Philippians 3,13. 14.—Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press towards the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.
Without attempting any formal exposition of the text or context, and without enlarging on the obvious allusion to the ancient games, from which the sacred writers borrow many of their strongest figures, such as that of pressing forward to a mark for a prize in the case before us, I propose to call your attention, for a short time, to the doctrine here suggested by the apostle's own example, and explicitly taught elsewhere, that religion in the heart is a progressive principle—a principle impelling to progressive holiness; and that not merely by a positive appointment, but from its nature, and the nature of the circumstances under which it operates—that this progressive character affords the only satisfactory evidence that piety exists at all, and is therefore necessary, not to an absolute assurance merely, but to a comfortable hope; and finally, that this new disposition to forget what is behind, and reach forth to that before, is a chief source of happiness to Christians here, and is to be a large ingredient of their blessedness hereafter.
In alleging that progress is essential to true piety, it is not, of course, intended to affirm that this essential progress is at all times equally discernible and marked, or that it can at any time be measured step by step; but merely that the changes which the soul is ever undergoing are, in the. case of true conversion, on the whole, in one direction—to deny which, on the ground of certain fluctuations, or because we cannot measure and compute the progress with unerring accuracy, would be as absurd as to remain upon the beach at the mercy of a rising tide, because the motion of the waves, when separately looked at, is not uniform. If it be true in this case, that in spite of all apparent reflux, the sea is still encroaching steadily upon the land, until it reaches that mysterious point at which God says to it, Hitherto shalt thou come, and no further, and here shall thy proud waves be stayed; it is no less true that genuine religion in the heart, in spite of all its seeming fluctuations, rises and still rises, and that this rise must at some intervals, greater or smaller, become visible and palpable, and may not therefore be assumed at pleasure, when appearances, not only in some one case, but in every case, and always, are entirely against it. Let no man therefore judge his neighbour as a hypocrite, because he thinks he sees a retrograde movement as to some particular, or on some occasion; nor let any man adjudge' himself a saint, and cherish the belief that the standard of his piety is rising in the gross when it ia evidently sinking in detail; but where we see another making progress from year to year, or month to month, if not from week to week, or day to day, let us thank God for the grace that is given unto him; and when, on the other hand, we. find ourselves from day to day, or week to week, receding, let us not dream that at the month's end, or the year's end, the defect will cure itself, or even that past attainments will atone for future losses; but forgetting that which is behind, let us reach forth to that which is before.
The authority of Scripture is sufficient to establish that the fact alleged, as to the progressive nature of religion, is so. That it must be so, may be further argued from the nature of the subject in which the change is wrought—from the nature of the cause by which it is effected—from the nature of the means employed in its production—from the nature of the end designed to be effected—and from the nature of the change itself so far as it can be distinctly scrutinized.
And first, it may be argued from the nature of the subject, which is man, an active being, one essentially active. As the soul, anterior to conversion, was in progress, going from one degree of evil to another, strengthening its habits, settling its judgments, fixing its affections, so it may and must be expected to make progress in the new direction given to it, unless there be something in the very nature of a saving change adverse to such a process; but this, as we shall see, is so far from being true, that what may be said of the natural condition of the soul, may be still more emphatically said of its new state—that it cannot be happy without progress; nay, that whether happy or not, it cannot exist without progress, because it cannot exist without some exercise of its powers and affections; and this very exercise gives strength, and this increase of strength is progress. Because man, then, is the subject of the change which takes place in conversion, there is reason to believe that the new character imparted to the soul will not continue as it is, but constantly become more marked and permanent.
The same thing seems to follow from the nature of the power which effects the change. If this effect could be ascribed to chance, or to a momentary impulse, it might be expected to continue as it is at first, or even to cease and disappear; but when the power of God, almighty and unceasing, is the sole efficient cause of what we call conversion, it seems unreasonable to suppose that that cause is to operate forever, or even for a time, with a view merely to the sustentation of these faint beginnings of a spiritual life which we experience within us. If the spark which grace has kindled had been left to itself, or to the feeble breath of mortals to preserve it, we might well suppose that nothing more than its continued existence was intended; but when we find an unbroken current of life-giving air from the breath of the Almighty brought to play upon that spark, we may conclude with safety that it was meant to glow and kindle to a flame, and that the flame was meant to rise and spread, and to become a conflagration; so that what at first was but a seed of fire, smothered in ashes, drenched in rain, or blown at random by the viewless winds, Vol. ii.—6*
shall yet light up the whole horizon, and dye the very heavens with its crimson.
