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Paul before Agrippa

XVIII.

PAUL BEFORE AGR1PPA.

Christianity in contact with the mind of a speculative believer.

Perplexity of Festus.—Case laid before Agrippa.—Eloquence of Paul's speech.—History of Agrippa.—His character.—His religious state.— Different classes of speculative believers.—Some led by religious training. —Some convinced by argument.—Some distressed by a sense of sin.— Some aroused by affliction.—Reasons why such men are but almost Christians.—Love of sin.—Love of the world.—Fear of shame.—Dread of restraint.—Grounds of appeal to speculative believers.—Their own admission.—The claims of consistency.—The risk of enhanced guilt.— And of increased danger.

"Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian. And Paul said, I would to God, that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost, and altogether such as I am, except these bonds."

Acts xxvi. 28, 29.

HUMAN OFFICEES.

FESTUS having granted to Paul the right of appeal, it became his duty to prepare to lay the case before the emperor. But he was to a great extent ignorant of Jewish customs

^jxlPj and opinions. The accusations against Paul had been so vague, and the facts elicited on the trial had been so indefinite and uncertain, that he knew not what statement to make of the case. It happened at this time, and in this perplexity, that Agrippa, with his sister Berenice, came to Caesarea on a visit. It occurred to Festus that from one well acquainted with Jewish customs, as Agrippa was, he might obtain such information as would enable him to state the charge fairly (Acts xxv. 27). Under these circumstances, he resolved to lay the matter before Agrippa, and to seek his advice. Agrippa, that he might more fully understand the case, or because he had heard much of Paul, or because he had a real desire to know what could be said in favour of the new religion by its ablest advocate, felt a wish to hear Paul speak: "I," said he, "would also hear the man myself" (ver. 22).

A time having been appointed, Agrippa and his sister Berenice, with great pomp, attended with the chief captains, and the principal men of Caesarea, came into "the place of hearing;" and, at the command of Festus, Paul was brought before them. It was on this occasion that the remarkable speech, contained in the twenty-sixth chapter of the Acts, was delivered. It will compare favourably with the most famous specimens of eloquence which have come down to us from ancient times, and on reading it we are not surprised to find that Longinus classed Paul among the most celebrated Grecian orators.

Agrippa, second of that name, of the family of Herod, was by birth a Jew. He was a son of Herod Agrippa, who was himself a grandson of Herod the Great. His father, son of Aristobulus, who was cruelly put to death by Herod the Great, had been brought up at Rome, with Drusus, son of Tiberius, and was placed over the entire territories governed by Herod Antipas, with the title of king. On his death, which occurred in a most miserable manner at Caesarea (as recorded in Acts xii. 20—23), Herod Agrippa, his son, was but seventeen years of age, and was regarded as too young to be made a king; and Judaea was again reduced to the condition of a Roman province. Subsequently, Agrippa obtained dominion over a part of the territories of his father, under the title "King ot Chalcis;" was made superintendent of the temple; and had conferred on him the right of naming or appointing the high priest.

Agrippa had grown up, in common with his countrymen, with a full belief in the inspiration of the sacred writings, and under a firm conviction that a Messiah, a messenger from God, would come to the nation. To the reasoning of Paul, therefore, he listened with more respect and deference than a Roman would have done; and the arguments which Paul urged had more effect on his mind than they could be expected to have on the mind of Festus. Agrippa, moreover, does not appear to have partaken of the violent passions and prejudices of those of his countrymen who had accused Paul. His character, as given by Josephus, is that of a mild, candid, ingenuous man. He had no special hostility against Christians; he knew that they were not justly chargeable with sedition. He saw that the conduct of Paul could not be explained on the principle on which Festus proposed to account for this remarkable burst of eloquence (Acts xxvi. 24),—for these were not the ravings of insanity. He felt the weight of the arguments alleged by Paul from the prophets in favour of the claim of Jesus to the Messiahship. In Agrippa the feelings of tl1c man assumed a superiority over the prejudices of the Jew; and he said, not with a sneer, but in sincerity, "Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian." The argument of the apostle had such power, his appeal to Agrippa's own faith in the prophets was so irresistible, that, for the moment, he was on the point of surrendering himself to the force of eloquence and truth.

