Charles Simeon's Horae Homileticae
THE CHRISTIAN’S STRENGTH
Ephesians 6:10. Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might.
THE Christian’s life is frequently represented in the Scriptures under the metaphor of a warfare. Christ is called “the Captain of his salvation [Note: Hebrews 2:10.];” and they who have enlisted under his banners, and “quit themselves like men,” “fighting the good fight of faith [Note: 1 Corinthians 16:13. 1 Timothy 6:12.],” and enduring cheerfully all the hardships of the campaign, are called “good soldiers of Jesus Christ [Note: 2 Timothy 2:3.].” “Like warriors, they do not entangle themselves with the affairs of this life, that they may please him who has chosen them to be soldiers [Note: 2 Timothy 2:4.];” but they set themselves to “war a good warfare [Note: 1 Timothy 1:18.],” and they look for the rewards of victory, when they shall have subdued all their enemies [Note: 2 Timothy 3:7-8. Revelation 3:21.].
In the chapter before us, this subject is not slightly touched, as in the detached passages above referred to, but is treated at large; and that which in other places is only a metaphor, is here a professed simile. St. Paul, standing, as it were, in the midst of the camp, harangues the soldiers, telling them what enemies they have to combat, and how they may guard effectually against all their stratagems, and secure to themselves the victory. He begins with an animating exhortation, wherein he reminds them of the wonderful talents of their General, and urges them to place the most unlimited confidence in his skill and power.
The exhortation being contracted into a very small space, and conveying far more than appears at first sight, we shall consider, first, What is implied in it; and afterwards, What is expressed.
I. What is implied in the exhortation—
The first thing that would naturally occur to any one to whom this exhortation was addressed, is, that the Christian has need of strength; for on any other supposition than this, the words would be altogether absurd.
But the Christian will indeed appear to require strength, whether we consider the work he has to perform, or the difficulties he has to cope with. It is no easy matter to stem the tide of corrupt nature, to controul the impetuous passions, to root out inveterate habits, to turn the current of our affections from the things of time and sense to things invisible and eternal. To renew and sanctify our hearts, and to transform them into the Divine image, is a work far beyond the power of feeble man; yet is it indispensably necessary to his salvation.
But as though this were not of itself sufficient to call forth the Christian’s exertions, he has hosts of enemies to contend with, as soon as ever he addresses himself in earnest to the work assigned him. Not to mention all the propensities of his nature, which will instantly rise up in rebellion against him, and exert all their power for the mastery, the world will immediately begin to cry out against him; they will direct all their artillery against him, their scoffs, their ridicule, their threats: his very friends will turn against him; and “those of his own household will become his greatest foes.” They would let him go on in the broad road year after year, and not one amongst them would ever exhort him to love and serve his God: but the very moment that he enters on the narrow path that leadeth unto life, they will all, with one heart and one soul, unite their endeavours to obstruct his course; and when they cannot prevail, they will turn their back upon him, and give him up as an irreclaimable enthusiast.
In conjunction with these will Satan (as we shall hereafter have occasion to shew) combine his forces: yea, he will put himself at their head, and direct their motions, and stimulate their exertions, and concur with them to the uttermost to captivate and destroy the heaven-born soul.
And can such work be performed, such difficulties be surmounted, without the greatest efforts? Surely they who are called to such things, had need “be strong.”
A second thing implied in the exhortation is, that the Christian has no strength in himself; for, if he had, why should he be exhorted to be strong in another?
Little do men imagine how extremely impotent they are, in themselves, to that which is good. It must be easy, one would suppose, to read and understand the word of God, or, at least, to profit by a clear and faithful ministration of it. But these are far beyond the power of the natural man. The word is “a sealed book” to him [Note: Isaiah 29:11-12.], which, for want of a spiritual discernment, appears a mass of foolishness [Note: 1 Corinthians 2:14.], a “cunningly devised fable [Note: 2 Peter 1:16 and Ezekiel 20:49.].” When it was even explained by our Lord, the Apostles, for the space of more than three years, were not able to comprehend its import, till he opened their understandings to understand it [Note: Luke 24:44-45.]; and Lydia, like thousands of others, would have been unmoved by the preaching of Paul, if “the Lord had not opened her heart” to apprehend and embrace his word [Note: Acts 16:14.]. It should seem, however, that if these things be beyond the power of man, he can at least pray to God to instruct him. But neither can he do this, unless the Spirit of God “help his infirmities,” teaching him what to pray for [Note: Romans 8:26.], and assisting him in offering the petitions [Note: Jude. ver. 20. Zechariah 12:10.].” If he be insufficient for this work, it may be hoped he is able to do something. But our Lord tells us, that, without the special aid of his grace, he “can do nothing [Note: John 15:5.].” Can he not then speak what is good? No; “How can ye, being evil, speak good things [Note: Matthew 12:34.]?” says our Lord: and St. Paul says, “No man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost [Note: 1 Corinthians 12:3.].” Still may he not will, or at least think, what is good? We must answer this also in the negative: “It is God alone who worketh in us both to will and to do, of his good pleasure [Note: Philippians 2:13.].” Nor had St. Paul himself, no, not even after his conversion, an ability, of himself, to “think any thing good; his sufficiency was of God, and of God alone [Note: 2 Corinthians 3:5.].” Our impotence cannot be more fitly expressed by any words whatever, than by that expression of the Apostle, “Ye are dead in trespasses and sins [Note: Ephesians 2:1.]:” for, till God quicken us from the dead, we are as incapable of all the exercises of the spiritual life, as a breathless corpse is of all the functions of the animal life.
There is yet a third thing implied in this exhortation, namely, that there is a sufficiency for us in Christ; for otherwise the Apostle would not have urged us in this manner to be strong in him.
Well does the Apostle speak of Christ’s “mighty power;” for indeed he is almighty, “he has all power committed to him both in heaven and in earth [Note: Matthew 28:18.].” We may judge of his all-sufficiency by what he wrought when he was on earth: the most inveterate diseases vanished at his touch, at his word, at a mere act of volition, when he was at a distance from the patient. The fishes of the sea were constrained to minister unto him: yea, the devils themselves yielded to his authority, and were instantly forced to liberate their captives at his command: they could not even enter into the swine without his permission. The very elements also were obedient to his word; the winds were still; the waves forbore to roll; the storm that threatened to overwhelm him, became a perfect calm. What then can he not do for those who trust in him? “Is his hand now shortened, that he cannot save? or is his ear heavy, that he cannot hear?” Can he not heal the diseases of our souls, and calm our troubled spirits, and supply our every want? Cannot he who “triumphed over principalities and powers upon the cross, and spoiled them, and led them captive in his ascension [Note: Colossians 2:15. Ephesians 4:8.],” fulfil his promise, that “sin shall not have dominion over us [Note: Romans 6:14.],” and that “Satan shall be bruised under our feet shortly [Note: Romans 16:20.]?” Doubtless he is “the Lord Jehovah, with whom is everlasting strength [Note: Isaiah 26:4.],” and who is therefore “able to save to the uttermost all that come unto God by him [Note: Hebrews 7:25.].”
These things being understood as implied in the exhortation, we may more fully comprehend in the II. place, what is expressed in it.
It is evident that there are two points to which the Apostle designs to lead us: the one is, to rely on Christ for strength, the other is, to “be strong in him”, with an assured confidence of success.
In relation to the first of these we observe, that a general must confide in his army full as much as his army confides in him; for as they cannot move to advantage without an experienced head to guide them, so neither can he succeed in his plans, unless he have a brave and well-appointed army to carry them into execution. It is not thus in the Christian army; there all the confidence is in the General alone. He must not only train his soldiers, and direct them in the day of battle, but he must be with them in the battle, shielding their heads, and strengthening their arms, and animating their courage, and reviving them when faint, and raising them when fallen, and healing them when wounded, and finally, beating down their enemies that they may trample them under their feet.
The fulness that is in Christ is treasured up in him for us [Note: Colossians 1:19. Ephesians 1:22-23.], that we may receive out of it according to our necessities. As he came down from heaven to purchase for us all the gifts of the Spirit, so he has ascended up to heaven that he might bestow them upon us [Note: Ephesians 4:10.], and fill us, each according to his measure, with all the fulness of God [Note: Ephesians 3:19; Ephesians 4:7.]. Hence previous to his death he said, “Ye believe in God; believe also in me [Note: John 14:1.]:” let that same faith which you repose in God the Father as your Creator, he reposed in me as your Redeemer: let it be full, and implicit: let it extend to every want: let it be firm and unshaken, under all circumstances however difficult, however adverse.
Such was our Lord’s direction: and agreeable to it was the experience of the great Apostle, who says, “The life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me [Note: Galatians 2:20.].”
It is characteristic of every Christian soldier to receive thus out of Christ’s fulness [Note: John 1:16.]; and to say, “In the Lord have I righteousness and strength [Note: Isaiah 45:24.].”
But the principal point which the Apostle aims at in the text, is, to inspire us with a holy confidence in Christ, so that we may be as much assured of victory as if we saw all our enemies fleeing before us, or already prostrate at our feet. We cannot have a more striking illustration of our duty in this respect than the history of David’s combat with Goliath. He would not go against his adversary with armour suited to the occasion: he went forth in the name of the God of Israel; and therefore he did not doubt one moment the issue of the contest: he well knew that God could direct his aim; and that he was as sure of victory without any other arms than a sling and a stone from his shepherd’s bag, as he could be with the completest armour that Saul himself could give him [Note: 1 Samuel 17:45-47.]. What David thus illustrated, we may see exemplified in the conduct of St. Paul: “If God be for us,” says he, “who can be against us?” Who is he that shall condemn me? (shall the law curse me? or Satan overcome me?) I fear none of them; since Christ has died, yea rather, is risen again, and maketh intercession for me. Who shall separate me from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us: for I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord [Note: Romans 8:31-39.].” Thus it is that we must, go forth against all the enemies of our salvation: we must “have no confidence in the flesh [Note: Philippians 3:3.];” neither must we have any doubt respecting the all-sufficiency of our God: the weakest among us should boldly say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear what men or devils can do against me [Note: Hebrews 13:6.]:” “I can do all things through Christ who strengtheneth me [Note: Philippians 4:13.].”
In applying this subject to the different classes of professing Christians, we should first address ourselves to the self-confident.
It is the solemn declaration of God, that “by strength shall no man prevail [Note: 1 Samuel 2:9. See also Romans 9:16 and Zechariah 4:6 and John 1:13.].” We might hope that men would be convinced of this truth by their own experience. Who amongst us has not made vows and resolutions without number, and broken them again almost as soon as they were made? Who ever resolved to devote himself unfeignedly to God, and did not find, that he was unable steadfastly to pursue his purpose? What folly is it then to be renewing these vain attempts, when we have the evidence both of Scripture and experience that we cannot succeed! How much better would it be to trust in that “mighty One, on whom help is laid [Note: Psalms 89:19.]!” Learn, brethren, before it be too late, that “without Christ you can do nothing:” that “all your fresh springs are in him [Note: Psalms 87:7.]:” and “of him must your fruit be found [Note: Hosea 14:8.]:” “in him alone shall all the seed of Israel be justified, and shall glory [Note: Isaiah 45:25.].” If you will not “be strong in him,” you will continue “without strength:” but if once you truly “know him, you shall be strong, and do exploits [Note: Daniel 11:32.].”
We would next claim the attention of the timid. It is but too common for the Lord’s people to be indulging needless fears, like David, when he said, “I shall one day perish by the hands of Saul [Note: 1 Samuel 27:1.].” But surely such deserve the rebuke which our Lord gave to Peter, “O thou of little faith, wherefore dost thou doubt [Note: Matthew 14:31.]?” If thou doubtest the Lord’s willingness to save thee, say, wherefore did he die for thee, even for the chief of sinners? If thou callest in question his power, what is there in thy case that can baffle Omnipotence? If thou art discouraged on account of thy own weakness, know that the weaker thou art in thyself, the stronger thou shalt be in him [Note: 2 Corinthians 12:10.]; and that “he will perfect his own strength in thy weakness [Note: 2 Corinthians 12:9.].” If thou fearest on account of the strength and number of thine enemies, he meets thy fears with this salutary admonition; “Say ye not, A confederacy, a confederacy; but sanctify the Lord of Hosts himself, and let him be your fear, and let him be your dread [Note: Isaiah 8:12-13.].” Only trust in him; and though weak, he will strengthen thee [Note: Isaiah 26:6.]; though faint, he will revive thee [Note: Isaiah 40:29-31.]; though wounded, he will heal thee [Note: Exodus 15:26. Isaiah 33:23.]; though captive, he will liberate thee [Note: Isaiah 14:2; Isaiah 49:24-25.]; though slain, he will raise thee up again, and give thee the victory over all thine enemies [Note: Isaiah 10:4. This is a threatening; but it may be applied to God’s friends ΰfortiori.]. “Be strong then and very courageous [Note: Joshua 1:6-7; Joshua 1:9.]:” abhor the thought of indulging a cowardly spirit, as long as “God’s throne is in heaven [Note: Psalms 11:1-4.];” and assure yourselves, with David, that though your “enemies encompass you as bees, in the name of the Lord you shall destroy them [Note: Psalms 118:6-12.].”
Lastly, let the victorious Christian listen to a word of counsel. We are apt to be elated in the time of victory, and to arrogate to ourselves some portion of the glory. But God solemnly cautions us against this [Note: Deuteronomy 6:10-12; Deuteronomy 8:10-11; Deuteronomy 8:17-18.]: and if, with Nebuchadnezzar or Sennacherib, we take the glory to ourselves, the time is nigh at hand when God will fearfully abase us [Note: Isaiah 37:24-29. Daniel 4:30-32; Daniel 4:37.]. We cannot do better than take the Psalmist for our pattern: he was enabled to perform the most astonishing feats, and was honoured with the most signal victories: yet so careful is he to give the glory to God, that he repeats again and again, the same grateful acknowledgments, confessing God to be the sole author of his success, and ascribing to him the honour due unto his name [Note: Psalms 18:29-42.]. Let it be remembered, that “our enemies still live and are mighty:” and therefore we must not boast as if the time were come for us to put off our armour [Note: 1 Kings 20:11.]. We need the same power to keep down our enemies, as to bring them down at first: we should soon fall a prey to the tempter, if left one moment to ourselves. Let our eyes therefore still be to Jesus, “the Author and the Finisher of our faith;” depending on his mighty power for “strength according to our day [Note: Deuteronomy 33:25.],” and for the accomplishment of the promise which he hath given us, that “no weapon formed against us shall ever prosper [Note: Isaiah 54:17.].”
THE MEANS OF WITHSTANDING SATAN’S WILES
Ephesians 6:11. Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.
TO be possessed of courage is not the only requisite for a good soldier; he must be skilled in the use of arms; he must be acquainted with those stratagems which his adversaries will use for his destruction; he must know how to repel an assault, and how in his turn to assault his enemy: in short, he must be trained to war. Nor will his knowledge avail him any thing, unless he stand armed for the combat. Hence the Apostle, having encouraged the Christian soldier, and inspired him with confidence in “the Captain of his salvation,” now calls him to put on his armour, and by a skilful use of it, to prepare for the day of battle.
To open fully the direction before us, we must shew you, first, the wiles of the devil; and next, the means of defeating them.
I. We shall endeavour to lay before you “the wiles of the devil”—
Satan is the great adversary of God and man; and labours to the uttermost to destroy the interests of both. In prosecuting his purpose, he has two grand objects in view, namely, to lead men into sin, and to keep them from God. We must consider these distinctly; and point out the stratagems he uses for the attainment of his ends.
1. To lead men into sin—
To effect this, he presents to them such temptations as are best suited to their natural dispositions. As a skilful general will not attempt to storm a fort on the side that it is impregnable, but will rather direct his efforts against the weaker parts, where he has a better prospect of success; so Satan considers the weak part of every man, and directs his artillery where he may most easily make a breach. He well knew the covetous dispositions of Judas, and of Ananias and Sapphira: when therefore he wanted the one to betray his Master, and the others to bring discredit on the Christian name, he wrought upon their natural propensities, and instigated them with ease to the execution of his will [Note: John 13:2; John 13:27. Acts 5:3.]. Thus he stimulates the proud or passionate, the lewd or covetous, the timid or melancholy, to such acts as are most congenial with their feelings, to the intent that his agency may be least discovered, and his purposes most effectually secured.
