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The First Principles of Christ
The combination of repentance and faith meets us in the earliest proclamation of the Gospel by our Lord Himself, and it continues to sound all through the pages of the New Testament. As a man's faith is set upon God so he repents of dead works.
I. How does such Faith in God Originate? Our author gives us the answer in the epithet of God which he introduces when he repeats this phrase and speaks of being 'cleansed from dead works to serve the living God'. 'The living God.' In that epithet lies the whole secret. It is the realisation that God is alive that calls out our faith. Faith cannot create itself, still less create its object; it must always be the response to a revelation God makes. Our God is a living God see what He has done! see what He is doing!
II. Faith Depends most upon Experience. There are special ways in which God reveals Himself to us today, and convinces us that He is a living God. (1) To some, perhaps to many, the revelation of God that comes home first and most keenly, is found in the love of our parents not least of our mother perhaps when they are taken from us and we see their character in the light of eternity. (2) To others, the most convincing revelation of God today is their own existence and personality; that is to them the 'main miracle,' that 'I am I'. (3) To others again, the revelation of God's living will comes most securely not from within, but from the contemplation of the world without. (4) To others it is not so much the Life or the purpose of the world that reveals the Maker as its beauty; beauty of colour, beauty of form, beauty of sound. In ways like these our own daily reflection on experience may kindle our faith in a living God.
H. C. Beeching, Church Family Newspaper, vol. xv. p. 220.
References. VI. 1. H. P. Liddon, University Sermons (2nd Series), p. 98. Expositor (4th Series), vol. iv. pp. 51), 179. VI. 1-12. C. Gutch, Sermons, p. 42. VI. 2. E. W. Attwood, Sermons for Clergy and Laity, p. 407. Expositor (4th Series), vol. i. pp. 34, 209.
The heavenly gift is God's loving forgiveness of sins, the supreme boon of the Christian dispensation, in which all believers participate. The good word of God means the sure, kind promises made by Him to human faith for the future, and this is bound up with the experience, here and now, of the powers of the world to come which are already operating within the present age. Such a description of the normal Christian experience of God's Spirit is intelligible enough in the first century, when the strong eschatological hope of Christendom still throbbed within the Churches. Rut is the latter a reasonable element for ourselves? Is this 'l'avant-goût de l'éternité,' as Reuss calls it, this ardent eschatological expectation possible and desirable still? Cannot the taste of forgiveness which restores us to our place with God suffice by itself, without the other taste? Does not the modern outlook on the world compel us to drop the forward anticipation and to content ourselves with the present assurance of a heavenly Father's love such as Jesus taught? Instead of looking for a new heaven and earth, why should we not be satisfied with a God who has numbered the very hairs of our head? Would not this be at once more spiritual and more consonant with that view of the universe which we are bidden accept from modern science?
Dr. Kolbing, the distinguished Moravian scholar, raises this crucial question in a recent pamphlet on Die bleibende Bedeutung der urchristlichen Eschatologie (Göttingen, 1907, pp. 25 f.), and seeks to answer it in the negative. Whatever details of the primitive eschatology have a merely temporary value, he does not believe that we are obliged to curtail this description of the Christian position, as if 'eschatological faith, in the strict sense of the term, were merely the expression of a specifically Jewish and antiquated view of the universe'. His reasons are as follow.
