PAUL'S OBEDIENCE TO THE HEAVENLY VISION.
Saul of Tarsus addressed by a voice from heaven.—Such communications still possible, but no longer to be expected.—Haw does God now teach us His will? By the revelations of His word; the dictates of reason; the voice of conscience; the events of providence; the preaching of the gospel; casual appeals; the influences of the Spirit.—What does God enjoin on us? The forsaking of sin; faith in Christ; preparation for death; consecration to the service of God.—Duty of obeying His call.— Results of neglecting it.—Results of heeding it.
"Whereupon, O king Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision."
Acts xxvi. i>
DAMASCUS: VIEW OF THE PRESENT CITY.
WISHING to make a profitable use of the history of Saul's conversion, I shall here refer to the manner in which God addresses mankind, or indicates His will to them; the purposes for which He addresses or calls them; and the importance of obeying such a "call " or " vision."
The will of God was made known to Saul of Tarsus by a direct communication from the Redeemer Himself. The "vision" which appeared to him was such that he could not doubt that it was Divine. He who spoke announced Himself to be the Saviour of the world, and the purpose for which He thus addressed Saul was distinctly made known to him: "I have appeared unto thee for this purpose, to make thee a minister and a witness both of these things which thou hast seen, and of those things in the which I will appear unto thee, delivering thee from the people, and from the Gentiles, unto whom now I send thee, to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me" (Acts xxvi. 16—18.)
Thus, also, God could address each one of the human race as an individual and by name, and thus indicate to us His will as to what we should believe and do. He could speak to us by dreams or visions, as He did to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Eliphaz; He could address us by a voice, as He did Samuel; He could send a special messenger to us, as He did to Ahaz, to Ahab, to David, and to Hezekiah; He could direct an angel to convey a message to us, as He did to Daniel, to Zacharias, and to the Virgin Mary; He could call us to His service by an internal voice which we could not disregard, as He did Jeremiah and Ezekiel; or He could speak to us in His majesty and glory, as He did to Isaiah in the temple, to Saul on the way to Damascus, or to John in Patmos. The Father of spirits could thus keep up a constant communication with men in such a way that they could not doubt that He addressed them, and in such a way that in yielding they could not doubt that they were obeying His will.
There were reasons, however, why this should not be the usual method by which He addressed mankind. Such a mode of address, while it might have the advantage of determining at once the question of duty, would render in a great measure useless the faculties with which He has endowed us, and would change almost entirely the order of things now existing on the earth. To a great extent it would render useless the faculty of reason, designed to aid us in investigating truth; it would take away the stimulus to human effort in the search after what is right; it would render man indolent and unconcerned until the voice should come with a distinct announcement of the will of God; it would destroy not a few of the motives which now prompt us to action; it would be a departure from the great principles on which men are governed in other things than religion; it would materially affect the whole subject of moral government, and make the progress of the world dependent rather on supernatural impulses than on settled and regular laws.
We are, therefore, to put these things out of view, in reference to the question how the will of God is to be ascertained. Even on the most momentous questions of our existence, on the truths most important to be known, in situations most perplexing, in doubts and difficulties most appalling, in the most fervid, earnest aspirations of the soul after knowledge of the truth, we are to lay aside all expectations of a voice from heaven; of a vision; of a dream; of the sending of an angel to instruct us, to warn us, to point out the path of duty, to teach us what to do.
But is there no way in which the mind of God is now indicated to us? Is it impossible for God now so to communicate His will to the soul of an individual that he shall be in no danger of error as to what he should do? Are there no leadings of the hand of God, no methods by which He reveals His will, no appeals which He makes to the soul, no warnings, no admonitions, no invitations, no encouragements? Are there no promises addressed to man in his pilgrimage that he may regard as a voice direct from God to him? Has God so withdrawn from the world, or has He so bound Himself by the physical laws which He has imposed on created things, and so limited the exercise of His omnipotence within those laws, that He has reserved to Himself no way now of making known to an individual traveller to another world what He would have him to do? As we cannot rely on dreams, and visions, and voices, and the visitations of angelic beings to guide us, what methods are there by which our Maker makes known His will to us?
