The God of peace . . . make you perfect in every good work to do His will, working in you that which is well-pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ.—Hbb. xiii. 21.
'I ^HIS all-comprehensive petition is preceded by,
JL and based upon, a lofty invocation, which gazes on various aspects of the nature and dealings of God, and thence draws large desires and expectations. It is because He is "the God of peace," it is because He has "brought again from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep," it is because He has made a covenant with men, and sealed it with blood, that this writer finds in his heart to open his mouth so wide in such a prayer. The "Name" of God is the true encouragement for petitions and the measure of expectations. There must be some proportion between the cause and the effect.
Another observation may be made by way of introduction, and that is, that we have here brought together, as in perfect harmony, and as being cause and effect, two truths which, grasped separately, and being separated, exaggerated, have split the Christian world. One school has shouted: "God working in you," and has whispered, if it has spoken at all, "to do His will." The other school has divided its shoutings and its whisperings in precisely opposite fashion. One school of opinion has so gazed upon the Divine operations that it has reduced man to a mere tool in His hands; the other has been so fascinated by the thought of the freedom and responsibility of the human agent, that it has practically ignored God. But this writer has taken the two war-cries, and written them both upon his banner. Thus he shakes hands with Paul when he said: "Work out your own salvation, for it is God that worketh in you." The Christian life is first of all an inwrought, and then it is an out-working, life.
We have then, here,
I. The Great Christian Ideal.
There are in the text two kinds of workings, and the parallelism between the two would have been more distinctly observable by an English reader if the same word had been employed for both kinds, in our translation, as is the case in the Greek. We should then have read, " to do His will, doing in you that which is wellpleasing in His sight."
So notice that the external conduct, the doing of His will, comes as consequence and outcome of an inward character which is "pleasing in His sight." Now, it sounds a commonplace that conduct is the outcome of character, but it is anything but a commonplace if we begin to try to apply it to ourselves. As the fruit to the tree, as the fountain to the stream, so the actions of the Christian man ought to be the direct outcome and issue of his character. But they are not always so; they never are so to the extent that they ought to be. Of course, to a very large extent, everything that a man does is a making visible of his inward self. But then there are large tracts of all our lives which are instinctive, almost purely mechanical, which are done without any conscious reflection at the moment. And the more that these are minimized, the more that the territory of mechanical, instinctive, habitual, unreflective conduct is diminished, and the more that the territory of the self-revealing spirit of a man permeating all his work is enlarged, the nearer he approximates to the ideal. When the work is, as it were, the footprint of the person, when what we do is not merely done because it was done at the same hour yesterday, and we have reached the stage of doing it without thinking about it, then we rise higher in the scale.
But this relation of conduct to character bears with it two very important exhortations. One of them is this: let us see to it that all our actions are brought under the dominion of the inward self; and the other is, let us see to it again, that all of that inward self is translated into actions and made visible thereby. How many of us keep our religion in our pews along with
our hymn books, or put it away in a drawer on the Sunday night with our Sunday clothes, to lie there until next Sunday conies round? How much of our creed influences our conduct? How much of our conduct is shaped by our creed? How much of the outward life is consciously determined by the inward self, and how much of it is mere dead, instinctive, mechanical, unreflective action? Brethren, commonplace and in some aspects inevitable as is this relation shadowed in my text, between the inward and the outward, our lives would be transfigured if we grasped and practised these two principles—make of your every thought an action; let every action be dominated by a thought.
But then, further, there is here the suggestion of what is necessary in order that the outward life should be good—an inward self, pleasing in His sight. What a lofty, lovely, bold thought that is, that the infinite Divine nature stands in such a relation to us poor creatures as that something not unlike the delight that we have in pleasant sights or sweet fragrance is experienced by God! What a wonderful heightening of that thought it is, that you and I, who know ourselves to be very often disgusting to our own better selves, may yet be made to minister something to the joy of the Lord! God is Love, and with whatever modifications that word must be applied to Him, this is an inseparable part of all love —to rejoice and delight in the nobleness of the beloved. What a stimulus that should be to all work! How different it is to say to a man, " Be so-and-so because it will please God " from what it is to say, "Be good because it is your duty," or "because it is the highest ideal of humanity;" or so on. Bring the personal element into the effort to purge character, and what is else labour and hopeless toil comes to be blessed, as all things are blessed, that are done by love for love's sake, and offered to love.
