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DEVOTEDNESS TO GOD RECOMMENDED
Romans 12:1. I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.
THE end of all true religion is, to bring men to God. From him they have fallen, and to him must they be restored. Whatever instructions have not this object in view, are of small value. The Gospel itself would be an empty speculation, if it did not teach us to hope for some practical effects. There are some who would separate principle from practice: but not so the Apostle Paul: he expected not fruit indeed without a root; nor hoped to raise an edifice, without laying a foundation: but, when his foundation was firmly laid, he deferred not to build upon it. In all the preceding part of this epistle he has shewn how sinners are to find acceptance with God; and has proved the sovereignty of God in the disposal of his blessings. But, having finished his argument, he does not leave us there; he goes on to shew the practical effects of his principles; and urges us, from the consideration of all God’s mercies, to devote ourselves unreservedly to his service.
That we may enter fully into the exhortation before us, we shall consider,
The duty to which we are exhorted—
There is in the words before us an evident allusion to the sacrifices that were offered under the law. The victims were brought to the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, and were there slain; and their bodies were disposed of according to the particular directions given in the law, as suited to the occasions on which the offerings were made; some being wholly burnt upon the altar, and others partly burnt, and partly eaten by those who ministered before the Lord. In reference to these, we are required to “present our bodies (which is here put for our whole selves) a living sacrifice unto the Lord;” that is, we should, with the full concurrence of our inmost souls, devote ourselves to God,
To fulfil his will—
[We must not strain a metaphor too far. The sacrifices under the law were intended to make atonement for sin: but this is no part of our office; Christ, our great sacrifice, having, by his own body once offered, made a full, perfect, and sufficient satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. It is only as far as the victim was surrendered entirely to God, that the metaphor is applicable to us: and in this view it is frequently used; the whole body of believers being themselves an offering to the Lord [Note: Romans 15:16.], and “a spiritual priesthood also, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ [Note: 1 Peter 2:5.].”
Hear then to what an extent we are to be given up to God: May “the very God of peace,” says the Apostle, “sanctify you wholly: and I pray God, your whole spirit, and soul, and body, may be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ [Note: 1 Thessalonians 5:23.].” No part of us should be under the dominion of any other lord: but “as we have formerly yielded both the members of our bodies and the faculties of our souls, as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin, we must henceforth yield them wholly unto God, as those that are alive unto God [Note: Romans 6:12-13; Romans 6:19.].” Every sin, of whatever kind, must be mortified; and every grace, however difficult and self-denying, be brought into habitual exercise — — —]
To be disposed of for his glory—
[If God call for our whole persons, as it were, to be consumed by fire upon his altar, we must not draw back; but must say with the Apostle, “I am ready, not only to be bound, but also to die, for the Lord’s sake.” So far from regarding such an event with dread, we should rather consider it as our highest honour. Thus it was that Paul viewed it: “If,” says he, “I be offered upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I joy and rejoice with you all: do ye also joy and rejoice with me [Note: Philippians 2:17-18.];” for, so far am I from regarding such an event as a matter of condolence, that I look upon it as a fit subject for mutual congratulations. I mean not that such an end is to be sought for by us; but it is cheerfully to be submitted to, if God in his providence should call us to it. We should regard sufferings for Christ’s sake with a holy indifference, “desiring only that Christ should be magnified in our bodies, whether by life or death [Note: Philippians 1:20.].” Of course, all minor sacrifices of property, or reputation, or liberty, are to be welcomed by us, and gloried in, as means of honouring and glorifying our incarnate God [Note: 1 Peter 4:12-14.]. In a word, “we should neither live unto ourselves, nor die unto ourselves; but live and die unto God only; so that, both living and dying, we may be the Lord’s [Note: Romans 14:7-8.].”]
But let us mark more particularly the beauty and emphasis of,
The exhortation itself—
St. Paul presses upon us the performance of this duty,
From the obligations we owe to God—
[In all the preceding part of this epistle, St. Paul has been unfolding the great mystery of redemption as wrought out for us by the Lord Jesus Christ, and as applied to us by the Spirit, according to the eternal counsels of the Father. By the consideration of these “mercies” he urges us to give up ourselves to God. It was for this very end that these mercies were vouchsafed to us. Wherefore did our blessed Saviour “give himself for us?” Was it not “to redeem us from all iniquity, and to purify unto himself a peculiar people zealous of good works?” And to what did the Father predestinate us, but to be conformed to the image of his Son?” Let these ends then be answered in us: and let us remember, that, “having been bought with a price, we are not our own; but are bound to glorify God with our bodies and our spirits, which are his [Note: 1 Corinthians 6:20.].”]
From the nature of the service itself—
[It is good in itself.—“God calls us not unto uncleanness, but to holiness.” He says, “Be ye holy; for I am holy.” The sacrifices under the law were to be without spot or blemish: and such also are we to be: “We should present ourselves a living sacrifice, holy.” True it is, that till we are renewed by the Holy Spirit we cannot be holy: but it is equally true, that, when we come to the Lord Jesus Christ aright, he will give us his Holy Spirit, by whom we shall be “created after God in righteousness and true holiness,” and “be changed into Christ’s image, from glory to glory.”
It is also “acceptable to God.”—Nothing in the universe is so pleasing to him as a broken and contrite heart. As for all the legal sacrifices, he had no delight in them, any farther than they typified the Lord Jesus, and were offered with a reference to him. They were even odious to him, when presented by ungodly worshippers, who relied on them for acceptance, whilst they lived in wilful sin [Note: Isaiah 1:11-14.]. A heart filled with gratitude to him, and devoted to his service, was “more than thousands of rams or ten thousands of rivers of oil [Note: Micah 6:6-8.]: and every act of obedience proceeding from faith and love, is in his sight the most acceptable tribute that can possibly be offered [Note: Psalms 50:9-14.Hebrews 13:15-16; Hebrews 13:15-16.].”
It is also most worthy of a rational being. Any service short of an entire surrender of the soul to God is irrational and absurd. How can it possibly be, that the heart-searching God should approve of formal and hypocritical services! If he had no delight in the blood of bulls and of goats, how can we suppose that he should have pleasure in lying words, and hypocritical professions? But in the surrender of the soul to him, there is something that commends itself to the judgment of every considerate mind. True, we cannot add to his glory or happiness by any thing that we can do: but still we may employ for him the bodies he has created, and the souls he has redeemed: and in so doing, we render him the best service of which our nature is capable; and shall asuredly receive from him at last that token of his approbation, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”]
[Let me now, brethren, after the Apostle’s example, address you in the language of entreaty. We might, as standing in the place of Almighty God, command you: but for love sake we rather “beseech you.” O consider what mercies you have received at God’s hand, and are yet hoping to receive, through the sacrifice of his only dear Son — — — Think too how reasonable is the service to which we call you; how profitable to you, and how pleasing to God — — — We entreat you not to withhold it: we entreat you not to defer it another hour. If indeed you can prove it unreasonable, or unprofitable, or unacceptable to God, we are content that you shall reject it as folly, and decry it as enthusiasm: but if you cannot find one substantial objection against it, or one reasonable excuse for declining it, then, we beseech you, act as becomes persons already on the brink and precipice of eternity, and speedily to stand at the judgment-seat of Christ. Give yourselves up to Him who bought you with his blood: give yourselves to him, to be saved in his appointed way, and to glorify him in every situation which you may be called to fill. If he calls you to act for him, “whatsoever your hand findeth to do, do it with all your might:” and if to suffer for him, “rejoice that you are counted worthy to suffer for his sake.” Thus shall the end of all God’s mercies to you be duly answered, and his glory be advanced in your everlasting salvation.]
AGAINST CONFORMITY TO THE WORLD
Romans 12:2. Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.
THE morality, no less than the doctrines, of the Gospel far excels the boasted inventions of philosophy. There is not one principle in the human heart, or one action of our lives, which is not depraved by sin. The whole system of man’s conduct is deranged: and to rectify it in all its parts, is the scope of that revelation which God has given us. The inspired writers are not satisfied with lopping off a few branches; they strike at the root of all sin; and labour to bring us back to that state of allegiance to our Maker from which we are fallen. This is peculiarly observable in the exhortation before us, in explaining which we shall shew,
What is that conformity to the world which we are to avoid—
Doubtless there is a degree of conformity to the world which is necessary, if we would not render ourselves perfectly ridiculous and absurd: but there are limits, beyond which we ought not to go. To mark out those limits we may observe, that we should not be conformed to,
Its company and conduct—
[We cannot wholly avoid worldly company; for “then we must needs go out of the world:” but we surely should not choose such for our companions; and much less form an indissoluble alliance with them [Note: 1 Corinthians 7:39. “only in the Lord.”]. If we ourselves be spiritual, it is not possible that we should enjoy the society of a carnal person, because his views, desires, and pursuits must of necessity be as opposite to ours as darkness is to light [Note: 2 Corinthians 6:14-17.]. By forming a connexion with such persons, what can be expected but that we should be enticed to imitate their conduct? And though we commit no flagrant evil, we are assured, that while we are walking according to the course of this world, we walk after the will of Satan and not of God [Note: Ephesians 2:2.].]
Its maxims and principles—
[According to the established maxims of the world, we should seek above all things the favour and esteem of men; we should avoid every thing that may make us appear singular; and on no account testify our disapprobation of any practice that is sanctioned by general custom. But how do such principles accord with the Holy Scriptures? In them we are told that, if we make it our grand aim to please men, we cannot be the servants of Jesus Christ [Note: Galatians 1:10.]: and, if we have attained that object, instead of congratulating ourselves upon our success, we have reason to tremble on account of the woe denounced against us [Note: Luke 6:26.]. Instead of dreading a necessary singularity, we are required to shine as lights in a dark world [Note: Philippians 2:15.], and not only to have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but faithfully to reprove them [Note: Ephesians 5:11.]. We are to be armed with a steady determination to live the rest of our time, not to the lusts of men, but to the will of God [Note: 1 Peter 4:2.].]
Its spirit and temper—
[In what does the spirit of the world consist? It consists altogether in self-seeking, self-pleasing, self-confidence, and self-complacency. Now can any thing be more abhorrent from a Christian state than such a disposition as this? We are not to be resting satisfied with present attainments, or studying how much we can please the flesh without forfeiting the favour of God; but are rather to be pressing forwards towards perfection, without at all regarding the loss or pain we may be called to undergo in the prosecution of our duty [Note: Acts 20:24; Acts 21:13.]. How hateful a want of such a holy resolution is, may be seen in the reply which our Lord made to Peter, who would have dissuaded him from exposing himself to the trials he had predicted: “Get thee behind me Satan; for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men [Note: Matthew 16:23.].”]
Further light will be reflected on this subject by considering,
Wherein consists that transformation of soul that is opposed to it—
The Christian is “a new creature; old things are passed away; and all things are become new:” according to the proficiency he has made, he conforms himself to,
[The worldly man knows no higher principle than self-love: whatever be his subordinate motive of action, all may be traced up to this. But they who are partakers of the Gospel salvation, are under the influence of a far nobler principle, the love of Christ: the thought of Christ having died for them, fills their hearts with admiration and gratitude: it inspires them with an ardent desire to testify their sense of his kindness: and forms a powerful incentive to holy actions. This is attested by St. Paul [Note: 2 Corinthians 5:14-15.]; and it constitutes a most essential part of that transformation of soul, which characterizes the true Christian. Subordinate motives indeed a believer may feel; but a desire of pleasing and honouring God, and a fear of dishonouring or displeasing him, will operate with the greatest force; and that too, in opposition to carnal considerations, no less than in aid of them.]
[The fashion of the world is the standard by which men in general regulate their conduct: but the Christian takes the word of God for his guide, and the example of Christ for his pattern; and, instead of reducing the rule to his practice, he endeavours to elevate his practice to the rule. He brings every thing “to the law and to the testimony:” and a plain declaration, or command, of God will be more to him than any precepts of men, or than the example of the whole universe. It is his ambition to “walk as Christ walked:” and though he knows that he can never attain the measure of his perfection, yet he strives incessantly to follow the pattern of it, that so he may be perfect even as his Father that is in heaven is perfect [Note: Matthew 5:48.].]
[A Christian would not be content with ordering his actions aright, even if he could arrive at the highest degrees of holiness, unless he had also the testimony of his conscience that he sought, not his own glory, but the glory of God: having been “bought with a price,” he is conscious that he is “not his own,” and that consequently he “ought not to live unto himself, but unto him that died for him.” He feels that, if in any thing he consult merely his own honour or interest, he so far withholds from God the honour due unto his name; and therefore he labours to comply with that divine injunction, “Whether ye eat or drink, or whatever ye do, do all to the glory of God [Note: 1 Corinthians 10:31.].”]
Thus is the Christian transformed, not in respect of his life only, but in the spirit of his mind; and therefore can declare from experience,
What effects this progressive renovation will produce—
There are many objections raised by the world against the sanctity that has been before described; and there is much opposition to it in the heart of every unrenewed person: but the experience of it will most effectually discover it to be,
Good in itself—
[Piety is too generally considered as needless preciseness: nor need we have any thing more than a separation from the world, and a transformation of soul after the Divine image, in order to become objects of reproach and contempt. Even the more sober and discreet part of mankind regard the precepts before us as “hard sayings,” unsuitable to modern times, and unfit for general practice. But as our Lord said of his doctrines, that whosoever would do his will, should know whether they were of God [Note: John 7:17.], so we may say of his precepts. While we are blinded by carnal desires, the commands of God will appear rigorous; and we shall labour more to explain them away, than to obey them: but if once we adopt them as the rule of our conduct, their beauty and excellence will manifestly appear; and we shall be convinced that, to obey them is, to be truly happy [Note: Isaiah 32:17.].]
Acceptable to God—
[While religion is accounted superstition, it is no wonder that the sublimer duties of Christianity are declined as unnecessary, and that they who practise them are deemed “righteous over-much.” But a renovation of soul will soon dispel this error, and shew us that, the more entire our devotedness to God be, the more highly shall we be raised in God’s esteem. If only we make the word of God the standard of our actions, we cannot possibly be too earnest in improving the talents committed to us: nor can we doubt but that the tokens of God’s approbation that we shall receive, shall be proportioned to the sacrifices we have made, and the exertions we have used in his service [Note: Matthew 25:20-23.].]
Beneficial to man—
[It is usually supposed that a compliance with the directions in the text would weaken our faculties, and so distract our minds as to render us unfit for the common offices of life. But the very reverse of this is known to be true by all those who make the experiment. Heavenly-mindedness tends to “perfect” the man of God in all his faculties, and “thoroughly to furnish him unto all good works.” Till this takes possession of the soul, a man is the sport of every temptation, and liable to be led captive by every lust: but grace will establish his heart; it will bring a consistency into his whole conduct; it will change him into the very image of God; and will render him “meet for the inheritance of the saints in light.”]
Those who are yet conformed to the world—
[If you are free from gross vices, you do not apprehend your conformity to the world to be any reason for questioning the safety of your state. But it is scarcely possible for God to declare in more express terms your guilt and danger, than he has done in various parts of Holy Writ [Note: John 17:16. Galatians 1:4. 1 John 2:15-16. James 4:4.]. You are therefore reduced to this alternative, either to come out of Sodom, or to perish in it; either to enter in at the strait gate, and walk in the narrow way, or to fall into that destruction that awaits you at the end of the broad and frequented path. O that God may enable you to choose the good part; and to adhere to it in spite of all the odium your singularity may bring upon you!]
Those who profess to have experienced a transformation of soul—
[You need to be much upon your guard lest “after you have escaped the pollutions of the world, you should be again entangled therein and overcome [Note: 2 Peter 2:20.].” It is your wisdom to avoid temptation, and to guard against the snares that are laid for your feet. However circumspectly you may walk, you will find reason enough to lament your manifold defects. Lay not then any stumbling-blocks in your own way; but seek rather to experience the transforming efficacy of the Gospel: let the world be crucified unto you, and be ye crucified unto the world [Note: Galatians 6:14.]. As obedient children, “fashion yourselves in no respect according to your former lusts in your ignorance, but as he who hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation [Note: 1 Peter 1:14-15.].”]
SOBRIETY OF MIND ENJOINED
Romans 12:3. For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.