Look again at the means which are employed for the implanting of religion in the soul, and judge by these whether it was intended to be shortlived or stationary. If we found no other means employed but those of a natural and ordinary nature, such as human wisdom might devise and human power set in motion, then we might plausibly infer, that what we now have in possession is the whole that God intended to bestow upon us, and might strive to rest contented with our actual attainments. But, my hearers, could it be to keep alive such piety as you and I possess, without improvement or increase, that God the Father gave his Son to die, and that God the Son assumed our nature, took our place, paid our debt, and bore our chastisement? Was it that you and I might be forever what we now are, even granting that our hopes of salvation were well-founded? Is it for this that the Almighty Spirit bloweth where it listeth, and though grieved from many a hard heart, returns and lights again that spark which sin quenched, and opens the blind eyes, and teaches the poor stammering tongue of the wretched sinner how to pray; yea, itself maketh intercession for him, with groanings, with groanings that cannot be uttered? Is there not in the seeming prodigality of means so infinite, so godlike, a presumptive proof that these effects which we experience are but partial and inchoate; that the end is not yet; and that it doth not yet appear what we shall, what we must be, to attain not only the great end of our existence, but the end for which, a sovereign God has moved all heaven and, as it were, ponred himself out upon creatures? O my brethren, if such are the means which God has used to bring us thus far, we must not stop here, we must go on, we must go on, we must forget what is behind, we must reach forth to that which is before. Remember, too, that such an agent cannot use such means without a purpose, and an adequate purpose.
What then is the end for which this change is wrought, if wrought at all? Not mere deliverance from present pain. . That does not always follow in fact, and if it did, would be wholly disproportioned to the power working, and the means employed. Not mere deliverance from future misery, for that is still inadequate. Not even man's restoration, though this is infinitely more and better than the others; but it is not all. If the ultimate end of all this were in man, he would usurp God's place: there cannot be two Gods—there cannot be two last great ends to be accomplished; it is all for God or none—it is for God —it is for God—it is for his praise and glory that the whole work is accomplished. And, my hearers, can it be that the whole tribute of our rational and spiritual natures to the honour of our Maker, is this feeble, faint beginning of spiritual life which we profess to feel within us? Is this all? O if Almighty power, and benevolence, and wisdom have provided a sacrifice of infinite merit, and a spiritual influence of boundless efficacy, and have brought these means to bear upon our miserable souls, not for our own sakes, but that God may be honoured by our restoration to the knowledge and enjoyment of the highest good; where shall the limits of that knowledge and enjoyment be assigned, so long as God is God, his praise the end of our existence, and his desert of praise as endless as his being? O my hearers, if we are saved to honour God, and if we can never honour him enough, surely we may not, dare not think of remaining as Ave are, if that were possible. Surely, if we would answer the great end of our salvation, we must forget that which is behind, and reach forth to that which is before.
Once more the nature of the change itself, so far as Scripture and experience reveal it, shows that it is but an incipient change, and must be carried on forever. What does the change consist in? Not in any thing external, not in any thing corporeal, but in the mind, and yet not in the structure of the mind; not in the creation of new faculties or in the destruction of old ones, but in new desires, dispositions, and affections. These must have their objects, and their actings on these objects must increase their strength, enlarge their scope, and stimulate their energies. If God then has created new desires within us, or the desire of new objects, to wit, holiness, and truth, and God himself, and if these new desires from their very nature reproduce themselves, and if this process cannot possibly be cut short by the failure of the objects which are infinite, then surely from the very nature of the change which God has wrought upon us if we are converted, we not only may, but must go on. If we are changed at all, we must be changed still further. If we are not what we once were, if we have left as it were ourselves behind, we must forget ourselves, we must forget what is behind, we must reach forth to that which is before. Thus from the nature of the subject of the change, viz., the soul of man; from the nature of the power by which the change is Avrought, viz., the power of God; from the nature of the means employed, viz., the death of Christ to save from death and purchase life, and the influence of the Spirit to produce life in us; from the nature of the end proposed, viz., the endless glory of an infinite being; and from the essential nature of the change itself, consisting in such a new creation and direction of the powers as must necessarily result in spiritual progression; from all this, as well as from the express declarations of the Word of God, confirmed by the experience of all true converts, it is plain, it is certain, that whoever has come thus far, must go further; that no one may, or can rely upon, or be contented with, that which is behind, but must forget that which is behind, and still reach forth to that which is before.
It seems to me that these considerations are abundantly sufficient to evince, that the divine intention in effecting such a change as some of us profess to have experienced is, that we should go on further and forever glorifying God by new degrees of holiness and new acts of obedience. And unless we are prepared to disown the authority of that God who is not only our Creator but our Saviour, we must humbly acknowledge that a solemn and eternal obligation rests upon us, no matter what we have attained or may attain hereafter; to forget, in a certain sense, all that is behind, and to reach forth to that which is before. But it has pleased God to enforce those obligations under which his sole authority "suffices to lay us, by showing us how clearly our own interest depends not only on obedience to his will in general, but on submission to his will in this particular, and on a cheerful co-operation with it. In the case before us, this is clear from the fact, that if progress is essential to the very nature of a saving change, there can, of course, be no proof of its having taken place, in which this circumstance is not involved. The present is transitory; what is future now will be past in a moment, and so on forever. Before us and behind us stretch the future and the past. Our hopes and fears from their very nature have relation to the future, yet we seek to found them upon something in the past. Even while we lean forward with intense anxiety to scan the future, we still cast a longing, lingering look behind, at something there on which to fasten as a ground of hope. So, in seeking to satisfy ourselves that we have undergone the change which is essential to salvation, we accumulate and hoard up our experiences, even when their emptiness is proved by subsequent events: our native disposition is to trust in that which is behind, whereas the Scriptures teach us to tread upon it, that we may rise higher, and instead of believing that all will be well hereafter, because we thought that all was well some time ago, to grapple with futurity itself, to hasten towards the consummation of our course, not by recalling what we once thought and felt, but by thinking now and feeling now as God requires us to think and feel with respect to what is coming.
We are like one sailing down a rapid stream, intensely anxious as t<5 the issue of our voyage, and fearful of the dangers which await us, and yet turning our backs on both, and trying to derive encourage ment from gazing at that portion of our course already past, and every moment growing less and less visible. Of what avail, to such a mariner, is even a distinct view of some distant point long since swept by, when his vessel is approaching some perilous pass, or passing through some vast and foaming estuary into the deep sea. O surely it is then time to forget what is past, and to bend forward, to reach forth to that which is before. My hearers, we may please ourselves with other proofs of piety, but if we would be well assured that we have moved at all from our original position, we must move still further. "\Ve may spend our lives in measuring or guessing at the distance passed already, but the strongest assurance of our having come to any given point in the appointed course, is furnished by our travelling beyond it to another. Are you doubtful whether you have come as far as you imagine? then go further. Are you doubtful whether you possess as much religion as you fain would think? then try to possess more, and the attainment of the greater will involve the attainment of the less. To you especially, my hearers, who believe that you have lately found the entrance to the way everlasting, and yet can scarcely believe you have passed through it, make assurance doubly sure by leaving the entrance door afar behind you. If you would have a satisfactory persuasion that the world, and the flesh, and the devil are forsaken, you must attain it not by standing still, and looking at your past course either with complacency or doubt, but by forgetting that which is behind, and reaching forth to that which is before.
God, by making this the only solid ground of confidence that you are saved, has shut you up to the necessity of progress, has compelled you to move on, if you would know and be assured that you have moved at all. And thus he brings your personal anxieties, and care for your own safety, to enforce the obligation of a duty which, although you could not utterly neglect it, might have been too carelessly performed. Not only because God commands it, but because you cannot otherwise be sure of your conversion, you must learn to forget that which is behind, and to reach forth to that which is before.
But there is yet another way in which the same thing is accomplished. All that has just been said would be true, if stagnation or repose in religious life were possible. I have hitherto proceeded on the supposition that the only alternative is progress or stagnation; that the worst which can befall the soul which will not go on is, that it must stand still. And I have tried to show that even then it would be aggravated sin and folly not to advance. But O how unspeakably is this conclusion strengthened by the fact which I have hitherto left out of view, that there is no such thing as standing still, or resting on your oars. Forward or backward, up or down the stream, you must and will go. Yes, my hearers, reason and experience but echo the instructions of God's word as to this momentous truth, and I call them both to witneas, to set to their seal, that God is true, when he declares that from Mm that hath not, i. e. hath not more abundantly, who does not gain, who does not make advances, shall be taken away even that he hath.
