CMF eZine

The online magazine of the Christian Military Fellowship.

1 Cor 13 Drummond.jpg

The Greatest Thing in the World

The Greatest Thing in The World

Tho I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, &c.—1 Cor. 13.

Everyone has asked himself the great question of antiquity as of the modern world: What is the summum bonum—the supreme good? You have life before you. Once only you can live it. What is the noblest object of desire, the supreme gift to covet?

We have been accustomed to be told that the greatest thing in the religious world is faith. That great word has been the key-note for centuries of the popular religion; and we have easily learned to look upon it as the greatest thing in the world. Well, we are wrong. If we have been told that, we may miss the mark. I have taken you, in the chapter which I have just read, to Christianity at its source; and there we have seen, “The greatest of these is love.” It is not an oversight. Paul was speaking of faith just a moment before. He says, “If I have all faith, so that I can remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing.” So far from forgetting, he deliberately contrasts them, “Now abideth faith, hope, love,” and without a moment’s hesitation the decision falls, “The greatest of these is love.”

And it is not prejudice. A man is apt to recommend to others his own strong point. Love was not Paul’s strong point. The observing student can detect a beautiful tenderness growing and ripening all through his character as Paul gets old; but the hand that wrote, “The greatest of these is love,” when we meet it first, is stained with blood.

Nor is this letter to the Corinthians peculiar in singling out love as the summum bonum. The masterpieces of Christianity are agreed about it. Peter says, “Above all things have fervent love among yourselves.” Above all things. And John goes further, “God is love.” And you remember the profound remark which Paul makes elsewhere, “Love is the fulfilling of the law.” Did you ever think what he meant by that? In those days men were working their passage to heaven by keeping the ten commandments, and the hundred and ten other commandments which they had manufactured out of them. Christ said, I will show you a more simple way. If you do one thing, you will do these hundred and ten things, without ever thinking about them. If you love, you will unconsciously fulfil the whole law. And you can readily see for yourselves how that must be so. Take any of the commandments. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” If a man love God, you will not require to tell him that. Love is the fulfilling of that law. “Take not his name in vain.” Would he ever dream of taking His name in vain if he loved Him? “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” Would he not be too glad to have one day in seven to dedicate more exclusively to the object of his affection? Love would fulfil all these laws regarding God. And so, if he loved man, you would never think of telling him to honor his father and mother. He could not do anything else. It would be preposterous to tell him not to kill. You could only insult him if you suggested that he should not steal—how could he steal from those he loved? It would be superfluous to beg him not to bear false witness against his neighbor. If he loved him it would be the last thing he would do. And you would never dream of urging him not to covet what his neighbors had. He would rather that they possest it than himself. In this way “Love is the fulfilling of the law.” It is the rule for fulfilling all rules, the new commandment for keeping all the old commandments, Christ’s one secret of the Christian life.

Now, Paul had learned that; and in this noble eulogy he has given us the most wonderful and original account extant of the summum bonum. We may divide it into three parts. In the beginning of the short chapter, we have love contrasted; in the heart of it, we have love analyzed; toward the end, we have love defended as the supreme gift.

Paul begins contrasting love with other things that men in those days thought much of. I shall not attempt to go over those things in detail. Their inferiority is already obvious.

He contrasts it with eloquence. And what a noble gift it is, the power of playing upon the souls and wills of men, and rousing them to lofty purposes and holy deeds. Paul says, “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” And we all know why. “We have all felt the brazenness of words without emotion, the hollowness, the unaccountable unpersuasiveness, of eloquence behind which lies no love.

He contrasts it with prophecy. He contrasts it with mysteries. He contrasts it with faith. He contrasts it with charity. Why is love greater than faith? Because the end is greater than the means. And why is it greater than charity? Because the whole is greater than the part. Love is greater than faith, because the end is greater than the means. What is the use of having faith? It is to connect the soul with God. And what is the object of connecting man with God? That he may become like God. But God is love. Hence faith, the means, is in order to love, the end. Love, therefore, obviously is greater than faith. It is greater than charity, again, because the whole is greater than a part. Charity is only a little bit of love, one of the innumerable avenues of love, and there may even be, and there is, a great deal of charity without love. It is a very easy thing to toss a copper to a beggar on the street; it is generally an easier thing than not to do it. Yet love is just as often in the withholding. We purchase relief from the sympathetic feelings roused by the spectacle of misery, at the copper’s cost. It is too cheap—too cheap for us, and often too dear for the beggar. If we really loved him we would either do more for him, or less.

Then Paul contrasts it with sacrifice and martyrdom. And I beg the little band of would-be missionaries—and I have the honor to call some of you by this name for the first time—to remember that tho you give your bodies to be burned, and have not love, it profits nothing—nothing! You can take nothing greater to the heathen world than the impress and reflection of the love of God upon your own character. That is the universal language. It will take you years to speak in Chinese, or in the dialects of India. From the day you land, that language of love, understood by all, will be pouring forth its unconscious eloquence. It is the man who is the missionary, it is not his words. His character is his message. In the heart of Africa, among the great lakes, I have come across black men and women who remembered the only white man they ever saw before—David Livingstone; and as you cross his footsteps in that dark continent, men’s faces light up as they speak of the kind doctor who passed there years ago. They could not understand him; but they felt the love that beat in his heart. Take into your new sphere of labor, where you also mean to lay down your life, that simple charm, and your life-work must succeed. You can take nothing greater, you need take nothing less. It is not worth while going if you take anything less. You may take every accomplishment; you may be braced for every sacrifice; but if you give your body to be burned, and have not love, it will profit you and the cause of Christ nothing.

After contrasting love with these things, Paul, in three verses, very short, gives us an amazing analysis of what this supreme thing is. I ask you to look at it. It is a compound thing, he tells us. It is like light. As you have seen a man of science take a beam of light and pass it through a crystal prism, as you have seen it come out on the other side of the prism broken up into its component colors—red, and blue, and yellow, and violet, and orange, and all the colors of the rainbow—so Paul passes this thing, love, through the magnificent prism of his inspired intellect, and it comes out on the other side broken up into its elements. And in these few words we have what one might call the spectrum of love, the analysis of love. Will you observe what its elements are? Will you notice that they have common names; that they are virtues which we hear about every day, that they are things which can be practiced by every man in every place in life; and how, by a multitude of small things and ordinary virtues, the supreme thing, the summum bonum, is made up?

The spectrum of love has nine ingredients:

Patience—“Love suffereth long.”

Kindness—“And is kind.”

Generosity—“Love envieth not.”

Humility—“Love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up.”

Courtesy—“Doth not behave itself unseemly.”

Unselfishness—“Seeketh not her own.”

Good temper—“Is not easily provoked.”

Guilelessness—“Thinketh no evil.”

Sincerity—“Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth.”

Patience, kindness, generosity, humility, courtesy, unselfishness, good temper, guilelessness, sincerity—these make up the supreme gift, the stature of the perfect man. You will observe that all are in relation to men, in relation to life, in relation to the known to-day and the near to-morrow, and not to the unknown eternity. We hear much of love to God; Christ spoke much of love to man. We make a great deal of peace with heaven; Christ made much of peace on earth. Religion is not a strange or added thing, but the inspiration of the secular life, the breathing of an eternal spirit through this temporal world. The supreme thing, in short, is not a thing at all, but the giving of a further finish to the multitudinous words and acts which make up the sum of every common day.

There is no time to do more than to make a passing note upon each of these ingredients. Love is patience. This is the normal attitude of love; love passive, love waiting to begin; not in a hurry; calm; ready to do its work when the summons comes, but meantime wearing the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit. Love suffers long; beareth all things; believeth all things; hopeth all things. For love understands, and therefore waits.

Kindness. Love active. Have you ever noticed how much of Christ’s life was spent in doing kind things—in merely doing kind things? Run over it with that in view, and you will find that He spent a great proportion of His time simply in making people happy, in doing good turns to people. There is only one thing greater than happiness in the world, and that is holiness; and it is not in our keeping; but what God has put in our power is the happiness of those about us, and that is largely to be secured by our being kind to them.

“The greatest thing,” says someone, “a man can do for his Heavenly Father is to be kind to some of his other children.” I wonder why it is that we are not all kinder than we are? How much the world needs it. How easily it is done. How instantaneously it acts. How infallibly it is remembered. How superabundantly it pays itself back—for there is no debtor in the world so honorable, so superbly honorable, as love. “Love never faileth.” Love is success, love is happiness, love is life. “Love,” I say, with Browning, “is energy of life.”

For life, with all it yields of joy or wo

And hope and fear,

Is just our chance o’ the prize of learning love—

How love might be, hath been indeed, and is.

Where love is, God is. He that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God. God is love. Therefore love. Without distinction, without calculation, without procrastination, love. Lavish it upon the poor, where it is very easy; especially upon the rich, who often need it most; most of all upon our equals, where it is very difficult, and for whom perhaps we each do least of all. There is a difference between trying to please and giving pleasure. Give pleasure. Lose no chance of giving pleasure. For that is the ceaseless and anonymous triumph of a truly loving spirit. “I shall pass through this world but once. Any good thing therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer it or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”

Generosity. “Love envieth not.” This is love in competition with others. Whenever you attempt a good work you will find other men doing the same kind of work, and probably doing it better. Envy them not. Envy is a feeling of ill-will to those who are in the same line as ourselves, a spirit of covetousness and detraction. How little Christian work even is a protection against unchristian feeling! That most despicable of all the unworthy moods which cloud a Christian’s soul assuredly waits for us on the threshold of every work, unless we are fortified with this grace of magnanimity. Only one thing truly needs the Christian envy, the large, rich, generous soul which “envieth not.”

And then, after having learned all that, you have to learn this further thing, humility—to put a seal upon your lips and forget what you have done. After you have been kind, after love has stolen forth into the world and done its beautiful work, go back into the shade again and say nothing about it. Love hides even from itself. Love waives even self-satisfaction. “Love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up.”

The fifth ingredient is a somewhat strange one to find in this summum bonum: Courtesy. This is love in society, love in relation to etiquette. “Love doth not behave itself unseemly.” Politeness has been defined as love in trifles. Courtesy is said to be love in little things. And the one secret of politeness is to love. Love cannot behave itself unseemly. You can put the most untutored persons into the highest society, and if they have a reservoir of love in their hearts, they will not behave themselves unseemly. They simply cannot do it. Carlyle said of Robert Burns that there was no truer gentleman in Europe than the plowman-poet. It was because he loved everything—the mouse, the daisy, and all the things, great and small, that God had made. So with this simple passport he could mingle with any society, and enter courts and palaces from his little cottage on the banks of the Ayr. You know the meaning of the word “gentleman.” It means a gentle man—a man who does things gently with love. And that is the whole art and mystery of it. The gentle man cannot in the nature of things do an ungentle and ungentlemanly thing. The ungentle soul, the inconsiderate, unsympathetic nature cannot do anything else. “Love doth not behave itself unseemly.”

Unselfishness. “Love seeketh not her own.” Observe: Seeketh not even that which is her own. In Britain the Englishman is devoted, and rightly, to his rights. But there come times when a man may exercise even the higher right of giving up his rights. Yet Paul does not summon us to give up our rights. Love strikes much deeper. It would have us not seek them at all, ignore them, eliminate the personal element altogether from our calculations. It is not hard to give up our rights. They are often external. The difficult thing is to give up ourselves. The more difficult thing still is not to seek things for ourselves at all. After we have sought them, bought them, won them, deserved them, we have taken the cream off them for ourselves already. Little cross then perhaps to give them up. But not to seek them, to look every man not on his own things, but on the things of others—id opus est. “Seekest thou great things for thyself?” said the prophet; “seek them not.” Why? Because there is no greatness in things. Things cannot be great. The only greatness is unselfish love. Even self-denial in itself is nothing, is almost a mistake. Only a great purpose or a mightier love can justify the waste. It is more difficult, I have said, not to seek our own at all, than, having sought it, to give it up. I must take that back. It is only true of a partly selfish heart. Nothing is a hardship to love, and nothing is hard. I believe that Christ’s yoke is easy. Christ’s “yoke” is just His way of taking life. And I believe it is an easier way than any other. I believe it is a happier way than any other. The most obvious lesson in Christ’s teaching is that there is no happiness in having and getting anything, but only in giving. I repeat, there is no happiness in having or in getting, but only in giving. And half the world is on the wrong scent in the pursuit of happiness. They think it consists in having and getting, and in being served by others. It consists in giving and serving others. He that would be great among you, said Christ, let him serve. He that would be happy, let him remember that there is but one way—it is more blessed, it is more happy, to give than to receive.

The next ingredient is a very remarkable one: good temper. “Love is not easily provoked.” Nothing could be more striking than to find this here. We are inclined to look upon bad temper as a very harmless weakness. We speak of it as a mere infirmity of nature, a family failing, a matter of temperament, not a thing to take into very serious account in estimating a man’s character. And yet here, right in the heart of this analysis of love, it finds a place; and the Bible again and again returns to condemn it as one of the most destructive elements in human nature.

The peculiarity of ill temper is that it is the vice of the virtuous. It is often the one blot on an otherwise noble character. You know men who are all but perfect, and women who would be entirely perfect, but for an easily ruffled, quick-tempered, or “touchy” disposition. This compatibility of ill temper with high moral character is one of the strangest and saddest problems of ethics. The truth is, there are two great classes of sins—sins of the body, and sins of the disposition. The Prodigal Son may be taken as a type of the first, the Elder Brother of the second. Now society has no doubt whatever as to which of these is the worse. Its brands fall without a challenge, upon the Prodigal. But are we right? We have no balance to weigh one another’s sins, and coarser and finer are but human words; but faults in the higher nature may be less venial than those in the lower, and to the eye of Him who is love, a sin against love may seem a hundred times more base. No form of vice, not worldliness, not greed of gold, not drunkenness itself, does more to unchristianize society than evil temper. For embittering life, for breaking up communities, for destroying the most sacred relationships, for devastating homes, for withering up men and women, for taking the bloom off childhood, in short, for sheer gratuitous misery-producing power, this influence stands alone. Look at the Elder Brother, moral, hard-working, patient, dutiful—let him get all credit for his virtues—look at this man, this baby, sulking outside his own father’s door. “He was angry,” we read, “and would not go in.” Look at the effect upon the father, upon the servants, upon the happiness of the guests. Judge of the effect upon the Prodigal—and how many prodigals are kept out of the kingdom of God by the unlovely character of those who profess to be inside? Analyze, as a study in temper, the thunder-cloud itself as it gathers upon the Elder Brother’s brow. What is it made of? Jealousy, anger, pride, uncharity, cruelty, self-righteousness, touchiness, doggedness, sullenness—these are the ingredients of this dark and loveless soul. In varying proportions, also, these are the ingredients of all ill temper. Judge if such sins of the disposition are not worse to live in, and for others to live with, than sins of the body. Did Christ indeed not answer the question Himself when He said, “I say unto you, that the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of heaven before you.” There is really no place in heaven for a disposition like this. A man with such a mood could only make heaven miserable for all the people in it. Except, therefore, such a man be born again, he cannot, he simply cannot, enter the kingdom of heaven. For it is perfectly certain—and you will not misunderstand me—that to enter heaven a man must take it with him.

You will see then why temper is significant. It is not in what it is alone, but in what it reveals. This is why I take the liberty now of speaking of it with such unusual plainness. It is a test for love, a symptom, a revelation of an unloving nature at bottom. It is the intermittent fever which bespeaks unintermittent disease within; the occasional bubble escaping to the surface which betrays some rottenness underneath; a sample of the most hidden products of the soul dropped involuntarily when off one’s guard; in a word, the lightning form of a hundred hideous and unchristian sins. For a want of patience, a want of kindness, a want of generosity, a want of courtesy, a want of unselfishness, are all instantaneously symbolized in one flash of temper.

Hence it is not enough to deal with the temper. We must go to the source, and change the inmost nature, and the angry humors will die away of themselves. Souls are made sweet not by taking the acid fluids out, but by putting something in—a great love, a new spirit, the spirit of Christ. Christ, the spirit of Christ, interpenetrating ours, sweetens, purifies, transforms all. This only can eradicate what is wrong, work a chemical change, renovate and regenerate, and rehabilitate the inner man. Will-power does not change men. Time does not change men. Christ does. Therefore, “Let that mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” Some of us have not much time to lose. Remember, once more, that this is a matter of life or death. I cannot help speaking urgently, for myself, for yourselves. “Whoso shall offend one of these little ones, which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” That is to say, it is the deliberate verdict of the Lord Jesus that it is better not to live than not to love. It is better not to live than not to love.

Guilelessness and sincerity may be dismissed almost without a word. Guilelessness is the grace for suspicious people. And the possession of it is the great secret of personal influence. You will find, if you think for a moment, that the people who influence you are people who believe in you. In an atmosphere of suspicion men shrivel up; but in that other atmosphere they expand, and find encouragement and educative fellowship. It is a wonderful thing that here and there in this hard, uncharitable world there should still be left a few rare souls who think no evil. This is the great unworldliness. Love “thinketh no evil,” imputes no bad motive, sees the bright side, puts the best construction on every action. What a delightful state of mind to live in! What stimulus and benediction even to meet with it for a day! To be trusted is to be saved. And if we try to influence or elevate others, we shall soon see that success is in proportion to their belief of our belief in them. For the respect of another is the first restoration of the self-respect a man has lost; our ideal of what he is becomes to him the hope and pattern of what he may become.

“Love rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth.” I have called this sincerity from the words rendered in the Authorized Version by “rejoiceth in the truth.” And, certainly, were this the real translation, nothing could be more just. For he who loves will love truth not less than men. He will rejoice in the truth—rejoice not in what he has been taught to believe; not in this Church’s doctrine or in that; not in this ism or in that ism; but “in the truth.” He will accept only what is real; he will strive to get at facts; he will search for truth with an humble and unbiased mind, and cherish whatever he finds at any sacrifice. But the more literal translation of the Revised Version calls for just such a sacrifice for truth’s sake here. For what Paul really meant is, as we there read, “Rejoiceth not in unrighteousness, but rejoiceth with the truth,” a quality which probably no one English word—and certainly not sincerity—adequately defines. It includes, perhaps more strictly, the self-restraint which refuses to make capital out of others’ faults; the charity which delights not in exposing the weakness of others, but “covereth all things”; the sincerity of purpose which endeavors to see things as they are, and rejoices to find them better than suspicion feared or calumny denounced.

So much for the analysis of love. Now the business of our lives is to have these things in our characters. That is the supreme work to which we need to address ourselves in this world to learn love. Is life not full of opportunities for learning love? Every man and woman every day has a thousand of them. The world is not a playground; it is a schoolroom. Life is not a holiday, but an education. And the one eternal lesson for us all is how better we can love. What makes a man a good cricketer? Practice. What makes a man a good artist, a good sculptor, a good musician? Practice. What makes a man a good linguist, a good stenographer? Practice. What makes a man a good man. Practice. Nothing else. There is nothing capricious about religion. We do not get the soul in different ways, under different laws, from those in which we get the body and the mind. If a man does not exercise his arm he develops no biceps muscle; and if he does not exercise his soul, he acquires no muscle in his soul, no strength of character, no vigor of moral fiber nor beauty of spiritual growth. Love is not a thing of enthusiastic emotion. It is a rich, strong, manly, vigorous expression of the whole round Christian character—the Christlike nature in its fullest development. And the constituents of this great character are only to be built up by ceaseless practice.

What was Christ doing in the carpenter’s shop? Practicing. Tho perfect, we read that He learned obedience, and grew in wisdom and in favor with God. Do not quarrel, therefore, with your lot in life. Do not complain of its never-ceasing cares, its petty environment, the vexations you have to stand, the small and sordid souls you have to live and work with. Above all, do not resent temptation; do not be perplexed because it seems to thicken round you more and more, and ceases neither for effort nor for agony nor prayer. That is your practice. That is the practice which God appoints you; and it is having its work in making you patient, and humble, and generous, and unselfish, and kind, and courteous. Do not grudge the hand that is molding the still too shapeless image within you. It is growing more beautiful, tho you see it not, and every touch of temptation may add to its perfection. Therefore keep in the midst of life. Do not isolate yourself. Be among men, and among things, and among troubles, and difficulties, and obstacles. You remember Goethe’s words: Es bildet ein Talent sich in der Stille, Doch ein Character in dem Strom der Welt. “Talent develops itself in solitude; character in the stream of life.” Talent develops itself in solitude—the talent of prayer, of faith, of meditation, of seeing the unseen; character grows in the stream of the world’s life. That chiefly is where men are to learn love.

How? Now how? To make it easier, I have named a few of the elements of love. But these are only elements. Love itself can never be defined. Light is a something more than the sum of its ingredients—a glowing, dazzling, tremulous ether. And love is something more than all its elements—a palpitating, quivering, sensitive, living thing. By synthesis of all the colors, men can make whiteness, they cannot make light. By synthesis of all the virtues, men can make virtue, they cannot make love. How then are we to have this transcendent living whole conveyed into our souls? We brace our wills to secure it. We try to copy those who have it. We lay down rules about it. We watch. We pray. But these things alone will not bring love into our nature. Love is an effect. And only as we fulfill the right condition can we have the effect produced. Shall I tell you what the cause is?

If you turn to the Revised Version of the First Epistle of John you will find these words: “We love because he first loved us.” “We love,” not “We love him.” That is the way the old version has it, and it is quite wrong. “We love—because he first loved us.” Look at that word “because.” It is the cause of which I have spoken. “Because he first loved us,” the effect follows that we love, we love Him, we love all men. We cannot help it. Because He loved us, we love, we love everybody. Our heart is slowly changed. Contemplate the love of Christ, and you will love. Stand before that mirror, reflect Christ’s character, and you will be changed into the same image from tenderness to tenderness. There is no other way. You cannot love to order. You can only look at the lovely object, and fall in love with it, and grow into likeness to it. And so look at this perfect character, this perfect life. Look at the great sacrifice as He laid down Himself, all through life, and upon the cross of Calvary; and you must love Him. And loving Him, you must become like Him. Love begets love. It is a process of induction. Put a piece of iron in the presence of an electrified body, and that piece of iron for a time becomes electrified. It is changed into a temporary magnet in the mere presence of a permanent magnet, and as long as you leave the two side by side they are both magnets alike. Remain side by side with Him who loved us, and gave Himself for us, and you too will become a permanent magnet, a permanently attractive force; and like Him you will draw all men unto you; like Him you will be drawn unto all men. That is the inevitable effect of love. Any man who fulfils that cause must have that effect produced in him. Try to give up the idea that religion comes to us by chance, or by mystery, or by caprice. It comes to us by natural law, or by spiritual law, for all law is divine. Edward Irving went to see a dying boy once, and when he entered the room he just put his hand on the sufferer’s head, and said, “My boy, God loves you,” and went away. And the boy started from his bed, and called out to the people in the house, “God loves me! God loves me!” It changed that boy. The sense that God loved him overpowered him, melted him down, and began the creating of a new heart in him. And that is how the love of God melts down the unlovely heart in man, and begets in him the new creature, who is patient and humble and gentle and unselfish. And there is no other way to get it. There is no mystery about it. We love others, we love everybody, we love our enemies, because He first loved us.

Now I have a closing sentence or two to add about Paul’s reason for singling out love as the supreme possession. It is a very remarkable reason. In a single word it is this: it lasts. “Love,” urges Paul, “never faileth.” Then he begins one of his marvelous lists of the great things of the day, and exposes them one by one. He runs over the things that men thought were going to last, and shows that they are all fleeting, temporary, passing away.

“Whether there be prophecies, they shall fail.” It was the mother’s ambition for her boy in those days that he should become a prophet. For hundreds of years God had never spoken by means of any prophet, and at that time the prophet was greater than the king. Men waited wistfully for another messenger to come, and hung upon his lips when he appeared as upon the very voice of God. Paul says, “Whether there be prophecies, they shall fail.” This book is full of prophecies. One by one they have “failed”; that is, having been fulfilled their work is finished; they have nothing more to do now in the world except to feed a devout man’s faith.