IN order to obtain just views of any passage of Scripture, we must pay the strictest attention to the context. It is by the context that the precise import of the words before us must be determined. It sometimes happens, however, that the misconstruction of a single word—by which I mean, the taking of a word in its more common acceptation, when it is used by the inspired writer in a more peculiar sense—will involve the whole passage in the greatest obscurity. The word translated “for” is generally used to introduce a reason for something immediately preceding: but in my text, as in many other parts of the Apostle’s writings, I apprehend it means “moreover;” for the Apostle is passing on to a subject unconnected with that which he had spoken of in the preceding words, except merely as he descends from a general exhortation to the mention of some particulars. Having recommended, in the two preceding verses, the cultivation of general piety, as the proper improvement to he made of all the doctrines which he had before established, he descends to some particulars, which, in the state of the Roman Church at that time, he deemed of peculiar importance. There were at Rome, as well as at Corinth, many who were possessed of miraculous gifts: and some were ready to value themselves too highly on account of those gifts; forgetting that they had received them from God, and that, not for their own aggrandizement, but for the benefit of the Church to which they belonged. It should seem that these gifts were put forth by a special exercise of faith; and that persons were enabled to exercise them at those seasons, and in those degrees to which they were prompted by a special communication of faith to their souls [Note: Compare 1 Corinthians 13:2.James 5:15; James 5:15.Matthew 17:20; Matthew 17:20.]. The meaning therefore of our text is, ‘Pride not yourselves on any gifts which you possess; but thankfully acknowledge God as the author of them, and improve them humbly for his glory.’ In this view, the words before us are precisely similar to that more enlarged statement which the Apostle gives in his First Epistle to the Corinthians [Note: ver. 6. with 1 Corinthians 12:4-11.]; and the word ‘faith,’ in our text, is equivalent to that expression in the Epistle to the Ephesians: “To every one of us is grace given, according to the measure of the gift of Christ [Note: Ephesians 4:7.].”
But, as miraculous gifts have long since ceased, and as the caution in my text is equally applicable to gifts of every kind, I shall take this more enlarged view of the words, and consider,
The caution here given—
It is well known that gifts, of whatever kind they be, are too commonly made an occasion of pride—
[It is difficult for any one to possess any particular quality, whether of mind or body, and not feel a measure of self-admiration and self-preference on account of it. How great a snare to a person’s own mind superior beauty is, is well known: and so is every other bodily endowment, in proportion as it is admired by the world at large. Talent, too, will puff up the possessor of it with a conceit of his importance, and cause him to arrogate to himself a more than ordinary homage from those around him. And glad should we be if the same kind of conceit were never founded on attainments of a moral or religious nature: but it is a fact, that morality itself is made, by almost all who possess it, a ground for self-preference, and that, too, even before God himself; insomuch, that persons who have been preserved from great and flagrant transgressions, treat almost with contempt the provisions of the Gospel, from a conceit, that they need not to humble themselves like a poor publican, but that they may justly expect from God some peculiar favour on account of their own inherent righteousness. This was the habit of the Apostle’s mind, previous to his conversion; and it is that which is at this day the greatest obstacle to the conversion of thousands. Even spiritual gifts, too, are often, through the suggestions of our great adversary, made occasions of self-preference and self-complacency; when every sentiment which the Gospel contains has a direct tendency to humble us in the dust.]
But modesty and sobriety should, under all circumstances, regulate our self-esteem—
[We are all members of one body: and, whatever gifts we possess, they are bestowed by God for the good of the whole. The kind and measure of them are determined by the Donor himself; and the person possessing them has no more right to pride himself upon them, than the eye or ear has to arrogate to itself any merit above the hand or foot. All that any man has to do, is, to improve his talents for the good of the whole, precisely as the various members of our body do. The eye sees not for itself; nor does the ear hear for itself; nor does the hand or foot consult its own exclusive welfare in its motions and acts. So we, “having gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us,” must employ them all for the ends for which they have been bestowed. Whether our gift be of a higher or lower order, we are not to concern ourselves about that, either in a way of self-elevation or of self-depression; but we must diligently, according to our ability, improve it, to the glory of God, and the edification of his Church and people.]
To every one of you, therefore, I address the caution in our text—
[There is no one who does not need it: there is no one who has not occasion for it: there is no one who has not, in his own conceit at least, something whereof to glory, and something which gives him an ideal superiority over others of his own rank, and age, and circumstances. But, in all, pride is alike hateful, and alike unreasonable: for, granting that we do differ from others, “what have we that we have not received? And, if we have received it, how absurd is it to glory as if we had not received it [Note: 1 Corinthians 4:7.]!”]
But that this caution may be laid to heart, I will proceed to point out,
The importance of it—
This is marked with very peculiar force in the passage before us. In the preceding verses, where the Apostle had exhorted the Roman converts to piety in a general view, he had addressed them as “Brethren,” and used the language of entreaty; but in the text, where he particularizes the duty of humility, he assumes the authority of an Apostle, and in a most solemn way lays the strictest injunctions upon every individual amongst them [Note: When he says, “Through the grace that is given unto me,” he refers to his apostolic office: Romans 1:5.]. And the very terms he uses are so strong, so marked, so peculiar, as scarcely to be capable of being translated into any other language, and such as were admirably calculated to make the deepest impression on their minds [Note: Mark the repetition of the word φρονεῖν. μὴ ὑπερφρονεῖν παρʼ ὃ δεῖ φρονεῖν· ἀλλὰ φρονεῖν εἰς τὸ σωφρονεῖν.].
Attend, then, carefully to this injunction,
For your own honour—
[Nothing renders a man more contemptible than vanity: it invariably defeats its own ends, and sinks us in the estimation of all whose applause we covet. But, independent of that, the more we arrogate to ourselves, the less will people be disposed to concede to us: and, if they cannot refuse us some degree of credit on those points wherein we excel, they will be sure to search out some faults to put into the balance against it; so that, on the whole, we shall be gainers to as small an amount as possible. On the other hand, modesty gives effect to all our other excellencies: and the more meekly we bear our honours, the more liberal will even the most envious of our rivals be in the bestowment of them. To “prefer others in honour before ourselves [Note: ver. 10 and Philippians 2:3.],” is the way to disarm their hostility, to allay their jealousies, to conciliate their regard; so that, even if we had no better object in view than the advancement of ourselves in the estimation of man, we should seek it, not by self-conceit and self-preference, but by sobriety in self-estimation, and by modesty in our whole deportment. To this effect, the wisest of men has taught us, “To seek our own glory, is not glory [Note: Proverbs 25:27.]:” on the contrary, “when pride cometh, then cometh shame: but with the lowly is wisdom [Note: Proverbs 11:2.].”]
For the honour of God—
[It is an insult to God to make his gifts a pedestal for the exaltation of self. You will remember, that he complains of his people of old, because they appropriated his corn, and his wine, and his oil,” to the honouring of others who were his rivals in their esteem [Note: Hosea 2:5; Hosea 2:8-9.]. And this is the very thing which every man does, who takes to himself the honour of those gifts which have been conferred upon him by God. And how indignant Jehovah is at such treatment, we may see in his expostulations with Sennacherib: “I will punish the fruit of the stout heart of the king of Assyria, and the glory of his high looks. For he saith, By the strength of my hands I have done it, and by my wisdom; for I am prudent; and I have removed the bounds of the people, and have robbed their treasures; and I have put down their inhabitants, like a valiant man: and my hand hath found, as a nest, the riches of the people; and, as one gathereth eggs that are left, have I gathered all the earth: and there was none that moved the wing, or opened the mouth, or peeped.” Now, hear Jehovah’s reply to this soliloquy: “Shall the axe boast itself against him that heweth therewith? or shall the saw magnify itself against him that shaketh it? as if the rod should shake itself against them that lift it up, or as if the staff should lift up itself, as if it were no wood [Note: Isaiah 10:12-15.].” Tell me, I pray you, what would you have been above the beasts, if God had not endowed you with reason? or, what had you differed from the meanest of the human race, if God had not made you to differ? Your distinctive powers afford you ground enough for gratitude; but none for self-applause: and if, like Herod, you take to yourselves the credit which your ignorant or partial friends may accord to you, like Herod you shall become monuments of God’s just and fiery indignation. You may not be eaten up with worms in this life: but you shall surely bear his displeasure in the world to come. “God is a jealous God:” and “his glory will he not give to another [Note: Exodus 20:5.Isaiah 42:8; Isaiah 42:8.].” “From him does every good and perfect gift proceed [Note: James 1:17.];” and to him must all the glory of it be ascribed: “He that glorieth, must glory only in the Lord [Note: Jer 9:23 and 1 Corinthians 4:7.].”]
For the benefit of your own souls—
[“Seest thou a man wise in his own conceit? there is more hope of a fool than of him [Note: Proverbs 26:12.].” To what purpose will you possess gifts, if they prove only a curse unto you? But such they really are, to all who pride themselves in them: for “God scorneth the scorners; but giveth grace unto the lowly [Note: Proverbs 3:34. with 1 Peter 5:5.].” If your talents be improved for God, they will bring from him a recompence proportioned to the increase [Note: Matthew 25:20-21.]. Thus, both here and in the eternal world, will you be gainers, if with meekness and modesty you employ for God the blessings he has imparted to you. To every one, then, that is among you, I say,]
Consider your gifts as conferred on you by God—
[Never, for a moment, lose sight of this truth. Let Him be acknowledged, in every bounty of his providence, and in every blessing of his grace. There is no need that you should be blind to what God has done for you, or wrought in you: but, if at any time you are constrained to say, “I laboured more abundantly than they all,” be sure to add immediately, “Yet not I; but the grace of God that was with me [Note: 1 Corinthians 15:10.].”]
Improve them diligently, for the glory of his name—
[Forget yourselves altogether. Moses saw not his own glory, when it shone; though it was so resplendent, that none of his brethren could sustain the sight. O that you also might be so intent on the work assigned you, as to have your attention wholly taken from yourselves! Consider only what talent you possess, and what improvement can be made of it: and if you find that God has given you a capacity for great and arduous services, be willing to undertake them, whatever difficulties they may be attended with, and whatever self-denial may be required for the performance of them. On the contrary, if you have but one talent, “wrap it not in a napkin,” but improve it for your God. Let it be said of every one amongst you, “He hath done what he could [Note: Mark 14:8.].” Then, whether your powers be great or small, you shall be approved of your God, and hear him at last say unto you, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.”]
CHRISTIANS ARE ALL MEMBERS OF ONE BODY
Romans 12:4-8. As we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office: so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another. Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith; or ministry, let us wait on our ministering: or he that teacheth, on teaching; or he that exhorteth, on exhortation: he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that sheweth mercy, with cheerfulness.
TO have the mind well instructed in religious principles is good: but we must never forget that the end of principle is practice; and that all the knowledge, whether of men or angels, will be of no service, if it do not operate to the renovation of our souls after the Divine image. Hence St. Paul, having established with irresistible force all the fundamental doctrines of the Gospel, proceeds to urge upon the Church at Rome a practical improvement of them. The first improvement of them is, to surrender up ourselves unfeignedly and unreservedly to God in a way of devout affection. The next is, to employ ourselves diligently for him in every office whereby we can benefit his Church and people. To the former of these the Apostle calls us in the first verse of this chapter: and to the latter, in the words which we have just read. But to this latter we are yet further called by the relation which we bear to the Church of God, whereof we are members: and in this view it is inculcated by the Apostle in our text.
Let us then consider,
The relation which we bear to one another—
As descendants of Adam, we are all members of one family, of which God is the universal Parent: but, as the redeemed of the Lord, we are brought into the nearest union with Christ, so as to be members of his body, and consequently to be “members also one of another.” To elucidate more fully this important truth, we will distinctly notice,
Our general connexion—
[All true Christians are parts of one great whole, even as the different members of our corporeal body are. All have their appropriate sphere of action, and ought to fulfil the peculiar duties for which they are fitted. Those who have a higher office in this mystical body have no ground for pride, seeing that “they have nothing which they have not received:” their place in the body, and their faculties, having been foreordained and given by Him “who divideth to every man severally as he will [Note: 1 Corinthians 12:4-11.].” On the other hand, they who have the lowest office have no reason for discontent: for they, in their place, are as necessary to the perfection of the whole, as any other member whatever. If they have a lower office than others, they have comparatively less responsibility: and, if they discharge their office conscientiously for the good of the whole and the glory of God, their improvement of their one talent will as certainly be acknowledged and rewarded by God, as the improvement which others may make of their ten talents.]
Our mutual dependence—
[No man is independent: no man is sufficient for his own welfare: no man can say to any other, I have no need of you [Note: 1 Corinthians 12:14-23.]. Every one is in want of many things that must be sub-plied by others: the eye needs the foot, as much as the foot needs the eye. No member possesses any thing for itself alone: the eye sees not for itself, nor does the ear hear for itself: it is for the whole that every member’s faculties are given; and for the whole must they be employed. If any member be afflicted, all the rest must sympathize with it, and administer to it: and if any member be particularly benefited, all the others must be partakers of its joy. Every one must consider the concerns of others as its own [Note: 1 Corinthians 12:25-26. with Philippians 2:4.]: nor must any one draw back from the most self-denying offices for the good of others. Is a hand bruised? the feet, the eye, the tongue, the ear, must all exert their respective talents to procure relief. No one must refuse to do what in him lies for the good of the others. The same members that now put forth their powers for the relief of one that is afflicted, may soon need from it a return of the same kind offices: and if any should say, I will give myself no trouble about this afflicted member, he will soon be made to see, that, by producing a schism in the body, he does the greatest injury to himself; it being impossible either to impart, or to withhold, the required assistance, without participating in the effects of its own conduct.]
Our individual interest—
[The interest of every individual member is, to get its own powers invigorated and enlarged. The more penetrating the eye, or the more expert the hand, the more it will be able to advance the good of the whole. Now every member of the Church being united unto Christ as his living Head, he should seek from Christ such gracious communications as may fit him more for the discharge of every office to which he is called. Whatever situation the member may hold in the body, its duty, and its interest also, is the same. It will not be advanced by-intruding into the offices of another, but by fulfilling its own, and getting a greater measure of activity and vigour in the discharge of them. In truth, each is advanced only in proportion as it contributes to the welfare of others. The feet, whilst keeping the whole body in health, enjoy health themselves: the hands, whilst they procure sustenance for the whole body, are themselves strengthened: and in seeking the good of the whole, each advances most the glory of that blessed Saviour, whose members they are [Note: 1 Corinthians 10:24.]. The Saviour’s glory and the welfare of the Church are so identified, that they cannot be separated from each other [Note: 1 Corinthians 10:27. with Ephesians 4:15-16.].
Thus we see the truth and propriety of the comparison in our text: for as all the members of our body are united to the head, and to each other by the head; as they also receive life and nourishment from the head, and act in subserviency to it and by its direction; and finally, as they all have precisely the same interests, and have a perfect communion with each other in all that relates to their welfare; so it is with the Church of God: all are united to Christ by faith: all, by virtue of their union with him, are united to each other in him: all have their separate endowments for the good of the whole: all should look upon each other as members of their own body, as much as his hands or feet are: and all should feel with, and act for, every other member, precisely as for himself. O that this our relation to Christ and to each other were felt and realized among the saints of every communion under heaven!]
But our view of this relation will answer no good end, unless we attend to,
The duties arising from it—
The offices mentioned in our text, were, if not wholly, yet in a measure distinct, in the apostolic age. There were two great leading offices; the “prophesying,” or preaching of the word of God [Note: So the word frequently means; and does not necessarily include miraculous gifts. 1 Thessalonians 5:20.]; and “ministering” to the temporal necessities of the Church, as the deacons did [Note: The Greek word shews this.]. Under these two classes all the remainder may be arranged. Connected with those who prophesied were those also who “taught” and “exhorted:” and connected with the deacon’s office were those who “ruled,” or superintended the temporal concerns of the Church, “giving,” and dispensing its alms, and “shewing mercy” to those whose afflictions called for more than ordinary tenderness and compassion. But it is obvious that these various offices, even admitting that some of them were in the first instance associated with miraculous powers, are, in substance, of perpetual use and authority in the Church of Christ: there must still be persons to administer both spiritual instruction and temporal relief; and in many instances, the offices are most advantageously united. Without entering into any minute distinctions of this kind, we will content ourselves with saying in general, that, whatever station any of us hold in the Church of Christ, or whatever office we be called to execute, we should execute it,
With care and diligence—
[Certainly “prophesying,” or preaching the word of God, ought to be prosecuted with all imaginable care and diligence. We should, as “stewards of the mysteries of God,” administer to every one his portion in due season. We should “give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine,” “that so we may save both ourselves and them that hear us.” We should “take heed to our ministry that we fulfil it.” In like manner, if we perform any other office, visiting the sick, instructing the ignorant, relieving the necessitous, we should bestow much attention on the work, to execute it most for the benefit of the Church and the glory of God. It requires no small care to act so as most to counteract the effect of prejudice, and to render our efforts most beneficial to those for whom they are used. We must take care “not to let our good be evil spoken of,” and not to defeat by imprudence what, by a due attention to times and circumstances, might have been advantageously accomplished [Note: Matthew 7:6.].]
With patience and perseverance—
[We must expect to meet with difficulties in every service which we are called to perform. But we must not be discouraged by them. We must go forward, like St. Paul, “not moved by any trials,” “nor counting our lives dear to us,” if we be called to sacrifice them in the way of duty. Whatever we may meet with, we must “not faint or be weary in well doing,” but, “by patient continuance in it,” approve ourselves faithful unto death. Sometimes the difficulties will arise from one quarter, and sometimes from another: sometimes they will assume the garb of humility, and make us pretend unfitness for the work we have undertaken. But we must guard against this delusion: it may be true enough, that we are unfit; but that unfitness may proceed from our own sloth and want of spirituality; in which case it is not an excuse for us, but an aggravation of our guilt. We should rise to the occasion: “If the axe be blunt, we should put to the more strength [Note: Ecclesiastes 10:10.]:” and if we feel ourselves beginning to faint, we must entreat of God to “strengthen us with might in our inward man,” and to “give us always all-sufficiency in all things.” We do not mean by this to encourage any to undertake offices for which they are altogether unfit; but to guard you against “putting your hand to the plough, and looking back again:” for “if any man draw back, my soul, says God, shall have no pleasure in him.” Possibly a want of success may be pleaded by us as an excuse: but that is no excuse. If, like Hosea, we were to labour for seventy years with little apparent benefit, it would be no reason for abandoning the Lord’s work. “To plant and water,” is our part; “to give the increase,” is God’s: and whether we have any success or not, our duty is the same, both to Christ our Head, and to all the members of his body. It should be sufficient for us to know, that we have laboured to do the will of God. If we see the fruit of our labours, well; we have reason to be thankful for it: but, if not, then we must be satisfied with the assurance, that, “though Israel be not gathered, yet shall God be glorious,” yea, and our reward also shall be equally great: for “every man shall receive,” not according to his success, but “according to his own labour [Note: 1 Corinthians 3:8.].”]
With love and cheerfulness—
[We must do “nothing grudgingly or of necessity; for God loveth in all things a cheerful giver.” It may be that the conduct of those whose benefit we seek, may be less amiable than might be wished. In every department, whether the more public one of preachers, or the more private one of visiting the sick, we may find much perverseness and ingratitude. But our delight must be in our work: we must enter upon it readily, and perform it cheerfully; and heap coals of fire on the heads of those who render evil for good. By kindness we may remove prejudice and conciliate regard: and by a want of it we may defeat our own most benevolent purposes. Study then a suavity of manner: if called to “speak the truth,” speak it “in love;” and, as the Apostle says, “Let all your things be done with charity.”
If it he said, that to practise this is difficult; true, it is so; yea, and impossible to those who know not their relation to Christ, and to one another: but to those who look to Christ as their living Head, and who receive out of his fulness, nothing is impossible: “Through Christ strengthening us we can do all things.” Nor, if we regard our brother as a member of our own body, shall we find this so difficult: for who ever was backward to assuage his own pains, or relieve his own necessities? If, moreover, we consider the Lord Jesus Christ himself as relieved in the relief conferred on his distressed members, shall we then need any stimulus to exertion? No: it will be our joy to perform towards him every office of love. Thus think ye then, and thus act; and know, that “not even a cup of cold water shall lose its reward.”]
CHRISTIAN DUTIES TO GOD AND MAN EXPLAINED
Romans 12:9-12. Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good. Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another; not slothful in business; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing instant in prayer.
THAT men, who wallow in all manner of uncleanness, should not like to hear the precepts of religion, is easy to be accounted for: but that persons professing godliness should be averse to them, is surprising. Yet it is a fact, that many, whose lives, as far as we can see, are moral, pour contempt upon moral instructions, as having no part in evangelical religion. But these persons are directly at issue with that Apostle, whom they most exalt, and whom, in other respects, they affect to follow. Who is more diffuse, who more minute, than the Apostle Paul, in the instructions which he gives respecting Christian duties? Let us attend to those which are here inculcated. If we took them singly, every one of them would furnish matter for a separate discourse: but, as the Apostle has united them so closely together, we prefer taking them in their accumulated state; because, if by means of it we lose somewhat in point of distinctness, that loss will be more than supplied by the light which they will mutually reflect on each other, and the force that will be derived from a combination of them all.
The Apostle here states the Christian’s duties,
[We must “abhor that which is evil, and cleave to that which is good.” The strength of these expressions deserves particular attention. Had we been told to avoid what was evil, and to practise what was good, it would have been sufficient for the regulation of our outward conduct. But religion is to engage the heart; and is to rectify, not merely our acts, but our habits, our dispositions, our taste [Note: Romans 8:5. φρονοῦσιν.]. Sin must be hateful to us: and not gross sin only, but all sin without exception. It is not merely to be formidable to us on account of its penal consequences, but hateful on account of its odious qualities. As “God is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity,” so are we to be of purer hearts than to regard it with any other feeling than that of utter “abhorrence.” God calls it “that abominable thing which his soul hateth:” and in precisely the same light should we view it. The circumstance of its being common, or fashionable, or profitable, or pleasant, should make no difference in our feelings towards it; nor should we be at all more reconciled to it, because the world choose to call it venial. Every deviation from God’s holy law, every opposition to his revealed will, we should consider as debasing, defiling, damning; and every temptation to depart so much as an hair’s breadth from the perfect line of rectitude, we should resist even unto blood: “We should resist unto blood, striving against sin [Note: Hebrews 12:4.].”
In like manner, and to a like extent, we must “cleave unto that which is good,” or, as the word imports, be glued unto it [Note: κολλώμενοι, aggluminati. Beza.]. The effect of glue is to unite things together with such a degree of tenacity, that they cannot afterwards be separated. Now in this way should our souls, when once brought into contact with good, adhere to it, and form with it an indissoluble union. Whether it be good principles or good practice that we are called to embrace, we must never afterwards let them go: “We must buy the truth and sell it not.” Whatever force be used to separate us from the thing which is really good, we must be firm and unmoved. If, like the Hebrew Youths, we be menaced with a fiery furnace, we must be steadfast to our purpose, “not counting our lives dear to us, so that we may but fulfil the will of God, and finish our course with joy [Note: Acts 20:24.].” To every one who would draw us from the path of duty, we must make this reply, “Whether it be right to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye: for we cannot but do what we know to be his will [Note: Acts 4:19-20.].”]
The Apostle, having thus briefly declared our duty in general terms, proceeds to speak of it,
In a more specific manner—
Of those which he particularizes we shall be called to notice three; namely, the duties,
[Here again the language is such as God alone could inspire. Such a sentiment as is here expressed, we are well persuaded, never entered into the mind of an uninspired man: nor do we conceive that it can be expressed with equal brevity and elegance in any other language under heaven. Parents instinctively feel a most tender affection for their offspring. Even the brute creation are penetrated with it perhaps as strongly as the human kind. It arises out of the relation in which they stand to the object of their regards. Now such an attachment we should feel towards all the members of Christ’s mystical body: yea, we should not merely feel it, as from instinct, but cultivate it from principle [Note: φιλόστοργοι.]. But, inasmuch as this may be only, as it were, an animal feeling, we must have it tempered and refined “with brotherly love.” In brotherly love there is an union proceeding from a correspondence of mind, and a reciprocation of good offices and kind returns: and this feeling united with the former, knits together the hearts of men in a way that cannot be expressed, nor indeed conceived by any, who are not themselves the subjects of it. It exists not in nature: it is produced only by grace: but wherever it does exist, it raises the object so high in our estimation, that we seem to ourselves low in comparison of him; and, consequently, it makes us “prefer him in honour before ourselves.” This sentiment is always mutual: each party casts a veil over the defects of the other, and views only his excellencies; whilst, on the other hand, he is slow to admire his own virtues, and intent rather on humbling himself for his faults. This disposition, I say, believers cultivate towards all who are of the household of faith; and all of them thus meeting together upon the same ground, “each esteems the other better than himself [Note: Philippians 2:3.].”
Now then we call upon you, brethren, to shew forth this fruit of the grace ye have received. This is the kind of love, and this the measure, which you are to manifest towards all the children of God: and in proportion only as you manifest it, have you any evidence that you belong to Christ [Note: Joh 13:34-35 and 1 John 3:14.]. “If you love him that begat, you cannot but love those who are begotten of him.”]
[Religion is not a sentimental feeling only, but a practical and influential power. It produces energy and activity in every soul in which it resides. It regards sloth as one of its most destructive adversaries; and maintains against it an incessant warfare. Believer, hear your duty in relation to this important matter: you must “not be slothful in business, but fervent in spirit, serving the Lord.” Whatever be the office which you have to perform, it is assigned you by the Lord Jesus Christ, whose servant you are: and you must address yourself to it with an energy of mind, putting forth all your vigour, to execute it as speedily and as completely as you can. You must shake off sloth and listlessness; ever remembering, that “he who is slothful in his work is brother to him that is a great waster.” It is wisely ordained of God that “the idle soul shall suffer hunger, but that the diligent hand shall make rich.” “Whatever therefore your hand findeth to do, do it with all your might.” The consideration, that in all that you are called to do you serve the Lord Christ, should be a constant stimulus to your mind. This is particularly and strongly set forth by the Apostle in relation to servants [Note: Colossians 3:22-24.] — — — and it applies equally to every person under heaven. O, contemplate that passage in reference to yourselves, and to all the duties of your place and station: and, whether you have received more or less to trade with, labour to improve it to the utmost before the day of reckoning shall arrive. But bear in mind, that your diligence will then only be regarded as a service done to Christ, when you act from an immediate regard to his authority, and with a special view to his glory.]
[In your endeavours to serve the Lord, you will doubtless have to encounter many difficulties. There will be “fightings without, and fears within.” But, whatever tribulation you may be called to suffer for the Lord’s sake, you must look to the end for a sure and ample recompence of all your labours, and patiently endure whatever God may see fit to lay upon you, calling upon him continually for mercy, and for grace to help you in the time of need. This is the direction given you in our text; you are to be “rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing instant in prayer.” You are “never to faint or be weary in well-doing;” but to take the promises of God as your support; and in humble confidence that not one jot or tittle of them shall ever fail, you are to “hold fast the rejoicing of your hope firm unto the end.” The husbandman plows in hope and sows in hope, and waits patiently for the harvest: and thus must you do. There may be many a storm, and many a blighting wind; but you must commit your every care to God, and expect from him a full, a rich, a sure reward: for Iris unchanging promise is, that “in due season you shall reap, if you faint not.” At times you will find prayer a most arduous task: there is in the heart of man a continual proneness to draw back from God, and to restrain prayer before him. But you must not yield to this sad propensity: you must “continue instant in prayer;” knowing that, “if you ask not, you cannot have;” but if you persevere in earnest and importunate supplications, you must, you cannot but, prevail; yea, you shall be “more than conqueror over all” that can oppose your spiritual progress.]
See then from hence what true religion is;
How extensive in its offices!
[It comprehends the whole circle of good and evil; it prescribes a line of conduct for us in every thing that relates either to God or man: it occupies, and calls forth into action, every faculty of the soul. Its energies are universal, and without intermission. As reason sits at the helm, and directs the course of the natural man, being so incorporated with him, as it were, as to regulate him unsolicited and unperceived, so does religion preside in the soul of the spiritual man, and direct him in whatever relates either to time or eternity. There is nothing, either great or small, on which it does not exert an influence. O brethren, seek to have religion enthroned in your hearts, and performing in your minds the same offices as reason executes in the minds of unconverted men. Let it be a living principle within you, regulating your every action, word, and thought.]
How lovely in its operations!
[See religion putting Christ’s yoke upon rebellious man, and “bringing his every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ [Note: 2 Corinthians 10:5.]:” see it giving to man the very mind of Christ; making him love what Christ loves, and hate what Christ hates, and walking in all things as Christ walked: see it uniting in the bonds of tenderest love the whole family of Christ: see it stirring up every member of that family to activity in all the duties of his place and station, that none shall have any fault to find against him, or any negligence to lay to his charge: and lastly, see it bringing him into a state of habitual fellowship with his God, and a blessed foretaste of the glory that shall be revealed. Is not this good? is not this lovely? Yes, inexpressibly lovely is it: and if men “see not a beauty and a comeliness in it for which it is to be desired,” it is because “they are blinded by the god of this world [Note: 2 Corinthians 5:4.].” O beloved, seek to recommend the Gospel, by thus imbibing its spirit, and exhibiting its efficacy in your lives. Let not your hatred of sin, or your love of holiness, be questioned for one moment: but press forward in the habitual exercise of humble love, of unremitting diligence, and of unshaken constancy; “that men, seeing your good works, may glorify your Father who is in heaven.”]
Romans 12:15. Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.
AS creatures, we have many duties to perform towards our Creator: and, as members of one universal family, we have duties also towards each other. We all participate one common lot. The present state is subject to great varieties of good and evil; and all in their tarn experience occasional alternations of joy and sorrow, of elevation and depression. In these successive changes, we naturally look for some to sympathize with us. We expect, that they who are partakers of humanity, should feel some interest in our affairs: and, if we find no one that has a heart in unison with our own, we seem to ourselves as outcasts from the human race. Now the dispositions which we expect to find exercised towards us, we are called to exercise towards others. The joys and sorrows of others should, as it were by sympathy, be made our own: we should “rejoice with them that rejoice, and weep with them that weep.”
That this grace may be more cultivated amongst us, we will endeavour to shew,
The nature and extent of Christian sympathy—
Sympathy is that feeling of the mind whereby we enter into the concerns of others as if they were our own. Not that we are to interfere with others as “busy-bodies in other men’s matters;” but we should have such a friendly disposition towards them, as to participate both in their joys and sorrows, and to have corresponding emotions excited by them in our own minds. This is a duty incumbent on every child of man: “Let no man seek his own, but every man another’s wealth [Note: 1 Corinthians 10:24.]:” And again, “Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others [Note: Philippians 2:4. See also Hebrews 13:3.].”
There is scope for the exercise of this grace in reference to men’s temporal concerns—
[Are any afflicted in mind, or body, or estate? We should be ready to act towards them as Job’s friends did under his afflictions: “they met by appointment, to mourn with him and to comfort him; and they were so overwhelmed with his sorrows, that they were incapacitated for any active exertions in his behalf for the space of seven days and seven nights [Note: Job 2:11-13.].” This silence of theirs has been misconstrued by many, as if the time so spent had been occupied in uncharitable reflections, to which they dared not give vent. But those who have been conversant with scenes of woe, and have been suitably impressed by them, will be at no loss to account for the effect produced: lighter sorrows would soon have called forth observations of some kind, either from the sufferer or his friends: but such overwhelming griefs as his, astonished, stupified, and silenced all: and in proportion as our sympathy is deep, will be the reverential awe with which we shall approach the sufferer, and the tender caution with which we shall address him.
It may be said, that such feelings well became them, as friends of the afflicted saint; but that it is unreasonable to look for any such emotions towards a stranger, and still more towards an enemy. To this we answer, that, though friendship will of course heighten our feelings, and more exquisite sensations will be excited in us by the sight of a suffering saint, who is as a member of Christ’s body [Note: 1 Corinthians 12:25-26.], than would be called forth towards one who stood in no such relation to Christ, yet our compassion should be deep and tender towards all. The good Samaritan has shewn us how we should act towards any one, even though he should be of a nation that is hostile to us [Note: Luke 10:30-37.]: and David has shewn us how we should conduct ourselves towards him, even though he were our bitterest enemy: “When they were sick,” says he, “my clothing was sackcloth; and I humbled my soul with fasting: I behaved myself as though he had been my friend or brother: I bowed down heavily, as one that mourneth for his mother [Note: Psalms 35:13-14.].”
In like manner we should be prepared to rejoice with those who are brought into circumstances of a more pleasing nature. We see an example of this in the friends of Elizabeth. It was reckoned a great affliction to a woman to be barren: and such had Elizabeth been, till she was arrived at an age when she had no reasonable expectation of ever seeing her shame removed. But it pleased God in his mercy to visit her, and to give her a son in her old age: and when she was delivered of the child, her friends and relations came from every quarter to congratulate her on the happy event [Note: Luke 1:57-58.]. This was a fruit and evidence of their love: and wherever love is, it will be sure to operate in this manner: we shall not be indifferent to the happiness of others, but shall find our own augmented by every accession of happiness to our neighbour: and, if “a man who has recovered his straying sheep,” or “a woman who has found her lost piece of money,” call upon us for our congratulations [Note: Luke 15:4-6; Luke 15:8-9.], we shall feel real delight in the exercise and expression of our most benevolent affections.
Such is the disposition which we should cultivate towards all the sons and daughters of affliction; for in the exercise of it we perform a most important duty towards them, as members of one common family; and at the same time we resemble our common Parent, of whom it is said, that “his soul was grieved for the misery of Israel,” and, that “he delighteth also in the prosperity of his servants.”]
But the most urgent calls for it are in reference to men’s spiritual concerns—
[The joys or sorrows which arise from the things of time and sense are comparatively of little consequence: but those that are connected with the eternal world are of infinite importance. Are any of our fellow-creatures mourning by reason of their sins, which have grown up unto heaven, and are a load upon their conscience too heavy for them to bear? How should we pant after an opportunity to make known to them the glad tidings of salvation through a crucified Redeemer; that so we may “give unto them the oil of joy for mourning, and the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness!” Are any in danger of being “turned away from their steadfastness?” How should we burn with holy impatience to ascertain their state, and to “establish their hearts [Note: 1 Thessalonians 3:5.]!” In a word, we should so feel with all the members of Christ’s mystical body, as to be able to say with the Apostle, “Who is weak, and I am not weak? who is offended, and I burn not [Note: 2 Corinthians 11:29.]?”
Nor should our compassion be withheld from those who are insensible of their guilt and danger: on the contrary, they on this very account require it so much the more. Like Paul, we should “have continual heaviness and sorrow in our hearts for our brethren’s sake [Note: Romans 9:2.];” and, like our blessed Lord, we should weep over them, though we knew that they were just ready to imbrue their hands in our blood [Note: Luke 19:41.].
If, on the other hand, any return to their Father’s house, how should we rejoice over them, and join in the pious festivities of prayer and praise [Note: Luke 15:24; Luke 15:32.]! If afterwards they advance in the divine life, our joy and exultation should be proportionably increased [Note: 1 Thessalonians 3:6-10.]. The angels in heaven are not indifferent spectators of such events [Note: Luke 15:7; Luke 15:10.]; and should we? No: next to the salvation of our own souls, we should pant after, and delight in, the spiritual welfare of all around us.]
Such is the nature, and such the extent, of Christian sympathy: the value of which, however, will be better seen, if we consider,
The benefits resulting from it—
It is of incalculable use,
To him by whom it is exercised—
[The heart of man by nature is selfish: but grace expands it; and, by interesting it in the behalf of others, gives scope for the exercise of better feelings. The man whose cares and pleasures centre all in self, has his happiness extremely contracted, at the same time that it is also of a low and sordid character. But the man who has learned to sympathize with others, derives pleasure from all around him, and makes all the happiness he beholds his own. The smiles of universal nature, the shining of the sun, the verdure of the fields, the cheerful aspect of the different tribes and orders of the animal creation, all diffuse a peace and serenity through his mind, and draw forth into exercise the principles of benevolence within him. The comforts also with which the various classes of his fellow-creatures are favoured, inspire him with a sense of gratitude to the great Source of all. The accounts which from time to time he hears of the wider spread of religion, and the consequent augmentation of happiness in the world, fill him with joy, and stir him up to the delightful employment of prayer and praise. Thus his sources of happiness are greatly multiplied, whilst the sensations of it are purified and refined.
If it be said, that by sympathy with the afflicted his pains are also multiplied; we answer, that in appearance they are so, but that in reality they are not. True it is, that many things which others behold without emotion, create within him a sensation of grief: but it must be remembered, that the grief of sympathy does not corrode, like other grief: on the contrary, it induces what, if it did not sound too paradoxical, we would call, a pleasurable pain. The sigh of pity and the tear of love may, in this respect, be compared with the sighs and tears of penitential sorrow: they diffuse a sweetness over the mind, as being evidences of the operation of a gracious principle, which God approves: whilst at the same time they reconcile a man to all his own personal trials, which always appear the lighter, in proportion as he is conversant with the trials of those around him.
Thus the very exercise of sympathy has its own reward.]
To those towards whom it is exercised—
[The sympathy of a friend does not at all affect the causes of sorrow; but it most materially affects its pressure upon the mind. It is as if a person took hold of a load which almost crushed us with its weight, and bore a part of it together with us. The very opening of our griefs is itself somewhat of a relief to a burthened soul: and the beholding of another, under the influence of love, participating with us our sorrows, and making them his own, wonderfully assuages the pain we feel. The sense we have of his kindness operates as a balm to heal our wounds. By the love we experience, our thoughts are diverted from the troubles we endure; and are turned for a season into the more pleasing channel of reciprocal affection, and of gratitude to a gracious God. Thus, by means of sympathy, the sorrows of the afflicted are greatly lightened.
On the other hand, the joys of any person are by the same means greatly increased. By every fresh congratulation, they are revived in the mind from time to time: the fire, which, for want of such stirrings, would have languished, is resuscitated; and oil is poured, as it were, upon the flame.]
But these things are rather matters of experience than of abstract discussion: to be known and understood, they must be felt.]
To the Church at large—
[Where these amiable feelings are displayed in full force and activity, the cause of Christ is greatly promoted. The beauty and excellence of Christianity is seen. Men cannot, or will not, judge of it from its principles; but they cannot help judging of it from the effects which they behold. The persons who beheld our blessed Lord at the tomb of Lazarus, were struck with his sympathy in this particular view: “When Jesus saw Mary weeping, and the Jews also weeping who came with her, he groaned in his spirit, and was troubled: and, on his coming to the grave, Jesus wept. Then said the Jews, Behold, how he loved him [Note: John 11:33-36.]!” So, when persons behold Christians participating with others freely in their joys and sorrows, they are constrained to say, Behold how these Christians love one another; yea, and not one another only, but all around them, strangers and enemies, as well as friends! The prevalence of such dispositions goes further to silence gainsayers, and to win souls, than all the most laboured arguments of learned theories: religion speaks to them here in a language which they cannot but understand and feel.]
Here, in conclusion, we are constrained to observe,
How poor and inefficacious is the religion of the world!
[The world’s religion consists almost entirely of forms, of forms without either life or power. Certainly Christianity, even as professed by the world, has advanced the cause of general benevolence: but that benevolence extends not to the concerns of the soul. A worldly Christian can see thousands perishing in their sins, and not stretch out a hand to their relief, nor utter one sigh on their account: and, as for all experimental religion, whether of joy or sorrow, he derides it as the fruit of a weak or distempered imagination. The character of such persons may be seen in the elder brother in the parable, who, when solicited to join in the festivities occasioned by his brother’s return, vented his spleen in unkind reflections, both on the prodigal who had returned, and on his father who had received him to his arms. The most benevolent of worldly men has not a string in his heart that is in unison with one who is cast down with penitential sorrow, or that is exalted with the joys of faith. No: his principles rise not so high: his convictions are only intellectual; and they can never be productive of what is spiritual. Even in their moral effects they operate to but a small extent: but, in respect of spiritual sympathy, they bear no fruit at all. O, brethren, see from hence how poor and defective that religion is which generally passes under the name of Christianity: it is Christianity without Christ, in its principles; it is Christianity without love, in its effects. It boasts itself to have proceeded from the Sun of Righteousness; but it has neither the light nor heat that proceed from his glorious rays: it is a shadow without a substance; a name without a reality. If it proceeded really from Christ, it would make us to resemble him in our spirit and our conduct.]
How lovely and operative is the religion of Christ!
[Sympathy is of the very essence of Christ’s religion: “Bear ye one another’s burthens,” says the Apostle, “and so fulfil the law of Christ [Note: Galatians 6:2.].” Yes: he has taught us this both by precept and example: he bids us “love one another, as he has loved us [Note: John 15:12.].” And how has he loved us? He pitied us in our fallen state, and came down from the bosom of his Father to seek and save us. And during the whole of his abode upon earth, but more especially in his last hours, “he bare our infirmities, and carried our sorrows [Note: Isaiah 53:4.Matthew 8:17; Matthew 8:17.].” And at this present moment we are authorized to say, that “he is touched with the feeling of our infirmities [Note: Hebrews 4:15.],” and that there is neither a benefit nor an injury that we receive, but he feels it as done immediately to himself [Note: Matthew 25:4.Acts 9:4; Acts 9:4.Zechariah 2:8; Zechariah 2:8.]. Such is the effect which the Gospel produces upon all who receive it in spirit and in truth. Let a sense of Christ’s love to us be duly impressed on our hearts; and it will immediately excite in us a love to all mankind, though in a more especial manner to the household of faith. See, with your own eyes, brethren; What is it that has given birth to Bible Societies, and Mission Societies, and to numberless other institutions that respect the welfare of men’s souls? It is the Gospel: the Gospel, faithfully administered, and affectionately received. Such ever was, and ever will be, the fruit of faith; for “faith worketh by love.” Seek ye then to become possessed of a true and living faith: and know, that the more entirely you live by faith on the Son of God, as having loved you, and given himself for you, the more you will drink into his spirit, and be transformed into his blessed image: nor will you fix any other bounds to your sympathies, than he has affixed to his [Note: Here open and recommend any Charitable Institution, as affording an occasion for the exercise of this virtue.].]
OVERCOMING EVIL WITH GOOD
Romans 12:21. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.
THE writings of the Old Testament exhibit a system of morals incomparably superior to any that was ever promulgated by the wisest philosophers. In extent it equals the New Testament. It is quite a mistake to say that our Lord inculcated sublimer morals than ever had been revealed before: he only removed the false glosses by which the commands of God had been obscured, and enforced the observance of those commands by motives of a higher nature. Still however it must be confessed, that the New Testament brings the sublimer precepts more clearly into view, and expatiates upon them in a more authoritative and convincing manner. This appears in the injunction before us, which is as concise, as comprehensive, as forcible, as words could express it.
