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THE Sermons here republished were written and preached at various periods between the years 1825 and 1843. The first six volumes are reprinted from the six volumes of “Parochial Sermons;” the seventh and eighth formed the fifth volume of “Plain Sermons, by Contributors to the Tracts for the Times,” which was the contribution of its Author to that Series. All the Sermons are reprinted from the last Editions of the several volumes, published from time to time by the Messrs. Rivington. They made, in their day, partly through their publication, but yet more, probably, through their living effect upon those who heard them, a deep and lasting impression for good on the Communion for whose especial benefit they were designed; they exercised an extensive influence very far beyond it; and their republication will awaken in many minds vivid and grateful recollections of their first appearance. They met, at that time, very real and great moral, intellectual, and spiritual needs of man,—in giving depth and precision and largeness to his belief and apprehension of the mysteries of God, and seriousness and accuracy to his study and knowledge of himself, of his own nature, with its manifold powers, capacities, and responsibilities, and of his whole relation to the supernatural and unseen. They found a response in the hearts and minds and consciences of those to whom they were addressed, in marvellous proportion to the affectionate and stirring earnestness with which their Author appealed to the conscious or dormant sense of their needs, and his zealous and energetic endeavours, under God’s blessing, to show, in every variety of light, how the grand central Verities of the Christian Dispensation, entrusted as the good “Deposit,” to the Church, were revealed and adapted to supply them. Many things, indeed, contained in these volumes have become, from the very readiness of their first acceptance, and from their gradual reception into the current of religious thought, so familiar, that it requires some retrospect of the time previous to their appearance to appreciate the original freshness with which they brought out the fundamental Articles of the Christian Faith, and their bearing on the formation of the Christian character; and to understand the degree in which they have acted, like leaven, on the mind and language and literature of the Church in this Country, and have marked an era in her History. But, besides their relation to the past, it will be seen in their republication how the spirit which dictated them pierced here and there through the cloud which hung over the future, and how the Author warned us, with somewhat of prophetic forecast, of impending trials and conflicts, and of perplexities and dangers, then only dimly seen or unheeded, of which it has been reserved to the present generation to witness the nearer approach. It might seem to have been his calling at once to warn us of them, and to provide, as best he might, words of guidance and support, and consolation and encouragement under them—an anchor of the soul in the coming storm. They are republished in the fervent hope and belief that like good to that which, by God’s blessing, they have done before, they may, by His mercy, if we be not unworthy of it, do yet again under other circumstances. To many of this generation they will appear in much of their original freshness; and to all with the greater power and reality, from the saddening aspect of the times, and the appalling prospects before us; replete as they are with those “many secrets of religion which are not perceived till they be felt, and are not felt, but in the day of great calamity.” CrossReach Publications
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PAROCHIAL AND PLAIN SERMONS
JOHN HENRY NEWMAN, B. D.
Formerly vicar of St. Mary’s, Oxford
London, Oxford, and Cambridge
This edition © 2018 CrossReach Publications, Kerry, Ireland
Hope. Inspiration. Trust.
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I. Reverence in Worship
II. Divine Calls
III. The Trial of Saul
IV. The Call of David
V. Curiosity a Temptation to Sin
VI. Miracles no Remedy for Unbelief
VII. Josiah, a Pattern for the Ignorant
VIII. Inward Witness to the Truth of the Gospel
IX. Jeremiah, a Lesson for the Disappointed
X. Endurance of the World’s Censure
XI. Doing Glory to God in Pursuits of the World
XII. Vanity of Human Glory
XIII. Truth Hidden when not Sought After
XIV. Obedience to God the Way to Faith in Christ
XV. Sudden Conversions
XVI. The Shepherd of our Souls
XVII. Religious Joy1
XVIII. Ignorance of Evil1
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1 Samuel 2:18
“Samuel ministered before the Lord, being a child, girded with a linen ephod”
SAMUEL, viewed in his place in sacred history, that is, in the course of events which connect Moses with Christ, appears as a great ruler and teacher of his people; this is his prominent character. He was the first of the prophets; yet, when we read the sacred narrative itself, in which his life is set before us, I suppose those passages are the more striking and impressive which represent him, in the office which belonged to him by birth, as a Levite, or minister of God. He was taken into God’s special service from the first; he lived in His Temple; nay, while yet a child, he was honoured with the apparel of a sacred function, as the text tells us, “he ministered before the Lord, being a child, girded with a linen ephod.”
