And the difficulty, though it began here, did not by any means end here. It is natural to us to build up barriers of division between bodies of men and between individuals. The selfish heart is ever insulating itself, and its set, from other persons and other societies. If there were no more proof than this that Christianity came from God, the very fact of such an announcement being made as that in my text, would shew that some influence was at work in it which was not from man alone; some Spirit which was wider than man’s thoughts, deeper than man’s sympathies; which over-leapt all distinctions raised by time and place and descent and circumstance, and referred men’s practice for its rule to the primal truth, that God had made of one blood all nations on the earth.

And let me notice before I come to, and in coming to, the treatment of this great truth for our own times, what a fundamental and all-important principle it has ever furnished for the working and influence of the Church of Christ in all ages. What has been the one thing which has ever made the Christian Church the benefactor of mankind,—the advocate of justice and of mercy,—the enemy of the oppressor, the friend of light and the upholder of freedom? Why is it, that wherever she has not been this, she has decayed and corrupted;—wherever she has taken up the part and done its work, she has energized and prospered? Is it not simply for this reason, that the sacred doctrine, that all mankind are one in Christ Jesus, lies at the very corner of the foundation of her fabric wherever she is built up? that without it her message of mercy falls powerless, her proclamation of truth is a delusion, the God whom she preaches is not the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ? Her errand can only prosper in the broad sunshine:—she requires for her healthy breathing the whole wide atmosphere of the world:—limit her, and she becomes paralyzed: set bounds to her, and her voice sinks to a whisper: confine her to a privileged set, to a national form, to the habits of one or another age of men, and she ceases to be the Spouse of Him who is the Head and Husband of our entire humanity: put Roman before Catholic, put Eastern before Catholic, put Anglican before Catholic, and you contradict your own words as you speak, and nullify your own deeds as you act. The Church of Christ is catholic, is universal: over all, in all, belonging to all, fitted for all: all things to all men, as was he who wrote of her in our text: taking into herself, hallowing by her influence, transforming for good, all men’s temperaments, all men’s sympathies, all men’s energies: not too narrow for the mightiest of human powers to work in, not too vast and stately for the meanest to find place and honor: limiting none, despising none, degrading none, excluding none. Round her course, through the ages, have sprung up all the blessings of civilization: her path has ever been marked by the soft verdure of the kindnesses of home, the fresh shade of the courtesies of society, the fair trophies of science, the bright blossoms of art. When she has awoke to the purity and holiness of her mission, with her have awoke the exploring eye of discovery, the searching effort of invention: when she has made an onward step, with her have advanced the powers of mind over matter, and love over hatred, of peace over contention: it was she who knit up at first, it is she who has healed when threatened with severance, the bonds of intercourse among nations; and all because of this, that she is the fulness of Him that filleth all:—because she is founded on Him in whom there is neither Jew nor Gentile, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: but all are one in Christ Jesus, the Head and Savior of all.

But though all this is so, and though we thank God for it, and many of us live in the strength and hope of it, how little it has been understood in ages past—how little is it understood even now! What a record of the forgetfulness of this great principle has ever been the history of Christ’s Church! How its blessed effects have broken forth and spread, not because of, but in spite of, that which men purposed and intended!

Let man set up a principle, and work according to a rule of his own making, and the great tide of God’s providence rolls on, and the barriers which are thought so strong are swept down and carried away before it: but let God set up a principle of His, and let men counter-work it as they will, it shall prevail; working under the surface, till the surface heaves with it, and it comes uppermost, and asserts itself in spite of us all.

And so it has ever been in the history of Christ’s Church. Men have attempted to change its character—to profess conformity to it without acknowledging its principles—to get gain out of it while it should lie dormant and be merely a decent outside; to crush down the truths they daily confessed in their creeds, and hinder the efforts which they prayed for in their prayers; but blessed be God, notwithstanding their efforts, and by the very means of their efforts, the holy cause went on and the Truth prevailed: the sowers sowed evil seed, but God transformed it to good; and while they thought they were doing their work of effective repression, He was doing His work of surer and safer advance.

And how stand we now, my brethren, with regard to this foundation principle of the Gospel and Church of Christ? Have we thoroughly made it our own? Is it one of those things which we take most completely for granted in our thoughts of ourselves and others—of our Christian state and work in the world? Are we satisfied, after all these centuries, and all these conflicts, and all these proofs which God has given, that there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free, male nor female: but that all are one in Christ Jesus?
Alas, would that we were! Let us try the matter by some of its plainest consequences, and judge of ourselves accordingly.

First, if the Gospel is wide enough for all humanity, and embraces it all indiscriminately, then does it not at once seem to follow, that it should take up into itself, and hallow, the whole, and not a mere part of the being of each of us? Now in connection with such a result as this, what think we of Christ and His salvation? Is it not notorious, that most of us, that Christians in general, regard their religious life and their ordinary life as two distinct things—say in fact in an impossible sense the saying, “Give to the world the things that are the world’s, and (not therefore but separately) to God the things that are God’s”—as if all things were not God’s—as if our whole lives, our whole being, body, soul, and spirit, were not bought with the blood of Christ, and His of right by that purchase? The error runs through the thoughts and actions of modern Christians to an extent which we hardly suspect. Our lives are divided into two inconsistent and incompatible portions: we try to be two persons—religious on our Sundays, at our times of devotion, on our sick beds,—and worldly all the rest of the week, and of the day, and of our ordinary time. Many and many a man, who would be offended not to be thought a good Christian, never dreams of acting, in his common resolves and determinations, from simply Christian motives,—because Christ has commanded, or has forbidden, this or that.

Now He who came to fill our whole nature with Himself and His grace, will not submit to be thus limited to a small share of it. He must have it all or none. “Whether ye eat or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.” It is as much a sin against the universal spirit and power of the Gospel, to limit it to one part of our own lives, and exclude the remainder, as it is to limit it to one part of mankind and shut out the rest. We know nothing of its transforming power, or of its efficacy to supply all the wants of humanity, until our own lives with their energies and interests are carried on in that power, and draw, according to their daily need, out of that efficacy.

But again: all are one in Christ Jesus. The most ignorant, the most degraded, the most remote from the abodes of that grace which the Gospel gives, are just as capable of receiving and growing by it, as we who have been born and brought up under its outpouring. Where then is the hindrance to their doing so? Why have they not long ago heard of this universal Savior and been informed of their privilege and claim to be His? Who is in fault? Not God’s Providence, which has cast our lot on days of such wonderful discovery and facility of intercourse with distant nations, that a messenger may go to the ends of the earth now in less time and with less risk than we once could visit the distant parts of our native land: not God’s loving-kindness, which so wonderfully preserves to us the blessings of peace, that His work may not be hindered; which from year to year showers His bounties on us, filling our hearts with food and gladness. No, neither of these,—but our own worldliness, and want of zeal and self-denial; our fear of the scorn of the idle and foolish world about us, which laughs at Missionary enterprise, and questions Missionary success, and so tries to keep the Gospel of Christ from asserting and carrying out its universal kingdom among men. If we really believed this universality, this oneness in Christ, as we profess to do, we should not be content, as we now are, with a list of religious Societies for home and foreign missions, every one of them struggling for existence from year to year; the poorer among us would not be content to let the wealthier do all the work of the Church, but would cheerfully claim their share of it: the wealthy would not let a few do the work of the whole body, but would eagerly vie with one another in hastening on the glad result. We do not, my brethren, present to God or to the world the aspect of a nation which believes in this universality of Christ’s church and kingdom. Compare any one of our great public commercial enterprises with the whole of our puny efforts for Christian missions, and we painfully gather what I much fear is the truth in general, that this people is thoroughly convinced of the nature of the things of this world, but has no such conviction of the reality of its faith. On the one side we see enthusiastic eagerness, active competition, thousands and millions poured along almost any proposed channel, with or without prospect of large remuneration: on the other all is dead as winter, silent as the grave; interest barely kept up by meetings too often without any life in them, leaving for the most part on the heart a painful sense of unreality and hypocrisy: parades of names in subscription-lists, all cramped with the dreary uniformity of the conventional pound or guinea; in too many cases names of persons without heart for the enterprise, without interest, without love, without expectation of result. We serve the world by stirring personal energy, by unbounded hope, by endless contrivance: we excuse ourselves from serving Christ’s Kingdom by delegating our blessed part in it to a lifeless mechanism, from which our persons and our sympathies are alike absent. O beloved, these things would not be so, did we know each for himself, did we know, as a church and nation, the fulness of the power of that Salvation which the Savior of all men brought into the world for all men.

