FAITH AS AN ELEMENTARY PRINCIPLE OF ACTION.
2 Coe. v. 7.—"We walk by faith, not by sight."
In the first discourse on the subject of faith, I illustrated the inquiry why faith is made an indispensable condition of salvation ; in the second, I considered the value and importance of faith.
Faith enters so much into the Christian system, is regarded as so essential an element in our conduct as religious beings, and is designed to accomplish so important effects on our character, that, in every point of view in which it can be regarded, it demands our careful and prayerful consideration. It seems to be supposed that there is some foundation for the importance attached to it in our very nature, or that man is so made that it is designed that faith shall be an important element of his conduct, and shall exert an important influence over him. If there were not something in man that laid the foundation for this, the prominence given to faith in the Bible would seem to be unauthorized, and the purpose of making so much out of it would seem to be an attempt to institute an arbitrary arrangement, and to separate religion from all other principles of action. I propose, then, in order to explain the prominence and the value assigned to faith in the Bible, to consider it as an elementary principle of conduct ; or to inquire into the influence which it is adapted to exert on man. I shall refer to it, not exclusively as a Christian virtue—for the object is to inquire why it should be incorporated among the Christian virtues at all; but as a state of mind—a principle of conduct—a law of our being. Our aim is to ascertain what place it is designed to occupy in the mind of such a being as man, and placed in the circumstances in which he is; and the bearing of all my remarks will be to illustrate the power of that principle stated in the text, " We walk by faith, not by sight."
In order to illustrate the subject properly, it will he necessary to consider two points:—I. What the principle is; and, II. Its influence as an element of conduct.
I. The first inquiry is, What is the principle referred to ? It is of the highest importance to settle this, because, either by inadvertence or design, faith is so often confounded with other things, that its value as an element of action is by no means appreciated, and on this account religion is charged with that which, if true, would make it unworthy the serious attention of mankind. A very common impression is, that faith is synonymous with credulity, and that in proportion as we exalt faith as as principle of action, we undervalue reason. Let us then inquire, and see whether we can ascertain precisely what the state of mind is, when we say in any proper sense, that a man " walks by faith." Perhaps we can bring out the state of mind which it is proposed to consider, by placing it in contrast with other things.
(1.) It is to be distinguished from credulity, and indeed in many respects is the opposite of credulity. " Credulity is a weakness of mind by which a person is disposed to believe, or yield his assent to a declaration or proposition without sufficient evidence of the truth of what is said or proposed; a disposition to believe on slight evidence, or no evidence at all."—Webster. Credulity relates to the belief of reported or alleged facts; believing them when there is no sufficient testimony or evidence, and is the opposite of clear and thorough investigation; faith, as an element of action, refers not so much to what are now facts, as to what may be; not so much to what has been in the past, as to what may be or will be in the future. Credulous men believe in things which are said to have occurred, or which are alleged to be occurring at the present, which are of little importance in themselves, and which are fitted to exert no good influence on the character; faith has relation, as an element of conduct, to things to come, and to those things which are deeply to affect our character and destiny. Children, in an amiable sense, are credulous—for they act on the principle of our nature, which teaches us, and prompts us to believe, until we learn to distrust by painful experience. Whatever is reported to them, they believe—for they have not yet learned to distinguish truth from falsehood, and indeed have hardly learned as yet that there is any such thing as falsehood. Men in the infancy of society are credulous—for they are then much like children ; and amidst the multitudes of things which are before their minds, and the numerous questions which present themselves, and under the influence of an imagination easily excited, they have not yet learned to separate the true from the false, and believe them all alike: stories of preternatural apparitions, and the influence of the stars, and portents, and omens, and the deeds of demi-gods, all together. Hence, all early history is made up of marvels— like the books with which it has been so much the fashion to entertain children. The dupes of superstition are credulous ; for they connect certain things with religion, and they have settled it in their minds that all that is connected with religion is true. Hence they can believe that the blood of St. Januarius is liquified at certain seasons of the year, and that the " house of the Virgin" was borne miraculously through the air from Palestine to Italy; hence they can believe in the virtue of climbing up the steps on Pilate's staircase, and that the " seamless coat" of Christ was discovered by St. Helena, after lying for centuries unknown, and then again, that it was as marvellously preserved in the cathedral at Treves. Infidels, though it may seem to be a paradox, are credulous men. Lord Herbert, among the best of them, was among the most credulous of men ; and I take the liberty to affirm that, as a body of men, none have been more distinguished for credulity than those who have been reckoned among infidels. Faith, as a principle of action, is wholly distinguished from this. A man who has faith, and is greatly influenced by it, may be a credulous man; but his credulity pertains to other things connected with his mental organization, and not to his acting by faith.