He begins by pointing out that, wherever the apocalyptic ideas of primitive Christianity may have been quarried, the religious source of its eschatology lay, as it still lies, in the sure knowledge of God's fatherly love to men which Jesus brought into the world. He then points out that this forward look of faith is justified for ourselves today by the believing man's experience of the world as a hindrance to the full development of spiritual life. 'In the light of the knowledge of God which Jesus has conferred on men, the Christian must ever and anon have the feeling that this earthly world has a variety of ways in which it can hinder any one who lies within its sphere from entering into fellowship with the Father in heaven.' The Christian can indeed experience the supernatural reality of God, but it is an experience which is exposed to thwarting doubts and recurring obstacles. The witness of history and the record of the Church are enough to prove this up to the hilt. Furthermore, as 'the Christian recognises that the dominating element in the spiritual life of Him who is Lord of the world is His holy and fatherly love,' he must also admit the conscious and unconscious opposition to God's moral will which starts up in society and in the individual. The progress of God's good reign is slow, and the actual facts seem often to contradict the idea of His royal love. 'Few are chosen,' and even the few meet difficulties of all sorts in the practice of their fellowship with God. What can justify the Christian's confidence, as he faces such untoward facts, and 'overcomes the world,' but the glad certainty, now as in the primitive days of Christianity, that a new world of unclouded vision and unhindered service awaits God's children? This certainty of hope, with its perspective of the future, Dr. Kolbing argues, springs always from the faith of Jesus. It enables the weak and sinful here to glory already in the coming bliss, since such people Know that God's forgiving and controlling grace can enable them, even through the trials and evil of the present, to inherit the world to come. 'If this is so, then we must decide that to taste the powers of the world to come is an element essential to the moral and religious faith of Christianity in God's holy love to sinful men. In other words, the eschatological character of primitive Christian faith is not a merely adventitious and transient element which was due to the Jewish view of the world; it possesses a permanent significance for the religious life of the Christian Church.' On this view, those who taste the heavenly gift of God's forgiveness do so, in the fullest sense, as they also taste the good word of God's promise for the future and the powers of the world to come, since the experience of forgiveness involves a reach and a range of faith in God's holy purpose which extend beyond the limits of a world-order where His power and love cannot fully come into play. The present experience thus stands in a vital relationship to the future hope.
The stars come nightly to the sky,
The tidal wave unto the sea,
Nor time, nor space, nor deep, nor high,
Can keep my own away from me.
And part of this own possession is the future. The present experience of the Spirit, with its assurance of Divine forgiveness and fellowship, not only transmutes the trials of today into opportunities of moral growth for the life of God, but provides a foretaste of that new order which will correspond, as this world cannot, with the just requirements of the believing soul.
Reference. VI. 4, 6. Expositor (7th Series), vol. v. p. 477.
'Consider,' wrote Samuel Rutherford to the Presbyterians of Ireland in 1638, 'how fair before the wind some do ply with up-sails and white, even to the nick of "illumination" and "tasting of the heavenly gift"; and "a share and part of the Holy Ghost"; and "the tasting of the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come". And yet this is but a false nick of renovation, and, in short time, such are quickly broken upon the rocks, and never fetch the harbour, but are sanded in the bottom of hell.... A white skin over old wounds breaketh our under-coating conscience. False under water, not seen, is dangerous, and that is a leak and drift in the bottom of an enlightened conscience; often falling and sinning against light.'
References. VI. 4-6. C. Perren, Sermon Outlines, p. 182. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. ii. No. 75. Expositor (4th Series), vol. vii. pp. 367, 443; ibid. vol. viii. p. 119. VI. 5. G. F. Pentecost, Marylebone Presbyterian Church Pulpit, p. 3. John Watson, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlvii. p. 113. Ibid. The Inspiration of Our Faith, p. 324.
Never Too Late to Mend Is It?
'Impossible' and yet we say it is 'never too late to mend'. 'God is good; His mercy endureth for ever,' that, happily, needs no discussion; so far we are at one. But does universal love imply universal salvation? Is the love of God the only needed factor in the salvation of man? My sin cannot chill or change the love of God; but what if it so change me that all that love never stirs me, never touches me, never wakens within me one answering throb? 'Never too late to mend'? look where I will, I can find confirmation of it nowhere: contradiction, refutation of it everywhere.
I. It is not the doctrine of the New Testament. And when I say the New Testament, I mean the whole of the New Testament. The New Testament is a much sterner book than some of us like to think. There are shadows here that will not flee. Christ spoke of 'an eternal sin,' of which, if a man be guilty, he 'hath never forgiveness'. Note not merely the 'proof-texts' but the 'proof-trend' (as some one has named it), not merely the 'Biblical ripple,' but 'the Biblical gulf-stream'; and if you do that, you will neither yourself believe, nor teach others to believe, that it is 'never too late to mend'.