But one more lesson springs from the truth in my text—and that is a lesson of kindliness, of charitable feeling, of allowance for one another. If Christ’s Gospel is this wide and universal remedy for our sins and miseries, it is so not by crushing all men’s characters into one prescribed form, but by adapting itself to, and taking into itself, every variety of human character, with its defects, its weaknesses, its points which are unwelcome to society, and contemptible in the sight of man. It has been said, and not untruly, that the most accomplished man of the world is he who has best learned to hate and to despise. Directly opposite to this is the character of the accomplished disciple of Christ. He is the man who has best unlearned how to hate and despise his fellow-man. And I know of no consideration so effectual to this end, as those which spring from this great doctrine of the universal sufficiency of Christ’s Gospel. Only let it present itself in this light to us. The weakness which you see in your neighbor’s character, which makes you estimate him so cheaply, and regard him as so worthless in the world, is perhaps the very holding-ground for the anchor of a faith which keeps him firm in the truth, and which you yourself do not possess. And again, the very eagerness to seize on faults and to take the unpleasant view of things, which makes your neighbor so disagreeable to you, may be but the rough outer shell of a precious center and heart of a character which loves righteousness and hates iniquity. The surface may be ruffled and irregular, but it may be only a broken and imperfect representation of the great ground-swell of truth and holiness, stirring the depths of the character. O who that knows himself, will not rather rejoice that others are not as he is? It is, my brethren, because we do not know how wide and large and all-embracing Christ’s Spirit is, that we are always tying it down to rules and frameworks, and one or another form of human character, when we ought to be thankful for its manifold operations, glad that it lays hold of and fills and sanctifies every anxiety, every want, every special tendency of our common humanity. We need a large infusion of this Spirit of Christ which wrought in His holy Apostle, before we can properly teach, properly hear, properly feel, on such a subject as this of our text to-day. We need it in our Church life, we need it in our social life, we need it in our individual life: for unless a man be penetrated through and through by it, he has it not worthily at all.

Finally—if this Gospel be thus adapted for all, offered to all, sufficient for all, then is that person inexcusable who, when it is offered, has not accepted it in its power. My brother—my sister—you are sinful, guilty, perishing. You have that in you and about you which will ruin you for this life and for eternity: you have not that in you, or within your grasp, which will rescue you from this ruin. But here is a remedy. Here is a divine and all-sufficing Savior;—yours, thank God, by right of your humanity which He took upon him, and in which He has satisfied God for you;—nay more, yours by the profession of your baptism, and your membership of His Church. If you will not believe in Him with heart and practice;—if you will not have Him to reign over you;—if you will not come to Him that you may have life, O where can the blame lie but with yourselves? God has done His part: the Father sent the Son; the Son obeyed, and died, and pleads in heaven for you; the Holy Spirit is ever striving with you in your consciences, and in the ordinances of the Church, and by my voice here: the Church has done her part; she brought you near to Christ, and washed you in the font of the new birth; she taught you all that a Christian ought to believe and know for his soul’s health; she offers you the rich Feast of her Lord’s Body and Blood, and holy ordinances without number. All has been done, all is ever being done, except your own part.
O delay no longer: but accept in the depths of your heart, and in the fountains of your life, this universal and all-sufficing Savior: take up and fulfil the holy challenge of the Apostle in our Epistle this day, chosen by the Church as a fit conclusion from the rich blessings of the Christmas season—from God’s loving-kindness in having spared us yet another year:—
“I conjure you, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.”

Alford, H. (1862). Sermons on Christian Doctrine (pp. 68–81). London: Rivingtons. (Public Domain)

Romans 5.18-19 The Righteousness of One Man Alford.jpg

The Righteousness of One Man

The Righteousness of One Man

“Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5:18–19, ESV)

Two things are to be noticed in this text, before we proceed to consider the subject of it. First you will observe that in our bibles the words "judgment came" and "the free gift came" are in italics, that is, are put in by the translators to fill up the sense, but do not form any part of the sacred Word. The Verse more simply stands, "As through one trespass, the issue (or effect) was unto all men to condemnation, even so through one righteous act the issue (or effect) was unto all men unto justification of life." And secondly, that the "many" spoken of in the latter portion of it are clearly the same as the "all men" in the former, the word being used only by way of contrast with the word "one," and not as meaning a different set of persons from that spoken of before.

We may now ask, what it is that the text tells us. Here we have two things set over against one another; trespass, righteous act: one man’s disobedience, one man’s obedience: all men made sinners, all men made righteous: an effect upon all unto condemnation, an effect upon all unto justification of life.

Now that which we have to treat to-day, Christ’s obedience, and its effects, is a very important subject: important to our soundness in the faith, and to our answering the unbeliever, and to our own purity and our own comfort in believing. May God guide us to consider it aright.

We address God in our Collect as having made His blessed Son to be circumcised and obedient to the law for man. We take that undergoing of the ordinance of circumcision as an example, as the first and chief example, of our Lord’s becoming obedient to the law. And rightly: for though it was not originally of the law, as we shall see further on, yet it was the law’s first command when a man came into the world; and without obeying it, the whole life would have been an act of disobedience to the law. He entered on his course of obedience to the law by this act. So that we need not to-day fix our thoughts on that ordinance any further than as it brought the Lord into the state of being under the law and obedient to the law.

But first, what law? Not, the universal moral law of conscience: this He had as Man, had in its highest and purest form as Man without sin: in unclouded certainty, in undeviating equity, in uninterrupted action. When He was made man, He was rendered subject to this law, and needed no outward rite to introduce him into its dominion and obedience. Again then, what law? The answer is plain. A certain code of laws given on Mount Sinai to the children of Israel. But why should the Son of God humiliate himself for us in this peculiar manner, so as to become subject to that law and not to any other? In order to answer this, remember to whom and for what purpose, that law was given. It was given to a nation chosen out from among the other nations of the earth by God, that they might be a people of his own—the selected vehicle of his revelation of Himself to mankind. And the purpose of its being given was, we are expressly told, to bring about the knowledge of sin; to detect, as we heard in a previous sermon of this course, and make men aware of, their guiltiness and helplessness in God’s sight. Mind,—and this is a most essential point for us to-day, as you will presently see,—this law was not given to bring any man to salvation: as I then tried to make plain to you, no law could do this: much less could this one, which was but an imperfect manifestation of God’s holy will,—holy, just, and true as far as it went, but going only a little way: not helping man’s weakness, not revealing God’s law, not shedding abroad God’s Spirit.

Now all this which I am saying is not meant by way of going over old ground again, to prove that by the works of the law shall no flesh be saved in God’s sight: this we know: but it is in order that we may the better and the more clearly see, what it was that our Savior did, when He became obedient to, when He fulfilled that law for man. Now look at it in this way. This law was not, could not be, for salvation to any man. Did then, could then, our Blessed Lord work out salvation for us by keeping this law? Most clearly not. We sometimes hear it said, that His perfect righteousness was found in his fulfilment of this law of Moses, and that His righteousness, as thus formed and wrought out, is imputed unto us. But I cannot find such a doctrine either in Scripture or in the belief of God’s church. There is a doctrine which sounds something like it, and might be mistaken for it, and on which I shall have a good deal to say by and by: but which is not, and is very far from being, the same.

But let us for a moment imagine that the matter were so: that Christ’s fulfilling of all the Mosaic law in all its requirements constituted His perfect righteousness before God, and is made ours by being imputed to us. Well—what follows? Why, two most unsatisfactory results. First, the righteousness thus obtained is formally not of the kind we want. We, all mankind, we Gentiles, were never bound under the law of Moses: Gentiles were never invited to put themselves under it, nay they were expressly excluded from its obligations and its benefits. So that, according to this view, Christ did for us what we were never bound to do for ourselves: and more: Christ justified Jews only. And secondly, this righteousness is not, essentially and in itself, of the kind we want. We want something far above and beyond the ordinances and provisions of the law of Moses. That law crept in, was introduced by the side, as the Apostle says in the verses following my text, for a lower and a special purpose, to persuade of their guilt that people to whom the Redeemer was to be sent, and by its types to keep their minds fixed on Him and His future work: but we want what it could never give, even had a man obeyed it to the utmost; transformation into God’s image; new creation in the power of purity and love; the inspiration and indwelling of God’s Holy Spirit. The righteousness in which our Redeemer must be perfect, and which by his Death and Resurrection and circumcision and gift of his Spirit He must make ours, is something infinitely above and more glorious and heavenly than this law of carnal ordinances, this law given by Moses. It was not by fulfilling the law of Moses that our Blessed Lord became our righteousness. He did fulfil it indeed: not one jot or tittle of it was neglected or passed uncared for, because every part of it was given by divine command, and by the mediation of angels, and men appointed by God: He did fulfil it: and He fulfilled it for man. But His fulfilling it was not our righteousness.

What was it then? How does Holy Scripture ever speak of it? Why simply thus; as a taking out of the way—cancelling, annulling, of that law. He fulfilled it, and made an end of it. He was the end of the law with a view to righteousness. It has lost its power as regards us who are in Him. And it did thus lose its power, the day that our Blessed Lord was fastened to his Cross; He blotted out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his Cross. This marvelous completion of the work does not form our subject to-day: it will come before us, God willing, hereafter; but the great preparation for that completion does come before us to-day and thus early in our course. And we shall be led to speak of it in several of its forms and manifestations; among which one is, this keeping of the limited, special, Mosaic law of ordinances and precepts. Let us then now look at this observance a little more closely. What was it, in itself? and what was it, for us? In what consisted its necessity, its fitness, its usefulness for mankind?

What was it in itself? It was careful, precise, undeviating, complete. From his eight days old circumcision to the Passover the night before his Sacrifice, our Lord made a point of not falling short in any thing, but walked in all the commandments and ordinances of his Father blameless. Then, it was necessary for us. In the course of God’s arrangements for the salvation of man, the Redeemer could not and must not be born a Gentile. The Jews were the people set in the bright line of the revelation of God to man. To them belonged the law: this is much to our purpose: but, which is much more to our purpose, to them belonged the promises and the covenant of faith with Abraham, in fulfilment of which promises, and in the discharge and line of which covenant, this very Redeemer was to come. The terms and matter of these promises and covenant absolutely required that our Lord should be a Jew. And what was a Jew? One born under the law of Moses. As a Jew, condescending to take our nature in that particular form and under those special circumstances, our Lord became personally bound to the observance of this law. Had He not observed it, He would not have been the spotless One in all the will of God: He would not have Himself stood accepted with our nature perfect and acquitted in the sight of the Father: and we should not have been accepted in Him.

So that thus He kept the law for man: not that man might get righteousness by that kept law, which righteousness it could not give, whether Christ kept it, or any one else kept it: but that He who was to be the righteous Head of our nature, might fulfil all righteousness. And so, when He came to be baptized by John His forerunner and His inferior, and John was preventing him, He replied, Suffer it to be so now; for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness.

And I entreat you, in fixing in your minds the verities of the Christian faith, to remember this clearly and well; that it was not on our Blessed Lord’s fulfilment of the law that our justification in God’s sight by His righteousness depends, as some would try to persuade you. This is only in one, and that a partial sense, true: that law indeed lay in the course of His own personal work: in the course of working out that perfect Righteousness which when complete in Him is reckoned for ours, and wrought in us by the Holy Ghost.

Now to-day’s subject, the Circumcision, will carry us a step further yet in the direction of the great doctrine given out in our text. The ordinance of circumcision, as stated just now, was not first given when the law was given. It was not of Moses, but of the fathers, declares our Lord Himself. And St. Paul teaches us, in a passage read for the Epistle to-day, that Abraham received it as a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had being yet uncircumcised. So that our Lord not only obeyed the law for us, and entered on that His obedience, in this the first ordinance of the law, but by it He also entered into and complied with the terms of that covenant of faith which God made with Abraham centuries before the law was given. Now this covenant was of a far higher order than the law: for remember how St: Paul compares the two in the third chapter of the Epistle to the Galatians, and proves the promise and the covenant greater than the law. It is of that promise that we are the inheritors, and by that covenant that we look for God’s heavenly kingdom, and not by the law at all. And now just consider what that covenant is, and what were its promises. It was universal—"In thy seed shall all nations of the earth be blessed:" faith was its very entrance and condition—"Abraham believed God:" justification was its firstfruit: "it was counted to him for righteousness:" sanctification and renewal in holiness were its conditions also—"God said to Abraham, I am Almighty God—walk thou before me and be thou perfect." And into this covenant and condition did our Blessed Lord enter for us by this ordinance, and all his life through He continued to fulfil it: He walked by faith in his heavenly Father: He walked before Him and was perfect: not in the law only, with which we have no immediate concern: but in God’s higher and better covenant of faith, which is our covenant and condition also.

But there is more than this yet behind: nor have we yet reached the wide stretch and universality of the assertion in our text. The law of Moses, which our Blessed Lord fulfilled, was, so to speak, a narrow and prescribed path or groove of obedience: and even the covenant made with Abraham was in a special line of descent and with limited ordinances of obedience, however much in character, and duration, and ultimate extent, superior to the law. But the obedience of the One Man must reach beyond either of these: it must be as wide in its extent and effect as the disobedience of the one man had been in former times which had brought death on all our race. By means of that, death spread through unto all men, for that all were sinners. There was, as our text says, a consequence resulting to all men from that one offence, Adam’s disobedience. And so is there, as it also says, a consequence resulting to all men from that righteous act, Christ’s obedience. What, even to those who are not in the covenant of faith, not in the line of Christian ordinances, not in the fold of Christ’s church? Yes, my brethren, even to them: or else God’s word in our text cannot be true. As all men are partakers of the detriment occasioned by Adam’s sin, so all men are partakers of the benefit occasioned by Christ’s righteousness.

First Why? and secondly, How? And to the first I answer, Because Christ is the righteous Head of our whole race: because His obedience was not limited to the law, nor to the covenant with Abraham, but was perfect, entire, universal: because that obedience of His was carried infinitely further than any code of precepts could order, than any conditions of a covenant could prescribe. What does St. Paul say? "Being found in fashion as a man, He humbled himself and became obedient even as far as unto death." Obedient, even up to death. Why this is no mere obeying of law. No law ever ordered a man to die, as one of its duties. We shall say more of this another time; but you see even now how infinitely the bounds of the Lord’s obedience for us transcend those of law and covenant. He came to do God’s will: not His revealed will merely, but His entire and perfect will: not His will as a Jew only, but His will as Man. Standing in the center and stem of our Humanity; with all its duties, all its dignity, all its blessedness upon Him, He carried out all that the Almighty Father ever intended it to do and be: He brought it through trial and temptation and suffering, spotless, blameless, perfect: He, being not a single individual man self-contained and limited, but being God, the Son of God in man, the second and righteous Head of our nature, undid in it what Adam did, planted righteousness in it which it had not without Him, and finally carried it up through Death and out of the grave to God’s own throne, where He at this moment is reigning as Man, in your nature and mine, having obtained eternal redemption for us.

And, my beloved brethren, now come we to our second enquiry about this matter of the effect of one man’s obedience on all men. How does it affect all men? You may say to me, "Do you mean to tell us that a poor heathen who has never heard of Christ, that a hard-hearted sinner in Christendom who will not have Christ for his master, that such as these are affected by the righteousness of which you have been telling us?" I can only answer that my text tells it you; and it is not for me to question what Christ’s Apostle says, but to endeavour to understand it for myself and to explain it to you. There certainly is an effect produced on every man living, by Christ’s finished work of righteousness. Let me make this plain to you in one or two ways. We all believe in the certainty of a Resurrection of the dead: that all men with their bodies will one day come up out of their graves: the just to the resurrection of life: the unjust to the resurrection of judgment. Well: why is this? why shall this be? Go to one of the most solemn chapters of the Bible, and read the reason. Hear how St. Paul proves it. It is, and shall be, just simply as a consequence of this obedience of the man Christ Jesus of which we are speaking. His death was the crown of that obedience: His resurrection followed on that obedience, because on Him personally death, the consequence of disobedience, had no lasting power: and because He rose, all shall rise. Here then is one such effect upon all men, good and bad, Christians and heathens, believers and unbelievers.

But I will tell you another and a more notable effect of the obedience of this one man: even your existence and mine; the fact, that we are in the world at all. If it had not been for this obedience of Christ, foreseen and graciously reckoned as belonging to our nature, the race of man must have come to an end at the time when Adam sinned. "In the day thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die," was the word to him of God who cannot lie nor repent. And why did he not die? why did he not cease to be? why did the holy and pure One who cannot abide iniquity, tolerate him any longer? Simply because of the Blood of Jesus Christ which taketh away the sin of the world: because of that Lamb, slain from before the foundation of the world in God’s gracious purposes. And the power of the same blood,—the atoning virtue of that obedience, crowned by the propitiatory sacrifice of His death,—is the simple reason why you and I are alive before God at this moment. The blessed and glorious Son of God has reconciled God and man; and by His obedience this effect has come upon all men; that, though sinners, they live and move and have being in the presence of a God who hates sin, just because Christ is the Head of their nature; because Christ in that nature obeyed God to the utmost; because Christ died and rose again and is at God’s right hand in heaven.

And there is yet another effect which this obedience of Christ has had upon all men. It has brought them all within the blessed range of the promises which are in Christ; so that there is now no longer any distinction in this matter between one nation and another, or one man and another, but "Christ among you, the hope of glory," is preached to all the world,—to learned and unlearned, bond and free, Jew and Gentile. But this part of my subject will more properly come before us next Sunday, when we shall have entered the season beginning to-morrow with the Epiphany, or Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.

