Sermon III

SERMON III.

THE CLAIMS OF THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION.

1 Peter in. 15.—(t And be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear."

Every man has a moral right to ask me what reason I have to hope for eternal life — for salvation is a matter of common interest. He has as much concern in the question about future happiness as I have, and if I have a well-founded hope of heaven, he may also have such a hope. As he has a right to ask this question, I am hound to give him an answer. As one cherishing such a hope, I ought to be able to state the grounds of it; and as I may be presumed to have a benevolent regard for the welfare of others, I ought to be willing to impart to him whatever knowledge I have on the subject: for if I have knowledge of so great a truth as that there is a way by which man may be happy for ever, I am not at liberty to withhold from another what may be to him of so much value.

The inquiry which one might make of another respecting the hope that is in him, might relate to two points. It might be either in regard to the hope which Christianity as a system holds out to man; or to the hope which in particular he entertains of reaching heaven. This latter inquiry would involve so much reference to personal feeling and experience that there might be some delicacy and hesitancy in replying to it; and yet, if proposed in a serious and candid manner, and with a sincere desire to know what true religion is, a Christian would not feel himself at liberty to withhold the information. Such an answer would be appropriate to a.serious and anxious inquirer on the subject of religion ; the reply to the question in the other form would be appropriate at all times. The one is that which would properly be stated in the free, confidential intercourse of friendship ; the other is that which is appropriate to the public instructions of the pulpit or the press.

Whenever we come before you in any public manner, it is in some way to set forth the claims of the Christian religion. Either by illustrating detached portions of its doctrines and duties, or by a formal argument in its defence, we seek to show you that it has a claim upon each one of your hearts, and that it furnishes a ground of hope for the life to come. It is not improper, on some occasions, to consider ourselves as giving a distinct answer to one who should make an inquiry of the reason of the hope that is in us, or what there is in Christianity which satisfies the mind that it is proper to cherish that hope. Such a position I desire to regard myself as occupying at this time, and I propose, therefore, to set forth the claims of the gospel in this way.

This religion has been in the world, inspiring these hopes, eighteen hundred years. At this period of the world, and after it has existed so long upon the earth, what is there to be seen in the system which makes it proper to cherish the hope of eternal life based on its promises ? What is there, in the view of an intelligent Christian, on which the system rests as justifying hope in his own case, and as furnishing an argument to be used in addressing others to induce them to repose on it with the same measure of confidence ?

I suppose that a man who is not a Christian, if called upon to give reasons why he is not, in the public manner in which I am to show why I am, would arrange his thoughts under some such heads as the following:—the deficiency of the evidence of the Divine authority of the Bible; the ambiguity and uncertainty of the alleged prophecies, and the intrinsic difficulty in believing in miracles; the difficulties in the Scriptures, and in the doctrines which they have revealed; the fact that in the pretended book of revealed truth there are many questions which are unsolved; the bigotry, wars, persecutions, and wrongs to which it would be said Christianity has given rise; the little influence which it has on the lives of its professors, and the general character of the church.—Whether these would be the true reasons, or whether there are reasons lying back of these in the state of the heart, is not of importance now to be considered. All that I wish to say just here is, that it is not to be assumed by the friends of Christianity that these reasons, as they might be drawn out, have no force; and as little is it to be assumed by its enemies that they who embrace the Christian system do not see their force, and are not capable of appreciating it. It is a circumstance of some importance that not a few who are Christians were once infidels themselves; and it is not fair to assume that they have never looked at these arguments as attentively as other men.

Cecil, once himself an infidel of a most decided character, after his conversion made this striking remark: " I have read," said he, " all the most acute, and learned, and serious infidel writers, and have been really surprised at their poverty. The process of my mind has been such on the subject of revelation, that I have often thought Satan has done more for me than for the best of them ; for I have had, and could have produced, arguments that appeared to me far more weighty than any I ever found in them against revelation" (Life and Remains, p. lxxxix.) " It is the registered saying of a man, eminent alike for talent and piety, that he never found such strong arguments against the Bible, in all writings of infidels, as had suggested themselves to his own mind" (Melville, Sermons, vol. i. p. 276).

