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1 Thessalonians 5:1-8. Of the times and the seasons, brethren, ye have no need that I write unto you. For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child, and they shall not escape. But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober. For they, that sleep sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night. But let us who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breast-plate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation.
ON an occasion like the present, when God is so loudly speaking to us by his providence, I am anxious that his voice, and his alone, should be heard amongst us: for as, on the one hand, it would be peculiarly difficult so to speak, as to cut off all occasion for misconception, so, on the other hand, filled as your minds are with holy fear and reverence, it will be far more grateful to you to sit, as it were, at the feet of Jesus, and to hear what the Lord God himself shall say concerning you [Note: Preached before the University of Cambridge, on occasion of the death of the Rev. Dr. Jowett, Regius Professor of Civil Law; Nov. 21, 1813.]. Methinks, in the spirit of your minds you are all, even this whole congregation, like Cornelius and his company, saying, “Now are we all here present before God, to hear all things that are commanded thee of God:” yes, I would hope that each individual is now in the posture of Samuel, “Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth.” To meet these devout wishes in a suitable manner, I have chosen a portion of Scripture, which contains all that the occasion calls for, and bears the impress of Divine authority in every part. It comes home to our business and bosoms: it turns our minds from the distinguished individual whose loss we deplore, and fixes them on our own personal concerns; proclaiming to every one of us, “Prepare to meet thy God.”
The point to which it more immediately calls our attention, is, the coming of our Lord to judgment. The precise period when that awful event shall take place has never been revealed either to men or angels: it is “a secret which the Father has reserved in his own bosom.” This only we know concerning it, that it will come suddenly and unexpected to all them that dwell on the earth: and therefore it is our wisdom to be always standing prepared for it. We believe indeed that it is yet far distant from us, because there are many prophecies which yet remain to be accomplished previous to its arrival: but to us the day of death is as the day of judgment; because as death finds us, so shall we appear at the bar of judgment; and “as the tree falleth, so will it lie” to all eternity. We shall therefore speak of death and judgment as, in effect, the same to us; and we shall notice in succession,
The uncertainty of the period when doath shall arrive—
The character of those who are prepared for it—
The duty of all in reference to it—
As to the uncertainty of the period when death and judgment shall arrive, the idea is so familiar to our minds, and the truth of it so self-evident, that, as the Apostle intimates, ye have no need to have it brought before you. Yet though universally acknowledged as a truth, how rarely is it felt as a ground of action in reference to the eternal world! We look into the Holy Scriptures, and there we see this truth written as with a sun-beam. We behold the whole human race surprised at the deluge in the midst of all their worldly cares and pleasures; and all, except one little family, swept away by one common destruction. A similar judgment we behold executed on the cities of the plain: and these particular judgments are held forth to us as warnings of what we ourselves have reason to expect. Our blessed Lord says to us, “Be ye also ready; for in an hour that ye think not the Son of Man cometh:” yet we cannot realize the thought, that death should ever so overtake us. Nay, we even try to put the conviction far from us, and, in every instance of sudden death that we hear of, endeavour to find some reason for the mortality of our neighbour, which does not attach to ourselves. When, as in the instance now before us, a person is snatched away suddenly, and in full health, as it were, we are constrained for a moment to reflect, that we also are liable to be called away: but it is surprising how soon the thought vanishes from our minds, and how little permanent effect remains. We are told, that our danger is in reality increased by our security; and that we are then most of all exposed to the stroke of death, when we are most dreaming of “peace and safety;” yet we cannot awake from our torpor, or set ourselves to prepare for death and judgment. We are not altogether unconscious, that destruction, even inevitable and irremediable destruction, must be the portion of those who are taken unprepared; and yet we defer our preparation for eternity, in the hope of finding some more convenient season. We see our neighbour surprised as by “a thief in the night;” and yet we hope that notice will be given to us. We even bear about in our persons some disorders or infirmities which might warn us of our approaching end; and yet we look for another and another day, till like a woman in travail, we are unexpectedly seized, and with great anguish of mind are constrained to obey the call.
Now whence is it, that notwithstanding “we know perfectly” the uncertainty of life, we are so little affected with the consideration of it? If there were no future state of existence, we might account for it; because men would naturally put away from them any thoughts, which might diminish their enjoyment of present good. But when this life is only a space afforded us to prepare for a better, and when an eternity of happiness or misery depends on our improvement of the present hour, it is truly amazing that we should be able to indulge so fatal a security. One would think that every one would be employing all the time that he could redeem from the necessary duties of life, in order to provide for his eternal state: one would think that he should scarcely give sleep to his eyes or slumber to his eye-lids, till he had obtained a clear evidence of his acceptance with God, and had “made his calling and election sure.” But this is not the case: and therefore, evident as the truth is, we need to have it brought before us, and enforced on our minds and consciences by every argument that can be adduced.
Permit me then to remind those who are living in open sins, that they know not how soon they may be called into the presence of their God, with all their sins upon them. And how will they endure the sight of their offended God? Will they, when standing at his tribunal, make as light of sin as they now do? Will they prevail on him to view it as mere youthful indiscretion, and unworthy of any serious notice? No, in truth: if any could come to us from the dead, they would not designate their crimes by such specious terms as they once used respecting them; but would tell us plainly, that “they who do such things cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” Think then, ye who make a mock at sin, how soon your voice may be changed, and all your present sport be turned to “weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth!”
Nor is it to open sinners only that we must suggest these thoughts: we must remind the moral also, and the sober, that death may quickly terminate their day of grace: yes, we must “put them in remembrance of these things, though they know them, and be established” in the belief of them. We mean not to undervalue sobriety and outward morality: no; we rejoice to see even an external conformity to Christian duties. But more than outward morality is wanting for our final acceptance with God. We must have a penitent and contrite spirit: we must seek refuge in Christ from all the curses of the broken law: we must be renewed in the spirit of our mind by the sanctifying influences of the Holy Ghost: we must be brought to live no longer to ourselves, but unto Him who died for us, and rose again. These things are absolutely and indispensably necessary to our salvation: the form of godliness, how far soever it may carry us, will profit us nothing at the bar of judgment, if we possess not the power of it. How awful then is the thought, that, in a few days or weeks, those persons who are most respected and revered amongst us for their wisdom and learning, for their probity and honour, may be called to give up their account to God, before they have attained that vital godliness which must constitute their meetness for heaven!
But indeed the uncertainty of life speaks loudly to the best of men; it bids them to “stand upon their watch-tower,” and be ready at every moment to meet their last enemy: for, as mere morality will profit little without real piety, so the lamp of outward profession will be of no service, if it be destitute of that oil which God alone can bestow.
It is a matter of consolation to us, however, that some are prepared for death, however suddenly it may come.
Who they are, and what their character is, we now come to shew—
The Scriptures every where draw a broad line of distinction between the true servants of Christ, and those who are such only in name and profession. Thus, in the words before us, they are called “Children of the light and of the day,” in opposition to those who are “of the night and of darkness.” Doubtless this distinction primarily referred to their having been brought out of the darkness of heathen superstitions, into the marvellous light of the Gospel of Christ. But we must not suppose that it is to be limited to this. The ways of sin and ignorance are justly denominated darkness, no less than idolatry itself: and the paths of faith and holiness may be called “light,” whether we have been brought into them suddenly from a state of heathenism, or gradually, under a profession of Christianity itself. Now of the Thessalonians he could say, in the judgment of charity, that “they all were children of the light and of the day.” The state of profession was very different then from what it is at this time: people did not embrace Christianity unless they had been strongly convinced of its truth; and the moment they did embrace it, they strove to “walk worthy of their high calling,” and to stimulate each other to “adorn the doctrine of God their Saviour in all things.” The persecutions they suffered obliged them to have constant recourse to God in prayer for his support; and to watch carefully over their own conduct, that they might not give any just “occasion to their adversaries to speak reproachfully.” Hence their religion was vital and practical, and very different from that which obtains among the professors of Christianity at this day. Now men are reputed Christians, though they have their affections altogether set upon the world, and their habits differing but little from those of heathens. A man may be a Christian, though he drink, and swear, and commit evils, which ought scarcely to be so much as named amongst us. A man may be a Christian, though he have no real love to Christ, no sweet communion with him, no holy glorying in his cross and passion. But “ye have not so learned Christ, if so be ye have heard him, and been taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus.” The distinction between light and darkness is the same as ever: and those only who walk according to the example of the primitive Christians, can be called “the children of the light and of the day.” But those, whoever they be, are prepared for death: to them, though it may come suddenly, it cannot come unlooked for: it “cannot overtake them as a thief.”