His mother had “given him unto the Lord all the days of his life11,” by a solemn vow before his birth; and in him, if in any one, were fulfilled the words of the Psalmist, “Blessed are they that dwell in Thy house, they will be always praising Thee22.”
Such a constant abode in God’s house would make common minds only familiar with holy things, and irreverent; but where God’s grace is present in the heart, the effect is the reverse; which we might be sure would happen in the case of Samuel. “The Lord was with him,” we are told; and therefore the more the outward signs of that Lord met his eye, the more reverent he became, not the more presuming. The more he acquainted himself with God, the greater would be his awe and holy fear.
Thus the first notice we have of his ministering before the Lord, reminds us of the decency and gravity necessary at all times, and in all persons, in approaching Him. “He ministered before the Lord, being a child, girded with a linen ephod.” His mother had made him yearly a little coat for his common use, but in Divine Service he wore, not this, but a garment which would both express, and impress upon him, reverence.
And, in like manner, in his old age, when Saul sent to seek David at Naioth, where Samuel was, his messengers found Samuel and the prophets under him all in decent order. “They saw the company of prophets prophesying, and Samuel over them.” And this was so impressive a sight, that it became an instrument of God’s supernatural power towards them, and they prophesied also.
On the other hand, if we would have an example of the want of this reverence, we have it in Saul himself, the reprobate king, who, when he was on his way to Naioth, and was visited by God’s Holy Spirit, did not thereupon receive the garment of salvation, nor was clothed in righteousness, but behaved himself in an unseemly wild way, as one whose destitution and shame were but detected by the visitation. He stript off his clothes and prophesied before Samuel, and lay down in that state all that day and all that night.
This difference we see even at this day:—of persons professing religion, some are like Samuel, some like Saul; some (as it were) cast off their garments and prophesy in disorder and extravagance; others minister before the Lord, “girded with a linen ephod,” with “their loins girt and their lamps burning,” like men awfully expecting the coming of their great and glorious Judge. By the latter, I mean the true children of the Holy Catholic Church; by the former, I mean heretics and schismatics.
There have ever been from the first these two kinds of Christians—those who belonged to the Church, and those who did not. There never was a time since the Apostles’ day, when the Church was not; and there never was a time but men were to be found who preferred some other way of worship to the Church’s way. These two kinds of professed Christians ever have been—Church Christians, and Christians not of the Church; and it is remarkable, I say, that while, on the one hand, reverence for sacred things has been a characteristic of Church Christians on the whole, so, want of reverence has been the characteristic on the whole of Christians not of the Church. The one have prophesied after the figure of Samuel, the other after the figure of Saul.
Of course there are many exceptions to this remark in the case of individuals. Of course I am not speaking of inconsistent persons and exceptional cases, in the Church, or out of it; but of those who act up to what they profess. I mean that zealous, earnest, and faithful members of the Church have generally been reverent; and zealous, earnest, and faithful members of other religious bodies have generally been irreverent. Again, after all, there will be real exceptions in the case of individuals which we cannot account for; but I mean that, on the whole, it will be found that reverence is one of the marks or notes of the Church; true though it may be that some particular individuals, who have kept apart from it, have not been without a reverential spirit notwithstanding.
Indeed so natural is the connexion between a reverential spirit in worshipping God, and faith in God, that the wonder only is, how any one can for a moment imagine he has faith in God, and yet allow himself to be irreverent towards Him. To believe in God, is to believe the being and presence of One who is All-holy, and All-powerful, and All-gracious; how can a man really believe thus of Him, and yet make free with Him? it is almost a contradiction in terms. Hence even heathen religions have ever considered faith and reverence identical. To believe, and not to revere, to worship familiarly, and at one’s ease, is an anomaly and a prodigy unknown even to false religions, to say nothing of the true one. Not only the Jewish and Christian religions, which are directly from God, inculcate the spirit of “reverence and godly fear,” but those other religions which have existed, or exist, whether in the East or the South, inculcate the same. Worship, forms of worship—such as bowing the knee, taking off the shoes, keeping silence, a prescribed dress, and the like—are considered as necessary for a due approach to God. The whole world, differing about so many things, differing in creed and rule of life, yet agree in this—that God being our Creator, a certain self-abasement of the whole man is the duty of the creature; that He is in heaven, we upon earth; that He is All-glorious, and we worms of the earth and insects of a day.