It would be easy to show from the very constitution of our nature, and the circumstances in which we are placed, the reason of this uersal fact; but I choose rather to appeal to your experience, and ask you when you ever wilfully neglected or ceased to use the means of improvement without a positive deterioration. Let us take it for granted, as we safely may, that the choice is not between onward motion and repose, but between onward motion and recession. Will the convalescent choose to be a convalescent all his life, instead of seeking to regain his health? Does he not know that unless he soon regains it, he may look for a relapse, and for peril of death greater than before. He does, he does, and so may you, my hearers. God has shut you up to the necessity of going on, by limiting your choice to that or going bfv°,k;by showing you that motion cannot be avoided; that you must rise or sink; that you must grow worse «r better; that you must draw nearer to God, or be driven further from him; that you must love him more than you do now, or love him less; that you must go on and live, or go back and die; that however unprepared you may have been for the necessity now laid upon you, however far you have been from foreseeing the solemnity and peril of the juncture where you now are, it is even so, it is too late to seek another choice, another alternative; you are shut up forever to this one, you must either forget what is before, retrace your steps, repent of your repentance, and go back to that which is behind; or, on the other hand, forgetting that which is behind, you must reach forth to that which is before.
And now, my hearers, how are you disposed to regard this law of the new life, which forbids not only retrocession but repose; which insists upon perpetual progression, and accepts of nothing short of this progression as conclusive evidence of its own existence? Are you ready to say, as the disciples said of old, "this is a hard saying, who can hear it?" Are you ready like some of them to go back from the Saviour and walk no more with him? Ah! consider what you do, and if such thoughts rise within you, crush them, I pray you, in their very birth. For I assure you that this, so far from being cruel, is a merciful economy, required not only by God's honour but your interest; a dispensation tending purely and directly to your highest happiness in time and in eternity, so that if you could but see its operation and its issue you would rather die than be subjected to a different constitution, i. e. one which should allow you to go backwards and to stagnate instead of urging you forever onwards. And you would thus choose, not because you felt yourself constrained to sacrifice a present and inferior good for a greater one still future; not because you were enabled by Divine grace to forego all ease and happiness at present, lest you should finally come short of it forever, but because you would perceive in this "hard saying," this inexorable law of progress, an exhaustless source of purest satisfaction, an unfaltering incitement to ex
ertion, an abundant consolation under trials. Yes, the trials of the Christian would be hard indeed to bear, bitter alike in blossom and in fruit, if it were not for this new-born and immortal disposition to know more, to do more, to rise higher, to grow better, to grow more like God, to approach nearer to him, and the accompanying disposition to regard the past, not past sins, but past attainments, as a mere fulcrum, a mere stepping-stone, a round upon the spiritual ladder, by which higher things may be attained.
But this conviction, reasonably as it might be founded on the daily experience of its efficacy even in the least affairs of life, cannot be felt in all its strength until it is obtruded, forced upon the mind, by the working of the self-same principle in great emergencies and critical junctures; as for instance when the mind is first awakened by the Spirit to a sense of sin. Remember, O remember, when that light first beamed into your soul with an intolerable brightness, and you saw yourself, your heart, your past life, your innumerable sins, set before you in a light which you could neither bear nor shut your eyes upon. Recur to that point of your spiritual history, recall the feelings which that retrospect produced; the shame, the sorrow, the remorse, the self-abhorrence, and I do not ask you whether you could then have consented to remain in that abyss of filth and darkness where you saw yourself to have been rolling till the voice of God aroused you, and a light from heaven showed you your condition; for with such views that would be impossible. You could not thus repent of your repentance, and become your former self again. But I ask you whether you could have consented, or whether you can wish that you had been left to languish and to stagnate till the end of life; not indeed within that slough, but just without it, on its verge, in sight of it, in sight of nothing better; safe, safe, but only safe without the power or desire of onward progress; chained for a lifetime to the contemplation of what you had been; forced to look upon the hideous corruption of your former state, without relapsing into it, but at the same time without getting further from it than at the moment of your actual deliverance; a shipwrecked sailor chained to the rock on which he had found refuge; a convalescent leper, bound at the threshold of the lazar house, whose poison he had been for.years inhaling. Could you have borne it? No, my hearer, you could not.*
* The conclusion of this sermon is wanting.