1885: The Preacher's Doubts



Brethren Of The Graduating Class :— This is an hour of contrasts, a time of sadness and of gladness, an ending and a beginning. We part from you regretfully, for you have been faithful students of God's truth; hopefully, for you go to preach this truth to others. You have made your way to your present convictions through struggles; you have gained for yourselves a firm assurance of the great truths of Christianity. You believe that the Scriptures are a special revelation from God, and that they represent God as trinne, creating, redeeming and judging the world in Jesus Christ. You believe that man is fallen, congenitally depraved and wholly dependent for salvation upon the atoning sacrifice of Calvary and upon the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit. You believe that out of the ruins of this fallen humanity God is building up a glorious church, which is to be his temple and dwelling-place forever, and that without connection with that great and invisible body, of which all earthly organizations are more or less perfect types and symbols, men abide in darkness and death.

But it is not about your beliefs — it is about your doubts, that I wish to speak to you. The preacher's doubts, and what ho is to do with them — this is my theme. And the first thing I would say is, that Christianity gives place and room for doubt. Of course I do not mean that it is right to doubt God, — I do mean that it is often right to doubt what men say about him. Jesus did not doubt God, but he did doubt the interpretations of the Scribes and Pharisees. To doubt God's existence, or to doubt God's word when it is clearly set before us, is sin, but when man or Satan says God is so and so, or that his word means this or that, it may be a duty to doubt, and doubt may be the only road to truth. Though you have a fixed belief with regard to the main matters of theology, you well know that there are a thousand questions yet unanswered, and with regard to these you are free as the air to use your intellects and to interpret the Bible for yourselves. About many commonly received opinions you will have your doubts. Your doubts may be a sign of mental progress. You can make the truth effective, only by stripping off the cerements with which custom has bound it, and by bringing it forth in new life and power from its sepulchre.

But, secondly, remember that while Christianity leaves place and room for doubt, the incidents are not the essence of Christianity, and a thousand differences of belief about details will not affect the truth of the general scheme. Let us never imagine that, because we cannot explain certain apparent difficulties, the whole system may be a delusion. The astronomer does not give up gravitation, simply because the movements of certain satellites as yet refuse to be brought under its law. Men may worship securely in a great cathedral, although many a superficial stone of its exterior seems crumbling and falling from its place. So we are to believe that the foundation of God standeth sure, in spite of manifold perplexities with regard to the details of Christian truth.

Thirdly, even as respects these minor matters of the faith, remember that doubt is not refutation. You are not the first that have seen these difficulties. There were brave men before Agamemnon. The Holy Spirit's enlightening influences have been given to others besides yourselves. When you begin to doubt accepted interpretations, therefore, do not take it for granted at once that your doubts are just. Carry your doubt a little further, and doubt yourselves — your perspicacity, the comprehensiveness of your thought, the completeness of your induction of facts. Take advice — not the advice of doubters like yourselves only, but the advice of men who have worried through with their doubts, and who at least think they have got oat of the quagmire upon solid ground. Read books — not the books of the enemies of Christ and his gospel exclusively, for you may so saturate yourselves with plausible unbelief, as utterly to unfit yourselves for sober, independent judgment, — but the books of the great Christian thinkers, the Butlers, the Pascals, and in modern days the Dorners and the Smiths, of the church. Above all, live in the self-evidencing sunlight of the Scriptures ; make the word of God the man of your counsel; ten to one, if you will permit it to do so, the Bible will explain itself.

Fourthly, do not preach new doctrine till you have some new doctrine to preach. In other words, do not publish your doubts,— wait till they become certainties. There is no foe to truth so dangerous as haste, for haste has self-will and presumption for fellow-laborers. The Holy Spirit was promised to guide the apostles into all the truth, but we know that he did not do this by some sudden flash of lightning, but rather by a continuous enlightenment as to doctrine and polity, which was not completed until the last apostle died. And so the Holy Spirit will guide us into all the truth — but not necessarily in three months. Preach no tentative sermons, then, to see how a certain new conception of yours will work, — you have no business to try the materia medica of the gospel upon your patients in any such fashion. Keep your doubts to yourself, until you have solved them and do not need to preach them, or until you have found truth and verified it by long thought and observation, and can preach it as the very truth of God.

Fifthly, and finally, work and pray the more, the iftore you doubt. You cannot reach truth in this universe of God without the help of Christ, who is the truth. And he will give you his help in finding the truth, only as you obey him. Shall a man who doubts, shut himself out from preaching and from visiting the sick, on the plea that he must be wholly independent, and must give all his time to investigation? Remember that religious truth is a matter of the heart, as much as it is a matter of the intellect; that the cold heart cannot judge of it; that only sympathy for sinning and suffering men can prove that we love God; that without love to God we cannot know God, or know the truth of God. The more you doubt, then, throw yourselves the more vigorously and devoutly into all manner of Christian service. He who does Christ's will shall know of his teaching, whether it be from God. The more you doubt, pray the more. For doubts will disappear when the obedient servant lays them at the Master's feet; even on earth his presence will give us the best light for our darkness; and, when at last the day dawns and the shadows flee away, it will be heaven itself to hear his word : "0 thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?"

You are stewards of the mysteries of God, sent upon a great commission, entrusted with the truth that is to save mankind. You go out into an unbe

lieving age — an age that is weary and hopeless in its unbelief, and that longs for nothing so much as the man that can bring positive truth from God, answers to the great problems of existence, practical salvation from its sorrow and sin. You can win, you can stand, in this age, only by believing. In more senses than one, the just nowadays shall live by his faith. That faith will be assailed, assailed more subtly and more powerfully than in any age before. Doubts will come to you — doubts that will shake you. You may treat them in two ways. You may treat them, on the one hand, as Othello treated his doubts of Desdemona. You may listen only to Iago; yon may cast away all you have known in the past of Desdemona's truth and faithfulness, as so much credulity and superstition; you may condemn her on the unsupported testimony of her worst enemy; you may ruthlessly slay her you love best. So you may condemn Christ and his gospel on the word of his foes ; you may turn doubt into apostasy; you may crucify the Son of God afresh, and put him to an open shame. But there is another way to treat doubts. It is the way of doubting Thomas. He stayed away for a little from the assembly of Christ's disciples, but he came back; he said he would not be convinced unless he put his hand in the prints of the nails, but when Christ appeared to him he needed no such proof; he loved the Savior after all, and no disciple of them all left us so majestic a confession of faith as did this same doubting Thomas, when he bowed at Christ's feet and cried : '' My Lord and my God."

My brethren, I do not pray for you that God will keep you from all doubt, but I do pray that through all doubt he may lead you into his truth. It is not doubt, but faith, that constitutes God's measure of a man. Romaine, in his diary, speaks of "a year famous for believing." I pray not that one year of your lives, but that every year of your lives may be a year famous for believing; for be sure that "this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith."