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MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture MacLaren's Expositions
2 Corinthians 8
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These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 8". MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. https://www.studylight.org/
commentaries/ eng/ mac/ 2-corinthians-8.html.
MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on 2 Corinthians 8". MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. https://www.studylight.org/
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GIVING AND ASKING
A collection from Gentile churches for their poor brethren in Jerusalem occupied much of Paul’s time and efforts before his last visit to that city. Many events, which have filled the world with noise and been written at length in histories, were less significant than that first outcome of the unifying spirit of common faith. It was a making visible of the grand thought, ‘Ye are all one in Christ Jesus.’ Practical help, prompted by a deep-lying sense of unity which overleaped gulfs of separation in race, language, and social conditions, was a unique novelty. It was the first pulsation of that spirit of Christian liberality which has steadily grown in force and sweep ever since. Foolish people gibe at some of its manifestations. Wiser ones regard its existence as not the least of the marks of the divine origin of Christianity.
This passage is a striking example of the inimitable delicacy of the Apostle. His words are full of what we should call tact, if it were not manifestly the spontaneous utterance of right feeling. They are a perfect model of the true way to appeal for money, and set forth also the true spirit in which such appeals should be made.
In verses 1 to 5, Paul seeks to stimulate the liberality of the Corinthians by recounting that of the Macedonian churches. His sketch draws in outline the picture of what all Christian money-giving should be. We note first the designation of the Macedonian Christians’ beneficence as ‘a grace’ given by God to them. It is twice called so vers. 1, 4, and the same name is applied in regard to the Corinthians’ giving vers. 6, 7. That is the right way to look at money contributions. The opportunity to give them, and the inclination to do so, are God’s gifts. How many of us think that calls for service or money are troublesome obligations, to be got out of as easily as possible! A true Christian will be thankful, as for a love token from God, for every occasion of giving to Him. It would be a sharp test for many of us to ask ourselves whether we can say, ‘To me . . . is this grace given,’ that I should part with my money for Christ’s sake.
Note, further, the lovely picture of these Macedonian givers. They were plunged in sorrows and troubles, but these did not dry their fountains of sympathy. Nothing is apt to be more selfish than grief; and if we have tears to spare for others, when they are flowing bitterly for ourselves, we have graduated well in Christ’s school. Paul calls the Macedonians’ troubles ‘proof of their affliction,’ meaning that it constituted a proof of their Christian character; that is, by the manner in which it was borne; and in it they had still ‘abundance of joy,’ for the paradox of the Christian life is that it admits of the co-existence of grief and gladness.
Again, Christian giving gives from scanty stores. ‘Deep poverty’ is no excuse for not giving, and will be no hindrance to a willing heart. ‘I cannot afford it’ is sometimes a genuine valid reason, but oftener an insincere plea. Why are subscriptions for religious purposes the first expenditure to be reduced in bad times?
Further, Christian giving gives up to the very edge of ability, and sometimes goes beyond the limits of so-called prudence. In all regions ‘power to its last particle is duty,’ and unless power is strained it is not fully exercised. It is in trying to do what we cannot do that we do best what we can do. He who keeps well within the limits of his supposed ability will probably not do half as much as he could. While there is a limit behind which generosity even for Christ may become dishonesty or disregard of other equally sacred claims, there is little danger of modern Christians transgressing that limit, and they need the stimulus to do a little more than they think they can do, rather than to listen to cold-blooded prudence.
Further, Christian giving does not wait to be asked, but takes the opportunity to give as itself ‘grace’ and presses its benefactions. It is an unwonted experience for a collector of subscriptions to be besought to take them ‘with much entreaty,’ but it would not be so anomalous if Christian people understood their privileges.
Further, Christian giving begins with the surrender of self to Christ, from which necessarily follows the glad offering of wealth. These Macedonians did more than Paul had hoped, and the explanation of the unexpected largeness of their contributions was their yielding of themselves to Jesus. That is the deepest source of all true liberality. If a man feels that he does not own himself, much less will he feel that his goods are his own. A slave’s owner possesses the slave’s bit of garden ground, his hut, and its furniture. If I belong to Christ, to whom does my money belong? But the consciousness that my goods are not mine, but Christ’s, is not to remain a mere sentiment. It can receive practical embodiment by my giving them to Christ’s representatives. The way for the Macedonians to show that they regarded their goods as Christ’s, was to give them to Paul for Christ’s poor saints. Jesus has His representatives still, and it is useless for people to talk or sing about belonging to Him, unless they verify their words by deeds.