Without impropriety I may be permitted to say, that in my investigations I have found things that have seemed to me to have much greater strength against the truth of the Bible, and that have given me much more perplexity than anything which I have found in the books of infidel writers; and that now, if I were to assume the position of an advocate of infidelity, I could draw out an argument that would seem to me to have more force than is found in any book that I could recommend to you. If you will suffer these remarks to pass without an imputation of vanity, I will proceed to state why, notwithstanding these facts, a man may see reasons why he should be a Christian. I will suggest several considerations, which together may perhaps furnish an answer to both the aspects of the question referred to in the beginning of this discourse.

I. The first is, because the Christian religion has such claims of a Divine origin that they May convince and satisfy the mind. 1 do not mean here such as to compel the assent of the mind; nor would I say such as to satisfy every mind in every state. I mean such as may satisfy a mind in a healthful state; a mind in the best condition for looking at evidence; a mind that shall reason on the subject of religion as men reason on other things. There is but one kind of evidence that compels assent—that which is found in the pure mathematics, and that embraces but a small part of the subjects that come before mankind. In morals ; in law; in medicine ; in mental philosophy ; in political economy ; in the mechanic arts; in history, we are content with another kind of evidence—that which convinces, not compels. The word convinces expresses the idea exactly—that which overcomes, or which gets a victory over difficulties and objections; which subdues the opposition of the mind to the truth; which furnishes evidence to remove the pre-existing reasons for doubt, and which, as by a victory, secures the assent of the understanding. Now religion, from the nature of the case, belongs to this class of subjects; that is, it rests on the same basis on which are placed most of the other great interests of mankind.

I suppose that it can hardly be deemed necessary for me to attempt elaborately to prove the truth of my proposition—that the Christian religion has such evidences of a Divine origin that they may convince and satisfy the mind. If there is no inherent impossibility in that, it would be fair to suppose, unless the contrary can be shown, that this does occur, and that a man is a Christian because his mind is thus satisfied, and that this is the first reason which he would allege why he is a Christian.

Yet I have a few remarks to make in regard to this attitude of the mind, viewed in its relation to the evidence of the Divine origin of the Christian religion now after a period of one thousand eight hundred years. They may be numbered in their order, though it must be without illustration : (a) First, then, as already shown, the mind may become convinced and satisfied. This has been done in many millions of instances; this is now constantly occurring in the world. There are now great numbers of believers who have embraced Christianity only because they are convinced of its truth—for there is no other motive to explain this ; and the arguments which have convinced them are the same which have convinced the millions that have gone before them, (b) Secondly, the evidence in the case has stood through the severest tests which could be applied; and Christianity exists now simply because the world cannot be convinced that its claims are delusive and false. Whatever may be inferred from this one way or the other, no one can doubt that it lives, and is carrying on its great movements among the nations, because the attempts which have been made to satisfy mankind that it is an imposture have not been such as to convince the world. The severest tests have been applied to it that can be—those derived from reason, ridicule, contempt, power, persecution ; and whatever else may befall it, he who is a Christian rests in this certainty that his religion will never be removed from the world by reasoning, by ridicule, by contempt, by power, by persecution. If it is to lose its hold on the minds of men, it is to be by some agency which has not yet been employed ; yet what that is to be, the mind finds it difficult to imagine, (e) Thirdly, it has passed, it may be supposed, what it had really to apprehend as the great crisis of its fate. For the great crisis was not, as is commonly supposed, in the time of persecution; it was to meet the developments of science. Itself originated in a rude age and land, its great encounter was to be not so much with power as with knowledge ; not so much with princes as with philosophers; not so much with Nero and Diocletian as with Bacon, Cuvier, and Davy; not so much with the powers of darkness as with the floods of light that would be poured upon the world, when the danger was that it might be found in error as all false religions are, and might, by excess of light, become eclipsed. That danger may be regarded as now passed. If it can retain its hold on the intellect of the world at the present hour, it may be presumed to have little to fear in the future, (d) Fourthly, it has shown that it has power to control the intellect of men, and to maintain its dominion there. That dominion it has set up now over the best, and the most highly cultivated intellect of this age, and it loses none of its hold by the progress which society makes in science and in the arts. It is undoubtedly a fact that the period has never been when Christianity had such a hold on the intellect of the world as it has at the present time, or when so many cultivated minds would come forth to its defence; and it has shown its power by securing that ascendency just in proportion as the mind of the world is developed and cultivated, and just in proportion as the best type of intellect becpmes uppermost in the control of human affairs. For not only has it maintained its ascendency as the sciences have advanced, but, if I may be allowed the expression, it has shown a singular affinity for the mind that appears to be destined to be the ruling mind of the world, and that is more closely identified than any other with all that tends to promote the progress of human affairs— the Anglo-Saxon mind, (e) Fifthly; just one other thought under this head: it is, that the claims of the Christian religion are such as to command the assent of the conscience and the heart of men. After all, it makes its practical way in the world rather by appeals to the conscience and the heart than by appeals to the understanding. When men become Christians, they feel that they are doing right, and the conscience and the heart acquiesce in what is done, and they have no misgivings about it. Not so if they are not Christians. They feel that they are resisting claims which may be urged upon them at least with a considerable show of reason. They feel that it requires no little ingenuity to evade the arguments which are advanced for the claims of religion, and no little ingenuity to invent excuses for not becoming Christians. To become a Christian is a straightforward work, where a man is following the leadings of his own judgment, and conscience, and interest,