But those who have separated from the Church of Christ have in this respect fallen into greater than pagan error. They may be said to form an exception to the concordant voice of a whole world, always and every where; they break in upon the unanimous suffrage of mankind, and determine, at least by their conduct, that reverence and awe are not primary religious duties. They have considered that in some way or other, either by God’s favour or by their own illumination, they are brought so near to God that they have no need to fear at all, or to put any restraint upon their words or thoughts when addressing Him. They have considered awe to be superstition, and reverence to be slavery. They have learnt to be familiar and free with sacred things, as it were, on principle. I think this is really borne out by facts, and will approve itself to inquirers as true in substance, however one man will differ from another in the words in which he would express the fact itself.
Samuel was a little child who had never fallen away from God, but by His grace had ever served Him. Let us take a very different instance, the instance of a penitent sinner as set before us in the parable of the Publican and Pharisee. I need hardly say which of the two was the most pleasing to God—the Publican; whereas the Pharisee was not accepted by Him. Now what did the Pharisee do? He did not even go so far as to behave in an unseemly, extravagant way: he was grave and solemn, and yet what he did was enough to displease God, because he took too much upon himself, and made too much of himself. Though grave and solemn, he was not reverent; he spoke in a haughty, proud way, and made a long sentence, thanking God that he was not as other men are, and despising the Publican. Such was the behaviour of the Pharisee; but the Publican behaved very differently. Observe how he came to worship God; “he stood afar off; he lift not up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner31.” You see his words were few, and almost broken, and his whole conduct humble and reverent; he felt that God was in heaven, he upon earth, God All-holy and Almighty, and he a poor sinner.
Now all of us are sinners, all of us have need to come to God as the Publican did; every one, if he does but search his heart, and watch his conduct, and try to do his duty, will find himself to be full of sins which provoke God’s wrath. I do not mean to say that all men are equally sinners; some are wilful sinners, and of them there is no hope, till they repent; others sin, but they try to avoid sinning, pray to God to make them better, and come to Church to be made better; but all men are quite sinners enough to make it their duty to behave as the Publican. Every one ought to come into Church as the Publican did, to say in his heart, “Lord, I am not worthy to enter this sacred place; my only plea for coming is the merits of Jesus Christ my Saviour.” When, then, a man enters Church, as many do, carelessly and familiarly, thinking of himself, not of God, sits down coldly and at his ease, either does not say a prayer at all, or merely hides his face for form’s sake, sitting all the while, not standing or kneeling; then looks about to see who is in the Church, and who is not, and makes himself easy and comfortable in his seat, and uses the kneeler for no other purpose than to put his feet upon; in short, comes to Church as a place, not of meeting God and His holy Angels, but of seeing what is to be seen with the bodily eyes, and hearing what is to be heard with the bodily ears, and then goes and gives his judgment about the sermon freely, and says, “I do not like this or that,” or “This is a good argument, but that is a bad one,” or “I do not like this person so much as that,” and so on; I mean when a man acts in all respects as if he was at home, and not in God’s House,—all I can say is, that he ventures to do in God’s presence what neither Cherubim nor Seraphim venture to do, for they veil their faces, and, as if not daring to address God, praise Him to each other, in few words, and those continually repeated, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth.