Verse 6 tells the Corinthians that the success of the collection in Macedonia had induced Paul to send Titus to Corinth to promote it there. He had previously visited it on the same errand 2Co_12:14, and now is coming to complete ‘this grace.’ The rest of the passage is Paul’s appeal to the Corinthians for their help in the matter, and certainly never was such an appeal made in a more dignified, noble, and lofty tone. He has been dilating on the liberality of others, and thereby sanctioning the stimulating of Christian liberality, in the same way as other graces may legitimately be stimulated, by example. That is delicate ground to tread on, and needs caution if it is not to degenerate into an appeal to rivalry, as it too often does, but in itself is perfectly legitimate and wholesome. But, passing from that incitement, Paul rests his plea on deeper grounds.
First, Christian liberality is essential to the completeness of Christian character. Paul’s praise in verse 7 is not mere flattery, nor meant to put the Corinthians into good humour. He will have enough to say hereafter about scandals and faults, but now he gives them credit for all the good he knew to be in them. Faith comes first, as always. It is the root of every Christian excellence. Then follow two graces, eminently characteristic of a Greek church, and apt to run to seed in it,--utterance and knowledge. Then two more, both of a more emotional character,--earnestness and love, especially to Paul as Christ’s servant. But all these fair attributes lacked completeness without the crowning grace of liberality. It is the crowning grace, because it is the practical manifestation of the highest excellences. It is the result of sympathy, of unselfishness, of contact with Christ, of drinking in of His spirit, Love is best. Utterance and knowledge and earnestness are poor beside it. This grace is like the diamond which clasps a necklace of jewels.
Christian giving does not need to be commanded. ‘I speak not by way of commandment.’ That is poor virtue which only obeys a precept. Gifts given because it is duty to give them are not really gifts, but taxes. They leave no sweet savour on the hand that bestows, and bring none to that which receives. ‘I call you not servants, but friends.’ The region in which Christian liberality moves is high above the realm of law and its correlative, obligation.
Further, Christian liberality springs spontaneously from conscious possession of Christ’s riches. We cannot here enter on the mysteries of Christ’s emptying Himself of His riches of glory. We can but touch the stupendous fact, remembering that the place whereon we stand is holy ground. Who can measure the nature and depth of that self-denuding of the glory which He had with the Father before the world was? But, thank God, we do not need to measure it, in order to feel the solemn, blessed force of the appeal which it makes to us. Adoring wonder and gratitude, unfaltering trust and absolute self-surrender to a love so self-sacrificing, must ever follow the belief of that mystery of Divine mercy, the incarnation and sacrifice of the eternal Son.
But Paul would have us remember that the same mighty act of stooping love, which is the foundation of all our hope, is to be the pattern for all our conduct. Even in His divinest and most mysterious act, Christ is our example. A dewdrop is rounded by the same laws which shape the planetary spheres or the sun himself; and Christians but half trust Christ if they do not imitate Him. What selfishness in enjoyment of our ‘own things’ could live in us if we duly brought ourselves under the influence of that example? How miserably poor and vulgar the appeals by which money is sometimes drawn from grudging owners and tight-buttoned pockets, sound beside that heart-searching and heart-moving one, ‘Ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ!’
Further, Christian liberality will not go off in good intentions and benevolent sentiments. The Corinthians were ready with their ‘willing’ on Titus’s previous visit. Now Paul desires them to put their good feelings into concrete shape. There is plenty of benevolence that never gets to be beneficence. The advice here has a very wide application: ‘As there was the readiness to will, so there may be the completion also.’ We all know where the road leads that is paved with good intentions.
Further, Christian liberality is accepted and rewarded according to willingness, if that is carried into act according to ability. While the mere wish to help is not enough, it is the vital element in the act which flows from it; and there may be more of it in the widow’s mite than in the rich man’s large donation--or there may be less. The conditions of acceptable offerings are twofold--first, readiness, glad willingness to give, as opposed to closed hearts or grudging bestowals; and, second, that willingness embodied in the largest gift possible. The absence of either vitiates all. The presence of both gives trifles a place in God’s storehouse of precious things. A father is glad when his child brings him some utterly valueless present, not because he must, but because he loves; and many a parent has such laid away in sacred repositories. God knows how to take gifts from His children, not less well than we who are evil know how to do it.
But the gracious saying of our passage has a solemn side; for if only gifts ‘according as a man hath’ are accepted, what becomes of the many which fall far short of our ability, and are really given, not because we have the willing mind, but because we could not get out of the unwelcome necessity to part with a miserably inadequate percentage of our possessions. Is God likely to be satisfied with the small dividends which we offer as composition for our great debt?
RICH YET POOR
The Apostle has been speaking about a matter which, to us, seems very small, but to him was very great viz., a gathering of pecuniary help from the Gentile churches for the poor church in Jerusalem. Large issues, in his estimation, attended that exhibition of Christian unity, and, be it great or small, he applies the highest of all motives to this matter. ‘For ye know the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich yet for your sakes He became poor.’ The trivial things of life are to be guided and shaped by reference to the highest of all things, the example of Jesus Christ; and that in the whole depth of His humiliation, and even in regard to His cross and passion. We have here set forth, as the pattern to which the Christian life is to be conformed, the deepest conception of what our Lord’s career on earth was.
The whole Christian Church is about to celebrate the nativity of our Lord at this time. This text gives us the true point of view from which to regard it. We have here the work of Christ in its deepest motive, ‘The grace of our Lord Jesus.’ We have it in its transcendent self-impoverishment, ‘Though He was rich, yet for our sakes He became poor.’ We have it in its highest issue, ‘That ye through His poverty might become rich.’ Let us look at those points.
I. Here we have the deepest motive which underlies the whole work of Christ, unveiled to us.
‘Ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ Every word here is significant. It is very unusual in the New Testament to find that expression ‘grace’ applied to Jesus Christ. Except in the familiar benediction, I think there are only one or two instances of such a collocation of words. It is ‘the grace of God’ which, throughout the New Testament, is the prevailing expression. But here ‘grace is attributed to Jesus’; that is to say, the love of the Divine heart is, without qualification or hesitation, ascribed to Him. And what do we mean by grace? We mean love in exercise to inferiors. It is infinite condescension in Jesus to love. His love stoops when it embraces us. Very significant, therefore, is the employment here of the solemn full title, ‘the Lord Jesus Christ,’ which enhances the condescension by making prominent the height from which it bent. The ‘grace’ is all the more wonderful because of the majesty and sovereignty, to say the least of it, which are expressed in that title, the Lord. The highest stoops and stands upon the level of the lowest. ‘Grace’ is love that expresses itself to those who deserve something else. And the deepest motive, which is the very key to the whole phenomena of the life of Jesus Christ, is that it is all the exhibition, as it is the consequence, of a love that, stooping, forgives. ‘Grace’ is love that, stooping and forgiving, communicates its whole self to unworthy and transgressing recipients. And the key to the life of Jesus is that we have set forth in its operation a love which is not content to speak only the ordinary language of human affection, or to do its ordinary deeds, but is self-impelled to impart what transcends all other gifts of human tenderness, and to give its very self. And so a love that condescends, a love that passes by unworthiness, is turned away by no sin, is unmoved to any kind of anger, and never allows its cheek to flush or its heart to beat faster, because of any provocation and a love that is content with nothing short of entire surrender and self-impartation underlies all that precious life from Bethlehem to Calvary.
But there is another word in our text that may well be here taken into consideration. ‘For your sakes,’ says the Apostle to that Corinthian church, made up of people, not one of whom had ever seen or been seen by Jesus. And yet the regard to them was part of the motive that moved the Lord to His life, and His death. That is to say, to generalise the thought, this grace, thus stooping and forgiving and self-imparting, is a love that gathers into its embrace and to its heart all mankind; and is universal because it is individualising. Just as each planet in the heavens, and each tiny plant upon the earth, are embraced by, and separately receive, the benediction of that all-encompassing arch of the heaven, so that grace enfolds all, because it takes account of each. Whilst it is love for a sinful world, every soul of us may say: ‘He loved me, and’--therefore--’gave Himself for me.’ Unless we see beneath the sweet story of the earthly life this deep-lying source of it all, we fail to understand that life itself. We may bring criticism to bear upon it; we may apprehend it in diverse affecting, elevating, educating aspects; but, oh! brethren, we miss the blazing centre of the light, the warm heart of the fire, unless we see pulsating through all the individual facts of the life this one, all-shaping, all-vitalising motive; the grace--the stooping, the pardoning, the self-communicating, the individualising, and the universal love of Jesus Christ.