Yet here he paused. We have no reason to think that he ever made any further advances towards becoming a Christian. Certain it is that the New Testament history gives no account of his conversion to Christianity; and it can hardly be supposed that aa. event so important as that would have been wholly unnoticed by the sacred historian. We are left to infer that Agrippa was never quite persuaded to be a Christian. What was included in the "almost," or what prevented his being altogether persuaded, we are not informed; but there is every reason to supp.se that in fact this was the crisis or turning-point of his life and destiny; and, like thousands of others—a representative man in this respect—he refused to yield to the claims of Christian truth.

The case before us, therefore, is CHRISTIANITY IN* CONTACT WITH THE UNCONVERTED HEART OF ONE PROFESSING TO BELIEVE IN A REVELATION.

It will be proper, in the first place, to inquire in what circumstances such cases occur; secondly, to show why such persons are not wholly persuaded to be Christians; and, thirdly, to state the considerations which may bear upon their consciences as derived from their admission of the truth of Christianity.

I. In what circumstances do such cases occur f (l.) One class of such persons is composed of those who, as Agrippa perhaps was, have been favoured with a religious education, and who have had, and now have, no serious doubt of the truth or the value of revealed religion. They have been trained to believe that the Bible is true; and they have, in the main, always cherished that belief. If they have had at any time any doubts on the subject, those doubts have been temporary; and at any time in their lives, though the appeal might have been made in circumstances as little likely to lead them to expect it, and might have been as sudden as it was when it was "sprung" upon Agrippa, they would as readily have admitted the force of that appeal as he did. They have always expected to become true Christians. They have been often almost ready to take the decisive step; almost persuaded to come out from the world, and to give themselves to God.

(2.) A second class is composed of those who, by argument, have been convinced of the truths of religion. I do not affirm that this often occurs. It is not a very common thing for a sceptic to read a book written avowedly in defence of the Bible; and it by no means always happens that one who does read such a book is convinced by it, and brought to see the force of the reasoning. Yet this does sometimes occur. Some disposition of mind which he is unable to account for; or some book or tract which has been placed in his way, or on which his eye may have accidentally rested in his own library, and which may have been long there, yet heretofore unperused; or some conversation with a friend or a stranger; or some sermon which has led him to doubt the truth of the system he has heretofore followed,—may call a man's attention, with an earnestness never before experienced, to the great question whether the views which he has held are sufficient to constitute a ground of safety or of hope for one who is to live in another world.

These examinations sometimes result in decided conversion to the faith of Christ. In more instances, perhaps, they merely lead to an intellectual conviction of the truth of the Bible. Yet the mind is no longer openly hostile to religion. The infidel is disarmed. Opposition to the Gospel is neutralized; and there is a conversion of the intellect, if not of the heart. He that was a sceptic is now "almost" persuaded to be a Christian. He may now be appealed to, as Paul appealed to Agrippa, on the ground of his belief that the Bible is a revelation from God.

(3.) A third class is composed of those who have been brought to see their personal sinfulness and their need of a Saviour. There are few persons in any community where Christianity is the prevailing belief, who are not, at some period of their lives, made so deeply sensible of their sin as to be almost resolved that they will be Christians. The consciousness of guilt; the apprehension of wrath; the fear of death; the sense of obligation; the hope of heaven,—all press upon the trembling soul the duty of embracing the offer of pardon, and of seeking peace through the Redeemer.