In discoursing upon this precept we shall endeavour to mark,
The “evil” here spoken of does not relate to sin, but to suffering; and comprehends all those injuries, whether real or imaginary, which we are called to endure. In reference to this, two questions arise:
When may we be said to be overcome by it?
[We are not overcome by evil merely because we are crushed by it; for St. Paul, when “pressed out of measure by his troubles in Asia,” “thanks God for enabling him always to triumph in Christ [Note: 2 Corinthians 1:8; 2 Corinthians 2:14.]:” and declares that while “we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter, we may be more than conquerors [Note: Romans 8:36-37.].” But we are then vanquished by it, when we are diverted by it from the path of duty.
Suppose on account of the trial being exceeding heavy, we are tempted to doubt whether it can, or will, be overruled for our good: then we are vanquished; because we question the truth of God, who has said, that “all things should work together for his people’s good:” our faith has failed, and we are overcome.
Suppose the injury done to us has irritated and inflamed our minds, so that we give way to anger and impatience: then also we are overcome; because we ought to “possess out souls in patience [Note: Luke 21:19.],” and to “let patience have its perfect work, that we may be perfect and entire, lacking nothing [Note: James 1:4.].”
Suppose, though no particular vehemence shew itself at the time, we yet are induced to harbour secret resentment in our minds against our enemy: then we are overcome; because we should love our enemies [Note: Luke 6:35.], and be more concerned for the evil which they do to their own souls, than for any thing which they do, or can do, to us.
Suppose, either through the fear of evil, or through actual distress, we are induced to relax our zeal in the Lord’s service, or to make any sinful concessions, then also we are vanquished: for we submit to sin rather than to suffering; we have failed in our integrity; we are overcome. We should value a good conscience more than life itself [Note: John 12:25.]; and when we make shipwreck of it, we shew that our enemy has gained the victory over us.
If we hold fast our faith, our patience, our love, our integrity, then are we conquerors, even though we die in the conflict: but if in any of these respects we fail, then are we overcome, even though we crush our adversary, and defeat his more immediate projects.]
How are we to overcome it—
[We gain a victory over it in part, when we do not suffer it to injure our souls. But we must not be contented with such a negative triumph; we should endeavour to overcome the hostility of our enemy; and this can be effected only by returns of good. “If he curse, we must bless; if he despitefully use us and persecute us, we must pity him and pray for him [Note: Matthew 5:44.].” “If he hunger, we must feed him; if he thirst, we must give him drink;” with all the tenderness and compassion that we would to a querulous and untoward infant [Note: ψώμιζεmeans, ‘Feed him as an infant.’ Romans 12:20.]. We shall in this way “heap coals of fire upon his head,” to melt him into love [Note: Romans 12:20.]. It is true, many are so obdurate, that no returns of good can ever dissolve their hearts: yet the effect of such persevering kindness, is inconceivably great, and will sometimes extort confessions of our innocence, even from the most infuriated enemies. We can scarcely find in the annals of the world a more cruel or inverate enemy than Saul; yet David’s repeated exercises of forbearance and kindness towards him constrained him to confess his own wickedness, and the distinguished excellence of the person whom he persecuted [Note: 1 Samuel 24:10-11; 1Sa 24:16-18; 1 Samuel 26:21.]. Such a victory as that is greater than the most successful warrior could ever boast: and we should aim at similar conquests: we should strive, not to crush our enemy by force, but to overcome his enmity by love.]
We cannot dismiss such an important precept as this without endeavouring more distinctly to set before you,
The moment that the precept is presented to the mind we cannot fail of admiring its simplicity, and, at the same time, its depth. But that our views of it may be more distinct, we observe,
It counteracts all our evil propensities—
[When we are injured or insulted, what a tumult of passion is apt to arise in our breast; and how ready are we to render evil for evil! If we forbear avenging ourselves at the time either by word or deed, we still feel a disposition to retaliate, and are ready to wreak our vengeance upon our adversary by private complaints of his conduct, though from prudence or timidity we do not maintain a contest with him to his face. Long and bitter are the resentments of many, even while they appear to be reconciled, and perhaps delude themselves with the confidence that they have forgiven their enemy. But this precept lays the axe to the root of all secret animosity as well as open hostility. It goes not to the act merely, but to the principle; it requires that all the enmity that is in our hearts should be slain; and that love alone should reign there. Were this once effected, there is not an evil in the soul which would not have received its death wound: for “love is the fulfilling of the law.”]
It assimilates us to Jesus Christ—
[To what an extent has our blessed Lord carried this principle! When we were his enemies, yea, when the whole universe were up in arms against him, he did not execute upon us the vengeance we deserved, but came down from heaven to convert and save us. And by what means did he propose to save us? Was it by a mere act of power? No: it was by bearing our sins, and dying in our stead. What astonishing love was this! But further, when he had come into the world, and his people with one voice had put him to death, still, so far from bearing resentment against them in his heart, he, after he had risen from the dead, commanded that his Gospel should he preached first of all in that city where he had been crucified, and that the offers of salvation should be first made to the very people who had imbrued their hands in his blood [Note: Luke 24:47.]. And how glorious were the triumphs of his love! By the very first sermon that was preached in his name, three thousand of his enemies were convinced of their wickedness, and brought to repentance. Similar to this was the mercy he vouchsafed to the persecuting, blaspheming Saul: he appeared to him in the midst of his mad career, and, by this transcendent act of love, changed a bitter and cruel enemy into a holy and active Apostle. Thus he overcame evil with good; and in proportion as we imitate his conduct we shall be transformed into his likeness.]
It would make a very heaven upon earth—
[What a very hell is this world, where the passions are let loose, and men are left to perpetrate all that is in their hearts! Even under the restraint of wholesome laws there are so many quarrels generated, and so many resentments harboured, that there is scarcely a society or a family in which real harmony prevails. But if this precept were universally obeyed, how different a world would this appear? From the combating of evil with love, there would soon be no evil to contend with: for certainly they who rendered nothing but good unto their enemies, would never render evil to their friends; or if any unintentional evil were done, the very remembrance of it would be quickly lost in returns of love. O blessed state! When shall the happy time arrive, when “the wolf and the lamb shall thus dwell together, and the child shall have no ill to fear when playing on the hole of the asp, or of the cockatrice den?” Surely this may well be called, “The reign of Christ upon earth;” for it will be the brightest image of heaven, or rather heaven itself come down on earth.]
As a further improvement of this precept, we shall.
[We are not to imagine that this precept requires us to renounce our civil rights; for St. Paul, on proper occasions, asserted his rights as a Roman citizen [Note: Acts 16:37; Acts 22:25; Acts 25:10-11.]: nor does an obedience to it preclude the exercise of legitimate authority; for the magistrate would have been invested with power to no purpose, if he were not allowed to exercise it in the support of virtue and the punishment of vice [Note: Romans 13:4.]. Parents, masters, ministers, must exercise the authority committed to them. It is the vindictive disposition that is forbidden, and the unwearied exercise of love that is inculcated — — —]
[Many arguments will arise in our corrupt minds against the discharge of this sublime and self-denying duty. ‘The persons who have used us ill, do not deserve kind treatment; and the exercise of continued kindness to them will only encourage them to proceed in their injurious conduct; whereas a proper display of spirit on our part will tend to intimidate and restrain them.’ This may appear to be just reasoning; but it is directly contrary to God’s command. We are not to consider what others deserve to suffer, but what we are required to do. As to the use that others will make of our kindness, that is no concern of ours; we have only to obey God, and leave all events to him. To yield, to turn the left cheek to him that smites us on the right, and to return good for evil, may sound to us as “hard sayings;” but they are the path of duty, of honour, and of happiness — — —]
Give directions for the performance of it—
[Get a deep sense of your own vileness.—When you are thoroughly sensible how many talents you owe to your Heavenly Master, you will not very readily take your fellow-servant by the throat for the few pence that he may owe to you.
Contemplate frequently the mercy which Christ has vouchsafed, and is daily vouchsafing, to you.—How will this put you to shame, when you feel the risings of anger or revenge against even your bitterest enemy! Surely you will fall upon your knees before God, and pray for grace to “forgive others even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you:” and that not thrice, or “seven times, but seventy times seven.”
Be much in prayer to God for the assistance of his Holy Spirit.—Without his aid you can do nothing: but there is nothing so great, which you shall not be able to do through Christ strengthening you [Note: Philippians 4:13.].]
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Simeon, Charles. "Commentary on Romans 12". Charles Simeon's Horae Homileticae. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25