So then, we have here set before us the work of Christ in its--
II. Most mysterious and unique self-impoverishment.
‘He was . . . He became,’ there is one strange contrast. ‘He was _rich_ . . . He became _poor_,’ there is another. ‘He was . . . He became.’ What does that say? Well, it says that if you want to understand Bethlehem, you must go back to a time before Bethlehem. The meaning of Christ’s birth is only understood when we turn to that Evangelist who does not narrate it. For the meaning of it is here; ‘the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.’ The surface of the fact is the smallest part of the fact. They say that there is seven times as much of an iceberg under water as there is above the surface. And the deepest and most important fact about the nativity of our Lord is that it was not only the birth of an Infant, but the Incarnation of the Word. ‘He was . . . He became.’ We have to travel back and recognise that that life did not begin in the manger. We have to travel back and recognise the mystery of godliness, God manifest in the flesh.
And these two words ‘He was . . . He became,’ imply another thing, and that is, that Jesus Christ who died because He chose, was not passive in His being born, but as at the end of His earthly life, so at its beginning exercised His volition, and was born because He willed, and willed because of ‘the grace of our Lord Jesus.’
Now in this connection it is very remarkable, and well worth our pondering, that throughout the whole of the Gospels, when Jesus speaks of His coming into the world, He never uses the word ‘born’ but once, and that was before the Roman governor, who would not have understood or cared for anything further, to whom He did say,’To this end was I born.’ But even when speaking to him His consciousness that that word did not express the whole truth was so strong that He could not help adding--though He knew that the hard Roman procurator would pay no attention to the apparent tautology--the expression which more truly corresponded to the fact, ‘and for this cause came I into the world.’ The two phrases are not parallel. They are by no means synonymous. One expresses the outward fact; the other expresses that which underlay it. ‘To this end was I born.’ Yes! ‘And for this cause came I.’ He Himself put it still more definitely when He said, ‘I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world. Again, I leave the world and go unto the Father.’ So the two extremities of the earthly manifestation are neither of them ends; but before the one, and behind the other, there stretches an identity or oneness of Being and condition. The one as the other, the birth and the death, may be regarded as, in deepest reality, not only what He passively endured, but what He actively did. He was born, and He died, that in all points He might be ‘like unto His brethren.’ He ‘came’ into the world, and He ‘went’ to the Father. The end circled round to the beginning, and in both He acted because He chose, and chose because He loved.
So much, then, lies in the one of these two antitheses of my text; and the other is no less profound and significant. ‘He was rich; He became poor.’ In this connection ‘rich’ can only mean possessed of the Divine fulness and independence; and ‘poor’ can only mean possessed of human infirmity, dependence, and emptiness. And so to Jesus of Nazareth, to be born was impoverishment. If there is nothing more in His birth than in the birth of each of us, the words are grotesquely inappropriate to the facts of the case. For as between nothingness, which is the alternative, and the possession of conscious being, there is surely a contrast the very reverse of that expressed here. For us, to be born is to be endowed with capacities, with the wealth of intelligent, responsible, voluntary being; but to Jesus Christ, if we accept the New Testament teaching, to be born was a step, an infinite step, downwards, and He, alone of all men, might have been ‘ashamed to call men brethren.’ But this denudation of Himself, into the particulars of which I do not care to enter now, was the result of that stooping grace which ‘counted it not a thing to be clutched hold of, to be equal with God; but He made Himself of no reputation, and was found in fashion as a man, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross.’
And so, dear friends, we know the measure of the stooping love of Jesus only when we read the history by the light of this thought, that ‘though He was rich’ with all the fulness of that eternal Word which was ‘in the beginning with God,’ ‘He became poor,’ with the poverty, the infirmity, the liability to temptation, the weakness, that attach to humanity; ‘and was found in all points like unto His brethren,’ that He might be able to help and succour them all.
The last thing here is--
III. The work of Christ set forth in its highest issue.
‘That we through His poverty might become rich.’ Of course, the antithetical expressions must be taken to be used in the same sense, and with the same width of application, in both of the clauses. And if so, just think reverently, wonderingly, thankfully, of the infinite vista of glorious possibility that is open to us here. Christ was rich in the possession of that Divine glory which Had had with the Father before the world was. ‘He became poor,’ in assuming the weakness of the manhood that you and I carry, that we, in the human poverty which is like His poverty, may become rich with wealth that is like His riches, and that as He stooped to earth veiling the Divine with the human, we may rise to heaven, clothing the human with the Divine.
For surely there is nothing more plainly taught in Scriptures, and I am bold to say nothing to which any deep and vital Christian experience even here gives more surely an anticipatory confirmation, than the fact that Christ became like unto us, that each of us may become like unto Him. The divine and the human natures are similar, and the fact of the Incarnation, on the one hand, and of the man’s glorification by possession of the divine nature on the other, equally rest upon that fundamental resemblance between the divine nature and the human nature which God has made in His own image. If that which in each of us is unlike God is cleared away, as it can be cleared away, through faith in that dear Lord, then the likeness as a matter of course, comes into force.
The law of all elevation is that whosoever desires to lift must stoop; and the end of all stooping is to lift the lowly to the place from which the love hath bent itself. And this is at once the law for the Incarnation of the Christ, and for the elevation of the Christian. ‘We shall be like Him for we shall see Him as He is.’ And the great love, the stooping, forgiving, self-communicating love, doth not reach its ultimate issue, nor effect fully the purposes to which it ever is tending, unless and until all who have received it are ‘changed from glory to glory even into the image of the Lord.’ We do not understand Jesus, His cradle, or His Cross, unless on the one hand we see in them His emptying Himself that He might fill us, and, on the other hand, see, as the only result which warrants them and satisfies Him, our complete conformity to His image, and our participation in that glory which He has at the right hand of God. That is the prospect for humanity, and it is possible for each of us.
I do not dwell upon other aspects of this great self-emptying of our Lord’s, such as the revelation in it to us of the very heart of God, and of the divinest thing in the divine nature, which is love, or such as the sympathy which is made possible thereby to Him, and which is not only the pity of a God, but the compassion of a Brother. Nor do I touch upon many other aspects which are full of strengthening and teaching. That grand thought that Jesus has shared our human poverty that we may share His divine riches is the very apex of the New Testament teaching, and of the Christian hope. We have within us, notwithstanding all our transgressions, what the old divines used to call a ‘deiform nature,’ capable of being lifted up into the participation of divinity, capable of being cleansed from all the spots and stains which make us so unlike Him in whose likeness we were made.
Brethren, let us not forget that this stooping, and pardoning, and self-imparting love, has for its main instrument to appeal to our hearts, not the cradle but the Cross. We are being told by many people to-day that the centre of Christianity lies in the thought of an Incarnation. Yes. But our Lord Himself has told us what that was for.
‘The Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many.’ It is only when we look to that Lord in His death, and see there the very lowest point to which He stooped, and the supreme manifestation of His grace, that we shall be drawn to yield our hearts and lives to Him in thankfulness, in trust, and in imitation: and shall set Him before us as the pattern for our conduct, as well as the Object of our trust.
Brethren, my text was spoken originally as presenting the motive and the example for a little piece of pecuniary liability. Do you take the cradle and the Cross as the law of your lives? For depend upon it, the same necessity which obliged Jesus to come down to our level, if He would lift us to His; to live our life and die our death, if He would make us partakers of His immortal life, and deliver us from death; makes it absolutely necessary that if we are to live for anything nobler than our own poor, transitory self-aggrandisement, we too must learn to stoop to forgive, to impart ourselves, and must die by self-surrender and sacrifice, if we are ever to communicate any life, or good of life, to others. He has loved us, and given Himself for us. He has set us therein an example which He commends to us by His own word when He tells us that ‘if a corn of wheat’ is to bring forth ‘much fruit’ it must die, else it ‘abideth alone.’ Unless we die, we never truly live; unless we die to ourselves for others, and like Jesus, we live alone in the solitude of a self-enclosed self-regard. So living, we are dead whilst we live.