and duty, and which requires no ingenuity to apologize for ; to refuse to become one is a task, where a man has to meet the claims of argument, and conscience, and interest, and duty, and to reconcile his refusal with these claims in the best way he can.

II. In the second place, I embrace this hope because, if I reject it, I do not get rid of the difficulties which press upon my mind on the subject of religion. I will frankly state to you that I see great difficulties on the whole subject of religion, whether the Bible be embraced or not. Far beyond what ought to be the state of a man's mind who undertakes to defend a system with earnestness, and which cannot be supposed often to exist when a man pleads a cause at the bar, or in the Senate House when his country is in danger, a minister of the gospel may be conscious of obscurities and difficulties in the high subjects of the Divine nature; the introduction of moral evil; the actual government of the world ; the apparent contradictions in the Bible; the mode of the Divine revelation; the obscurity of the whole system of doctrines, and the nature and duration of future punishment; and, however others may feel, I can easily conceive of a man's being in such a state of mind on these matters that he is in no condition to preach properly at all. The state of mind to which I refer cannot be more strongly expressed than in the language of Dr. Paysou. Said he in a letter to a friend long after he began to preach, " My difficulties increase every year. There is one trial which you cannot know experimentally. It is that of being obliged to preach to others when one doubts of everything, and can scarcely believe that there is a God. All the atheistical, deistical, and heretical objections which I meet with in books ■ are childish babblings compared with those which Satan suggests, and which he urges upon the mind with a force which seems irresistible. Yet I am often obliged to write sermons and to preach when these objections beat upon me like a whirlwind, and almost distract me". Works, i., 379, 380.

But, on the other hand, looking at the subject as a candid man, I do not see that I am relieved, or that I get rid of these difficulties by rejecting the Bible. The main difficulties on the whole subject lie bach of the Bible and of Christianity, and have nothing to do with the one or the other, and I am in no manner relieved if I reject the Old and the New Testaments. I rather fall back on the difficulties with no explanation and no relief, and then I am prepared to appreciate the perplexities of Socrates, and the trouble of Cicero, and the difficulties of Zoroaster and of Mani, and the anguish of Augustine before he became converted. For I find the same difficulties press upon me, and that without light or relief. They are difficulties growing out of the Divine character; and the principles of the Divine administration ; and the introduction of moral evil; and the treatment which men receive at the hand of God; and the fearful impending prospects hereafter. I get rid of no one of them by rejecting the Bible, and I am not only not relieved, but I deprive myself of all the explanation which I can now find in the Bible on these subjects, and at the same time of the bright light which shines on a thousand topics which otherwise would be as dark to me as they are—the light which would guide me safely to a better world.

III. In the third place, 2" embrace this hope because it meets the wants of my nature, and furnishes me such a religion as I need. On the subject of religion there are certain things which my nature and my circumstances demand; and a religion to be such as religion should be, must meet those demands. The Christian system, though it does not yet answer all the questions which I would ask, does substantially meet those demands, and does set the mind at rest. It is, of course, impossible in a single head of a discourse to do anything more than to give some hints of what I here refer to, and which must appear bald and dry because there is no time to illustrate them. But I will just refer to some of them: (1.) Man wants a God, and has always been looking out for the Infinite One, to discern him amidst his works, or to obtain by revelation some knowledge of his existence and perfections. The Bible reveals such a God, clothed with every glorious attribute, and infinite in his perfections, and spiritual in his nature, and pure in his government, and benignant in his character, and so vast, and great, and glorious that he is seen to be worthy of universal adoration and praise. (2.) Man wants faith. He wants some being in whom he may confide, and who has all power; some one on whom he can rely; some one to whom he can go in trouble; some one on whom he can repose in the hour of death. A state of scepticism is an unnatural state, and therefore a miserable state. The mind never finds rest till it finds a God in whom it can confide, and it is constantly going out in restlessness and anxiety and discomfort till it finds such a God. (3.) Man needs a knowledge of the way by which sin can be forgiven, and no system of religion can meet our condition which does not reveal such a method. That man is a fallen being is perfectly plain, and no one can deny it; and that a system of religion that does not recognise that fact and provide for it, is false and defective, is apparent at a glance. Indeed, the consciousness of sin has heen the principal source of trouble in this world, and the profoundest and most anxious inquiries of men have been to find out some way by which sin can be pardoned. One thing is certain, that man cannot look calmly forward to eternity, as a sinner, without some knowledge of a way of pardon; some evidence that his sins are forgiven. Somehow, conscience has a power which man dreads, and sin, after being long committed and apparently forgotten, has a way of reviving in its power by the aid of memory which he would not meet beyond the grave. The world needs the knowledge of a way by which sin may be forgiven, and individual man needs the knowledge of such a way, or he cannot find peace. The gospel has revealed such a method. It has done two things in this respect—one of which was necessary to be done, and the other of which was not necessary, and which is, therefore, a matter of mere favour: it has proclaimed the fact that sin may be pardoned; and it has disclosed the method by which it is done; and in both these the mind fully and joyfully acquiesces. Man finds in the gospel, in this respect, that which quite meets the case, and which puts the mind to rest. He finds a method of pardon revealed which displays the character of God in a most lovely manner; which does all that can bo done, and all that is needful to be done, to maintain the honour of the law of God; and which is adapted to give entire peace to a troubled conscience. (4.) Man needs a knowledge of a way by which the soul may be made holy; by which he may be defended in the day of temptation ; by which he may be supported in the time of trial; by which he may find peace in the hour of death—and he finds all this amply in the gospel. And (5) he needs a revelation of a future state—some assurance about the immortality of the soul—something more than vague conjecture, and loose and uncertain analogies, to assure him that his soul is immortal. I need not say that men have sought this everywhere and at all times, nor need I remind you how loose and unsatisfactory have been all their reasonings on this subject. To the classic scholar I need not say that if I should hero adduce the reasonings of Plato in the Phaedo on the immortality of the soul, those reasonings which Addison makes Cato pronounce to be so well founded, there is not a man here present who would feel himself convinced by them, or who would not feel, if this were all, that the subject was left in utter and most distressing doubt: perhaps no one who would not feel that I was insulting his understanding by insisting on these arguments —certainly no infidel who would not ask me if I had no better reasons than those for believing in the immortality of the soul. Of this work, and of Plato's reasonings in it, Cicero, in his Tusculan Questions, most feelingly and strikingly remarks : " I do not know how it is, but when I read I assent; but when I lay down the book and begin to reflect by myself on the immortality of the soul, all my assent glides away."[—Nescio quo modo, dum lego, assentior; cum posui librum, ct mecum ipse de immortalitate animorum ccepi cogitare, assentio omnis ilia elabitur.] But, as a matter of simple fact, this result does not follow from the faith reposed in the New Testament. The hope of immortality becomes a fixed and ruling principle of the nature, just as certain and determinate in its influence on the life as the belief that the sun will continue to rise,■and that the laws of nature will remain unchanged. On the whole, and in a word, I look at my nature in reference to its capabilities and wants, and to the question whether the gospel meets those capabilities and wants, and I can see no deficiency—nothing which it has not provided for. Man is endowed with reason ;—it meets his reason in the evidence of its truth, and in the nature of its revelations. Man has a conscience;—it discloses the way in which it may have peace. Man has sinned;—it reveals a way of pardon. Man pants to live for ever;—it tells him he will. He is made to be influenced by hope;—it has set the highest conceivable hopes before him. He has duties to perform;—it has told him what they are, and how to perform them. He is to be governed by motives;—it has told him what they should be. He is in a world of trials;—it tells him how to bear them. He has an imagination;—it sets before him objects most brilliant—compared with which the most splendid descriptions of genius die away. He sees in himself some evidences that he has an immortal soul;—it confirms them, and raises this beginning of hope from a state of uncertainty and doubt when it produced no influence on his life, to most certain assurance, and makes it the most influential of all the principles of action.