There is, first, His holy Word, the volume of Revelation, containing the standing and permanent intimations of his will. The Bible does not—for it could not—address each one of the race by name, but it gives directions and counsels adapted to our common nature, and applicable to all the situations in which man can be placed :—directions and counsels applicable to the aged and the young; to princes and their subjects; to masters and servants; to parents and children; to those in affluence and those in poverty; to those in health and those in sickness; to those inquiring what man shall do as the great business of this life, and what he shall do to prepare for the life to come. On the great truths most desirable for every man to know, and on the question which man so often asks, how he may be saved, the communications are as explicit, and are as distinctly adapted to each one, as though they were an original communication from God to him alone; and in the various circumstances of human life, with all the endless variety of these circumstances, it is probable that a case has never occurred in relation to which some principle could not be found by a careful study of the Bible that would be a true and certain indication of the will of God.
There is, secondly, the rational nature which God has given us,—in like manner, within its proper limits, furnishing a safe intimation of the will of God. This rational nature is often, indeed, put sadly out of place, and abused by mankind. But we cannot suppose that God would so endow man with reason as to lead him astray; or so that its just decisions would be contrary to truth; or so that in its fair applications it would beguile, mislead, and destroy. Nor can we suppose that He would so constitute man in his rational nature that any direct statements from Himself by a revelation would be contradictory to what man's reason compels him to regard as true: for there is but one God, and under the government of that one God the deductions of reason,— that reason with which He has endowed us,—can no more contradict the higher truths which He might directly reveal, than the revelations of the natural eye would contradict the revelations of the telescope. In its proper place, reason is as true to its Maker as was the voice which addressed Isaiah in the temple, or the "vision" which appeared to Saul of Tarsus. It never lends its voice in favour of irreligion, vice, or crime. When, indeed, reason attempts to penetrate the counsels of the Almighty without the aid of revelation, and to intrude into the mysteries of the Divine nature beyond what is revealed,—when it attempts to form a system of religion which shall supersede that of revelation,—when it attempts to supply the place of all communications from heaven, it always errs, for it has departed from its appropriate sphere. But it does not err when it speaks of the obligations of virtue, justice, and truth; when it directs the mind up through His works to God Himself; when it appeals to man in favour of God and religion by considerations drawn from the immortality of the soul, and the solemnities of a future existence; when it presses upon man the duty of preparing for another world. If a man will honestly consult his own reason on points like these, he will have no more doubt what is the will of God than Saul of Tarsus had when the "vision" appeared to him on the way to Damascus. Whatever may be the feelings of men on the great subject of religion, we are sure that we always have their reason with us when we urge them to forsake their sins and to give themselves to the service of their Maker.
There is, thirdly, the voice of conscience;—true also to its Author and Lord; true to the purpose of indicating His will in the sphere in which He has appointed it to operate. Its province, indeed, is often mistaken; and hence, like reason, man makes it an unsafe guide. It is not given to him to be a revelation, nor to supersede the necessity of a revelation, for it communicates no new truth. In its own place, however, it is a method by which God communicates His will to man, and is as true to its office as the magnet to the pole. It urges to the performance of duty; it condemns that which is wrong. It prompts us to do that which ought to be done, when interest would seem to lead in another direction, when the decisions of reason would be too slow, or when passion would drive us on to vice and ruin; and, when we have done that which is right, it expresses approbation in a manner which we cannot but regard as the voice of God Himself. It can never be made to lift its voice in favour of the neglect of religion; of impenitence; of the indulgence of guilty passions; of disregard of the counsels which require us to prepare for eternity. It is among the most admirable of the arrangements of the Divine administration,—an arrangement which cannot be explained except on the supposition that there is a God, and that God is the friend of virtue, and the enemy of vice; the friend of truth, and the enemy of error; the friend, and not the enemy of the soul. It is a way in which God is speaking to hundreds of millions of men at each moment; and in such a manner, that if they would follow His counsels according to the laws of this arrangement, we may again affirm that they would be in no more danger of erring than was Saul of Tarsus when he yielded obedience to the heavenly vision.