What I have said has been enough to suggest what it is to serve God acceptably, viz. “with reverence and godly fear,” as St. Paul says. We must not aim at forms for their own sake, but we must keep in mind where we are, and then forms will come into our service naturally. We must in all respects act as if we saw God; that is, if we believe that God is here, we shall keep silence; we shall not laugh, or talk, or whisper during the Service, as many young persons do; we shall not gaze about us. We shall follow the example set us by the Church itself. I mean, as the words in which we pray in Church are not our own, neither will our looks, or our postures, or our thoughts, be our own. We shall, in the prophet’s words, not “do our own ways” there, nor “find our own pleasure,” nor “speak our own words;” in imitation of all Saints before us, including the Holy Apostles, who never spoke their own words in solemn worship, but either those which Christ taught them, or which the Holy Ghost taught them, or which the Old Testament taught them. This is the reason why we always pray from a book in Church; the Apostles said to Christ, “Lord, teach us to pray,” and our Lord graciously gave them the prayer called the Lord’s Prayer. For the same reason we too use the Lord’s Prayer, and we use the Psalms of David and of other holy men, and hymns which are given us in Scripture, thinking it better to use the words of inspired Prophets than our own. And for the same reason we use a number of short petitions, such as “Lord, have mercy upon us,” “O Lord, save the Queen,” “O Lord, open Thou our lips,” and the like, not using many words, or rounding our sentences, or allowing ourselves to enlarge in prayer.
Thus all we do in Church is done on a principle of reverence; it is done with the thought that we are in God’s presence. But irreverent persons, not understanding this, when they come into Church, and find nothing there of a striking kind, when they find every thing is read from a book, and in a calm, quiet way, and still more, when they come a second and a third time, and find every thing just the same, over and over again, they are offended and tired. “There is nothing,” they say, “to rouse or interest them,” They think God’s service dull and tiresome, if I may use such words; for they do not come to Church to honour God, but to please themselves. They want something new. They think the prayers are long, and wish that there was more preaching, and that in a striking oratorical way, with loud voice and florid style. And when they observe that the worshippers in Church are serious and subdued in their manner, and will not look, and speak, and move as much at their ease as out of doors, or in their own houses, then (if they are very profane) they ridicule them, as weak and superstitious. Now is it not plain that those who are thus tired, and wearied, and made impatient by our sacred services below, would most certainly get tired and wearied with heaven above? because there the Cherubim and Seraphim “rest not day and night,” saying, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty.” Such as this, too, will be the way of the Saints in glory, for we are told that there will be a great voice of much people saying, Alleluia; and again they said Alleluia; and the four-and-twenty elders said Alleluia; and a voice of many waters and of mighty thunderings said Alleluia. Such, too, was our Lord’s way, when in His agony He three times repeated the same words, “Thy will, not Mine, be done.” It is the delight of all holy beings; who stand around the Throne, to use one and the same form of worship; they are not tired, it is ever new pleasure to them to say the words anew. They are never tired; but surely all those persons would be soon tired of hearing them, instead of taking part in their glorious chant, who are wearied of Church now, and seek for something more attractive and rousing.
Let all persons, then, know for certain, and be assured beforehand, that if they come to Church to have their hearts put into strange and new forms, and their feelings moved and agitated, they come for what they will not find. We wish them to join Saints and Angels in worshipping God; to say with the Seraphim, “Holy Lord God of Sabaoth;” to say with the Angels, “Glory to God in the highest, and in earth peace, good-will towards men;” to say after our Lord and Saviour, “Our Father, which art in heaven,” and what follows; to say with St. Mary, “My soul doth magnify the Lord;” with St. Simeon, “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace;” with the Three Children who were cast into the fiery furnace, “O all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord, praise Him, and magnify Him for ever;” with the Apostles, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord; and in the Holy Ghost.” We wish to read to them words of inspired Scripture, and to explain its doctrine to them soberly after its pattern. This is what we wish them to say, again and again: “Lord, have mercy;” “We beseech Thee to hear us, O Lord;” “Good Lord, deliver us;” “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost.” All holy creatures are praising God continually—we hear them not, still they are praising Him and praying to Him. All the Angels, the glorious company of the Apostles, the goodly fellowship of the Prophets, the noble army of Martyrs, the Holy Church universal, all good men all over the earth, all the spirits and souls of the righteous, all our friends who have died in God’s faith and fear, all are praising and praying to God: we come to Church to join them; our voices are very feeble, our hearts are very earthly, our faith is very weak. We do not deserve to come, surely not;—consider what a great favour it is to be allowed to join in the praises and prayers of the City of the Living God, we being such sinners;—we should not be allowed to come at all but for the merits of our Lord and Saviour. Let us firmly look at the Cross, that is the token of our salvation. Let us ever remember the sacred Name of Jesus, in which devils were cast out of old time. These are the thoughts with which we should come to Church; and if we come a little before the Service begins, and want something to think about, we may look, not at who are coming in and when, but at the building itself, which will remind us of many good things; or we may look into the Prayer Book for such passages as the 84th Psalm, which runs thus: “O how amiable are Thy dwellings, Thou Lord of hosts! my soul hath a desire and longing to enter into the Courts of the Lord: my heart and my flesh rejoice in the Living God.”
Such will be our conduct and our thoughts in Church, if we be true Christians; and I have been giving this description of them, not only for the sake of those who are not reverent, but for the sake of those who try to be so,—for the sake of all of us who try to come to Church soberly and quietly, that we may know why we do so, and may have an answer if any one asks us. Such will be our conduct even when we are out of Church. I mean, those who come to Church again and again, in this humble and heavenly way, will find the effect of it, through God’s mercy, in their daily walk. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, where he had been forty days and forty nights, his face quite shone and dazzled the people, so that he was obliged to put a veil over it. Such is the effect of God’s grace on those who come to Church in faith and love; their mode of acting and talking, their very manner and behaviour, show they have been in God’s presence. They are ever sober, cheerful, modest, serious, and earnest. They do not disgrace their profession, they do not take God’s Name in vain, they do not use passionate language, they do not lie, they do not jest in an unseemly way, they do not use shameful words, they keep their mouth; they have kept their mouth in Church, and avoided rashness, so they are enabled to keep it at home. They have bright, smiling, pleasant faces. They do not wear a mock gravity, and, like the hypocrites whom Christ speaks of, make themselves sad countenances, but they are easy and natural, and without meaning it cannot help showing in their look, and voice, and manner, that they are God’s dear children, and have His grace within them. They are civil and obliging, kind and friendly; not envious or jealous, not quarrelsome, not spiteful or resentful, not selfish, not covetous, not niggardly, not lovers of the world, not afraid of the world, not afraid of what man can do against them.
Such are they who worship God in spirit and in truth in Church; they love Him and they fear Him. And, besides those who profess to love without fearing, there are two sorts of persons who fall short; first, and worst, those who neither fear nor love God; and, secondly, those who fear Him, but do not love Him. There are, every where, alas! some bold, proud, discontented persons, who, as far as they dare, speak against religion altogether; they do not come to Church, or if they come, come to see about what is going on, not to worship. These are those who neither love nor fear; but the more common sort of persons are they who have a sort of fear of God without the love of Him, who feel and know that some things are right, and others wrong, yet do not adhere to the right; who are conscious they sin from time to time, and that wilfully, who have an uneasy conscience, who fear to die; who have, indeed, a sort of serious feeling about sacred things, who reverence the Church and its Ordinances, who would be shocked at open impiety, who do not make a mock at Baptism, much less at the Holy Communion, but, still, who have not the heart to love and obey God. This, I fear, my brethren, may be the state of some of you. See to it, that you are clear from the sin of knowing and confessing what is your duty, and yet not doing it. If you be such, and make no effort to become better; if you do not come to Church honestly, for God’s grace to make you better, and seriously strive to be better and to do your duty more thoroughly, it will profit you nothing to be ever so reverent in your manner, and ever so regular in coming to Church. God hates the worship of the mere lips; He requires the worship of the heart. A person may bow, and kneel, and look religious, but he is not at all the nearer heaven, unless he tries to obey God in all things, and to do his duty. But if he does honestly strive to obey God, then his outward manner will be reverent also; decent forms will become natural to him; holy ordinances, though coming to him from the Church, will at the same time come (as it were) from his heart; they will be part of himself, and he will as little think of dispensing with them as he would dispense with his ordinary apparel, nay, as he could dispense with tongue or hand in speaking or doing. This is the true way of doing devotional service; not to have feelings without acts, or acts without feelings; but both to do and to feel;—to see that our hearts and bodies are both sanctified together, and become one; the heart ruling our limbs, and making the whole man serve Him, who has redeemed the whole man, body as well as soul.
1 Samuel 3:10
“And the Lord came, and stood, and called as at other times, Samuel, Samuel. Then Samuel answered, Speak; for Thy servant heareth,”
IN the narrative of which these words form part, we have a remarkable instance of a Divine call, and the manner in which it is our duty to meet it. Samuel was from a child brought to the house of the Lord; and in due time he was called to a sacred office, and made a prophet. He was called, and he forthwith answered the call. God said, “Samuel, Samuel.” He did not understand at first who called, and what was meant; but on going to Eli he learned who spoke, and what his answer should be. So when God called again, he said, “Speak, Lord, for Thy servant heareth.” Here is prompt obedience.
Very different in its circumstances was St. Paul’s call, but resembling Samuel’s in this respect, that, when God called, he, too, promptly obeyed. When St. Paul heard the voice from heaven, he said at once, trembling and astonished, “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do41?” This same obedient temper of his is stated or implied in the two accounts which he himself gives of his miraculous conversion. In the 22nd chapter he says, “And I said, What shall I do, Lord?” And in the 26th, after telling King Agrippa what the Divine Speaker said to him, he adds what comes to the same thing, “Whereupon, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision.” Such is the account given us in St. Paul’s case of that first step in God’s gracious dealings with him, which ended in his eternal salvation. “Whom He did foreknow, He also did predestinate52;”—“whom He did predestinate, them He also called”—here was the first act which took place in time—“and whom He called, them He also justified; and whom He justified, them He also glorified.” Such is the Divine series of mercies; and you see that it was prompt obedience on St. Paul’s part which carried on the first act of Divine grace into the second, which knit together the first mercy to the second. “Whom He called, them He also justified.” St. Paul was called when Christ appeared to him in the way; he was justified when Ananias came to baptize him: and it was prompt obedience which led him from his call to his baptism. “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?” The answer was, “Arise, and go into Damascus; and there it shall be told thee of all things which are appointed for thee to do61.” And when he came to Damascus, Ananias was sent to him by the same Lord who had appeared to him; and he reminded St. Paul of this when he came to him. The Lord had appeared for his call; the Lord appeared for his justification.
This, then, is the lesson taught us by St. Paul’s conversion, promptly to obey the call. If we do obey it, to God be the glory, for He it is works in us. If we do not obey, to ourselves be all the shame, for sin and unbelief work in us. Such being the state of the case, let us take care to act accordingly,—being exceedingly alarmed lest we should not obey God’s voice when He calls us, yet not taking praise or credit to ourselves if we do obey it. This has been the temper of all saints from the beginning—working out their salvation with fear and trembling, yet ascribing the work to Him who wrought in them to will and do of His good pleasure; obeying the call, and giving thanks to Him who calls, to Him who fulfils in them their calling. So much on the pattern afforded us by St. Paul.
Very different in its circumstances was Samuel’s call, when a child in the temple, yet resembling St. Paul’s in this particular,—that for our instruction the circumstance of his obedience to it is brought out prominently even in the words put into his mouth by Eli in the text. Eli taught him what to say, when called by the Divine voice. Accordingly, when “the Lord came, and stood, and called as at other times, Samuel, Samuel. Then Samuel answered, Speak, Lord, for Thy servant heareth.”
Such, again, is the temper of mind expressed by holy David in the 27th Psalm, “When Thou saidst, Seek ye My face, my heart said unto Thee, Thy face, Lord, will I seek.”
And this temper, which in the above instances is illustrated in words spoken, is in the case of many other Saints in Scripture shown in word and deed; and, on the other hand, is illustrated negatively by being neglected in the case of others therein mentioned, who might have entered into life, and did not.
For instance, we read of the Apostles, that “Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishers. And He saith unto them, Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men. And they straightway left their nets and followed Him71.” Again; when He saw James and John with their father Zebedee, “He called them; and they immediately left the ship, and their father, and followed Him.” And so of St. Matthew at the receipt of custom, “He said unto him, Follow Me; and he left all, rose up, and followed Him.”
Again, we are told in St. John’s Gospel, “Jesus would go forth into Galilee, and findeth Philip, and saith unto Him, Follow Me.” Again, “Philip findeth Nathanael,” and in like manner says to him, “Come and see.” “Jesus saw Nathanael coming unto Him, and saith of him, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile.”
On the other hand, the young ruler shrunk from the call, and found it a hard saying, “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come, and follow Me. But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions81.” Others who seemed to waver, or rather who asked for some little delay from human feeling, were rebuked for want of promptitude in their obedience;—for time stays for no one; the word of call is spoken and is gone; if we do not seize the moment, it is lost. Christ was on His road heavenward. He walked by the sea of Galilee92; He “passed forth103;” He “passed by114;” He did not stop; all men must join Him, or He would be calling on others beyond them125. “He said to another, Follow Me. But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God. And another also said, Lord, I will follow Thee: but let me first go bid them farewell, which are at home at my house. And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God131.”
Not unlike these last instances are the circumstances of the call of the great prophet Elisha, though he does not seem to have incurred blame from Elijah for his lingering on the thoughts of what he was leaving. “He found Elisha, the son of Shaphat, who was ploughing … Elijah passed by him, and cast his mantle over him.” He did not stay; he passed on, and Elisha was obliged to run after him. “And he left the oxen, and ran after Elijah, and said, Let me, I pray thee, kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow thee.” This the prophet allowed him to do, and after that “he arose and followed Elijah, and ministered unto him.”
Or once more consider the circumstances of the call of Abraham, the father of all who believe. He was called from his father’s house, but was not told whither. St. Paul was bid go to Damascus, and there he was to receive further directions. In like manner Abraham left his home for a land “that I will show thee142,” says Almighty God. Accordingly he went out, “not knowing whither he went.” “Abram departed as the Lord had spoken unto him.”
Such are the instances of Divine calls in Scripture, and their characteristic is this; to require instant obedience, and next to call us we know not to what; to call us on in the darkness. Faith alone can obey them.
But it may be urged, How does this concern us now? We were all called to serve God in infancy, before we could obey or disobey; we found ourselves called when reason began to dawn; we have been called to a state of salvation, we have been living as God’s servants and children, all through our time of trial, having been brought into it in infancy through Holy Baptism, by the act of our parents. Calling is not a thing future with us, but a thing past.
This is true in a very sufficient sense; and yet it is true also that the passages of Scripture which I have been quoting do apply to us still,—do concern us, and may warn and guide us in many important ways; as a few words will show.
For in truth we are not called once only, but many times; all through our life Christ is calling us. He called us first in Baptism; but afterwards also; whether we obey His voice or not, He graciously calls us still. If we fall from our Baptism, He calls us to repent; if we are striving to fulfil our calling, He calls us on from grace to grace, and from holiness to holiness, while life is given us. Abraham was called from his home, Peter from his nets, Matthew from his office, Elisha from his farm, Nathanael from his retreat; we are all in course of calling, on and on, from one thing to another, having no resting-place, but mounting towards our eternal rest, and obeying one command only to have another put upon us. He calls us again and again, in order to justify us again and again,—and again and again, and more and more, to sanctify and glorify us.
It were well if we understood this; but we are slow to master the great truth, that Christ is, as it were, walking among us, and by His hand, or eye, or voice, bidding us follow Him. We do not understand that His call is a thing which takes place now. We think it took place in the Apostles’ days; but we do not believe in it, we do not look out for it in our own case. We have not eyes to see the Lord; far different from the beloved Apostle, who knew Christ even when the rest of the disciples knew Him not. When He stood on the shore after His resurrection, and bade them cast the net into the sea, “that disciple whom Jesus loved saith unto Peter, It is the Lord151.”
Now what I mean is this: that they who are living religiously, have from time to time truths they did not know before, or had no need to consider, brought before them forcibly; truths which involve duties, which are in fact precepts, and claim obedience. In this and such-like ways Christ calls us now. There is nothing miraculous or extraordinary in His dealings with us. He works through our natural faculties and circumstances of life. Still what happens to us in providence is in all essential respects what His voice was to those whom He addressed when on earth: whether He commands by a visible presence, or by a voice, or by our consciences, it matters not, so that we feel it to be a command. If it is a command, it may be obeyed or disobeyed; it may be accepted as Samuel or St. Paul accepted it, or put aside after the manner of the young man who had great possessions.