IV. In the fourth place, / cherish this hope, and embrace this system, because of its undeniably happy influence on all the interests of man. I am aware of the objection which some may start here, and do not forget that I might be referred to the wars, and crusades, and persecutions, and horrors of the inquisition, and the miserable superstition in pilgrimages and the rules of the monastic life, which it would be said have grown out of Christianity. But I trust I need not argue this point. I am speaking of pure Christianity; not of Christianity perverted and abused. I am speaking of what every man knows will be its influence if an individual, or a family, or a larger community, comes under its power. These things to which I have just referred are no part of the proper effect of true religion, and I presume that they who would urge the objection know that as well as I do. Every man knows what the effect of pure Christianity is; and when its professed friends evince any of these things, its enemies are not slow to remark that they do not " live up" to the requirements and the spirit of their religion. But let a few simple facts be submitted under this head in the form in which I am conducting this argument—that is, stating reasons why I cherish the hope that is in me. We who are professed Christians, then, look (a) at the influence of that gospel on our own character. None of us who are Christians have anything of which to boast, and there is not one of us that is not sensible of serious defects in his character, and of errors and follies over which he mourns in secret. But, as far as we can trace the influence of that gospel on our minds and hearts, it has not been a bad influence, or an influence of which we should be ashamed. We have found it giving us the victory over low and debasing propensities and passions ; furnishing a check, in numerous cases wholly effectual, on what were before unbridled appetites; elevating our views, and expanding our conceptions, of the dignity of our nature, and of the objects for which we should live ; raising us in the scale of being, and teaching us to aspire to fellowship with the more exalted intellects before the " throne;" removing the acerbities, and destroying the unevenness of our temper; making us willing to forgive our " enemies, persecutors, and slanderers," and to pray that God would " change their hearts;" giving us cheerfulness, peace, and " minds contented with our present condition ;" purifying our hearts, subduing the stubbornness of our will, and making us submissive in trial; disposing us to kindness and affection in the various relations of life, and inclining us to look with an eye of tenderness and pity on the oppressed, the fatherless, and the sad. (J) We look again at the effects of the gospel on the minds of our friends—living and dead—and we find there, too, only the same purifying and happy influence. It has given the chief virtues to our living friends; it has done more than all things else to hallow the memory of those who are dead. A father, a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, has none the less claim to affection by becoming a Christian; and we feel tHat whatever may be their native amiableness, there is pot a virtue which will not be brightened, not a lovely trait which will not be rendered more lovely, and not a defect which will not he lessened or removed, by the influence of the gospel. No man believes that his wife will be made less pure, kind, virtuous, chaste, faithful, by being a true Christian; no man supposes that his son or daughter would become a more ready prey to corrupt influences and evil passions by being brought wholly under the influence of the gospel of Christ. As far as we can trace that influence on the character of any of our friends now living, or on the character of those who have departed, it has been a happy influence. We fear not that it will injure the cherished memory on earth of those who have left the world, or hinder their salvation in the future state; nor do we fear its proper influence on the life and heart of any living friend. "When the sailor-boy leaves his home for a seafaring life; when a son embarks on a vessel to go to a distant land for scientific purposes, to perfect himself in some liberal art, or for commerce, we do not feel that he will be injured by any fair influence of religion on his soul. We sleep not the■less calmly at night when the storm howls and we feel that he is danger; nor are we the less serene when we think of the temptations to which he is exposed in a distant land, nor when the thought crosses our minds that perhaps we may never see him again. It is not a record which we are unwilling to have made on the stone which marks the grave of a friend that he lived and died with the Christian hope; it is not one which would dishonour us if it should be at last cut on our own. (c) The same remarks, expanded, might be made respecting a neighbourhood or a nation ; respecting the relation of Christianity to the progress of society, to civilization, to learning, to the arts, to schools, to social customs, to human liberty. Look around you, and ask what injury the Christian religion has done in the institutions of our own land; or rather ask what we have here which has not been originated or improved by the influence of the Christian religion. What is there in this land now that is valuable that it does not preserve ; what is there that has cost so much blood and treasure, and that now so much excites the hopes of humanity everywhere, that would not soon become corrupt and worthless if it were not for the influence of the gospel of Christ? I confess that I feel that it elevates my nature to cherish a hope derived from a religion that has scattered blessings in every age and every land ; that has been connected with human progress everywhere ; that has been identified with the best notions of liberty and civil government—with the progress of learning—with institutions of charity—with the sweetest virtues and enjoyments of domestic life—with all that gives support in trial—and with the only real consolation that is ever felt on the bed of death.