(2.) By many, faith is sometimes contrasted in a strange manner with a habit of scepticism and of doubt, and with an implied advantage in favour of the latter. It is supposed by them, that, as a habit of mind, a disposition to doubt, to be cautious, to be slow in admitting evidence, and to refuse assent in cases where so many yield so readily, not only stands in strong contrast with the state of mind required in the gospel, but is a better state of mind. Such a man, therefore, supposes that while he retains this disposition of mind to examine everything in an impartial manner, and to admit the full influence of all reasonable doubts on his mind in any case, he cannot be a Christian. Yet, if I understand the matter, this is not a just view of the case at all. The faith of the gospel is not opposed to the most candid and thorough investigation of any subject; and the state of mind here referred to, and placed in contrast with it, is not distinguished from the faith of the gospel by a habit of bolder and more independent thinking. The difference between them is not in regard to the freedom of inquiry; it is in regard to the influence of hope and of desire. Give to a man who is a sceptic the influence of the hope which the gospel proposes; create in his heart a desire for that on which faith rests, and in view of which it acts, and that same man will be no more cautious and independent than he who lives by faith. It is the absence of this, and not independence of thinking, which distinguishes him; for while he has no desire to know God, to live for ever, to be holy and pure in a future world, he is of course sceptical. He cares nothing about the evidence on the subject. He neither examines it, nor will he allow it to make any impression on his mind. His mind, therefore, is not better, in the sense that it is more candid, and cautious, and independent; but worse,in the sense that it is a mind that does not feel or appreciate the influence of hope, and of desire for that which is of the highest value and importance.
(3.) Faith, as an element of conduct, I need hardly say, is distinct from acting under the mere influence of the senses. " We walk by faith, not by sight." Most men act only from a reference to the senses, or in the light only which the relations of the senses cast on objects. They say, " Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die," 1 Cor. xv. 32. "I shall have peace, though I walk in the imagination of mine heart, to add drunkenness to thirst," Deut. xxix. 19. If they do not live under the influence of the senses, in the lowest meaning of the term—that of gross corruption—yet they aim to give what they would regard as the due influence to the information derived from the senses, or the inlets of knowledge from the external world. They become " matter of fact" men; their thoughts range only through the circle of the questions which arise about " profit and loss;" or they make close calculations by measurements of heights and distances, and abide by them. They give no scope to the fancy—to hope—to those generous impulses which would carry them out of the range of mere calculation. Now this is well as far as it goes; and is the basis of many of the excellent rules of economy, and a restrainer of extravagance. But it may make the mind exceedingly narrow, and prevent the development of some of its noblest powers. Man is made to be something else besides a mere creature of sight and of hearing; he is capable of being much more than an ingenious measuring and calculating machine. Faith, as an element of action, does much more—is much more expanding and noble. Even the ancient Greeks and Romans, though heathens, admitting the influence of this principle, furnished a striking illustration of the power of faith. They opened their eyes on distant worlds, and supposed there were many other things than the sight reveals; and though the gods which they supposed to have a dwelling-place in the groves, and by the fountains, were the work of imagination, yet they acted out the principle of our nature which longs to find other things than the sight reveals, and were under far hetter influences in many respects, in elevating and expanding the mind, than they would have been if confined to the grovellings of sense. Men who have no principle of faith in their nature, who are universally sceptical in regard to its revelations, are like the ancient mariners. In their frail barks they crept along the shore; always kept some headland or promontory in view; anchored in a friendly bay at night; and never put out into the open sea. Columbus, with different feeling, turned his prow boldly to the West, and held it steadily in that direction in the faith of " giving a new world to the kingdoms of Castile and Leon." So faith goes beyond the limits of time and of the senses. It not only believes in the existence of the worlds which the telescope reveals, but peoples those worlds; not only believes in the existence of that universe which strikes the outward eye as so glorious, but in the existence of a more glorious God that formed them all; not only believes that there is such an atom in creation as this earth, and such a thing as the " vapour of human life," but that there is a world to come, and that there is life everlasting.