Much craft is also discoverable in the seasons which he chooses for making his assaults. If a general knew that his adversaries were harassed with fatigue, or revelling and intoxicated amidst the spoils of victory, or separated from the main body of their army, so that they could have no succour, he would not fail to take advantage of such circumstances, rather than attack them when they were in full force, and in a state of readiness for the combat. Such a general is Satan. If he finds us in a stale of great trouble and perplexity, when the spirits are exhausted, the mind clouded, the strength enervated, then he will seek to draw us to murmuring or despair. Thus he acted towards Christ himself when he had been fasting forty days and forty nights; and again, on the eve of his crucifixion. The former of these occasions afforded him a favourable opportunity for tempting our blessed Lord to despondency [Note: Matthew 4:2-3.], to presumption [Note: Matthew 4:6.], to a total alienation of his heart from God [Note: Matthew 4:8-9.]: the latter inspired him with a hope of drawing our Lord to some act unworthy of his high character, and subversive of the ends for which he came into the world [Note: John 14:30. Luke 22:44; Luke 22:53.]. Again, if we have been elevated with peculiar joy, he well knows how apt we are to relax our vigilance, and to indulge a carnal security. Hence, immediately on Paul’s descent from the third heavens, the paradise of God, Satan strove to puff him up with pride [Note: 2 Corinthians 12:7.], that so he might bring him into the condemnation of the devil [Note: 1 Timothy 3:6-7.]. And with more success did he assault Peter immediately after the most exalted honour had been conferred upon him; whereby he brought upon the unguarded saint that just rebuke, “Get thee behind me, Satan; for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men [Note: Matthew 16:16-19; Matthew 16:22-23.].” Above all, Satan is sure to embrace an opportunity when we are alone, withdrawn from those whose eye would intimidate, or whose counsel would restrain, us. He could not prevail on Lot, when in the midst of Sodom, to violate the rights of hospitality; but when he was in a retired cave, he too successfully tempted him to repeated acts of drunkenness and incest. And who amongst us has not found that seasons of privacy, or, at least, of seclusion from those who knew us, have been seasons of more than ordinary temptation?
The means which Satan uses in order to accomplish his purpose, will afford us a yet further insight into his wiles. Whom will a general so soon employ to betray the enemy into his hands, as one who by his power can command them, or by his professions can deceive them! And is it not thus with Satan? If he want to draw down the judgments of God upon the whole nation of the Jews, he will stir up David, in spite of all the expostulations of his courtiers, to number the people [Note: Numbers 21:1-4.]. If he would destroy Ahab, he becomes a lying spirit in the mouth of Ahab’s prophets, to persuade him, and by him to lead Jehoshaphat also and the combined armies into the most imminent peril [Note: 1 Kings 22:21-22. See the instance also of Elymas the sorcerer, who on account of his efforts is called “a child of the devil.” Acts 13:10.]. Would he have Job to curse his God? no fitter person to employ on this service than Job’s own wife, whom he taught to give this counsel, “Curse God, and die [Note: Job 2:9.].” Would he prevail on Jesus to lay aside the thoughts of suffering for the sins of men? his friend Peter must offer him this advice, “Master, spare thyself [Note: Matthew 16:16-19; Matthew 16:22-23.].” Thus in leading us to the commission of sin, he will use sometimes the authority of magistrates, of masters, or of parents, and sometimes the influence of our dearest friends or relatives. No instruments so fit for him, as those of a man’s own household [Note: Matthew 10:36.].
There is also something further observable in the manner in which Satan tempts the soul. An able general will study to conceal the main object of his attack, and by feints to deceive his enemy [Note: Joshua 8:5-6; Joshua 8:15; Joshua 8:21]. Thus does Satan form his attack with all imaginable cunning. His mode of beguiling Eve will serve as a specimen of his artifices in every age. He first only inquired whether any prohibition had been given her and her husband respecting the eating of the fruit of a particular tree; insinuating at the same time, that it was very improbable that God should impose upon them such an unnecessary restraint. Then, on being informed that the tasting of that fruit was forbidden and that the penalty of death was to be inflicted on them in the event of their disobedience, he intimated, that such a consequence could never follow: that, on the contrary, the benefits which should arise to them from eating of that fruit, were incalculable. In this manner he led her on, from parleying with him, to give him credit; and, from believing him, to comply with his solicitations [Note: Genesis 3:1-6.]. And thus it is that he acts towards us: he for a time conceals his full purpose: he pleads at first for nothing more than the gratification of the eye, the ear, the imagination; but is no sooner master of one fort, or station, than he plants his artillery there, and renews his assaults, till the whole soul has surrendered to his dominion.
2. The other grand device of Satan is, to keep men from God. If, after having yielded to his suggestions, the soul were to return to God with penitence and contrition, all Satan’s wiles, how successful soever they had before been, would be frustrated at once. The next labour therefore of our great adversary is, to secure his captive, that he may not escape out of his hands. The wiles he makes use of to accomplish this, come next under our consideration.
He will begin with misrepresenting to his captives their own character. One while he will insinuate that, though they may have transgressed in some smaller matters, yet they have never committed any great sin, and therefore have no need to disquiet themselves with apprehensions of God’s wrath. If he cannot compose their minds in that way, he will suggest, that their iniquities have been so numerous, and so heinous, as to preclude all hope of forgiveness. He will endeavour to make them believe that they have been guilty of the unpardonable sin, or that their day of grace is passed; so that they may as well take their fill of present delights, since all attempts to secure eternal happiness will be fruitless. To such artifices as these our Lord refers, when he tells us, that the strong man armed keepeth his palace and his goods in peace [Note: Luke 11:21; Luke 11:26.].
Next he will misrepresent to his captives the character of God. He will impress them with the idea that God is too merciful to punish any one eternally for such trifling faults as theirs. Or, if that fail to lull them asleep, he will intimate, that the insulted Majesty of heaven demands vengeance: that the justice and holiness of the Deity would be dishonoured, if pardon were vouchsafed to such offenders as they. Probably too, he will suggest that God has not elected them; and that therefore they must perish, since they cannot alter his decrees, or save themselves without his aid. He will, as in his assaults upon our blessed Lord [Note: Matthew 4:6.], bring the Scriptures themselves to countenance his lies; and, by a misapplication of difficult and detached passages, endeavour to hide from us the perfections of our God, as harmonizing and glorified in our redemption [Note: 2 Corinthians 4:4.]. It was in this manner that he strove to discourage Joshua [Note: Zechariah 4:1-2.], and to detain David in his bonds [Note: Psalms 77:7-9.]: such advantage too he sought to take of the incestuous Corinthian [Note: 2 Corinthians 2:7; 2 Corinthians 2:11.]: and, if this stratagem be not defeated, he will prevail over us to our eternal ruin.
But there is another stratagem which, for the subtilty of its texture, the frequency of its use, and its successfulness in destroying souls, deserves more especial notice. When effectual resistance has been made to the foregoing temptations, and in spite of all these misrepresentations, the sinner has attained a just view both of his own character, and of God’s, then Satan has recourse to another wile, that promises indeed to the believer a speedy growth in the divine life, but is intended really to divert him from all proper thoughts both of himself and of God. He will “transform himself into an angel of light,” and make use of some popular minister, or some talkative professor, as his agent in this business. He will by means of his emissaries draw the young convert to matters of doubtful disputation: he will perplex his mind with some intricate questions respecting matters of doctrine, or of discipline in the Church. He will either controvert, and explode acknowledged truths, or carry them to an extreme, turning spirituality to mysticism, or liberty to licentiousness. Having entangled him in this snare, he will puff him up with a conceit of his own superior attainments, and speedily turn him from the simplicity that is in Christ. Little do his agents, who appear to be “ministers of righteousness,” imagine that they are really “ministers of the devil;” and little do they who are inveigled by them, consider “in what a snare they are taken;” but God himself, who sees all these secret transactions, and discerns their fatal tendency, has given us this very account, and thereby guarded us against this dangerous device [Note: 2 Corinthians 11:3; 2 Corinthians 11:13-15.].
Thus have we seen the temptations by which Satan leads men into sin, together with the seasons, the means, and the manner, of his assaults. We have seen also how he keeps them from God, even by misrepresenting to them their own character, and God’s, or by diverting them from a due attention either to themselves or God.
II. Let us now proceed in the second place to point out the means by which these wiles may be defeated—
This part of our subject will come again into discussion, both generally, in the next discourse, and particularly, when we treat of the various pieces of armour provided for us. Nevertheless we must distinctly, though briefly, shew in this place, What we are to understand by the whole armour of God; and, How we are to put it on; and, In what way it will enable us to withstand the devil’s wiles.
Armour is of two kinds, defensive and offensive: the one to protect ourselves, the other to assail our enemy. Now God has provided for us every thing that is necessary for a successful maintenance of the Christian warfare. Is our head exposed to the assaults of Satan? there is “a helmet” to guard it. Is our heart liable to be pierced? there is a “breastplate” to defend it. Are our feet subject to such wounds as may cause us to fall? there are “shoes,” or greaves, for their protection. Is our armour likely to be loosened? there is a “girdle” to keep it fast. Are there apertures, by which a well-aimed dart may find admission? there is a “shield,” which may be moved for the defence of every part, as occasion may require. Lastly, the Christian soldier is furnished with a sword also, by the skilful use of which he may inflict deadly wounds on his adversary.
But here it will be asked, How shall we get this armour? and, how shall we put it on? To obtain it, we must go to the armoury of heaven, and receive it from the hands of the Captain of our salvation. No creature in the universe can give it us. He, and he only, who formed it, can impart it to us. As, when God had decreed the destruction of Babylon, we are told, that “the Lord opened his armoury, and brought forth the weapons of his indignation [Note: Jeremiah 50:25.];” so, when he has commissioned us to go forth against sin and Satan, he must supply us with the arms, whereby alone we can execute his will: and we must be daily going to him in prayer, that he would furnish us from head to foot, or rather, that he himself would be “our shield and buckler,” our almighty protector and deliverer [Note: Psalms 84:11; Psalms 18:2.].
When we have received our armour, then we are to “put it on.” It is not given us to look at, but to use: not to wear for amusement, but to gird on for actual service. We must examine it, to see that it is indeed of celestial temper, and that none is wanting. We must adjust it carefully in all its parts, that it may not be cumbersome and useless in the hour of need: and when we have clothed ourselves with it, then we must put forth our strength, and use it for the purposes for which it is designed.
Our more particular directions must be reserved, till we consider the use of each distinct part of this armour. We shall only add at present, that, if we thus go forth to the combat, we shall surely vanquish our subtle enemy. We say not, that he shall never wound us; for the most watchful of us are sometimes off our guard; and the most experienced of us sometimes deceived. But we can assure the whole army of Christians, that Satan shall never finally prevail against them [Note: Matthew 16:18.]. Their head shall be preserved from error [Note: Isaiah 35:8]; their heart, from iniquity [Note: Romans 6:14.]; their feet, from falling [Note: 1 Samuel 2:9. 2 Peter 1:10.].
What remains then but that we call on all of you to put on this armour? Let not any imagine that they can stand without it: for, if Adam was vanquished even in Paradise, how much more shall we be overpowered? If the perfect armour with which he was clad by nature, proved insufficient for the combat, how shall we stand, who are altogether stripped of every defence! If Satan, while yet a novice in the art of tempting, “beguiled our first parents by his subtilty,” how much more will he beguile and ruin us, after so many thousand years of additional experience! Arise then, all of you, and gird yourselves for the combat. Ye careless ones, know that ye are already “led captive by the devil at his will [Note: 2 Timothy 2:26.];” and the more you think yourselves secure, the more you shew that you are the dupes of Satan’s wiles. Ye weak and timid, “be strong, fear not; hath not God commanded you? Be strong, and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be dismayed; for the Lord your God is with you, whithersoever ye go [Note: Joshua 1:6; Joshua 1:9.].” Only go forth in dependence upon God, and “no weapon that is formed against you shall ever prosper [Note: Isaiah 54:17.].” But take care that you have on the whole armour of God. In vain will be the use of any, if the whole be not used. One part left unprotected will prove as fatal, as if you were exposed in every part. But if you follow this counsel, you may defy all the hosts of hell: for “the weakest of you shall be as David, and the house of David shall be as God [Note: Zechariah 12:8.].”
TO WITHSTAND THE POWER OF SATAN
Ephesians 6:12-13. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye way be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.
IN persuading men to undertake any arduous office, and more especially to enlist into the army, it is customary to keep out of view, as much as possible, the difficulties and dangers they will be exposed to, and to allure them by prospects of pleasure, honour. or emolument. It was far otherwise with Christ and his Apostles. When our Lord invited men to enlist under his banners, he told them that they would have to enter on a course of pain and self-denial; “If any man will be my disciple, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.” Thus St. Paul, at the very time that he is endeavouring to recruit the Christian army, tells us plainly, that the enemies we shall have to combat, are the most subtle and powerful of any in the universe. Deceit and violence, the two great engines of cruelty and oppression, are their daily practice and delight.
In conformity with the Apostle’s plan, we have opened to you, in some measure, the wiles of that adversary, whom we are exhorting you to oppose: and we shall now proceed to set before you somewhat of his power; still however encouraging you not to be dismayed, but to go forth against him with an assurance of victory.
We shall shew you,
I. What a powerful adversary we have to contend with—
As soon as any man enlists under the banners of Christ, the world will turn against him, even as the kings of Canaan did against the Gibeonites, the very instant they had made a league with Joshua [Note: Joshua 10:4. with John 15:18-19.]. “Those of his own household will most probably be his greatest foes.” To oppose these manfully is no easy task: but yet these are of no consideration in comparison of our other enemies; “We wrestle not against flesh and blood [Note: The terms “flesh and blood” are sometimes used to signify any human being, (Matthew 16:17.) and sometimes, our corrupt nature, whether intellectual (Galatians 1:16.) or corporeal, (1 Corinthians 15:50.) Here they denote the world at large.],” says the Apostle, but “against all the principalities and powers” of hell [Note: Commentators labour exceedingly, but in vain, to make any tolerable sense of ἐν τοῖς ἐπουρανίοις as translated in our version. But if they were construed with ἡ πάλη, thus, “Our conflict about heavenly things,” and τὰ πνευματικὰ τῆς πονηρίαςbe considered as equivalent to πονηρὰ πνεύματα, the whole sense would he clear and unembarrassed. For that sense of ἐν, see Romans 11:2 and Galatians 1:24; and, for a much greater separation of words that are to be construed together, see Romans 2:12; Romans 2:16. Indeed, the distance between ἡ πάλη and ἐν τοῖς ἐπουρανίοις is not worthy of notice, if it be considered, that four of the intermediate members of the sentence are a mere accumulation of synonymous expressions, a periphrasis for πονηρὰ πνεύματα.]. It is not merely in a rhetorical way that the Apostle accumulates so many expressions, to designate our enemies: the different terms he uses are well calculated to exhibit their power; which will appear to us great indeed, if we consider what he intimates respecting their nature, their number, and their office.
With respect to their nature, they are “wicked spirits.” Once they were bright angels around the throne of God: but “they kept not their first estate;” and therefore they were “cast down to hell [Note: Jude, ver. 6 and 2 Peter 2:4.].” But though they have lost the holiness, they still retain, the power, of angels. As “angels, they excel in strength [Note: Psalms 103:20.],” and are far “greater in power and might [Note: 2 Peter 2:11.]” than any human being. They have, moreover, an immense advantage over us, in that they are spirits. Were they flesh and blood like ourselves, we might see them approaching, and either flee from them, or fortify ourselves against them: at least, there would be some time when, through weariness, they must intermit their efforts: but being spirits their approaches to us are invisible, irresistible, incessant.
Their number is also intimated, in that they are represented as “principalities and powers,” consisting of multitudes who hold, like men on earth and angels in heaven [Note: Colossians 1:16.], various degrees of honour and authority under one head. To form a conjecture respecting their numbers, would be absurd; since we are totally in the dark on that subject. This however we know, that they are exceeding many; because our Lord cast no less than seven out of one woman [Note: Mark 16:9.]; and one man was possessed by a whole troop or “legion” at once [Note: Mark 5:9.]. We have reason there fore to think that their number far exceeds that of the human species; because there is no human being beyond the reach of their assaults, no, not for a single hour. Nor are they formidable merely on account of their number, but principally on account of their union, and subordination under one leader. We read of “the devil and his angels [Note: Matthew 25:41.],” as of a king and his subjects: and though we know not what precise ranks and orders there may be among them, we know the name of their chief, even “Beelzebub, the prince of the devils [Note: Matthew 12:24.].” It is because of their acting thus in concert with each other, that they are so often spoken of as one [Note: Luke 4:2-3; Luke 4:5-6; Luke 4:8; Luke 4:13.]: and well they may be; for, the whole multitude of them are so perfectly one in operation and design, that, if one spy out an advantage, he may in an instant have a legion more to second his endeavours: and as this constitutes the strength of armies on earth, so does it give tenfold power to our spiritual enemies.
The office which they execute as “the rulers of this dark world,” may serve yet further to give us an idea of their strength. It is true, this office was not delegated to them, but usurped by them: still however, they retain it by God’s permission, and exercise it to our cost. Satan is expressly called, “the prince of this world [Note: John 12:31; John 14:30; John 16:11.],” “the god of this world [Note: 2 Corinthians 4:4.],” “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in all the children of disobedience [Note: Ephesians 2:2.].” He “blinds them” that they may not see [Note: 2 Corinthians 4:4.], and then, as the prophet led the Syrians, he leads them whithersoever he will [Note: 2 Kings 6:18-20.]; he takes them captive altogether [Note: 2 Timothy 2:26.]. A few indeed who are brought out of darkness into the marvellous light of the Gospel, have cast off his yoke: but except them, the whole world, enveloped in worse than Egyptian darkness, lieth under him as its universal monarch [Note: 1 John 5:19. ἐν τῷ πονηρῷ, in the wicked one.]. The very elements are under his controul, and concur with men and devils to fulfil his will. Would he deprive Job of his substance? hosts of Sabeans and Chaldeans come at his call, to plunder him [Note: Job 1:12; Job 1:15; Job 1:17.]. Would he destroy all his family? the wind rises at his command to smite their house, and overwhelm them in its ruins [Note: Job 1:19.].
Such are the enemies with whom we have to contend. If we desire to prosecute earthly things, we can go on with ease; we can follow them without interruption from day to day, and from year to year: with respect to these things, the devils would rather help us forward, than obstruct our way. But the very instant we begin to seek “heavenly things,” all hell is in alarm, just as all the Canaanites were, when they understood that Joshua’s spies had been seen in their land [Note: Joshua 2:9; Joshua 2:11.]. If we begin to listen to the word of God, he will send some emissary, some child of his, whom he has endued with peculiar subtilty, to turn us from the faith [Note: Acts 13:7-10.]. If the word, like good seed, be sown upon our hearts, he will send a host of devils, like birds of the air, to pick up the seed [Note: Matthew 13:4; Matthew 13:19.]. If any, in spite of his efforts, take root in our hearts, he will instantly sow tares to grow up with the wheat [Note: Matthew 13:25.], and thorns to choke it [Note: Matthew 13:7; Matthew 13:22.]. We cannot go into the presence of God to pray, but “Satan will be at our right hand to resist us [Note: Zechariah 3:1.].” The conflict we have to maintain with him, is not like that which is common to our armies, where a part bear the brunt of the battle, and the rest are reserved for exigencies: in this view it is more properly compared to “a wrestling,” where every man meets his antagonist, and must continue the contest, till the fall of one party decides the victory. Such the Scripture describes our contest to be; and such it is proved to be by every man’s experience: there is no man who, if he will only observe the ease with which he enters upon his worldly calling, and keeps up his attention to it, and the comparative difficulty he finds, as soon as ever he addresses himself to the concerns of his soul, shall not see, that there is in him an impotence and reluctance, for which he cannot account, unless he acknowledge, what the Scripture so fully warns him of, a satanic agency.
But shall we be intimidated by this account, and induced to surrender ourselves to Satan without a conflict? No. Formidable as he is, there is One above him, who circumscribes his powers, and limits his operations. He did, by God’s permission, “cast some of the Ephesian church into prison, that they might be tried, for ten days [Note: Revelation 2:10.]:” but, if he could have accomplished all that was in his heart, he would have cast them all into hell that they might perish for ever. So far from being irresistible, he may be resisted, yea, and vanquished too, by the weakest of God’s saints.
To encourage you therefore to fight against him, we will shew,
II. How we may effectually withstand him—
The Apostle renews, though with some variation, the directions he gave before; “not thinking it grievous to himself to repeat any thing that may conduce to our safety [Note: Philippians 3:1.].” St. Peter also was “careful to put Christians frequently in remembrance of many things, notwithstanding they knew them, and were established in the present truth [Note: 2 Peter 1:12.].” Well therefore may we call your attention once more to the exhortation in the text. Indeed, if the putting on the whole armour of God was necessary to guard against the wiles of the devil, it can be no less necessary as a preservative against his power: and the exhortation enforced by this new consideration, cannot reasonably be thought an uninteresting repetition.
But we shall have no need to repeat any former observations, seeing that what is new in the exhortation, will afford abundant matter for profitable, and seasonable, remark.
The time mentioned in the text as “the evil day,” refers to those particular periods when Satan makes his most desperate attacks. Sometimes he retires from us for a season, as he did from our Lord [Note: Luke 4:13.]; or, at least, gives us somewhat of a respite from any violent assaults. But he watches his opportunity to renew his efforts, when by bringing a host of devils to his aid [Note: Matthew 12:44-45.], or finding us off our guard [Note: 1 Peter 5:8.], he may exert his power to more effect. Such a season was that wherein David complained, that “his enemies, compassing him like bees, thrust sore at him that he might fall [Note: Psalms 118:12-13.]:” and especially that wherein the Lord Jesus Christ himself was so weakened by him, as to need an angel from heaven to administer strength and consolation [Note: Luke 22:43; Luke 22:53.]. All who know any thing of “Satan’s devices,” must have noticed this in their own experience: there have been times when the enemy appeared unmindful of his work, and other times when “he has come in like a flood; so that if the Spirit of the Lord had not lifted up a standard against him [Note: Isaiah 59:19.],” he must have utterly overwhelmed them. The hour of death is a season when he usually puts forth all his power, “having great wrath because his time is short [Note: Revelation 12:12.].”
Now what shall we do in such seasons, if not clad in the whole armour of God? What hope can we have of withstanding such an enemy? If he should find us unarmed, would he not sift us as wheat [Note: Luke 22:31.], and reduce us to mere chaff? Would he not scatter us as smoke out of the chimney, or chaff driven by a whirlwind [Note: Hosea 13:3.]? Would he not precipitate thousands of us, as he did the swine, into instantaneous destruction [Note: Matthew 8:31-32.], and into the bottomless abyss of hell?
But if we be armed with the divine panoply, we need not fear; he can have no power against us any further than it is given him from above [Note: John 19:11.]: and, “howbeit he meaneth not so, neither doth his heart think so [Note: Isaiah 10:5; Isaiah 10:7.],” his efforts against us shall ultimately conduce to our good, to make us more humble, more vigilant, more expert.
This is particularly intimated in the text; and in this the encouragement given us exceeds what was contained in the former exhortation. There we were taught to expect that we should not be vanquished by our subtle enemy: here we are encouraged with an assurance, that we shall not only effectually withstand his efforts, even when they are most desperate, but shall “stand” as victors on the field of battle, after having put our enemies to flight. To this also agree the words of St. James; “resist the devil, and he shall flee from you [Note: James 4:7.];” he shall not only not overcome you, but shall be so intimidated by your prowess as to flee from you with the greatest precipitation. Blessed truth! This mighty fiend, who dared to enter the lists with an archangel [Note: Jude, ver. 9.], and to contend even with the Son of God himself, shall be so terrified at the sight of a Christian champion, as not only to “forbear touching him [Note: 1 John 5:18.],” but even to flee from his presence as for his very life.
It is true, he will never finally give over the contest, till we are got entirely beyond his reach: nor is he at any time so vanquished or intimidated but that he will number another host, like unto that which has been defeated, and renew his attack upon us [Note: 1 Kings 20:22-26.]: but his malice shall terminate in his own confusion [Note: 1 Kings 20:27-29.]: he may succeed to bruise our heel, but we shall ultimately bruise his head [Note: Genesis 3:15.]. “Our weapons, through God, shall be mighty, though wielded by the feeblest arm [Note: 2 Corinthians 10:4.].” We shall “go on conquering and to conquer [Note: Revelation 6:2.]” till we set our feet upon his neck [Note: Joshua 10:24. This was altogether typical of the Christian’s victories.], and return with triumphant exultation from the combat, saying, “Lord, even the devils are subject unto us through thy name [Note: Luke 10:17.].”
Nor is this your greatest encouragement: for as soon as you have “done all” that God has designed for you in this state of warfare, you shall “stand” before God, united to that noble army that are now enjoying their triumphs in his presence. Having “fought the good fight and finished your course, there shall be given to you a crown of righteousness” and glory [Note: 2 Timothy 4:7-8.]; and you shall bear the palm of victory in the courts of heaven [Note: Revelation 7:9-10.]. Then shall be fulfilled to you what was spoken by our Lord, “To him that overcometh will I give to sit down with me upon my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father upon his throne [Note: Revelation 3:21.].” Only “be faithful unto death; and God will give thee a crown of life [Note: Revelation 2:10. latter part.].”
Before we dismiss this subject, we would address a few words,
1. To those who have never yet wrestled with this great adversary—
We hope you are now convinced, that it is not a needless labour to engage in this contest. But you may still be induced to decline it, from the idea that it is a hopeless work. But know this, that you have undertaken a task which is infinitely more difficult than this; for, while you refuse to wrestle with Satan, you are actually wrestling with God himself. He who infallibly discerns, and rightly estimates, your conduct, says, that ye “resist the Holy Ghost [Note: Acts 7:51.]” and “contend with your Maker [Note: Job 40:2.]:” and your own consciences will inform you, that you have often “fought against God,” by resisting the influence of his word and Spirit [Note: Acts 5:39; Acts 23:9.]. Suppose then ye gain the victory (which is but too probable), suppose God give up the contest, and say, “My Spirit shall strive with him no longer [Note: Genesis 6:3.];” what will ye have to boast of? what cause will ye have for joy? Awful will be that day wherein God shall say, “Let him alone [Note: Hosea 4:17.]:” from that hour your condemnation will be sure, and Satan will have perfectly gained his point. Judge then whether it be not better to contend with Satan, than with God? with him whom you are sure to conquer, to your eternal happiness, than with him, by whose avenging arm you must be crushed for ever [Note: Isaiah 27:4.]? Consider well which of the two ye choose for your enemy, God or Satan: and may God incline you to enlist under the Redeemer’s banner, and in his strength to combat all the enemies of your salvation!
2. Let us speak to those who have begun the arduous contest.
Be not afraid of your great adversary. Do not be like the unbelieving Israelites, who, because the Anakims were of such extraordinary stature, and dwelt in cities that were walled up to heaven, dreaded to go up against them [Note: Numbers 13:28; Numbers 13:31; Numbers 13:33.]; but rather say, with Caleb, “They shall be bread for us [Note: Numbers 13:9; Numbers 13:30.]:” instead of destroying, they shall be an occasion of good to, our souls: their spoils shall enrich us; and the opposition that they make shall only be the means of displaying more abundantly the love and faithfulness of our God. “Take unto you” again and again “the whole armour of God;” and “fight, not as one that beateth the air [Note: 1 Corinthians 9:26.],” but as one that is determined to conquer or die: and if at any time you be tempted to give up the contest, think of “those who now through faith and patience inherit the promises [Note: Hebrews 6:12.].” Once they were conflicting like you; but now they rest from their labours, and are anxious spectators of your conflicts [Note: Hebrews 12:1.]. It is but a little time, and you also shall be numbered with them. “Greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world [Note: 1 John 4:4.].” Only go forth therefore in the name of Christ; and his triumphs shall be the pattern, the pledge, the earnest of your own.
THE CHRISTIAN’S BREAST-PLATE
Ephesians 6:14. Stand.. …having on the breast-plate of righteousness.
AS various parts of armour, however differing in shape, may be formed of the same materials, so amongst the Christian graces, there may exist a considerable resemblance, while yet there remains between them a manifest distinction. Righteousness is that particular grace which comes under our consideration at this time. By “righteousness” we understand, that true and universal holiness, which is characteristic of conversion, and constitutes that divine image, after which we are renewed [Note: Ephesians 4:23-24.]. Now this, though nearly allied to sincerity, differs materially from it: sincerity relates to the aims and motives of a person; but righteousness to his actions and habits. Righteousness is that in actual attainment, which sincerity is in desire and purpose. Righteousness cannot exist without sincerity; but sincerity may, and often does, exist without righteousness; because (as was shewn in the preceding discourse) it may be found in blind zealots, and bloody persecutors.
The piece of armour to which righteousness is compared, is “the breast-plate;” which was of use to defend the vitals from the assaults of an enemy. Of such importance was it to every one in the time of battle, that all, from the general to the soldier, were clad with it: nor can its importance to us more strongly appear, than from the consideration, that the Captain of our salvation, even the Lord Jesus Christ himself, was thus arrayed. The Prophet Isaiah, speaking expressly of him, says, “He put on righteousness as a breast-plate [Note: Isaiah 59:17.].”
In the metaphor before us, the Apostle intimates, that without righteousness we should be exposed to imminent peril, yea, to certain death: but that, if we be clad with righteousness, our adversaries will never be able to prevail against us. It is evident therefore that there are two points to be considered by us; namely, the necessity of righteousness for our defence, and its sufficiency to protect us:
I. The necessity of righteousness—
In order to destroy us, our great adversary uses both deceit and violence; against both of which it becomes us to be armed, in order that we may discover the one, and repel the other.
Righteousness then is necessary in the first place, that we may discover his wiles.
It is said with truth by an inspired writer, that “the god of this world blinds the eyes of them that believe not [Note: 2 Corinthians 4:4.]:” and it is astonishing to what a degree he deludes their souls. He instigates them to the commission of sin under the idea that it is at least excusable, if not altogether justifiable and right [Note: 1 Chronicles 21:1-4.]. He teaches them to “call evil good and good evil; to put darkness for light, and light for darkness, bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter [Note: Isaiah 5:20.].” We may see one man carried on by ostentation and vanity, while he thinks himself actuated by zeal for God [Note: 2 Kings 10:16.]. Another yields to a vindictive spirit, yet supposes that he is only maintaining a just regard for his own character, or perhaps for the rights of the community [Note: Luke 9:53-55.]. Through the agency of that subtle fiend, covetousness assumes the name of prudence [Note: Luke 12:13-15.]; prodigality is nothing but a commendable excess of generosity: yea, the most cruel machinations of bigotry, are deemed a service well-pleasing to God [Note: John 16:2.]. Who has not noticed in others this sad infatuation? Who has not seen his neighbours acting under the influence of a bad principle, while they were at the same time as strongly persuaded that they were right, as if there were no room for doubt? Thus it is more or less with every unrenewed person; and too often with those also who are yet weak in the faith; they go on, “not knowing what spirit they are of.” In vain do ministers set forth the evil of such a state: in vain do they discriminate, and mark the difference between truth and error: in vain do they endeavour to persuade men in private, as well as in their public ministrations: in vain do they confirm every word with the infallible dictates of inspiration: for while men continue destitute of righteousness, “they have eyes, and see not, ears, and hear not, neither do they understand [Note: John 8:43.]”. Nothing will effectually shew men their error, till they are “renewed in the spirit of their minds.” Then they have the film removed from the organs of vision. Then they have a spiritual discernment [Note: Ephesians 1:17-18. Colossians 1:9. συνέσειπνευματικῇ.]: they are no longer deceived by specious appearances; they taste and see the real qualities of things: being “brought out of darkness into marvellous light,” they view every thing, in a measure, as God himself views it: and the greater their proficiency is in the divine life, the clearer is their perception of the good or evil that exists [Note: Hebrews 5:13-14.], not in their actions only, but in their motives and principles of action. And hence it is that the Apostle exhorts us to “be transformed in the renewing of our minds, that we may prove (and discern, not by theory only, but by actual experiment) what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God [Note: Romans 12:2. εἰς τὸ δοκιμάζεινrefers to the discerning of the qualities of metals by the furnace. See also Philippians 1:9-10. where the same word is connected with τὰ διαφέροντα, things that differ.].”
Righteousness is further necessary, that we may repel the assaults of our enemy.
Sin not only blinds, but debilitates the soul. It is scarcely to be conceived how impotent the natural man is to resist the temptations of Satan. For the most part he makes no resistance at all, but follows the dictates of his imperious master, and yields a willing obedience to his most fatal suggestions. To the ungodly Jews our Lord justly observed, “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do [Note: John 8:44.].” Sometimes conscience will make a stand against the wicked one; but it is soon overpowered, and either bribed into consent, or stunned to silence, or forced, in spite of all its efforts, to give way. It may cause one to tremble [Note: Acts 24:25.]; another to reform in many things [Note: Mark 6:20.]; another to become almost a Christian [Note: Acts 26:28.]; another to make a profession of religion, and openly to join himself to the Church of Christ [Note: Acts 8:13.]: but Satan has nothing to fear from its exertions, unless it stimulate a man to seek a thorough change of heart: he laughs at the fears of Felix, the reformation of Herod, the acknowledgments of Agrippa, and the professions of Simon Magus: he well knows that, as long as they are unrenewed, they are fast in his chains, and incapable of any effectual exertion: “Ephraim, though armed, and carrying bows, were so enfeebled by sin, that they turned back in the day of battle:” nor could Israel stand before their enemies while an Achan was in their camp [Note: Psalms 78:9-10. Joshua 7:8; Joshua 7:12; Joshua 7:24; Joshua 7:26.]. So neither can he resist Satan, who yields in any thing to the dominion of sin. If once we “put away a good conscience, we shall speedily make shipwreck of our faith” also [Note: 1 Timothy 1:19.]. But let once the tamest of his vassals feel the influence of divine grace, and instantly he casts off the yoke under which he had groaned, and asserts his liberty. From that moment Satan is constrained to yield to that “stronger power that is come against him [Note: Luke 11:21-22.],” and to, relinquish the prey which he can no longer retain [Note: Isaiah 49:25.].
The necessity of righteousness being thus established, let us proceed to consider,
II. Its sufficiency—
The Apostle would not have been so urgent in exhorting us to put on the breast-plate of righteousness, if he had not believed that it would answer all the purposes for which it was designed. That it will protect us, we are well assured: that it will secure to us the victory, there can be no doubt: for it will turn depravity to sanctity, cowardice to courage, and weakness to strength.
First, it turns depravity to sanctity. It is by our inward corruptions that Satan works. He cannot force us to commit sin: he can only present to us such temptations as are suited to our natural desires; and suggest such considerations to our minds, as are likely to procure our compliance with his will. When he came to assault our Lord, he could not prevail; because “he found nothing in him [Note: John 14:30.],” that in the smallest degree closed with his suggestions. But when he comes to us, he finds in us a predisposition to receive him. If he assault our heart, there are many secret lusts that are ready to betray us into his hands: he has but to strike a spark, and there is within us combustible matter in abundance, that instantly catches fire, and that, if not extinguished by grace, will burn to the lowest hell. But when the soul is endued with righteousness, its dispositions are altogether changed: “old things are passed away, and all things are become new [Note: 2 Corinthians 5:17.].” We say not indeed that there are no remains of corruption in the soul; for the old nature still continues, and counteracts in a measure the operations of the new nature: but if “the flesh lusts against the spirit, the spirit also lusts against the flesh, and gains (not indeed without many conflicts) an ascendant over it [Note: Galatians 5:17.]:” and hence the temptations, which would once have been irresistible, are repelled with indignant firmness; as we see in Joseph, who, when repeatedly solicited to commit adultery, replied with horror, “How shall I do this great wickedness, and sin against God [Note: Genesis 39:9.]?”
This then is one way in which righteousness defends the soul: it makes “sin appear exceeding sinful [Note: Romans 7:13.];” and holiness to be esteemed as the perfection of bliss [Note: Psalms 119:128.]: and thus, by weakening the force of temptation, it enables us with success to resist the tempter.
In the next place, it turns cowardice into courage. Satan gets peculiar advantage over men by means of their carnal fears. In whatever degree men are endued with natural fortitude, their courage fails them when they are called to bear the cross of Christ. When our blessed Lord ministered on earth, Nicodemus, though a ruler and governor, was afraid to come in open day, lest he should be thought to favour his cause [Note: John 3:1-2.]: nor did “the Pharisees who believed in him, dare to confess him, because they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God [Note: John 12:42-43.].” In instances without number have men who were able to brave death itself on the field of battle, shewn themselves unable to endure the scorn and contempt that universally attach to religious characters: so true is that declaration of Solomon, “The fear of man bringeth a snare [Note: Proverbs 29:25.].” But righteousness emboldens the soul; and enables it to meet the hatred and menaces, or (what is still worse) the sneers and ridicule, of an ungodly world with a holy indifference; yea, it causes the soul to rejoice in these things as tokens for good [Note: Luke 21:12-13.], and as testimonies of the Divine favour [Note: Philippians 1:29 and 1 Peter 4:14 and Acts 5:41.]. Behold the astonishing change that was wrought on Peter! When he had inconsiderately laid aside his armour, he was intimidated by the voice of a maid—servant, and induced to deny his Lord with oaths and curses. But when he had put on his breast—plate, he was undismayed in the presence of the whole council of the Jews: he boldly charged upon the rulers that were before him, the guilt of murdering their Messiah: and when they endeavoured to silence him with threats, he undauntedly replied, “Whether it be right to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye: for we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard [Note: Acts 4:18-20.].” Such was the courage also of the Hebrew Youths, who, unawed by the fiery furnace, and unmoved by the example of a whole nation, disdained to comply with the royal edict; and resolutely exposed themselves to a cruel death, rather than violate the dictates of their conscience [Note: Daniel 3:18.].
Thus wherever the soul is clad with righteousness, it is emboldened both to do and suffer the will of God: and, consequently, Satan’s engine of persecution, whereby he has destroyed myriads, being divested of its power to intimidate the righteous, his dominion over them must for ever cease.
Lastly, righteousness will turn our weakness to strength. The powers of man, independent of divine grace, remain the same after conversion as before: of himself he can do nothing [Note: John 15:5.]. But that divine principle which actuates the godly, is mighty in operation: however numerous or powerful their enemies may be, the “grace of Christ is sufficient for them [Note: 2 Corinthians 12:9.];” and the weakest in the universe may say, “Through Christ strengthening me I can do all things [Note: Philippians 4:13.].” Their inherent weakness does not at all militate against this assertion; for when they are weakest in themselves their strength is at the height: and when they look unto their Lord for help, “he will perfect his strength in their weakness [Note: See Hebrews 5:13-14.].” Survey for a moment the Christian’s conquests: his lusts are subdued, condemned, crucified [Note: Galatians 5:24.]: the world is overcome, and put under his feet [Note: 1 John 5:4-5. Galatians 6:14.]: the powers of darkness are put to flight [Note: James 4:7.]: and he is triumphing daily in the God of his salvation [Note: 2 Corinthians 2:14.]: so “strengthened is he with might in his inward man [Note: Ephesians 3:16. Psalms 138:3.],” and so “mighty are his weapons to destroy the strong holds of sin and Satan, and to bring every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ [Note: 2 Corinthians 10:4-5.].”
What shall we now say to you who are destitute of this armour? Shall we congratulate you on your prospects of victory? Shall we even flatter you with hopes of escaping with life? We cannot; we dare not. There is a possibility, that you might vanquish an armed host with a broken pitcher [Note: Judges 7:19-22.]; or make the walls of an impregnable fortress to fall with the sound of rams’ horns [Note: Joshua 6:4-5; Joshua 6:20.]: but to succeed without righteousness in your spiritual warfare is impossible: for the truth of God is pledged that you shall perish, if you continue in your unrighteous state [Note: 1 Corinthians 6:9.]. “Awake then to righteousness, and sin not [Note: 1 Corinthians 15:34.].” Let your earnest prayer ascend up before God, that you may be made new creatures in Christ Jesus [Note: Ephesians 2:10.], and be turned effectually from the power of Satan unto God [Note: Acts 26:18.]. But do not mistake: do not imagine, that any righteousness which you can attain in your own strength, will thus protect you; or that even that which is wrought in you by the Holy Spirit, has in itself such mighty efficacy: that to which such glorious powers are ascribed, is wrought in you by the Spirit of God: and after all, it is not your inherent goodness, but the grace of God, that must preserve you from your enemies. Your inherent righteousness will indeed be made use of by him; but still God must be acknowledged as the only Author of all that is done either in, or by you; and the glory must be given to him alone.
To you who have “the armour of righteousness on the right hand and on the left [Note: 2 Corinthians 6:7.],” we say, “Stand fast in the Lord [Note: Philippians 4:1.].” Let nothing prevail upon you to lay aside your breast-plate for one moment: the instant you part with it, you are shorn of your strength, and are become weak as other men [Note: Judges 16:19-20.]. “Hold fast then that ye have, that no man take your crown [Note: Revelation 3:11.].” Thus shall your subtle adversary be foiled in all his attacks: he shall never be able to inflict on you any deadly wound. “Then shall you not be ashamed, when you have respect unto all God’s commandments [Note: Psalms 119:6.].” As “the righteousness of Christ sustained him [Note: Isaiah 59:16.]” amidst the fiercest assaults of his enemies, so shall you be preserved whilst fighting under his banners, and following his commands. His express promise to you is, “He that walketh uprightly, and worketh righteousness, shall never be moved [Note: Psalms 15:2; Psalms 15:5.].” And again, “The Lord God is a sun and a shield; he will give grace and glory; and no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly [Note: Psalms 84:11.].”
THE CHRISTIAN’S GREAVES
Ephesians 6:14-15. Stand …having …your feet shod with the preparation of the Gospel of peace.
THERE are many things which the art of war has rendered necessary for the success of an army, besides those rude weapons which an untaught savage would employ: and though they may be of inferior and subordinate use, still the want of them may prove as fatal as the want of things that are of primary importance. It would have been to little purpose, in some situations, for soldiers to have their vital parts covered with armour, if they had not also shoes, or greaves, to protect their legs and feet against the sharp stakes, that were fixed in the ground to obstruct their progress. That this was a part of armour in the days of old, the sacred history informs us. Goliath had “greaves of brass upon his legs, as well as a target of brass between his shoulders [Note: 1 Samuel 17:6.].” And, when the irresistible success of the Chaldeans was foretold, it was particularly said, that “the lachet of their shoes should not be broken [Note: Isaiah 5:27.].” In reference to this part of a soldier’s accoutrements, the Apostle exhorts us to have our feet guarded; and intimates, that as the military shoes gave to him who wore them a readiness to march over any obstacles that might lie in his way, so “the Gospel of peace” gives to the Christian soldier a “preparation,” or readiness, to prosecute his warfare without halting. This it does,
I. As bringing peace into the conscience; and
II. As producing a peaceful disposition in the soul.
I. The Gospel of peace gives us a readiness to march, in that it brings peace into the conscience—
The Gospel is the one source of peace to sinful man. If he obtain peace from any other source, he “heals his wounds slightly, and says, Peace, peace, when there is no peace [Note: Jeremiah 6:14.].” It is in the Gospel only that a Saviour is revealed. But there we are informed, that God’s only dear Son became our surety, and our substitute. There we behold our adorable Emmanuel bearing our sins in his own sacred body upon the tree, and effecting by the blood of his cross our reconciliation with God. Through him peace is proclaimed to a guilty world [Note: Acts 10:36.]: and all who receive into their hearts the record concerning him, have their iniquities blotted out as a morning cloud: their burthens are from that time removed; they have “beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness [Note: Isaiah 61:3.].
Without a measure of this peace, a person finds but little ability to exert himself in his Christian calling. The more difficult duties will be considered as irksome, and impracticable. And this arises from the natural constitution of the human mind: for, what readiness can he have to forego the pleasures of time, who cannot look forward with a comfortable hope to the eternal world? Will not his “hands hang down, his knees be feeble, and his heart be faint?” Yea, will not Satan take advantage of his weak state to make him weary of well-doing; and to “turn him utterly out of the way [Note: Hebrews 12:12-13.];” and to make him say in despondency, “There is no hope: I have loved idols; and after them will I go [Note: Jeremiah 2:25.]?” To what a degree the boldest champion may be enervated by apprehensions of God’s displeasure, we may see in the conduct of Joshua. There was but one found in all the thousands of Israel so intrepid as he: yet when he had reason to think that God had withdrawn his favour from him, “he rent his clothes, and fell to the earth upon his face before the ark, and put dust upon his head, and said, Alas, O Lord God, wherefore hast thou at all brought this people over Jordan, to deliver us into the hand of the Amorites to destroy us? Would to God we had been content, and dwelt on the other side of Jordan [Note: Joshua 7:6-7.]. Thus will “our spirit fail,” and our progress be stopped, if “the peace of God keep not our hearts and minds [Note: Isaiah 57:16.].”
But let “the love of God be shed abroad in the heart,” and instantly “the rough places become plain, and the crooked, straight [Note: Isaiah 40:4.]:” the “paths of religion become paths of pleasantness and peace.” The most self-denying precepts are not then regarded as “hard sayings [Note: John 6:60.];” “nor are any of the commandments grievous [Note: 1 John 5:3.].” And though affliction cannot, in itself, be joyous, yet, as endured for the sake of Christ, it becomes a ground of joy: “having peace with God,” says the Apostle, “we glory in tribulations also [Note: Romans 5:1-3.].”
Let us look into the Scriptures and see how prompt for obedience the saints were made by a sense of God’s pardoning love. No sooner had a live coal from off the altar been applied to the lips of the Prophet Isaiah, in token of his acceptance with God, than he was willing, yea desirous, to undertake the most difficult and self-denying services [Note: Isaiah 6:6-8.]. The Thessalonian converts were inferior to none in their attachment to Christ; and, if we inquire what was the source of their distinguished zeal, we shall find that “the Gospel had come to them, not in word only, but in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance;” and from that moment they became the most eminent followers of Christ, and his Apostle [Note: 1 Thessalonians 1:5-7.]. It was no easy service which Mary Magdalen performed in washing the Saviour’s feet with her tears; especially in the presence of such a company: yet, “much having been forgiven her, she loved much;” and therefore testified her love in the best manner she was able, notwithstanding she was likely to meet with nothing but derision and contempt from the proud Pharisee, in whose house she was [Note: Luke 7:44-47.]. But on this subject we naturally turn our eyes to the Apostle Paul, who “laboured more abundantly than all the Apostles [Note: 1 Corinthians 15:10.].” What the main-spring was of his activity, we are at no loss to determine: it was “the love of Christ that constrained him:” he had been redeemed from death by the death of Christ; and therefore to Christ he consecrated all his time, and all his powers [Note: 2 Corinthians 5:14-15.].
A readiness for suffering also arises from the same source. The “peace” which Moses enjoyed “through believing,” rendered him so superior to all the pleasures of sense, that “he esteemed the reproach of Christ greater riches than all the treasures of Egypt; and chose rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season [Note: Hebrews 11:24-26.].” St. Paul is yet a more illustrious example, as indeed might well be expected, considering how exceeding abundant had been the mercy shewn towards him [Note: 1 Timothy 1:14.].” He had already endured far more than any other Apostle for the sake of Christ; yet when the Spirit testified that bonds and afflictions still awaited him where he was going, and the Christians besought him not to proceed on his intended journey to Jerusalem; he replied, “What mean ye to weep and to break my heart? for I am willing not only to be bound, but also to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus [Note: Acts 21:13.].” And is it not thus also with ourselves? If our souls be animated with faith and love, we shall “count it all joy when we fall into divers temptations [Note: James 1:2.];” yea, we shall “rejoice that we are counted worthy to suffer shame for the sake of Christ [Note: Acts 5:41.]:” and the very things which were intended by our enemies for the destruction of the spiritual life, will tend rather to its furtherance and establishment [Note: Philippians 1:12.].
The same preparation for prosecuting our warfare is imparted to us by the Gospel,
II. In that it produces a peaceful disposition in the soul—
The soul of man is naturally proud, irritable, vindictive [Note: Titus 3:3.]. An injurious act, or an insulting word, is sufficient to call forth all our angry passions, and, in many instances, creates within us a resentment, that can be pacified with nothing less than the blood of the delinquent. Behold David, when Nabal refused to administer to his wants! This one act of churlish ingratitude must be expiated by the life of the offender, and not of the offender only, but of all the males belonging to him; and David himself goes forth to execute the murderous sentence [Note: 1 Samuel 25:21-22.]. What an awful picture of human nature does this exhibit! But the Gospel lays the axe to this “root of bitterness,” and, by shewing us how much we have been forgiven, inclines us to exercise forgiveness. It teaches us to “turn the left cheek to him who has smitten us on the right [Note: Matthew 5:39-41.]:” and “in no wise to render evil for evil [Note: Romans 12:17.].” It enjoins us rather to love our enemies; and, instead of retaliating their injuries, to relieve their wants [Note: Romans 12:19-20 and Matthew 5:44.].
Without this disposition we are but ill prepared to surmount the obstacles which our subtle adversary will place in our way. The scorn and contempt that we shall meet with, will dismay us. Our feelings will be wounded every step we take: and we shall soon be weary of well-doing. In order to judge of the consequences that will ensue, if we be destitute of this part of Christian armour, let us only look at the most eminent saints, when, through haste and inadvertence, they had neglected to fasten on their greaves aright: Moses, the meekest of mankind, was inflamed with wrath; and, by his angry, unadvised words, provoked God to exclude him from the earthly Canaan [Note: Numbers 20:10-12.]. Peter, when he beheld his Lord apprehended in the garden, began to fight after the manner of ungodly men; and brought on himself that just rebuke; “Put up thy sword; for all who take the sword shall perish with the sword [Note: Matthew 26:51-52.].” St. Paul himself too, on one occasion, was so irritated with the injustice of his judge, that he brake forth into passionate revilings against his ruler and governor, and was constrained to apologize for his conduct in the presence of his enemies [Note: Acts 23:3-5.]. If then these holiest of men were thus sorely wounded through their occasional impatience, what advantage will not Satan gain over those, whose spirit is altogether lofty and unsubdued? Doubtless he will harass them in their march, till they turn back, and recede from the field of battle [Note: Matthew 13:21.].
But let the Gospel have its due effect; let it render us meek, patient, forbearing, and forgiving; let it transform us into the image of the meek and lowly Jesus, who when he was reviled, reviled not again; and when he suffered, threatened not, but committed himself to him who judgeth righteously [Note: 1 Peter 2:21-23.]; and the stumbling-blocks that offended us before, will appear unworthy of any serious regard. When our enemies persecute us, we shall be ready to weep over them for the evil which they bring upon themselves, rather than be incensed against them for the evil which they do to us [Note: Luke 19:41-42.]. We shall use no other weapons against them than “faith and patience [Note: Hebrews 6:12.]:” “being defamed, we shall entreat; being persecuted, we shall suffer if [Note: 1 Corinthians 4:12-13.].” Instead of being “overcome of evil, we shall endeavour to overcome evil with good [Note: Romans 12:21.]:” and by “letting patience have its perfect work, we shall be perfect and entire, lacking nothing [Note: James 1:4.].”
It may be objected, perhaps, that, while we conduct ourselves in this way, we shall be trampled under foot of all, and be vanquished by all. But to this we answer, that, though we should be trampled under foot, we should not be vanquished: on the contrary, though “we be killed all the day long, and are as sheep appointed for the slaughter, yet in all these things shall we be more than conquerors [Note: Romans 8:36-37.]. We may, like Stephen, be stoned to death: yet, if like him, we can pray for our murderers [Note: Acts 7:60.], we have the noblest of all victories, that of overcoming a vindictive spirit: and, though we fall in the conflict, we maintain the field against all our enemies. Who, do we suppose, was victor, the Jews, who, at Satan’s instigation, put our Lord to death; or Jesus, who expired a victim on the cross We cannot doubt; for we are told in the Scriptures, that, “through death, Jesus overcame death, and him that had the power of death, that is, the devil [Note: Hebrews 2:14.]: yes; “on his very cross he spoiled principalities and powers, and made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it [Note: Colossians 2:14-15.].” Nor can we more effectually manifest our superiority to all the powers of darkness, than by “resisting unto blood in our strife against sin [Note: Hebrews 12:4.].” Were we to become our own avengers, we should “give place to the devil [Note: Ephesians 4:27.];” but by suffering with our Lord, we become partners of his victory [Note: Revelation 12:10-11.], and partakers of his glory [Note: 2 Timothy 2:12 and Romans 8:17.].
What remains now but earnestly to exhort you to get “your feet shod with” this blessed Gospel? Consider how many devices Satan has to wound your feet, and to cast you down. We have already noticed persecution, as a very principal engine used by him to obstruct your progress. But there are other means whereby he frequently effects his deadly purpose: many whom he could not stop by persecution, he has turned out of the way by error. Look into the epistles of St. Paul, and see how many he has “corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ [Note: 2 Corinthians 11:3.].” He has his ministers, as well as Christ; and in outward appearance they are “ministers of righteousness;” nor are they themselves conscious that they are his agents. They propagate what they themselves believe, and oftentimes with a zeal worthy of a better cause. But they themselves are blinded by him; and then are used as his instruments to overthrow the faith of others [Note: 2 Corinthians 11:13-15. with Revelation 3:9. Such ministers with their hearers are “the synagogue of Satan,” who is their teacher, their instigator, and their god.]. Which of the Churches, planted in the apostolic age, was free from their influence? In which were there not “some who perverted the Gospel of Christ [Note: Galatians 1:7.],” and some who, by their means, were “turned aside after Satan [Note: 1 Timothy 5:15.]?” At Rome there were those who made it their business to “cause divisions; and by good words and fair speeches to deceive the hearts of the simple [Note: Romans 16:17-18.].” At Corinth, the Church was so distracted by them, that Christian love was almost banished; and nothing but “debates, envyings, wraths, strifes, backbitings, whisperings, swellings, tumults,” obtained amongst them, insomuch that the Apostle threatened to exert his apostolic authority, and to inflict on them some signal judgments, if they did not reform their conduct before he visited them again [Note: 1 Corinthians 1:10-11; 1 Corinthians 3:3-4 and 2 Corinthians 12:20-21; 2 Corinthians 13:2; 2 Corinthians 13:10.]. As for the Galatian Church, such an ascendency had the false teachers gained over them, that there was scarcely one who retained his integrity: almost all of them had embraced, what St. Paul calls, “another Gospel;” and, so entirely had they transferred their regards from him to their new teachers, that notwithstanding “they would, not long before, have plucked out their own eyes, and have given them unto him,” they now considered him in no other light than “an enemy [Note: Galatians 1:6; Galatians 4:9-11; Galatians 4:15-17; Galatians 5:7-8.].” At Ephesus also there were some who, like “children, were tossed to and fro with every wind of doctrine, while others, by sleight and cunning craftiness, were lying in wait to deceive them [Note: Ephesians 4:14.].” At Philippi too, there were “dogs and evil workers, of whom it was needful for them to beware [Note: Philippians 3:2.].” But time would fail us to enumerate the heresies that were propagated, and the apostasies that were occasioned by them, even in the purest ages of the Church. The epistles to Timothy and Titus are full of complaints respecting these deceivers, and of cautions to avoid all intercourse, either with them, or with their followers [Note: 1 Timothy 1:3-4; 1 Timothy 1:6-7; 1 Timothy 1:19-20; 1 Timothy 4:1; 1 Timothy 4:6; 1 Timothy 5:12; 1 Timothy 5:15; 1 Timothy 6:3-5, (“from such withdraw thyself,”) 20, 21 and 2 Timothy 1:13-15; 2 Timothy 2:16-18; 2 Timothy 2:23; 2 Timothy 3:5, (“from such turn away,”) 6–9, 13 and 4:3, 4, 14, 15. Titus 1:9-11; Titus 1:13-14; Titus 3:9-11. See also Romans 16:17-18. before cited, “avoid them;” and 2 Peter 2:1-2 and 1 John 2:19; 1 John 4:1 and 2 John, ver. 7, 10, 11. “receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed,” &c and 3 John, ver. 10 and Jude, ver. 4 and Revelation 2:14-15; Revelation 2:20; Revelation 2:24.].
Now let any one say, whether, after so many sad examples, he himself needs not to be well established in the true Gospel, lest he be “led aside by the error of the wicked, and fall from his own steadfastness [Note: Hebrews 13:9. 2 Peter 3:17.]?”
But it will be asked, How shall I know the true Gospel from those counterfeits which are proposed for my acceptance? To this we answer, The true Gospel is a “Gospel of peace.” It is a Gospel which sets forth Jesus as our hope, “our peace,” and our all [Note: 1 Timothy 1:1. Ephesians 2:14-17. Colossians 3:11.]. It is a Gospel which leads us to “shew all meekness [Note: Titus 3:2.],” and, “as much as lieth in us, to live peaceably with all men [Note: Romans 12:18.].” Particularly also will it prompt us to seek the welfare of the Church, and to “follow the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another [Note: Romans 14:19.].” Whoever therefore would turn us from Christ as the foundation of our hope; or would “cause divisions and offences in the Church,” in order to “scatter the flock of Christ, and to draw them” from their proper fold [Note: Acts 20:29-30.]; we have reason to think him no other than a “wolf in sheep’s clothing [Note: Matthew 7:15.];” a minister of Satan in the garb of a “minister of righteousness:” and we should beware, lest, by listening to such an one, our “unstable souls be beguiled [Note: 2 Peter 2:14.],” and we “fall so as never to be renewed unto repentance [Note: Hebrews 6:6.].” We must not only take heed how we hear, but what we hear [Note: Luke 8:18. with Mark 4:24.]: for if “whole houses were subverted [Note: Titus 1:11.]” in the days of the Apostles, and “all the Christians in Asia were turned away from” the ministry of St. Paul [Note: 2 Timothy 1:15.], there is no minister whom we may not be induced to forsake, nor is there any one so established in the truth but he has need to pray that he may be kept from error.
Surely we need no stronger arguments to enforce the exhortation of the text. Let us get the knowledge of the Gospel: let us receive it, not as a theory merely, but as a practical and living principle, that shall influence our hearts and lives. And when we have received it, let us be tenacious of it; let us “hold fast the form of sound doctrine that we have received [Note: 2 Timothy 1:13.].” Let us make use of it to keep us firm in the midst of difficulties, and steadfast in the midst of errors. Let us “be ever on our guard, lest any root of bitterness springing up, trouble us, and thereby many be defiled [Note: Hebrews 12:15.].” Finally, let us “stand fast in the Lord [Note: Philippians 4:1.]:” so we shall, like our Lord himself, “endure the cross, and despise the shame, and sit down as victors on the right hand of the throne of God [Note: Hebrews 12:2.].”
THE CHRISTIAN’S SHIELD
Ephesians 6:16. Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the tricked.
NOTWITHSTANDING the armour of the ancients was generally so constructed, that it could repel any weapon that might come against it, the warrior did not conceive himself to be completely armed without a shield. In reference to the Christian soldier, this observation may be applied with still greater propriety; because, however excellent the different pieces of his armour may be, not one of them will suffice for his protection, unless it be itself also covered with the shield of faith. As “without faith it is impossible to please God,” so without faith it is impossible to withstand Satan. That powerful adversary will soon pierce through our “truth” and “righteousness,” if they be exposed to his assault without any additional defence. On this account the Apostle directs, that “above all,” and in addition to all, we should “take the shield of faith.”
In illustrating this divine injunction we propose to shew,
I. The office of faith in the Christian’s armour—
II. Its transcendent excellence—
I. The office of faith in the Christian’s armour—
The particular use of a shield is to ward off a blow from any part of the body that may be menaced; and for that end it is to be applied in every direction, as occasion may require.
Now Satan strikes sometimes at one part, and sometimes at another, according as the different parts may seem most open to his attack. And the temptations with which he makes his assault, are as “fiery darts,” which fly with incredible velocity, and are calculated to inflame the soul with their deadly poison.
The office of faith, and its power to repel these darts, will distinctly appear, while we shew how it enables the Christian to foil Satan in all his attempts to wound either his head, or heart.
Satan has many fierce and fiery temptations, whereby he endeavours to wound the head. There is not any thing so horrid or blasphemous, which he will not suggest to the mind. Even atheism itself is not so shocking, but he is capable of impressing the idea of it upon the soul, and of leading men to an adoption of it in practice, at least, if not also in theory and judgment [Note: Psalms 14:1.]. From the apparent inequality that there is in the dispensations of Providence, Satan raises a doubt whether there be a God; or, at least, whether he interfere at all in the concerns of men [Note: Psalms 73:12-13.], or will judge the world in righteousness at the last day [Note: Zephaniah 1:12.]. He will take occasion also from the difficulties that there are in Scripture to draw men to infidelity. “How can that be the word of God which is so full of contradictions? And who can know with any certainty what it declares to us, when those who profess to believe it, are of such opposite sentiments?” By such temptations as these he assaults chiefly the avowed enemies of God. But there are other temptations whereby he labours (and with too much success) to turn from the faith those who confess the divine authority of the Scriptures. He will draw them into errors of various kinds, and thus undermine the principles which he could not destroy by open assault. Time would not suffice to point out the innumerable errors to which he has given birth, and by which he has destroyed the souls of men: but there is one way in which almost all of them have been produced and propagated: he induces men to take some one truth of Scripture, and to magnify its importance beyond all due bounds, and to exalt it, not only above all other truths, but to the utter exclusion of them; and thus he founds error upon truth, and the most “damnable heresies” upon the sacred records. Mark the different heresies, and examine them by this test; and the truth of the observation will immediately appear. Because our blessed Saviour was a man, and both lived and died as an example to his followers, therefore the Socinians affirm that he was only a man, and that he died only as an example; and thus they set aside both his divinity and atonement. Because the Spirit of God is represented as dwelling in believers, therefore the Mystics reduce all religion to a vain conceit about the light within them; from a regard to which, they overlook the work of Christ for them, yea, and supersede the plainest institutions of religion, and, in a very great degree, the Scriptures themselves. In the same manner the Antinomian advocate for faith excludes good works from his system; whilst the Moralist, from an ignorant zeal for good works, discards all concern about the faith of Christ. The rigid Predestinarian asserts the sovereignty of God to the subversion of man’s freedom and responsibility; while the contender for the freedom and sufficiency of man’s will, obliterates the decrees of heaven, and denies his dependence on God.
To enter more minutely into these various heresies would lead us too far from our subject. The point to be illustrated is, How does faith enable us to avoid them? But previous to this inquiry, it will be proper to shew briefly, that these errors do indeed proceed from Satan as their author; and that they are not unfitly compared to fiery darts.
Nothing can be plainer in the Scriptures than that Satan is the great author of error, not only because he is “the father of lies [Note: John 8:44.],” and “the deceiver of the world [Note: Revelation 12:9.],” but because the propagators of error are expressly called his children [Note: Acts 13:10.], and his ministers [Note: 2 Corinthians 11:15.]; and they who have embraced error, are said to have been “tempted of the tempter [Note: 1 Thessalonians 3:5.],” and to have “turned aside after Satan [Note: 1 Timothy 5:15.];” and to be “of the synagogue of Satan [Note: Revelation 3:9.].”
This point will receive additional confirmation, by observing with what propriety his temptations are compared to “fiery darts;” for how suddenly do they strike the mind! how deeply also do they penetrate! and with what venom do they inflame the soul! Truly “they set on fire the whole course of nature; and themselves are set on fire of hell [Note: James 3:6.].” St. Paul speaks of those who are turned from the truth as being “bewitched [Note: Galatians 3:1.]:” and indeed, when we see what infatuation seizes them, how their understandings are blinded, their judgments warped, their conscience perverted, and how they are carried away by their own pride and self-sufficiency, without ever considering what spirit they are of, or conceiving it possible that they should be misled; we cannot but confess that they are the unhappy victims of Satanic agency.
Now we come to the point proposed, to consider how faith repels these fiery darts.
Faith, provided it be a true and living faith, receives the word of God simply on the authority of him that revealed it [Note: 1 Thessalonians 2:13.]. It staggers not at any difficulties either in the dispensations of his providence, or the declarations of his grace. Conscious of man’s inability to comprehend even the most common matters in their full extent, the believer submits his reason to God, and receives without gainsaying whatsoever divine wisdom has revealed [Note: James 1:21.]. Now the interference of God in the government of the world, even in the falling of a sparrow [Note: Matthew 10:29.], or of the hairs of our head [Note: Matthew 10:30.], is most clearly asserted in the inspired volume; and, on that account, no occurrence whatever is suffered to weaken the conviction, that all things are under his immediate and entire controul [Note: Isaiah 45:7.]. Nor do the difficulties that are in Scripture at all lessen its authority in the believer’s eyes: whatever he cannot account for as arising from the circumstances under which the Scriptures have been handed down to us, he puts to the score of his own ignorance, and contentedly says, “What I know not now, I shall know hereafter [Note: John 13:7.].” And, as to all the heresies that have been broached in the Christian Church, he has one way of repelling all: he “compares spiritual things with spiritual [Note: 1 Corinthians 2:13.];” not hastily rejecting any plain declaration of God, because he cannot discern its harmony and agreement with some other declaration: he rather looks to God for the teachings of his Spirit; and keeps his mind ready to embrace whatever may tend to his own humiliation, or to the glory of God. If it be thought that still he will be as open to receive error as truth, we answer, that God has promised to “guide him into all truth [Note: John 16:13.];” and that every believer has within himself the witness of all the fundamental doctrines of our religion [Note: 1 John 5:10.]; so that, “though he be a mere fool” in all other matters, “he shall surely be kept from error” in the concerns of his soul [Note: Isaiah 35:8. with Psalms 25:9.].
We must next call your attention to the temptations wherewith Satan assaults the heart. Under this term we include both the will and the affections; the former of which he endeavours to weaken by terrors, while he corrupts the latter by the allurements of sense.
As soon as that wicked fiend beholds any turning unto God, he will suggest to their minds the comforts they must sacrifice, the reproaches they must incur, the losses they must sustain, and the insuperable difficulties they must encounter; that so he may shake their resolution, and divert them from their purpose. It was thus that he prevented the entrance of the Israelites into Canaan [Note: Numbers 14:1-4.]. It was thus also that he succeeded in damping the ardour of that wealthy youth, who, from love to his great possessions, relinquished all hope of an interest in Christ [Note: Matthew 19:21-22.]. And in the same manner does he prevail with thousands of the present day, who would gladly participate his blessings, if they could retain together with them their carnal attachments [Note: Matthew 8:19-22.].
If he cannot succeed by these means, he will represent their case as hopeless; and dissuade them from prosecuting their course by the consideration, that their efforts will be in vain [Note: Jeremiah 18:12.].
To others he will propose the pleasures of sense. He will set before them, as he did before our Lord [Note: Matthew 4:8-9.], the glory of the world; he will draw their attention to “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life [Note: 1 John 2:15-16.].” He will represent these things in the most fascinating view; well knowing, that if he can but induce them to love either the pleasures, or the riches, or the honours of the world, he has accomplished his purpose, and effectually alienated their hearts from God [Note: Matthew 6:24. with James 4:4.].
Now these also are as “fiery darts,” which, if they once enter into the soul, will burn up all the good that is within it, and destroy it utterly.
But faith is as useful to protect the heart, as to defend the head. As it obviates every difficulty that may perplex the understanding, so it wards off every thing that may intimidate or defile the soul.
To the temptations that assault the will, faith opposes the importance of eternal things: ‘Be it so; I must endure much if I will adhere to my purpose of serving God: but what shall I have to endure if I do not serve him? It is not a matter of mere choice, but of absolute necessity; for “what shall it profit me if I gain the whole world, and lose my own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul [Note: Matthew 16:26.]?” Let me not then hear of difficulties; for if Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace were before me, it were better to suffer martyrdom at once with the Hebrew Youths, than to renounce my allegiance to God [Note: Daniel 3:18.]. With respect to the hopelessness of my case, nothing but destruction can result from despair: for “to whom can I go, if not to Him who has the words of eternal life [Note: John 6:68.].?” God helping me therefore I will go forward; and if I perish, I will perish [Note: Alluding to Esther 4:16 and to 2 Kings 7:4.] at the foot of my Redeemer’s cross, crying for mercy as the chief of sinners.’
Then to the temptations that assault the affections, faith opposes the excellency of eternal things: ‘True; I might enjoy the pleasures of sin; but would they equal the pleasure of serving God, and especially those “pleasures which are at his right hand for evermore?” Are not “the unsearchable riches of Christ,” together with “the honour that cometh of God,” sufficient to counterbalance any riches or honours that I may forego for Christ’s sake? Avaunt, Satan, for what thou offerest me is poor, transient, delusive: whereas the blessedness of the saints, both in this world and the next, is substantial, exquisite, everlasting.’ Thus it was that Moses argued, when he “refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, and chose rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season:” and the principle that dictated the argument, was “faith [Note: Hebrews 11:24-26.].” This was his “shield;” and the same will enable us also to repel the darts of Satan, however fiercely they be hurled, and however formidably they may come against us.
Having thus illustrated the office of faith, we proceed to point out,
II. Its transcendent excellence—
Somewhat of this has already appeared: but the high encomium which the Apostle bestows on this piece of armour in particular above all others, manifestly demands a more distinct consideration.
We may observe then in commendation of faith, considered as the Christian’s shield, that its use is universal; its application is easy; its success is sure.
First, its use is universal—
All the other parts of armour have their distinct province, to which they are confined. “Truth” and “righteousness” defend the heart; but they are of no use at all to protect the head. But faith is universally applicable to every species of temptation. Faith discerns the truth of the Gospel, and thereby is fitted to preserve the head from error: it discerns also the importance and excellence of the Gospel, and is therefore proper to preserve the heart from sin. It is no less useful to the feet; for we “stand by faith [Note: 2 Corinthians 1:24.],” and “walk by faith [Note: 2 Corinthians 5:7.].” Every step we take is safest under the guidance of faith, because it both affords us the best light, and enables us to walk without stumbling even in the dark [Note: Isaiah 50:10. Micah 7:8.].
Let this consideration then operate on all, and stir us all up to seek faith. Let us not hastily conclude that we possess this principle; for “all men have not faith [Note: 2 Thessalonians 3:2.].” “Faith is the gift of God [Note: Philippians 1:29.]:” nor can we have it, unless it have been given us from above. O that all would seek it at the hands of a reconciled God! Beloved brethren, be not satisfied with “the girdle of sincerity,” or “the breast-plate of righteousness,” or “the greaves of Gospel peace:” they are all good and useful in their place; but it is faith, that gives even to them their chief strength; and it is faith, by which alone you can ever be victorious. Does the world tempt you? “this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith [Note: 1 John 5:4.].” Does corruption harass you? you must “purify your heart by faith [Note: Acts 15:9.].” Do your graces languish? It is faith alone that will set them to work in a way of love [Note: Galatians 5:6.]. And lastly, does the devil as a roaring lion threaten to devour you? It is by being steadfast in the faith that you must resist and vanquish him [Note: 1 Peter 5:8-9.]. Think then of the use and efficacy of faith; and pray to our adorable Saviour in the words of his Apostles, “Lord increase our faith [Note: Luke 17:5.].”
In the next place we observe, that its application is easy—
A shield is easily transferred from one position to another as occasion may require: and faith also quickly moves to the protection of any part that is attacked. We do not say, that it is an easy thing to produce faith; for it requires no less power than that which was exerted in raising Christ from the dead, to create faith in the heart [Note: Ephesians 1:19-20.]. But when a person has faith, then, we say, it is easy for him to apply it for his defence. Suppose that our head were attacked with subtle heresies, and we had nothing but reason to counteract the temptation; how weak, how tardy, how uncertain would be its operation! The greater part of mankind would not have either time or ability to follow Satan in all his arguments; nor would those of the strongest intellect ever arrive at certainty; they could rise no higher than opinion at the last; while those of inferior talents would be lost in endless perplexity. Suppose again that our heart were attacked with some fiery lust, and we had no better defence than that which reason could afford; would passion listen to the voice of reason? As well might we attempt to extinguish flames that were consuming our house, by a slight sprinkling of water with the hand, as to stop the course of our passions by the efforts of unassisted reason. But in either of these cases, one single word from Scripture will suffice. How was it that our great Captain repelled the fiery darts that were cast at him? “It is written;” “It is written;” “It is written [Note: Luke 4:4; Luke 4:8; Luke 4:10.].” Thus he fought; and his vanquished enemy fled from before him. Thus also must we fight; and by opposing to our enemy this shield, the weakest and most ignorant is as sure of victory, as the strongest and most intelligent. In some respects the poor and ignorant have an advantage over the rich and learned; because they exercise faith, for the most part, in a more simple manner; whereas the others are ever trusting, more or less, to their own reason: and it is expressly with a view to confound the pride of reason, that God has given this superiority to the poor, and “chosen them, in preference to others, to be rich in faith [Note: James 2:5.].”
Let this then operate as a further inducement with us to seek faith, since none of us can get the victory without it [Note: Isaiah 7:9.]; and by it the very weakest on earth shall be able to remove mountains [Note: Matthew 17:20.].
Lastly, we may affirm, that its success is sure—
But for their faith, the most eminent of God’s saints would have been destroyed. “I had fainted,” says David, “if I had not believed [Note: Psalms 27:13.]:” and Peter would have been driven away as the chaff, if our Lord had not secured his faith from failing [Note: Luke 22:32.]. On the other hand, we have a host of saints upon record, who, “through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens: women received their dead to life again; and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance; that they might obtain a better resurrection. And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea moreover, of bonds and imprisonment: they were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheep-skins, and goat-skins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented. These all obtained a good report through faith [Note: Hebrews 11:33-39.].” Further, if we search the annals of the world, we shall not find one single instance wherein believers were ultimately vanquished. On many occasions they have been wounded, and sorely too: even the father of the faithful himself was not so expert in the use of his shield as to ward off every blow [Note: Genesis 12:12-13; Genesis 20:2.]: but believers are secured from any fatal stroke. Our Lord himself has pledged his word that they shall never perish [Note: John 5:24; John 10:28.]; that, if they fall, they shall be raised up again to renew the contest [Note: Psalms 37:21; Psalms 145:14.]; and, that “Satan shall finally be bruised under their feet [Note: Romans 16:20.].”
Remarkable in this view are the expressions of the text. The idea of “quenching” the fiery darts of the wicked one, may perhaps refer to the custom of making shields sometimes of raw hides, that, in case a poisoned arrow should perforate them, the wound, which on account of the poison must otherwise have been fatal, might be healed. But perhaps the true meaning may be, that by faith we shall as completely defeat the malignant efforts of Satan, as by the extinguishing of fire we shall be delivered from its fury. Nor is this true of some temptations only; it extends to “all” without exception. Nor can it be said of some believers only, who are of the highest class; for all who are armed with the shield of faith, whether they be old or young, rich or poor, learned or unlearned, “shall be able” perfectly, and for ever, to subdue their adversary.
To all then we say, “Have faith in God [Note: Mark 11:22.]:” if “ye have believed in the Father, believe also in Christ [Note: John 14:1.].” “Believe in the Lord, so shall ye be established; believe his prophets, so shall ye prosper [Note: 2 Chronicles 20:20.].”
THE CHRISTIAN’S SWORD
Ephesians 6:17. Take.. …the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
THE Christian’s warfare is principally of the defensive kind; yet not so entirely, but that he must follow up the advantages which he has at any time gained, and seek the utter destruction of those enemies which infest his soul: after sustaining their assaults, he must himself become the assailant; having resisted the world and sin, he must proceed to overcome [Note: 1 John 5:4.], condemn [Note: Hebrews 11:7.], and crucify [Note: Galatians 5:24; Galatians 6:14.] them; and having withstood Satan, he must go on to “bruise him under his feet [Note: Romans 16:20.].” That he may be enabled to carry this into effect, God has provided for him an offensive weapon, which, if skilfully used, shall accomplish the ruin of all his enemies. To the consideration of this we are led by the text; in elucidating which we shall notice,
I. The description given of the Christian’s sword—
II. Its usefulness to him in all his combats—
I. Let us notice the description given of the Christian’s sword—
What the sword is to a warrior, that the Scriptures are to a child of God; they enable him to inflict a deadly wound on his adversaries, and to subdue them before him.
Now the appellation here given to the Scriptures is deserving of particular attention. They are called, “the word of God,” and “the sword of the Spirit.”
They are called with great propriety, “the word of God;” first, because they were inspired by him. They were indeed written by men; but men were only the agents and instruments that God made use of: they wrote only what God by his Spirit dictated to them: so that, in reality, the whole Scripture was as much written by the finger of God, as the laws were, which he inscribed on two tables of stone, and delivered to his servant Moses. And to this the Scriptures themselves bear witness; for in them it is said, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God [Note: 2 Timothy 3:16.];” and again, “Holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost [Note: 2 Peter 1:21.].”
But they are called the word of God, not merely as being inspired by him, but also as being a revelation of his mind and will to man. In them his eternal counsels are opened to the world. In them he has declared in what way he will be reconciled to his offending creatures. In them he has displayed all the riches of his grace; and exhibited all his perfections as united and glorified in the person of Christ. In short, whatever could lead to the establishment of truth, or the refutation of error [Note: 2 Timothy 3:16. πρὸς ἕλεγχον.], to the correction of sin, or the promotion of righteousness, all is contained in that inspired volume, in which there is nothing superfluous, nothing defective: which therefore may be wholly, and exclusively, called, “the word of God.”
But there is yet another, and a very important, ground of this appellation, namely, that the Scriptures are the voice of God to every individual of mankind. It is thought by some, that the Scriptures are a mere record of transactions that passed many hundred years ago; and that, however true and authentic they may be, they are no otherwise interesting to us, than as matters of curiosity and pleasing instruction. Even the epistles are supposed to relate only to the particular Churches to which they were written: and thus the use of the Scriptures with respect to ourselves is wholly superseded. But we are abundantly guarded against this fatal error by the application which the inspired writers themselves make of numerous passages, which at first sight appear to be as remote from us as any in the Bible. Let us select a few, that will place this matter in its true light. First, take an historical fact. A contention arose in Abraham’s family. His child by Hagar mocked and insulted the child which he had by Sarah. Sarah took part with her son; and desired that Hagar, with her son Ishmael, should be cast out, and no longer be suffered to dwell in Abraham’s house. Now what could the children’s quarrels, and the mother’s revenge, have to do with us? The Apostle tells us, that the casting out of the bond-woman and her son was intended to shew, that they who were yet in bondage to the law, should not have any part in the inheritance of those who were made free by the Gospel [Note: Compare Genesis 21:10; Genesis 21:12. with Galatians 4:30.]. Next, take an occasional declaration. Abraham had exercised faith in God; and God declared, that his faith should be counted to him for righteousness. In what respect, it may be asked, can this apply to us? We answer with St. Paul, that this declaration was recorded, not for Abraham’s sake alone, but for ours; to inform us, that the way of justification before God was, not by works, but by faith only [Note: Compare Genesis 15:6. with Romans 4:3; Romans 4:23-24.]. Next, take a personal promise. God, who had commisioned Joshua to destroy the Canaanites, told him that he would not leave him, nor forsake him in this arduous attempt. Would any one conceive, that that promise had any respect to us? Yet it had; and, in dependence upon it, every believer may boldly say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear what man can do unto me [Note: Compare Joshua 1:5. with Hebrews 13:5-6.].” Lastly, take as insignificant an ordinance as any that is to be found in all the Mosaic ritual; “Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn.” Now the utmost that this might be supposed to teach us, is, mercy to our beasts. But it had a further reference: God’s concern was, not for oxen, but for us; and this ordinance was intended to declare, that all who serve at the altar, should live of the altar [Note: Compare Deuteronomy 25:4. with 1 Corinthians 9:9-10.].
Let this suffice to illustrate the point in hand. You see from an historical fact, an occasional declaration, a personal promise, and an insignificant ordinance, that whatever the Scripture speaks, it speaks to us. There is not a precept which is not as binding upon us as on those to whom it was delivered: there is not a threatening, at which we have not cause to tremble; nor a promise, on which we are not warranted to rely, if only we believe in Jesus Christ.
We come now to notice that other appellation given to the Scriptures, “the sword of the Spirit.” In a variety of views this description of them is just and appropriate.
It is by the Scriptures that the Holy Spirit speaks to men. He did indeed in the early ages of the world enlighten men by dreams and visions; but since the publication of the written word, and especially since the completion of the sacred canon, he has called men to the law and to the testimony [Note: Isaiah 8:20.]; “they have Moses and the prophets,” says our Lord, “let them hear them [Note: Luke 16:29.]:” and again, “Search the Scriptures; for in them ye have eternal life [Note: John 5:39.].” We do not say indeed, that the Holy Spirit never uses any other means of quickening or comforting the souls of men: but the Scriptures are the means by which he usually works [Note: Ephesians 5:26.]; nor does he ever work at all, but in a perfect conformity to them.