II. Nature does not encourage us to believe that it is 'never too late to mend'. Gash a tree up to a certain point and kindly Nature will heal the wound; but go beyond that point, and the tree will wither and die.
III. What say the great students of human nature? Milton pictured Satan a free agent, and yet saying:
All good to me is lost;
Evil, be thou my good.
Hear the guilty king in' Hamlet'; prayer is useless:
What then? What rests?
Try what repentance can: what can it not?
Yet what can it when one can not repent?
O wretched state! O bosom black as death!
O limed soul, that, struggling to be free,
Art more engaged!
IV. And now if from these we turn to some of the awful facts in the life of men about us, will they bid us to hope that it is 'never too late to mend'? I have read of an habitual drunkard who said, 'If a glass of spirits were put before me, and I knew that the abyss was yawning between me and it, I must still take it'.
He who will not at last cannot.
G. Jackson, Table Talk of Jesus, p. 253.
References. VI. 7. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture Hebrews, p. 349. VI. 8. Expositor (4th Series), vol. ii. pp. 66, 382.
Dr. Neale wrote to his friend E. J. Boyce, whose sermons he was criticising: 'One thing in particular I admire: the manner in which you speak to your congregation, when mentioning their religious state. You are far more like St. Paul in that matter than you are like Owen. Owen said in one of his discourses, "My brethren, I am well aware that a great many more of you that hear me now will be damned than will be saved". St. Paul said, "But, beloved, we are persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation, though we thus speak".'
References. VI. 9. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. iii. No. 152. J. Bateman, Sermons Preached in Guernsey, p. 112. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture Hebrews, p. 359.
The Assurance of Salvation
I. We learn from our text the proper spirit with which to regard the Christian course of salvation. There are two modes in which life can be observed. In our times, two rather high-sounding names have come to be common, and they fairly well express these contrasted sentiments; we call them Optimism and Pessimism. Christianity has for the most part proved itself to be optimistic, and notwithstanding the fact that its theology and its commonly received creed have contained much that was terrible and full of pain, yet there has always been the side of bright and cheerful expectation, with the hope that in the final issue there would be a vast and enormously preponderating excess of good over evil, right over wrong, and blessedness over misery. Where the prevailing doctrine of Christianity has been kept nearest to the Scripture and has been less affected by theological and ecclesiastical developments, and a return has been made to earlier and more distinctly primitive faith and teaching, this has been especially the case, and the general spirit of Christian thought has been that expressed by the writer: 'We are persuaded better things of you, and things that accompany salvation, though we thus speak'. It is thus we should regard the condition of the Church, the spiritual outlook of our friends, and especially our own prospects.
II. And what are the grounds for this glad persuasion? (1) In the first place, this joyous hopefulness of the Christian is fixed upon God. (2) With that eminent practicality which marks the Christian teacher, our text shows us that this trust in God manifested in work and love toward His name is best shown in the ministrations of kindliness and brotherly love in which the believer engages toward the saints. (3) It is with wonderful insight, therefore, that our author refers to this ministration to the saints as the proof of the love which Christian people have for the Divine Name.
III. And the final source of this Christian optimism, the undying hope, is to be found in that activity and self-devotion which will bring those who possess it to share in all that is enjoyed by those who have already found the fulfilment of the promises. Three things mark Christian endeavour: Diligence, hopefulness, and continuance to the end. A great writer has said: 'I love the man who whistles as he works: no man will whistle as he works who does not give himself to his effort with completeness and devotion'.
Llewelyn D. Bevan, Homiletic Review, vol. LI. p. 60.