WILLING AND NOT DOING
The Revised Version reads: ‘But now complete the doing also; that as there was the readiness to will, so there may be the completion also out of your ability.’ A collection of money for the almost pauper church at Jerusalem bulked very largely in the Apostle’s mind at the date of the writing of the two letters to the Corinthian church. We learn that that church had been the first to agree to the project, and then had very distinctly hung back from implementing its promises and fulfilling its good intentions. So the Apostle, in the chapter from which my text is taken, with wonderful delicacy, dignity, and profundity, sets forth the true principle, not only of Christian giving, but of Christian asking. The text advises that the gushing sentiments of brotherly sympathy and liberality which had inspired the Corinthians a year ago should now bear some fruit in action. So Paul is going to send Titus, his right-hand man at the time, to hurry up and finish off the collection and have done with it. The text is in effect the message which Titus was to carry; but it has a far wider application than that. It is a needful advice for us all about a great many other things: ‘As there was a readiness to will, so let there be a performance also.’
Resolutions, noble and good and Christlike, have a strange knack of cheating the people who make them. So we all need the exhortation not to be befooled by fancying that we have done, when we have only willed. Of course we shall not do unless we will. But there is a wide gap, as our experience witnesses, between the two things. We all know what place it is to which, according to the old proverb, the road is paved with good intentions; and the only way to pull up that paving is to take Paul’s advice here and always, and immediately to put into action the resolves of our hearts. Now I desire to say two or three very plain and simple things about this matter.
I. I would have you consider the necessity of this commandment.
Consider that the fault here warned against is a universal one. What different men we should be if our resolutions had fruited in conduct! In all regions of life that is true, but most emphatically is it true in regard to religion. The damning tragedy of many lives, and I dare say of those of some of my hearers, is that men have over and over again determined that they would be Christians, and they are not Christians yet; just because they have let ‘the native hue of resolution be sicklied over’ by some paleness or other, and so have resolved and resolved and resolved till every nerve of action is rotted away, and they will die unchristian. I dare say that there are men or women listening to me now, perhaps with grey hairs upon them, who can remember times, in the springtide of their youth, when they said, ‘I will give my heart to Jesus Christ, and set my faith upon Him’; and they have not done it yet. Now, therefore, ‘as there was a readiness to will, let there be also the performance.’
But it is not only in regard to that most important of all resolves that I wish to say a word. All Christians, I am sure, know what it is, over and over again, to have had stirrings in their hearts which they have been able to consolidate into determination, but have not been able to carry into act. ‘The children have come to the birth, and there is not strength to bring them forth.’ That is true about all of us, more or less, and it is very solemnly true of a great many of us professing Christians. We have tried to cure--we have determined that we will cure--manifest and flagrant defects or faults in our Christian life. We have resolved, and some nipping frost has come, and the blossoms have dropped on the grass before they have ever set into fruit. I know that is so about you, because I know that it is so about myself. And therefore, dear brethren, I appeal to you, and ask you whether the exhortation of my text has not a sharp point for every one of us--whether the universality of this defect does not demand that we all should gravely consider the exhortation here before us?
Then, again, let me remind you how this injunction is borne in upon us by the consideration of the strength of the opposition with which we have always to contend, in every honest attempt to bring to act our best resolutions. Did you ever try to cure some little habit, some mere trifle, a trick of manner or twist of the finger, or some attitude or tone that might be ugly and awkward, and that people told you that it would be better to get rid of? You know how hard it is. There is always a tremendous gulf between the ideal and its realisation in life. As long as we are moving _in vacuo_ we move without any friction or difficulty; but as soon as we come out into a world where there are an atmosphere and opposing forces, then friction comes in, and speed diminishes; and we never become what we aim to be. We begin with grand purposes, and we end with very poor results. We all start, in our early days, with the notion that our lives are going to be radiant and beautiful, and all unlike what the limitations of power and the antagonisms that we have to meet make of them at last. The tree of our life’s doings has to grow, like those contorted pines on the slopes of the Alps, in many storms, with heavy weights of snow on its branches, and beaten about by tempests from every quarter of the heavens; and so it gets gnarled and knotted and very unlike the symmetrical beauty that we dreamed would adorn it. We begin with saying: ‘Come! Let us build a tower whose top shall reach to heaven’; and we are contented at last, if we have put up some little tumble-down shed where we can get shelter for our heads from the blast.