(4.) One thing more may be said in order to distinguish faith as an element of action. It has a very near relation to hope; and is, in fact, on the authority of an apostle, the embodiment of hope. " Now faith is the substance of things hoped for," Heb. xi. 1. It takes hold of things that are not seen, but which may be as real as though they were ; and of things which are not yet facts, but which may be. A young man hopes for distinction in political life. As a reality, it has as yet no existence. But it may have. It is in his mind's eye as if it were a reality, and he sets it before him as his hopes and desires would prompt; and though far distant, he studies, and struggles, as if it might be so. Demosthenes, when he went into his cave, and tried the strength of his voice by the raging elements of the deep, doubtless had in his mind's eye an image of what it would be to be the first orator of the world. See what faith entered into such a purpose, and into such a conception:—faith in his own powers; faith in the effect of careful culture; faith in believing that formidable obstacles may be overcome; faith in his countrymen, that they would do honour to him who deserved it; faith in history, that it would transmit his name to future times; faith in all coming generations, that they would receive his name with honour, and transmit it onward. So now in higher things :—faith carries the mind upward and onward; fastens on objects of hope, and turns them into living forms, and allows them to influence the mind: and the view by faith of those superior realities turns giants here to dwarfs, and mountains to mole-hills, and crowns to baubles, and heaps of hoarded gold to particles of glittering dust, and the palaces of princes to the play-houses of children. Man begins to live for nobler objects; and there comes over the soul the expanding and elevating thought that there is something worth living for, and that he is indeed immortal.
II. Having thus endeavoured to state what this principle is, I proceed to consider, in the second place, its influence as an element of conduct. With an ultimate view of illustrating its influence in religion, and of showing you that there is much worth living for beyond what the senses reveal, and that it is rational to act in view of that, I will endeavour to illustrate its value under these specifications :—as prompting to action ; as expanding and elevating the mind; and as indispensable in all just views of religion.
(1.) We may consider it as an element of our nature leading to action. We will look at it now in general, without particular reference to religion. We have seen that it stands in contrast with cold calculation; with what is disclosed by the mere testimony of the senses ; with the low and grovelling objects that appeal to the appetites. A man into whose character there enters not the element of faith, is one who has no confidence in the power of truth in meeting and arresting evils; in the elevation and perfectibility of society; in the practicability of correcting errors, or of checking and removing individual or organized wrongs; in himself; in his fellow-men ; or in God. His mind never ventures beyond a very limited range—that which has come under his own observation, or which is within the compass of a very rigid calculation. Let us look at such a mind, and see what it would accomplish in such a world as this.