References. VI. 10. J. C. Easterbrook, The Riddle of Life and How to Read it, p. 85. Expositor (6th Series), vol. iv. p. 447; ibid. vol. xi. p. 433. VI. 11. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture Hebrews, p. 367. VI. 11, 12. H. Woodcock, Sermon Outlines (1st Series), p. 235. VI. 12. W. J. Adams, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xliii. p. 166. W. J. Brock, Sermons, p. 147. J. Wright, The Guarded Gate, p. 161. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture Hebrews, p. 377. VI. 17. Expositor (7th Series), vol. v. p. 182.
Rational, sensible men, as they consider themselves, men who do not comprehend the very notion of loving God above all things, are content with such a measure of probability for the truths of religion, as serves them in their secular transactions; but those who are deliberately staking their all upon the hopes of the next world, think it reasonable, and find it necessary, before starting on their new course, to have some points, clear and immutable, to start from; otherwise, they will not start at all. They ask, as a preliminary condition, to have the ground sure under their feet; they look for more than human reasonings and inferences, for nothing less than the 'strong consolation,' as the Apostle speaks, of 'those immutable things in which it is impossible for God to lie,' His counsel and His oath. Christian earnestness may be ruled by the world to be a perverseness or a delusion; but, as long as it exists, it will presuppose certitude as the very life which is to animate it.
Newman, Grammar of Assent (ch. VII.).
References. VI. 17, 18. H. Woodcock, Sermon Outlines (1st Series), p. 17. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xv. No. 893. W. L. Watkinson, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lxxviii. p. 300. VI. 17-20. C. O. Eldridge, Preacher's Magazine, vol. xix. p. 180. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxii. No. 1294. VI. 18. C. Perren, Revival Sermons in Outline, pp. 246, 247. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxiii. No. 1352, and vol. xlvi. No. 2704. J. Beaumont, Penny Pulpit, No. 1706, p. 687. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture Hebrews, p. 384.
Within the Veil
'Hope, the anchor of the soul,' is now one of the most familiar phrases in Christian thought and literature. It originated, however, with this inspired writer, and is an evidence of his inspiration; for we do not naturally think of hope as giving steadfastness of life, but rather as giving it impetus. Any hope, if it be fixed on what is real, attainable, and good, is a God-sent angel; but the hope spoken of here is better than every other, because this angel never leaves our side, nor ever will, even though we pass through the valley of the shadow of death. Instead of leading up to any disappointment it will end in a fruition beyond all conception. The evil, which death only can remove, hides from us our exalted Saviour, in whom our hope is fixed, and hides also all those whom He is gathering round Himself.
I. First, we should reflect on the fact here hinted at that, as yet, heaven is veiled from us. It is quite true that, as compared with the Old Testament as well as with heathenism, the Lord Jesus has brought life and immortality to light by the Gospel; but, beyond the certainty of heaven, and the assurance that Christ Himself is the centre and ruler of it, we know very little indeed. For some wise reason it was not the method of Christ and His Apostles to give us any specific or philosophical knowledge of heaven, even although that reticence might lead some to agnosticism and infidelity. Paul himself though he was once caught up into the third heaven, and heard words which it was not lawful for a man to utter made this confession: 'Now we see in a mirror darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part, but then shall I know even as also I have been known'. While John through whom we have the Apocalypse itself, with its splendid imagery and mystic symbols frankly says: 'It does no yet appear what we shall be; but we know that when He shall appear we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is'.
II. Now it appears to me that in these Scriptures we have (so far as the future world is concerned) appeals to our heart through our imagination; and I wish to lay stress on this, because we have sometimes involved ourselves in greater darkness through mistaking figures for facts. Do not question for a moment the certainty of the home of bliss because the details of its economy are hidden behind the veil, and cannot yet be revealed to us as they are. Knowledge of details is not necessary in order to a living hope fixed in what lies before us, which, like an anchor, is holding us fast and drawing us nearer.
A. Rowland, The Burdens of Life, p. 261.
Reference. VI. 19. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture Hebrews, p. 394.