Then Paul talks about tongues. That was another thing that was greatly coveted. “Whether there be tongues, they shall cease.” As we all know, many, many centuries have passed since tongues have been known in this world. They have ceased. Take it in any sense you like. Take it, for illustration merely, as languages in general—a sense which was not in Paul’s mind at all, and which tho it cannot give us the specific lesson will point the general truth. Consider the words in which these chapters were written—Greek. It has gone. Take the Latin—the other great tongue of those days. It ceased long ago. Look at the Indian language. It is ceasing. The language of Wales, of Ireland, of the Scottish Highlands is dying before our eyes. The most popular book in the English tongue at the present time, except the Bible, is one of Dickens’ works, his “Pickwick Papers.” It is largely written in the language of London street-life, and experts assure us that in fifty years it will be unintelligible to the average English reader.

Then Paul goes further, and with even greater boldness adds, “Whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.” The wisdom of the ancients, where is it? It is wholly gone. A schoolboy to-day knows more than Sir Isaac Newton knew. His knowledge has vanished away. You put yesterday’s newspaper in the fire. Its knowledge has vanished away. You buy the old editions of the great encyclopedias for a few cents. Their knowledge has vanished away. Look how the coach has been superseded by the use of steam. Look how electricity has superseded that, and swept a hundred almost new inventions into oblivion. One of the greatest living authorities, Sir William Thompson, said the other day, “The steam-engine is passing away.” “Whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.” At every workshop you will see, in the back yard, a heap of old iron, a few wheels, a few levers, a few cranks, broken and eaten with rust. Twenty years ago that was the pride of the city. Men flocked in from the country to see the great invention; now it is superseded, its day is done. And all the boasted science and philosophy of this day will soon be old. But yesterday, in the University of Edinburgh, the greatest figure in the faculty was Sir James Simpson, the discoverer of chloroform. The other day his successor and nephew, Professor Simpson, was asked by the librarian of the university to go to the library and pick out the books on his subject that were no longer needed. And his reply to the librarian was this: “Take every text-book that is more than ten years old, and put it down in the cellar.” Sir James Simpson was a great authority only a few years ago; men came from all parts of the earth to consult him; and almost the whole teaching of that time is consigned by the science of to-day to oblivion. And in every branch of science it is the same. “Now we know in part. We see through a glass darkly.”

Can you tell me anything that is going to last? Many things Paul did not condescend to name. He did not mention money, fortune, fame; but he picked out the great things of his time, the things the best men thought had something in them, and brushed them peremptorily aside. Paul had no charge against these things in themselves. All he said about them was that they would not last. They were great things, but not supreme things. There were things beyond them. What we are stretches past what we do, beyond what we possess. Many things that men denounce as sins are not sins; but they are temporary. And that is a favorite argument of the New Testament. John says of the world, not that it is wrong, but simply that it “passeth away.” There is a great deal in the world that is delightful and beautiful; there is a great deal in it that is great and engrossing; but it will not last. All that is in the world, the lust of the eye, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life, are but for a little while. Love not the world therefore. Nothing that it contains is worth the life and consecration of an immortal soul. The immortal soul must give itself to something that is immortal. And the immortal things are: “Now abideth faith, hope, love, but the greatest of these is love.”

Some think the time may come when two of these three things will also pass away—faith into sight, hope into fruition. Paul does not say so. We know but little now about the conditions of the life that is to come. But what is certain is that love must last. God, the eternal God, is love. Covet therefore that everlasting gift, that one thing which it is certain is going to stand, that one coinage which will be current in the universe when all the other coinages of all the nations of the world shall be useless and unhonored. You will give yourselves to many things, give yourselves first to love. Hold things in their proportion. Hold things in their proportion. Let at least the first great object of our lives be to achieve the character defended in these words, the character—and it is the character of Christ—which is built round love.

I have said this thing is eternal. Did you ever notice how continually John associates love and faith with eternal life? I was not told when I was a boy that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should have everlasting life.” What I was told, I remember, was, that God so loved the world that, if I trusted in Him, I was to have a thing called peace, or I was to have rest, or I was to have joy, or I was to have safety. But I had to find out for myself that whosoever trusteth in Him—that is, whosoever loveth Him, for trust is only the avenue to love—hath everlasting life. The gospel offers a man life. Never offer men a thimbleful of gospel. Do not offer them merely joy, or merely peace, or merely rest, or merely safety; tell them how Christ came to give men a more abundant life than they have, a life abundant in love, and therefore abundant in salvation for themselves, and large in enterprise for the alleviation and redemption of the world. Then only can the gospel take hold of the whole of a man, body, soul, and spirit, and give to each part of his nature its exercise and reward. Many of the current gospels are addressed only to a part of man’s nature. They offer peace, not life; faith, not love; justification, not regeneration. And men slip back again from such religion because it has never really held them. Their nature was not all in it. It offered no deeper and gladder life-current than the life that was lived before. Surely it stands to reason that only a fuller love can compete with the love of the world.

To love abundantly is to live abundantly, and to love forever is to live forever. Hence, eternal life is inextricably bound up with love. We want to live forever for the same reason that we want to live to-morrow. Why do we want to live to-morrow? It is because there is some one who loves you, and whom you want to see to-morrow, and be with, and love back. There is no other reason why we should live on than that we love and are beloved. It is when a man has no one to love him that he commits suicide. So long as he has friends, those who love him and whom he loves, he will live; because to live is to love. Be it but the love of a dog, it will keep him in life; but let that go and he has no contact with life, no reason to live. He dies by his own hand. Eternal life is to know God, and God is love. This is Christ’s own definition. Ponder it. “This is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.” Love must be eternal. It is what God is. On the last analysis, then, love is life. Love never faileth, and life never faileth, so long as there is love. That is the philosophy of what Paul is showing us; the reason why in the nature of things love should be the supreme thing—because it is going to last; because in the nature of things it is an eternal life. It is a thing that we are living now, not that we get when we die; that we shall have a poor chance of getting when we die unless we are living now. No worse fate can befall a man in this world than to live and grow old all alone, unloving and unloved. To be lost is to live in an unregenerate condition, loveless and unloved; and to be saved is to love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth already in God; for God is love.

Now I have all but finished. How many of you will join me in reading this chapter once a week for the next three months? A man did that once and it changed his whole life. You might begin by reading it every day, especially the verses which describe the perfect character. “Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself.” Get these ingredients into your life. Then everything that you do is eternal. It is worth doing. It is worth giving time to. No man can become a saint in his sleep; and to fulfil the condition required demands a certain amount of prayer and meditation and time, just as improvement in any direction, bodily or mental, requires preparation and care. Address yourselves to that one thing; at any cost have this transcendent character exchanged for yours. You will find as you look back upon your life that the moments that stand out, the moments when you have really lived, are the moments when you have done things in a spirit of love. As memory scans the past, above and beyond all the transitory pleasures of life, there leap forward those supreme hours when you have been enabled to do unnoticed kindnesses to those around about you, things too trifling to speak about, but which you feel have entered into your eternal life. I have seen almost all the beautiful things God has made; I have enjoyed almost every pleasure that He has planned for man; and yet as I look back I see standing out above all the life that has gone four or five short experiences when the love of God reflected itself in some poor imitation, some small act of love of mine, and these seem to be the things which alone of all one’s life abide. Everything else in all our lives is transitory. Every other good is visionary. But the acts of love which no man knows about, or can ever know about, they never fail.

In the Book of Matthew, where the judgment day is depicted for us in the imagery of One seated upon a throne and dividing the sheep from the goats, the test of a man then is not, “How have I believed?” but “How have I loved?” The test of religion, the final test of religion, is not religiousness, but love. I say the final test of religion at that great day is not religiousness, but love; not what I have done, not what I have believed; not what I have achieved, but how I have discharged the common charities of life. Sins of commission in that awful indictment are not even referred to. By what we have not done, by sins of omission, we are judged. It could not be otherwise. For the withholding of love is the negation of the spirit of Christ, the proof that we never knew Him, that for us He lived in vain. It means that He suggested nothing in all our thoughts, that He inspired nothing in all our lives, that we were not once near enough to Him to be seized with the spell of His compassion for the world. It means that

I lived for myself, I thought for myself,

For myself, and none beside—

Just as if Jesus had never lived,

As if He had never died.

It is the Son of Man before whom the nations of the world shall be gathered. It is in the presence of humanity that we shall be charged. And the spectacle itself, the mere sight of it, will silently judge each one. Those will be there whom we have met and helped; or there, the unpitied multitude whom we neglected or despised. No other witness need be summoned. No other charge than lovelessness shall be preferred. Be not deceived. The words which all of us shall one day hear sound not of theology but of life, not of churches and saints but of the hungry and the poor, not of creeds and doctrines but of shelter and clothing, not of Bibles and prayer-books but of cups of cold water in the name of Christ. Thank God the Christianity of to-day is coming nearer the world’s need. Live to help that on. Thank God men know better, by a hairbreadth, what religion is, what God is, who Christ is, where Christ is. Who is Christ? He who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick. And where is Christ? Where?—Whoso shall receive a little child in My name receiveth Me. And who are Christ’s? Every one that loveth is born of God.[1]



[1] Drummond, H. (1908). The Greatest Thing in The World. In G. Kleiser (Ed.), The World’s Great Sermons: Drummond to Jowett (Vol. 10, pp. 3–35). New York; London: Funk & Wagnalls. (Public Domain)

Specify Alternate Text

A Cross and Crooked Generation: Psalm 78:34

A Crooked and Perverse Generation

Psalm 78:34

When He slew them, then they sought Him; and they returned, and enquired early after God.

This Psalm is a calendar or roll of reports, how from Moses to David the Jews carried themselves to God in matter of religion. And this verse a report how in the matter of repentance, expressed here under the terms of seeking and turning to God. Wherein this they did, this was their fashion: while He spared them, they sought Him not; “When He slew them, then they sought Him.” Cum, &c. These words then are a report.

A report; but such an one as when St. Paul heard of the Corinthians, he could not commend it. “What shall I say? Shall I praise you in this? No; I praise you not.”* Neither he them for that, nor I these for this. Rather, as old father Eli said to his sons;* Non est bonus sermo hic quem audio de vobis, “this is no good report I hear,” cum occideret, &c.

Whether good or whether evil it pertaineth to us. For to us of the Gentiles hath St. Paul entailed whatsoever well or ill befell the dissolved Church of the Jews. These, “all these came unto them for examples, and are enrolled to warn us that grow nearer and nearer to the ends of the world.”*

Both pertain unto us, the Scripture hath both; and in it draweth out our duty to us in both, in good and evil reports—as it were in white work and black work. And we to have use of both; yet not of both reports alike, but diversely, as our instructions upon them are diverse. For we are not so much to regard the bare report, as the instruction of it. For which cause Asaph hath entitled this Psalm, not Asaph’s report, but Asaph’s “instruction.”

Now we have here our report. May we find what our instruction is touching it? We may. Asaph expressly hath set it down in the eighth verse before. That this and other errors of theirs are here upon the file, ne fiant sicut patres eorum,* “that we should not be like our forefathers, a cross and crooked generation.” Not like them in other indignities, and among other in this cum occideret, &c. Never to seek God but when He kills us.

In which foul indignity our age is certainly as deep as ever was that, and we need Asaph’s instruction no less than they.

For as if there were no use of religion, but only cum occideret, so spend we all our whole time in the search of other things. Not caring to ask, or seek, or confer about the state of our souls, even till occideret come. And then, peradventure, sending for Asaph, and hearing him speak a few words about it, which we would fain have called seeking of God. I can say little to it, I pray God it prove so; but sure, I fear, it will be found minus habens, “far short of it.”*

Which is so usually received that, take a survey, not one of an hundred ever think of it before. So securely practised, as if we had some supersedeas lying by us, not to do it till then. As if there were no such Scripture as this upon record; “which turned to their destruction,” and must needs lie heavy upon us, when we shall remember it. Cum occideret, &c.

Now sure, this course must needs be prejudicial to our souls, and a number perish in it daily before our eyes. Yet we sit still, and suffer this custom to grow and gather head. Neither delivering their souls, or at least our own, by telling them seriously this is not the time, and then to seek is not the seeking God will allow. That this is a ne fiant, “such a thing as should not be done in Israel.” That it is upon record πρὸς ἐντροπὴν, to their disgrace and destruction. And it cannot be to our comfort or commendation to do the like. Out of which their destruction, Asaph frameth an instruction for us; and as it is well said and fitly to this day, ex cinere Judæorum lixivium Christianorum, ‘of the Jews’ ashes maketh a lye1 for Christians,’ to cleanse us from this foul indignity. Ut videntes cadentes, videant ne cadant, ‘that heeding their fall, we take heed we fall not;’ that is, seek not as they sought, lest we perish by like example of seeking too late.

Therefore, that we set ourselves to seek before this cum come; that is, in a word, seek God, as by repentance and the fruits, so by undelayed repentance, and the timely fruits of it; and be not like the Apostle Jude’s δένδρα φθινοπωρινὰ, our seeking all summer withered and dry,* and beginning to shoot out a little about Michaelmas spring. Of which kind of shooting fruit can never come. This is the sum.

The words consist of two parts. Two parts; but these two evil matched, or as St. Paul “unequally yoked together.”* For where our chief actions, of which I take it our seeking of God is one, should have the chiefest time; here is the first and best of our actions sorted with the last and worst part of our time. Quærebant Eum with cum occideret.

And not only missorted, but misplaced. For cum occideret, “His killing” standeth before “our seeking;” whereas our seeking should be first, and His killing come after. This was never God’s fiant, they must have a ne fiant.

Of these two then. First by way of report jointly that de facto thus it is—thus they, and thus we seek.

Then if we take them in sunder, and as Jeremy saith “separate the precious from the vile,”* quærebant Eum the flower of our actions, from cum occideret, the dross, dregs, and very refuse of our time. Consider them apart, and shew, 1. That this time is not the time; 2. and that this seeking thus sorted and thus placed is no seeking, nor ever shall find. Therefore, with Asaph’s instruction, to settle our seeking upon some other time, and to resolve to begin it before.

Two powers there are in cum; 1. a privative, of all times before; 2. a positive, of that instant time then. No time before we seek, at that instant time then we do. On which two consisteth theatrum vitæ, ‘the very theatre of our life.’ Our case before that time is lively expressed in the words immediately precedent; “They spend their days in vanity, and their years in turmoil in the world.”* Our case then at that time in these words, cum occideret eos. Yea, by implication they are both in this verse; by what they do now is implied what they did before. 1. Now “they sought Him,” so that before they lost Him. 2. Again, then “they turned to;” so that before they turned away, and not once looked toward Him. 3. Now “they rose up early,” so that before they put it off till twilight. 4. Now “they remembered,” so that before they forgat Him clean—no speech, no question, nay no thought about Him.

Thus it was, saith Asaph, under Moses. While His hand was not upon them, they regarded Him not, as not worth the seeking; perdebant Eum, it was their losing time. But “when He slew them,” they fell to seek, and well was he that might find; quærebant Eum, is was their seeking time.

Before, quærebant alia, ‘they found themselves other matters more meet to seek.’ Then quærebant Eum, “they gave over all to seek Him only.”

Before He sought them; and they gave Him good leave so to do. Then all is turned out and in. As He them before, so they Him now.

And is it not thus with us that are now in theatro, ‘upon the stage?’ Yes indeed; and more, if more may be. This is but vetus fabula per novos histriones, ‘the same play again by other actors.’ For in public, when in the days of safety plenty and peace, we are in the sixth of Amos,* and are best at ease when quærebant is farthest from us; but if war, famine, or contagion come, then we run to the second of Joel, “Sanctify a fast,”* and call for the Ark, and grow all godly on a sudden. What is this but cum occideret? And in private, when while youth and strength and health doth last, while the evil day is far off, we are even at cessare fac Sanctum Israel a nobis, “cause the Holy One of Israel to cease from us;”* but when distress, danger, or death come, when Rabshakeh is before the walls, then we cry, “Now is the day of tribulation and anguish; now the children are come to the birth, and there is no strength to be delivered.”* Now send to Esay, “Now lift up thy prayer for the remnant that is left.” What is this but cum occideret? Surely this is our case; our seeking goeth wholly by our killing—waxeth and waneth, is out and in, as that is near at hand or farther off. I need not tell it, your ears and eyes are daily witnesses that this is a true saying, cum occideret Eos, &c. No killing, no seeking.

“This is a true saying,” but all true sayings are not by all means, nay some not by any means, “to be received.” The report indeed is, thus it was. But the instruction is ne fiant,* “that it should not be.” To the end then we may know what to receive and what to refuse, we will take it in pieces, and melt the dross from the silver metal. Quærebant Eum, by itself is good. Put occideret to it, it is base. Of these then in order.

Of quærebant Eum we shall soon agree, if it be quærebant Eum, that it is a fiat, ‘a thing to be done.’ Which many other ways might be made to appear, but by none better than this here; that at last all come to it. Sooner or later all seek it, all men if not before yet cum occideret, then certainly.

All seek; and among all “they” sought, which word is not without his weight here. For what are these that Asaph here meaneth by “they?” Not saints, not generatio quærentium, “the generation of them that seek God.” But “they”* that in the verse before “wasted all their days in vanity, and their years in turmoiling in the world.” “They,”* idle, riotous persons—“they” sought.

“They” that in a verse after “flattered Him with their lips,” and gave Him all the good words that might be,* and meant no such thing. The hypocrites, “they” sought.

“They” that a little before “grievously provoked the Most High God” with speeches little better than blasphemy; “can God do this? Is there a God amongst us,”* or is there none? And so, instead of quærebant Deum, quærebant an Deus, ‘made a question, whether there were any to seek.’ That is, even the very wicked, and of all wicked the worst, the profane atheists, “they” sought—even at last “they” sought. This is the triumph of religion; the riotous person, the hypocrite, the atheist, all shall seek.

And herein is folly condemned even of her own children, and wisdom justified of her very enemies; that they that greedily seek sin, at last would be glad to be rid of it, and they that merrily scorn religion at last are glad to seek to it.

“They” shall seek; and the time is set down when they shall seek, and when you shall not fail but see them seek that never sought before. In diebus juventutis, not then. Sanus factus est, nor then neither; but cum occideret, then certainly. Cum occideret, mark this cum when it cometh, and you shall see them that stood out all their life long then come in.

The heathen man saw it with his eyes. O, saith the Persian messenger in Æschylus, when the Grecian forces hotly pursued our host, and we must needs venture over the great water Strymon, frozen then but beginning to thaw, when an hundred to one we had all died for it—that is, cum occideret, with mine eyes I saw saith he,* when Θεοὺς δέ τις, &c. Of those gallants whom I had heard before so boldly maintain there was no God to seek; τότʼ ἤυχετο λιταῖσι, ‘then every one of them on their knees, and full devoutly praying the ice might hold till they got over.’ Moses saw it with his eyes. Pharaoh,* who was at high terms, “Who is the Lord you talk of?” and answered himself, “he knew none such,” nor nothing would do for Him:—when cum occideret came, he took notice there was a Lord higher than he; “that that Lord was righteous, and he a wretched sinner”* that sought for grace at His hands. Mark but the shutting up of dixit insipiens, their own Psalm. When,* saith David, they have in heart sought to persuade themselves, non est—seek none, “none there is;”* and thereupon “corrupted themselves,” and became most loathsome in their lives, “eat up their tenants as they would do so many morsels of bread;” made a mock of such holy men as set themselves seriously to seek God: when all is done and occideret come, trepidabunt timore ubi non erat timor, “they shall begin to be afraid, where they held before no fear needed;” and here shall be the last verse of their Psalm; quis dabit e Sion salutem, “to wish for the salvation of Sion,” which they have so oft derided. “They shall seek,” and “then they shall seek.” Till then possibly you shall lose your labour, if you tell them of seeking of God, but and how good it is. They are, saith Jeremy, “like the dromedary of the wilderness,”* a beast of exceeding swiftness, the female specially; “over hill and dale she goeth,” saith the Prophet, “and snuffeth up the air at her pleasure, and who can overtake her? They that seek her will not weary themselves till her month.” And in her month when she is bagged, then they will find her, and deal with her well enough. The case is like. Age, sickness, death, are far off; youth, health, and strength, possess them; there is no coming to them then. The month, cum occideret, is not yet come; but come that once as once it will to all, you shall find quærebant will have his place—fiat. It is therefore God’s own resolution, thus He resolveth: “I will go,” saith He, “and return to My place, till they acknowledge their faults and seek Me.”* And when will that be? He addeth, in novissimo quærent me diligenter, an end will come, and when that cometh “they will seek Me diligently,” even the best of them. And even so we are fain to resolve; for our lot is God’s lot, and when He sought to them, we go to our place, and there stand till their month, expectantes aquæ motum,* waiting till the destroying Angel come and stir the water, and then quærent Eum will be worth the seeking after.

Then, according to St. Paul’s disjunctive,* we that all other times mente excedimus Dco, at that time sobrii sumus vobis. Divinity, which in our ruff1 is sophism and school-points, and at the best a kind of ecstasy about God, is and shall be then, “the words of truth and soberness.”* For God and His seeking will have their time; before if it may be, but if not before, then at the farthest. First or last, all shall confess by seeking God is to be sought. Some before He kill, and happy are they; but “when He killeth,” all;—hypocrites, heathens, atheists, and all.

And I would pray you in a word but to note, in seeking then how many things they confess. For there be I take it four potential confessions in it.

That such an One there is to be sought. A Power above us Whose being and sovereignty all, first or last, shall seek.

That somewhat there is to be found, some good to be done in seeking; as Esay saith, non frustra dixit, “He hath not in vain said to the seed of Jacob, Seek ye Me.”* For were it to no purpose, they would not then do it; but as at other times they did, so let it alone then too.

That whatsoever that good is, hit upon it,* or stumble on it we shall not; it will not be had in parergo, but seek it we must. For without seeking it will not be had. If it would they might sit still, and let it drop into their laps.

That seeking at this time when He slayeth them, they that shew what that good is they seek; even that the Psalmist saith, “Seek the Lord, and your soul shall live;”* that whatsoever become of their body, at least their soul may live; that we may lose not both, that “He kill not both, and cast not both into hell fire.”* And this, even when we come within the hemisphere of the other life, the sense we then have of somewhat that should have been sought before; the misgiving of our hearts, they shall come to a reckoning for not seeking sooner; and this, that not one of us would die suddenly of our good-wills, but have a time to seek God, before we lose ourselves. This, that we desire to die seeking, howsoever we live; all shew certainly it is a fiat, ‘a thing to be done,’ a good thing to seek God, even the enemies of it being judges of it.

So then; quærebant Eum is as it should be. But I add: 1. If it be quærebant, seeking indeed. 2. And if it be quærebant Eum, and not aliud in Eo, seeking, not Him, but somewhat else by Him.

If it be seeking indeed. For they to whom the Prophet Esay said, Si quæritis quærite, “if ye seek, why then do it,” sought so as it seemeth their seeking deserved not the name of seeking. So loosely, so slightly, so slenderly they did it;* as if that they sought were as good lost as found. So sought the party that said, In lectulo quæsivi Quem diligit anima,* that lay in bed and sought. So he that asked our Saviour Quid est veritas? a very good question; and when he had asked it another thing took him in the head and up he rose and went his way before Christ could tell him what it was. Such is our seeking for the most part. Some idle question cast, some table-talk moved, some Quid est veritas,* and go our way—all by the way, in transcursu; and never, as if it were about some matter of special moment, set about it and seek it out indeed.

1. They turned them, saith the text, as if before they sought without so much as turning them about.

2. They rose up, as though before they sat still and sought.

3. They did it early, and did not tarry till cum occideret, the sun were set, and no light to seek by, but their “feet stumbled in the dark mountains.”*

4. They “enquired;” so that before if you had ought to say to them you might, they had nothing to say to you. To seek then is to turn, to rise, to rise early, to enquire after it. O si quæritis, quærite, saith Esay, “the morning cometh, and so doth the night;”* that is, our days spend apace, and we say we will seek; if we will seek, let us once do it indeed.

Secondly, if it be quærebant, and if it be Eum; another point to be rectified. Non vestra sed vos, saith the Apostle, is the right seeking.* Not seek Him for somewhat we would have of Him, but to seek Himself for Himself. It is one thing, say the schools, to seek God for fruition; another to seek Him to make use of Him. One thing, saith Christ,* to seek for the miracle, another for the loaves.* One thing to “seek His face,” another to seek His fingers’ ends. One thing to consult with Him only for conscience, to know and do; another to consult with Him—if it hit our humour to make our advantage of it, if it go against us to set light by it. Such is our seeking for the most part; cum occideret, to have our turn served, to have our health restored, that we may seek Him no longer, but to our former riot again, “and to-morrow may be as yesterday and much more.”*

Seek Him indeed; seek Him for Himself. These two points being agreed of, we shall throughly agree of quærebant Eum. And so much for it, and for our fiat. Now to our ne fiat.

For when we have agreed of our seeking, we have not done. With diligence it would be, and due respect. Our seeking, as all things, the best things under the sun, must have τὴν ὥραν καὶ τὴν χώραν, ‘their due time and place.’* Wherein appeareth the abating power of circumstances,* that they are able to bring down the substances. Namely, of the time; and that mis-timing marreth not only music, but all things else. The thing is right, the cum is wrong, and so all is wrong.

To find out the time, we agree first that as every weighty thing hath, so the seeking of God is to be allowed a time too.

What time is that? Verily, we should do it absolutely, all our life long; quærite faciem Ejus semper. Not when? but when not? without limitation, continually.*

And in this sense we grant cum occideret; then, and at other times too. But not (as Asaph) then, and never till then; so, we deny it.

God indeed is so to be sought, but we cannot so seek Him; other our affairs crave allowance out of our time, and we are well content to yield it largely. Only that God have a set time left when to seek Him. That is but reason; all will yield to it. All grant a cum.

But come to know when that “when” shall be; here we vary first. We cannot be brought to set down any certainty, but love to be left at large. Do it we will, but indeed we cannot shew when; but even Felix his “when,”* ὅταν εὐκαιρήσω, ‘when we have leisure.’ I cannot now stand to seek, saith he; I hope one day to be at leisure to do it, but that day never came.

Urge them, press them “when?” No other resolution but omnis peccator dicit, aliquando Deum sequar sed non modo; ‘sometime still, but not this time.’ Never in the present, but sometime hereafter.

Follow them all along their life, they find not this cum, but put it from one cum to another, till there be none left but only cum occideret, even that very time against which God layeth His exceptions. Every time before we say, nondum tempus, ‘it is not time yet;’ every hour before, nondum venit hora, ‘the hour is not yet come.’

Not to leave God’s seeking thus at random, but to grow to some certainty. I demand, will any time serve? Is God at all times to be found? It is certain not. The very limitation of dum inveniri potest,* sheweth plainly that other times there be wherein seek Him you may, but find Him you shall not.

Then if at all times He is not to be found, we are to make choice of a certain cum, cum inveniri potest, “when He may be found,” and then seek Him.

Many returns there be in the term of our life, many cums; all are reduced to two: 1. cum servaret, and 2. cum occideret. Or if we will needs be wedded to a cum occideret, 1. Cum occideret hostes eorum, 2. not eos; ‘when He scattereth and slayeth our enemies’ and saveth us. One of these two it must needs be.

Cum occideret, it is not. Christ Himself expressly limiteth it before; Dedi ei tempus ad pænitendum, saith He, “I gave her a time to repent.”* What time is that? Lest we might mistake it to be cum occideret, He adds, if we do it not in that time so by Him given, He will “cast us down on our beds,” the beds of affliction and sickness, and there “kill us with death.” So that the time He alloweth us to repent, is before we come thither. For thither we come because we did it not in the time He gave us to do it in. Indeed our bed is not the place: in lectulo quæsivi, “I sought Him in my bed;” quæsivi sed non inveni, “I sought Him but I found Him not.”* The place of slaughter is not the place, nor the time of killing is not the time. We may take that time, but it is not dedi illis, none of “His giving.” The time He giveth us is before we come there.

Then if when He kills us is not it, when He saveth us it is? It is indeed; and a cluster of it, an hour of cum servaret then is better than a vintage, a whole day of cum occideret.

Upon these two the whole Psalm standeth, and the part before sheweth when it should have been. When “He overwhelmed the Egyptians in the sea,”* when “the pillar of the cloud was over,”* when He not only saved them but served them, “raining down manna”* for their need, and giving them quails for their lust;* then was the time with them and then is the time with us.

For sure as we seek God to save us, so He saveth us to seek Him; if when we seek Him we are saved, when we are saved we should seek Him. The time of His saving is the time of our seeking; and one hour then is better than four and twenty.

All that while what seek we? Why, as Jeremy saith,* we do then quærere grandia. Other greater matters we have in hand, matters of more weight than the seeking of God. As if His seeking were some petty business, slightly to be sought, and lightly to be found. Any time good enough for it.

Nay not that, but so evil are we affected to seek Him then, that quærebant is occideret; we indict Him of our death, it is death to do it—as lieve die as seek; it maketh us old, it killeth us before our time. We digest not them that call on us for it, but seek ourselves, as the Apostle speaketh,* Magistros secundum desideria, that may entertain us with speculations of what may be done by miracle at the hour of death; that may give us days and elbow-room enough to seek other things, and to shrink up His seeking into a narrow time at our end, and tell us time enough then. For thus then we reckon; all the time we spend in it we lose the fruit of our life, and the joy of our hearts shall be taken from us. As if the fruit of life were not to find God, or as if any true hearts’ joy God being not found. Call we this our fruit and joy not to seek God? call it not so; lætetur cor quærentium Deum, saith the Holy Ghost, “let the heart of them rejoice that seek the Lord.”* Yea in lachrymis peccatorum, ‘in the very tears of a penitent,’* there is, saith St. Augustine, more sound joy than in risu theatrorum, ‘in all the games the theatre can afford:’ Da Christianum, et scit quid dico. But our taste is turned, and we relish not this seeking. By our flesh-pots we have lived, and by them we will die, and so we do. Lust hath been our life, and we will be buried in the graves of lust; and so we shall, and never know what that joy meaneth, Lætetur cor quærentium Deum.

Cum servaret then will not serve. Nay, cum occideret will scarce serve, it hath much ado; let Him draw His sword and come amongst us. For if, as of His goodness He doth not, He rush not on us at first, but begin with others; if it be cum occideret alios, we seek not. See ye the thirty-first verse: He took away others before their faces, and those not weak or sickly persons, but the goodliest and strongest of all Israel, and least likely to die. Here is occideret. Now did this move? No. See the thirty-second verse: for at this they “sinned yet more,” and went about their seeking never the sooner. It must be cum occideret eos, “themselves,” their own selves, or it will not do it.

Come then to themselves and smite them with the edge, not with the point; with the edge to wound, not with the point to dispatch outright; will that serve? cum cæderet eos, ‘when He wounded them with some mortal sickness the messenger of death, would they seek Him then?’ No: not then, not for all that would they frame to it. For quærebant medicum then, I say, as Asa sought medicos, et non Deum.* Not God and them, but them first; and let God stay till they be gone. And till they give us over, and tell us plainly occideret is now come indeed, no smiting or wounding will send us to seek. So that it is not either 1. cum servaret eos, or 2. cum serviret eis, His saving, or serving us; nay it is not, 3. cum occideret alios, or 4. cum cæderet, ‘His killing others, or wounding us’ with any but our deaths-wound, will do it.

Tandem then, when we are come to the very last cast, our strength is gone, our spirit clean spent, our senses appalled, and the powers of our soul as numb as our senses, when a general prostration of all our powers, and the shadow of death upon our eyes, then something we would say or do which should stand for our seeking; but, I doubt it will not serve. This is the time we allow God to seek Him in.

Is this it? Would we then seek Him when we are not in case to seek any thing else? Would we turn to Him then when we are not able to turn ourselves in our bed? Or, “rise early to seek Him” when we are not able to rise at all? Or “enquire after Him” when our breath faileth us, and we are not able to speak three words together? Neither before, nor with, but even at the end of occideret? No hour but the hour of death?* No time but when He taketh time from us and us from it, et tempus non erit amplius? What shall I say? Shall I commend this seeking, turning, rising, enquiring? No; I cannot commend it either in itself or to any. I commend it not.

That that may be said is this, and it is nothing: true; some one or two of a thousand and ten thousand that have. How then? Shall we not therefore follow our instruction and seek Him before? Nay then,* “some have found and never sought;”—let us not seek Him at all if that will hold. Thus it is: some going a journey have found a purse by the way—it were mad counsel to advise us to leave our money behind upon hope of like hap in ours. No; this is safe and good; though some one or two have found and not sought, yet let us seek for all that. Though some one or two have then sought and found, yet let us seek before. Though some have found a purse in their way, let us not trust to like hap, but carry money with us. This is a privy-door on special favour open to some few. There lieth no way by them. “This is the way,” you have heard, “walk in it and you shall find rest to your souls.”*

To speak then of safe seeking and sure finding, I say, as Asaph saith, it is a ne fiant. This time is not the time Christ giveth us; He assigneth us another. Yea we condemn ourselves in that we would seek to allow it ourselves. If we were put to it to say plainly, “not till He kill me,” it would choke us. We neither have heart nor face, we would not dare to answer so, we dare not avow it. And if it be a ne dicant it is a ne fiant. The time of God’s quærite is primum quærite.* This cum is the last of all our cums; all other before it. First and last are flat ad oppositum. This is not it.

The time of seeking God must be δεκτὸς, such as is meet to be received. This is not: therefore, I hope, we will not offer it God.* If we do, take heed He scorn not this time as He doth their price in Zachary; “A goodly time1 that I have assigned Me.”* Take heed He stand not upon His reputation, as in Malachi, and bid us “offer our service”* at this hour, “to any great man and see, whether he will be content with it,” and not reject both us and our seeking then. This is not, cannot be but a great ne fiant, to offer God that no man is so mean but would take in evil part.

This time is the time when all hypocrites, atheists, tag and rag, come in and seek Him in a sort; and shall not we be confounded to see ourselves in their number? Nay to say that must be said for true it is, It is past the Devil’s time. They be his words, cur ante tempus?* and he seeketh to make them ours, that it is ever too soon to seek God. At the hardest I trust we will not keep time with him.

And to seek Him then is not to seek Him; not quærebant Eum. No; they seek Him not, they “dissemble with Him,” saith Asaph, in the next verse. For when God to try them reprieved them never so little time, they fell to their old bias;* and when as He ceased killing, their seeking was at an end. So are all forced seekings, like to a bow-string brought to his full bent, but remit you never so little it starteth back again.

Nay it is not quærebant, no kindly seeking, but a base ignoble creeping to, without all ingenuity1, when we must either die or do it. Neither χάρις nor κλέος to do it then.

But in very deed it is no “seeking”* at all, as before we defined quærebant to “seek indeed.” There is a diameter between occideret and quærebant, and therefore between it and quærebant Eum. Men cannot then seek; if they must rise up and turn them that must do it, they are not able for their lives to turn or stir themselves to do it. Nay, nor to “enquire.” For what is our “seeking” then? Is it not to lie still on our bed, and suffer a few words to be spoken in our ears? Have a little opiate divinity ministered to our souls, and so sent away? Sure this is rather to be sought than to “seek.” There goeth more to quærebant then thus. We must then “seek” when we are in case to give sentence and to do judgment on ourselves, when we are able to take up our cross before it be laid on us. Quærebant Eum must stand before cum occideret.

Lastly, it would be known what became of this quærebant? What they found that sought thus, and then and not before? “They found not Him,”* the Prophet saith plainly. They go then “with sheep and bullocks,” and all manner of sacrifice, “to seek the Lord; but find Him not, for He hath withdrawn Himself before.”

And justly they find Him not ex lege talionis. God Himself answers them; nay their own hearts answer themselves. Go: whom you have spent your life in seeking, seek to them now. Let them save you at this, whom ye sought at all other times. As for Me, it shall come to pass, as I cried and you would not hear, so you shall cry and seek and shall not find or be heard, saith the Lord.

Yes—they found Him, but with a door shut between Him and them. But what found they? The parable of the ten virgins tells us, which is the Gospel for this Psalm, they found that which we I hope shall never find, a nescio vos.* Where, that we may see that this course is folly and therefore indeed a ne fiant sicut, that which putteth the difference of those that be wise and go in, is that they had sought “and looked to their oil ere the Bridegroom came;”* and those that were foolish and shut out when the Bridegroom was even coming, that is, cum occideret, were to seek their oil then—had not looked to it till then. Nescio vos is their answer, He knoweth them not; they took too short a time to breed acquaintance in. Nescio vos they find that so seek. Profecto ad hoc tonitru, &c. ‘At this clap he that waketh not is not asleep but dead.’

To conclude then with our instruction. If this time and this seeking have so many evil marks, the time so unseasonable, the seeking so many ways to seek; if the success to this seeking be no better but nescio vos, why then ne fiat. If these here were not well advised, if those virgins were foolish, why then ne fiant sicut, “not to be like.”

Secondly, to sever the silver from the dross: the seeking is good, keep it; the time is wrong, change it; either into antequam occideret or into cum servaret. Fiat to the action, ne fiat to the time.

Thirdly, as we confess that there is One to be sought, and that with the turning of a gin1 we cannot have Him when we list, but seek Him we must; that His seeking is worth the while, and that it is not dispatched in a minute, but must have time; so to think His seeking worthy a better, and to allow it a better time than this to do it in.

Fourthly, seeing “yet is the acceptable time,” yet “He may be found,”* yet it is cum servaret, occideret is not yet come—how near it is it is hard to say; our Saviour Christ saith it is quâ horâ nescis,* it may be nearer than we are aware; lest it come upon us before we seek, let us seek before it come upon us. So seeking we shall safely seek; safely seek and surely find God, and with God whatsoever is worth the finding. But, that which we seek, we shall after occideret is past find ourselves in His presence and at His right hand; “in Whose presence is the fulness of joy,”* not as ours here joys half empty; and at “Whose right hand there are pleasures for evermore,” not as ours here for a time and a short time, God knoweth. That which here we seek and cannot find with Him we shall, if we shall here indeed and in due time seek Him by the timely fruits of an undelayed repentance. Almighty God, lighten our minds, kindle our affections, settle our hearts so to seek, &c.[1]



1 Liter. water impregnated with alkaline salts imbibed from the ashes of wood. Webster.

* Isa. 37:3.

1 i.e. pride. The ruff of their glory. L.’Estrange.

* [ἐκ παρέργου Thucyd. vii. 27.]

* Joh. 18:38.

* Ps. 105:3.

1 [price.]

1 [i.e. ingenuousness.]

* Mat. 25:12.

1 [Here used apparently forengine.]

[1] Andrewes, L. (1841). Ninety-Six Sermons (Vol. 1, pp. 305–320). Oxford: John Henry Parker. (Public Domain)

Strait Gate Hosea Title.jpg

The Strait Gate

The Strait Gate


Great Difficulty of Going to Heaven

Plainly proving, by the Scriptures, that not only the rude and profane, but many great professors, will come short of that kingdom.

‘Enter ye in at the strait gate; for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.’—Matthew 7:13, 14

Advertisement by the Editor

If any uninspired writer has been entitled to the name of Boanerges, or a son of thunder, it is the author of the following treatise. Here we have a most searching and faithful display of the straitness or exact dimensions of that all-important gate, which will not suffer many professors to pass into the kingdom of heaven, encumbered as they are with fatal errors. Still ‘it is no little pinching wicket, but wide enough for all the truly gracious and sincere lovers of Jesus Christ; while it is so strait, that no others can by any means enter in.’ This is a subject calculated to rouse and stimulate all genuine professors to solemn inquiry; and it was peculiarly intended to dart at, and fix convictions upon, the multitudes of hypocritical professors who abounded in Bunyan’s time, especially under the reigns of the later Stuarts.

During the Protectorate, wickedness was discountenanced, and skulked in the holes and corners of Mansoul; but when a debauched monarch, who had taken refuge in the most licentious court in Europe, was called to occupy the throne of his fathers, the most abandoned profligacy and profaneness were let loose upon the nation. Vice was openly patronized, while virtue and religion were as openly treated with mockery and contempt. Bunyan justly says, ‘The text calls for sharpness, so do the times.’ ‘With those whose religion lieth in some circumstantials, the kingdom swarms at this day.’ When they stand at the gate, they will ‘shake like a quagmire—their feigned faith, pretended love, shows of gravity, and holiday words, will stand them in little stead; some professors do with religion just as people do with their best apparel—hang it on the wall all the week, and put it on on Sundays; they save it till they go to a meeting, or meet with a godly chapman.’ This state of society called for peculiar sharpness, and Bunyan preached and published, in 1676, this awful alarm to professors. No subject could be more peculiarly applicable than ‘The Gate of heaven,’ and ‘the difficulties of entering in thereat’; a subject of the deepest interest to all mankind—to stimulate the careless to find, and to enter the gate of this the only city of refuge from eternal misery—to fill the heart of God’s children with love and joy in their prospects of a blessed immortality—and to sting the hypocrites with the awful thought of finding the gate shut against them for ever. Their cries and tears will be too late; they will stand without and vehemently cry, ‘Lord, Lord, open unto us’; in vain will be their outcry, ‘the devils are coming; Lord, Lord, the pit opens her mouth upon us; Lord, Lord, there is nothing but hell and damnation left us, if thou hast not mercy upon us.’ These were professors who pretended to have found the gate and way to heaven; who passed for pilgrims who were seeking a better, even a heavenly country; such deluded victims must be, of all men, the most miserable.

Faithfulness becomes the ministers of Christ in dealing with the souls of men; and pre-eminently faithful is John Bunyan in this treatise. Reader, he will be clear of thy blood. Enter upon the solemn inquiry, Have I sought the gate? Shall I be admitted into, or shut out from, that blessed kingdom? The openly profane can have no hope. Are you a professor?—there is danger sill. In vain will it be to urge, ‘We have prophesied in thy name, and in thy name cast out devils.’ To the secretly profane, whatever may be their profession, there can be no well-grounded hope of entrance in at this gate. Those only will be admitted whom the Lord knows to be his—the sheep of his pasture, who have heard his voice, and obeyed it. Against all others the door will be shut, and the awful words, ‘I know you not—depart, ye cursed,’ will hurry them to eternal darkness. The question, ‘Are there few that be saved?’ will suggest itself to our minds; may the answer fix upon our conscience, ‘STRIVE to enter in.’ It is very probable that it was in preaching upon this text, Bunyan was assailed with a want of charity. The anecdote is thus narrated by Mr. Doe in The Struggler:—‘As Mr. Bunyan was preaching in a barn, and showing the fewness of those that should be saved, there stood one of the learned to take advantage of his words; and having done preaching, the schoolman said to him, You are a deceiver, a person of no charity, and therefore not fit to preach; for he that [in effect] condemneth the greatest part of his hearers hath no charity, and therefore is not fit to preach. Then Mr. Bunyan answered, The Lord Jesus Christ preached in a ship to his hearers on the shore (Mat 13), and showed that they were as four sorts of ground, the highway, the stony, the thorny, and the good ground, but those represented by the good ground were the only persons to be saved. And your position is, That he that in effect condemneth the greatest part of his hearers, hath no charity, and therefore is not fit to preach the gospel. But here the Lord Jesus Christ did so, then your conclusion is, The Lord Jesus Christ wanted charity, and therefore was not fit to preach the gospel. Horrid blasphemy; away with your hellish logic, and speak Scripture.’ Of one thing we are certain, that while hollow-hearted hypocritical professors will ever complain of faithful dealing with their soul’s eternal interests; the sincere and humble Christina will be most thankful for searching inquiries, that, if wrong, he may be set right before his final destiny is irrevocably fixed. May our souls submit to a scriptural measurement of this gate, and the terms upon which alone it can be opened unto us.

The difficulties that prevent ‘the many’ from entering in are, 1. Forgetfulness that we can only enter heaven by the permission of the law—every jot and tittle must be fulfilled. Now, if we could live from our conversion to our death in the holiest obedience to all its precepts, yet, having previously violated them, the stain must not only be washed away in the blood of atonement, but we, as part of the body of Christ, must, in him, render perfect obedience. 2. In addition to the disinclination of our hearts to submit to this perfect righteousness, we have outward storms of temptation and persecution. ‘The world will seek to keep thee out of heaven with mocks, flouts, taunts, threats, jails, gibbets, halters, burnings, and a thousand deaths; therefore strive! Again, if it cannot overcome thee with these, it will flatter, promise, allure, entice, entreat, and use a thousand tricks on this hand to destroy thee; and many that have been stout against the threats of the world have yet been overcome with the bewitching flatteries of the same. O that we may by grace escape all these enemies, and so strive as to enter into the joy of our Lord.’


To the Reader:


God, I hope, hath put it into my heart to write unto thee another time, and that about matters of greatest moment—for now we discourse not about things controverted among the godly, but directly about the saving or damning of the soul; yea, moreover, this discourse is about the fewness of them that shall be saved, and it proves that many a high professor will come short of eternal life; wherefore the matter must needs be sharp, and so disliked by some, but let it not be rejected by thee. The text calls for sharpness, so do the times, yea, the faithful discharge of my duty towards thee hath put me upon it.

I do not now pipe, but mourn; and it will be well for thee if thou canst graciously lament. (Matt 11:17) Some, say they, make the gate of heaven too wide, and some make it too narrow; for my part, I have here presented thee with as true a measure of it as by the Word of God I can. Read me, therefore, yea, read me, and compare me with the Bible; and if thou findest my doctrine and that book of God concur, embrace it, as thou wilt answer the contrary in the day of judgment. This awakening work—if God will make it so—was prepared for thee: if there be need, and it wounds, get healing by blood: if it disquiets, get peace by blood: if it takes away all thou hast, because it was naught (for this book is not prepared to take away true grace from any), then buy of Christ ‘gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich, and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear, and anoint thine eyes with eye-salve, that thou mayest see.’ (Rev 3:18) Self-flatteries, self-deceivings, are easy and pleasant, but damnable. The Lord give thee a heart to judge right of thyself, right of this book, and so to prepare for eternity, that thou mayest not only expect entrance, but be received into the kingdom of Christ and of God. Amen.

So prays thy Friend,


The Strait Gate


These are the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and are, therefore, in especial manner to be heeded; besides, the subject matter of the words is the most weighty, to wit, how we should attain salvation, and therefore also to be heeded.

The occasion of the words was a question which one that was at this time in the company of the disciples put to Jesus Christ; the question was this, ‘Lord, are there few that be saved?’ (verse 23) A serious question, not such as tended to the subversion of the hearers, as too many now-a-days do; but such as in its own nature tended to the awakening of the company to good, and that called for such an answer that might profit the people also. This question also well pleased Jesus Christ, and he prepareth and giveth such an answer as was without the least retort, or show of distaste; such an answer, I say, as carried in it the most full resolve to the question itself, and help to the persons questioning. ‘And he said unto them, Strive to enter in,’ &c. The words are an answer, and an instruction also. First. An answer, and that in the affirmative; the gate is strait—many that seek will not be able, therefore but few shall be saved. Second. The answer is an instruction also; ‘strive to enter in,’ &c., good counsel and instruction; pray God help me, and my reader, and all that love their own salvation, to take it.

My manner of handling the words will be—FIRST, By way of explication; and then SECOND, By way of observation.

Specify Alternate Text

True Ambition

True Ambition

I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.  Philippians 4:13.

Dr. Joseph Barber Lightfoot, Lord Bishop of Durham
Great S. Mary’s Church, 22nd Sunday after Trinity, 1883.

Πάντα ἰσχύω ἐν τῷ ἐνδυναμοῦντί με, ‘I have strength for all things in Him that empowereth, enableth me.’

Ambition, the love of power, the thirst after influence—its use and its abuse, its true and its false aims—this is no unfit subject for consideration from a University pulpit.

Ambition in some form or other is an innate craving of man. All men desire power; they cannot help desiring it. The desire is as natural to them as the desire of health. Power and influence occupy the same place socially, that strength and vigour of limb do physically. Other desires, though veiled under various disguises, resolve themselves ultimately into a love of power. Knowledge is power. The cultivated intellect has a command of the resources of the universe. The selfish exaggeration of this feeling is a testimony to the underlying fact. The self-satisfied soul congratulates herself that she is

Lord over nature, Lord of the visible earth,
Lord of the senses five.
She communes with herself—
All these are mine,
And let the world have peace or wars
’Tis one to me.

Again, money is power. A man desires wealth, not for the sake of the stamped metal or the printed paper in themselves. These represent to him a command of resources. The miser indeed by base indulgence forgets the end in the means. In his own domain he resembles the spurious mathematician, to whom the letters and symbols are all in all, who sees in them so many counters and nothing more, who is blinded to the eternal relations of space and number which they represent. But traced back to its origin, the miser’s love of money is a love of power.

Ambition, emulation, rivalry, plays a highly important part in the education of the world. We cannot shut our eyes to its splendid achievements. In politics, in social life, in mechanical inventions, in literature and art, its stimulus has produced invaluable results. If ambition has been the last infirmity, it has also been the initial inspiration, of many a noble mind. If by ambition angels fell, by ambition men have risen. It has heightened their ideal, and drawn them upwards from lower to higher. If it is chargeable with the worst evils which have devastated mankind, it must be credited also with the most splendid advances in human progress and civilisation.

Ambition has its proper home in a University. Ambition is the life of this place. What would Cambridge be without its honourable emulations, its generous rivalries? Body and mind alike feel the stimulus of its presence. Remove this stimulus, and the immediate consequence will be torpor and degeneration and decay. The athletic ambitions and the scholastic ambitions of the place, each in their own province, are indispensable to its health and vigour.

To one who, revisiting the scenes amidst which the best years of his life were spent, asks himself what topic may be fitly handled in this pulpit, the subject of ambition will naturally suggest itself. The University has lived through a period of exceptional restlessness and change during the last three decades—change far more considerable than during the preceding three centuries. Yet the spirit and life of the place are unchanging. It is the ceaseless, orderly-march of a mighty army moving forward. Cross it where you will along the line, the gesture, the tread, the uniform, is the same; the faces only are different. It is the broad, silent, ever-flowing river, changeless, yet always changing. Wave succeeds wave; you gaze on it at intervals; not one drop of water remains the same; and yet the river is not another. The main currents of University life are the same now as thirty years ago. Its moral and social condition is mainly, we may say, the resultant of two divergent forces, its friendships and its emulations. It is the latter alone that I purpose considering this afternoon.

I speak to you, therefore, as to ambitious men. Those only are beyond hope who have no spirit of emulation, no craving after excellence—those only, in short, who are devoid of ambition. I invite you, therefore, to be ambitious. Only I ask you to purify your ambition, to consecrate it, to direct it through worthy channels and to worthy aims. I desire to shew you the more excellent way.

If indeed ambition has achieved splendid results, it can only have done so by virtue of splendid qualities. It must contain in itself true and abiding elements, which we cannot afford to neglect. Thus it involves a love of approbation. This cannot be culpable in itself. As social beings, we have sympathies and affections which lie at the very roots of our nature; and the desire of approval is inseparably intertwined with these. Who would blame the child for seeking to win its mother’s good opinion? But the principle cannot be limited to this one example. It is coextensive with the whole range of our social relations. The end sought is commendable. Only it may be discredited and condemned by the means taken to attain it; as, for instance, if we disguise our true sentiment, or withhold a just rebuke, or connive at wrong-doing, or sacrifice a noble purpose, for the sake of standing well with others. It is then, and then only, that the praise of men conflicts with the praise of God. Again, ambition implies a spirit of emulation. Neither is this wrong in itself. If it were, this University would stand condemned root and branch. Emulation is not envy; emulation is not jealousy; emulation does not seek to injure or rob another. An apostle avows it to be his aim to ‘provoke to emulation.’ This provocation—this stimulus of comparison and contrast—is an invaluable influence. We measure ourselves with others; we see our defects mirrored in their excellencies; our ideal is heightened by the comparison. Thus there gathers and ferments in us a discontent with ourselves—not indeed, if we are wise, with our capacities, not with our opportunities, not with the inevitable environments of our position, but with the conduct of that personality which is free to discipline, to mould, to direct, to develop our endowments. This dissatisfaction with self is the mainspring of all high enterprise and all moral advancement.

But the chief element in ambition is the pursuit of power. The consciousness of power gives a satisfaction quite independently of the exercise of power. Whatever form the power may take—whether intellectual eminence, or social influence, or physical strength, it is a thing which man desires, which he cannot help desiring, in and for itself. It is a seed of God’s own planting—a germ of splendid achievements, if rightly trained and cultivated. It is only culpable in its excesses and aberrations. By our very constitution we feel a happiness in making the best of ourselves, as the phrase runs—in developing and improving our faculties, irrespective of any ulterior results. But a faculty improved is a power gained.

Brothers, I desire before all things to kindle in you a lofty ambition to-day. Therefore I have striven to justify ambition to you as God’s very precious gift. I wish—God helping me—to inspire you with that inward dissatisfaction, that discontent with self, that ceaseless, sleepless craving after higher things, which gives you no rest day or night, because it pursues an ever-receding goal. I would stimulate in you that high spirit of emulation which, fermenting and seething in your hearts, impels you to unknown enterprises. I ask you to pray for power, to pursue power, to grasp at power, with all the force and determination which you can command.

How can I do otherwise? Are not you the men, and is not this the season, for the handling of such a topic?

Are not you the men? Who among you has not felt, at one time or another, the spark of a divine fire kindling within you? Who has not yearned with an intense, if momentary, yearning to do something worthy, to be something worthy? Youth is the hey-day of hope, of enthusiasm, of lofty aspiration. You have felt that there was within you a latent power, a heaven-born capacity, which ought to work miracles, if it were not clogged by self-indulgence, or cowed by timidity, or choked by sloth and indolence.

Are not you the men? As I have said to such audiences before, so I say to you now. You do not know, you cannot know, with what reverence—a reverence approaching to awe—older men regard the glorious potentiality of youth, in all the freshness of its vigorous life, with all the promise of the coming years. Our habits are formed; our career is defined; our possibilities are limited. The wide sweep of moral victory, still open to you, is closed to us for ever. But what triumphs may you not achieve, if you are true to yourselves? What instruments may you not be in God’s hands, if only you will yield yourselves to Him, not with a timid, passive, half-hearted acquiescence, but with the active concentration of all your powers of body and soul and spirit?

And again I ask, Is not this the time? The first volume of your life’s history is closed. A clean page lies open, and with what writing shall it be filled? This is the great crisis of your life. These earliest few weeks of your University career, with which perhaps you are trifling, which you are idling thoughtlessly away, are only too likely to determine for you what you shall be in time and in eternity. It is the great crisis, but it is also the signal opportunity. Thank God, this is so; for the two do not always coincide. As the great break in your lives, it is the great season for revision, for repentance, for amendment, for the strong resolve and the definite plan. The old base associations must be abandoned; the old loose habits must be cured; the old indolence shaken off; and the old sin cast out and trampled under foot. Never again will such a magnificent opportunity be given you of rectifying the past; for never again can you reckon on the leisure, the privacy, the aids and environments, needed by one who is taking stock of his moral and spiritual life.

Who would not shrink from the responsibility of addressing you at such a crisis? And yet I speak boldly to you. Do I not know that, though the hand of the swordsman is feeble, yet the weapon itself is powerful—keener than any two-edged sword? Am I not assured that, though the preacher’s words may be feeble, faltering, desultory, without force and without point, yet God may barb the ill-fledged, ill-aimed shaft, and drive it home to the heart? It is possible that even now the live coal from the altar may be brought by the winged seraph’s hand, and laid on the sinful lips. I have undertaken to glorify the power of God, and to hold it up to you as your truest goal. How can I hope for a hearing, if I begin by distrusting it where I myself am concerned?

It is here, then, that I bid you seek and find the true aim of your ambition—in realising, appropriating, absorbing into yourselves, identifying yourselves with this power of God. It alone is inexhaustible in its resources, and infinite in its potency. There is no fear here lest the conqueror of a world should sigh and fret, because nothing remains beyond to conquer. If the craving is infinite, the satisfaction is infinite also. Star beyond star, world beyond world, will start out into view, as your vision grows clearer, spangling the moral heavens with their glories. πάντα ἰσχύω, ‘I can do all things.’ πάντα ὑμῶν, ‘All things are yours.’ Yes, but this promise of limitless strength has its condition attached, ἐν τῷ ἐνδυναμοῦντί με, ‘In Him that empowereth me;’ yes, but this pledge of universal dominion is qualified by the sequel, ὑμεῖς δὲ Χριστοῦ, ‘Ye are Christ’s.’

How can we better realise this power of God than by taking S. Paul’s statement as our starting-point? The Cross of Christ is ‘the power of God.’ The Cross is the central revelation of God. The Cross has not unfrequently been preached as a narrow technicality, which shocks the conscience and freezes the heart. It thus becomes a mere forensic subtlety. But the Cross of Christ, taught in all its length and breadth and height and depth—the Cross of Christ, taught as S. Paul taught it—the Cross of Christ, starting from the Incarnation on the one side, and leading up to the Resurrection and Ascension on the other, contains all the elements of moral regeneration and of spiritual life.

(1) It is first of all a lesson of righteousness. It is the great rebuke of sin, the great assurance of judgment, the great call to repentance. Think—no, you cannot think; it defies all thinking—yet strive to think, what is implied in the human birth, the human life, the human suffering, the human death, of the Eternal Word. Ask yourselves what condescension, what sacrifice, what humiliation, is involved in this. Summon to your aid all analogies of self-renunciation, which history records or imagination suggests. They will all fail you. No reiteration of the finite can compass the infinite. You are lost in wonder at the contemplation. And while your brain is reeling with the effort, try and imagine the awe, the majesty, the glory of a righteousness, which could only thus be vindicated. Then, after looking upward to God, look inward into your own heart, and see how heinous, how loathsome, how guilty your guilt must be, which has cost such a sacrifice as this. God’s righteousness, your sin—these are brought face to face in the Cross of Christ.

(2) But, secondly, while it is a denunciation of sin, it is likewise an assurance of pardon. If the infinity of the sacrifice has taught you the majesty of God’s righteousness, it teaches you no less the glory of His mercy. What may you not look for, what may you not hope for, from a Father, Who has vouchsafed to you this transcendent manifestation of His loving-kindness? ‘He that spared not His own Son … how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?’ Is any one here burdened with the consciousness of a shameful past? Does the memory of some ugly school-boy sin dog your path, haunting and paralysing you with its importunity? You feel sometimes as if your whole life were poisoned by that one cruel retrospect. Brother, be bold, and dare to look up. I would not have you think your sin one whit less heinous. But if God’s righteousness is infinite, so also is His mercy. The Cross is reared before your eyes in this moral wilderness, where you are dying, where all are dying around you. Dare to look up. The bite of the serpent’s fang is healed; the venom coursing through your veins is quelled; and health returns to the poisoned soul. Yes, and by God’s grace it may happen that through your very fall you will rise to a higher life; that the thanksgiving for the sin forgiven will consecrate you with a fuller consecration; and that the acute moral agony, through which you have passed, will endow you with a more helpful, more sympathetic, more loving spirit, than if you had never fallen.

(3) But again; the Cross of Christ is not only a condemnation of sin, not only a pledge of forgiveness; it is likewise an obligation of self-sacrifice. ‘God forbid,’ says S. Paul, ‘that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ But what next? Not ‘whereby I am saved in spite of myself,’ not ‘whereby I am spared all personal exertion,’ but ‘whereby the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.’ This conformity to Christ’s death, this crucifixion of self with Christ, always forms part of the doctrine of the Cross in S. Paul’s teaching. The dying with Christ, the being buried with Christ, is the absolute accompaniment of the atoning death of Christ. We cannot be at one with Christ, unless we conform to Christ. The work done for us necessitates the work done by us. The potentiality of our salvation—of yours and mine—wrought through the Cross of Christ can only then become an actuality, when Christ’s death is thus appropriated, realised, translated into action by us—by you and by me. But it remains still the work of God’s grace. Human merit is absolutely excluded still, as absolutely as by the baldest and most unqualified doctrine of substitution.

(4) Fourthly and lastly; the Cross of Christ is a lesson of the regenerate and sanctified life. Dying and living, burial and resurrection, these in the Christian vocabulary are correlative ideas. The Crucifixion implies the Resurrection and the Ascension. The raising up on the cross demands the raising up from the grave, the raising up into heaven. The lifting up of the brazen serpent in the wilderness is the symbol alike of the one and the other. And as with Christ, so also with those who are Christ’s. ‘If we died with Christ, we shall also live with Him.’ Those only can be made conformable to Christ’s resurrection, who have been made conformable to His death. The power of His resurrection is the counterpart to the power of His cross.

Herein then—in the Cross of Christ—resides this power of God, which is offered to you as the true aim of your ambition, inexhaustible, omnipotent, infinite. Will you close with the offer? Then reverence yourselves; believe in yourselves; consecrate yourselves.

Reverence yourselves. Begin with reverencing this your body. Reverence it as God’s handiwork fearfully and wonderfully made. Contemplate it; yes, contemplate it with awe, if only for its marvellously subtle mechanism. But reverence it still more as the consecrated temple of God’s Spirit. Do not neglect it; do not misuse it; before all things do not defile and desecrate it. Young men, the problem of social purity is thrown down for your generation to solve. Will you accept this challenge? The conscience of England is awakening to the terrible curse. To redress the crying social wrong, to raise womanhood from degradation and shame, to hold up to reverence the ideal of a pure, chivalrous, manly manhood—this is the crusade in which you are invited to enlist. Will you, as consecrated soldiers of the Cross, claim your part in the glory of this campaign? If so, the work must begin now, must begin in yourselves. There can be no success against the foe, where there is disaffection and mutiny in the citadel.

Believe in yourselves; yet, not in yourselves as yourselves. Believe not in your strength, but in your weakness. Believe in God Who dwells in you. Give full rein to your ambition. Trust this power of God. It will not stunt nor mar, will not crush, will not annihilate your natural gifts—your social endowments, your political instincts, your intellectual capacities. It will only elevate, harmonize, inspire, purify them. Trust this power. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, which you may not do, if you will only trust it. πάντα ἰσχύω, ‘I have strength for everything,’ everything in heaven and earth. You have youth, health, vigour, enthusiasm, hopefulness, everything on your side now. Seize the great opportunity which can never return.

Consecrate yourselves. Empty yourselves of yourselves, that you may be filled with God. Yield yourselves to Him, not with a passive acquiescence, a sentimental quietism, but with the earnest, energetic direction of all your faculties to this one end. A period must still intervene for most of you before the active independent work of life begins, a period of discipline and waiting. Only by patience will you win your souls. But the self-dedication must be made at once, and it must be complete. Half-heartedness spoils the sacrifice. Postponement is perilous. The opportunity despised turns its back on you for ever. Consecrate, consecrate yourselves, body and soul and spirit, to God now, this night.

I have been asked to plead before you a cause of the highest moment to the welfare of this town. I shall dismiss it very briefly. I will not do you the dishonour of supposing that long and earnest pleading is needed from me. You have brought together large populations in the outlying suburbs to minister to your wants, to your convenience, to your pleasure—alas, in some instances to suffer shame and wrong from your recklessness. The provision for their spiritual wants is therefore a first charge on your temporal wealth. This fund, for which I plead to-day, is in many cases the only instrument, in all the chief instrument, in providing for these wants. But its finance is always precarious, unless on these occasions we raise about a hundred pounds. For a hundred pounds therefore I ask. Let those who have not brought ample gifts, send them afterwards, that there be no shortcoming.

But there is another matter also, which I desire to lay before you. Eleven years ago an effort was made to build a church at New Chesterton, a rapidly growing suburb, inhabited largely by college servants. The preacher from this pulpit then appealed to the undergraduates. He asked if there were not among the younger of his hearers twenty-five men who would offer themselves as collectors among their companions. Not twenty-five, but thirty-two, offered themselves in answer to this appeal. A very considerable sum was collected by these means from undergraduates. With the contributions gathered in this and other ways the Church of S. Luke was erected, an incomplete structure to be finished hereafter. The parish work has gone on vigorously ever since. The clergy give their services for very inadequate remuneration, or no remuneration at all. There is daily service, morning and evening. The church is full on Sunday mornings, crowded to overflowing on Sunday evenings. The communicants have increased manifold; the offertories are large for a poor parish. The spiritual ministrations are thus cramped for want of room, and the completion of the structure is a pressing need. Has not the time arrived for another such appeal to the undergraduates? Are there not five-and-twenty, are there not fifty young men now, who would undertake a like charge? I cannot suppose that undergraduate zeal has waned in these eleven years. Everything that I see and hear leads me to take a far more hopeful view. In Christ’s name and for Christ’s sake come forward and offer yourselves for this work.

Lightfoot, J. B. (1890). Cambridge Sermons. London; New York: MacMillan and Co. (Public Domain)

Specify Alternate Text



Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not.  Genesis 28:16.

Dr. Joseph Barber Lightfoot, Lord Bishop of Durham
Great S. Mary’s Church, 19th Sunday after Trinity, 1881.

An unobtrusive, unimpressive scene, almost indistinguishable even to the curious eye of the archæologist ‘in the maze of undistinguished hills which encompass it’—with nothing to attract the eye, and nothing to fire the imagination; large slabs of bare rock traversed by a well-worn thoroughfare; ‘no religio loci, no awful shades, no lofty hills’—so is the site of Bethel described by the modern traveller. Yet this was none other than the House of God; this was the very gate of heaven.

An unimpressive scene in itself, but appearing still more commonplace, when contrasted with the famous shrines of heathendom—the rock fortress of Athene, or the pleasant groves of Daphne, or the cloven peak of Parnassus, or the sea-girt sanctuary of Delos. No beauty, no grandeur, nothing of loveliness and nothing of awe, nothing exceptional of any kind, which can explain or justify its selection. Was there not ground for the wanderer’s surprise on that memorable night? Why should this one spot be chosen to plant the foot of the ladder which connected heaven and earth? Why in this bleak wilderness? Why amidst these bare rocks? Why here of all places in the world? Yes, why here?

The paradox of Bethel is the paradox of the Gospel, is the paradox of God’s spiritual dispensations at all times. The Incarnation itself was the supreme manifestation of this paradox. The building up of the Church was the proper sequel to the Incarnation.

Look at the accompaniments of the Incarnation. Could any environment of circumstances well have been imagined more incongruous, more alien to this unique event in human history, this supreme revelation of God’s wisdom, and power, and beneficence? An obscure corner of the Roman world; an insignificant and down-trodden race, scorned and hated by the rest of mankind; an ox-stall for a nursery, and a carpenter’s shop for a school—what is wanting to complete the paradox? Yes, there is still one feature to be added to the picture—the crowning incongruity of all—the felon’s death on the gibbet. Said not the prophet rightly, when he foretold that there should be nothing lovely in His life and circumstances, as men count loveliness; ‘no form nor comeliness;’ ‘no beauty that we should desire Him’?

And the same paradox, which ruled the foundation of the Church, extended also to its building up. The great statesmen, the powerful captains, in the kingdom of God were fishermen and tentmakers. Never was this characteristic incongruity of the Gospel more signally manifested than in the preaching of S. Paul at Athens. Have we ever realised the force of that single word, with which the historian describes the impression left on the Apostle’s mind by this far-famed city? Gazing on the most sublime and beautiful creations of Greek art, the master-pieces of Pheidias and Praxiteles, he has no eye for their beauty or their sublimity. He pierces through the veil of the material and transitory; and behind this semblance of grace and glory the true nature of things reveals itself. To him this chief centre of human culture and intelligence, this

Eye of Greece, mother of arts
And eloquence

appears only as κατείδωλος, overrun with idols, beset with phantoms which mislead, and vanities which corrupt. Art and culture are God’s own gifts, legitimate embellishments of life, even of worship, which is the highest form of life. But if culture aims at displacing religion, if art seeks to dethrone God, why then in the highest interests of humanity be it our prayer that the sword of the barbarian and the axe of the iconoclast may descend once more, and sweep them ruthlessly away. There was, at least, this redeeming feature in ancient art, that it gave expression to whatsoever sense of the Divine lay buried in the heathen mind. But art and culture, which studiously ignore God—what can be said for these? In this one word κατείδωλος lies the germ of that fierce and protracted struggle of Christianity with Paganism, which ended indeed in a splendid victory, though not without inflicting many a wound on humanity of which the scars and seams still remain. Notwithstanding the merciless scoffs of a Celsus and the biting sarcasms of a Julian, the Apostle’s words were verified in their literal truth. Strength was made perfect in weakness. God chose the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, aye, and the uncomely things of the world to confound the beautiful. The things which are not brought to nought the things which are.

So then in its accompaniments, not less than in its main idea, this incident at Bethel is a type of the Gospel of Christ. This exile, the representative of the Israel after the flesh, prefigures a greater outcast and wanderer, the representative of the Israel after the Spirit, the representative of the whole family of man. This ladder reared up from earth to heaven, whereby angels ascend and descend—what is it but the Incarnation of the Eternal Word, wherein God is made man, and man is taken up into God? This it is, which establishes the title of Christianity as the absolute and final religion of the world—this indissoluble union of the human with the Divine—this one only adequate response to the deepest religious cravings of mankind. Hence the Church has ever clung with a tenacity of grasp which shallow hearts could ill understand, to this central idea, the indefeasible wedlock of heaven and earth in the God-Man. And to those whose sight is purged by faith, to those who are gifted with the eye of the Spirit, the vision of Bethel will be vouchsafed with a far more exceeding glory; ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you, Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’—on the Son of Man; yes, and on thyself too, O man, for thou art one with this Son of Man, one with the Father in Him.

‘Gifted with the eye of the Spirit,’ I say: for in vain the heavens are riven asunder, and the glory streams forth, and all things are flooded with light, if the capacity of vision be absent. Only the cold bare stones beneath, only the midnight gloom overhead, only the dreary, monotonous waste around, these and these alone are visible otherwise. We have been saddened, perhaps we have been disconcerted, as recently we read the melancholy epitaph which sums up the creed of a brilliant man of science not long since deceased—a hopeless, soulless, lifeless creed, to which his own very faculties and acquisitions appear to us to give the lie. We have been saddened justly; but why should we be disconcerted? God be thanked, the most absolute childlike faith has not unfrequently been found united with the highest scientific intellect. We in this place have never yet lacked bright examples of such a union, and God grant we never may. But what right have we to expect it as a matter of course? What claim do the most brilliant mathematical faculties, or the keenest scholarly instincts, give to a man to speak with authority on the things of the Spirit? Are we not told on authority before which we bow, that a special faculty is needed for this special knowledge; that ‘eye hath not seen and ear hath not heard;’ that only the Spirit of God—the Spirit which He vouchsafes to His sons—knoweth the things of God? And does not all analogy enforce the truth of this lesson? One man has a keenly sensitive musical ear, but he is colour-blind. Another has a quick eye for the faintest gradations of colour, but he cannot distinguish one note of music from another. Does the imperfect eye of the one throw any haze of uncertainty over the hues of the rainbow; or the obtuse ear of the other disparage the master works of a Handel or a Mozart or a Beethoven? Here is a mathematician who sees in a sublime creation of imaginative genius only a tissue of unproven hypotheses; and here is a poet, to whom the plainest processes of algebra and the simplest problems in geometry are mere barbarian gabble, conveying no distinct impression to the brain, and leaving no intelligible idea on the mind. Judge no man in this matter. To his own master he stands or falls. But judge yourselves. Yes, spare no rigour and relax no vigilance, when the judge is the criminal also. Believe it, this spiritual faculty is an infinitely subtle and delicate mechanism. You cannot trifle with it, cannot roughly handle it, cannot neglect it and suffer it to rust from disuse, without infinite peril to yourselves. Nothing—not the highest intellectual gains—can compensate you for its injury or its loss. The private prayer mechanically repeated, then hurried over, then intermitted, and at last dropped; the devotional reading found to be daily more irksome, because suffered to be daily more listless; the valuable moral and spiritual discipline of the early morning chapel, gradually neglected; the unobtrusive opportunities of witnessing for Christ by deeds of kindliness and words of wisdom suffered to slip by—these, and such as these, are the unfailing indications of spiritual decline; till disuse is followed by paralysis, and paralysis ends in death; and you are left without God in the world. And yet when again—you young men—when again, in the years to come, can you hope that the conditions of your life will be as favourable to this spiritual self-discipline as they are now? Where else do you expect to find in the same degree the opportunities for private meditation and retirement, the daily common prayer and the frequent communions, the inspiring and sanctifying friendships, the wholesome occupation for the mind and the healthy recreations for the body, every appliance and every aid, which if you will only employ them aright, neither disusing them nor misusing them, will combine to build up and to perfect the man of God? Choose ye, this day. To you, more especially, I appeal who have recently commenced your residence here, and to whom therefore with the changed conditions of life a heightened ideal of life also is suggested. This is the momentous alternative. Shall your life hereafter be typified by the barren rocks and the monotonous waste, hard and dreary, if nothing worse; or shall it be illumined within and around with the effulgence of God’s own presence, so that

The earth and every common sight
to you shall seem
Appareled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.

A dream? Nay, not a dream, but an everlasting reality, eternal, as God’s own being is eternal.

There are two ways of looking on the relations between the things of this life and the things of eternity—a false and a true. The false way regards the one as the negation of the other. They are reciprocally exclusive. The avocations, the interests, the amusements of daily life—nature and history, poetry and art—these are so many hindrances to the heavenly life. Every moment given to work is a moment subtracted from prayer. Thus the inward life becomes a constant reluctation against the conditions of the outward. This is the spirit which of old peopled the desert with anchorites; the spirit which in all ages, though under divers forms, has made a religion of selfishness. This is the voice which cries, lo, here! and lo, there! though all the while the kingdom of heaven is within us, is in the very midst of us. The true conception is the reverse of all this. Its ideal is not a separation, but an identification of the two. It takes its stand on the old maxim laborare est orare. It strives that its work shall be prayer, and its prayer shall be work. Nature and history to it are not the veil of God’s presence; they are the investiture of God’s glory. And therefore to it is vouchsafed the vision of grace and comfort and strength, as to the patriarch of old. The solitary wanderer along the dreary thoroughfare of this life lays himself down. He has nothing but the bare stones beneath for a couch, and nothing but the midnight sky overhead for a tent. He closes his eyes for a moment; and the whole place is flooded with glory. Aye, the Lord was in this place, though he knew it not. He knew it not; but he knows it now—knows it in the access of strength, knows it in the promise of hope, knows it in the celestial voice and the ineffable light. All the common interests of life—the avocations, the amusements, the cares, the hopes, the friendships, the conflicts—all are invested with a dignity and an awe unsuspected before. Reverence is henceforth the ruling spirit of his life. This monotonous round of common-place toils, and common-place pleasures, is none other than the House of God. This barren stony thoroughfare of life is the very portal of heaven.

To read these hieroglyphs traced on nature, on history, on the human soul—to decipher this handwriting of God wheresoever it appears, and where does it not appear?—is the ultimate and final study of man. All history is a parable of God’s dealings; and we must learn the interpretation of the parable. All nature is a sacrament of God’s being and attributes, and we must strive to pierce through the outward sign to the inward meaning. To realise God’s presence, to hear God’s voice, to see God’s visage—let this be henceforth the aim and the discipline of our lives. So at length we shall pass from Bethel to Peniel—from the palace courts to the presence chamber itself. We shall see God face to face. It is a vision of power, of majesty, of awe unspeakable; but it is a vision also of purification, of light, of strength, of life. The blessing is won at length by that long lonely wrestling under the midnight sky. The fraud, the worldliness, the self-seeking is thrown off like a slough. All is changed. Old things have passed away. The supplanter rises from the struggle the supplanter no more, but the Israel, the Prince, who has power with God and with men. Shall not Moses’ prayer then be our prayer, ‘Lord, I beseech thee, shew me Thy Glory?’

‘Shew me Thy glory.’ Where else shall this glory reveal itself, if not in the studies of this place? These properties of numbers, these relations of space, these phenomena of light, of heat, of energy, of life, of language, of thought, what are they? Individual facts to be recorded, arranged, tabulated, marshalled under several heads, which we call laws and, having so called them, with a strange self-complacency and contentment fold our hands, as if nothing more were to be done, as if by the mere imposition of a name we had crowned them absolute sovereigns of the Universe? Or are they the manifestations—partial, indeed, and needing to be supplemented—of a power, a majesty, a wisdom, an order, a beneficence, a finality, a oneness, a One, Who is shewn to us as the Eternal Father in the revelation of the Eternal Son? Can we afford to look down from the serene heights of modern science and culture on the untutored Indian, who saw God’s face in the shifting clouds, and heard God’s voice in the whistling winds? Nay, was there not a truth in this childish ignorance, which threatens to elude the grasp of our manhood’s wisdom? Was it altogether a baseless dream in those Stoic Pantheists, who endowed each several planet with an animating spirit of its own? Was it altogether a wild fancy in those Christian fathers which assigned to each its particular angel, who should whirl it through space and hold it in its course? Was it not rather a Divine instinct feeling after a higher truth? Human life cannot rest satisfied with the science of phenomena alone. It needs to supplement science with poetry. And the true, the absolute, the final poetry is the recognition of God the Creator and Governor, of God the all-wise and all-powerful, of God the Father, the Redeemer, the Sanctifier, of God the Eternal Love. Blessed are they who have eyes and see—they to whom

The meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears;

thoughts of immortality, of wisdom, of light, of love.

‘Shew me Thy Glory.’ Where else again shall His glory be seen, If not in those friendships which are the crowning gift of University life? This intimate communion of soul with soul, this linking of heart with heart, is it merely a matter of human convenience, of human preference, or has it a Divine side also? This love, this devotion, this reliance of the weak on the strong, this reverence for a nature purer, nobler, more upright, more manly, more unselfish than your own—what is its meaning? It is a precious, unspeakably precious, gift of God, you will say—far beyond wealth, or fame, or popularity, or ease, or any earthly boon of which you can conceive? Yes, but it is more than this. May we not call it in some sense a sacrament, a sign and a parable of your relation to your Lord? You are awed—no other word will express this feeling—you are awed with the honour done to you by this friendship. You do not talk much about it—it is too sacred a thing—but you do feel it. You confess to yourself day and night your own unworthiness. And yet, though you strive to be worthy, you would not wish to feel worthy. The very sense of undeservedness invests the gift with a bountifulness and a glory which you would not forego. The fountains of your thanksgiving would cease to flow freely, if you claimed it as a right; and it is a joyful and a pleasant thing to be thankful. Apply this experience to the infinitely higher gift of Christ’s friendship, of Christ’s sacrifice. Herein lies the power of the Cross—which men called, and still call, weakness—the power which awes, inspires, energizes, which elevates the heart and sanctifies the life—here in this feeling of boundless thanksgiving arising from this sense of absolute undeservedness. For is it not true, that those will love most, to whom most is given and forgiven? So then this your friendship is found to be none other than the House of God. The Lord is in this place, and happy, thrice happy are ye, if ye know it.

Once again; look into your own soul, and what do you find there? Yes, ye yourselves are the temple of the living God. He is there—there, whether you will or not. Through your reason, through your conscience, through your remorses and regrets, through your capacity of amendment, through your aspirations and ideals, He speaks to you. You are His coinage. His image and superscription are stamped upon you. Aye, and He has also re-stamped you, re-created you, in Christ Jesus by the earnest of His Spirit. If it be true of your body that it is fearfully and wonderfully made, is it not far more true of your soul? Henceforward you will regard yourself with awe and reverence, as a sanctuary of the Eternal Goodness. You will not, you dare not, profane this sanctuary. Here is the true self-respect—nay, not self-respect, for self is abased, self is overawed, self veils the face and falls prostrate in the presence of Infinite Wisdom and Purity and Love thus revealed. Surely, surely the Lord was in this place—in this poor, self-seeking, restless, rebellious soul of mine, and I thought it a common thing, I went on my way heedless, I followed my own devices and desires, I knew it not.

In conclusion, I have been asked to plead before you to-day a cause which it should not require any words of mine to enforce. The Barnwell and Chesterton Clergy Fund appeals to you year by year for aid. Of all claims this (I say it advisedly) should be a first charge on the liberality of members of the University. These populous and growing suburbs are created by your needs. They are chiefly peopled by college servants and others for whom you are responsible. Zealous clergy are willing to work for the work’s sake in these districts commonly for stipends which no one could call remuneration—sometimes for no stipends at all. And yet it is still the same old story which I remember years ago. There is still the same difficulty in meeting current expenses; still the same fear lest the spiritual machinery should be impaired for lack of funds; still the same precarious hand-to-mouth existence, of which we heard complaint in years past. Is it quite creditable, that matters should go on thus? In a thousand ways you all, some directly, some indirectly, you all are reaping, materially, intellectually or spiritually, the fruits gathered from the liberality of past ages. Will you not make an adequate return? Steady, continuous subscriptions are needed. A liberal response to this day’s appeal is needed. The Fund is largely dependent on the proceeds of the University Sermon. Not less than a hundred pounds will suffice to meet all requirements. Will you not give it this day, either in this church, or in contributions sent afterwards to the treasurer? Think not that you hear only the poor words of the preacher in this appeal. Christ Himself pleads with you. Christ’s own words ring in your ears, ‘Ye did it, ye did it not, to Me’. Ah yes, the Lord was in this place—in this weary pleading of the preacher, in these trite commonplaces of spiritual need; and we, we knew it not. God grant that you may know it in time. God forbid that He should ever say to you, ‘I know you not.’

Lightfoot, J. B. (1890). Cambridge Sermons. London; New York: MacMillan and Co. (Public Domain)

Specify Alternate Text

Bought With a Price

Bought With A Price

Ye are bought with a price.  1 Corinthians 6:20.

Dr. Joseph Barber Lightfoot, Lord Bishop of Durham
Great S. Mary’s Church, 1st Sunday in Lent, 1879.

The words which I desire to consider with you this evening occur twice in the same Epistle. The connexion in the two passages is somewhat different; but the leading idea is the same in both. We have a Master, an Owner, Who has a paramount, absolute, inalienable property in us. We are His slaves, His chattels, His implements. All other rights over us are renounced, are absorbed, are annulled in His rights. He has acquired us by virtue of purchase.

In the first passage S. Paul is denouncing sins of the flesh. In his eyes these sins are something more than sins. They are flagrant anomalies; they are monstrous wrongs. There is a direct contradiction in terms, a flat denial of the first principles of justice, in the commission of them. God has set His stamp upon us. He impressed us with His image in our first creation. He re-stamped the same image upon us when He formed us anew in Christ. Thus we are doubly His. ‘Here is God enthroned in the sanctuary of your bodies. But you—you ignore the august Presence, you profane the Eternal Majesty; you pollute, you dishonour, you defy, with shameless sacrilege, the ineffable glory, the Lord seated on His throne, high and lifted up, His train filling the whole temple of your being, as if He were some vile and worthless thing.’ And then the Apostle suddenly changes his image: ‘You are slaves—you are live chattels—nothing more. You have renounced all rights over yourselves. You are not your own; you were bought with a price. God in Christ is your Master. He demands your life, your soul, your all.’

In the second passage the Apostle is discussing a wholly different subject. He desires to set the existing arrangements of society in their proper relation to the Gospel. From this point of view the most perplexing problems were suggested by the deeply-rooted institution of slavery. What would come of this institution, when transplanted into the Church of Christ? How would the relations of master and slave be modified by this transference? The Apostle declines to discuss the matter in detail. Before the eternal verities of the Gospel, the conventional arrangements of society pale into insignificance. Freedom and slavery are endowed with a higher meaning. The slave is no more a slave, for he is set free in Christ. The free man is no more free, for he is enslaved to Christ. Yes, enslaved to Christ, because purchased by Christ. In outward matters the old forms of bondage to man may remain for a time, till they melt away before the broadening dawn of a higher principle. But the allegiance of the heart, of the soul, of the life, henceforth is due to no man, but to Christ alone. ‘Ye were bought with a price; be not ye slaves to men.’

Not slaves to self, not slaves to men—this is the twofold lesson which we gather from the passages considered side by side. The ownership of self is done away. The lordship of our fellow-men is no more. One slavery alone remains, the most abject, most absolute, of all slaveries. We are the slaves of Christ.

The most abject slavery, and yet the most perfect freedom. This is the glorious paradox of the Gospel. We are free, because we are slaves. We are most free then, when our slavery is most complete. Our servitude is itself our franchise. Our purchase-money is our ransom also.

I ask you all—I ask you young men especially—to lay this truth to heart to-night. Of all pitiable sights in this wide world I know none sadder than the spectacle of a young man drifting into an aimless, purposeless, soulless existence—soulless and purposeless, I mean, as regards any higher consideration than the mere wants and associations and interests of the moment, the mean routine of this mundane life. He does not stop to ask himself, Whence came I? Whither go I? Whose am I? Or, if he asks the question, he lacks the patience or the firmness to wait for an answer. And so he drifts—drifts into worldliness, drifts into unbelief, drifts into positive sin. Without a helm, without a compass, without sun or star in the heavens to guide him, he is swept onward whithersoever the tide of opinion, or the current of temptation, or the wind of circumstance may carry him, till at length he finds himself far away from the haven of God, and return is well-nigh hopeless. So he tosses about on the barren ocean for a while, and then he sinks into the abyss of darkness and despair. He has had no ideal in life.

Believe it, if you would rescue your lives—you and you—from this cruel shipwreck before it is too late, you must put the question definitely to yourselves, and you must be prepared to abide by the answer: ‘What shall be the principle of my conduct? What shall be the goal of my life? What in short is my ideal, which shall animate, shall inspire, shall guide, my every act and my every word?’

Such an ideal is supplied you by the language of the text. It speaks of an absolute allegiance, a self-abandoning submission, an unswerving loyalty to One Who by an unquestioned title is your Lord and Master. It bids you find your truest freedom in your strictest servitude. It supplies you with a reason which is at once the seal of duty and the spring of affection. You were bought—bought at the heaviest price which God Himself might pay. You were purchased into servitude, but you were ransomed into liberty. You are no longer the slaves of self, because you are no longer the masters of self.

There is much foolish talk in these days about the relations of opinion to practice. It is not uncommonly assumed, even when it is not directly stated, that a man’s beliefs are not of any particular moment, provided that his conduct is right. The underlying assumption is that beliefs exercise little or no influence on conduct. But does not all history, does not all human experience, give the lie to this assumption? Ideas have ever been the most potent engines in social and moral change. They have upset the thrones of kings, and they have reversed the destinies of nations. See what miracles have been wrought in our own time by the idea of national unity. Remember again what convulsions and upheavals of society were caused in the age of our fathers, and threaten again to be brought about in the age of our sons, by the idea of the equality and brotherhood of mankind. And as with nations and peoples, so also with the individual man. An ideal of life, firmly grasped, is an untold power for good or for evil. An ideal is a sort of prophecy, which works its own fulfilment; it haunts the dreams, and it inspires the waking hours. To keep a definite goal in view and to press ever forward towards it—to know what you desire to attain, and to strain every nerve for its attainment—this it is which will give a distinctness, a force, a savour to your conduct—a savour of life unto life, if the ideal be well chosen, but a savour of death unto death, if it be some unworthy aim, such as riches or ambition or pleasure or worldly success in any of its manifold forms.

The ideal, which the text presents to you, is the most potent of all ideals. Its potency consists in this, that it appeals, not only to our truest moral instincts, our aspirations after righteousness and holiness, but also to our deepest affections, our gratitude, our devotion, our filial love; and thus it grasps the whole man. The centre of this appeal is the Cross of Christ.

The Cross of Christ. To S. Paul Christ crucified was the lesson of all lessons; it gathered and absorbed into itself all other truths; it was the power and it was the wisdom of God. But we—we have stultified its wisdom, and we have enfeebled its power, by our too officious comments. Theologians and preachers have darkened, where they desired to make light. The simplicity of the Scriptures has been overlaid by technical terms; the metaphors of the Scriptures have been overstrained by subtle definitions. Redemption, atonement, imputation, satisfaction, vicarious punishment—what storms have not raged, and what clouds have not gathered, over these terms; till the very heavens have been shrouded in gloom, and where men looked for illumination, they have found only darkness over head and only confusion under foot. But ever and again to simple faith and to loving hearts the Cross of Christ has spoken with an awe and a pathos, which has taken them captive wholly. They were bought with a price. They cannot resist the appeal. They cannot deny the inference. They are no more their own.

‘Bought with a price.’ In these few words the lesson of the Cross is summed up. Whatever else it may be, it is the supreme manifestation of God’s love. The greatness of the love is measured by the greatness of the price paid; and the greatness of the price paid defies all words and transcends all thought. When we try to realise it we are overwhelmed with the mystery, and we veil our faces in awe. We summon to our aid such human analogies as experience suggests or as history and fable record. The devotion of the friend risking his life to save another life as dear to him as his own—the bravery of the captain and the crew sinking calmly and resolutely into their watery grave, without a shudder, without a regret, disdaining to survive while one weak woman or one feeble child is left in peril—the heroism of the patriot hostage condemning himself to a certain and cruel death, rather than forfeit his honour on the one hand or consent to terms disastrous to his country’s welfare on the other—all these have the highest value as examples of human courage and self-devotion. But how little after all does any such sacrifice help us to realise the magnitude of the Great Sacrifice. The analogy fails just there, where we look for its aid. It is the infinity of the price paid for our redemption, which is its essential characteristic. It is the fact that God gave not a life like our lives, not a weak, erring, sin-stricken, sorrow-laden victim like ourselves, but gave His only-begotten Son, gave His Eternal Word, to become flesh, to work and to suffer, to live and to die, for our sakes. It is the fact that the Glory of the Invisible God condescended to visit this earth; to hunger and thirst, to be despised, to be buffeted, to be racked and mangled on the Cross. The sacrifice is unique, because the Person is unique. Herein was love—not that we loved Him—did we not spurn Him, did we not hate Him, did we not defy Him?—but that He loved us. While we were yet sinners, while we were yet rebels and blasphemers, Christ died for us; and by that death God commends His love towards us—commends it, so that henceforth no shadow of doubt or misgiving can rest upon it.

Do we marvel any longer that S. Paul determined to know nothing among his converts but Christ crucified; that to him it embodied all the lessons, and concentrated all the sanctions, of the moral and spiritual life; that this weak and foolish thing stood out before his eyes as the very power and the very wisdom of God? In this one transcendent manifestation of God’s purpose righteousness was vindicated, and love was assured, and ownership was sealed, and obedience was made absolute.

In the Cross of Christ righteousness was vindicated. At length sin appeared in all its heinousness. The greatness of the sacrifice was a mirror of the greatness of the sin. We are so constituted that we do not easily realise the magnitude of our wrongdoings, except by their consequences. I find that by my carelessness I have imperilled the life of another; and then my carelessness ceases to be a trivial fault. I am made conscious that by my selfishness I have deeply wounded the affections of another, and then my selfishness becomes hideous in my eyes. So it is here on a grander scale. Try to realise the significance of this death—its magnitude, its condescension, its goodness. And when you have realised it, go and sin, if you dare.

In the Cross of Christ love—God’s love—was assured. When we look out into the world, we see not a little which perplexes and distresses. Sorrow and suffering, error, ignorance, anarchy, decay, death; these are the characters written across the face of nature. Men will not suffer us to slur over the legend of this handwriting, if we would. They point to the profusion of waste in nature, the many thousands of seeds that decay and perish for the one that germinates and blossoms and bears fruit. They bid us look at the pitiless cruelty of nature, creature preying upon creature, life sustained by the destruction of life, the whole face of the universe crimson with carnage. They bid us reflect on the many myriads of human beings who are born into this world and live and toil and die, without a joy, without a hope, without one ray of light from a higher world. And, having paraded before our eyes these trophies of imperfection, and worse than imperfection, they ask with a scornful triumph where is the providence of God, where is the Fatherly goodness on which we rely? Nay, we cannot deny the filial instincts which He has implanted in us, if we would. This is our answer to our gainsayers. But we—we have a further assurance in ourselves which silences all misgivings. The Cross of Christ rises as a glory before us, carrying the eye upward from earth to heaven, stretching right and left across the field of view, and embracing the universe in its arms. It tells of a love transcending all love. What room is there for doubt now? God is with us, and who then can be against us? ‘He that spared not His own Son … shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?’

In the Cross of Christ ownership was confirmed. By all the ties of duty and of love we are henceforth His. No one else has a right to command us. Least of all have we a right to command ourselves. The purchase-money has been paid; and we are delivered over, bound hand and foot to do His pleasure. To hear some men talk, one would suppose that the Cross was a clever expedient for securing the favour of God without requiring the obedience of man. They lay much stress on the one statement, ‘Ye were bought with a price;’ they altogether overlook the other, which is its practical corollary, ‘Ye are not your own.’ They forget that, if we were purchased into freedom, we were purchased into slavery also. And so by the violence of a spurious theology, faith and conduct, religion and morality, have been divorced; that which God joined together man has dared to put asunder; the moral sense has been outraged by the severance; and the Cross of Christ needlessly made a scandal to many. What, think you, would S. Paul have said to this interpretation of his doctrine—S. Paul, to whom faith in the Cross of Christ meant the recognition of His sole ownership, meant entire submission, obedience, slavery to Him, meant the subjection of every thought and word and deed to His will?

And so lastly; by the Cross of Christ obedience is made absolute. How can it be otherwise? Master this amazing lesson of Divine love, and you cannot resist the consequence. Your own love must be the response to His love; and with your love your unquestioning loyalty and submission. There is that in your very nature which obliges you to obey, if you will only listen. Once again, let us summon to our aid the poor and weak analogies of human love. Have you never felt, or (if you have not felt) can you not imagine, the keen pain, which the sense of past ingratitude—unconscious at the time—will inflict, when long after it is brought home to the heart? A mother, we will say, has lavished on you all the wealth of her deep affection; you have accepted her solicitude as a matter of course; you have not been a disobedient son, as the world reckons disobedience; but you were wayward and thoughtless; you requited her attention with indifference; you almost resented her care at times, as if it were an undue interference with your freedom. And then death came. And some chance letter perhaps, found among her papers, revealed to you for the first time the riches of her love which you had slighted or spurned; and you are crushed with shame. No condemnation is too strong for your meanness, and no contrition is too deep for your remorse. Your ingratitude haunts you as a spectre, which you cannot lay. Death has robbed you of the power of making amends; and you are left alone with your baseness. And yet what is there in the tenderest mother’s love comparable to the infinite love of Him Who became man for you, Who toiled and suffered and died for you?

This then is the ideal which the Gospel offers for acceptance to you young men to-day—this absolute subjection and loyalty to the Master Who bought you. Welcome it now, before the inevitable years have pressed down the yoke of habit upon your necks. Welcome it now, while you can offer to Him the enthusiasm and the glory of a fresh and lifelong service. Do not think to put Him off to a more convenient season, purposing some time or other—you know not when and you know not how—to satisfy Him with the dregs of a wasted life. Each year, each month, will add pain to the effort. Lose your souls forthwith, that you may win them. Be slaves this very day, that you may be free.

Be slaves, and accept frankly the consequences of your slavery. To you, as to the chief Apostle of old, the mandate has gone forth, ‘Follow thou Me.’ Whither He may lead you, you cannot tell, and you must not too curiously enquire. It may be that in the years to come He has in reserve for you also some signal destiny, some work of unwonted responsibility, or some career of exceptional toil and pain, some cross or other, from which you would shrink with a shudder, if you could foresee it now. You are young yet. To-day and to-morrow you may gird yourselves, and walk whithersoever you will, roaming at large through the pleasant fields of life, and culling freely the joyful associations and interests of the passing hour. But the third day the grip of a Divine necessity will fasten upon you. Another will gird you and carry you whither you would not—far away from the home that you have cherished, from the friends that you have loved, from the work that has been a pleasure to you. Your ideal of life is shattered in a moment. Your hopes and projects for the future crumble into dust at the touch of God. Nay, do not repine. Follow Him cheerfully, whithersoever He may take you. Your cross will be your consolation; your trial will be your glory. The Lord is your shepherd; therefore shall you lack nothing. He shall lead you forth by the waters of comfort. Though you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you will fear no evil; for He is with you; His rod and His staff shall comfort you.

To you more especially, the younger members of the University, my present and former pupils, my best and truest teachers, I would say a word in return for the many lessons which I have learnt from you. To one, for whom the old things of Academic life are now passing for ever away, the predominant thought must be the inestimable privilege which you and he alike have so bountifully enjoyed, and (it may be) so lightly esteemed. Believe it, you have opportunities here for the development of the higher life, which to many of you can never return again. In the ennobling memories and the invigorating studies of the place, in the large opportunities of privacy for meditation and prayer, in the counsel and support of generous and enthusiastic friendships, in the invaluable discipline of early morning Chapel, bracing body and soul alike for the work and the temptations of the day, in the frequent Communions recalling you in the spirit to the immediate presence of your Lord, in these and divers ways, you have a combination of advantages which no other time or condition of life will supply. Here, if anywhere, you may stamp the true ideal on your life. Here, if anywhere, you may rivet on your necks the yoke which is easy, and lift on your shoulders the burden which is light.

And to you, my older friends, my contemporaries, to whom I owe more than can ever be repaid, what shall I say? Forgive me, if I seem to be condemning you, when indeed I am only condemning myself. But now that the associations of this place are fast fading into a memory for me, I can only dwell with a sad regret on the great opportunities which it affords of influence for good—opportunities neglected at the time, only because they were not realised. How little would it have cost to overcome the indolence and shake off the reserve, to express the sympathy which was felt, to put in words the deeper thoughts which seethed in the heart but never rose to the lips! The value which younger men attach to such sympathy is altogether unsuspected at the time. The discovery comes too late—comes through the gratitude expressed for trifling inexpensive words and acts long since forgotten; and, when it comes, it overwhelms with shame.

But to young and old alike my word of farewell, if such it should be, from this pulpit is one and the same. Remember that you were bought with a price. Remember that henceforth you are not your own. Remember to be slaves now, that you may be free for evermore.

Lightfoot, J. B. (1890). Cambridge Sermons. London; New York: MacMillan and Co. (Public Domain)

Specify Alternate Text

Folly and Weakness Triumphant

Folly and Weakness Triumphant

The foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.  1 Corinthians 1:25.

Great S. Mary’s Church, 20th Sunday after Trinity, 1876.

The Apostle here represents the character and progress of the Gospel as a paradox. It is weakness superior to strength; it is folly triumphant over wisdom. It is an illustration—a unique and signal illustration—of God’s mysterious working, whereby He chooses the base things of the world, yes, even the things that are not, to bring to nought the things that are.

This mode of working is not confined to revelation alone. History teems with examples of this paradox. For the most part the great crises in the progress of our race have been surprises of this kind. They have come from an unexpected quarter, or at an unexpected time. Their prime agents have not been the wise or mighty or noble in the estimation of the world. The reformer, or the avenger, has started up, as it were, suddenly from the earth beneath. It was an obscure Saxon monk, who broke up the empire of Papal ascendency, and created a new era in the history of intellectual and religious thought. It was an unknown Corsican adventurer, who dictated terms to a whole continent, made and unmade peoples and dynasties, and introduced as mighty a revolution in the world of politics as the other had done in the world of thought. There is perhaps a scarcely audible muttering of some social grievance; it is unheeded and unredressed; men go on their way, suspecting nothing; when suddenly the volcano bursts out under their very feet, and in a few short hours society is buried in fire and ashes. There is a silent stealthy idea, which insinuates itself into the crevices of human thought; it is hardly perceived, or, if perceived, it seems too insignificant to deserve attention; but it creeps and spreads, filling all the interstices, till the fabric, which has defied the storms of ages, cracked and loosened in every part, falls in ruins overhead. And then it is seen that God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the mighty.

But all illustrations of this Divine irony are faint and shadowy compared with the progress of the Gospel. Sacred history is an intensification of secular history. The triumph of the Cross is the paradox of all paradoxes.

No language is too strong for the expression of this fact in S. Paul’s mind. These opening chapters of the Epistle are a very Morias Encomion, a Praise of folly and of fools. Does this account of his language seem extravagant? See how he describes the Gospel itself. His words are so strong, that we tacitly mistranslate or misinterpret them, in order to dilute their force. He speaks of the folly, the fatuity, of the thing preached, the Gospel message in itself (τῆς μωρίας τοῦ κηρύγματος). We render it ‘the foolishness of preaching,’ as if he were stigmatizing the weakness of the human, fallible advocate. He says that ‘the foolishness,’ or rather ‘the foolish thing’, ‘of God is wiser than men.’ We half unconsciously regard it as an a fortiori argument; as though he were maintaining that, if God’s foolishness, God’s lowest purposes, can so far transcend man’s counsels, much more must God’s wisdom, God’s highest dispensations. But in fact he styles this very Gospel—this message of Christ crucified—a ‘foolish thing’ in itself. By what other name could he call it? It had been offered to the Greeks, the most cultivated, most intellectual, most keenly critical race of mankind, to the Greeks, who were the schoolmasters of the whole civilised world, and the Greeks had pronounced it unreservedly folly.

And not only is the message folly, but the messengers also are fools. So the Apostle describes himself afterwards. He is even proud of this strange distinction. ‘We are fools,’ he writes, ‘fools for Christ’s sake.’ And again in the second Epistle, in a strain of lofty irony, he intreats his Corinthian converts, as they had always shewn a forbearing sympathy with men of feeble minds and senseless lives—notwithstanding the lofty intellectual eminence on which they themselves were placed—so now not to deny him this condescension which they had freely extended to others; ‘As a fool receive me.’ ‘For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise.’

And once more; if the messengers are fools, the recipients of the message must become fools also. It is necessary that the disciple should be in harmony with the teacher and with the lesson. He must sink all those pretensions which are his greatest pride. He must resign absolutely all claims to intellectual superiority or prudent discernment. ‘Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool—that he may be wise.’ Yes, none but a fool can appreciate this message of folly.

But this is not all. Folly itself may possess a certain brute force. The fool may be a giant in strength. What the brain lacks, the muscles and sinews may compensate. Does the Gospel possess any such advantage, as this figure implies? If it shews no wisdom, as the world counts wisdom, may it not possess some strength, as the world estimates strength? Nay, it is the weak thing of God, as well as the foolish thing—weak in itself, and weak in all its personal relations. Christ Himself, its theme, ‘was crucified through weakness.’ They, the preachers, are weak in Him. He, Paul, ‘glories in infirmities;’ ‘takes pleasure in infirmities.’ He declares himself ‘glad,’ yes, glad, that he is weak. Here again there is the same emphatic reiteration, as before. The Gospel is the very alliance of infirmity with folly. Its body is weakness; and its soul is foolishness.

Strange words these to address to a Corinthian audience. Corinth was a Roman colony on a Greek soil. As Greeks, his hearers set an excessive value on wisdom; and he recommends his message to them, because it is folly. As Romans, they worshipped power with an idolatrous worship; and he offers the Gospel for their allegiance, because it is weakness.

But stranger still than this encomium of folly, this panegyric of weakness, is the confidence with which he predicts its victory. The Apostle is quite sure that the folly of fools like himself will triumph over the wisdom of the wise. He does not shrink from declaring that the weakness of weaklings such as he is will dictate terms to the strength of the strong. ‘God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the mighty.’

Could anything well have appeared more unreasonable, more reckless, more futile, than this confidence? Look at the two antagonists. Can you doubt for a moment to which side the victory must incline? At no other epoch in the history of the world would the Gospel have been confronted with a foe more formidable than at the actual crisis of its appearing. It found leagued against it all the wisdom of Greece and all the strength of Rome—a wisdom wiser, and a strength stronger, than mankind has ever seen before or after.

The human race has grown older in experience since then. Vast accumulations of thought and knowledge have been amassed. The collision of races and nations has from time to time struck out sparks, which have kindled the flame of the human intellect in some fresh quarter. But still the literature of Greece—its philosophy, its poetry, its oratory—enjoys a unique preeminence. It still supplies models for the imitation of a remote posterity. It is still fresh with the vigour of a perennial youth—a deathless power in the world of intellect and imagination. And yet these are only shattered fragments saved from the wreck of time, which we possess. What must it not have been then, when it was entire? What must it not have been then, when its language was still a living tongue—the medium of communication between all civilised peoples; when it was still upheld and interpreted by the religion, customs, institutions, daily life, of a race which had ramified and spread over every part of the known world?

And, as in the world of thought, so also in the world of action. In the whole life of the human race no power has arisen like the power of the Romans. There have been, and there are, empires which cover a larger superficial area. But for concentration, for unity, for available force, it has never had an equal. The greatest modern empires are rivals: each neutralises the power of the other. The domination of Rome owned no peer and no second. The voice of Rome was the law of the world. It was the Roman’s mission, said their great poet, ‘to rule over the peoples, to spare the submissive, but to crush the proud and defiant.’

Confronted by this league of powerful allies, what was there in the story of Christ crucified that it should lead captive a reluctant world? We cannot, even with a conscious effort, realise all the repulsive associations which the Cross suggested to S. Paul’s contemporaries. Substitute for the word some modern equivalent, as the gallows or the gibbet, and you approach more nearly to the idea conveyed. We shudder at such a substitution; we shrink from it as a profanation; our very reluctance shows how great a change has come upon mankind. Not in vain have eighteen Christian centuries passed over our heads. Not in vain has S. Paul’s startling resolve—startling and repulsive when it was uttered, but obvious, self-evident, admirable now—to glory in nothing but the cross of Christ, been proclaimed from the pulpit Sunday after Sunday, and repeated day after day in thousands of Christian homes. Not in vain have saints been schooled to live, and martyrs nerved to die, in the strength of those words. The Cross is now the symbol of power, of heroism, of saintly patience, of triumphant love. But only reflect in what light it would be regarded by the Romans then? We ourselves, if we dwell on the repulsive aspects of the Cross, dwell chiefly, or solely, on the torture. But to the Roman the pain was only a small part of the horror. It was the ignominy of the punishment, from which he would turn away with disgust. No Roman citizen—however deep his crime—ran any risk of crucifixion. The law exempted him from this extreme degradation. It was the punishment of slaves, of the lowest and vilest of their kind. And they—these Romans, the masters of the world, with their proud bearing, with their innate respect for law, with their strong sense of political privilege—were invited by this Paul to fall down before a gibbet, and to admire a criminal condemned by a Roman magistrate to this most ignominious of all deaths. Weakness? It was far worse than weakness. It was vile, it was shameful—an outrage on all their most cherished feelings.

And, while thus repulsive to the Romans, this message of the Cross would be still less attractive to the Greek. With his gay spirit and his keen appreciation of the bright side of life, he could have nothing to say to this horrible tale of suffering. With his strong sense of beauty, he would avert his eyes with a shudder from this unlovely scene on Calvary. With his speculative cast of mind, with his eager craving after intellectual subtleties, how could he possibly find in this plain, this forbidding, this worse than common-place Jewish tale of an obscure convict, the answer to his philosophic questioning? It was folly, folly in its most foolish mood—this story of the Cross—to the Greek.

And, if it was such in itself, it would certainly gain nothing from the character of its advocate. S. Paul’s opponents did not suffer him to indulge any feelings of self-complacency on this point. Their taunts served only to remind him that in his own person he illustrated the divine paradox. As was the Gospel, so was its preacher. Was he not weak? This was the very reproach which they hurled at him. They pointed to his insignificant stature; they glanced at his spare frame, worn out with toil and bowed down with sickness. He was a despicable object to these Corinthians, accustomed to the perfection of physical strength and grace in the athletes of their Isthmian games. They could not away with one who ‘in bodily presence’ was ‘weak.’ Was he not foolish also? Here again his enemies held up the mirror to him, and forced him to see his defects. This itinerant Jew, speaking with a foreign accent, breaking loose from all the approved forms of logic, defying all the established laws of rhetoric in his halting, tumultuous, solœcistic utterances—how could he hope to recommend his message to the fine ear and the fastidious taste of the Greek? Foolishness was not a strong enough word to express their estimate. He was ‘in speech contemptible.’

Yes, he was weak, he was foolish. He could not gainsay the charge. Looking at his own heart, he condemned himself of foolishness far greater than that with which his enemies charged him. Reviewing his own life, he saw everywhere signs of weakness, which even their contempt had failed to detect. What were an insignificant presence and a faulty rhetoric after all, compared with the foolishness of a heart struggling against self, and the weakness of a life oppressed by the fears within and baffled by the fightings without? He was weak; he was foolish. Who knew this so well as himself? But what then? Strength was made perfect in weakness; wisdom started up full armed from the head of folly. Aye, there was a divine purpose in all this. He had this treasure, this priceless treasure in cheap, vulgar, fragile vessels of earthenware, ‘that the excellency of the power might be of God, and not of himself.’

And so the cry of despair becomes the pæan of thanksgiving. The taunt of his enemies is the boast of the Apostle. He was not strong, but God’s weakness was strong through him. He was not wise, but God’s foolishness was wise in him. And this weakness, this folly, crushing all opposition, would press forward on its march from victory to victory.

A strange confidence to entertain. And yet this Paul was right after all. The centuries rolled on, and the prediction was fulfilled. The monstrous paradox, so contradictory to reason and so defiant of experience, proved true. All human calculation was baffled. The foolish things confounded the wise, and the weak things confounded the mighty. Neither the power and the polity of Rome, nor the philosophy and the arts of Greece, could check the triumphant progress of the Cross.

And do we ask how this triumph can be explained? S. Paul has answered the question by anticipation. ‘The world by wisdom knew not God.’ There is little danger that in this place you should underrate the intellectual and social triumphs of Greece and of Rome. Even as preparations for the Gospel, they hold a foremost place. What was the wisdom of Greece, but an elementary schooling for the higher spiritual lessons of Christianity? What was the power and organization of Rome, but the roadway of the Gospel of Christ and the scaffolding of the Church of God? But the arts of Greece and the polity of Rome had left a deep craving in mankind unappeased. Like the hart panting after the water-brooks, the soul of humanity was thirsting after a living God. It might not be altogether conscious of the object of its thirst; but the thirst itself was a terrible reality nevertheless. Men were feeling after God, but they had not grasped Him. He was near to every one of them, and they had not found Him. Wisdom had failed, and now it was the turn for foolishness.

Could he for a moment entertain any misgivings of its triumph? He knew what the Cross of Christ had been to himself. It had guided his zeal, it had purified his passions, it had widened his sympathies, it had opened his heart. It had filled him with new aspirations, new resolves, new hopes. That was no rhetorical figure, but a sober expression of fact, when he said that to be in Christ was to be a new creature, a new creation. In the light of this glory, all the lessons of the past had started up into new life: just as with the sunrise the landscape, which has appeared before a dark, indistinguishable mass, emerges in all the infinite beauties of form and colour. And, if it had been all this to him, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, what might it not be to these Gentiles tossed to and fro between the extremes of idolatry and scepticism? It was the touch of God, which mankind needed to heal the sores, to purge the corruption, to arrest the decay. And he knew that this touch had thrilled through his inmost being in the revelation of Christ crucified.

‘Man cannot live by bread alone.’ This is the lesson which the triumph of the Cross teaches; a palimpsest traced in letters of fire on the erased page of an ancient civilisation; a voice emphasized by the thunder-crash of a fallen world. ‘Man cannot live by bread alone’—whether the bread of social organization, of material appliances, of legislation, of polity (Rome had given enough and to spare of this); or the bread of intellectual culture, of æsthetic taste, of philosophy, of poetry, of art (Greece had dealt with these with a lavish hand). Fed to surfeiting with these, ancient society, nevertheless, had fallen from bad to worse, had become day by day more corrupt, more impotent, more helpless, till at length it lay seething in its own decay. And then the magnificent irony of God’s purpose was seen. Foolishness triumphed over wisdom, and weakness set her foot on the neck of strength. And that which has been will be again, if ever the conditions should be repeated. If ever—I will not say science, but scientific speculation, should hold out promises which from its very nature it cannot perform; if ever, dazzled by its unparalleled triumphs, it should invade provinces which belong to another rule; if ever, consciously, or unconsciously, its representatives should attempt to eliminate from the Universe everything which renders possible either the guiding providence of God or the moral responsibility of man; if ever a materialistic philosophy should gain the ascendant, which offers no strength to the life struggling in the meshes of temptation, holds out no hand to the conscience staggering under the burden of sin, speaks no words of comfort to the soul torn with suffering or aching with bereavement; then, assuredly, soon or late the heart of humanity, finding itself deluded and betrayed, will rise in the name of conscience and faith, and turn upon its betrayer. Then again, as of old, the foolish things of the world will confound the wise. But then again, also, much that is useful, much that is beautiful, much that is true, may be buried in the ruin. The less must be sacrificed to the greater. Baffled, disappointed, starved in its highest moral and spiritual needs, humanity has no heart and no leisure for nice discrimination.

For this Cross of Christ—this strange, repulsive, foolish thing—did give to a hungry world just that food which alone could allay its pangs. Only reflect for a moment before we part, what ideas, what sanctions, what safeguards, what hopes, it has made the common property of mankind.

First of all: it went right home to the human soul. It demanded no scientific training: it required no natural gifts. It addressed itself, not to the Greek as Greek, or to the Roman as Roman, but to the man as man. It took him, just as he was, stripped of all adventitious ornaments and advantages, and it spoke to his heart, spoke to his conscience, spoke from God to the godlike within him, but spoke nevertheless as a man speaketh with his friend.

And, so taking him, it set before him in the story of Christ’s doings and sufferings an ideal of human life, absolutely pure, unselfish, beneficent, righteous, perfect, such as the world had never seen—an ideal, which once beheld could not be forgotten, but must haunt the memory of men for evermore, fascinating by its beauty, purifying, ennobling, transforming into its own bright image by the wonderful magic of its abiding presence.

And then again, it gave aid, where aid was most needed. It illumined the dark places of human existence. It dignified sorrow; it canonized suffering. The Cross of Calvary threw a glory over all the most harrowing and repulsive trials of life. Toil, sickness, pain, want, bereavement, neglect, obloquy, persecution, death—these were invested with a new meaning by the foolishness of the preaching. It was an honourable distinction now to share with Him—the head of the race—the prerogative of suffering. It was a comparatively light thing now to bear a little, where He had borne so much. Pain did not cease to be pain—whatever the Stoic might say; but pain had become endurable, for pain had been glorified.

And then again; it proclaimed in language, which could not be misunderstood, the universal brotherhood of man. The triumphs won on the Cross had obliterated, as in the sight of God, all distinction of race, of caste, of class. He the Crucified, He the Triumphant, was a poor artisan of a despised village of a despised nation—henceforth the accepted King of men, the Pattern of His race—the admired, honoured, worshipped of His brethren.

But above all, this Cross of Christ was the atonement, the reconciliation, of man to God. It united heaven and earth in an indissoluble union. It threw an unwonted and glorious light on the Fatherly mercy of God. It brought a new and unforeseen promise of pardon and peace, extended freely to all. Who shall despair now? Who shall dare to put limits to our Father’s forgiveness? Who will refuse to Him the tribute of filial obedience? Who will not strive day and night to win His pardon, to win His favour, strong in the faith of this one perfect sacrifice—the supreme manifestation of Divine goodness and love?

These lessons, and others such as these, cluster round the Cross of Christ. And they can never fade or lose their freshness. What wonder then, if mankind preferred the folly of God to the wisdom of men? Here, and here only—in this old, foolish message of Christ crucified—is the promise and the potency of life, the one true and abiding life, the life that is now, and that shall be hereafter, eternal in the heavens.

Lightfoot, J. B. (1890). Cambridge Sermons. London; New York: MacMillan and Co. (Public Domain)

Specify Alternate Text


Offenses (Stumbling Blocks; Temptations)

It must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!  Matthew 18:7.

Great S. Mary’s Church, 19th Sunday after Trinity, 1876.

This passage belongs at once to the most transparent and the most abstruse of our Lord’s sayings. On the one hand, it is a simple statement of fact and a plain lesson of duty. Here it is so clear, that a little child may read and understand. On the other, it involves a startling antithesis, which has been the great enigma of all moral and religious philosophy from the beginning of time. There it is so inscrutable, that the most profound intellects have vainly sought to fathom its depths. Offences are a necessity, and yet offences must not be. Scandals are permitted, and yet they are forbidden. God’s government presupposes evil; for otherwise no moral probation were possible. And yet God’s righteousness punishes evil, for otherwise God would no longer be God. There is a law of averages, which teaches that in a given state of society a certain number of crimes will be committed in a fixed time; and yet there is a law of Divine retribution, which condemns each individual offender who contributes his quota to this aggregate. God hates sin, and yet God allows sin. This is the contradiction involved in the text. The enigma is stated, but it is not explained. Christianity did not create the difficulty, and Christianity does not offer to solve it.

But I have no desire to enter into these dark problems of religious philosophy. Standing now on the threshold of a new Academical year, and meeting together as we have met to-day in this church, many of us for the first time, we can ill afford to devote this Sunday of all Sundays to fruitless speculation. To one, who has been resident in this place and watched the ceaseless ebb and flow of University life now for nearly thirty years; who has witnessed generation after generation of young men come and go in rapid sequence; who, amidst many moral victories achieved here in each successive generation, has seen not a few glorious hopes disappointed, not a few brilliant promises unfulfilled, not a few noble characters (or such as might have been noble) debased, and who therefore feels with an intensity which younger men cannot be expected to share, that this first entrance on Academic life, like all great opportunities, is in the truest sense to each man, according as he may use it, either a savour of life unto life or a savour of death unto death; to one, I say, upon whom the occasion forces such thoughts as these, the text cannot but suggest a simpler treatment. It must needs be that the evil example of older students—the idleness, the dissipation, the moral recklessness, the religious indifference—shall lead many astray; but woe alike to those who are led astray, and to those who lead them astray. It must needs be that many a father’s reasonable hope will be belied, and many a mother’s earnest prayer will be frustrated, that the dearest sanctities of many a home will be spurned; but woe unto that son nevertheless by whom they are spurned. It must needs be that many a bright intellect will be darkened by indolence or by dissipation; but woe unto him in whom it is darkened. It must needs be that many a religious faith will be lost by apathy and neglect; but woe unto him by whom it is lost. It must needs be that God’s choicest gift of youth, with its bright hopes and its magnificent possibilities, will be sullied and trampled under foot as a vile thing, when it should have been consecrated to its Giver in all the freshness of its glory; but woe unto him who tramples it under foot. It must needs be that God’s image, stamped on many a soul, will be ruthlessly effaced; but woe nevertheless, thrice woe, to him by whom it is effaced.

And so, with this fatal necessity and this unequivocal warning—thus illustrated by each successive year of Academic history—in his mind, the preacher will not aspire on this day to argue as a wise man with wise men. His ambition will be rather to speak as a little child to little children; content, and more than content, if some one word thrown out at a venture shall have served to warn, to deter, to sustain, to encourage, one single hearer, and thus have helped him forward to the attainment of those priceless blessings, moral, intellectual, spiritual, which lie within the reach of such as use the opportunities of their residence here aright.

As a little child to little children. Forgive me the comparison. I can frame no better prayer for you and for myself, than that we should approach this subject in this spirit. Is there something jarring and dissonant in this language at a season which is regarded by so many as the initiation into the freedom and the privileges of manhood? Nay; if there is a seeming contradiction in terms, there is entire harmony in thought. Believe it; the poet’s saying is true in more senses than one that ‘the child is father to the man.’ There can be no true manliness, where the childlike nature is absent. The little child is the hero of Christ’s panegyric in the context. The little child is the type of the citizen of God’s kingdom. Its simplicity, its innocence, its frankness, its truthfulness, are the badges of civic privilege in this heavenly polity.

And, as the child is the subject of the encomium in the context, so is it also the occasion of the warning in the text. It is the stumbling-block placed in the way of Christ’s little ones, that calls down the denunciation of woe. We may resent the imputation of a childish nature. We may throw off its noble characteristics; but its feebler qualities will cling to us still. All—even the strongest—have some element of weakness in their character, which renders them dependent on others. Imitation is the law of the child’s nature. The most powerful instrument in moulding its character is example. It cannot understand abstract principles; but it is keenly sensible to personal influence. Its ideal is to be like its father or its mother; its constant effort is to copy an elder brother or an elder sister. In this respect the childlike never will be outgrown either in the Church or in mankind at large. The force of example will always be more potent than the most earnest appeals of the preacher and the most convincing logic of the apologist. Personal influence is as contagious as the atmosphere which envelopes us. We drink it in at every breath. We are bathed in it day and night. Precept and exhortation are momentary and fitful; but this is at all times and in all places. We can none of us escape from it. Hence the category of Christ’s little ones is as wide as the Church is wide, as mankind is wide. We are all exposed to the force of some stronger nature than our own—stronger in intellect, or stronger in moral character and definiteness of purpose, or stronger (it may be) in mere passion of temperament—attracting us to the good, or impelling us to the evil. Thus in all ages doing has been more eloquent than preaching. The blood of the martyrs, not the ink of the apologists, was declared to be the seed of the Church.