(4.) A fourth class is made up of those who are visited with calamity, and who are then almost persuaded to be Christians. Who is there that in the sorrows and trials of life, when earthly comforts are taken away, has not been led to inquire whether support and consolation might not be found in religion? Sorrow, trouble, tears, anguish, sickness, the apparent approach of death, have done for many what neither their early training, nor their examination of the truth of religion, nor the consciousness of sin has done. They have been brought to feel that the world is dark— gloomy—hopeless, and have been led to ask with deep solicitude whether religion will not give them an enduring happiness.1

II. I proposed in the second place, to inquire why persons in this state of mind, do not carry out their convictions, and become altogether Christians. Among those reasons, the following may be noticed as the most prominent:

(1.) The love of sin. I mean by this, not so much the love of sin in general, as of some particular sin which pertains to the individual, and "easily besets him;" which he is not willing to abandon; and which in his case operates with a power that it would not have over another man. In Agrippa it may have been pride of rank and office, or some guilty attachment. In one it may be pride; in another, ambition; in

1 To the "small sneer" of the worldly, that when men are disappointed, they turn saints as "a last resource," see the reply made by the Rev. F. W. Robertson, in his Sermon on the Prodigal and his Brother.— (Tatuhnilz Edition, Leipsic, vol. iii. pp. 268, 269).

another, sensuality; in another, covetousness. This particular sin may be concealed from the world. It may be buried deep in a man's own bosom. It may be something, also, which he feels he ought to abandon, and which he is sometimes almost ready to give up for ever. The love of that sin is, in his mind, stronger than his conviction of the truth and necessity of religion. The latter is, with him, the work of the intellect; the former, the work of the affections ;—and it is the heart, not the head, which controls the life of man. Many a resolution may have been made in regard to this sin; many a purpose may have been formed to forsake it; many other sins may have been relinquished; but this one he has never been quite willing to forsake; this one has prevented, still prevents, and may prevent for ever, his surrendering himself to God.

(2.) Connected with this, and perhaps as generally constituting the sin which prevents a complete yielding to the claims of religion, may be the love of the world. I refer to the love of office, of honour, of distinction, of fashion, of gaiety; to the employments and amusements which grow out of the pursuit of worldly pleasure. In our ordinary language, we make a distinction between the love of the world, or worldliness, and what is commonly known as sin or crime. The one may be, in our apprehension, and in general opinion, disgraceful; the other may be connected with every idea of respectability. The one we would turn from with utter loathing; for the other, we have no sense of shame or dishonour. A charge of fraud, or of falsehood, we should deplore most keenly; we have no such feeling when made aware that the general estimate of our character is, that we are lovers of the world.

I would not be understood as affirming that these things are to be placed on a level. But I may say that the Bible never speaks of one of these as innocent and of the other as criminal; but it teaches that the one may, as effectually as the other, keep the mind from religion, and that we should regard as sin all that alienates the mind from God, and all that holds it in alienation from Him. The love of the world is often avowed as the reason why the heart is not wholly devoted to religion; and this is oftener felt than avowed. The two, it is manifest, cannot be united. That which is supreme in the heart, of course, has the dominion; and the world effectually rules the soul.

(3.) I refer, as a third thing, to the fear of shame. That this was one of the reasons which prevented Agrippa from becoming altogether a Christian, is more than possible. He was a king; and though a petty king, with little more than an empty title, yet it was a title, and on his mind that fact may have operated as powerfully in preventing him from embracing a despised religion like Christianity as though he had swayed a sceptre over the most extended empire. With all the honour attached to the word "Christian" now; with all that there is in the Christian religion to ref1ne the manners of men, and to purify their hearts; with all that it has done for society, for its habits, its customs, and its laws; with all that it has done for our friends in making a father, a mother, a wife, a child, mo1e worthy of our affections,—can we be wrong in supposing still that the feeling of shame may operate now in preventing multitudes from becoming altogether Christians? That young man,—has he no fear of being made the object of derision by scoffing comrades, if he becomes religious? That young woman,—has she no fear of shame, should it be whispered in the circles of the gay, that she is becoming serious and prayerful? That man, honoured in office, honoured as a financier, honoured as a merchant, honoured as a professional man,—has he no fear of shame? Would he be willing that the men with whom he has been accustomed to associate, should see him in a little company of believers assembled for prayer? Would he be willing to gather his own family around the altar, and lead them in daily devotion to the throne of grace?

In their present condition such persons have no sense of shame. To be "almost" persuaded to be Christians involves no sacrifice; commits them to no change in their plans of life; comes in conflict with none of the prejudices of the world; and separates them in no manner from the society of the worldly and the gay. It is a position so common, so respectable, so often found among those in their own rank of life, that they regard it as in no degree inconsistent with all that they esteem to be honourable in pursuit, and as affecting in no way their social position, or the esteem in which they are held. But their feelings would be altogether different at the suggestion of an advance from this position, and of taking a decided stand in favour of religion. There they would pause, for such is still "the offence of the cross," that it might require a degree of courage, and a power of principle which they do not possess, to give themselves wholly to God. Nay, there may be many a man who, in defence of his country, would face the cannon's mouth, but would not dare to encounter what he might have to meet in carrying out the purpose to be entirely a Christian.

(4.) I mention a fourth thing as operating to prevent one who is almost persuaded to be a Christian from becoming altogether such,—a desire to be free from the restraints and obligations of religion. Such a man does not purpose to live in open sin; he does not intend to be regarded as an inf1del. But he desires to be more free in his pursuits than if he were bound by the obligations of church membership; he desires to be more free in regard to attendance on public worship, and the observance of the sabbath,—more free from any obligation to attend on meetings for prayer, to labour in sabbath schools, to aid in efforts of Christian philanthropy,—than he would think it right to be, if he had joined himself to a Christian church. He knows, indeed, that if he were to become a member of a Christian church, he could vindicate himself in all which, in these respects, he now desires, if he were to make some professors his standard; but well does he know that their mode of life by no means comes up to what may be properly demanded of such as bear the Christian name. And he is not prepared for the restraints which he knows a Christian profession truly imposes. He has always felt that he was free; he wishes to take on himself no obligation ; he wishes still to ward off all appeals with the summary statement that he is not a professor of religion,—not a member of the church.

III. It remains to notice the proper grounds of appeal to be made to persons who are in this state of mind.

(1.) The state of mind itself. In the case of Agrippa, it was not needful for Paul to speak as if he had been addressing a heathen. Agrippa was a believer in revelation. That point was admitted; that was the very basis of the appeal:—" King Agrippa, believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest." And though Agrippa's faith did not extend to the point that Jesus of Nazareth was the predicted Messiah, yet the main difficulty was overcome; and it seemed to Paul, if the fact was admitted that the prophets were inspired, there was but a step to the conclusion that Jesus was indeed the Christ.

It is hardly necessary to remark that there must be a great difference between approaching a sceptical mind, and a mind speculatively convinced of the truth of the Bible. In the former case, all the work is to be done from the foundation. The entire question of the possibility of a revelation; of its necessity; and of the evidence in favour of any particular revelation, is to be argued. When all this is done, we have but just come to the point which was assumed by Paul in the appeal to Agrippa. In the latter case, as in that of Agrippa, all this may be assumed at once, and we have only to ask men to carry out in all honesty the convictions of their own minds. It is a great advantage in preaching, where Christianity is known, that even when the full effect of the Gospel is not secured, it has prepared many minds for serious appeals; and we are justified in at once calling upon men to carry out to the proper result that which they already admit as truth.

(2.) We may appeal on the ground of consistency. They avow all, in the understanding, which we ask them to receive in the heart. Admitting the truth of the Bible, they admit the fact of their own depravity; the need of regeneration; the necessity of repentance; the propriety of faith in order to salvation; the doctrine of the atonement; the claims of a Saviour; the obligations of prayer and of holy living. If they would simply act out their own admitted principles, all that we seek to secure would be gained.

To all such we say,—Your reason, your conscience, your judgment are on the side of religion; and we merely ask you to carry out these admissions and convictions. A desire to maintain consistency of character, if there were no other motive, demands that you should be altogether Christians. We say that this is a proper motive to urge. Every man who is careful of his reputation (as every wise man is),—every man who seeks to carry out his own principles (as every man should),—must admit the force of this appeal. He owes it to himself, to these principles themselves, to the cause of virtue, to society, to his own proper influence while living, to his memory when dead, to the welfare of his children, to his friends, to his country, to the world, and to God, to carry out what he owns to be truth, and to allow it to produce its fair influence on his life. Thus men feel and act in other matters. There is no other subject on which they hold important principles as mere abstract opinions, and make no effort to apply them in their conduct. Neither in finance, in commerce, in professional life, in the mechanic arts, nor in domestic arrangements, do they hold a set of important truths in theory which they habitually disregard in practice. They maintain that it is right to be honest, but they do not feel justified in holding this as an abstraction, and disregarding it in their transactions. They give assent to the principles of chastity, truth, patriotism; but they also aim to carry out those principles in their lives. Christianity demands the same thing of those who admit its Divine origin. It asks no more; no less. Is this an unreasonable demand?

You admit that there is a God; yet you offer Him no homage; you never worship Him. You admit that you are a sinner; yet you exercise no repentance; you make no effort to become holy; you make use of no means to secure pardon, and to avoid the wrath to come. You admit that you can be saved only by the merits of the Lord Jesus Christ; yet you are not seeking to obtain an interest in His blood. You profess to believe that there is a heaven; yet you are making no efforts to secure it; a hell, yet you make no efforts to avoid it.

In the conduct of the atheist, the sceptic, the infidel, there is a melancholy consistency. The sceptical sensualist and voluptuary is only carrying out his principles when he gives himself to revelry, and says to his companions, "Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die." It is fair for him to say, "Let us make the most of this present life, for there is no life beyond; let us multiply, refine, and prolong the pleasures of sense, for these are all that can be ours." But is this consistent for a man who believes that there is a God; that he himself has an immortal soul; that he is made to be a religious being; that he must live for ever; that a Saviour died to redeem him; and that man's great interests are beyond the grave?

(3.) A third consideration as a ground of appeal to such men is, that their own guilt and danger must be increased by the fact of their admitting these obligations while yet practically disregarding them.

(a.) Guilt. That this is increased, is manifest. Guilt is always augmented by light and knowledge, and by the fact that a man is neglecting what he knows and admits to be duty and truth. There is, indeed, guilt in the heathen world, for there is some degree of light and knowledge even there; but amidst all the pollutions which prevail, there is also pervading ignorance of God and of His law,—ignorance which must mitigate the measure of guilt, and modify the sentence of the last day. No thunders, like those of Sinai, have there proclaimed the law of God; no herald of salvation has told of a bleeding Redeemer; no teacher has explained the pure precepts of the Gospel. But, in a Christian land, the first lessons learned were usually those which pertained to a God and Saviour; the earliest recollections which you have, may be those of a mother bending over your cradle in prayer, or a father kneeling at the family altar. All your life, you may have gone regularly to the sanctuary; may have occupied a place in the courts of God; may have heard more frequently than any other lessons, the great truths of religion. Who shall say that there is not in such a case deeper guilt and a more solemn account to be rendered, than in the case of the poor benighted heathen?

(b.) Danger. Can there be any doubt that this, too, is augmented by a man's knowing his duty, and his being unwilling to perform it? Danger always follows guilt, and the one is commensurate with the other (Matt . xi. 23, 24; Luke xiii. 34, 35). Why the heavy doom of Capernaum? Why that judgment impending over Jerusalem, which drew tears from the eyes of the Redeemer? The answer is plain. The Son of God Himself had made known to them the will of God and the way of salvation. "Because," says God, "I have called, and ye refused; I have stretched out My hand, and no man regarded; I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your fear cometh" (Prov. i. 24—26). "He that being often reproved hardeneth his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy" (Prov. xxix. 1).