(a) A sturdy fanner, trained to the use of the axe, and the hoe, and the plough, and with the advantages of an education in a common school, and with some reading to expand his mind, stands on an eminence in the wilds of the West, and looks over a boundless forest. It waves in the interminable distance, and the sun has never yet been suffered to penetrate through that thick foliage to the earth. There is no city, or town, or even log-cabin to be seen. Not even the smoke of the Indian wigwam reveals that any human being is there. But there, an intelligent eye may see the evidence of as rich a soil as the sun ever shone upon; and those valleys may yet be covered with harvests and with flocks; and houses and mills, villages and towns, may yet spring up there. Winding along;, through that forest, may be seen the course of a river—and the opening where it runs shows that it is a broad stream—though on its bosom never yet floated anything but the bark-canoe of an Indian. In all that boundless expanse, there is neither road, nor bridge, nor fence ; neither church, nor college, nor school-house. Yet that man is possessed of faith ; faith in his axe, in his arm, in his skill—in himself, in his growing boy, in his neighbours that will unite with him ; and he believes that all that forest may be felled, and that it may become a fertile field, and that colleges and sanctuaries and cities may smile there; and that on that river the magnificent steamer may glide laden with rich productions from that teeming soil. Many a weary day must indeed be spent, many a hard blow must be struck, before that result shall be reached; but there is more than hope that it may be done, to animate and cheer the woodsman; there is faith that it will be done; and the forest gives way, and the fields are ploughed and fenced, and houses and all the improvements of art appear in what was the interminable wilderness, as if by magic. Yet there is no magic about it. It is all the result of desire, and hope, and faith,—and corresponding toil.
(6) A man looks at his country. He greatly loves it—for it is the land of his birth ; his interests are there ; and in every way he desires its prosperity. But he sees it oppressed. It groans under heavy and unjust burdens. There are evils. The unconstitutional claims of the government, the evils of a deficient representation, may be deeply felt; or foreign troops may be quartered on the citizens to awe them. On these things the patriot looks with deep emotion, and with an earnest desire that they may be removed. The man in whose soul the reigning element is doubt, or who is governed solely by the decisions of his senses, would be prompted to no effort for relief, would venture nothing for it. But not thus did men look upon the wrongs of their country in the times of Hampden; not thus did Patrick Henry and John Hancock look upon the wrongs which our own land endured. In those minds and hearts there were no elements of scepticism. There dwelt there in the strongest degree the element of faith. They were moved, not by the love of gain or applause; they not merely felt that their country was suffering wrong ; they not merely hoped and desired that their wrongs might be removed,—but they had strong faith, unwavering confidence, that it might be done. They had faith in the justice of their cause; in the virtue of their countrymen; in the valour of men that might be summoned to defend the national rights; in the fathers and mothers of the land, that they would give up their sons to its defence; in the nations of the earth, that they would approve their course ; and in God, that he would be the Friend of the oppressed and the wronged—and whatever liberty there is in England or in this land is the result of such faith.
(2.) We have considered this principle of our nature as an element leading to action. Let us'now, for a moment, consider it as an expanding and elevating element of conduct. We might here take the very cases which hs>ve already been referred to, and perhaps they would furnish all the elucidation which would be required. But we may vary the illustrations, and while we furnish new confirmations of what has been already said, place the point now before us in a more distinct light. John Howard, born to an ample property, and encompassed by all that was necessary to worldly enjoyment, with leisure for literary pursuits, or for the pleasures of the table or the field, or for the refined courtesies of life in England, might have spent his. days, as thousands do, with most limited views, and with a heart most selfishly contracted. A sceptic as to the world's improvement; a doubter as to the feasibility of any project to elevate the degraded ; a disbeliever in any enterprise that looked to the elevation of the more debased portions of mankind; a man who confined himself to questions of mere calculation,—he might have lived only to improve his estates, and in one narrow circle his ideas might have for ever revolved. But God had endued him with a heart benevolent by nature ; and the finger of Providence pointed to an object worthy of its exercise. He was led to look on the prisons of Europe. But how did he look on them ? True, there was enough to excite all the compassion of his soul, and such a man would weep over the unpitied wrongs of the prisoner. But he looked on them not only to weep. There was another, and a much higher and more expansive feeling in his bosom than mere compassion. It was faith. It was a belief that those woes might be mitigated, that those wrongs might be repaired, that the condition of the sufferer might be alleviated. What was this ? It was confidence in human nature ; in man,—in his sense of justice and humanity, when roused to it; in princes and lawgivers—that they might be disposed to do right; in society— that its workings might come nearer to perfection ; above all, in God, that he would show himself the Friend of the oppressed and the wronged ;—and this faith expanded the heart of Howard to embrace the world, and made him what he was. So Clarkson and Wilberforce looked upon injured Africa—not merely with the feelings of compassion, but with faith in the English heart; in the justice of their countrymen, if their sentiments were fairly expressed ; in the sense of right with which God has endowed man ; and in the Great Governor of the nations, that he would ultimately crown with success every effort to break the bonds of oppression.
