Preached at Bideford, 1854]
Philippians iii.15, 16. And if in any thing ye shall be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this to you. Nevertheless, whereto we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us mind the same thing.
My friends, allow me to speak a few plain and honest words, ere we part, on a matter which is near to, and probably important to, many of us here. We all know how the Christian Church has in all ages been torn in pieces by religious quarrels; we all know too well how painfully these religious quarrels have been brought home to our very doors and hearts of late.
Now, we all deplore, or profess to deplore, these differences and controversies. But we may do that in two ways: we may say, 'I am very sorry that all Christians do not think alike,' when all we mean is, 'I am very sorry that all Christians do not think just as I do, for I am right and infallible, whosoever else is wrong.' The fallen heart of man is too apt to say that, my friends, in its pride and narrowness, and while it cries out against the Pope of Rome, sets itself up as Pope in his stead.
But there is surely another and a better way of deploring these differences: and that is, to say to oneself, 'I am sorry, bitterly sorry, that Christians cannot differ without quarrelling and hating one another over and above.' And then comes the deeper home- thought, 'And how much more sorry I am that I myself cannot differ from my fellow-Christians without growing angry with them, suspecting them, despising them, treating them as if they were not my fellow-Christians at all.' Yes, my friends, this is what we have to do first when we think of religious controversies, to examine our own hearts and deeds and words; to see whether we too have not been making bitterness more bitter, and, as the old proverb says, 'stirring the fire with a sword;' and to repent humbly and utterly of every harsh word, hasty judgment, ungenerous suspicion, as sins, not only against men, but against God the Father of Lights, who worketh in each of His children to will and to do of His good pleasure.
But some will say, 'We cannot give up what we believe to be right and true.' God forbid that you should try to do so, my friends; for if you really believe it, you cannot, even if you try; and by trying you will only make yourselves dishonest. But does not that hold as good of the man who differs from you? God will not surely lay down one law for you, and another for him? 'But we are right, and he is wrong.' Be it so. You do not surely mean that you are quite right; perfect and infallible? You mean that you are right on the whole, and as far as you see. And how can you tell but that he is right on the whole, and as far as he sees? You will answer that both cannot be right; that yes and no cannot be both true; that a thing cannot be black and white also.
My friends, my friends -- but where is the religious controversy, the two sides whereof are as clearly opposite to each other as yes and no, black and white? I know none now; I have hardly found one in the records of the Protestant Church since first Luther and our Reformers protested against Romish idolatry. On that last matter there should be no doubt, as long as the first two commandments stand in the Decalogue; but, with that exception, it would be difficult to find a dispute in which the truth lay altogether with one party. The truth rather lies, in general, not so much halfway between the two combatants, as in some third place, which neither of them sees; which perhaps God does not intend them to see in this life, while He leaves his servants each to work out some one side of Christian truth, dividing to every man severally as He will, according to the powers of each mind, and the needs of each situation.
True we have the infallible rule of Scripture: but are our own interpretations of it so sure to be infallible? Inspired, infinite, inexhaustible as it is, can we pretend to have fathomed all its abysses, to have comprehended all its boundless treasures? The pretence is folly. True, again, it contains all things necessary to salvation; and those so plainly set forth, that he who runs may read, and the wayfaring man, though poor, shall not err therein. And yet does it not contain things whereof even St. Paul himself said, that he only knew in part, and prophesied in part, and saw as through a glass darkly; and are we to suppose that they are among the truths necessary to salvation? Now are not the points about which there has been, and is still, most dispute, just of this very number? Do they belong to the simple fundamental truths of the Gospel? No. Are they such plain matters that the wayfaring man, though poor, can make up his mind on them for himself? No. Are they one of them laid down directly in Scripture, like the Ten Commandments, the Lord's Prayer, or the Creeds? No. They are every one, as it seems to me, whether they be right or wrong, abstruse deductions, delicate theories, built up on single and obscure texts. Surely, if they had been necessary for salvation, the Lord would have spoken on them in a tone and in words about which there should be no more mistake than about the thunders of Sinai, and the tables of stone fresh from the finger-mark of God. And He has spoken to us, my friends, on other matters, if not on these. His promises are clear enough, and short enough, though high as heaven and wide as the universe. There is one God, and one Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, the only-begotten Son of God; and whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ, is born of God; and if any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and He is the propitiation for our sins. And again, 'If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth liberally, and upbraideth not, and he shall receive it.' 'For if ye, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, much more shall your Heavenly Father give His Holy Spirit to them who ask Him.'
These are God's promises -- simple and clear enough: and what are God's demands? Are they numerous, intricate, burdensome, a yoke which neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? God forbid again! -- 'He hath showed thee, oh man, what is good. And what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?' And lest thou shouldest mistake in the least the meaning of these words, He hath showed thee all this, and more, by a living example fairer than all the sons of men, and through lips full of grace, in the blessed life and blessed death of His Son Jesus Christ, the brightness of His glory, and the express image of His person. To this, at least, we have already attained. Let us walk by this rule, let us all mind this same thing, and if in anything else we are differently minded, God in His own good time will reveal even that to us.
Is not this enough, my friends? Then why should we bite and tear each other about that which is over and above this? If any man believes this, and acts on it, let us hail him as a brother. After all, let our differences be what they will, have we not one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in us all? If this is not bond enough between man and man, what bond would we have? Oh, my friends, when we consider this our little life, how full of ignorance it is and darkness; within us, rebellion, inconstancy, confusion, daily sins and shortcomings; and without us, disappointment, fear of loneliness, loss of friends, loss of all which makes life worth having, -- who are we that we should deny proudly one single tie which binds us to any other human being? Who are we that we should refuse one hand stretched out to grasp our own? Who are we that we should say, 'Stand back, for I am holier than thou?' Who are we that we should judge another? to his own master let him stand or fall -- 'yea, and he shall stand,' says the Apostle, 'for God is able to make him stand.'
Think of those last words, my friends, they are strong and startling; but we must not shrink from them. They tell us that God may be as near those whom we heap with hard names, as He is near to us; that He may intend that they should triumph, not over us, but with us over evil. And if God be with them, who dare be against them? Shall we be more dainty than God? And therefore I have never been able to hear, without a shudder, words which I have heard, and from really Christian men too: 'I can wish well to a pious man of a different denomination from mine; I can honour and admire the fruits of God's Spirit in him; but I cannot co-operate with him.' When I hear such language from really good men, I confess I am puzzled. I have no doubt that their reasons seem to them very sound; but what they are I cannot conceive. I cannot conceive why I should not hold out the right hand of fellowship and brotherhood to every man who fears God and works righteousness, of whatsoever denomination he may be. We believe the Apostles' Creed, surely? Then think of the meaning of that one word, The Holy Spirit. To whom are we to attribute any man's good deeds, except to the Holy Spirit? We dare not say that he does them by an innate and natural virtue of his own, for that would be to fall at once into the Pelagian heresy; neither dare we attribute his good deeds to an evil spirit, and say, 'However good they may look, they must be bad, for he belongs to a denomination who cannot have God's Spirit.' We dare not; for that would be to approach fearfully near to the unpardonable sin itself, the sin against the Holy Ghost, the bigotry which says, 'He casteth out devils by the Prince of the devils.' Surely if we be Christians, and Churchmen, we confess (for the Bible and the Prayer- book declare) that every good deed of man comes down from the One Fountain of Good, from God, the Father of Lights, by the inspiration of His Holy Spirit.
Then think, my friends, think what words we have said. We confess that the great, absolute, almighty, eternal God, in whose hand suns and stars, ages and generations, hell and heaven, and all which is and has been, and ever will be, are but as a grain of sand; who has but to take away His breath, and the whole universe would become nothing and nowhere; the utterly holy and righteous God, who is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity, who charges His angels with folly, and the heavens are not clean in His sight -- we confess, I say, that this great God has condescended to visit that man's soul, and cherish it, and teach it, and shape it (be it ever so little) into His own likeness: and shall we dare to stand aloof from him from whom God does not stand aloof? Shall we refuse to walk with one who walks with God? Shall we refuse to work with one who is a fellow-worker with God, to love one whom God loves, to take by the hand one whose guest God has become? Shall we be more dainty than God? more fastidious than God? more righteous than God? more separate from sinners than God? Oh, my friends, let us pray that we may love God better, and know His likeness more clearly; that we may be more ready to recognise, and admire, and welcome every, even the smallest trace of that likeness in any human being, remembering that it is the likeness of Christ, who was not merely The Teacher of all in every nation who fear God and work righteousness, but the Saviour who ate and drank with publicans and sinners: and then we shall be more careful how we call unclean what God Himself has cleansed with His own presence, His own grace, His own quickening and renewing and sanctifying Spirit.
Be sure, be sure, my friends, that in proportion as we really love the Lord Jesus Christ, we shall love those who love Him, be it in never so clumsy or mistaken a fashion; and love those too whom He loved enough to die for them, and whom He loves now enough to teach and strengthen. We shall say to them, not 'Wherein do we differ?' but 'Wherein do we agree?' Not, 'Because I cannot worship with you, therefore I will not work with you;' but rather, 'I wish that I could worship with you; I will whenever and wherever I can, as far as you allow me, as far as the law allows me, as far as your worship is not in my eyes an actually sinful thing: but, be that as it may, we can at least do together something better even than worshipping, and that is, working. We can surely do good together. Together, let our denomination or party be what it may, we can feed the hungry, clothe the naked, reform the prisoner, humanize the degraded, save yearly the lives of thousands by labouring for the public health, and educate the minds and morals of the masses, though our religious differences (shame on us that it should be so!) force us to part when we begin to talk to them about the world to come.'
For are we not brothers after all? Has not God made us of one blood, English men, with English hearts? Has not Christ redeemed us with one and the same sacrifice? Has not the Holy Spirit given us one and the same desire of doing good? And shall we not use that spirit hand in hand? Look, look at the opportunities of doing good which are around you; look at God's field of good works, white already to the harvest; and the labourers are few. Shall these few, instead of going manfully to work, stand idly quarrelling about the shape of their instruments, and their favourite modes of using them? God forbid! True, there are errors against which we are bound to protest to the uttermost; but how few? The one real enemy we have all to fight is sin -- evil-doing. If any man or doctrine makes men worse -- makes men do worse deeds, protest then, if you will, and spare not, and shrink not: for sin must be of the Devil, whatever else is not. And therefore we are bound to protest against any doctrine which parts man from God, and, under whatsoever pretence of reverence or purity, draws again the veil between him and his Heavenly Father, and denies him free access to the Throne of Grace, and the feet of Jesus, that he may carry thither his own sins, his own doubts, his own sorrows, and speak (wondrous condescension of redeeming grace!) speak with God face to face, and yet live. For this we must protest; for this we must die, if needs be; for if we lose this, we lose all which our reforming forefathers won for us at the stake, ay, we lose our own souls; for we lose righteousness and strength, and the power to do the will of God.
For to shut a man out from free access to God and Christ is to make him certainly false, dishonest, cowardly, degraded, slavish, and sinful; as modern Popery has made, and always will make, those over whom it really gains power. This is the root of our hereditary protest against Popery; not merely because we do not agree with certain of its doctrines, but because we know from experience, that as now taught by the Jesuits, with whom it has identified itself, its general tendency is to make men bad men, ignorant, dishonest, rebellious; unworthy citizens of a free and loyal state.
And there are practices against which congregations have a right to protest, not only as Christians, but as free Englishmen. Congregations have a right to protest against any minister who introduces obsolete ceremonies which empty his church and drive away his people. Those ceremonies may be quite harmless in themselves, as I really believe most of them are; many of them may be beautiful, and, if properly understood, useful, as I think they are; but a thing may be good in itself, and yet become bad by being used at a wrong time, and in a way which produces harm. And it is shocking, to say the least, to see churches emptied and parishes thrown into war for the sake of such matters. The lightest word which can be used for such conduct is, pedantry; but I fear at times lest the Lord in heaven should be using a far more awful word, and when He sees weak brethren driven from the fold of the Church by the self- will and obstinacy of the very men who profess to desire to bring all into the Church, as the only place where salvation is to be found, -- I fear, I say, when I see such deeds, lest the Lord should repeat against them His own awful words: 'If any man scandalize one of these little ones who believeth on Me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depths of the sea.' What sadder mistake? Those who have sworn to seek out Christ's lambs scattered up and down this wicked world, shall they be the very ones to frighten those lambs out of the fold, instead of alluring them back into it? Shall the shepherd play the part, not even of the hireling who flees and leaves the sheep to themselves, but of the very wolf who scatters the flock? God forbid! The Church, like the Sabbath, was made for man, my friends: not man for the Church; and the Son of Man, as He is Lord of the Sabbath, is Lord of the Church, and will have mercy in its dealings rather than sacrifice. The minister, my friends, was made for the people: and not the people for the minister. What else does the very name 'minister' mean? Not a lord who has dominion, but a servant, a servant to all, who must give up again and again his private notions of what he thinks best in itself for the sake of what will be best for his flock; who must be, like St. Paul, a Jew to the Jews; under the law to those who are still under the law; and yet again without law to those who are without law (though not without law to God, but under the law to Christ); weak with the weak; strong with the strong; that he may gain men of all sorts of opinions and characters by agreeing with them as far as he honestly can, and showing his sympathy with each as much as he can; and so become all things to all men, that he may by all means save some. Oh, my friends, who can read honestly that glorious First Epistle to the Corinthians and not see how a man may have the most intense earnestness, the strongest doctrinal certainty, and yet at the same time the greatest freedom, and charity, and liberality about minor matters of ceremonies and Church arrangements, and practical methods of usefulness; glad even that Christ be preached by his enemies, and out of spite to him, because any way Christ is preached?
But, my friends, if it is the right of free Englishmen to protest against such doings, how shall it be done? Surely in gentleness, calmness, reverence, as by men who know that they are standing on holy ground, and dealing with sacred things, before the Throne of God, and beneath the eye of Jesus Christ. Not surely, as it has been too often done, in bitterness, and wrath, and clamour, and evil-speaking, with really unjust suspicions, exaggerations, slanders, (and those, too, anonymous,) in the columns of the public prints. My friends, these are not God's weapons. Not such is Ithuriel's magic spear, the very touch of which unmasks falsehood. This is to try to cast out Satan by Satan, to make evil worse by fighting it with fresh evil. Oh, my friends, if there is one counsel which I would press on all here more earnestly than another, it is this -- never, never, howsoever great may be the temptation, to indulge in anonymous attacks on any human being. No man has a right to do it who prays daily to his Father in heaven, Lead us not into temptation. For it is to lead oneself into temptation, and that too sore to resist; into the temptation to say something which one dare not say, and ought not to say, were one's name known; the temptation to forget not only the charity of Christians, but even the courtesies of civilized life; and to shoot, from behind the safe hedge of anonymousness, coward and envenomed shafts, of which we should be ashamed, did the world know that they were ours; of which we shall surely be ashamed in that great day, when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed. I speak strongly: but only because I know by bitter experience the terrible truth of my own words.
And consider, my friends, can any good result come from handling sacred matters with such harsh and fierce hands as they have been handled of late? For ourselves, such evil tempers only excite, irritate, blind us: they prevent our doing justice to the opposite side -- (I speak of all parties) -- they put us into an unwholesome state of suspicion, and tempt us to pass harsh judgments upon men as righteous, and perhaps far more righteous, than ourselves: they stir up our pride to special plead our case, to make the best of our own side, and the worst of our opponents': they defile our very prayers; till, when we ought to be praying God to bless all mankind, we catch ourselves unawares calling on Him to curse our enemies.
For those who are without -- for the infidel, the profligate, the careless -- oh, what a scandal to them! What an excuse for them to blaspheme the holy name whereby we are called, and ask, as of old, 'Is this then the Gospel of Peace? See how these Christians hate one another!'
While for the young, oh, my friends, what a scandal, again, to them! If you had seen (as I have) pious parents destroying in their own childrens' minds all faith, all reverence for holy things, by mixing themselves up in religious controversies, and indulging by their own firesides in fierce denunciations of men no worse than themselves; -- if you will watch (as you may) young people taking refuge, some in utter frivolity, saying, 'What am I to believe? When religionists have settled what religion is, it will be time enough for me to think of it: meanwhile, let me eat and drink, for to-morrow I die;' -- and others, the children of strong Protestant parents, taking refuge in the apostate Church of Rome, and saying, 'If Englishmen do not know what to believe, Rome does; if I cannot find certainty in Protestantism, I can in Popery;' -- if you will consider honestly and earnestly these sad tragedies, you will look on it as a sacred duty to the children whom God has given you, to keep aloof as much as possible from all those points on which Christians differ, and make your children feel from their earliest years that there are points, and those the great, vital root points, on which all more or less agree, which many members of the Romish Church have held, and, I doubt not, now hold, as firmly as Protestants, -- adoption by one common Father, justification by the blood of one common Saviour, sanctification by one common Holy Spirit.
And believe me, my friends, that just in proportion as you delight in, and live by, these great doctrines, all controversies will become less and less important in your eyes. The more you value the living body of Christianity, the less you will think of its temporary garments; the more you feel the power of God's Spirit, the less scrupulous will you be about the peculiar form in which He may manifest Himself. Personal trust in Christ Jesus, personal love to Christ Jesus, personal belief that He and He only, is governing this poor diseased and confused world; that He is really fighting against all evil in it; that He really rules all nations, and fashions the hearts of all of them, and understands all their works, and has appointed them their times and the bounds of their habitation, if haply they may feel after Him and find Him: personal and living belief that the just and loving Lord Christ reigneth, be the peoples never so unquiet; -- this, this will keep your minds clear, and sober, and charitable, and will make you turn with disgust from platform squabbles and newspaper controversies, to do the duty which lies nearest you; to walk soberly and righteously with your God, and train up your children in His faith and fear, not merely to be scholars, not merely to be devotees, but to be Christian Englishmen; courteous and gentle, and yet manful and self-restraining; fearing God and regarding man; growing up healthy under that solemn sense of national duty which is the only safeguard of national freedom.
And, meanwhile, you will leave all who differ from you in the hands of a God who wills their salvation far more than you can do; who accepts, in every nation, those who fear Him and work righteousness; who is merciful in this -- that He rewards every man according to his work; and who, if our brothers be otherwise minded from us, will reveal even that to them, if we be right: or, again, to us, if they be right. For we may have to learn from them, as well as they from us; and both have to learn much from God, in the day when all controversies and doubts shall vanish like a cloud; when we shall see no longer in part, and through a glass darkly, but face to face; while all things shall be bright in the sunshine of God's presence and of the countenance of His Son Jesus Christ our Lord.