V. I had intended to have dwelt at some length on a fifth point as a reason for cherishing this hope, but perhaps all that I could say might be condensed into a sentence or two, and, at any rate, must be now: it is this, because I feel assured that I shall most prize this religion when I come to lie upon the bed of death. You will not understand me to imply that I think the dying moment the most favourable time to form a correct judgment on any subject, but that the judgment which will then be formed will be in accordance with the views which I have been endeavouring to set forth. I am certain that when I come to die, my sense of the truth and the value of this religion will not be diminished, and that I shall not then regret my having cherished this Christian hope. I am not accustomed to see men die sorrowing that they are Christians, nor have I found, in the books which make record of the last thoughts of the dying, expressions of regret from the lips of saints and martyrs that they had too early in life embraced the hope inspired by the gospel of Christ. I think we cannot be more firmly assured of anything than that when we come to die, we shall not find the Christian hope valueless, or wish that we could recall and change that hour in our lives when we gave ourselves to the Saviour. I give this, then, as a reason—last, but not least—why we cherish this hope, that when the final hour of our lives shall come, and " our eyes shall be turned for the last time to behold the sun in the heavens," when all the plans and hopes which we have ever cherished shall be ended, and we shall give the parting hand to the friends, few or many, that affection shall summon around our beds, we shall prize the hopes of the gospel of Christ more than we do now—more, infinitely more, than we shall all other things. We shall see the whole subject rise with a dignity and value which we cannot now estimate, and the brightest earthly crowns will be baubles then, compared with the crown of righteousness laid up for us in heaven. I would that you all could see in these considerations reasons why you should embrace and cherish this hope also, but, whatever may be the effect on you,■" they are the " answer" which we are required to " give to any man that asketh us a reason of the hope that is in us."