An American youth, educated at a university, and about to enter upon the theatre of life, looks out over the world. He has a heart filled with love to the Saviour, and is desirous of living to do good. His thoughts are turned to the great West. But how many difficulties may be seen there:—difficulties, not so much of poverty, and privation, and toil, and want of the kind of society to which he has been accustomed—but difficulties in saving that vast region from the evil influences that are setting in upon it from all quarters of the world. Far more formidable are those moral difficulties than were the forests, and the unbridged rivers, to our woodsman; and yet with an eye of faith he may look all over that land, and see it in the future, spiritually, as the " garden of the Lord." He crosses the mountains with no doubt that there the standard of the Cross is everywhere to be erected; that those lands are to be cultivated by a Christian people; that churches are to be reared, and that colleges and schools are to scatter their rich benedictions all over that immense region. He has faith that this is all to be a Christian land; and he enters upon his work with a higher and more expansive aim than his own country in any other department can furnish. Long, perhaps, he labours under discouragement, and amidst many trials. Worldliness abounds; error reigns; few give heed to his voice; yet he never doubts that " the wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad, and that the desert shall bud and blossom as the rose."
With similar feelings, and at the same time of life, another young man casts his eyes over the heathen world. How dark and degraded it seems ! How many millions, and hundreds of millions of human beings are sunk in idolatry ! How sin—most loathsome, and debasing, and revolting—abounds! What scenes of misery open on his view; what cries of distress break on his ear! How long and unbroken has been the reign of death! Who shall elevate the degraded man ? Who shall scatter the darkness of the world? It is not in man, he sees, to do it. There is no recuperative energy in the heathen mind to recover it from its low debasement. There are no agencies there at work to bring these evils to an end, and to re-enstamp upon those degraded intellects the effaced image of a holy God. More than in any other department of human action, perhaps, he goes to his work under the influence of faith—faith in the simple promise of God—and his bosom, amidst all that discourages and disheartens, is expanded as by faith he sees " afar" the time when " one song shall employ all nations, and the dwellers in the vales and on the rocks shall shout to each other, and the mountain tops from distant mountains shall catch the flying joy;" when "the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea." In his benevolence and his faith, he embraces the world; forms, as Paul did, the largest plans for its welfare; and devotes himself to the high and noble enterprise of spreading everywhere the religion of truth and love. He believes that truth has power; that the race may be elevated; that oppression, idolatry, and wrong of every kind may cease; that the gospel is mighty, and will prevail. He has faith even in man—degraded as he seems to be, and is; that there is some chord in his soul that may be struck that will respond to the proffered offer of pardon and of heaven ; and much more, he has faith in God and his promises, that this world shall not always be thus sunken and wretched, but that it shall be redeemed and elevated. He may not live to see it in the reality, but he sees it as a bright and glorious object in the distant future; and knowing that many a hardship must be endured before it is realized, that many a youth must give himself to the work and fall in a heathen land before it is accomplished, he is willing to be one of those labourers, that the bright millennial morn may yet dawn upon the world.