He Descended Into Hell (for Easter-tide)
In this Easter meditation we shall not enter into controversies which, for complexity and bitterness, have hardly been equalled even in Christian theology. In one of Sydney Dobell's fine fragments, he makes an awakening soul say:
This is hell, then
And He descended into hell.
There have been manifold speculations as to Christ's open triumph over principalities and powers as to His preaching to the spirits in prison, and much besides. Let it suffice us that He descended into Hades, the abode of the departed. Thus He took our journey over the 'tracts unknown' which lie between this world and that. Even there shall His hand lead us and His right hand hold us. He shared for the space of three days what is the experience of all the saints, save those who remain unto His coming. He submitted Himself to the whole law of the human lot His spirit was free among the dead, while His body waited the appointed day. Forasmuch as the children were partakers... He Himself took part of the same, and so He holds the keys of all our possible experience. We have to think, then, of the words as illuminating the unknown way, and as teaching us what waits when the new gate opens into life, and we are in the unveiled presence of the Incarnate Word.
I. First, then, because His spirit has gone before, He can say to each believer, in the article of death, Follow Me. We have to pass 'across the wilds that no man knows' to the awful worlds of the future. It is the mysterious journey not the end from which many a humble, faithful soul shrinks. 'I have no fear of going to heaven,' said one, 'but the crossing, the crossing!' As we near the end, that great gulf between the familiar world and the hills of heaven stretches dark and wide at our feet. But 'He descended into Hades'. Christ died in the light. His body was anointed for burial by trembling and stained hands. But for His soul's journey He needed no chrism: He was going home. 'O God, when Thou wentest forth before Thy people, when Thou didst march through the wilderness... Thou didst confirm Thine inheritance when it was weary.'
II. His presence with the faithful dead is the presence of the Incarnate Christ. It is not enough to say that our Lord is conscious and supreme. The expression, indeed, is perhaps a tautology, for it is hard to see how He could be supreme without being conscious. What we can say is that He is incarnate and supreme. A spiritual presence of Christ in Paradise is not enough. If no more is vouchsafed, then Palestine nineteen hundred years ago was a place of greater opportunity. He was nearer the disciples who trusted Him during His earthly life than He is to those who have come up out of the great tribulation and have washed their robes in His blood. But it is not so. The faithful now behold Him clothed in the dear familiar raiment which is more than raiment, which is part of life, and are strengthened to wait the restitution of all things which God, who cannot lie, promised by His holy prophets since the world began.
III. This continual presence of Christ is primarily a friendship. Even here, without love, without friendship, there is no true life. The call of affection, and that only, awakens the soul. No man knows what he can do till he has learned to love. Love blows the trumpet of resurrection over the graves where his faculties are buried, and wakens them into energy and fruitfulness. Love teaches him how he can work, and think, and feel. But in the full sense, we have no friend but our Saviour. He, and He only, touches our natures at every point. Else why the deep craving for sympathy of which the world is full? Why are the closest ties so sharply sundered? These needs and pangs turn us to Christ; but even so we give Him no perfect answer. It is only in death, only when sin has been finally purged out, that our souls yield themselves at every point to His grace.
He descended, our Forerunner, into Hades. He will return to claim from Death those bodies with which we trust Him on the sickbed, and of which He is possessor by an elder and a stronger right. He will return ere then, according to His word, to receive our souls. As the natural force abates, we shall be reinforced with life from its Prince and Fountain, and when we are called to take the great journey, another will go with us One who knows the way.
W. Robertson Nicoll, Ten Minute Sermons, p. 79.
References. VI. 20. J. Baines, Twenty Sermons, p. 207. VII. 2. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxx. No. 1768. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture Hebrews, p. 1. VII. 4. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxxi. No. 1835. VII. 7. J. C. M. Bellew, Christ in Life: Life in Christ, p. 289. VII. 8. Expositor (6th Series), vol. x. p. 359. VII. 11. Ibid. vol. viii. p. 382. VII. 12. T. Binney, Penny Pulpit, No. 1617, p. 331.
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Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Hebrews 6". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany