Practical Christianity is the manifestation of a new life; a spiritual (as distinct from intellectual and moral) life; a supernatural (as distinct from natural) life; it is a life of holiness and peace; a life of union and communion with God the Father, the Son, and the Spirit; it is eternal life, beginning with regeneration and culminating in the resurrection. It lays hold of the inmost centre of man's personality, emancipates him from the dominion of sin, and brings him into vital union with God in Christ; from this centre it acts as a purifying, ennobling, and regulating force upon all the faculties of man -- the emotions, the will, and the intellect -- and transforms even the body into a temple of the Holy Spirit.
Christianity rises far above all other religions in the theory and practice of virtue and piety. It sets forth the highest standard of love to God and to man; and this not merely as an abstract doctrine, or an object of effort and hope, but as a living fact in the person of Jesus Christ, whose life and example have more power and influence than all the maxims and precepts of sages and legislators. Deeds speak louder than words. Praecepta docent, exempla trahunt. The finest systems of moral philosophy have not been able to regenerate and conquer the world. The gospel of Christ has done it and is doing it constantly. The wisest men of Greece and Rome sanctioned slavery, polygamy, concubinage, oppression, revenge, infanticide; or they belied their purer maxims by their conduct. The ethical standard of the Jews was much higher; yet none of their patriarchs, kings, or prophets claimed perfection, and the Bible honestly reports the infirmities and sins, as well as the virtues, of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, and Solomon.
But the character of Christ from the manger to the cross is without spot or blemish; he is above reproach or suspicion, and acknowledged by friend and foe to be the purest as well as the wisest being that ever appeared on earth. He is the nearest approach which God can make to man, and which man can make to God; he represents the fullest imaginable and attain able harmony of the ideal and real, of the divine and human. The Christian church may degenerate in the hands of sinful men, but the doctrine and life of her founder are a never-failing fountain of purification.
The perfect life of harmony with God and devotion to the welfare of the human race, is to pass from Christ to his followers. Christian life is an imitation of the life of Christ. From his word and spirit, living and ruling in the church, an unbroken stream of redeeming, sanctifying, and glorifying power has been flowing forth upon individuals, families, and nations for these eighteen centuries, and will continue to flow till the world is transformed into the kingdom of heaven, and God becomes all in all.
One of the strongest proofs of the supernatural origin of Christianity, is its elevation above the natural culture and moral standard of its first professors. The most perfect doctrine and life described by unschooled fishermen of Galilee, who never before had been outside of Palestine, and were scarcely able to read and to write! And the profoundest mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, the incarnation, redemption, regeneration, resurrection, taught by the apostles to congregations of poor and illiterate peasants, slaves and freedmen! For |not many wise after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble| were called, |but God chose the foolish things of the world, that he might put to shame them that are wise; and God chose the weak things of the world, that he might put to shame the things that are strong; and the base things of the world, and the things that are despised, did God choose, yea, and the things that are not, that he might bring to naught the things that are: that no flesh should glory before God. But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who was made unto us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption: that, according as it is written, he that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.|
If we compare the moral atmosphere of the apostolic churches with the actual condition of surrounding Judaism and heathenism, the contrast is as startling as that between a green oasis with living fountains and lofty palm trees, and a barren desert of sand and stone. Judaism in its highest judicatory committed the crime of crimes, the crucifixion of the Saviour of the world, and hastened to its doom. Heathenism was fitly represented by such imperial monsters as Tiberius, Caligula, Nero, and Domitian, and exhibited a picture of hopeless corruption and decay, as described in the darkest colors not only by St. Paul, but by his heathen contemporary, the wisest Stoic moralist, the teacher and victim of Nero.
The rationalistic author of Supernatural Religion (vol. II.487) makes the following remarkable concession: |The teaching of Jesus carried morality to the sublimest point attained, or even attainable, by humanity. The influence of his spiritual religion has been rendered doubly great by the unparalleled purity and elevation of his character. Surpassing in his sublime simplicity and earnestness the moral grandeur of Sâkya Muni, and putting to the blush the sometimes sullied, though generally admirable, teaching of Socrates and Plato, and the whole round of Greek philosophers, he presented the rare spectacle of a life, so far as we can estimate it, uniformly noble and consistent with his own lofty principles, so that the 'imitation of Christ' has become almost the final word in the preaching of his religion, and must continue to be one of the most powerful elements of its permanence.|
Lecky, likewise a rationalistic writer and historian of great ability and fairness, makes this weighty remark in his History of European Morals (vol. II.9):, |It was reserved for Christianity to present to the world an ideal character, which through all the changes of eighteen centuries has inspired the hearts of men with an impassioned love; has shown itself capable of acting on all ages, nations, temperaments, and conditions; has been not only the highest pattern of virtue, but the strongest incentive to its practice, and has exercised so deep an influence that it may be truly said that the simple record of three short years of active life has done more to regenerate and to soften mankind than all the disquisitions of philosophers and all the exhortations of moralists. This has, indeed, been the wellspring of whatever is best and purest in Christian life. Amid all the sins and failings, amid all the priestcraft and persecution and fanaticism that have defaced the Church, it has preserved, in the character and example of its Founder, an enduring principle of regeneration.|
To this we may add the testimony of the atheistic philosopher, John Stuart Mill from his essay on Theism, written shortly before his death (1873), and published, 1874, in Three Essays on Religion. (Am. ed., p.253): |Above all, the most valuable part of the effect on the character which Christianity has produced, by holding up in a divine person a standard of excellence and a model for imitation, is available even to the absolute unbeliever, and can never more be lost to humanity. For it is Christ rather than God whom Christianity has held up to believers as the pattern of perfection for humanity. It is the God incarnate more than the God of the Jews, or of nature, who, being idealized, has taken so great and salutary a hold on the modem mind. And whatever else may be taken away from us by rational criticism, Christ is still left; a unique figure, not more unlike all his precursors than all his followers, even those who had the direct benefit of his personal teaching. It is of no use to say that Christ, as exhibited in the Gospels, is not historical, and that we know not how much of what is admirable has been super-added by the tradition of his followers. The tradition of followers suffices to insert any number of marvels, and may have inserted all the miracles which he is reputed to have wrought. But who among his disciples, or among their proselytes, was capable of inventing the sayings ascribed to Jesus, or of imagining the life and character revealed in the Gospels? Certainly not the fishermen of Galilee; as certainly not St. Paul, whose character and idiosyncrasies were of a totally different sort; still less the early Christian writers, in whom nothing is more evident than that the good which was in them was all derived, as they always professed that it was derived, from the higher source.|