The Scriptures are further called the sword of the Spirit, because they derive all their power from, the Spirit. In themselves, they are like a sword sheathed, and lying upon the ground: they are a dead letter: they convey no spiritual light: they impart no spiritual energy: they carry with them neither conviction, nor consolation: whether read or preached, they are equally without effect. Paul was conversant with the Scriptures before his conversion; but could not see in them that Jesus was the Christ; nor could he learn from them the temper and disposition of a child of God. The ministry of Christ was attended with but small success: nor did the number of those who were converted by the Apostles, bear any proportion to that of those who rejected their message: and, in the instances wherein they did succeed, the success was “not owing to Paul who planted, or to Apollos who watered, but to God who gave the increase [Note: 1 Corinthians 3:6.].” The word then only came with any beneficial influence, when it came, not in word only, “but in the Holy Ghost [Note: 1 Thessalonians 1:5.],” and “in demonstration of the Spirit’s power [Note: 1 Corinthians 2:4.]:” and Lydia would have remained as unconcerned as others, if “the Lord had not opened her heart to attend to the things that were spoken [Note: Acts 16:14.].”
But there is yet another reason why the Scriptures are called the sword of the Spirit; namely, that by them he has wrought the most stupendous miracles in the conversion of men. They are indeed, “the rod of his strength [Note: Psalms 110:2.];” and have effected far greater miracles than ever the rod of Moses did. By them he has changed the hearts of men instantaneously, thoroughly, abidingly. By them, in the space of one hour, he transformed three thousand murderers into the very image of their God [Note: Acts 2:41.]. In his hands, “the word was quick and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword: it pierced even to the dividing of the joints and marrow: it laid open the inmost thoughts of men [Note: Hebrews 4:12.]:” and “through God it is still mighty to destroy the strong-holds” of sin and Satan [Note: 2 Corinthians 10:4-5.]: and when “it shall have free course and be glorified in the world [Note: 2 Thessalonians 3:1.],” when he shall “gird it on his thigh, and ride on prosperously” in his career, it shall be “very sharp in the heart of the king’s enemies [Note: Psalms 45:3-5.],” and all nations shall be subdued unto the obedience of faith [Note: Psalms 72:9-11.].
This is the weapon with which the Christian is armed; and with which he shall conquer. To the eye of sense, indeed, he goes forth only like David, with his sling and a stone against Goliath [Note: 1 Samuel 17:40.]: but, like him, “he shall be strong, and do exploits [Note: Daniel 11:32.].” With this he is “thoroughly furnished unto all good works [Note: 2 Timothy 3:17.];” “nor shall any of his enemies be able to stand before him [Note: Joshua 10:8.].”
To illustrate the virtues of this sword, we shall proceed to shew,
II. Its usefulness to him in all his combats—
It is needless to make any remarks on the utility of a sword in general, since every one must of necessity be well acquainted with it. But the particular manner in which the Scriptures answer the end of a sword to the Christian, is not so obvious. We may well therefore examine this point with care and accuracy, in order that we ourselves may be enabled to “handle the weapon”provided for us, and use it with dexterity and success.
The Christian’s enemies are the world, the flesh, and the devil. And the Scripture enables him to defeat them: first, by its clear directions. Does the flesh plead for any unhallowed indulgence? the Scripture says, “Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good [Note: Romans 12:9.].” Does the world solicit his embrace? the Scripture says again, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world [Note: 1 John 2:15.].” Does Satan exert his wiles in order to deceive? the Scripture says, “Him resist [Note: 1 Peter 5:9.].” And it is worthy of remark, that it was by means of the directions of Scripture that our Saviour himself vanquished his wicked adversary. Did Satan recommend him to turn stones into bread for his support? he answered, “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God [Note: Matthew 4:4.].” Did Satan then urge him to cast himself down from a pinnacle of the temple with an assurance of miraculous preservation? he replied again, “It is written, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God [Note: Matthew 4:7.].” Did Satan once more assault him with solicitations to fall down and worship him? he smote the fiend yet a third time with the same irresistible weapon: “It is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve [Note: Matthew 4:10.].” Thus Jesus conquered: and thus his people in all ages have subdued their enemies. David tells us whence his success arose: “I have hid thy word within me, that I might not sin against thee [Note: Psalms 119:11.]:” and, “By the word of thy lips, I have kept me from the paths of the destroyer [Note: Psalms 17:4.].” To us also be recommends an adoption of the same plan; “Wherewith shall a young man cleanse his way? even by taking heed thereto according to thy word [Note: Psalms 119:9.].”
The Scripture aids us, in the next place, by its powerful motives. As for all the motives that reason can suggest, the experience of all ages has proved them weak and inefficient. But the Scripture sets before us the happiness of heaven and the misery of hell: and thus with irresistible efficacy addresses itself to our hopes and fears. “He that overcometh shall inherit all things [Note: Revelation 21:7.],” saith the Lord; “but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him: he draws back unto perdition [Note: Hebrews 10:38-39.].” When an enemy would allure us by the prospect of pleasure, or alarm us by the apprehension of suffering, with what indignation shall we spurn him from us, if we advert for one moment to the concerns of eternity! Shall I forego the blessedness of heaven for a momentary gratification? Shall I consign myself over to all the torments of hell rather than endure some momentary evil? What if the acquisition be ever so precious; or the loss be ever so severe? had I not better pluck out a right eye, or cut off a right hand, than be cast into hell-fire for retaining them [Note: Mark 9:44-49.]? “Depart then from me, all ye wicked; I will keep the commandments of my God [Note: Psalms 119:115.].”
There is yet another motive that operates more strongly on an ingenuous soul than either the hope of heaven, or the fear of hell: I mean, a concern for the Divine glory. ‘Has God committed to me such a sacred trust? Is the honour of God himself dependent upon my conduct? Will my fall occasion “his name to be blasphemed;” and my stability be the means of exalting his glory? How then shall I give way to the tempter? how shall I so violate my obligations to God, and bring dishonour upon him, whom I ought to love and serve with my whole heart?’ Many of God’s saints have found this a counterpoise to the strongest temptations [Note: Genesis 39:9; Genesis 42:18 and Nehemiah 5:15.]: and it is obvious that these considerations united together, are well calculated to defeat our enemies, and to secure us a decisive victory over all.
The Scripture gives us a further advantage over our enemies by means of its rich encouragements. Not to mention the eternal rewards that have been just adverted to, the Scripture promises that God will be with us in every conflict, and beat down our adversaries before our face. “Fear not,” says he, “for I am with thee; be not dismayed, for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee by the right hand of my righteousness [Note: Isaiah 41:10.].” “Fear not, thou worm Jacob, for thou shalt thresh the mountains [Note: Isaiah 41:14-15.].” Now what can withstand a man that is armed with such promises as these? What can oppose any effectual obstacle in his way? Are his enemies numerous? He says, “They are more that are with me, than they that are against me [Note: 2 Kings 6:16.].” Does he feel himself weak? he says, “God will perfect his own strength in my weakness [Note: 2 Corinthians 12:9.].” Under these circumstances he is like to Gideon, when going against the confederate hosts of Midian and Amalek. God had promised him the victory even without the intervention of a human arm: this promise he had confirmed by repeated signs, and even by an attestation from the enemy themselves. In dependence on God, he surrounded their camp with his little band of three hundred men; and, with no other weapons than a pitcher, a lamp, and a trumpet, gained the most signal victory [Note: Judges 7:19.]. So the Christian, “encouraging himself in his God,” and depending on his promised aid, goes forth with power and effect. The very end for which such “great and precious promises were given him was, that by them he might be a partaker of the divine nature [Note: 2 Peter 1:4.];” and he does improve them to this end; and finds that by means of them he is enabled to “cleanse himself from all filthiness both of flesh and spirit, and to perfect holiness in the fear of God [Note: 2 Corinthians 7:1.].”
The last advantage which we shall mention as derived from the Scripture, is that which it affords us by means of its instructive examples. How can any one relax his determination to destroy sin, when he contemplates the destruction which sin has brought on those who yielded to its baneful influence? When he reflects on the doom of the apostate angels, or on the deluge that overwhelmed the world, or on the fire and brimstone that consumed the cities of the plain, can he trifle with that which has so greatly provoked the Majesty of heaven [Note: 2 Peter 2:4-6; 2 Peter 2:9.]? If it be to despondency that he is urged by Satan, will he not repel the tempter instantly, as soon as he recollects the character of thousands who have found acceptance with God? Can he despair, that considers for one moment the case of David, of Manasseh [Note: 2 Kings 21:1-9.], of the dying thief? Can he despair, who sees the persecuting Saul arrested in his career; or who reads the catalogue of crimes of which the Corinthian converts had been guilty [Note: 1 Corinthians 6:9-11.]? It may be that he is induced to think there is something peculiar in his case, which justifies in an extra-ordinary degree his desponding fears. But when he hears, that “no temptation can take him but that which is common to man [Note: 1 Corinthians 10:13.],” and then surveys that cloud of witnesses who were once conflicting like himself, but are now in heaven attesting the power and faithfulness of a redeeming God [Note: Hebrews 12:1.], he cannot but say, “Get thee behind me, Satan [Note: Matthew 4:10.]:” “thou wast a liar, and a murderer, from the beginning [Note: John 8:44.]:” and shall I credit thy lies to the disparagement of my God?
In this way it was that the saints of old triumphed: “Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord; awake as in the ancient days, in the generations of old. Art thou not it that hath cut Rahab, and wounded the dragon? Art thou not it which hath dried the sea, the waters of the great deep, that hath made the depths of the sea a way for the ransomed to pass over? (Now mark the inference)—Therefore the redeemed of the Lord (and we amongst them) shall return, and come with singing unto Zion, and everlasting joy shall be upon their head: they shall obtain gladness and joy; and sorrow and mourning shall flee away [Note: Isaiah 51:9-11.].” A completer triumph than this cannot possibly be conceived. Yet thus will the Scripture enable us to triumph, if we duly mark the examples which it sets before us.
In concluding this subject, we would impress upon your mind two important reflections.
First, How thankful should we be for the Holy Scriptures! One of the greatest advantages that the Jews possessed above the Gentile world, was, that to them had been committed the oracles of God [Note: Romans 3:2.]. This advantage we enjoy in a still higher degree; inasmuch as we have the light of the New Testament in addition to that of the Old. To judge properly respecting this, we should put ourselves in the situation of unenlightened heathens. They are all “led captive by the devil at his will:” and no wonder, since they see no means of escape from his assaults, or of resistance to his power. But we, if it be not utterly our own fault, are asserting our liberty, and victoriously contending with him. Even those who are far from having attained their full growth, if only they are skilled in exercising this potent weapon, “have overcome the wicked one [Note: 1 John 2:14.].” Let then the Scriptures be precious to us, “sweeter than honey, and the honey-comb [Note: Psalms 19:10.],” and “dearer than our necessary food [Note: Job 23:12.].” Let “our meditation be in them day and night [Note: Psalms 1:2.]:” let them be “a lamp to our feet and a light to our paths [Note: Psalms 119:105.].” Let them on all occasions be “our delight and our counsellors [Note: Psalms 119:24.].” Then may we be assured that they shall be “the power of God to our salvation [Note: Romans 1:17.]:” for God’s promise to Joshua is, in fact, addressed to every one of us; “This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do all that is written therein; for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success [Note: Joshua 1:8.].”
Next it may be observed, How earnestly should we seek the influences of the Holy Ghost! Many, instead of handling the sword for the subjugating of their enemies, are really using it in their defence: they draw from the Scriptures only what shall appear to countenance their lusts and errors; and thus “wrest them,” as the Apostle says, “to their own destruction [Note: 2 Peter 3:16.].” And if “the Spirit of wisdom and revelation be not given to us [Note: Ephesians 1:17-18.],” to guide us into all truth [Note: John 16:13.], we shall derive no greater benefit from the sacred volume than they. We may perhaps adopt the sentiments contained in it; but we shall never experience its power to transform the soul, till “the Spirit of God write it on the fleshly tables of our hearts [Note: 2 Corinthians 3:3.].” It is “the Lord alone that giveth wisdom; and therefore, while we search the Scriptures as for hid treasures, we must also lift up our voice to him in prayer for knowledge and understanding [Note: Proverbs 2:1-6.].” Let us look then to the Saviour, “out of whose mouth goeth a two-edged sword [Note: Revelation 1:16.],” even to him who is “the Captain of the Lord’s host [Note: Joshua 5:13-14.];” and beg, that he would both use that sword to slay the enmity of our hearts [Note: Ephesians 2:16.], and enable us also to wield the same for the destruction of our enemies. Let us pray that “the arms of our hands may be made strong by the hands of the mighty God of Jacob [Note: Genesis 49:21.].” And let us go forth, like David, “not with carnal weapons, as a sword, and a spear, and a shield, but in the name of the Lord God of hosts [Note: 1 Samuel 17:45.].” Then shall we “smite our enemies till the sword even cleave to our hands [Note: 2 Samuel 23:10.];” and we shall experience, in its fullest extent, the import of that significant question, “Do not my words do good to him that walketh uprightly [Note: Micah 2:7.]?”
THE IMPORTANCE OF PRAYER
Ephesians 6:18. Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance, and supplication for all saints.
IT is graciously ordained of God that none of his creatures should be independent of him: however richly they may be furnished with either gifts or graces, they are under the necessity of receiving continual supplies from him, and of acknowledging him, from day to day, as the one source of all their benefits. Hence, in addition to the armour with which the Christian is arrayed from head to foot, it is necessary that he wait upon God in prayer, agreeably to the direction given him in the text.
To enter into the full meaning of the Apostle’s words, as connected with the foregoing context, it will be proper to shew,
I. The aspect which prayer in general bears on the Christian warfare—
II. The particular kind of prayer that will ensure to us the victory—
I. In considering the aspect which prayer in general bears on the Christian warfare, it should be noticed, that prayer is the medium of communication between God and man: it is that whereby man ascends to God, and makes known to him his wants, and gains from him whatever he stands in need of.
It is by prayer that we must obtain the armour provided for us. No one part of the divine panoply can be formed by an arm of flesh: from the first infusion of faith and hope into the soul, to the perfect transformation of the soul into the Divine image in righteousness and true holiness, all is of God. He is the only “giver of every good and perfect gift [Note: James 1:17.]:” and all his children in all ages have acknowledged their obligations to him in this view. The evangelical prophet confesses, “Thou hast wrought all our works in us [Note: Isaiah 26:12.];” and to the same effect the great Apostle of the Gentiles speaks; “He that hath wrought us to the self-same thing is God [Note: 2 Corinthians 5:5.].” But how must this armour be obtained from God? Hear his own direction: “Ask, and ye shall have; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you [Note: Matthew 7:7.].” Desirous as he is to impart to us all spiritual blessings, “he yet will be inquired of by us [Note: Ezekiel 36:37.],” that he may bestow them on us as the reward of importunity [Note: Hebrews 11:6.]. Not that he needs to be informed of our wants, for “he knoweth what things we have need of before we ask [Note: Matthew 6:8.];” nor needs he to be prevailed upon by the urgency of our requests; for he is far more ready to give than we are to ask, and he stirs us up to ask, because he had before determined to give [Note: John 4:10.]: but there is a propriety in this divine appointment: it necessitates us not only to feel our wants, but to confess our inability to relieve ourselves: it compels us to acknowledge God as the one source of blessedness to man, and to adore him for every thing we receive at his hands. It cuts off from us all possible occasion of glorying; and obliges us, when most completely armed, to say, “By the grace of God I am what I am [Note: 1 Corinthians 15:10.].”
Again; It is by prayer that We must learn how to use this armour aright. Men are disciplined to the use of arms: it is not deemed sufficient to clothe them with armour; they must also be taught how to guard themselves against the assaults of their adversary, and at the same time to inflict on him a deadly wound. Such instruction must the Christian receive from God. If he “lean to his own understanding,” he will as surely be foiled, as if he trust in his own strength, or go unarmed to the field of battle. Many are the devices of the wicked one, of which the uninstructed Christian cannot be aware. He alone, “to whom all things are naked and open,” knows his plots, or can put us sufficiently on our guard against them. He alone can tell us when, and where, and how to strike [Note: 2 Samuel 5:23-25.]. With him alone is that “wisdom that is profitable to direct [Note: Ecclesiastes 10:10.].” But if we call upon him, “he will guide us by his counsel [Note: Psalms 73:24.]:” he will “give us a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of counsel and of might, a spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord, and will make us quick of understanding in the fear of the Lord [Note: Isaiah 11:2-3.].” He will inform us of the designs of our enemy [Note: Luke 22:31.], and shew us how to counteract them [Note: Joshua 8:6-8.]. And though in ourselves we be “unskilful in the word of righteousness [Note: Hebrews 5:13.],” yet will he “give us the tongue of the learned [Note: Isaiah 50:4.],” and the arm of the mighty [Note: 2 Samuel 22:33-35.]: he will fight in us, as well as for us [Note: Isaiah 49:25.];” and will give us reason to adopt the grateful acknowledgments of that renowned warrior, “Blessed be the Lord, my strength, who teacheth my hands to war, and my fingers to fight [Note: Psalms 144:1.].” Still, however, must this be sought of him in prayer. His promise is suspended on this condition, that we pray to him for the performance of it: on our fulfilling this duty, he will interpose; “he will be very gracious unto us at the voice of our cry; when he shall hear it, he will answer us:” and then it is that “our ears shall hear a voice behind us, saying, This is the way, walk ye in it [Note: Isaiah 30:19; Isaiah 30:21.].” We must first “acknowledge him, and then he will direct our paths [Note: Proverbs 3:5-6.].”
Once more—It is by prayer that we must bring down the Divine blessing on our endeavours. Many noble purposes are formed in the minds of unregenerate men, which yet are “as the grass that groweth on the house-tops, wherewith the mower filleth not his arms, neither he that bindeth up the sheaves, his bosom.” Nor is it any wonder that those efforts should be blasted, which are undertaken without a reference to God, and which, if they succeeded, would confirm men in a conceit of their own sufficiency. God is a jealous God: and “his glory will he not give to another.” Hence he is interested, as it were, in disconcerting the plans of those who disregard him, and in prospering the concerns of those who humbly implore his aid. Agreeably to this, we find in the sacred records that the most powerful armaments, and best concerted projects, have been defeated, when God was not acknowledged [Note: Isaiah 37:36. 2 Samuel 17:11-13.]; and that the weaker have triumphed gloriously, when they sought the Divine favour and protection [Note: 2 Chronicles 20:12; 2 Chronicles 20:25.]. In one instance more particularly we see the prayer of faith blended with human exertions: and it was made manifest, for the instruction of that and all future generations, that, whatever means God himself might use, prayer was the most powerful of all weapons. When the hands of Moses hanged down through weariness, Amalek prevailed over Israel; but when he held up his hands, Israel prevailed over Amalek [Note: Exodus 17:11.]; so that, in fact, it was the prayer of Moses, rather than the sword of Joshua, that gained the victory. It is in this way also that we must vanquish our spiritual enemies. We must fight against them indeed, and seek their utter destruction; but our reliance must be altogether upon God, whose blessing we must obtain in a way of prayer. In vain shall we attempt to combat Satan in any other way. He laughs at an arm of flesh; and yields to Omnipotence alone. To him may be justly applied that lofty description of Leviathan; “Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons, or his head with fish-spears? Behold, the hope of him is vain: shall not one be cast down even at the sight of him? His scales are his pride, shut up together as with a close seal. His heart is as firm as a stone, yea, as hard as a piece of the nether mill-stone. The sword of him that layeth at him cannot hold, the spear, the dart, nor the harbergeon. He esteemeth iron as straw, and brass as rotten wood. Darts are counted by him as stubble; he laugheth at the shaking of the spear. He is king over all the children of pride [Note: Job 41:7; Job 41:9; Job 41:15; Job 41:24; Job 41:26-27; Job 41:29; Job 41:34.].” But prayer he cannot withstand; the man who fights upon his knees is sure to vanquish him: and the weakest Christian in the universe, if he has but a heart to pray, may say with David, “I will call upon the Lord who is worthy to be praised, and so shall I be saved from mine enemies [Note: 2 Samuel 22:4.].”
To prevent mistakes, however, it will be proper to shew,
II. What kind of prayer that is that will secure to us the victory—
Much that is called prayer is utterly unworthy of that sacred name. That which alone will prevail to the extent of our necessities, must be comprehensive, spiritual, persevering.
It must, in the first place, be comprehensive. In the text, mention is made of supplication, and of intercession: both of which are necessary in their season. Of supplications, there are some stated, such as those which we offer regularly in the Church, the family, and the closet; others are occasional; and are presented to God at those intervals, when any particular occurrence, whether prosperous or adverse, renders it necessary to obtain some special interposition of the Deity. Intercessions are those prayers which we offer for others; and which are intented to bring down blessings either on the world at large (for God commands “intercession to be made for all men, and more especially for kings, and all that are in authority [Note: 1 Timothy 2:1-2.]”) or on the saints in particular, with whom we have a common interest; and amongst whom, as amongst soldiers in the same army, there should exist a solicitude to promote to the uttermost each other’s safety and welfare.
Now it is by a regular application to God, in all these ways, that we are to procure from heaven those seasonable supplies which we stand in need of. Respecting the customary devotions of the closet, both in the morning and the evening, corresponding to the sacrifices that were daily offered to God under the Mosaic law [Note: Exodus 29:38-39; Exodus 29:42.], there can be no doubt. A man who neglects them has no pretension to the Christian name. Instead of being in a state of friendship with God, he must rather be numbered amongst his enemies; for the very description given of his enemies is, that they call not upon God [Note: Psalms 14:4.]; whereas the character of his friends is, that “they are a people near unto him [Note: Psalms 148:14.].” Nor is it less necessary that we should worship God in our families: for, as we have family wants, and family mercies, it is proper that we should “offer the sacrifices of prayer and praise” in conceit with our families. Abraham is commended for his attention to the religious concerns of his family [Note: Genesis 18:19.]: and Joshua’s noble resolution to maintain, both in his own soul and in his family, the worship of the true God [Note: Joshua 24:15.], clearly shews, how important this part of a Christian’s duty was considered among the saints of old. Nor can any expect the blessing of God upon their families, who will not unite with them in acknowledging the mercies they have already received. As for the public worship of God, none who have any regard for God’s honour in the world can possibly neglect it.
The importance of occasional prayer may perhaps be not so clearly seen. But are there not frequent occasions when we need in a more especial manner the assistance of God? If any thing have occurred that is gratifying to flesh and blood, do we not need to call upon God for grace, that we may not, Jeshurun like, “wax fat, and kick” against our heavenly Benefactor? If, on the contrary, we are suddenly involved in any afflictive circumstances, do we not need to implore help from God, in order that we may bear with patience his paternal chastisements, and that the trial may be sanctified to our eternal good? Sometimes indeed the seasons occur so instantaneously, that we have no time or opportunity for a long address to God: but then we might lift up our hearts in an ejaculatory petition; and in one short moment obtain from God the succour we require. Look at the saints of old, and see how they prospered by a sudden elevation of their souls to God: David, by one short prayer, “Lord, turn the counsels of Ahithophel into foolishness,” defeated the crafty advice he gave to Absalom: and caused him, through chagrin, to put a period to his own existence [Note: 2 Samuel 15:31. with 17:14, 23.]. Jehoshaphat, by a single cry, turned hack his pursuers, who, if God had not instantly interposed on his behalf, would have overtaken and destroyed him [Note: 2 Chronicles 18:31.]. Nehemiah, by a silent lifting up of his soul to God, obtained success to the petition which he was about to offer to his royal master [Note: Nehemiah 2:4-6.]. Thus we should blunt the edge of many temptations, and defeat innumerable machinations of Satan, if we habituated ourselves on all occasions to make known our requests to God. Nor would prayer be less successful, if offered for others. Who can behold Moses repeatedly arresting the hand of justice, and averting the wrath of God from the whole Jewish nation [Note: Exodus 32:10-14.]; or contemplate Peter’s deliverance from prison on the night preceding his intended execution, effected as it was in a way that appeared incredible even to the very people who had been praying for it [Note: Acts 12:5-16.], and not confess the efficacy of intercession, whether of people for their minister, or of ministers for their people? Indeed we need no other instance than that of Abraham’s intercession for Sodom and Gomorrha [Note: Genesis 18:23-32.], to convince us, that it is our most glorious privilege to “pray one for another [Note: James 5:16.];” and that in neglecting this duty, we “sin against God [Note: 1 Samuel 12:23.],” and against our brethren, and against our own souls.
Such then must be our prayers, if we would be “good soldiers of Jesus Christ,” or exert ourselves with effect against our great adversary.
In the next place, our prayer must be spiritual. Were our devotions multiplied in ever so great a degree, they would be of no avail, unless they came from the heart, and were offered up “through the power of the Holy Ghost.” God has warned us, that “they who draw nigh to him with their lips while their hearts are far from him, worship him in vain [Note: Matthew 15:8-9.].” Indeed how can we imagine that God should regard a mere repetition of words, when we ourselves should reject with indignation a petition offered to ourselves in a similar manner [Note: Malachi 1:8.]? Our “supplications must be in the Spirit,” or, as St. Jude expresses it, “in the Holy Ghost [Note: Jude, ver. 20.].” The Holy Ghost must teach us what to pray for, and must assist our infirmities in praying for it [Note: Romans 8:26.], quickening our desires after God, emboldening us to draw nigh to him with filial confidence, and enabling us to expect at his hands an answer of peace. As there is but one Mediator through whom we can have access to God, so there is only one Spirit by whom we can approach him [Note: Ephesians 2:18.]. But we need not on this account be discouraged: for the Spirit is promised to us for these ends [Note: Joel 2:29; Joel 2:32.]; and in whomsoever he is “a Spirit of grace, he will be also a Spirit of supplication [Note: Zechariah 12:10.].”
Lastly, our prayer must also be persevering: we must pray “always, watching thereunto with all perseverance.” It is by no means sufficient that we pray to God, as too many do, just under the pressure of some heavy affliction [Note: Isaiah 26:16.], or be fervent for a time, and then relapse again into our former coldness and formality [Note: Job 27:10.]. We must be “instant in prayer [Note: Romans 12:12.],” “stirring up our souls to lay hold on God [Note: Isaiah 64:7.],” and “wrestling with him,” like Jacob, till we obtain his blessing [Note: Genesis 32:24-28. with Hosea 12:4.]. There is a holy importunity which we are to use, like that of the Canaanitish woman [Note: Matthew 15:22-27.], or that of the two blind men, who became more urgent in proportion as others strove to repress their ardour [Note: Matthew 20:30-31.]. And because Satan will do all in his power to divert us from this course, we must watch against his devices with all possible care, and persevere in it without fainting [Note: Luke 18:1.], even to the end. If we notice our frames at the returning seasons of prayer, we shall perceive that there is often a most unaccountable backwardness to this duty. Any concern, however trifling, will appear a sufficient reason for delaying it, till, from weariness of body or indisposition of mind, we are induced to omit it altogether, or perhaps we fall asleep in the midst of it. We sometimes think in the evening, that we shall be fitter for it in the morning; and then in the morning we expect a more convenient season at noon-day; and at noon-day we look forward with a hope of performing our duty to more advantage in the evening; and thus we deceive ourselves with delays, and rob our souls of the benefits which God would bestow upon them. But who ever found himself the more ready for prayer on account of his having neglected it the preceding day? Do not such neglects “grieve the Holy Spirit,” and increase, rather than diminish, our indisposition for prayer? Most assuredly they do: and therefore we should “watch” against all excuses, all neglects, all formality; and “persevere” in a steady, uniform, and conscientious performance of this duty. It is not necessary indeed that we should at all times occupy the same space of time in our devotions; for “we shall not be heard for our much speaking [Note: Matthew 6:7.];” but we should endeavour at all times to maintain a spirituality of mind in this duty, and improve in a more particular manner those seasons, when God stretches out to us, as it were, his golden sceptre [Note: Esther 4:11. with 5:2, 3.], and admits us to a more than ordinary “fellowship with himself and with his Son Jesus Christ [Note: 1 John 1:3.].”
We shall conclude this interesting subject with an address,
1. To those who neglect prayer—
What easier terms could God have prescribed, than those on which he has suspended the communication of his blessings? or what could you yourselves have dictated to him more favourable than that condition, “Ask, and you shall have?” Do but consider, what will be your reflections as soon as ever you enter into the invisible world! When you see the door of mercy for ever shut, and begin to feel the judgments which you would not deprecate, how will you lament, and even curse, your folly in neglecting prayer! When you call to mind, that heaven with all its glory was open to you, and you had nothing to do but to ask for it at the hands of God, you would not give yourselves the trouble to call upon him! what can you expect, but that the threatening, already recorded for your instruction, shall be executed upon you; “Because I called, and ye refused, I stretched out my hand, and ye regarded me not; but ye set at nought all my counsel, and would none of my reproof; I also will laugh at your calamity, and mock when your fear cometh: when your fear cometh as a desolation, and your destruction cometh as a whirlwind; when distress and anguish cometh upon you. Then shall ye call upon me, but I will not answer; ye shall seek me early, but ye shall not find me; for that ye hated knowledge, and did not choose the fear of the Lord: therefore shall ye eat of the fruit of your own way, and be filled with your own devices [Note: Proverbs 1:24-31.].” O let not this awful period arrive! “Arise, ye sleepers, and call upon your God [Note: Jonah 1:6.].” Is not heaven worth asking for? Is it not worth your while to escape the miseries of hell? What if diligence and self-denial be necessary; will not the prize repay the labours of the contest? Perhaps you are saying in your hearts, that you will begin to pray at some future, and more convenient, season [Note: Acts 24:25.]: but dream not of a more convenient season, lest that season never arrive. Procrastination is the ruin of thousands, and of millions. It is Satan’s grand device for keeping you from God. Should he tempt you to say, “I will never pray at all,” he knows you would revolt at the idea; and therefore he prompts you only to defer it in hopes of finding your mind better disposed to the employment on some future day. But let him not deceive you. Delay not a single hour. Yea, at this very moment lift up that ejaculatory petition, “Lord, teach us to pray [Note: Luke 11:1.]:” and embrace the first moment to begin that work, which if prosecuted with fervour and perseverance, shall issue in present peace, and everlasting triumphs.
2. To those who are daily waiting upon their God, we would also address a few words—
That you find much cause for humiliation in your secret walk with God, is highly probable: for though nothing would be easier than prayer, if you were altogether spiritual, the remaining carnality of your hearts renders it inexpressibly difficult. Nor can we doubt but that Satan labours to the uttermost to increase your discouragements, both by distracting your minds in prayer, and by insinuating, that your labour will be in vain. And too often are you inclined perhaps to credit his suggestions, and to say, like the unbelieving Jews, “What profit should we have, if we pray unto him [Note: Job 21:15.]?” he will not hear: “he has shut up his loving-kindness in displeasure.” But rest assured that he will not suffer you to seek his face in vain. His answers may be delayed; but they shall come in the best time. You have only to wait; and the vision, though it may tarry for a season, will not ultimately disappoint you [Note: Habakkuk 2:3.]. Sooner or later, “God will assuredly avenge his own elect [Note: Luke 18:7.].” There is no situation so desperate but prayer will relieve us from it [Note: Jonah 2:2-7.]: no object is so far beyond the reach of human influence, but prayer will attain if [Note: James 5:17-18.]. The efficacy of prayer is as unlimited as Omnipotence itself, because it will bring Omnipotence to our aid [Note: John 14:13-14.].
But some are ready to say, “I have prayed, and earnestly too; and yet have obtained no answer to my prayer.” It may be so; because you have “asked amiss [Note: James 4:3.];” or because the time for answering it is not yet arrived. But it often happens, that persons think their prayers are cast out, when they have indeed received an answer to them, yea, the best answer that could have been given to them. Perhaps, like Paul, they have prayed against a thorn in their flesh; and, instead of having it removed, have received strength to bear it, and grace to improve it to their spiritual good [Note: 2 Corinthians 12:8-9.]. But is this no answer to their prayer? Is it not the best that could possibly be vouchsafed? A trial may be removed in wrath [Note: Isaiah 1:5.]; but it cannot be sanctified from any other principle than love [Note: Hebrews 12:10.]. The removal of it may produce present ease; but its sanctified operations will ensure and enhance our everlasting felicity [Note: 2 Corinthians 4:17.].
Let us then “tarry the Lord’s leisure, and be strong,” knowing that the prayer of faith can never go forth in vain; nor can a praying soul ever perish. Let us “in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving make our requests known unto God; and the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep our hearts and minds through Christ Jesus [Note: Philippians 4:6-7.].”
END OF VOL. XVII.
Monday, March 27th, 2017
the Fourth Week of Lent
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