And these Divine calls are commonly, from the nature of the case, sudden now, and as indefinite and obscure in their consequences as in former times. The accidents and events of life are, as is obvious, one special way in which the calls I speak of come to us; and they, as we all know, are in their very nature, and as the word accident implies, sudden and unexpected. A man is going on as usual; he comes home one day, and finds a letter, or a message, or a person, whereby a sudden trial comes on him, which, if met religiously, will be the means of advancing him to a higher state of religious excellence, which at present he as little comprehends as the unspeakable words heard by St. Paul in paradise. By a trial we commonly mean, a something which if encountered well, will confirm a man in his present way; but I am speaking of something more than this; of what will not only confirm him, but raise him into a high state of knowledge and holiness. Many persons will find it very striking on looking back on their past lives, to observe what different notions they entertained at different periods, of what Divine truth was, what was the way of pleasing God, and what things were allowable or not, what excellence was, and what happiness. I do not scruple to say, that these differences may be as great as that which may be supposed to have existed between St. Peter’s state of mind when quietly fishing on the lake, or Elisha’s when driving his oxen, and that new state of mind of each of them when called to be Apostle or Prophet. Elisha and St. Peter indeed were also called to a new mode of life; that I am not speaking of. I am not speaking of cases when persons change their condition, their place in society, their pursuit, and the like; I am supposing them to remain pretty much the same as before in outward circumstances; but I say that many a man is conscious to himself of having undergone inwardly great changes of view as to what truth is and what happiness. Nor, again, am I speaking of changes so great, that a man reverses his former opinions and conduct. He may be able to see that there is a connexion between the two; that his former has led to his latter; and yet he may feel that after all they differ in kind; that he has got into a new world of thought, and measures things and persons by a different rule.
Nothing, indeed, is more wonderful and strange than the different views which different persons take of the same subject. Take any single fact, event, or existing thing which meets us in the world; what various remarks will be made on it by different persons! For instance, consider the different lights in which any single action, of a striking nature, is viewed by different persons; or consider the view of wealth or a wealthy man, taken by this or that class in the community; what different feelings does it excite—envy, or respect, or ridicule, or angry opposition, or indifference, or fear and compassion; here are states of mind in which different parties may regard it. These are broad differences; others are quite as real, though more subtle. Religion, for instance, may be reverenced by the soldier, the man of literature, the trader, the statesman, and the theologian; yet how very distinct their modes of reverencing it, and how separate the standard which each sets up in his mind! Well, all these various modes of viewing things cannot one and all be the best mode, even were they all good modes; but this even is not the case. Some are contrary to others; some are bad. But even of those that are on the whole good, some are but in part good, some are imperfect, some have much bad mixed with them; and only one is best. Only one is the truth and the perfect truth; and which that is, none know but those who are in possession of it, if even they. But God knows which it is; and towards that one and only Truth He is leading us forward. He is leading forward His redeemed, He is training His elect, one and all, to the one perfect knowledge and obedience of Christ; not, however, without their co-operation, but by means of calls which they are to obey, and which if they do not obey, they lose place, and fall behind in their heavenly course. He leads them forward from strength to strength, and from glory to glory, up the steps of the ladder whose top reacheth to heaven. We pass from one state of knowledge to another; we are introduced into a higher region from a lower, by listening to Christ’s call and obeying it.
Perhaps it may be the loss of some dear friend or relative through which the call comes to us; which shows us the vanity of things below, and prompts us to make God our sole stay. We through grace do so in a way we never did before; and in the course of years, when we look back on our life, we find that that sad event has brought us into a new state of faith and judgment, and that we are as though other men from what we were. We thought, before it took place, that we were serving God, and so we were in a measure; but we find that, whatever our present infirmities may be, and however far we be still from the highest state of illumination, then at least we were serving the world under the show and the belief of serving God.
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