There are, fourthly, the events of Divine Providence; often among the clearest methods by which God communicates His will to men. The sparrow falls not to the ground without God; and the minutest events in a man's life are under His direction. Every one may find in his own life, if he chooses, not a few events that were designed to indicate to him what was the will of God. The Providence which commits to his care an aged and helpless parent,—which entrusts to him an unprotected sister,—which lays at his door the afflicted, the wounded, the dying,—which consumes the dwelling of his neighbour, leaving a family unprotected in the cold of a winter's night,—which directs to his dwelling him who has fled from oppression, and who pants for freedom,— so speaks to him that he is in no danger of mistaking, in such a case, the Divine will. The Providence, too, which has given to a man talents fitted to promote the progress of society and the welfare of mankind, or wealth that may extensively promote the interests of humanity and religion, or learning adapted to enlighten and guide others,—or which opens a world of sorrow, oppression, and sadness to his access,—is an intimation of the Divine will that need not be mistaken. The Providence, also, that takes away an endeared object of earthly affection which stood between the heart and God, and which seized upon the affections with idolatrous power, is to the soul an intimation of the will of God as clear as if the lesson were written with a sunbeam. So a man in one pursuit in life finds his plans blasted, sees some unexpected obstacle always in his way, encounters obstructions thrown across his path which he can neither anticipate nor remove; and he may find in these things an intimation that he is in a wrong path as clear as was that in the case of Saul the persecutor when he was arrested by the Saviour on his way to Damascus. Such checks and restraints have been laid in every man's life; and, if they were heeded, it would never be difficult for a man to ascertain the way-marks which the Great Director of human affairs has set up to guide us.
There are, fifthly, the calls of the Gospel; the admonitions of the living preacher; the counsels and entreaties of the Christian pastor. The Christian ministry is God's "great ordinance" for securing the reconciliation of men to God; for calling them to repentance and salvation; for applying great permanent truths and principles to the ever-varying circumstances of human existence. The voice of the minister of religion, so far as his appeals accord with the revealed truth of God, and so far as those appeals are adapted to the particular circumstances of a people, may be—and, so far as I can see, should be—regarded as the message of God Himself to the soul;—a message, here, again, we may say, as distinct, and as little capable of misapprehension, as was the voice that addressed Saul of Tarsus. This statement will not be misunderstood. We who are ministers of the Gospel do not claim to be inspired. We make pretensions to no superiority in mental, moral, or spiritual excellence above our fellow-men. We arrogate no power of peculiar insight into Divine things. We sustain no peculiar relation to God. We assert for ourselves no peculiar sanctity or immunity on account of our office; and no power, in virtue of the office, to impart grace to the souL But, regarding the ministry as an appointment of God, and as a wise arrangement for bringing His truth before the minds of men, we believe that it is designed as a means of keeping up a communication between God and the world, and as a method of expressing the Divine will, not only in respect to abstract truth, but to the duty of individual men; as an arrangement intended to convey the calls and the warnings of the Creator to the world; and as in fact one of the most important means by which He addresses the children of men. When in obedience to His commission, the minister of religion brings before a man truth, undoubted truth,—when he presents it in such a form as to be adapted to the particular circumstances, to the time of life, to the state of mind, to the peculiar temptations of that man, to the enquiries which are awakened in his soul from other sources in regard to truth and duty,—we know not why this should not be regarded as in fact a method by which God Himself addresses that man, as really as Saul of Tarsus was addressed from heaven.
A sixth method in which God speaks to men is by the voice of a stranger. So it was when the eunuch of Ethiopia was addressed by Philip, and directed to Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah. So to thousands the Apostle Paul went as a stranger, and announced the message of life and salvation. And so, now, in a stagecoach,—on a steam-boat,—on a rail-road car,—in a remote hut where a traveller may tarry for a night,— on the ocean,—in a foreign land,—in a hospital, far away from home and friends, from mother, sister, daughter, pastor,—in a Christian sanctuary which may be casually attended,—the voice of a stranger may be heard; and shall it be deemed extravagant to believe that the feet of the stranger may have been guided in order that he might speak to that soul about the way of salvation?