And the difficulty in bringing into action our best selves besets us in the matter of translating our resolutions into practice. What are arrayed against it? A feeble will, enslaved too often by passions and flesh and habits, and all about us lie obstacles to our carrying into action our conscientious convictions, our deepest resolutions; obstacles to our being true to our true selves; to which obstacles, alas, far too many of us habitually, and all of us occasionally, succumb. That being the case, do not we all need to ponder in our deepest hearts, and to pray for grace to make the motto of our lives, ‘As there was a readiness to will, let there be a performance’?
II. Consider the importance of this counsel.
That is borne in upon mind and conscience by looking at the disastrous effects of letting resolutions remain sterile. Consider how apt we are to deceive ourselves with unfulfilled purposes. The quick response which an easily-moved nature may make to some appeal of noble thought or lofty principle is mistaken for action, and we are tempted to think that willing is almost as good as if we had done what we half resolved on. And there is a kind of glow of satisfaction that comes when such a man thinks, ‘I have done well in that I have determined.’ The Devil will let you resolve as much as you like--the more the better; only the more easily you resolve, the more certainly he will block the realisation. Let us take care of that seducing temptation which is apt to lead us all to plume ourselves on good resolutions, and to fancy that they are almost equivalent to their own fulfilment. Cheques are all very well if there be bullion in the bank cellars to pay them with when they fall due, but if that be not so, then the issuing of them is crime and fraud. Our resolutions, made and forgotten as so many of our good resolutions are, are very little better.
Note, too, how rapidly the habit of substituting lightly-made resolutions for seriously-endeavoured acts grows.
And mark, further, how miserable and debilitating it is to carry the dead weight of such unaccomplished intentions.
Nothing so certainly weakens a man as a multitude of resolves that he knows he has never fulfilled. They weaken his will, burden his conscience, stand in the way of his hopes, make him feel as if the entail of evil was too firm and strong to be ever broken. ‘O wretched man that I am!’ said one who had made experience of what it was to will what was good, and not to find how to perform, ‘who shall deliver me from the body of this death?’ It is an awful thing to have to carry a corpse about on your back. And that was what Paul thought the man did who loaded his own shoulders with abortive resolutions, that perished in the birth, and never grew up to maturity. Weak and miserable is always the man who is swift to resolve and slow to carry out his resolutions.
III. And now let me say a word before I close about how this universal and grave disease is to be coped with.
Well, I should say to begin with, let us take very soberly and continually into our consciousness the recognition of the fact that the disease is there. And then may I say, let us be rather slower to resolve than we often are. ‘Better is it that thou shouldest not vow than that thou shouldest vow and not pay.’ The man who has never had the determination to give up some criminal indulgence--say, drink--is possibly less criminal, and certainly less weak, than the man who, when his head aches, and the consequences of his self-indulgence are vividly realised by him, makes up his mind to be a teetotaller, and soon stumbles into the first dram-shop that is open, and then reels out a drunkard. Do not vow until you have made up your minds to pay. Remember that it is a solemn act to determine anything, especially anything bearing on moral and religious life; and that you had far better keep your will in suspense than spring to the resolution with thoughtless levity and leave it with the same.
Further, the habit of promptly carrying out our resolves is one that, like all other habits, can be cultivated. And we can cultivate it in little things, in the smallest trifles of daily life, which by their myriads make up life itself, in order that it may be a fixed custom of our minds when great resolves have to be made. The man who has trained himself day in and day out, in regard to the insignificances of daily life, to let act follow resolve as the thunder peal succeeds the lightning flash, is the man who, if he is moved to make a great resolve about his religion, or about his conduct, will be most likely to carry it out. Get the magical influence of habit on your side, and you will have done much to conquer the evil of abortive resolutions.
But then there is something a great deal more than that to be said. The Apostle did not content himself, in the passage already referred to, with bewailing the wretchedness of the condition in which to will was present, but how to perform he found not. He asked, and he triumphantly answered, the question, ‘Who shall deliver me?’ with the great words, ‘I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.’ There is the secret; keep near Him, trust Him, open your hearts to the influences of that Divine Spirit who makes us free from the law of sin and death. And if thus, knowing our weakness, recognising our danger, humbly trying to cultivate the habit of prompt discharge of all discerned duty, we leave ourselves in Jesus Christ’s hands, and wait, and ask, and believe that we possess, His cleansing Spirit, then we shall not ask and wait in vain. ‘Work out your own salvation, . . . for it is God that worketh in you, both the willing and the doing.’