Hence the severity of the language in the woe denounced against those who offend Christ’s little ones. It is better for all such that they should be sunk countless fathoms deep in the sea; better that they should be put out of sight for ever; better for themselves and for others that they should be annihilated, if that were possible, than that they should any longer vex the earth with their presence.

And with the accumulated experience of eighteen centuries, who will venture to say that this warning was unneeded? The annals of the Church are blackened with crimes, committed not only by Christians but committed in the sacred name of Christ Himself. The scandals of Christendom have been far more deadly to the souls of men than the fiercest onslaughts of persecution. The one may have slain its thousands, but the other has slain its tens of thousands. We Englishmen have listened of late with a shudder of abhorrence to the reports of wholesale barbarities committed by men of an alien race and an alien religion. These butcheries, and worse than butcheries, have called forth a cry of righteous indignation throughout the country. It was an intolerable thought that Christian England should be charged with complicity, however remote, in such inhuman crimes.

But is there not a danger lest this sentiment, however healthy in itself, should encourage in us Christians a self-complacency, to which the history of the past challenges our right? Are the pages even of our ecclesiastical annals so clean, that we can arrogate to ourselves a monopoly of humane sentiments and impulses? Have we forgotten the sarcasm of the Apostate Emperor, when he claims the gratitude of the ‘Galileans’ for restoring peace to many’ provinces, which under his predecessors had been devastated by their own internal feuds, whole villages having been razed to the ground in these deadly quarrels of the Christians? Have we overlooked the cynical close of a famous chapter in the ‘Decline and Fall,’ where it is reckoned that ‘the number of Protestants who were executed’ for their religion in the sixteenth century ‘in a single province and a single reign far exceeded that of the primitive martyrs in the space of three centuries and of the Roman Empire?’ There may be much exaggeration in both these indictments; but the main fact is beyond contradiction. Pudet haec opprobria nobis. Shame on us Christians, that these things could be said, and could not be refuted. Cast your eye down the columns of Christian history, and see how century after century they are reddened with the stains of blood. The Church had scarcely been enfranchised, when the civilized world was scandalized by the riots which accompanied the election of the chief bishop of Christendom. Churches were turned into fortresses and strewn with corpses; the streets of Rome streamed with the blood of the rival partizans; while the heathen looked on with impartial scorn. Advance from the fourth century to the fifth, from Rome to Alexandria; and mark the deadly tumults which have left an indelible stain on the Church, and in which the murder of Hypatia was only an isolated, though a prominent, incident. Follow the stream of history through the succeeding centuries; and see how the powerful sovereigns, the champions of Christendom, carried the Gospel of peace everywhere at the point of the sword. Of Charles the Great it is recorded, as a merit, that he offered to his heathen foes the alternative of Christianity or extinction. And this programme was rigorously carried out. Whole tribes were ruthlessly slaughtered by this ‘Mohammedan Apostle of the Gospel.’ Go forward still through the centuries, and see what scenes rise up before your eyes. I say nothing of those religious wars waged against the Saracen in the East, because with all their crimes they were redeemed in part by a noble spirit of chivalry and self-devotion. But witness that so-called Crusade against the Albigenses in the early years of the thirteenth century. What would be the cry of horror throughout Europe if in to-morrow’s telegrams we should read this announcement, ‘A general massacre was permitted; men, women and children were cut to pieces, till there remained nothing to kill except the garrison and others reserved for a more cruel fate. Four hundred were burned in one great pile, which made a wonderful blaze and caused universal rejoicing in the camp?’ And yet this is only one incident in that terrible war of extermination against the heretics, which counted its victims by tens of thousands, which made no distinction of age or sex, which shrunk from no atrocities, till the spiritual chief of Christendom himself stood aghast at the excesses of the champions whom he had hounded on, but whom he was powerless to control. And these horrors were perpetrated in the name of Him, Who refused to call down fire on that churlish Samaritan village. This diabolical energy of persecution raged under the shadow of the Cross, the very symbol of patient suffering and self-denying love. And, if it were not sickening to wade through lakes of Christian blood, I would ask you to pass with me from the thirteenth century to the sixteenth, and witness the atrocities of that terrible period—the wholesale executions in the Netherlands, whether fifty thousand or a hundred thousand, it matters not; the ceaseless flames of the Inquisition in Spain; the one terrible night of butchery in Paris, a combination of treachery and ferocity, such as the world has rarely witnessed: gigantic horrors these, before whose glare the fires of Smithfield pale into nothing, notwithstanding that they have lighted in the heart and the intelligence of England a candle which shall never be put out. Why have I dwelt so long on these painful incidents? Not, assuredly, because the Gospel is chargeable with any portion of these crimes. Those who have studied Church history with care will see for themselves, that the barbarities of half-savage nations would have been still more barbarous, and the passions of lawless men still more passionate, if its influence had been withdrawn. Not, certainly, because these facts, truly weighed, are any argument in the hands of unbelievers. I know no stronger evidence of the inherent power and vitality of Christianity, than that it should have triumphed over these scandals of Christendom. But it is well that at a time like the present these painful memories should step in, and check our self-complacency. The atrocities of Islam have copied only too faithfully the atrocities of Christendom. And they can at least plead consistency. We did these things in defiance of our creed; while they have done them in obedience to their creed.

Surely never was there a time, when Christendom was more directly called to humble herself in the dust than when this painful likeness—this hideous caricature, if you will—of her own misdeeds is flaunted before her eyes.

And to each of us individually his share of the humiliation must fall. We would fain hope that a repetition of scandals on this vast scale among Christian nations is henceforward impossible. But still the terrible catalogue of offences is lengthening day by day. Still Christ’s little ones are falling by thousands on all sides. Still the woe is gathering strength and volume for discharge. For, though the form of the scandal may change, the spirit which creates it remains; the partisanship, the falsehood, the insincerity, the bigotry, the cruelty, the pride, the self-seeking, the self-indulgence, thwarting and neutralising by its example the faith which it professes. There is the Christian apologist, who wields the weapons of disingenuousness and fraud in defence of the truth; there is the Christian preacher, whose words are words of lofty self-denial and devotion, and whose life is worldliest of the worldly; there is the Christian philanthropist, whose sympathy for the suffering and oppressed classes is unbounded, and whose bearing is morose, selfish, intolerable, in his own household; there is the Christian colonist, whose rapacity or whose lawlessness or whose tyranny makes the Sacred Name, which he bears, a byword and an abomination to the heathen among whom he dwells. These and a thousand other forms of scandal are working their deadly work; while with ever-growing importunity the cry of Christ’s little ones fallen and engulfed rises up to the Eternal Throne, ‘Lord, how long?’

And surely nowhere else should the warning in the text find a prompter hearing than in this place. It is declared to be the natural constitution of the Church of Christ, that when one member suffers, all the members shall suffer with it. A University, still more a College is, as it were, a Church within a Church. The connexion of the members is closer. The contagion of sympathy, whether for good or for evil, is more immediate. The force of personal example is more directly felt. The freedom and the closeness of intercourse combines with the age of the great majority of its members to render it keenly susceptible of such influences.

And let no man think that he can escape responsibility in this matter. There is some element of strength in all, even the very weakest. It may be superior intellectual power or higher mental culture; it may be a wider acquaintance with the world; it may be more enlarged religious views; it may be a capacity of winning affection or of commanding popularity; it may be superior age or longer residence in this place. In some way or other each man possesses in himself a force, which gives him a power over others, and invests him with a responsibility towards Christ’s little ones.

One may well shudder to think how much injury will be done to the moral well-being of a large number within the first few weeks of their residence here from forgetfulness of this charge; how many good principles may be undermined, how many noble resolves shaken, how many latent vices developed. I say nothing of the coarser forms of temptation. These wear no disguise, and therefore they condemn themselves. But reflect how much evil is inflicted from inconsiderateness, from levity, from insensibility to the effects of our commonest words and deeds. I will take one instance out of many which might be imagined. A man comes up here with certain religious views. He has been brought up, as we think, in a narrow school of theology. He pays undue regard to points which we consider nonessentials; he clings to certain religious watchwords with which we have no sympathy. Let it be granted for the moment that we are right and he is wrong. Yet his observance may be to him the sacrament of his highest moral duties; his watchword may be to him the embodiment of his truest spiritual convictions. Is it right, is it generous, is it kind, to laugh at his weakness, to pour scorn upon his scrupulousness? May not his error be better than our truth, his narrowness than our largeness of view? Is there no danger, lest while plucking up a prejudice, we may not root out a principle also? Men are apt to talk lightly of shocking prejudices, sometimes as if it were a matter of infinitely small moment, sometimes as if they were fulfilling an absolute duty, or at least acting an honest and upright part. What, if the veil were withdrawn, and they could see things as they are? What, if the cry of agony from Christ’s little ones, whom they have wronged, should penetrate at length to their ears?

The subject is a wide one, and there is no time to pursue it further. Yet I cannot forbear saying a few words in reference to friendship. Friendship is the association of the stronger with the weaker. I do not say that the strength will be all on one side. Friendship in its very nature implies mutual dependence. Each has an element of power, which the other lacks; each therefore has a responsibility to the other, as to a little one in Christ. I do not forget (how could I ever forget?) that the friendships formed or cemented during residence here are valued as beyond all price by those who have known their blessings. I can hardly suppose that there is one man in this church to whom friendship is not a very sacred name. I cannot imagine any one here so base that he would not sooner cut off his right hand, than knowingly inflict a moral injury on his heart’s best brother. But that which he would loathe to do intentionally he may do from carelessness. He feels his friend’s strictness inconvenient to him; it interferes with the freedom of their intercourse; it leaves less time for amusement; at all events it acts as a barrier between them. It is an easy matter to weary or to laugh him out of it. And it seems a light matter too. But it may be terrible enough in its consequences. For it may be the first shock given to his moral nature; the first step taken on the downward incline. Or again, a man may be given to profane or idle talking. To himself it may mean little or nothing. But this is no measure of its significance to another. What glances off the surface harmlessly with him, may wound the soul of another deeply. And the wound festers, and spreads, and mortifies, and refuses to be healed. And thus from sheer recklessness he has sown the seeds of his friend’s ruin. Can any agony be conceived more keen than the agony of a generous spirit, when the revelation is flashed in upon him, whether in this world or beyond the grave, of the cruel wrong he has done to one, whom he loved with more than a brother’s love?

Against such perils as these I know only one security, the purification, the discipline, the consecration of the man’s self. Be assured, if there is any taint of corruption within, it will spread contagion without. It is quite impossible to isolate the inward from the outward. No man can be always on his guard. ‘Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.’ Each one of us carries about with him a moral atmosphere, which takes its character from his inmost self.

And this discipline, this purification of self, is best summed up in the Apostle’s precept, ‘In vice be ye children; howbeit in understanding be ye men.’ The manly in the childlike, and the childlike in the manly—this is the true livery of the citizens of Christ’s kingdom. Be men in the cultivation of your minds, in the vigour of your actions, in the courage of your lives, in the promptness to do and to suffer. But be children in frankness and simplicity; do nothing which you would care to conceal. Be children in natural affection; let home remain still the chief sanctuary of your heart. Be children in reverence; reverence is the body-armour of the young man’s warfare. Be children, last of all, in faith and trustfulness; in all your trials and all your temptations, in your hopes and your fears, in your disappointments and your successes, in your weakness and your strength, seek repose in the embrace of the everlasting arms, confident of a Father’s love. This do, and you will run no risk of offending Christ’s little ones. This do, and the very God of peace will sanctify you wholly, that your spirit and soul and body may be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Lightfoot, J. B. (1890). Cambridge Sermons. London; New York: MacMillan and Co. (Public Domain)

Specify Alternate Text

The Meanness and the Greatness of Man

The Meanness and the Greatness of Man

What is man, that Thou art mindful of him: and the son of man, that Thou visitest him?  Psalm 8:4.

Great S. Mary’s Church, 2nd Sunday after Easter, 1876.

Who is here the speaker? Are we reading the experiences of the stripling still watching over his father’s flocks by night in the upland pastures of Bethlehem? Or of the lonely fugitive contemplating the starry skies from the broad plains of Philistia? Or of the powerful sovereign gazing upward to the overhanging vault from the palace roofs of Zion? Whether David the shepherd lad, or David the outlaw, or David the king, it matters not. The central idea of this magnificent psalm is plainly expressed, and makes no demands on historical criticism for its elucidation. Surveying the outspread canopy of heaven, the Psalmist is overwhelmed with awe at the scene. Its vast expanse, its fathomless blue, its starry glories, its beauty, its purity, its repose, all appal him with the sense of their grandeur; and crushed with the contrast between the greatness of universal creation and the littleness of the individual man, he exclaims bewildered and amazed, ‘When I consider Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which Thou hast ordained; what is man that Thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that Thou visitest him? Mystery of mysteries, that one so mean—an atom in this limitless expanse, a mote in this faultless glory, a flutter in this infinite calm—should be singled out for Thy special favour, and endowed with authority as Thy vicegerent upon earth.’ Could any paradox be imagined greater than this—this contrast, between the insignificance of man’s self and the pre-eminence of man’s destiny?

We pass from the early dawn to the late afternoon of human history. The lapse of eight-and-twenty centuries is a large space in the life of mankind. It is a vast and profound chasm, which separates the simple inspiration of the shepherd-king from the many-sided culture of the poet, critic, philosopher, novelist, scientific investigator, the typical representative of modern thought and intellect in its latest phases. Yet to Goethe, holding solitary communion with nature in its higher forms, and contemplating earth and sky from the summit of the Brocken, the Psalmist’s thought still recurs with resistless importunity and finds its natural expression still in the Psalmist’s words, ‘Lord, what is man, that Thou art mindful of him?’ No interval of time nor transference of scene, no contrast of persons or of circumstances has tarnished its freshness, or robbed it of its power.

Has robbed it of its power? Nay, must we not rather confess, in very truth, that as the world has grown older, the chasm between the greatness and the meanness of man has widened, and the paradox has increased from age to age? Was this disproportion so startling as to perplex and overawe the mind of the simple Hebrew in the remote past? What must it not be to us, who measure it by the accumulated experience of all the ages? This is the very essence of a true inspiration, that it should speak with fuller tones and a more articulate utterance to after-ages, than to the generations to which it was immediately addressed. So it is here. Every acquisition of modern science has emphasized the contrast in a manner, which the Psalmist himself could not have foreseen. Each new discovery has depressed the relative importance of man in the material universe. Each fresh investigation has obliterated some external distinction of origin or of structure or of growth, which was thought to isolate him from the rest of creation. Again and again, as science has announced some fresh revelation, the mysterious paradox has been brought home to our minds with redoubled force, ‘Lord, what, what is man, that Thou art mindful of him?’

1. Astronomy first issued her impressive comment on the text, and the Christian teachers have not been slow to adopt her forcible illustrations of its truth. The starry heavens were a panorama of unspeakable beauty and awe to the shepherd-king nearly three thousand years ago. What must they not be to us now? We know now—any well-instructed child knows now—that those bright specks, which appeared to his eye as jewels studding the midnight sky, are glorious suns, the centres, it may be, round which are revolving worlds as huge and as magnificent as our own. We know now that, where he discerned only one such speck, there are thousands of these separate suns. We know now that those irregular patches of hazy light so shapeless and so unmeaning, which appear only to dim the purity of the liquid sky, are aggregates of such stars or suns, countless in multitude. We know now the smallest of the visible stars to be so remote that even with the extraordinary speed of light a ray flashed from one of these, when David was king, cannot even yet have reached our eyes. These truths are now the simplest educational lessons; and yet they never pall upon the imagination. As the long rows of figures, which describe the distances, are arrayed before us, and we vainly strive to grasp some conception of the facts which they represent, the eye swims and the mind falters. Racked with the vastness of these reasonings, we resign the hopeless task in despair; and the saying of the Psalmist presses upon us with crushing force, ‘Lord, what is man, amidst these countless worlds? What is man, nay, what is all humanity, but an atom in this limitless universe, a drop in this ocean of infinite space?’

2. And, before we have recovered from our amazement and collected our stupefied senses, Geology takes up the lesson which Astronomy has laid down, enforcing it with other and not less striking illustrations. Geology teaches us our insignificance in time, as Astronomy had taught us our insignificance in space. Geology tells us how this earth, of which we boast ourselves the lords paramount, as if by the indefeasible title of sole and undisputed possession, existed for countless ages before the creation of our race. She relates how through millions of years continents were made and unmade, mountains piled up and seas poured out, climates changed from frigid to torrid and from torrid to frigid, new creations of vegetable and animal life peopled the earth and lived out their time and died off in endless succession; till once more the mind, wearied with the effort to grasp the vastness of the idea, resigns its functions; and this new announcement again wrings from us the despairing cry, ‘What is man? What is man, even on this earth of his own, but a fleeting apparition, a thing of yesterday, one term in an endless series, one ripple on the stream of the ages, one moment in infinite time?’

3. But again: before we have had time to realise this fresh comment on the text, the teaching of the Psalmist is enforced anew from quite another quarter. As the telescope had revealed to us vast and multitudinous worlds stretching out into boundless space, so the microscope discovers to us miniature worlds equally strange and unsuspected, crowding under our very eyes, countless in number and each thronged with a dense population of its own. A single drop of water appears peopled with thousands of minute living creatures, which multiply indefinitely with the increased power of our lenses. A single nodule of rock is seen to be composed of millions of fossil organisms, each one endowed with a vitality of its own. Everywhere is life, teeming, fermenting, inexhaustible life. And so once more our imagination sinks under the burden of the thought, and once more we echo the cry of humiliation, ‘Lord, what is man? What is man, but a single throb in this endless pulsation of nature, a solitary bubble on this effervescence of infinite, omnipresent life?’

4. Nor is this all. Hitherto at least the main fortress of our pride is unassailed. We can still maintain the isolation, the uniqueness, of man in the physical creation. But even this fondly-cherished idea falls before the next assault of science. The anatomist dissects and the chemist analyses the human body. This complex mechanism, this marvellous tenement of the spirit, is resolved into its component elements. Now at least it would seem as though the secret must be revealed. Now at length we shall discover whence comes, and wherein resides, and what is, the distinctive glory of man. Now at length we shall be able to hold up to the eye, and submit to the touch, the evidence of his special pre-eminence. But here too we are doomed to disappointment. Our expected triumph becomes a signal defeat. The elements of the human body are analysed and sorted and weighed and tabulated. Man is found to be compounded of just such substances as the brute or the tree or the stone. There is absolutely nothing besides. Reason, memory, imagination, foresight, spirit, conscience, personality—they are not here. Had we any right to expect it otherwise? This is no newly-discovered truth. It is as ancient as the first promptings of inspiration. It was declared, as in a parable, in that Divine saying of old, ‘Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.’ But it comes home to us with redoubled force, when the dissecting room and the laboratory have done their work; and nothing has been laid bare by the scalpel, and nothing has been detected by the retort, which can explain the mystery of man’s being—no unique atom which is the abode of the spirit, no nucleus which contains the living, thinking man, no indiscerptible unit, of which philosophers have dreamed, as the palpable germ of his immortality. ‘What is your life? It is even a vapour that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away;’ and the mocking echo of materialism gives back the Apostle’s saying, ‘even a vapour, that vanisheth away.’ ‘What is man? An aggregate of chemical elements nicely combined, a compound of evanescent gases which escape and are dissipated, and all is gone.’

5. Once more. If there is nothing in the component elements of the human frame which accounts for the pre-eminence of man, we may at all events look for an explanation in some peculiarities of structure. We shall at least find some differentiating characteristic here: we shall detect a certain uniqueness of type, which explains all. At length we shall have laid our finger on the elusive secret. Comparative anatomy and comparative physiology will come to our aid, where other sciences have failed us. This is our last hope; but here too we are frustrated. Each fresh advance of science seems to shew more plainly that we must look elsewhere than to his physical structure and growth for an explanation of the man, as the ruling, thinking, progressive, immortal being. The naturalist will tell us that the same essential type of structure prevails throughout; that different parts are more or less fully developed in different creatures, but that the ground idea in all is identical. He will tell us that the individual human being has in the several stages of his growth passed through forms analogous to the several types of the lower animals, before his structure was completed. He will tell us that all attempts at classification with a view to separating man off by a broad line from the lower creation fail signally. A slightly different convolution of the brain, a slightly different conformation of the skull, a firmer grasp of the hand, a steadier gait of the foot—trifles these—yet these, and such as these, are all that he can find to distinguish the man from the brute. And perhaps he will boldly advance a theory that the man is after all only the brute developed through a long series of ages. Of the truth or the falsehood of such a theory I say nothing here. But if it should prove most true, would it not justify and enforce by a new and unsuspected illustration the Psalmist’s awe, while contemplating the contrast between the nature and the destiny of man? ‘Man being in honour abideth not: he is like the beasts that perish.’ And again the voice of materialism throws back his pious ejaculation with its mocking echo, ‘like the beasts that perish.’ ‘What is man? Half-akin, nay more than half-akin, to the brute. And the son of man? A superior mammal, a developed mollusc, a creature among creatures, a finer sample of a vulgar type.’

Thus again and again we are brought back to the same point. Again and again, as we contemplate some new revelation of science, our amazement grows. At each step we are more and more bewildered with this strange paradox of humanity, this contrast between the two elements in our nature—that which we have in common with the lower creation, and that which is our special endowment as men—the dust which is taken from the earth, and the spirit which is breathed into us by God. At each step we exclaim with increased intensity of wonder, ‘What is man, that Thou art mindful of him: and the son of man, that Thou visitest him?’

For we cannot stop short at the first clause of the Psalmist’s words, and refuse to entertain the sequel. The materialist will be content to say, ‘What is man? An insignificant atom in time and space. And the son of man? An organism like other organisms.’ But the believer is constrained to add, ‘Lord, that Thou art mindful of him! Lord, that Thou visitest him!’ It is just this addition which transmutes the sneer of a cynical contempt, or the wail of a prostrate despair, into the psalm of devout and reverential awe.

And the believer may boldly claim science herself as his teacher. To hear some men talk, one would suppose that in the height of scientific discovery the mystery of man’s being had been found no mystery at all. A moment’s thought will dispel the illusion. The profound secret remains as dark and impenetrable as ever. Much has been done to explain the conditions of life; but nothing, absolutely nothing, to explain life itself. Nay, every step in advance has only increased the paradox and widened the gulf, so that the mystery is more complete than before.

It has widened the gulf; for while it has shewn that man, as a material structure, is only an infinitely small fraction of a vast universe like himself, differing almost inappreciably from other fractions, it has accumulated evidence at every step, that, as a thinking, hoping, aspiring, progressive being, he is quite unique in God’s creation. Each successive triumph of science makes the distance between the man and the brute wider. Each new acquisition is a fresh proof of capacity and a fresh ground for hope. If experience discovers the littleness of man to be more little, yet at the same time it shews his greatness to be more great. The Psalmist’s expression of wonder and awe and thanksgiving was wrung from him chiefly by the thought, that his Almighty Creator had given to man—to man, this frail, fleeting, impotent being—the dominion over the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air and the fishes of the sea, over creatures stronger in limb and more fleet of foot and keener-sighted and better-armed and longer-lived than himself. But what is all this compared with the triumphs which we have witnessed—the sovereignty of man asserted over the elemental powers of nature? We have lived to see how he can order the lightning; commanding it, and it flashes his message from continent to continent; forbidding it, and it glances harmlessly away. We have seen him weigh the sun, and measure the heavens, and analyse the stars. We have witnessed how he has made the vapour his slave, bidding it carry him to and fro and furnish his every need. And we feel that these achievements are only an earnest of greater triumphs yet in store for humanity. While the bee constructs its cells with just the same mathematical precision, and the ant piles up its winter stores with just the same prudent foresight—neither more nor less—as they did thousands of years ago; while the horse and the dog seem to contract almost human sensibilities by association with man, and then, when they are turned wild, lose them again, as if they had been only a reflection of a human master’s presence; while all the lower creation is stationary, mankind is rapidly advancing higher and higher. And still the marvel increases, ‘Lord, what is man, that Thou art mindful of him, and the son of man, that Thou visitest him?—visitest him in this faculty of experience whereby he records and treasures up the accumulated wisdom of the past, visitest him in this divination of foresight wherewith he projects himself into the triumphs and the hopes of the future, visitest him in his scientific achievements, in his social progress, in his ever-extended dominion over the material universe?’ Such thoughts as these may well occupy our minds. We cannot afford to overlook them. They are directly suggested by the Psalmist’s hymn of praise. They must ever supply a stanza—though not the loftiest—in our song of thanksgiving to the Almighty Creator.