"Well-pleasing in His sight"—can it be? Can one of our black brooks by any alchemy be so purged as that upon its foul, greasy surface the noonday blue shall be reflected, or the nightly stars quiver in points of light? Yes, as I shall have to show you presently. Here is the Christian ideal, that the black brook that flows out of our hearts may be sweetened, purged, defecated, and made crystalline and translucent—" working in you that which is well-pleasing in His sight."
Then, still further, we have here the ideal of what constitutes a good work. It must be the doing of God's will: that is its distinctive characteristic. The popular usage applies the expression " a good work" to certain conventional forms of charity, almsgiving and the like. The New Testament notion of it is simply this—an act done with reference to God, and in submission to His will. Self-regard, making myself my own master, is the tap-root of all ignoble, base, sinful living. And contrariwise, to refer everything to God and to say in regard to action, as in regard to endurance: "Not my will but Thine be done," lifts the smallest deed into sublimity, and transfigures the commonest and plainestfeatured act, and makes all our lives noble and worship. To do His will is to do good works.
Now I know, and I am thankful to know, that there are many noble, self-sacrificing, lovely deeds done by men who have no conscious submission of will, in the doing of them, to God. God forbid that I should say that these are "splendid vices." But I do say that they have not reached the highest possible height of goodness, nor are invested with the fairest possibilities of loveliness with which men's actions might be clothed. I remember being in a rainstorm among the hills, in which the sun suddenly shone out, blazing down upon a mountain ash, and making its bright red berries and wet green leaves a wonder and a delight, and then the blackness came over again, and that flaming miracle turned once more into a common tree. The deeds that have the sunshine of God's face striking upon them, because they are done in obedience to His will, blaze up and flame and are glorified. A good work is a work that " does His will."
Then, lastly, we have it suggested in this ideal that the Christian life ought to be a comprehensive all-round goodness—" in every good work." Do not let us confine ourselves to the type of excellence most congruous to our nature, but try to assimilate the graces which are less kindred to our dispositions. Do not let us narrow ourselves into one groove of virtue, but let us expatiate over all the field. A tree in a thicket has no chance to expand on all sides. Take it out into a field, and let it have ample space to burgeon; give air a free circle all round it, and let its roots spread outwards as they will, and the sunshine come to it from sunrise to sunset, and you will get a symmetrical, all-round greenness. That is the kind of grace and virtue that should characterize a Christian.
Such, then, is the ideal—an outward life the true cast and replica of an inward; an inward character conformed to God's, and so " pleasing in His sight;" deeds done in obedience to Him, and an all-round perfection and excellence. What about the reality? Is such an ideal as unattainable as actual lines and real triangles that possess all the properties of those of Euclid? My text says it is not unattainable—" make you perfect in every good work in order to do His will; working in you that which is well-pleasing in His sight." So then, we have here, in the second place, II. The Great Power Which Makes The Ideal A Reality.
The word here rendered, "make perfect" does not convey the absolute idea of completeness as other words which are similarly translated do; but it means to equip, or generally to fit for a specific form of service, and it is especially employed in two cases to which I merely point. It is the word which is used when we read of fishermen by the Lake of Galilee mending their nets; so it carries the notion of repairing what is broken. It is the word which is used when we read of supplying that which is lacking; so it carries the notion of bringing additional reinforcements to something that is enfeebled. The power by which the ideal is realized is further stated as being an inward working which is mediated for us through Jesus Christ.
So then we are brought face to face once more with the great Christian Gospel that, through Jesus Christ, that which is lacking may be supplied, and that which is broken may be made whole, and that all that is needed to equip a man for the service which consists in doing God's will, is laid up in Him for us to receive into our hearts.
There is a possibility that all the weaknesses which we feel, which disable us from service, and hamper us at our highest, may by degrees be swept away, and that each of us, conscious as we are of imperfection and of something far more tragic than imperfection—absolute contrariety to the Divine will—may yet be brought into that state in which He shall look upon us and see us to be well-pleasing in His sight. Dear brethren, forgiveness is much, and is an essential part of the process by which the broken, slimy net is mended ; but forgiveness is only a means to an end, a preliminary to the great gift, the gift of eternal life, life from Christ, and life like His. This is the Gospel which we have to preach, and surely it is a gospel, to men conscious of their own shortcomings and failures, and surely they who have a Divine life imparted to them, and a Divine Spirit working in them, need never despair of becoming " perfect in every good work to do His will," and developing characters "well-pleasing in His sight."