And such was that exalted character, whom it has pleased our God so suddenly to take from the midst of us. In whatever light we view him, he was a bright and consistent character, an ornament to his profession, an honour to his God. It is the peculiar excellence of religion, that it operates in every department of human life, and stimulates to an exemplary discharge of every duty. It is superfluous for me to mention, with what unwearied diligence, and distinguished ability, he filled the high office which had been assigned him in this university; and how uniform have been his exertions, for upwards of thirty years, for the advancement of learning, the maintenance of order, and the due regulation of all the complicated concerns of the university at large. Long, long will his loss be felt, in every department which he had been called to fill. To him every one looked, as his most judicious friend, in cases of difficulty; assured that, whilst by his comprehensive knowledge he was well qualified to advise, he was warped by no prejudices, nor biassed by any interests: he ever both advised, and did, what he verily believed to be right in the sight of God. His superiority to all worldly considerations was strongly marked throughout the whole course of his life; more indeed to his honour, than the honour of those, by whom such eminent talents and such transcendent worth have for so long a period been overlooked.
Had these excellencies arisen only from worldly principles, though they would have shed a lustre over his character, and conferred benefits on the body of which he was a member,—they would have availed little as a preparation for death and judgment. But they were the fruits of true religion in his soul. He had been brought out of the darkness of a natural state, and had been greatly enriched with divine knowledge. He was indeed “mighty in the Scriptures;” his views of divine truth were deep, and just, and accurate; and, above all, they were influential on the whole of his life and conduct. He not only beheld Christ as the Saviour of the world, but relied on him as his only hope, and cleaved to him with full purpose of heart, and gloried in him as his Lord, his God, and his whole salvation. Nor was he satisfied with serving God in his closet: no; he confessed his Saviour openly; he was a friend and patron of religion, he encouraged it in all around him; he was not ashamed of Christ, nor of any of his faithful followers. He accounted it no degradation to shew in every way his attachment to the Gospel, and his full conviction that there is salvation in no other name under heaven than the name of Jesus Christ. He was, in the highest sense of the word, “a child of light:” and verily he caused “his light so to shine before men,” that all who beheld it were constrained to glorify God in his behalf.
To him then death came not as a thief in the night. Though it came suddenly, so suddenly that he had not the smallest apprehension of its approach, it found him not unprepared. His loins were girt, his lamp was trimmed, and he entered, a welcome guest, to the marriage-supper of his Lord.
O that we all might be found equally prepared, when the summons from on high shall be sent to us! O that we may have in our souls an evidence, that we also are “children of the light and of the day!” Happy indeed would it be, if the state of religion amongst us were such, that we might adopt with truth the charitable expression in our text, “Ye all are children of the light and of the day.” But if we cannot do this, we have at least reason to be thankful, that real piety is certainly more prevalent amongst us than it was some years ago; that prejudices against it have most astonishingly subsided; and that, where it does not yet reign, its excellence is secretly acknowledged; so that on this occasion we may doubt whether there be so much as one amongst us, who does not say in his heart, “Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his.”
Let me then proceed,
To point out the duty of all, in reference to that day—
We should “not sleep as do others.” Those who put the evil day far from them, can live unmindful of their God, and regardless of the sentence that he shall pass upon them. They can go on dreaming of heaven and happiness in the eternal world, though they never walk in the way thither, or seek to obtain favour with their offended God. But let it not be thus with any who desire happiness beyond the grave. If ever we would behold the face of God in peace, we must improve our present hours in turning to him, and in labouring to perform his will. If the prize held out to those who wrestled, or ran, or fought, could not be obtained without the most strenuous exertions, much less can the glory of heaven be obtained, unless the acquisition of it be the great object of our lives. It is true indeed that “the Son of Man must give unto us the meat that endureth to everlasting life;” but still we must “labour for it” with all our heart, and mind, and soul, and strength. To expect the end without using the means, is to reverse the decrees of heaven, and to deceive ourselves to our eternal ruin. We must “watch and be sober.” It is an inordinate attachment to earthly things that keeps us from the pursuit of heavenly things. The cares, the pleasures, the honours of this life, engross all our attention, and leave us neither time nor inclination for higher objects. This grovelling disposition we must resist and mortify. We must set our affections on things above, and not on things on the earth; and must not only keep heaven constantly in view, but must so run as to obtain the prize. The men of this world affect darkness rather than light, as being more suited to the habits in which they delight to live. “They that sleep, sleep in the night; and they that be drunken, (if not lost to all sense of shame,) are drunken in the night:” but we, if indeed we are of the day, shall delight to “come forth to the light, that our deeds may be made manifest that they are wrought in God.” We should study the Holy Scriptures, not merely to acquire a critical knowledge of them, (though that is good and necessary in its place;) but to find what is the will of God, and what is that way in which he has commanded us to walk: and instead of being satisfied with doing what shall satisfy the demands of an accusing conscience, we must aspire after a perfect conformity to the Divine image, and endeavour to “walk in all things even as Christ himself walked.”
But our duty is described in our text under some peculiar images, to which we shall do well to advert. We are supposed to be as sentinels, watching against the incursions of our spiritual foe. For our protection, armour of heavenly temper has been provided: “for a breast-plate, we are to put on faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation.” We might, if it were needful, mark the suitableness of these various graces to the protection of the part which they are intended to defend. But as this would lead us rather from our main subject, we content ourselves with a general view of these graces, as necessary for the final attainment of everlasting salvation. We must put on faith, without which indeed we are exposed to the assault of every enemy, and destitute of any means of defence whatever. It is in Christ only that we have the smallest hope of acceptance with God; and in him alone have we those treasures of grace and strength which are necessary for a successful prosecution of our spiritual warfare: “He is made of God unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.” But how must we obtain these things from him? It is by faith, and by faith only that we can “receive them out of his fulness.” This then is the first grace which we must cultivate; for according to our faith all other things will be unto us. To him we must look continually; renouncing every other confidence, and trusting altogether in him alone. In the fountain of his precious blood we must wash our guilty souls, or, as the Scripture expresses it, “Our garments must be made white in the blood of the Lamb.” To him, under every conflict, we must cry for strength; for it is his grace alone that can be sufficient for us; and “through his strength communicated to us, we shall be able to do all things.” Yet, notwithstanding all our exertions, we shall find that in many things we daily offend; and therefore, under every fresh contracted guilt, we must look to Him who is “our Advocate with the Father, and the propitiation for our sins.” Hence it is that all our peace must flow; and hence we shall find a satisfactory answer to the accusations of every enemy: “Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died; yea rather, that is risen again, who also maketh intercession for us.”
But together with this we must cultivate love; which indeed is the inseparable fruit of faith; for “faith worketh by love.” Whether we understand “love” as having God or man for its object, or as comprehending both, it is a good defence against our spiritual enemies. For, if we truly love our God, who shall prevail upon us to offend him? If we “love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity,” “who shall separate us from him? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No; in all these things we shall be more than conquerors through Him that loved us.” And if we love our fellow-creatures as ourselves, we shall strive to benefit them to the utmost of our power; and account no sacrifice great, which may contribute to their welfare: we shall be ready to “suffer all things for the elect’s sake,” and even to “lay down our lives for the brethren.”
Behold then, what a defence is here against the darts of our enemies! Who shall be able to pierce our breast, when so protected? We may defy all the confederate armies of earth and hell: “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.”
For the protection of our head there is an helmet provided, even “the hope of salvation.” Let a man have been “begotten to a lively hope in Christ Jesus, to a hope of that inheritance which is incorruptible and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for us,” and will he barter it away for the things of time and sense? or will he suffer his views of heaven to be clouded by the indulgence of any unhallowed lusts? No; he will contend with every enemy of his soul: he will “crucify the flesh with its affections and lusts:” he will “lay aside every weight, and the sins that most easily beset him, and will run with patience the race that is set before him, looking unto Jesus, the Author and Finisher of his faith.” Instead of forgetting the great day of the Lord, he will be “looking for, and hasting unto, the coming of the day of Christ.” Though willing to live for the good of others, he will “desire rather for himself to depart, that he may be with Christ, which is far better” than any enjoyment that can be found on earth. “Not that he will desire so much to be unclothed,” because of any present troubles, as to “be clothed upon, that mortality may be swallowed up of life.”
This armour then must be procured; this armour must be worn; and, clothed in it, we must watch against all our enemies.
And though others sleep, yet must not we: yea, if all around us should be drowned in sleep, yet must not we give way to slumber: if to be sober and vigilant must of necessity make us singular, we must dare to be singular, even as Elijah in the midst of Israel, or as Noah in the antediluvian world. If it be true that none but those who are children of the light and of the day are ready for death and judgment, let us come forth to the light without delay, and endeavour to walk in the light, even as God himself is in the light. His word is light: it shews us in all things how to walk and to please him: it sets before us examples also, in following whom we shall by faith and patience inherit the promises, as they now do. Let this word then be taken as a light to our feet, and a lantern to our paths: and let us follow it in all things, as those that would approve themselves to the heart-searching God. Let us not listen to any vain excuses for delay. We see, in the instance before us, how suddenly we may be called away, and how soon our day of grace may come to a close. And how terrible will it be, if that day should overtake us as a thief! Let us be wise: I beseech you all, by the tender mercies of God, to have compassion on your own souls, and to “work while it is day, knowing that the night cometh wherein no man can work.”
THE DUTIES OF MODERATION AND WATCHFULNESS
1 Thessalonians 5:8. Let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breast-plate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation.
THE exact season of the day of judgment is wisely hid from our eyes. If it were revealed to us, there is no reason to think that we should make a right improvement of that knowledge. The uncertainty of its arrival is far better calculated to excite our diligence in religious duties, because, while we are told that it will come as surely, as irresistibly, and as unexpectedly too, as a thief in the night, or as travail upon a woman with child, we see the necessity of continual watchfulness and preparation for it. The world at large indeed will rest in supineness and security, in spite of every warning that is given them: but they who profess to fear God should manifest a different spirit, and, as persons apprised of their danger, should ever stand upon their guard. To this effect the Apostle exhorts us in the text; in discoursing on which we shall consider,
The description given of believers—
The careless world are in a state of intellectual and moral darkness—
[The light of divine truth has not shined into their hearts, nor have the clouds of nature’s darkness been dispelled. “They call evil good, and good evil; and put darkness for light, and light for darkness [Note: Isaiah 5:20.].” Their lives too abound with deeds of darkness; “nor will they come to the light, lest their deeds should be reproved.”]
As contrasted with them, believers “are of the day”—
[They have been “brought out of darkness into the marvellous light” of the Gospel, and are enabled to “discern between good and evil.” Their dispositions also are changed, so that they desire to “walk in the light, even as God is in the light;” and they “come to the light, that their deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.” They see indeed much in themselves for which they have reason to be ashamed: but they would gladly attain to such purity of heart, that their inmost thoughts and principles, no less than their actions, should bear the minutest inspection of all their fellow-creatures.]
But that they are prone to relapse into their former state, is strongly intimated in,
The exhortation addressed to them—
The children of darkness are represented in the preceding context as addicted to sloth and intemperance [Note: ver. 7.]; in opposition to which vices, believers are exhorted to “be sober,” that is, to exercise,
[They who know not the vanity of earthly things may reasonably be expected to run to excess in their attachment to them, and their anxiety about them. But it ill becomes those who have been enlightened by the Spirit of God, to set their hearts upon such empty, unsatisfying, transient enjoyments. God would have them to “be without carefulness,” like “the birds of the air, that neither sow nor gather into barns.” He expects them to “set their affections rather on things above,” and to put forth the energy of their minds in the pursuit of objects worthy the attention of an immortal spirit. And though they may both rejoice and weep on account of present occurrences, yet they should “rejoice as though they rejoiced not, and weep as though they wept not, because the fashion of this world passeth away [Note: 1 Corinthians 7:29-31.].”]
[Others yield to sloth, because they see no occasion for activity: but believers know what numerous and mighty enemies they have to contend with: they see too, how short and uncertain their time is for accomplishing the work which God has given them to do: and of what infinite importance it is that, whenever called to appear before God, they should be able to give a good account of their stewardship: surely then they can find no time to loiter. They should rather exert themselves with all diligence; and, “whatsoever their hand findeth to do, they should do it with all their might.”]
This exhortation is at once illustrated and enforced by,
The particular direction with which it is accompanied—
Believers, whatever they may have attained, are yet in a state of warfare—
[Their enemies, though often vanquished, are still ready to return to the charge: nor will they fail to take advantage of any unwatchfulness on our part: they know the places where we are most open to assault; nor have we any security against them but by guarding every pass, and standing continually on our watch-tower. Without such precautions the strongest would be overcome, and the most victorious be reduced to a miserable captivity.]
There is, however, armour, whereby they may become invincible—
[Faith, hope, and love, are the principal graces of the Christian; and, while he keeps them in exercise, they are as armour to his soul. Faith sees the things that are invisible, as though they were present to the bodily eyes: love fixes our hearts upon them: and hope both appropriates them to ourselves, and enables us to anticipate the enjoyment of them. Having these for our helmet and our breast-plate, our head and heart are secured. In vain does Satan suggest, that there is nothing beyond this present world, or nothing better than what he offers us, or that, if there be, we at least have no part in it. These fiery darts are instantly repelled; and we determine to continue our conflicts with him, till he is bruised under our feet.]
This armour therefore every believer must put on—
[In vain shall we hope to maintain our moderation and watchfulness, if we be not clothed with this divine panoply. Every day must we put it on afresh; or rather we must rest on our arms day and night. Nor must we use it only in the hour of conflict: we must, like good soldiers, habituate ourselves, to the use of it, even when we are not sensible of immediate danger, in order that, when called to defend ourselves, we may be expert and successful in the contest. We must be careful too that we never separate these pieces of armour; for, whether our head or heart were unprotected, our vigilant enemy would assuredly seize his opportunity to inflict a deadly wound. It is on the union of our graces that our safety depends. Whether we lay aside our faith, our love, or our hope, we are equally in danger. Let us then put them on daily, and preserve them in continual exercise, that we may fight a good fight, and be “more than conquerors through him that loved us.”]
This subject being altogether addressed to those who “are of the day,” we need only add a few words to those who “are of the night”—
[The warning given them in the context is well worthy of their deep attention. It is said, that “the day of the Lord shall overtake them as a thief in the night.” They He down in security, concluding that, because the ruffian has not hitherto disturbed their midnight slumbers, he never will: but at last he comes upon them to their terror, and spoils them to their confusion. Thus will the day of judgment, or, which is the same to them, the day of death, come upon the ungodly; and they will lose their souls, which it, should have been their daily labour to secure. Even believers need to be exhorted to sobriety, and must be vanquished, if they follow not the directions given them: what then must the unbeliever do, if he continue in his supineness? What hope can there be for him? Let all arise from their slumbers, and arm themselves for the battle. “It is high time for all of us to awake out of sleep: let us therefore put off the works of darkness, and put on the armour of light:” and let us war a good warfare, till “death itself is swallowed up in victory.”]
THE NATURE OF TRUE RELIGION
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18. Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.
THE just union of personal and relative duties is the brightest ornament of the Christian profession. The discharge of either will be imperfect, if it be not united with an attention to the other. As beauty in the human body consists not in the exquisite formation of any single feature, but in the just symmetry and configuration of the whole frame, so the perfection of a Christian character consists not in an exclusive attention to any one duty, but in a due regard to all duties, civil and religious, social and personal.
St. Paul has been giving directions respecting the duties we owe to each other as a Christian society [Note: ver. 14.]. He now descends from the social to the personal duties; stating at the same time both the grounds on which they stand, and the indispensable necessity of attending to them.
Taking his directions in a comprehensive and united view, we learn that religion is,
A spiritual service—
[Many, like the Pharisees of old, suppose it consists in a formal attendance on ordinances, and an external decency of conduct. But true religion is inward and spiritual. It calls forth the strongest energies of the soul. It enables a person to maintain a holy intercourse with God in secret. St. Paul himself describes it as consisting, not in outward ceremonies of any kind, but in a devotedness of heart and soul to God [Note: Romans 14:17.], and declares that no man can be a Christian indeed, who does not possess and manifest this elevated state of mind [Note: Php 3:3 and Romans 2:28-29.]. How earnestly then should we examine whether we be thus continually waiting upon God in the exercise of prayer and praise!]
A rational service—
[Spiritual religion is too often deemed enthusiasm. Indeed, if we interpreted the text literally and in the strictest sense of the words, we should make religion impracticable and absurd; but, when properly explained, it enjoins nothing but what is highly reasonable. It requires us to live in the stated and devout exercise of public, social, and private prayer; and to maintain such a sense of our own unworthiness, as excites a lively gratitude for every mercy we enjoy, and stimulates to an unwearied admiration of the Divine goodness: and can any thing be more reasonable than such a state? Should not they, whose iniquities are so great, and whose wants so numerous, be frequently employed in imploring mercy and grace in the time of need? And they, who are daily loaded with benefits, be daily blessing and adoring their Benefactor? Such a service is expressly called a “reasonable service [Note: Romans 12:1.].” To do otherwise were surely most unreasonable: nor are any people more irrational than they who pour contempt on these holy exercises from an affected regard for rational religion.]
A delightful service—
[Many are prejudiced against spiritual religion, as though it must of necessity deprive them of all the comforts of life. Certain it is that it will rob them of all the pleasures of sin: but it will afford them infinitely richer pleasures in its stead [Note: Proverbs 3:17. This is not true of formal, but only of inward and spiritual religion.]. What can be more delightful than to maintain “fellowship with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ?” Can there be any melancholy arising from incessant praises and thanksgivings? Were the first converts, or the Samaritans, or the jailor, rendered melancholy by the acquisition of religion [Note: Acts 2:46; Acts 8:8; Acts 16:34.]? Many are made melancholy by false views of religion; but none are by just and scriptural apprehensions of it. In proportion as we live in the exercise of it, we resemble the glorified saints and angels.]
Such being the nature of true religion, we will endeavour to enforce the practice of it—
[The will of God should be the law of all his creatures; and his will respecting us is fully revealed. It is his earnest desire that we should live in the enjoyment of himself. “He willeth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he should turn from his wickedness and live.” It is moreover his authoritative command that we should love and serve him: it is his command to all, whether rich or poor, learned or unlearned. None are so high as to be exempt from this duty, nor any so situated as to be incapable of performing it. The heart may be lifted up in prayer and praise even when we are occupied in the service of the world. Let all then know God’s will respecting them. We must delight ourselves in communion with God. O let us be like-minded with our heavenly Father! Let us say, this shall be my will also. From henceforth let us “watch unto prayer and thanksgiving with all perseverance:” let us be ashamed that we have so long resisted the Divine will; and let us so live in obedience to it on earth, that we may have our portion with those who are praising him incessantly in heaven.]
QUENCHING THE SPIRIT
1 Thessalonians 5:19. Quench not the Spirit.
THERE is a harmony between all Christian graces, and a dependence of one upon another; so that none can be exercised aright, unless all be allowed their due place and influence. There are doubtless many occasions of grief and sorrow; yet no circumstances are so afflictive, but we may find in them some ground of joy and gratitude. Hence in the directions which the Apostle gives to the Thessalonian Church, he bids them to “rejoice evermore,” and “in every thing to give thanks.” But to moderate our feelings, and to combine them in such a proportion as occasions may require, is difficult, yea, impossible, to flesh and blood. In this arduous work, we must be directed and assisted by the Spirit of God. In this connexion, the caution in the text is extremely forcible: for if we be not attentive to improve the proffered aids of the Spirit, we shall never be able to execute any other part of our Christian duty.
The words before us may have some reference to the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit; but being inserted amidst exhortations to various graces, they must be understood in reference to them also.
They contain a very solemn caution; in discoursing upon which we shall,
Consider the operations of the Spirit under the emblem of fire—
The Spirit is frequently spoken of under the emblem of fire [Note: Acts 2:3-4.Matthew 3:11; Matthew 3:11.Revelation 4:5; Revelation 4:5.]: and fire justly represents his offices and operations—
[Kindle a fire in a dark place, and it will give light to all around it. Draw near to it when chilled with cold, and it will warm and comfort you. Cast wood or straw upon it, and it will cause them to burst forth into a flame. Suppose it heated to a furnace, and, if you put stones into it, it will break and dissolve them. Let gold or silver be submitted to its action, and it will purge them from their dross. Let iron be cast into it, and it will transform the metal into its own likeness, so that it shall come out a solid mass of fire.
Here we see the operations of the Spirit. It is his office to enlighten the mind [Note: Ephesians 1:17-18.]; nor had the Apostles themselves any light which they did not derive from him [Note: 1 Corinthians 2:12.]. Call upon him in a state of great dejection; and he will be your Comforter [Note: John 14:16-17; John 14:26. 2 Corinthians 7:6.]. Beg of him to reveal to you the Father’s love, and the grace of Christ; and he will inflame your soul with love and gratitude [Note: John 16:14.Romans 5:5; Romans 5:5; Romans 15:13.]. Submit your stony heart to his powerful operations; and he will break it in pieces, as he did in the days of old [Note: Acts 2:37.], and will melt it to contrition [Note: Ezekiel 36:26-27.]. Carry your corruptions to him to be subdued; and he will purify your soul from their power and defilement [Note: Eze 36:25 and 1 Corinthians 6:11.]. Let him exert his full influence upon you; and he will assimilate you to himself, and transform you into the very image of your God [Note: 2 Corinthians 3:18.].]
Such being the operations of the Spirit, we shall,
Shew in what way we may “quench” them [Note: There are passages of Scripture which seem to militate against this doctrine: see Joh 4:14 and 1 John 3:9. But give them all the force you please, they do not prove, that sin will not quench the Spirit; or, that they who live and die in sin shall not perish. And to bring them forward on such an occasion, is to weaken (and, in reference to many, to destroy) the force of the Apostle’s admonition. The caution is addressed to all Christians without distinction; and therefore ought to be enforced in that extent. The very giving of the caution sufficiently shews the possibility and danger of quenching the Spirit; and therefore we should all attend to it with fear and trembling.]—
We may quench the Spirit in a variety of ways:
By resisting his operations—
[There is not any one, on whom the Spirit has not frequently exerted his influence, to bring him to repentance. But how have his motions been regarded? Have they not in many instances been resisted? Have we not plunged ourselves into business or pleasure, perhaps too into revelling and intoxication, in order to drown his voice, and silence the remonstrances of our conscience?
This then is one way in which many quench the Spirit. God has warned us, that “his Spirit shall not always strive with man [Note: Genesis 6:3.]:” and has told us how he dealt with his people of old; that “because they hearkened not to his voice and would none of him, he gave them up to their own hearts’ lusts [Note: Psalms 81:11-12.].” And a similar resistance on our part will bring the same judgment upon us [Note: Proverbs 1:24-26.].]
By delaying to comply with them—
[Few, if any, are so impious as to determine that they will never turn to God. Men deceive themselves with some faint purposes of turning to God at a future period. Thus, when the Spirit “knocks at the door of their hearts [Note: Revelation 3:20.],” they send him away, as Felix did St. Paul, with an intention to “send for him at a more convenient season.” But, as in the instance alluded to, the more convenient season never came, so it too often happens with respect to us. The Spirit is a sovereign agent, that is not at our command: he is “a wind that bloweth where he listeth:” and, if we will not spread our sails to the wind, and avail ourselves of the advantage afforded us, we may bemoan our lost opportunity when it is too late [Note: Isaiah 55:6.].]
By entertaining sentiments inimical to them—
[It is not uncommon for those whose consciences are awakened to a sense of their condition, to take refuge in infidel opinions. If they do not cull in question the divine authority of the Scriptures, they doubt the veracity of God in them, and deny the certainty and duration of the punishment which he denounces against impenitent sinners. Others adopt an antinomian creed; and from some experience which they suppose themselves to have had of the divine life, conclude they shall never be suffered finally to perish, notwithstanding their present experience attests their hypocrisy and self-deceit. But. all of these are “speaking peace to themselves when there is no peace;” and, if they he not roused from their delusions, will soon reap the bitter fruits of their folly [Note: Jeremiah 8:11.Deuteronomy 29:19-20; Deuteronomy 29:19-20.].]
By indulging habits contrary to his mind and will—
[God abhors iniquity of every kind: nor will he dwell in any heart that is allowedly debased by sin. If then we harbour pride, envy, malice, covetousness, uncleanness, or any other secret lust, we shall provoke him to abandon us to ourselves [Note: Psalms 66:18.]: for he has said, “If any man defile the temple of God. him shall God destroy [Note: 1 Corinthians 3:17.].”]
Lest any of you should be inattentive to the operations of the Spirit on your hearts, we shall,
Enforce the caution, not to quench them—Consider then,
Whom it is that you resist—
[It may appear to us to be only a friend or minister, or, at most, our own conscience, that we resist: but, whatever be the means whereby God speaks to us, the voice is his; and an opposition to the dictates of the Spirit is an opposition to God himself [Note: Acts 5:4.]. Have we sufficiently considered whom we thus “provoke to become our enemy [Note: Isaiah 63:10.]?”]
What is his design, in striving with you—
[Has God any interest of his own to serve? Will he be less happy or glorious, whether we be saved or perish? He is moved by nothing but love and pity to our souls. And all that he desires is, to enlighten, sanctify, and save us. The first impressions that he makes upon us may be painful; but they are a needful incision, in order to a perfect cure. And should we resist his love and mercy? In what light shall we view this conduct, when his gracious designs shall be fully known, and our ingratitude be contrasted with them?]
How awful will be our state, if we finally prevail to quench his motions—
[While he continues to strive with us, there is hope. If there be but a spark of this heavenly fire within us, the dying embers may be rekindled: but if once this fire be extinguished, there is no hope. If God has once said, “Let him alone [Note: Hosea 4:17.],” let him live only to fill up the measure of his iniquities, and to “treasure up wrath against the day of wrath [Note: Romans 2:5.],” our state will be inconceivably dreadful: better would it be for us that we had never been born. And who can tell but that this very day the Spirit may depart from him never to return? Let the dread of this awaken us to a sense of our danger, and stimulate us to improve the calls and assistances we now enjoy.]
Renounce every thing that may lead you to quench the Spirit—
[Do ungodly companions try to lull you asleep in sin? forsake them. Do earthly, sensual, and devilish affections grieve the Spirit? mortify them. Whatever it be that tends to damp this sacred fire, put it away. Better were it to lose all that we have in the world, than to have the Spirit finally taken from us.]
Do all that you can to stir up the sacred fire within you—
[Fire will go out, if left to itself. We are commanded to “stir it up [Note: ἀναζπυρεῖν, 2 Timothy 1:6.].” This must be done by meditation [Note: Psalms 39:3.], by prayer [Note: Psalms 40:1-3.], by reading of the word of God [Note: Jeremiah 23:29. Hebrews 4:12.], by attending on divine ordinances [Note: Act 10:33-34], and by holy and spiritual conversation [Note: Luke 24:32.]. Watch then the motions of the Spirit, and delay not to comply with them. Let every thing serve as fuel to the flame: and, how much soever you delight in God, endeavour to abound more and more.]
INVESTIGATION OF TRUTH RECOMMENDED
1 Thessalonians 5:21. Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.
THERE are many who, either from an indifference about truth, or from a conceit that they are already sufficiently acquainted with it, neglect the public ministration of the Gospel, and even hold it in contempt. This is extremely culpable; because the ordinances of religion are God’s appointed means for carrying on his work in the souls of men. Hence we are bidden “not to despise prophesying;” and “not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is.” At the same time, we are not necessarily to give our assent to every thing we hear; for error may be proposed to us as well as truth: and therefore the Apostle gives us this advice: “Prove all things: hold fast that which is good.”
In considering the two parts of this advice, we shall take each in its order:
Prove all things—
Remarkable is that address of Elihu to his friends: “Hear my words, O ye wise men; and give ear unto me, ye that have knowledge: for the ear trieth words, as the mouth tasteth meat. Let us choose to us judgment: let us know among ourselves what is good [Note: Job 34:2-4.].” There is much error abroad in the world; and that not only harboured, but propagated also. It will be well, therefore, for us to prove, by some authorized standard,
Our own sentiments—
[Every man has some sentiments about religion, though in many cases they are very crude and indistinct. On any other subject, those who have never investigated the science will hold their sentiments with some measure of diffidence and distrust: but, in reference to religion, the most ignorant are often the most confident. The fall of man, the corruption of human nature, the necessity of an atonement, the influences of the Spirit, are not only questioned by many, but are rejected by them as utter “foolishness [Note: 1 Corinthians 1:23.];” and man’s sufficiency to save himself is maintained, as though it admitted not of any doubt whatever. But, whatever be our sentiments on these heads, and on others connected with them, we should bring them to the unerring standard of God’s word. Our inquiry in relation to every thing should be, “What saith the Scripture?” By this must every sentiment be tried: and according to its agreement with this test must every opinion stand or fall.]
The sentiments of others—
[We are particularly cautioned not to “believe every spirit; but to try the spirits, whether they be of God [Note: 1 John 4:1.].” The one standard, to which every thing must be referred, is the word of God: as it is said, “To the law and to the testimony: if men speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them [Note: Isaiah 8:20.].” To this our blessed Lord appealed, in confirmation of his word; “Search the Scriptures: for in them ye think ye have eternal life; and they are they which testify of me [Note: John 5:39.].” And St. Paul commends the Berζans, because, when they heard him, they searched the Scriptures daily, to see whether his doctrines agreed with that unerring rule. If, then, our blessed Lord and his Apostles desired to be tried by that standard, I have no hesitation in saying, “Prove all things,” whether delivered by the many, or the great, or the learned, or the pious, or the authorized and commissioned: if even an angel from heaven were to come to teach you, I would still give the same advice, and say, As God has given you a perfect standard, it becomes you to refer every thing to it, and to try every thing by it. The Church of Ephesus scrupled not to adopt this plan, in its fullest extent; “Thou hast tried them which say they are Apostles, and are not; and hast found them liars [Note: Revelation 2:2.].” And whether this, or the contrary, be the result of your examination, I say with boldness, “Try even an Apostle by the standard of God’s blessed word.”]
Having thus distinguished truth from falsehood, we must,
“Hold fast that which is good”—
There are many that would wrest it from us: and we must hold it fast against all assaults,
Of proud reason—
[Reason will presume to sit in judgment upon the truth of God. But this is not its province. Its proper office is, to judge whether the Scriptures are a revelation from God: but, when that is ascertained, faith is then to apprehend whatever God has spoken: and the highest dictate of reason is, to submit ourselves to God with the simplicity and teachableness of a little child. When, therefore, reason presumes to oppose the declarations of God and to say, “This is an hard saying: who can hear it?” regard not its proud dictates, but “receive with meekness the written word [Note: James 1:21.];” remembering, that “what is foolishness with man may be indeed the wisdom of God,” and “the power of God unto salvation to every one that believes it.”]
Of corrupt passion—
[This also fights against the truth of God. And no wonder: for the word of God condemns every unhallowed desire, and requires us to “crucify the flesh with its affections and lusts.” How should it be supposed that our corrupt nature should approve of a book, which enjoins us to “cut off a right hand, and to pluck out a right eye,” lest by sparing either the one or the other we plunge both body and soul into the fire of hell? It cannot be but that our self-indulgent appetites should rise against such severe dictates, and condemn them all as unreasonable and absurd. But you must not listen to such objectors, who “hate the light, and will not come to the light, lest their deeds should be reproved.” Our one question must be, “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” and his will once known, must be the sole director of our ways.]
Of a menacing world—
[The world which lieth in wickedness ever did, and ever will, set itself against the self-denying doctrines of the Gospel. But we are not to make a sacrifice of divine truth, to please man: for “if we vet pleased men, we could not be the servants of Christ [Note: Galatians 1:10.].” Nor are we to indulge any anxiety upon this head: for the very desire to retain “the friendship of the world” is a certain mark of enmity against God [Note: James 4:4. the Greek.]. Whatever men may say, or whatever they may do, we must be faithful to our God, and “cleave unto him with full purpose of heart.” Having “bought the truth, you must never sell it.” “Hold fast that thou hast; and let no man take thy crown [Note: Revelation 3:11.].”]
But, before I conclude this subject, let me shew you, in few words,
How to distinguish what is “good”—
[You will naturally say, in reply to what has been spoken, ‘How shall I know what is good? for those who oppose the Gospel will appeal to the word of God as confidently as those who receive it: and how am I to determine between them?’ I answer, the despisers of the Gospel manifestly wrest the word of God, and, by ingenious criticisms, pervert it, for the purpose of maintaining their own erroneous sentiments; whilst the humble believer receives it with all humility of mind: so that from their very mode of interpreting the Scriptures, you can tell, almost to a certainty, who is right. But, as a general rule, take the entire systems of both, and compare them, and see what is the proper tendency of each: and then remember, that the doctrine which humbles the sinner, exalts the Saviour, and promotes holiness, is and must be “good:” whilst every thing which has an opposite tendency carries its own evidence along with it, as erroneous and had. This rule, in conjunction with the other, will leave you in no danger of erring, if you cry to God for the teaching of his Spirit, and rely with confidence on his heavenly guidance.]
How to make a just improvement of it—
[Rest not in a speculative view of truth, however good it may appear. The use of divine truth is, to enlarge the mind, and renovate the soul. Your views of the Gospel ought to raise your affections to God, and to fill you with adoring thoughts of your Lord and Saviour; and at the same time to transform you into his image. Your soul should “be delivered into it, as into a mould;” so that every one of its divine lineaments may be formed upon you. To hold it fast for any other end than this, will be to little purpose. But let it be thus improved, and it will be found good indeed: for it will free you from every thing that is corrupt and sinful, and bring you in safety to the realms of bliss.”]
ABSTAINING FROM ALL APPEARANCE OF EVIL
1 Thessalonians 5:22. Abstain from all appearance of evil.
SIN is a tremendous evil. The consequences of one single sin are beyond all our powers of thought or conception. If one only be hardened by it, who can tell where his influence may extend, or through how many generations it may be transmitted? To the individual who commits it, who shall say how much evil will accrue? The Spirit may be grieved; the conscience seared; and Satan may get an advantage that shall never be regained. Hence arises the necessity of standing at the remotest distance from evil: for if a thing be not evil, yet, if it appear to be so, it has all the effect of a positive evil to those who behold it. We should therefore “abstain even from all appearance of evil.”
In discoursing on this subject, we shall consider,
The injunction itself—
This may relate to,
The things we do—
[That which is perfectly indifferent in itself, may either appear wrong, or really be so, according to the circumstances under which it is done. The eating of things offered to idols, or the observance of certain days, were indifferent in themselves; and a person might either do or forbear these things, without improving or injuring the state of his soul [Note: 1Co 8:8 and Romans 14:2-6.]. But if the doing or forbearing these things had any influence to ensnare the consciences of others, it was the duty of every person to pursue that line of conduct which was most inoffensive [Note: Romans 14:20-21.]. St. Paul thought, that though “all things were lawful for him, all things were not expedient [Note: 1 Corinthians 10:23.];” and therefore exercised self-denial with respect to things innocent in themselves, lest his influence should induce others, who were less acquainted with Christian liberty, to follow his example, in opposition to the suggestions of their own consciences [Note: 1 Corinthians 8:13.]. Ezra might have asked a guard to protect him through the desert [Note: Ezra 7:16-18. with 8:22.]; and Nehemiah might have gone into the temple, to save himself from danger [Note: Nehemiah 6:10-19.]: but they both chose rather to expose their lives to any peril, rather than do what in their circumstances would have been open to misconstruction, and would have been imputed to them as sin. Thus there are some amusements and indulgences which, under particular circumstances and in a limited degree, may be innocent, from which we nevertheless ought to abstain; lest an undue advantage be taken of our conduct, and we be considered as patronizing that, which, under other circumstances, would be positively evil.]
The manner in which we do them—
[Much, very much, depends on the manner in which we do things which in themselves are inoffensive or even good. None can doubt but that alms-deeds, prayer, and fasting, are good in themselves; yet they may be so performed as to be open to the imputation of vanity or hypocrisy: on which account our Lord gives us rules for the due discharge of these duties [Note: Matthew 6:1-6; Matthew 6:16-18.]. To give instruction or reproof to our neighbours is doubtless an important office; but if it be performed in an unbecoming spirit, we shall appear to others to be only venting our own spleen, and all our endeavours will be lost upon them. Hence is that direction given us by the Apostle, “Let not your good be evil spoken of [Note: Romans 14:16.]]
The end for which we do them—
[Daniel might with great propriety have prayed in his house with his windows shut: yea, it might have been thought, perhaps, more decorous. But, in his circumstances, he determined to die rather than to suspend his devotions, or even to conceal them by shutting his windows. He was in the midst of idolaters, and therefore he judged it necessary openly to confess his God. And, when the edict was issued by the Persian monarch to forbid the offering of any petition to any one except himself for the space of thirty days, Daniel was more bound than ever to worship openly; because the concealing of his devotions would have been considered as a renunciation or denial of his God. Hence he determined to make no alteration whatever in his conduct, but to abide the consequences of his fidelity to God [Note: Daniel 6:10.]. Thus should we walk circumspectly, “cutting off occasion from them that seek occasion;” and determining that our enemies “shall find no cause of complaint against us, except concerning the law of our God [Note: Daniel 6:5.]”]
To impress this injunction the more deeply on our minds, let us consider,
The importance of it—
The avoiding of all appearance of evil is of great consequence,
[Our character is stamped by our actions as they appear to the world. God only can judge the heart: man must of necessity form his judgment in a great measure from the outward appearance: though doubtless he is to put the best possible construction upon every thing, so far as truth and reason will admit. We owe it therefore to ourselves to guard against every thing that either deservedly or undeservedly may bring an evil report upon us. St. Paul was very attentive to this, when he had collected a large sum of money for the poor saints in Judea: he desired that some person of established reputation should go with him, that so he might “provide things honest in the sight of all men [Note: 2 Corinthians 8:19-21.],” and “give no occasion to the enemy to speak reproachfully [Note: 1 Timothy 5:14.].”]
To the world around us—
[The world are ever ready to spy out causes of complaint against the people of God, and, when they behold a flaw, to cry out, “There, there, so would we have it.” Instantly they proceed to blame religion itself for what they see amiss in the professors of it; and justify themselves as acting a more becoming and consistent part. On this account we should “walk in wisdom towards them that are without [Note: Colossians 4:5.],” and, if possible, “put to silence the ignorance of foolish men by welldoing [Note: 1 Peter 2:15.].” Indeed, as they may be hardened in their sins by an injudicious conduct, so they may be “won by the good conversation” of those around them [Note: 1 Peter 3:1-2.]. It may be, that our light shining before them may constrain them to confess that God is with us of a truth, and lead them to “glorify our Father that is in heaven [Note: Matthew 5:16.].” Can we need any greater argument for circumspection? Should not this consideration induce us all to adopt the Psalmist’s resolution: “I will behave myself wisely in a perfect way [Note: Psalms 101:2.]:” and make us pray with him, “Lead me, O Lord, because of mine observers; make thy way straight before my face [Note: Psalms 5:8. the marginal translation.].”]
To the Church of God—
[A discreet and blameless conduct is no less important as it respects the Church. The weak are of necessity much influenced by those whom they consider as more advanced than themselves: and, if they see any thing done by a person whom they respect, they will be ready to follow his example, even though they are doubtful in their minds respecting the lawfulness of the act itself. Then, even though the act be lawful, they commit sin, because they are not thoroughly persuaded of its innocence [Note: Acts 14:23.]. And we, if we pay no attention to their weaknesses, actually sin against Christ ourselves, and are guilty of destroying a soul for whom Christ died [Note: 1 Corinthians 8:9-12.]. Let us not then imagine ourselves at liberty to do all things which are in themselves lawful; for we are not at liberty to cast a stumbling-block before a weak brother [Note: Romans 14:13; Romans 14:15.]; but are to consult his good, no less than our own [Note: 1 Corinthians 10:24.].]
How far are they from real Christians who can live in known and allowed sin!
[Christianity requires us to abstain even from the appearance of evil: how much more from sin itself! Ah, beloved, you may easily see the folly and hypocrisy of calling yourselves Christians, while your whole conduct proclaims that you have no delight in God, nor any higher aim than to approve yourselves to men.]
How excellent is the true Christian in comparison of others!
[Christians are not improperly called “the excellent of the earth.” Behold their care, their tenderness, their circumspection, their “dread of even a garment spotted by the flesh [Note: Jude, ver. 23.].” Their conduct is fitly described by the Apostle; “Whatsoever things are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, and of good report, these they both think upon” and perform [Note: Philippians 4:8.]. “See then, Christians, that these things be in you, and abound.” Let not “our boasting of you be found in vain” and delusive. But “as ye have received how ye ought to walk and to please God, so abound more and more [Note: 1 Thessalonians 4:1.].”]
COMPLETE SANCTIFICATION TO BE SOUGHT AFTER
1 Thessalonians 5:23-24. The very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is he that calleth you, who also will do it.
PARENTS naturally desire the prosperity of their children; but they can by no means secure it: even though their children should be disposed to concur with them in every prudent plan, yet cannot their combined efforts insure success; since, in numberless instances, “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.” The spiritual parent, who by the ministration of the Gospel hath begotten sons and daughters to the Lord, is more favourably circumstanced: he is sure that no untoward circumstances shall disappoint his hopes, provided only his children exert themselves as becomes them, in the appointed way. True indeed it is, that success in spiritual things is infinitely more difficult to be obtained, on account of the obstacles which are to be surmounted, and the enemies which are to be subdued. But Omnipotence is engaged in behalf of all who sincerely labour for themselves: nor is there any attainment, to which they who go forward in the strength of God may not confidently aspire. The object which St. Paul desired in behalf of his Thessalonian converts was doubtless exceeding great: it was, that they might be “sanctified throughout, and be preserved blameless unto the day of Christ:” but “his hope concerning them was steadfast,” being founded, not on their weak powers, but on the power and fidelity of God, who had undertaken to “perfect that which concerned them [Note: Psalms 138:8.].” In illustrating the words before us, we shall notice,
The blessing desired—
This was the greatest that mortal man can enjoy on earth: it was,
The sanctification of their whole man—
[Man is usually spoken of as consisting of two parts, a body and a soul: but he may, perhaps with more propriety, be considered as having three parts;—a corporeal substance; an animal soul, like that which exists in the lower orders of creation; and a rational immortal spirit, which connects him with the world above. This distinction between the soul and spirit is to be found also in the Epistle to the Hebrews; where it is said, that “the word of God is sharper than a two-edged sword, piercing to the dividing asunder the soul and spirit [Note: Hebrews 4:12.].” In all of these parts, man is corrupt: “his body, in all its members, is only, and invariably, an instrument of unrighteousness unto sin [Note: Romans 6:12-13.]:” his animal soul, with all its affections and lusts, leads him to those gratifications only, of which the brutes partake in common with him [Note: Jude, ver. 10.]: and his immortal soul is filled with all those evil dispositions which characterize the fallen angels, such as, pride, envy, malice, discontent, and rebellion against God. These different kinds of wickedness are frequently distinguished by the Apostle, according to the sources from whence they spring: he speaks of the unconverted man as “fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind [Note: Ephesians 2:3.];” and tells us, that we must “cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, if we would perfect holiness in the fear of God [Note: 2 Corinthians 7:1.].” Agreeably to these distinctions, the character of fallen man is, that he is “earthly, sensual, and devilish [Note: James 3:15.].” In all of these parts, then, we need to be renewed and sanctified: we need to have our bodies made instruments of “righteousness unto holiness [Note: Romans 6:19.];” our souls, with “their affections and lusts, crucified [Note: Galatians 5:24.];” and our spirits “renewed after the Divine image, in righteousness and true holiness [Note: Ephesians 4:23-24.].” Hence St. Paul prays for the Thessalonian converts, that they may be sanctified “wholly” that is, throughout their whole man, even “in their whole spirit, and soul, and body.” This, and this only, will constitute us “new creatures:” “the old things” pertaining to every part of us must “have passed away, and all things must have become new [Note: 2 Corinthians 5:17.]:” then alone can we be said to be “partakers of the divine nature [Note: 2 Peter 1:4.];” and then alone have we any satisfactory evidence that we are Christians indeed [Note: 2 Corinthians 5:17.].
This entire change was the first part of the blessing which St. Paul solicited in their behalf. But he could not be satisfied with this, he therefore further entreated.]
The continuance of it unto the day of Christ—
[To be made thus “blameless” is doubtless an unspeakable blessing; but it would be of little service to us, if we were to lose it again, and to return to our former state of sin and uncleanness. This is an idea which many lovers of human systems do not like: but it is inculcated in every part of the Holy Scriptures: nor can any man get rid of this idea, without doing violence to many of the plainest passages of Holy Writ, and, I had almost said, “wresting them to his own destruction.”
By the Prophet Ezekiel, God tells us, that, “if the righteous man depart from his righteousness, and commit iniquity, his righteousness shall no more be remembered; but for the iniquity that he committeth, he shall die [Note: Ezekiel 18:24.].” St. Paul warns us, “that, if after tasting of the heavenly gift, and being made partakers of the Holy Ghost, we fall away, it is impossible, (or so difficult as to be all but impossible,) for us ever to be renewed unto repentance [Note: Hebrews 6:4-6.].” St. Peter speaks yet more plainly, assuring us, that. “if after having escaped the pollutions of the world through knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, we be again entangled therein, and overcome, our latter end will be worse than the beginning: for that it would be better for us never to have known the way of righteousness, than, after we have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto us [Note: 2 Peter 2:20-21.].”
Hence St. Paul prayed for the Thessalonians, that they might “be preserved blameless unto the day of Christ.” To run well for a season would avail them nothing, if they were hindered at last. To little purpose would they have “begun in the Spirit, if they ended in the flesh.” We must “endure to the end, if ever we would be saved [Note: Matthew 14:13.].” And so important is this truth, and so necessary to be inculcated on the minds of even the most exalted Christians, that our blessed Lord himself, in his Letters to the Seven Churches, closes every letter with this solemn admonition, that “to him that over-cometh,” and to him only shall the full blessings of his salvation ever be extended [Note: Revelation 2:7; Revelation 2:10; Revelation 2:17; Revelation 2:26; Revelation 3:5; Revelation 3:12; Revelation 3:21.] — — — Hence are those frequent cautions against declension in the life and power of godliness [Note: 2 John. ver. 8. Revelation 3:11. 2 Peter 3:14; 2 Peter 3:17-18.]. The Lord grant we may ever bear them in mind! for God himself expressly says, “If any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him [Note: Hebrews 10:38.].”
On these accounts the Apostle prayed for them, that “the work begun ill them might be carried on and perfected unto the day of Christ [Note: Philippians 1:6.].”]
Vast as this blessing was, he did not doubt of obtaining it in their behalf. This appears from,
The assurance given—
To the attainment of this blessed state God “calleth us” in his Gospel—
[“God hath not called us to uncleanness, but unto holiness,” even to the highest measure of it that can possibly be attained. He says not only, “Be ye holy, for I am holy [Note: 1 Peter 1:15-16.];” but, “Be ye holy, as I am holy,” and “perfect, as your Father which is in heaven is perfect [Note: Matthew 5:48.],”]
And, as “the God of peace,” he promises to raise us to it—
[“God, having given us his Son to bear our sins in his own body on the tree, and to “make reconciliation for us through the blood of the cross,” is pleased to reveal himself to us under the endearing character of “the God of peace:” and being now “our God and Father in Christ Jesus,” he undertakes to do for us all that shall be necessary for our final acceptance with him in the day of judgment. He promises to “sprinkle clean water upon us, and to cleanse us from all our filthiness, and from all our idols [Note: Ezekiel 36:25-27.].” He teaches us also to look, not to his mercy only, or his power, to effect this, but to his truth and faithfulness, yea, and to his very justice too: “He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness [Note: 1 John 1:9.].” This I say, he promises to us, being first of all become, through the atoning blood of Christ, a “God of peace.” We are not to get sanctification first, and then, in consequence of that sanctification, to find him a “God of peace;” but first to look to him as reconciled to us in Christ Jesus, and then to experience the sanctifying operations of his Spirit. This order must be particularly noticed in our text, as also in the Epistle to the Hebrews, where it is particularly marked [Note: Hebrews 13:20-21.]: if we overlook this, we shall be in danger of misapprehending and perverting the whole Gospel of Christ: but if we bear this in mind, then may we expect from God a full and complete salvation. In many places does he pledge ins faithfulness to do for us all that we can stand in need of, and never to discontinue his mercies towards us [Note: 1Co 1:8-9 and 2 Thessalonians 3:3.] — — — He may punish us, and hide his face from us; but he will not utterly abandon us, or cast us off [Note: Psalms 89:30-36. Jer 32:40].].
We must, however, be found in the diligent use of the appointed means—
[The dependence of his blessing on the use of the appointed means is not always expressed; but it is always implied. “He will be inquired of by us,” before he will do for us the things which he has most freely promised [Note: Ezekiel 36:37.]. He has appointed the means as well as the end, or rather I should say, the end by the means: he has “chosen us to salvation; but it is through sanctification of the Spirit, and belief of the truth [Note: 2 Thessalonians 2:13. 1 Peter 1:2.].” He alone has the power whereby our salvation must be affected, as the words of our text very strongly imply [Note: αὐτὀς ὁ Θεός.]; but he expects that we exert ourselves, as much as if all the power resided in our own arm: and the very consideration which many persons urge as a reason for their inactivity, is suggested by him as a reason and encouragement for our most strenuous exertions [Note: Php 2:12-13]. If we will not ask, and seek, and strive, we must expert nothing at his hands: but if we will put forth our own feeble energies in the way of duty, he will “strengthen us by his Spirit in our inward man,” and “make us more than conquerors through Him that loved us.”]
From this subject we may learn,
How mistaken they are who think that the Gospel leads to licentiousness—
[What symptom of licentiousness is here? Rather, may we not challenge every religious system in the universe to produce morality like unto this? Other systems provide for “the cleansing of the outside of the cup and platter;” but no other so effectually reaches the heart. The Gospel provides for the sanctification of all our faculties and powers, and for the transformation of our whole man into the very image of our find. Its language is, “Sin shall not have dominion over you; for ye are not under the law, but under grace [Note: Romans 6:14.].” And its effect is, to produce in every mind the desire which is so affectionately expressed in the text, and not for others only, but for ourselves also. Let all jealousy then on this head be put aside: and let us seek to be justified freely by faith in Christ; that, having peace with God through his” precious blood, we may receive the communications of his grace more abundantly, and be “changed into his image from glory to glory by the Spirit of our God.”]
How deluded they are who rest in Christian principles, without aspiring after Christian attainments—
[Such there have been in every age of the Church. Not that the Gospel has in itself any tendency to create such characters; but the corruption of men’s hearts will take occasion from the Gospel to foster sentiments, which are, in reality, subversive of its most fundamental truths. Many regard all exhortations to holiness as legal: yea, there are not wanting some who will maintain, that Christ, having fulfilled the law for us, has absolved us from all obligation to obey it in any of its commands. They affirm that it is cancelled, not only as a covenant of works, but as a rule of life. They profess, that the sanctification of Christ is imputed to us, precisely as his righteousness is; and that we need no personal holiness, because we have a sufficient holiness in him. Horrible beyond expression are such sentiments as these: and how repugnant they are to those contained in our text, it is needless to observe. That some who advance these sentiments are externally moral, and often benevolent, must be confessed: (if any be truly pious, it is not by means of these principles, but in spite of them:) but the great body of them, with, it is to be feared, but few exceptions, bear the stamp of their unchristian principles in their whole spirit and conduct. The whole family of them may be distinguished by the following marks. They are full of pride and conceit, imagining that none can understand the Gospel but themselves. Such is their confidence in their own opinions, that they seem to think it impossible that they should err. They are dogmatical in the extreme, laying down the law for every one, and expecting all to bow to their judgment: and so contemptuous are they, that they speak of all as blind and ignorant who presume to differ from them. Their irreverent manner of treating the great mysteries of our religion is also most offensive; they speak of them with a most unhallowed familiarity, as though they wore common things: and so profane are they, that they hesitate not. to sneer at the very word of God itself, whenever it militates against their favourite opinions. “By these fruits ye shall know them;” and by these fruits ye may judge of their principles. True indeed, with their errors they bring forth much that is sound and good: but this only renders their errors the more palatable and the more delusive. They altogether vitiate the taste of the religious world, and indispose them for all practical instruction. They so exclusively set forth what may be called “the strong meat” of the Gospel, as to withhold all “milk” from the household of our God [Note: Hebrews 5:13-14. 1 Corinthians 3:2.]. In a word, they promote nothing but spiritual intoxication, and banish from the Church all spiritual sobriety.
In what we have said, we design not to mark the characters of any particular men, but the character and effect of their principles: and we do not hesitate to say again, that this is the true character and effect of Antinomianism, wherever it exists.
In opposition to all who would thus make “Christ a minister of sin,” we must declare, that he came to save his people, not in their sins, but from them [Note: Matthew 1:21.]; and that “the grace of God which bringeth salvation, teaches, and must ever teach, men to live righteously, and soberly, and godly in this present world [Note: Titus 2:11-12.],” yea, and to “stand perfect and complete in all the will of God [Note: Colossians 4:12.].”]
How blessed they are who have obtained peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ—
[You are not called to “make bricks without straw.” That God, who is now reconciled to you through the Son of his love, undertakes to supply you with “grace sufficient for you [Note: 2 Corinthians 12:9.],” and to “fulfil in you all the good pleasure of his goodness, even the work of faith with power [Note: 2 Thessalonians 1:11.].” And is he not able to do this? or will he forget his promises, or “suffer one jot or tittle of his word to fail?” No: “He is faithful who hath promised, who also will do it.” Be of good courage then, whatever difficulties ye may have to encounter. Know, that “greater is He that is in you, than he that is in the world [Note: 1 John 4:4.].” Gird on the armour which is provided for you, and “be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus [Note: Ephesians 6:10-11. 2 Timothy 2:1.].” Our prayer for you is the same as that of St. Paul for the Thessalonian Christians: yes, beloved, “this is our wish, even your perfection [Note: 2 Corinthians 13:9.].” And we rejoice in the thought that “God is able to make all grace abound towards you, that ye, having always all-sufficiency in all things, may abound unto every good work [Note: 2 Corinthians 9:8.].” Only look to him as “a God of love and peace,” and you shall find that “what he hath promised he is able also to perform [Note: Romans 4:21.].”]
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Simeon, Charles. "Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 5". Charles Simeon's Horae Homileticae. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26