For after all, these magnificent victories, this dominion over the beasts of the field, this subjugation of the powers of nature, are only the earnest, the prelude, the foreshadowing, of greater things yet to come. This is plainly the Psalmist’s idea. A larger, fuller, more triumphant thought is struggling for utterance, than finds direct expression in words; ‘Thou hast crowned him with glory and honour; Thou hast put all things under his feet.’ Hence Apostles and Evangelists saw the true fulfilment of the Psalmist’s prophetic saying in the ultimate and supreme destiny of mankind, as realised in the Person and work of the one Representative Man. Nothing short of this could satisfy the hopes, which the jubilant strain inspires. Here at length was the exaltation, the glory, the absolute sovereignty, the final apotheosis of man.

And, emphasized by this comment, the song of the Psalmist falls on the ears of Christians now, with a fuller cadence, swelled with the experience of nearly thirty centuries and prolonged into the hopes of eternity, ‘Lord, that Thou art mindful of him; Lord, that Thou visitest him!’

‘That Thou art mindful of him.’ That Thou hast condescended to hold communion with This Thy frail and sinful creature; that through long ages Thou didst school him to an ever fuller knowledge of Thee; that even in the darkest times and among the most degraded peoples Thou didst not leave Thyself without a witness, speaking through the promptings of the conscience, speaking through the courses of the seasons, speaking through the hopes and the fears of the present; that Thou didst single out one man, one family, one nation, to be the depositary of Thy special revelation; that Thou didst guard and preserve this nation through unparalleled vicissitudes, so that exiled, enslaved, crushed, trampled under foot, it revived again and again; that Thou didst from time to time commission Thy special messengers—lawgiver, psalmist, prophet, priest—to renew the flame of truth on the altar of Thy chosen race; and that thus Thy revelation burst out ever and again with a clearer, brighter light, and Thy Divine economy broadened down from precedent to precedent, till at length the religion of a nation should become the religion of the world.

‘That Thou hast visited him.’ That Thou didst effect this change by a signal manifestation of Thyself; that in the fulness of time, when Egyptians and Assyrians and Persians, when Greeks and Romans had prepared the way, Thou didst of Thine infinite mercy send Thine only Son upon earth; that He was born as a man, lived as a man, suffered and died as a man; and that thus by this one act of marvellous condescension, humanity was redeemed, was exalted, was sanctified.

‘That Thou hast visited him.’ Not only that this Thy blessed Son lived and died as a man; but that as a man He rose from the grave, and thus as a man won for men the victory over sin and death; that, as a man, He ascended into the heaven of heavens, the firstfruits of the final triumph of mankind, the earnest of that glorious consummation of all human history, when His brother-men united in Him shall wear His crown, and reign with Him as kings for ever and ever. Lord, what is man—this speck in boundless space, this moment in infinite time, this atom of atoms, this frail, fleeting, helpless creature, this insignificance, this nothing—that Thou hast ordained him to such unspeakable glory?

‘What is man?’ Nay, what is this man? What am I, that Thou visitest me? We cannot escape the moral of the Psalmist’s appeal under the shelter of a vague generality. To you and to you—to each individually—the shaft strikes home. What am I—I with these vile passions, I with this hateful selfishness, I with this hopeless, intolerable meanness, of which I am conscious every hour, that Thou art mindful of me, that Thou visitest me? A pessimist you must be in one sense, if you examine yourself candidly. A pessimist the spirit of the time will tend to make you in another direction. It is the special temptation of our age, that its most prominent scientific interests almost of necessity lead the mind to dwell too exclusively on the lower affinities of our nature—on our animal emotions, on our perishable bodies, on our resemblance to the brute creation, on our sensitiveness, even our moral sensitiveness, to the manifold changes of circumstance, as food and climate and scenery. The danger is imminent. The thoughts, which absorb you, will also mould you. If you get to regard yourself as mean, you will at length become mean. Lift up your eyes then from earth to heaven. Rise from the consideration of your littleness to the contemplation of your greatness. Here, in that noblest of all optimisms, which science suggests and consciousness demands and revelation affirms—the belief in the unique personality, the boundless capacity, the triumphant progress, the eternal destiny of man: the belief in the godlike, nay, in the God within you—is the saving of your soul.

The God within you. The Stoic of old would remind his disciples that they carried about a god enshrined in their hearts. Even as a vague surmise, a highly-wrought metaphor, the expression of an unsatisfied spiritual yearning, this teaching was very far from inoperative. What may it not be to you to whom it is an assured truth, to you who have been re-stamped in Christ with the image of God, to you who have been re-consecrated as the temples of the Spirit?

The God within you. Carry this thought back to your rooms, you young men, and contemplate it with all reverence on your knees. Whatever temptations may assault you, it has power to overcome them all. If every other diversion and every other remedy should fail, this will never fail. Though the craven fear of detection should not restrain you, and the noble egotism of self-respect should not uphold you, and the apprehension of consequences now or hereafter should not deter you, the awe, the majesty, the glory of this Presence realised must scare away the demons of sin from your heart. ‘Lord, what are we, what am I, that Thou visitest me, that Thou makest Thine abode with me, that Thou hast enshrined Thyself in me? What are we, and what art Thou, O Lord? We are of yesterday; Thou art from eternity. We are here; Thou art everywhere. Our meanness and our greatness, our failures and our triumphs, what seems our weakness and what seems our worth—these are both alike, for these are both as nothing, in the face of Thine infinite perfection. Grant, Lord, that we may feel and know this. Teach us, Lord, to forget ourselves in Thee, that so losing ourselves we may truly find ourselves. This is the first and last thought in the Psalmist’s hymn of praise; this must be the first and the last also in the Christian’s song of thanksgiving—not our meanness, not our greatness, not ourselves, not humanity, not man; but Thou and Thou only, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end; Jehovah our Lord, how excellent is Thy name in all the earth!’

Lightfoot, J. B. (1890). Cambridge Sermons. London; New York: MacMillan and Co. (Public Domain)

Specify Alternate Text

The Revealer of the Heart

The Revealer of the Heart

The saying of the woman, which testified, He told me all that ever I did.  John 4:39.

Great S. Mary’s Church, 24th Sunday after Trinity, 1874.

It is a common remark that the most momentous revolutions in history have not unfrequently sprung out of incidents altogether disproportionate to the results. This disproportion is nowhere more strongly marked than in the narrative from which the text is taken. A conversation between a Galilean carpenter and a Samaritan peasant-woman on the brink of a well—this certainly is not the occasion which we should have expected to inaugurate a revolution designed to change the religious ideas, and with them the social and political principles, of a whole civilised world. Such conversations were held many times daily over hundreds of wells in Palestine. Yet here, on this one day, at this sixth hour, near this village, Sychar, on the ledge of this particular fountain, went forth the edict, which was destined to be the one critical moment, the one absolute turning-point, in the religious history of mankind. ‘The hour cometh’—not only ‘cometh,’ but ‘now is’—‘when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father.’ Here is the rescission of the old order, and the charter of the new. All the old religions had been ethnic; the new must be cosmopolitan. All the old religions centred about some local sanctuary, worshipped some local power; the new religion should be wide as the overspreading sky itself, should be omnipresent and all-pervading, like the breath of the wind—the symbol of the Spirit—which bloweth where it listeth, which comes we know not whence, and goes we know not whither. Even Judaism itself was (as has been truly said) in some sense ethnic. The object of worship was indeed the One Omnipresent and Almighty, the Eternal ‘I Am;’ but He was worshipped still as a national God, was enshrined still in a national sanctuary. Now even these limitations should cease. The rite of initiation which inducted into the privileges of the nation should be abolished. The laws which formed the constitutional charter of the nation should be abrogated. The solid and stately edifice which was the visible centre of the nation’s hopes, the local bond of the nation’s unity, should be levelled with the dust. The religion of a people, of a tribe, must expand into the religion of mankind. ‘Nor yet at Jerusalem’—this was the most startling paradox, the last intolerable scandal. ‘Neither in this mountain’—not on yonder plateau which crowns these bare overhanging heights of Gerizim, nor on any unauthorized sanctuary like this—not on the stately hill of the Capitol or beneath the cleft-peak of Parnassus or on the steep rock-fortress of the Acropolis or in the sea-girt groves of Delos, or on the brink of the salt-marshes of Ephesus, not amidst the lofty propylaea and the colossal effigies of Memphis or of Thebes—should deity under whatever form or with whatever disguise be worshipped henceforth. So far it was a welcome truth. But this superadded clause, ‘Nor yet at Jerusalem’ spoilt everything. It was an outrage on the keenest hope of the Jew. And yet this unexpected, this unwelcome, this hateful ediet was destined to be the saving of nations.

And on no occasion was the irony of God’s munificence more signally illustrated than here. The recipients of His best treasures of revelation and of grace have rarely been those whom we should have expected beforehand. It was not here to the princes of the Hebrew hierarchy like Caiaphas, or to the leaders of Hebrew thought like Gamaliel, that the announcement was made. It was not to some Alexandrian Jew, like Philo, whose familiarity with the rich stores of Gentile learning might seem to have prepared his mind for a message of such vast import; it was not to some Platonic or Pythagorean philosopher, whose sympathies with the ancient wisdom of the farther East combining with his native Hellenic culture had enlarged his theological horizon, so that he might take in this new idea of a religion of mankind—it was not to any of these that the revelation was first made; but to a simple peasant woman, belonging to an obscure tribe hated and scorned by the Jews, who were themselves the hated and scorned of all the world—to a peasant woman, whose religious ideas shared with the rest of her people were strangely vague and confused, and whose own personal life had been stained by sins of no ambiguous hue. It seemed as if by selecting a degraded Samaritan outcast as the recipient of this gracious message to mankind, the Saviour would declare at the outset, what should be hereafter the destiny of that capacious drag-net which must sweep into its meshes of every kind. For she was the very type of the world of that day—the world which Christ came to teach and to save—whose religion was a vague compromise between the monotheism of the Jew and the pantheism of the philosopher and the idolatry of the pagan, and whose moral principles not only admitted, but even consecrated, sensuality in its most degrading forms.

But there is another very striking feature also in this narrative, which must not pass unnoticed. The intense realism which pervades every line of the Evangelist’s account.

It appears first in the local scenery, which forms the setting of the history. Here by this long, dusty road, running south and north, the traveller must needs pass on his way from Jerusalem to Galilee. Here branching off westward is the narrow valley, which encloses the town of Shechem, shut in between the two parallel ridges of mountains. Here on the southern of the two heights, on this overhanging mountain of Gerizim, is the ruined temple, the sanctuary of the Samaritan race, where their ‘fathers worshipped.’ Here, just where the high road strikes the base of the mountain, is the little village of Askar, the Sychar of the Gospels; here hard by is a deep well, so deep even now that, notwithstanding the accumulated rubbish of ages, travellers have sounded to a depth of eighty or a hundred feet. Here stretching eastward is a sight common enough to our English eyes, but rare indeed among the bare and rocky hills of Palestine—a wide expanse of corn-land, ‘unbroken’ (as it is described by an eye-witness) ‘by boundary or hedge’—these fields which ‘are white already to harvest.’

This realism appears again in the national sentiment and traditions, with which the conversation is saturated. There is the notice of the assignment of land to Joseph, the reputed forefather of the Samaritan race. There is the allusion to the inveterate, internecine feud between the Jews and the Samaritans, which rendered any overtures from the one to the other an astonishing, if not a suspicious, incident. There is the reference to the main question of dispute between the two races—the question respecting the locality of the true sanctuary—the alternative between the mountain of Shechem and the mountain of Jerusalem. There is mention incidentally made of the vague, halting, undetermined theological position of the Samaritans—whose temple was dedicated to the ‘nameless’ God, and whose allegiance (at least at one time) seems to have hovered between the Jehovah of the Pentateuch and the Zeus Hellenius of Antiochus, ‘Ye know not what ye worship.’ There is the underlying assumption of the characteristic Samaritan conception of the Messiah, not (like the Jewish) as a magnificent king, a victorious captain, but as a teacher, a prophet, ‘He will tell us all things’—a conception, to which the Samaritan was almost necessarily limited, because his Scriptures were confined to the Pentateuch, and his Messianic ideas were all gathered from the one passage in Deuteronomy. There is an indication (in the surprise of the disciples) of the social prudery with which the rabbinical teaching had imbued the age, for a maxim of the stricter rabbis forbad any conversation in public with one of the other sex, ‘They marvelled that He talked with a woman.’

It appears, lastly, in the development of the dialogue and in the progress of the event. We have a succession of rapidly shifting scenes, all equally distinct, all equally lifelike. The place, the hour, the persons; the chief Traveller throwing Himself wearily down on the well side; the disciples despatched to the neighbouring village to buy food; the approach of the woman; the conversation commenced; the ever-varying phases of emotion produced by the stranger’s words; the first surprise, ‘Thou, a Jew;’ the surprise exchanged for remonstrance, ‘Sir, the well is deep;’ the prompt desire, the dawning intelligence, ‘Give me this water;’ the parrying of the home-thrust, ‘I have no husband;’ the intermingling of an eager curiosity on a great theological question with a no less eager desire to divert the conversation from an inconvenient personal turn, ‘I perceive that Thou art a prophet;’ the wish to evade the responsibility of a decision upon this question by indefinite postponement: ‘When Messias is come, He will tell us all things;’ the return of the disciples; their shocked feelings at seeing their great rabbi thus forgetting himself; the hurried departure of the woman, her pitcher left behind and her errand unfulfilled; the feminine eagerness to tell the news to her neighbours; the natural exaggeration covering the instinctive reticence, not ‘He told me that I was living a life of shame,’ but ‘He told me all that ever I did.’

And not only is this narrative vivid and truthful in itself—truthful to natural scenery, truthful to local associations and local history, truthful to human life and character; but the allusions to place and circumstance occur in such a way as altogether to exclude the supposition of inventive design. They are not paraded before the reader; they are unexplained by themselves. Without the assistance of travellers we should often be at a loss to account for them. Of this kind is the reference to Gerizim, ‘Sir, I perceive that Thou art a prophet. Our fathers worshipped in this mountain.’ The context contains no indication that any mountain was near; even when mentioned, it is not mentioned by name; but the woman, suddenly looking up, sees the overhanging heights, and they suggest a ready topic, which will divert the unpleasant tenour of the conversation. Similar too is the allusion to the growing corn, ‘Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields, for they are white already to harvest.’ This mention is altogether unexpected, abrupt, inexplicable—inexplicable otherwise than by the actual scenery itself. The Great Teacher’s eye ranges over the vast expanse of cornland, and the vision of the eye starts the lesson from the lips. The scenery does not garnish the discourse; the discourse arises out of the scenery.

What is the inference from all this? Have we here a fictitious narrative, written, as some men would tell us, by a late Christian of Gnostic tendencies, written far away from the scenes themselves, at Alexandria or in Asia Minor, written long after the supposed occurrences, somewhere about the middle of the next century, when two successive devastations under Titus and under Hadrian had harried the land, and the Jewish nation and polity were altogether a thing of the past, when in history, as in theology, old things had passed away and all things had become new.

And what analogy can be produced for such a remarkable phenomenon of literary history as this? ‘The world,’ it is said, ‘is full of works of imagination;’ ‘the singular realism of many,’ we are told, ‘is recognised by all.’ Is this a true description of the world in the early Christian centuries? Is it not the very opposite of a true description? Can even one romance of antiquity be pointed out, which approaches this in its perfect truthfulness of delineation? Even one, which offers anything like the same variety of tests, and which responds to every test applied with anything like the same fidelity? We have specimens of classical romances extant. What are they worth? ‘Singular realism’—is not this the very last expression which would fitly describe them? But was it rather in Christian circles that such a wonderful product of literary genius might have been looked for? In Christian circles of the second century, which (we are reminded again and again) were notoriously careless, uncritical, inappreciative, eagerly devouring the most clumsy forgeries? In Christian circles, whose highest conception of a romance did not rise above the stiff pedantry of the Clementines, or the childish extravagance of the Protevangelium? And who was this anonymous writer, this wonderful genius, this consummate artist—if an artist, a far greater artist than Plato—whose name is nevertheless lost for ever in the greatness of the past?

Is this the probable alternative? Is it even a possible alternative? Or must we not confess that we have here the very record of a true incident, reported by an eye-witness—not, I venture to think, by Him, the chief speaker, nor by her, the chief listener, but directly by the beloved disciple himself, the youthful friend, lingering by his Master’s side as not unnaturally he would linger while the others were despatched to the neighbouring village to purchase food for the common wants, suppressing the fact of his own presence in his after narrative, as characteristically he would suppress it, where the words and the incident told their own tale, and no personal attestation was needed; but listening at the time, silent, thoughtful, bewildered, amazed, and after long years recalling with all that freshness, with which old men will recall the critical moments of their boyhood and youth though the vast intervening space may be blurred and indistinct to the memory—recalling, I say, those strange sayings uttered more than half a century before on the brink of the Samaritan well—the startling announcement, ‘Neither in this mountain nor yet at Jerusalem,’ and the hardly less startling anticipation, ‘The fields are white already to the harvest’—hard sayings, dark enigmas, grievous scandals, when they were at first heard; but now at length grown

Of new significance and fresh result;

now in the light of a lifelong experience, now in this far distant Gentile city of Ephesus, amidst this ever-growing congregation of Gentile Christians, gratefully acknowledged as the manifesto of a new revelation and the charter of a new Church. A true son of Thunder, whose work in life is typified, not by the ceaseless din as of some busy machinery, but by the deafening clap and the vivid flash which, sudden and intermittent, startles the silence of a summer sky.

The context has brought us to the outskirts of Christian evidences. The text itself penetrates to their very core: ‘He told me all that ever I did:’ ‘He tore away the veil of disguise, which I had so carefully wrapped about me. He exposed my secret life; He probed my inmost conscience; He held up a mirror to me, and for the first time I saw myself.’ This unique power of piercing, wounding, exposing, convicting, convincing the conscience is, and ever must be, the most potent testimony to the revelation in Christ.

Christian evidences! How few have the time, have the opportunities, have the capacities, have the training, necessary for a right judgment on the subjects submitted to them! And yet to the many the truth of Christianity is a question not less momentous than to those few. Here then is their evidence. It presupposes no long intellectual discipline; it demands no unusual mental powers; it draws on no rich accumulation of knowledge. It addresses itself to the poor, to the simple, to the ignorant. It appealed to this unlettered Samaritan peasant, with the same directness of aim, as to a Hillel or a Gamaliel; to this shamed and sullied profligate with the same distinctness of articulation as to the most scrupulous, most respectable, most orthodox of Pharisees. ‘He spoke to my conscience; He shewed me my sin; He shewed me myself. He told me all things that ever I did.’

And this is not only the most simple and comprehensive, it is also the most forcible and the most convincing of all kinds of evidence. Let any one test the truth of this by his own past experience. Let him only recall some one rare moment in the past; when the conviction of sin, the revelation of self, was flashed in upon his soul: when suddenly the dishonesty, the hypocrisy, the malice, the avarice, the impurity, the meanness, the sin (whatever it may have been), which he had so long indulged with so much self-complacency, rose up before him with a terrible distinctness of outline, confronting him, as it were, with a second self. Long lapse of time, worldly cares, dissipating interests, indifference, recklessness, may now have confused the memory. But then he could not deceive himself. It was no phantom of a diseased imagination. It was an intensely real, intensely true, experience; it was direct, it was personal, it was absolute. He had seen the exceeding sinfulness of sin; he had been confronted with the great mystery of iniquity. And he could no more doubt the reality of the power, which had revealed it to him, than he could doubt the force of gravitation itself. ‘He told me all things that ever I did. Is not this, yes, is not this the Christ?’

We have been reading lately some speculations on the utility of religion. The honest utterance of a singularly honest mind is always a substantial gain. It goes to increase the store of trustworthy data, on which the judgments of mankind must be built. And in this case the value is enhanced, because the voice speaks to us (as it were) from beyond the grave. But was adequacy, or any approach to adequacy, in the treatment, to be anticipated here? The utility of religion depends on the power of religion. And the power of religion can only be estimated by inward experience. It must ever be a matter of personal testimony. It cannot be weighed and tabulated.

Intrinsically faulty then, because entirely speculative, must be the estimate of one, who (as he himself frankly confesses) never had a faith to lose, who even in these his posthumous utterances is still feeling after a religion, not denying it as a possibility, but relegating it to the cloudland of peradventure, and allowing it, nay even encouraging it, as a salutary play of the imagination.

Hence, in the Essay to which I have referred, I find something said, and not absolutely untruly, about the insufficiency of the fear of future punishment regarded as a moral police. I find a little said, though altogether inadequately, about the influence of a noble ideal in attracting men to virtue. But I find nothing at all on this one point—the power of religion in penetrating, revealing, shaming, purifying, exalting the inner life through the conviction of sin, and the craving after righteousness. And yet every Christian knows that this is after all the most potent, because the most subtle, influence which acts upon his moral being—penetrating into recesses where all others must fail, touching springs of action which none other can reach. He is not ungrateful for external supports. He sees well enough, how very much he owes to the force of law, or of public opinion, as the scaffolding of his moral nature. But he cannot deceive himself. He knows that whole regions of moral life lie far beyond the reach of any such forces. He knows how many an evil thought he puts away, how many an alluring temptation he resists, how many a painful struggle he undergoes, how many a distasteful task he undertakes—not at all because public opinion expects it of him (public opinion knows nothing of all this); not at all because the terror of a future judgment haunts him (the thought is far away from his mind); but because he is conscious of a Presence, pleading with him, admonishing him, alluring him, entreating him, startling him by the heinousness of his sin, reflected in the mirror of a perfect righteousness. He cannot deceive himself. He knows, as certainly as he knows anything, how very far worse he would have been if this voice had been silent, if this Presence had been withdrawn. He sees that he is only one unit among myriads. He reflects that this motive has been far more potent with thousands upon thousands of men than (to his shame) it has been with himself. And reflecting on all this, he feels that he cannot place any bounds to the utility of religion regarded as a moral force. For the mainspring of all this power is the revelation of self through the revelation of God in Christ. ‘He gave me the answer to that twofold question, the question of all questions, ‘Whence?’ and ‘Where?’ He shewed me all the mercy, for He told me all the sin. He convinced me of my greatness, for He convicted me of my meanness. He set before me the image of perfect holiness, embodied in a Man like myself. Then He shewed me my own sinful heart, my own sullied life. It was a contrast of light and darkness. I could not choose but hate the darkness and love the light. And so in my poor, feeble, halting way I am feeling for the light, I am straining after the light. He told me all that ever I did. Is not this the Christ?’

And with this conviction kindling within him, he hurries out into the world. He becomes perforce a missionary and an apologist—a missionary, though not perhaps across the seas or amidst deserts; an apologist, though not in the pulpit or with his pen—but he pleads with the resistless eloquence of a direct personal knowledge; he argues with the overpowering logic of a renewed and purified life. His secret is bursting within him, and he must impart it to others. He arrests, he appeals, he importunes. ‘Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did. Come, see and hear and judge for yourselves. Is not this the Christ?’

Lightfoot, J. B. (1890). Cambridge Sermons. London; New York: MacMillan and Co. (Public Domain)

Christian Military Fellowship

An Indigenous Ministry • Discipleship • Prayer • Community • Support
Encouraging Men and Women in the United States Armed Forces, and their families, to love and serve the Lord Jesus Christ.

Contact Us

  • Address:
    PO Box 1207, Englewood, CO 80150-1207

  • Phone: (800) 798-7875

  • Email:


Book Offers