And there is still a seventh method, uersal in its nature, by which God addresses the children of men. It is by the influences of the Holy Spirit: a teaching and a guidance superadded to all the others, and without which which none of them would be effectual. This is not a new revelation, for it imparts no new truth. It is not inspiration. It is a silent secret influence on the soul, prompting it to duty; awakening the conscience; alarming the fears; restraining from sin; seasonably recalling truth to the memory; inclining the heart to prayer; disposing the soul to meditate on death, judgment, and eternity, and prompting to the formation of better plans and purposes; "convincing," according to the language of the Saviour, "of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment." It is an arrangement to which the world owes all its religion, and no small part of the restraints of virtue and law, and of the promptings of humanity. I believe that God thus communicates, in some measure, His will to every human soul; that this is a "light which enlighteneth every man that cometh into the world." Life, if we would mark it, is made up of thousands of suggestions from some unseen quarter, prompting us to duty; starting some thought of what is wise, and right, and just, and good; inclining us to thoughtfulness, to meditation, to prayer; making the soul dissatisfied with its present course, and drawing it along in the path of duty, benevolence, and peace. Sometimes these suggestions come to the soul with the gentleness of the evening zephyr—and in the evening; sometimes with the fury and violence of the storm—and in the storm; sometimes when we are alone; sometimes in the crowded place of business; sometimes when we are made sad by affliction; sometimes under the preaching of the Gospel; and sometimes when there are no apparent causes giving a new direction to the thoughts. And shall we doubt that there if such an influence really abroad in the world,—an influence which converts men from the error of their ways, and which prompts to great and generous deeds? Can any one on any other supposition than this explain how it was that Saul of Tarsus, that Augustine, that Luther, that Bunyan, that John Newton were converted? Can any mere philosopher explain how it was that John Howard, an English gentleman of affluence, was led to conceive and execute the purpose of spending his life in breathing the pestilential air of the dungeons of Europe, that he might relieve the sufferings of the prisoners? Is it fanaticism to suppose that God pitied the prisoner whose "soul was bound in affliction and iron," and that He meant in this way to open the heart of humanity to a much-neglected portion of the race, and so moved by His Spirit the heart of Howard that he was not "disobedient unto the heavenly vision?" Can any mere philosopher explain how it was that the minds of Clarkson and Wilberforce were directed to the evils of the African slave-trade, and how they were led to identify themselves with the great cause of uersal emancipation? Is it fanaticism to suppose that God looked down with an eye of pity on injured Africa, and that He meant thus to awaken in the souls of men everywhere a sense of the wrongs done to an entire quarter of the globe? And can we be in danger of error in supposing that the same Spirit breathed into the hearts of Morrison, and Schwartz, and Henry Martyn, a desire for the conversion of the world, and made them willing to go forth and publish salvation to those who were "sitting in the region and shadow of death?" And can we be wrong in supposing that God by His Spirit appeals now to the sinner; that He awakens him to a sense of his condition; that He makes him dissatisfied with the world and with sin; that He creates a desire in his soul to find a better portion than earth can give; that He calls him to virtue, to religion, and to a new life, by a voice as real as that which addressed Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus?
But to what does God call us in these various methods by which He appeals to us? Is it possible to ascertain what is His purpose and design with regard to iut Is the voice so distinct, that we may know what is the will of God,—so clear, that in following it we may be sure we shall not be in danger of falling into a mistake? Is it possible for us in our own case to obtain an answer to the question which Saul of Tarsus asked with so much sincerity and solemnity respecting himself: "Lord, what wilt thou have me to do ?" (Acts ix. 6).
Let us learn from the example of Saul of Tarsus; let us see whether the answer to the question may not be as clear in our case as it was in his.
First, as in his case, so now, God calls the sinner to forsake the ways of sin. He summoned Saul of Tarsus to abandon his purposes of persecution;— and in like manner He calls on the wicked to "forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts" (Isa. lv. 7). This would involve the forsaking of every form of transgression; of every purpose of life that is at variance with the law of God. Whatever may be the form of wickedness; whatever pleasure or profit may attend it; whatever honour may be supposed to result from it, yet the voice of God calls on men to abandon that course of life, and to turn to the ways of virtue and truth. Be it the persecution of the friends of God, as in the case of Saul,—be it unbelief,—be it worldliness,— be it ambition,—be it low sensuality,—be it the love of pleasure,—be it a life of gaiety,—no matter in each case what may be the sacrifice involved in relinquishing it, and no matter what the number or the social position of those whose friendship must be lost, or whose hatred incurred,—the course required is a plain course; the command is a plain command. Everything combines in the summons which God thus addresses to the soul,— His word; our reason; our conscience; the dealings of God's Providence; the influences of His Spirit; the voice of the pastor, and the voice of the stranger. No man in reference to this can make a mistake as to the will of God; no man can take a single additional step in the course of iniquity without knowing that he does it in the face of God's great message to his soul.
Secondly. He calls men to faith in that Saviour in whom Saul of Tarsus was called to believe, and whom he was commissioned to make known to the world. Saul had sought to make his way to heaven witlwut a Saviour; he had despised the Redeemer's cross, His sacrifice, His tomb; he had rejected all the evidences which had been furnished to the world that Jesus came from God; all the proofs drawn from His marvellous power, His wisdom, and His goodness, that He was sent from heaven; all the evidences in His life and His death that He was the promised Messiah. All that Saul had done in relation to Him might be traced to the simple fact that he was an unbeliever; all would have been different if he had been a believer in Jesus.
Thus the sinner is addressed now. He has lived, and is living without a Saviour. He has refused to receive Christ as a Redeemer. He has been determined not to feel or acknowledge his need of a Saviour. He has by his conduct identified himself with those who rejected and crucified Jesus. His whole life has been that of an unbeliever. God now calls him to believe in Jesus Christ as a Saviour; as his Saviour;—to receive Him; to rely on Him; to live to Him; to love Him; to follow Him. Here, too, all the methods of God's appeals to men combine in enforcing the call. To secure
this, all the various methods whereby God speaks to the soul have been originated and arranged. His word; reason; conscience; Providential dealings; the warning voice of a pastor, or of a stranger; the influences of the Spirit of God,—all these are in the same direction and all tend to the same end—to call men to embrace the Lord Jesus as their Saviour.
Thirdly. God calls men to prepare for another world; to be ready to give up their account to Him. It is impossible, in respect to this, to misinterpret the Divine will. In the voice which comes to men from the Bible, from reason, from conscience, from the events of Providence, from the pulpit, from the stranger, and from the influences of the Holy Spirit, there is, in this respect, no uncertain sound; no ambiguity. In all the voices that come to men from heaven by day or by night, there is none that calls them to a life of gaiety or ambition; that calls upon them to make "gold" their hope, or to "say to the fine gold, Thou art my confidence." Hear what was said in ancient "visions" to the children of men:—"God speaketh once, yea, twice, yet man perceiveth it not. In a dream; in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falleth upon men, in slumberings upon the bed, then he openeth the ears of men, and sealeth their instruction, that He may withdraw man from his purpose, and hide pride from man" (Job xxxiii. 15—17). How often now does God thus speak! How often does He admonish men that they are mortal, and call upon them to prepare for another life! Does one day pass in the life of any man, in which death is not, if he would heed it, brought before his mind by his Maker; in which there is not some distinct admonition to be prepared to die? Will any man be able to allege, when he is called before God, that he has never been fairly warned; that he has not been summoned to prepare for the future world; that he has not been urged to flee from the wrath to come?
Fourthly. God calls men to devote themselves to His cause; to give themselves to a life of usefulness; to live so as to promote His glory in the world; to labour to advance the great interests of truth and righteousness; to be the patrons and triends of whatever will elevate the race, and to diffuse abroad that religion which is identified with the welfare of man:—to give back to Him, in His service, the result—the fruit—of the talents, the learning, and the influence which He has conferred on them.
Saul of Tarsus had been endowed with great talents. He could not fail, for good or for evil, to exert a vast influence on mankind. He was so created that, however selfish and wicked he might be, he could not " live unto himself." He must influence others. He contributed largely in shaping the events of that age of the world. Those talents he had abused. He had employed them against the cause of Christ . But he was now called by an audible voice to devote those talents to Christ, and to His cause:—and well he answered and obeyed the summons.
So it is with you;—with each one;—with all. The talents with which you are by nature endowed,—the learning which you possess,—the influence which you may have in the world,—the wealth which you have gained,—belong to God; and He asks that all these may be devoted to the great ends for which they were bestowed upon you. He made you what you are in mental endowment. He redeemed you. He keeps you. The vigour of body which you possess is His gift. Your power of reasoning, your genius, your eloquence, are His. The place which you occupy in the world, morally, intellectually, socially, has been assigned by Him. The circumstances of your life have been ordered by Him. And He calls you—alike by Scripture, by your reason, by your conscience, by the events of His Providence, by heavenly influences,—to consecrate all you have to His service and to the good of man. Heaven appeals to you, and the world appeals to you, not to live in vain.
It remains now to notice, in few words, the duty of obeying such a heavenly call or "vision."
(1.) Contemplate the effect on a man's character of not yielding to the calls of duty, and of resisting the influences which would draw him along in the way of virtue, of purity, and of usefulness; the effect on a man's character when, in order to pursue a chosen course, it is necessary for him to go against the decisions of reason, the generous impulses of his nature, the voice of conscience, the warnings of Providence, the admonitions of God in His word, by His ministers, and by His Spirit. "It is hard," said the Saviour to Saul of Tarsus, "to kick against the pricks:"—hard for the ox that resists, that treads back on the goads which would urge him on. In a forward movement,—in patient and gentle and proper toil, he feels not their sharp piercings in his flesh; it is only when he resists, and presses backward, that he feels them; and then the more he presses back, the more keenly he feels their sharpness. So it is with the various appeals of God. It is easy for one disposed to do his duty to go forward: for he yields to all that urges him on; and reason, and conscience, and truth, and God's Spirit, have no sharp "goads " with which to pierce and penetrate his soul. But it is hard for a man to go against all these. Life then becomes a warfare,—a warfare more fierce and dreadful than is that of the man of God against "principalities, and powers, and spiritual wickedness," for the sinner has to fight his way down to ruin,—at war with the Bible; at war with his reason; at war with his conscience; at war with God's Providences; at war with the Spirit of God; at war with his pastor; at war with his best friends; a warfare never to cease until he achieves a disastrous victory over all that is generous and noble in his own nature,—a victory in hell!
(2.) Contemplate the feelings of one who has yielded to the summons which called him to leave the ways of sin, and to devote himself to God. Such a man was Saul of Tarsus, when he uttered the words which have been selected as a motto for the present chapter. He had nearly finished his course. With conscious gratification he then reflected that he had been "not disobedient unto the heavenly vision," but had promptly obeyed, and had faithfully carried out the command to the utmost extent of his power. Time had only conf1rmed him in the conviction that this call was from heaven; and, although it had been attended with many sacrifices, privations, and trials, it grieved him not that he had, in the cause of the Saviour, given up the brilliant prospects of his early life, and gone cheerfully where the "heavenly vision " led him.
God calls each one of us to repentance from sin; to faith in the Redeemer; to preparation for the world to come; to a life of usefulness. We shall die,—all die. From the borders of the eternal world, we shall look over the present life. The road which we now travel we can travel but once; and a mistake in the great purposes of life cannot be repaired. There are two ways in which men close life; two classes of reflections which occur on the bed of death. The one is like that of Paul, when with a good conscience, a man can say that he has endeavoured in all things to obey the call of God; the other the reflection of one who then feels that every voice from heaven has been rejected, disregarded, or resisted; who feels that through all the journey of life he has made war on the word of God, on his reason, on his conscience; that he has resisted the appeals made by the Providence of God, by the ministers of religion, and by the influences of the Spirit; that he has slighted the counsels of father, mother, sister, pastor, friends. For myself, when I die, I desire the former of these. May God give us grace, one and all, that we may not be disobedient unto "the heavenly vision."