(3.) I have endeavoured to illustrate this principle as an element of action, and as elevating and expansive in its nature. There remains but one other thought, the third, to complete the illustration of the subject. It is, that it is an indispensable element in all religion. The error of false religions is not in acting by faith when they people the invisible world with divinities; it is, that the objects of their faith are not real, but are false. But all religion must be a work of faith. It goes beyond the regions of the senses. It pertains to the future, to the distant, and to the invisible. It is designed to bring the invisible, and the future, to bear upon us as realities. If this bo not so, there can be no religion. The only thing that reason asks in the case is, that those objects be in fact real, and not the creations of fancy. But if we have religion, we must believe that there is an invisible God; that there is a future state, yet unseen, of course ; that there are to be rewards hereafter ; that we are destined to a higher sphere of being, and that it is rational to act in view of that higher existence. How can there be any religion of any kind, unless there is faith in these things ? And all religion, of all sorts, is just a work of faith, and is designed to influence us by faith. We see one world, and we believe that there is another; we see stars and suns, and we believe that there is a God who made them; we see ourselves to be sinners, and we believe that we may be recovered from sin ; we see the race sunken and degraded, and we believe that it may be redeemed ; we see that we are to die, and we believe that we may live again. Going beyond the limits of the world of sense, we bring before us a world that is invisible, and act as if it were a reality ; and in religion, as in all other things, faith, embodying the conceptions of hope, is " the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." The mind is carried from the narrow limits of the world disclosed by the visual organs to other worlds, and the things unseen control and mould the heart.
And now, what practical good shall follow from this discussion ? Much may every way. It has brought before us one of the laws of our nature, on which religion purposes to engraft itself, and which is destined to work wonders for man. It is that to which the world owes its elevation thus far, and all that has been accomplished for the race. Every field that we see smiling in the harvest is the result of the faith of him who ploughed and sowed it—faith in the seed, and in the fertile earth, and the sun, and the rain, and the Providence of God ; every principle of liberty which we enjoy is the result of the faith of gifted minds—of men who believed that oppression might be made to cease, and that man might be elevated to a just conception of his own rights ; every college in the land, every house of refuge, every asylum for the blind and the deaf, as well as every Christian sanctuary, is a demonstration that those who reared them believed that much might be done for the wretched, and that the race mii/ht be elevated and saved.
We are prone to act under the influence of sense. This arises almost from the necessity of the laws of our being. But our Maker meant that the strong principle of faith should come in to counteract this tendency, and to reveal our own true worth and dignity, not as sensual beings, but as rational and immortal —as capable, unlike other animals, of going beyond the range of the senses, and of acting in view of the distant, the great, the unseen. Hence, we can act in view of the future—of the future liberty and glory of our country, as if it passed before us in a splendid panorama. We can act in view of a world redeemed— as if already the shout were going up from every land, " The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our God and of his Christ." We can act in view of God—as if we saw him everywhere, and felt that he heard every word, and knew every thought; " enduring," as Moses did, " as seeing him who is invisible." "We can act in view of heaven—as if we already saw the pearly gates wide unfold themselves, and could look far ; into distant worlds.
What man needs for his elevation is the acting out of this principle of faith—acting more by faith, and less by sight. He needs a more vivid impression of the presence and the glory of God; of the reality of heaven ; of the power of truth ; of the wonders of the invisible world—the glittering crowns, and the thrones, and the harps of heaven,—and then indeed the things of this world would be baubles and trifles. The religion of this age needs to be expanded that it may become more a religion of faith; the church needs to be taken away from the dominion of the senses, and led to exercise a more simple faith in the truth and the promises of God; and the human mind needs to be elevated and purified by the contemplation of things that are vast and everlasting. Then shall man rise to his true dignity when other worlds shall have to his view the reality of this; and when iu their overpowering splendour and glory, as apprehended by the mind, the objects which now seem so vast to us shall dwindle down to nothing, and when all through his brief journey to the grave, man " shall walk by faith, and not by sight:" living by it every day ; forming his plans in view of its revelations ; consecrating himself and his all, by its power, to the service of a holy Saviour and to the good of the church and the world:—and then, when his work is done, whether sooner or later, under its revelation of brighter worlds, cheerfully going down into the cold river of death—the narrow stream which divides the shadows amidst which he has been moving for a few brief days from the realities of the world which, amidst those shadows, he discerned afar, and where he is now for ever to dwell. Thus let us live—thus may we die.