I must not however conclude my present sermon without reminding you that there is a meaning for us in the circumcision of our Lord, touched on in the Collect, and deserving our serious attention. What He did and submitted to for us, not only had its own value as a part of His working out of our redemption, but also in every case was our example, by some sense which it bore, having a reference to our spiritual state and duties. And this ordinance was one typifying the cleansing of the faithful soul from all uncleanness. "Grant us," we pray in the Collect, "the true circumcision of the Spirit, that our hearts and all our members being mortified from all worldly and carnal lusts, we may in all things obey thy blessed will." Just as this ordinance was the first and necessary step in our Lord’s obeying of the law for us, so is that which it signified, the cleansing of our hearts and bodies from all impurity, the necessary condition of our serving God and obeying His holy will. Only the pure in heart shall see God. Though the effect of Christ’s obedience passed upon all men, and brought all men near to God, only those who, turning to Him with their hearts, perfect holiness in His fear, are made partakers of the divine nature, and inherit the blessedness of justification unto life. Let us, now we are beginning the duties and the faith of another year, cleanse our hands and purify our hearts: let us prove ourselves God’s peculiar people, by being zealous of good works, and enemies of all impurity, all untruthfulness, all serving of Him deceitfully and in a worldly spirit: that so our obedience may be, if not up to the measure of, at least after the pattern of Christ’s obedience: simple, earnest, pure, self-denying and self-forgetting: the blessed and acceptable fruit of faith working by love.

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

Romans 8.3 God's Remedey for Sin Alford.jpg

God's Remedy for Sin

God's Remedy for Sin

“For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh,” (Romans 8:3, ESV)

We have advanced thus far in our statement of Christian doctrine, or rather of the introduction and preliminaries to Christian doctrine. We have laid down the sinfulness of our whole nature: the manifoldness and deceitfulness of sin: the guilt and eternal consequences of sin. So far we have spoken of the disease: to-day we deal with the remedy.

Our text will furnish us in this matter with safe and sufficient guidance. It tells us of a way in which sin could not be cured: and of a way in which God has brought about its condemnation and cure.

Now remember how we have been treating sin throughout: as a taint, a disease in our nature, destructive to it, but pervading the whole of it, so that it is all sinful, all guilty, all perishing: so that it has absolutely no power to renew itself unto good or to cast out evil from itself. The witness of conscience it has: the help of God promised, and vouchsafed, we believe, even in ignorance and degradation: but this is not of itself: this depends entirely upon and flows from that Redemption of which we are to speak to-day.

Behold then man, guilty, helpless, lost. And what do we now hear of? How first does God manifest himself to him? We now first hear of a law being revealed to him. But it might be said, of what use can a law be to one who has no power to obey it? The answer is very simple: to teach him that he has no power to obey it. This was the use of the law given on Sinai. We have already seen, that one of the most fatal symptoms of the disease of sin is, a man’s unconsciousness of its presence. The sinner goes on imagining all is well; saying peace, when there is no peace. And in this ignorance he would live and die, were there not something to bring out and detect sin within him. This office the Law performed: by the Law is the knowledge of sin. But the Law had, and could have, no power whatever to overcome sin, nor to enable any man to contend with sin; any more than a command to rise up and walk could have on the man laid helpless on a bed of sickness. And this is what is meant in our text, when it is said, that the law was weak through the flesh. Its only organ of acting was, the weak, powerless, helpless flesh of man: that flesh which is infected and penetrated by the taint of sin. And let us stop as we pass by, to remark, that this same must be the case with all human systems of morality, all rules for good conduct, all discipline and codes of law: they have not, and cannot have, any power whatever to renew human nature, or to help it to overcome sin. Sin reigns in spite of them: nay sin has reigned most, and most fatally, where they have been best known, and most deeply studied, and most implicitly trusted to. All of them are just what their far greater example, God’s revealed law, was; and that is, merely a means whereby sin might be brought to light and known: means whereby the sinner might be rendered inexcusable, the proud heart might be crushed down, the dry and tearless eye might be filled with tears of repentance, and the sinner, hardened and careless before, driven to fly to God for mercy and pardon.

But here comes in a question which requires an answer, and to answer which will materially further our enquiry. "You tell us," it may be said to me, "that the law on Sinai, that every moral law, whether in the conscience, or in man’s writings and declarations, was given just to prove man guilty, and to drive him for mercy to God. But you know, and we know, and this Christmas Day reminds us, that it was not till four thousand years after man’s fall, that God’s grace and mercy was revealed to mankind by the Redemption which is in Christ. Do you mean to tell us, that the great God of compassion and goodness, who alone knew the way in which this dread disease of sin could be healed, allowed men to go on in their disease all this time without that cure, contenting Himself with making provision that they might know their guilt, and, knowing it, perish in it?" No, my brethren, nothing of the kind was the case. This Redemption by Christ, which first began its real course on the stage of this world about four thousand years after the creation, was no mere worldly course of events then first brought about,—no happy discovery then first made: it had been fixed in the divine counsels, and its glorious effects anticipated in God’s infinite loving-kindness, before the world began, before man’s sin was ever committed. Nay, all creation, the whole of this visible universe, is but a part, but a trifling portion, of this great divine scheme of Redemption. Every thing ever created, every thing that ever happened or shall happen, all these are simply elements in, contributions to, the glorious issue of the mediatorship of our Blessed Lord. All things are by Him and for Him: by him the universe holds together. And accordingly, we believe that there never was a time, in the history of man’s sin and of God’s dealing with it, when there was not opened to man a way of pardon and peace with God, through a Redeemer to come, or present, or having come. The antediluvian church, the Patriarchal church, the Jewish church,—these were in the direct track of that ray of light from above, which was to shine ever more and more unto the perfect day. By sacrifices, by types, by prophecies, the great Redeemer to come was made known to them as God saw fit for them, as they could bear and profit by the knowledge: at no time was access to God, and reconcilement, and pardon, denied to the sinner. Before the flood, Enoch walked with God, Noah was perfect in his generations, and preached righteousness: before the law, Abraham’s faith was counted to him for righteousness, Jacob wrestled with. God and prevailed, and, dying, waited for His salvation: before the Gospel, Joshua determined that as for him and his household they would serve the Lord: David, amidst grievous weakness and sin, sought pardon and found it, and was the man after God’s own heart: Hezekiah walked in all the ways of the Lord, turning not to the right nor to the left: Simeon waited, in the light of the promise of the Holy Ghost, for the consolation of Israel. And if we turn to the other nations of the earth, though the picture of man’s delinquency is dark and gloomy enough, though our knowledge of their state and opportunities is but scanty and surrounded by difficulties, yet the argument of the Apostle in the first chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, and other expressions here and there dropped in Holy Scripture, enable us safely to affirm, that God left not himself without witness even amongst them: and that no where and at no time has it been true, that man has been abandoned by God to live and die in his sins.

This reply has prepared the way for entering on the further portion of my text, which indeed forms our proper subject to-day. The Law,—any law,—could not save man from sin. But God has done what the law could not do. He has sent One into the world, whose express object, as testified by the very Name given him, is, to save his people from their sins. He sent One into the world:—and who was this? That it was no mere son of man, must be evident at first sight: any and every such person would be born with the taint of sin on him, powerless to save himself, to say nothing of others. Every such person would be a mere unit in manhood, bounded by the limits of his own responsibilities, and unable to transfer any thing or pass it on to another: so that even suppose he could save himself, that would be all. The same objection would apply to any created being whatever: and this besides, that the combining our nature with any other nature, however exalted and angelic, would not do for us that which was required to be done: no angelic being has, or can have, righteousness of his own: every such one stands by divine grace imparted, may fall by grace rejected. No such Savior could suffice for us, or could save us from our sins. Then what did God? The language of our text is very important and explicit on this point: "He sent His Own Son." There is here a peculiar and intended emphasis on the words His Own. Angels are sons of God: we are said to be sons of God: but neither angels nor men are God’s own sons; for that imports, of His very nature and essence, very God begotten of very God,—eternal as Himself,—equal to Himself. There is but One, there never was but One, of whom this term can be used. That One was in the beginning: before creation existed: in union with God, and himself God.

But the particular respecting Him with which we are now more immediately concerned is, that God sent Him into the world. The question, when? is readily answered: as on this day. The event was one which happened, and was recorded, like any other in the history of our earth. In Bethlehem, a town of Judæa, a place which may even now be visited and seen, a child was born, whom we and all Christians believe to have been, and to be now, this Son of God,—God’s own Son,—the Savior of mankind. Important as the fact is, it requires little dwelling upon by me: because it is so plain, so well understood, so universally known. But the question, how He was sent into the world, is one which does require dwelling upon: because on the rightly answering it depends our soundness in the Christian faith;—depends the fulness of our joy in believing, depends the firmness of our trust, and the acceptableness of our obedience, and the progress of our sanctification, and the measure of our heavenly glory. According as a man does or does not apprehend rightly the Christian doctrine of our Blessed Lord’s Incarnation, depends it, whether his belief will yield him full consolation in his daily want of pardon and grace, in his daily struggles with sin, in the solemn hour of death, and in the decisive day of judgment. So let us endeavor earnestly to lay hold on the truth revealed to us in this all-important matter.

God sent His own Son into our world: how? Our text tells us one most essential particular. It was in the likeness of sinful flesh: of the flesh of sin. The form in which He appeared in this world was this form of ours. He was made man. That flesh of ours, which had become tainted with sin, prone to sin, sure to commit sin,—did He take that on Him? Now observe the words of our text, and remember well what has been before said in these sermons. Remember how earnest we have been to impress upon you, that sin is not ourselves: is not our nature, but is something fatal and hostile to our nature. The Son of God took on Him our nature; became very man. He therefore took on Him our Flesh; for this tabernacle of flesh and blood is necessary to the nature of man, and none is full and very man, but those who bear it about with them. But sin is not man: sin is not necessary to our nature: sin is destructive of our nature: sin is the very negative of our nature. And for this reason, and by a reason also inherent in Himself, on account of His absolute and perfect holiness and purity, the Son of God did not, when he took our nature, take sin with it: did not, when he entered into our flesh, enter into sinful flesh. His flesh was our very flesh: it had the same attributes, the same necessities, the same pains, the same liability to death, even as had Adam before his sin: but sin it had not. He looked like sinful men: was of the same shape and form: mingled in their crowds, conversed with them, felt for them, wept when they wept, suffered as they suffer, died even as they die: but He was not sinful man, nor was His flesh sinful flesh. In Him was no sin.

But our text tells us, that besides sending Him in the likeness of sinful flesh, of that flesh which had become pervaded by sin, God sent Him into the world for sin. Sin was the reason why He came; the errand on which he was sent had regard to sin: "He was sent," says St. John, "to take away our sins:" "He himself," said the Prophet Isaiah, "bore our sins:" "He who knew no sin," says St. Paul, "became sin for us."

Now this taking away our sins He accomplished by two great things which He did: by His life, and by His death. The Apostle Paul puts this very plainly and clearly before us: "If," he says, "when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the Death of His Son, much more being reconciled we shall be saved through His Life." The whole process of this wonderful matter—how His Death reconciled us, how His Life saves us, will come before us, please God, hereafter: to-day we are concerned with the first step, leading on to both: His Incarnation—His being born into our world.

What then do we see in the event of this day; in that event which fills every Christian heart with joy, in spite of adverse circumstances,—in spite of national mourning? We see this eternal and holy Son of God, becoming man. Let us take care that we get a right apprehension of this. That clear and most valuable confession of our faith which we have used this morning, will guide us aright. "The right faith is that we believe and confess, that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man: God, of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds: and man, of the substance of His mother, born in the world: perfect God and perfect man: of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting: equal to the Father, as touching His Godhead: and inferior to the Father, as touching His manhood. Who although he be God and Man: yet He is not two, but one Christ (i.e. not two persons, not two Christs, but veritably and only one Person and one Christ): one, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh: but by taking of the Manhood into God"—that is, when he united the Godhead and the Manhood in Himself, becoming God and man and still remaining one Person, He did it, not by sinking, as it were, the Son of God into the Son of Man, becoming a human Person and ceasing to be a divine Person: but by the very opposite: by continuing to be the divine Person which He was from all eternity, and into that divine Personality taking the nature of Man. And then the Creed in its next verse further explains the same by saying, "One altogether: not by confusion of substance"—not by mingling together in a confused manner that which constituted the Godhead and that which constituted the Manhood: "but," it goes on, "by unity of Person:" by the divine Son of God entering, with all His Divinity entire, into our nature: taking it on Him, as St. Augustine excellently says, "from the very highest boundary of the rational soul down to the very lowest boundary of the animal body."

Now, my dear brethren, let not these considerations seem to you dry refinements of technical theology. They are, I assure you, far otherwise. They are statements of great doctrines, on which rest the very foundations of our Christian life: and I could not make to you this year what I am very anxious to make, a full and clear statement of the doctrines which form the faith of the Church of Christ, if I did not thus try to lay them out and explain them.

It is only left for us now to shew, how thus the foundation is laid for the Redemption of our race and its restoration to righteousness. The Son of God has become Man: our nature is united to the Godhead. A new and righteous seed is implanted in it: a second and perfect Head is granted. The first Adam was tried and fell: but this new Adam shall be tried and shall gloriously conquer. The first Adam, being created liable to Death, lost by sin the means of escaping death, and bound it as a lasting curse on himself and his posterity: the second Adam, also born liable to death, was pleased to become obedient even unto death for our sakes; thus condemning sin, the cause of death, in our flesh. The first Adam brought the penalty of his sin on us, the Head on the members: the second Adam suffered the penalty of our sin for us, the Head for the members. Whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish, but shall have everlasting life: for to believe on Him is to be united to Him, and to do as He has done, and to go where He is: and He did not perish, but rose up out of death, and was glorified, and when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of God.

It is His Birth into our world which we celebrate to-day. It is the day which the church has set apart as the Birthday of Christ. It is for us a day of joy, as it ought to be. Shall we not rejoice, that our deadly wound is healed—that there is pardon and peace provided for the guilty sons of men? And it need not be surprising to any, that this our joy is not confined to devotional exercises of prayer and praise, but spreads itself over our social life, and is, even by faithful Christian men, celebrated outwardly and visibly, in mirth and gladness peculiar to the season. To forbid such manifestations, would be surely to forget that He who took our whole nature upon Him, came to bless it not in one part only, but altogether: came to make our desert rejoice and blossom as the rose: and to hallow even those bodily recreations and enjoyments which sin has polluted and marred. To keep Christmas by excess and licentiousness, is to profane it, and to insult Him whose birth we profess to honor: to shew ourselves to have no part nor lot in Him who was manifested that He might destroy the works of the devil. But to keep it in peace and good-will and hearty thankfulness, gathering our families about us, and making what cheer we may, to keep an English Christmas, open-hearted and open-hearthed, this is not to dishonor Him, but to do as He would have us, who rose as our day-star, that we might walk in His light; who left us His words and triumphed for us, that our joy might be full: at whose birth angels from heaven sung peace on earth among men of good-will.

With such joy as this no deep religious feeling need be inconsistent, no time of prayer need be incongruous, no note of praise discordant: with such joy as this not even times of national grief need interfere. For is it not this day’s birth which has taken the sting from death? is there not to-day, even for the bereaved and weeping, the joyous cry, "Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given?" is not this the day above all others which calls back again, and places by our sides those who have gone before us? which fills up the gaps in families, and brings round us our long-parted friends? the day which carries our thoughts onward to that great second birth, when He who sitteth on the Throne shall make all things new?

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

Ezekiel 18.4 The Guild and Consequence of Sin Alford.png

The Guild and Consequence of Sin

The Guilt and Consequence of Sin

“Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.” (Ezekiel 18:4, ESV)

The guilt and consequence of sin,—these form our subject to-day. May God give us grace to consider it aright. In order to this, we must bear firmly in mind one most important fact. Sin dwells in us,—works in us,—prevails too often over us: but sin is not ourselves. Sin is no more a man’s self, than the disease is the patient. "It is not I," says St. Paul, "but sin that dwelleth in me." And this is closely connected with what I maintained in the first of these sermons; that the evil to which we are prone by the disease of our nature is not any thing necessary or natural to us, but something both hateful and hurtful. It is not our nature, but is destructive of our nature. And yet, at the same time, the tendency to evil which leads to sin is so universal, and our nature is so penetrated by it, that to separate man from sin is for man impossible. The taint is at our root, and every branch shares in it. It is not a mere act or set of acts; but a state, a condition of spiritual disease. The new-born babe, who never committed sin, is yet sinful, and it is certain to commit sin, as soon as its faculties begin to unfold themselves. Original or birth-sin is not merely a doctrine in religion; it is a fact in man’s world, acknowledged by all, whether religious or not. Let a man be providing for an unborn child in case of distribution of worldly property; he will take care to bind him by conditions and covenants which shall guard against his fraudulently helping himself to that which he is to hold for or to apportion to another. He never saw that child: he does not know but that child may be the most pure and perfect of men: but he knows it will not be safe to put temptation in his way, because he knows he will be born in sin, and liable to sin, and sure to commit sin.

Now the guilt of sin is a very important matter: and if you will give me your attention, you will at once see that the unbeliever, who denies the guilt of sin because it is a disease tainting our whole nature, has no ground to stand upon. If God had given us no means of resisting sin: if sin were identical with all our convictions and tendencies and desires, then sin would be equally destructive of our happiness and of our nature as it is now, but there would be no guilt in us personally: no one could find fault with us for falling victims to that which we should be powerless to withstand. We should be objects of pity, not of blame. But how different is this now. We have conscience, ever protesting against sin: the written law of God, guiding and enlightening the conscience: and more than all that, the great Redemption which is by Christ, providing a full and sufficient escape from and cure of the fatal disease.

Now you see, wherein consists the guilt of sin: why it is that though born in sin, and prone to sin, I yet am a guilty creature if I sin. It is because sin is not myself, but my enemy: because I know it to be my enemy. Wherever this knowledge is present,—and it is present in some degree in every son and daughter of Adam,—there is, speaking generally, no excuse for sin: it is known to be wrong, and he who falls into it is a guilty person. And observe, that in the just government of God, this guilt varies according to the degree of light and knowledge. The poor heathen, the very savage, has some light of conscience, however dim and insufficient. The Christian has the full light of God’s revelation of Himself in the face of Jesus Christ. Between the savage who lives in sin, and the Christian who lives in sin, the difference of degree of guilt is immense. It will hereafter be made manifest in the case of many a Christian, that it would have been well for him if he had lived and died a poor ignorant heathen. It shall be more tolerable in the day of judgment for the lowest and most degraded of our race, than for us, the favored of God, if we repent not, and serve Him with our hearts.

From guilt, we are naturally led on to punishment. If the sinner is guilty, what will happen to him? Now to any of you who have intelligently followed me, it will be plain, that I have not put this question exactly in the form in which we must first answer it. It will be evident, that the punishment of sin will not be in proportion merely to personal guilt, but to the mischief which it works on our nature. Our whole nature is diseased and perishing: and if I encourage the disease, and give it opportunity, and way, and power over me, then my punishment will be, not only just retribution for that my undoubted and inexcusable guilt,—but also the consequence, whatever that may be, of the prevalence and history of the dread disease itself. And notice, that in the Christian man this also is a direct punishment for personal guilt. He knew the cure, and he did not apply it. He chose to perish, and he perishes accordingly.

But now, you see, two questions rise before us. What is the consequence of sin, unchecked, encouraged, prevailing, pervading a man’s being? This is the first: and the second is, What have we reason to think will be God’s punishment for one who has allowed sin thus to conquer him? Will it be simply the consequences of the malady, or will it be something else, over and above them?

Let us apply ourselves to the former question. We said in our first sermon, that sin was, entering into evil:—thinking, saying, doing that which is bad. We have simply to enquire then, what is the effect on us of thinking, saying, doing that which is bad? Let me ask any one of you, what do you suppose you were made for? I imagine the general answer will be, or will amount to this: "Our Maker must be good and beneficent, and must have made His creatures to be happy. And if He has given us powers and faculties above His other creatures, it must be because He wills that we should aim at, and reach, a higher degree of happiness than His other creatures." This reply which I have put into your mouths, is, as far as we are concerned, undoubtedly the right one. God made us to be happy, to strive after happiness to the highest reach of our faculties and powers. Well, now let me ask again; How do you suppose that happiness is to be attained? Is it to be a happiness gained by the pampering of the body, by giving scope to the lower appetites and passions? If so, why were we endowed with reason, and conscience, and desires after higher and better things? Go a step further:—Is it a happiness to be served by the indulgence of present temper and feeling,—by the lust of wealth and of power, by serving a man’s own narrow interests, and earthly purposes? If so, again, how is it that such present indulgence constantly and proverbially does not bring with it happiness, does not bring satisfaction; but the man who gives way to it is ever casting it aside as worthless, ever seeking something beyond it; and the man who goes on for years giving way to it becomes at last a miserable disappointed creature, a burden to himself and all around him? Surely this cannot be the way to happiness. And if not, what is? Is it not this,—to flee from evil and seek good? Is not the man who does this as a principle, as a habit, is not this man every where and at all times the happy man? Has he not a happiness which the world with its varying circumstances cannot touch: which outward and seeming misery cannot deprive him of: which survives in the midst of desolation, of persecution, of sickness: which is not diminished but increased by that which to other men is the height of misery, the approach of death itself? And if this be so, if to depart from evil, if to fight with and overcome sin, be the way, and the only way, to real happiness, what do you suppose is the consequence of evil cherished, sin practiced and followed, sin overcoming the man and leading the man captive, and triumphing over him? What can it be, but misery and ruin?

Look at its course; watch its progress. Let us try to enliven a dull but necessary argument by setting an example before you. Some matter is proposed to a man which he knows to be wrong—knows to be sinful. But it is very tempting; it will serve his interests; it will add to his means; it will increase his comforts; it will help his family after him. He stands at the parting of the two ways: duty, with toil and privation, with humble means for many a year; sin, with ease and competence, with worldly plenty and worldly consideration. One thought, nay not a thought, an intuition, a flash of irresistible Light, tells him in a moment which path he ought to choose. But he hesitates, he parleys with the enemy, he looks twice and thrice, and he makes up his mind: he grasps the present advantage: he casts away the protest of conscience, and the dread verdict of the certain future, and he adopts the sinful course.

Now the question for us is, what has this man done? what has happened to him? First, he certainly is not a better man; he is, in our common language, a worse man than he was before. And what meaning is there in these words, a worse man? O what is there not, that is miserable, that is deadly to all health, that is fatal to all happiness? His sin has put him further from good: he has descended a step from God and from happiness. And what is the consequence, I ask again? What further is in store for him? Can he rest where he is? Having made this compromise with evil, can he say "Just thus much I find necessary to my comfort, to my advantage, and here I will stop? I cannot have the full field of goodness for my course—I have barred myself out of part of it, but within the limits which remain I will be a good man?" Ah, my brethren, this may not be. Many and many a sinner tries it; jealously fencing round his reputation, taking credit for all that he does or says that looks like good, keenly resenting any charge on his fair name. But alas, he who lets in evil into his practice, is letting in a wild ocean to which no man may say "Hitherto and no further." He is a worse man. Not only part of his good is gone, but all his good is marred, is poisoned; his heart is no longer simple, it is divided; he is become a hypocrite, an actor of a part before men; he has a dark corner which he does not want the world to see into,—a locked closet at the door of which he keeps watch with fear and trembling, lest any discover its contents. And if this before men, O what before God? Ah, my brethren, when and as long as a man makes an agreement with evil, fosters evil, lives by evil, there is no more God for him; prayer, praise, the sacraments, God’s word, God’s house, God’s ministers, God’s people, these have all become for him nauseous things, unwelcome reminders whence he has fallen: for appearance sake he goes to church, he even presents himself, sad to say, at the Table of the Lord,—because if he did not, neighbors would question, friends would drop off, customers would forsake him; but he hates all such things; and he hesitates not, when he thinks himself safe, and worldly interests not at stake, to unburden his pent-up thoughts by shewing his hatred. The fact is, he has chosen that God shall be his enemy; and he cannot bear to face the terrible fact: and so he wants to forget Him, and not to have the thought of Him ever making him miserable.

And from this to the life of the scorner and blasphemer there is but a very short step, and one which few can resist taking. Almost all such characters among us, almost all those who are bold against God, questioning His word, despising His ordinances, are not men whose unbelief is their misfortune, an unhappy turn of mind, or a conscientious form of doubt: they are ever, it is true, ready enough to take refuge under this: but almost all of them are men whose unbelief has become a miserable necessity to them by reason of their choosing to live in and to live by sin: so that a professed unbeliever of correct life is a very rarity in nature. But whether in profession or not, in heart the sinner is an unbeliever and a hater of God.

And then further; how does this state proceed, supposing it unrepented of? Life is full of new temptations, ever arising: and in such a life, the enemy who has gained one victory is not likely to relax his assaults: he who consents to sin, draws on him sin, as Holy Scripture has it, with a cart-rope: conscience, once overborne and silenced, speaks fainter next time, fainter still the time after, soon scarce audibly, after a while not at all. And so the sinner becomes hardened in his sins, more and more lost to true inward shame, less and less able to disentangle his feet from the net thrown round him: to conceal one sin, others have become necessary, and more again to varnish over those, until to stir without sinning has become well nigh impossible: he has to ask leave of evil, to let him speak or act at all. So life speeds on, and life’s end stands before him, and the new and final state has to be entered. God, whom he has so long striven not to know, is unsought by repentance. He goes out of the world as he lived in the world; and what is his state then?

Remember we are confining ourselves at present to the mere consequences of his sinful life, irrespective of any actual infliction of divine wrath. What is his state, do we ask? what can it be, but what it was here, only with every deceit laid open, and every door of hope shut? God he hated and fled from; and the joy of that state is the shining of God’s countenance: what has he to do with that? Good he deliberately refused: the delight of the blessed is to be purely good, to do nought but good, to bask in the beams of His light who is Good itself: what has he to do with this, or with them? What can the inward state of such a soul be but an enduring and living death?

Did we ever reflect on the terrible meaning of those words, eternal death? What is more dreadful to us here, than the process, the act, of bodily death? The great relief from our thoughts of it is, that it is short: it is the anguish of an hour, or of a few hours; or if it is prolonged to a day, or more than that, the announcement is terrible; "two days dying"—we shrink from the very mention of so distressing a fate. And why? Why, but because it is a time of sharp agony and fierce contention of hostile powers in man’s expiring frame: life struggling to continue, decay holding its own, and increasing its domain; the soul in dire apprehension, or at least in unknown conflict? And if this be so, if the prolongation of bodily death even for a short time be dreadful, what must be the eternal death of the soul—all its marvelous powers, no longer dulled by the world and the flesh, at wild variance with one another; self-accusation and remorse for ever inwardly working, conscience no longer to be silenced, but speaking too late,—all the elements which should have contributed to happiness made, by the poisoning power of sin, ingredients in ineffable misery? And there is no reason to think that state on the other side to be a passing one, as this is, or to be a preparation for another; every thing tells us that it is final, prefaced and determined by this present condition of trial. Sin here, earns death there; not annihilation, not a change into some further state, but the never-ending break up, and confusion, and unspeakable terror, and dismay, and dejection, and despair, of the guilty and corrupted soul.

We have however yet another question to ask and answer. Such are the consequences of sin in a man: so destructive, so irreparable, so final. But is this all? Are these natural consequences of sin the whole punishment which it will bring? If it consisted merely in acts done against our own happiness, this might be so: but recollect a moment what sin is. We explained it, after the Apostle St. John, as being transgression of God’s law. Now can we suppose that a just and almighty Lawgiver would make laws for His creatures which He knows to be for their welfare, promulgate them with all the sublime manifestations of His majesty, as of old on Sinai,—or with those of His infinite love, as by the mouth of Him who spake as never man spake,—can we suppose that He would do this, and then leave mankind, if they broke His laws, simply with the risk of the consequences upon them, as if those laws had never been thus made known? Is no penalty due to that God whom all sinners offend? Nor are we left to answer this question by our own speculations. God has again and again declared, that He will punish the sinner: that there are special punishments prepared for all who live and die in sin: punishments to which all the consequences of the sin itself, bad as they are, are as nothing in proportion. Holy Scripture exhausts the most terrible images in language and thought to make this clear to us.

But first, before them all, the plain words of our text demand our consideration, as announcing a punishment for sin, which is to be coextensive with its guilt: viz. that of death. There can be no doubt that bodily death in its present form as existing in our race, is the punishment of our sin,—the consequence of our sinful state. Whether we have any right to carry this further, and to say that death would not have come into the world at all but for man’s sin, is very doubtful: Scripture gives no authority for such an idea, and the appearances presented by nature are against it. But as now inflicted on all mankind, we are expressly told that death is the punishment of sin. There can indeed be little doubt that man, as he came from the hands of his Creator, was liable to death. This the Apostle Paul clearly shews us, when he declares that the first man was "of the earth, earthy:" this argument, and the propriety of the words "Dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return," apply just as much to man before his sin as after it. But from a hint given in the third chapter of Genesis, it would appear, that had man remained pure and upright in Eden, the mysterious use of the tree of life would have wrought in him immortality and raised his body out of the power of decay. From this use however he was specially excluded on account of his sin. "Lest he put forth his hand and take of the tree of life and eat, and live for ever," a guard was placed which barred his access to that tree. So that death in us, with all its preceding evils, disease, weakness, pain, terror, and all its succeeding miseries, mourning, lamentation and woe, is the special punishment, by God’s own declaration, of our sin. We are sinful: therefore we die. And from this portion of sin’s punishment, no son or daughter of Adam is exempt. So entirely and of course is the whole of our nature subjected to it, that He who took that nature on him free from sinfulness either transmitted or personal, yet took it with this penalty attached to it, and became subject to all the approaches of death, and finally to death itself. It will come before us further on in our course to shew, how He by His death took the curse out of bodily death, and made it to us as nothing to them that believe in Him: it may be enough now to mention the blessed fact, and that by way of contrast: that we may be better able to declare that on them who live and die in sin, on the unbelievers in Christ, and the unworthy members of Christ, Death still retains all his hold and inflicts all his terrors. To them, death is not only the dissolution of the body, but the eternal misery of the soul: the state of the abiding wrath of God, from which there is for them no escape.

Thus much, my brethren, are we bound to believe, thus much to impress upon you, as to the consequence and punishment of sin. And all this is the deserved lot of every one among us; though by God’s infinite mercy in Christ, which we have yet to unfold, it will be the actual lot only of those who refuse His offers of grace, and prefer the service of sin to His service. The progress of that wonderful Redemption which He has wrought out, will open before us in that which we have to say on the morning of the approaching great Christmas Festival.

Meantime let us earnestly lay to heart the deadly nature, and the grievous peril, of sin. Our Collect to-day teaches us to confess that "through our sins and wickedness we are sorely let and hindered in running the race that is set before us." May we not only say this to-day and during the week, but may we every one of us deeply feel it: by searching and knowing our own peculiar faults and infirmities, by watching and praying against them, by ever living closer to Him whose bountiful grace and mercy can alone help and deliver us.

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

Hebrews 3.13 The Decitfulness of Sin Alford.jpg

The Deceitfulness of Sin

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)

Romans 3.23 Sin as a Fact Alford.jpg

Sin as a Fact

Sin as a Fact

“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23, ESV)

The Gospel of Christ may be described as a glorious remedy for a disease fatal and otherwise incurable, with which our whole race is tainted. And the first step in treating of the Gospel must ever be to lay open, and make us sensible of, that disease. For one of its most dangerous symptoms is, that it makes men insensible to its own presence: so that the worse a man is afflicted with it, the less he knows that he has it at all. And, seeing that the remedy is not one which can be simply taken once and then all will be well, but one which requires long and painful and self-denying application, a man must be very thoroughly persuaded that he has the disease, and that he is likely to perish from it, before he will take the necessary trouble to be cured of it. Now this disease we call sin. And in consequence of what has been said you will see, that in beginning a course of sermons on Christian doctrine, I must deal first with this fact which lies at the bottom of all Christian doctrine, that all men are sinners. I may be at once met with the question, Who does not know that? Who does not confess himself to be a sinner? Doubtless, all do this by profession and with the lips. But, my brethren, there is as much difference between confessing with the lips and feeling intensely in the depth of the heart, as there is between confessing and not confessing at all. "Miserable sinners:" "Have mercy upon us miserable sinners." But what do we mean by sinners?

Let us try and lay hold of this—let us try to-day and see what sin means—what "all having sinned" means.

When any of us looks out upon mankind, or looks within himself, with ever so little attention, one thing can hardly fail to strike him. It is, the presence of Evil. We at once see that there is a something in the world, and within us, rebellious, destructive, altogether unwelcome, and which we would gladly be rid of. We want harmony among men, harmony in ourselves, for all purposes of human improvement, for all purposes of our own progress and enlightening. But instead of harmony, we find discord every where. From the first, man’s history has been a history of going wrong and doing wrong: from the first, our own personal history has been a history of interrupted good and interfering bad. Now observe, I am not at this moment speaking as a minister of the Gospel: I am speaking merely as man,—as a citizen of the world, as one of you, or one of any band of men gathered out of any age and any place upon earth. I am dwelling upon what is matter of universal observation. Who can deny this presence and this working of an unwelcome and a hostile element in all human matters? What deceit will ever enable a man to hide from himself this dark shadow which falls upon the fairest prospects and purest courses in life? What mind looking into itself is not found to confess that there is this night side of its thoughts and ways?

Now it is not my purpose, at all events not at present, to say a word about the reason why this evil ever came into God’s universe. I am concerned to-day with the fact, and the importance of knowing and acknowledging the fact, that it has come into it and is every where present. Some may say—some have said, conceal the fact, and you will get rid of it. Don’t tell people that there is evil in the world; forget that there is evil about and in yourself; and you and they will become good. It may be true, they continue, that there is such a dark spot in nature; that there are these black shadows amidst the shining of the Face of the universal Father: but gazing upon them is painful and useless: look at the bright side of every thing: believe things to be innocent and right, and infinitely more good will be done than by dwelling on the gloom and so increasing it. This, my brethren, not only has been the published advice of a whole school of writers,—it is also the view taken by many loose and shallow thinkers in every place at our own time. But let me ask you, do you suppose that the unquestioned evil in universal nature, and in our nature, can be thus got rid of? "Believe the world to be good, and it will become good," says one of these writers: "Believe yourself to be good, and you will become good." I answer, Try it. Try it for a day, for an hour. Then go into your chamber, and take strict unsparing account. And if it is urged that more time is wanted, try it for a year: shut your eyes to all that is bad in the world—to all that is bad in you: refuse to believe, refuse to entertain any suspicion of evil in yourself, or in others, for that time: then retire and trace your path during the time. Does not every man see what would be the result? Do not we all know, that it would be simply the tale of the silly ostrich over again, which imagines itself safe from the hunter by shutting its eyes, and by hiding him from its own sight? Do we not see, that such a person would only be delivered up far more and far more helplessly into the power of evil?

No, my brethren: a man who wants to get rid of evil in himself must open his eyes to the evil, not hide it: must not shrink from any pain which the sight may give him, if it also gives him the knowledge, what the danger is, and how to meet it. And he who wants to overcome evil in others, must not shrink from the gloomy and unwelcome task of speaking of it, exposing it, probing its extent and measuring its strength, that so they may be the more deeply and earnestly convinced of its existence, and the more active in combating it.

There is then this evil all about us and in us: and we must make up our minds to see it, to recognize it, to stand face to face with it, and conquer it. Now here come in two most important remarks. This evil is not the only disagreeable thing in life. There are bodily pain, discomfort, misery, common to us and all mankind—nay, common to us and the lower animals. And there is this circumstance about all these, worthy of our present notice. If we can manage to forget them, to flee away from them, to hide them from us, we thereby get rid of them. We need not look at them, nor study their nature. A man who wants to avoid breaking a limb, need not be always gazing on or describing broken limbs: he has but to avoid those risks which might occasion the mischief. A man who would avoid death will follow the ordinary instinct of self-preservation: he would not be for ever studying all the possible ways of dying. Such knowledge is not necessary; nay, it would be an incumbrance and a nuisance. But the man who wishes to avoid evil in this world, must be awake and alive to the forms and accesses of evil. He cannot do without such knowledge: his very safety consists in it. Therefore—and mark the inference as an important one in our progress to-day—evil is a matter of a totally different kind from bodily pain, misery, or death.

Again: evil is not by any means our only inward source of annoyance and hindrance. You have—I have—every one has—defects, infirmities, in his or her mind and disposition: things of which we would willingly be rid if we could: bars to our progress and hindrances to our perfection. But none of these do we look upon as we look upon evil. Let it be shewn that we are dull, or feeble, or inferior to some others, we put up with it, we excuse it, we make ourselves as comfortable as we may under the knowledge of it: but let it be once shewn, by others or by our own conscience that we have wished, said, done, that which is evil, and we know at once that there is no excuse for it. We may try to shew that we did it inadvertently, or by force of circumstances; or in some way to lessen our own share in it: but the very labor to construct an excuse shews that we hold the evil itself, as evil, to be inexcusable. Evil itself no one attempts to excuse: all take for granted that it is a loathsome thing, all desire that their character and their conscience should stand free from it.

So far then this evil is something which our nature itself teaches us to revolt from and abhor. We do not, we cannot excuse it; we cannot contentedly put up with it, we cannot be happy under its influence. Now do not mistake me. Many a man, as we have seen, excuses his share in evil, excuses his evil deed as not being evil, plays the self-deceiver and hides the evil of his ways from himself, abandons his helm and lets himself drift into evil, and so is contented, and fancies himself happy, under evil. But again, and for all this, the thing itself is simply a deadly enemy to us, whenever and wherever detected, and exposed as being what it is. No son of man ever said or could say, from his inmost heart, what the great poet sublimely represents Satan as saying, "Evil, be thou my good." It requires more than man ever to say this.

Well now, my brethren, what does all this shew? Does it not testify to there being a law within us, implanted in our nature, by which evil is avoided, and by consequence good sought and desired? And observe that this is true, quite independently of and previous to all circumstances in which a man is placed, all interests in which he is involved. Our abhorrence of evil as evil does not spring from our finding it to be hurtful to us: we know that it is hurtful to us, the moment we know any thing. The little child for the first time detected in evil, is as much ashamed of it as the experienced and mature man. Now this is exceedingly important: all-important, in our present enquiry. A law within us tells us what is good, tells us that we ought to be good, to say good, to do good. Mind I only assert this fact. That this law is broken in upon, that it is not always distinctly or properly or effectively asserted, is nothing to my present purpose. I know all this, and shall have to use it by and by. But I only care now for this great fact, that there is this law: that we all know it, all judge by it, all act upon it as a familiar and confessed thing. All our enacted laws, all our public opinion, even all our ways of thinking and speaking in words, are founded on there being such a law within man, sanctioning good, prohibiting evil.

Now then it is time for us to ask, when man becomes, says, acts evil, what sort of a thing does he do? For that such is the case, is but too plain. Evil thoughts, evil words, evil acts, are but too often to be found in the course of all of us; evil men unhappily abound in every place and society. How are we to look upon such evil thoughts, words, acts, and men? Are they necessary? In plain words, is it a condition of our lives that we must enter into compact with evil, as it is that we must eat and sleep? Certainly not. This is clear from what has already been said. Every protest against evil, every resistance to evil, every victory over evil, proves that evil is not necessary to our being; that He who made us has made us capable of existing without evil, and all the better for existing without evil. But now let us listen to what follows. True as this is, we must always remember, that this great and blessed state of our being, the freedom from and victory over evil, is not that after which all men are striving. There are all kinds of lower forms of our being, which satisfy men, and in some cases constitute their chief good. One man seeks the gratification of his bodily appetites and lusts: another, the heaping up of wealth: a third, the gaining of power: a fourth, the rising in the esteem of those about him: another again, several, or all of these together: and so, not man’s brightest aim, to be good and pure and calm and wise, but an aim very far below this, is followed by the worse part of mankind always,—by even the best of mankind sometimes.

Now, my brethren, every one of these lower and unworthy objects, if followed as an object, does necessarily bring a man into contact and compromise with evil. To be bent on gratifying lust, is of itself evil: to amass selfishly, is evil: to promote our own influence and push for precedence, is evil. Greed, intemperance, injustice to others, unkindness, overweening opinion of self, and a hundred other evil things beset every one of such courses of life; every one of such thoughts, words, actions.

Now we have advanced, I think, close to our point. When a man lives such a course, when any one of us gives way to such thoughts or words, or commits such deeds, he is disobeying that great first law of our being by which, as I shewed you, we choose the good and abhor the evil. How it is that men got the wish so to go wrong and so to disobey the law of their being, it is not my present object to enquire. But though it is not, I must simply remind you that we Christian believers know how this was; and more than this,—that our Bibles give us the only satisfactory account that ever was given of it. We know that it was by a taint at the root and spring of our race; by our first parents using that freedom in which their Creator made them, not to please Him by remaining in good, but to please themselves by entering into a compromise with evil. But I say no more, as to enlarge on this is beyond our subject to-day. Men are (there is no doubt of this) liable, every man is liable, thus to enter into compact with his worst enemy, evil, in order to serve his present lower purposes. We all do this continually.

Now whenever we do this, we sin. "All sin," says St. John, "is transgression of law." Where there is no law, there is no sin; wherever there is a law, there he who disobeys that law commits sin. And we have seen that this inward law which teaches us to abhor evil and choose good is broken and set at nought by us all. We do not choose the good which we know we ought to choose: we do choose the evil which we very well know we ought not to choose. The propensity to do this, the entertaining the temptation to do it, the doing it, all these are sin. Now sin is not, like evil, a mere general quality: it is committed against a person. And there is, properly speaking, but one Person, against whom sin is, or can be committed. There is One who is the source and fountain of all law, all right, all purity, all goodness. And this law of good and evil of which we have been speaking, this above and before all others, springs from that Holy and Just one who hath made us and to whom we are accountable. All sin is against Him: is a violation of His law, is a thwarting, by His mysterious permission, of His holy and blessed purposes with regard to man.

All have sinned. And in dwelling on this, the fact, that all men have inherited the disposition to sin, necessarily comes first. And this is no fiction: this is not, as the unbeliever of our day would try to persuade you, an exploded fallacy of a gone-by system; but it is sober and fearful truth. It is moreover agreeable to the analogy of all God’s works in nature and in spirit: a truth, as matter of experience, undeniable by any who is aware of even the most common phænomena of our nature. And, inheriting this disposition, but with it inheriting also the great inward law of conscience warning us against evil, we have again and again followed, not the good law, but the evil propensity: in wayward childhood this has been so: in passionate youth: in calm deliberate manhood. We have not chosen evil; we have hated evil by our very nature; but we have followed evil, fallen into sin, by reason of our lusts and our passions blinding us, dragging us onward and downward, and delivering us tied and bound into the power of the enemy whom we naturally shun and detest. We have done this,—we are doing it, continually: we shall ever be doing it more or less, in our manifold weaknesses, our besetting dangers, our abounding temptations.

Now then, this being so, what follows? Can sin be safe? Can a sinner be happy? Can a sinful man be gaining the ends of his being? The full answer to this question does not belong to our subject to-day; but I cannot and ought not to conclude without slightly anticipating it.

Sin is and must be the ruin of man, body and soul, here and hereafter. The born sinner—the tainted child of a tainted stock, living under that taint, with it working and spreading in him and through him,—how shall he be safe? how shall he be happy? how shall he ever grow on to good and to a blessed eternity? Without going any further into the matter to-day, do you not see that this cannot be so? Whoever sins, goes wrong: lays up grief, shame, all that is dreadful, for himself, by thwarting the gracious ends for which God created him, viz. to love, obey, and imitate Himself, that he may become like Him, and one day see Him as He is.

No more then at present but this. Every man’s work in life, sinners as we all are, is this: to find out his sins, to confess his sins to God, to struggle with God’s help against his sins, year by year and day by day to gain victories over his sins through Him who overcame sin for us; to believe in, and live in the reality of, the Atonement which His Blood has made for all and every sin. All the glorious process of that which He hath accomplished for us, will come before us as we proceed.

But now in this season of Advent, when we are to cast away the works of darkness, I must detain you some Sundays longer on our own need of Him for whose coming we are to prepare; and shall therefore, by God’s help, speak to you on the next two Sundays on the manifold nature of sin, and on its guilt and consequences.

Now to Him who hath loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, to the Son of God, with the Father and the Holy Ghost, be honor and glory for ever. Amen.

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

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