There is the distinction, the blessed distinction and transcendent pre-eminence, of Christianity over every religion and every system of moral improvement that the world has ever seen. They tell us what we ought to be; this makes it possible that we should be it. What is the use of examples. What is the use of laws? What is the use of telling me my duty? I know it well enough; that is not the trouble. The worst man knows a great deal more of what is right than the best man does. What is the good of telling a lame man to get up and walk, and expatiating to him about the loveliness of the road? What is the use of setting before me a headline, and saying: "There, write like that," if my hand is shaking, and my pen is bad, and there is no ink in the ink well? We do not lack moral teaching, we lack moral impulse and power. And because Jesus Christ comes to us, and does not only say, "Run," but lays His hand on the palsied limbs and from the thrill of His touch there comes strength, therefore is He the Leader Whom to follow is made possible by His gifts, and Whom to reach is life and blessedness and perfection.
Lastly, let me gather together—
III. One Or Two Practical Thoughts from these considerations.
The first of them is this. You Christian people ought to have for your aim what is God's purpose ; and His purpose is set forth in that ideal which I have tried faintly to outline. That is what we are here for, to make it a reality in our own lives. That is what Christ died and lives for. That is what all creeds and forms of worship are for. They are scaffolding to help us to build, but hosts of us never get any further than the scaffolding. That is what all life is intended to produce; "He for our profit, that we might be partakers of His holiness." It is God's purpose, let it be your aim.
Again, let us learn the true way by which we can make this aim a reality in our lives. Since the Outward is but the outcome of the Inward, and since the purifying of the Inward is the result of the inflow into it of the life of Jesus Christ, the healing stream, then the main thing that Christian people have to do, in order to grow into perfection, is to keep the communications open, and by desire and prayer and faith to make themselves penetrable by that Divine influence. The first thing to do is not to labour at conduct, but to see after character, and the first thing to do in regard to healing and strengthening character is to lie open to the heavenly influences and let them flow into our hearts. First be, then do; and that you may be, let Christ come and make you what He would have you to be. But on the other hand, whilst there is first of all to be the receiving of the Divine power, there is next to be the applying of it. They have been building a gigantic dam in Upper Egypt. It is in vain that the waters from the upper lands are piled behind it and stored there, or brought down through all the valley of the Nile, unless each peasant leads the water into his own little plot, and carefully directs it round the roots of his own crops. You have the stream, see to it that your garden is watered.
Then, further, let these considerations bring us in very deep humility to the confession of our own deficiencies. We have a Power fit to shake mountains, and in our experience it barely shifts a grain of dust. We have a Power that comes rolling in a great flood, and a mere dribble of it passes into our lives. Men take note of the lives of nominal Christians, and then they turn round to people of my profession and say to us—and they have a right to say, "What is the good of your talking about a great power that will make perfect men? Look at these people who profess to have the power. Are they any better than we are?" Not much; sometimes not so good. What then? If the sick man does not take the medicine he will not be healed; but his not being so is not a demonstration that the physician has made a mistake, or that the prescription is of no use; it is only a demonstration of his own folly. We Christian people are calumniating the power of the Gospel, because we take so little of Christ's transforming life into our lives.
But do not let me close in a minor key. This great prayer brings us great hopes. There are forces at work upon all Christian souls which are evidently thwarted and yet as plainly have it in them to produce effects far transcending anything in Christian character and conduct that we ever see here. What then? Why this, then—if a vine, planted in cold northern latitudes, can only put forth blossoms that are often shrivelled by frosts before they are set, and never mature under our pale sun, there will be a transplanting to a soil and climate where the abortive bloom shall swell and soften and empurple itself, until it is fit for the table or the winepress of the Lord of the Vineyard. As surely as the crescent moon foretells its own completed silvery round, so surely do the imperfections of the best of us, when taken in connexion with the Divine purpose and the omnipotent forces that are lodged in the death of Jesus and in His life-giving Spirit, predict a state in which all who here humbly trust in Him, and seek to live in obedience to God, shall be perfect in every good work, and wholly and eternally and growingly "pleasing in His sight." The God of Peace "Who brought again from the dead that great Shepherd of the sheep," will bring all His flock where He is, and there they who on earth followed Him afar off with faltering steps and many wanderings, shall "follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth," and the children shall all be perfect, as their "Father which is in heaven is perfect."