(First Sunday after Trinity.)
1 John iv.16, 18. And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us. God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him. Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment: because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love.
The text tells us how to get one of the greatest blessings; a blessing which all long for, but all do not find; and that is a happy death. All wish to die happily; even bad men. Like Balaam when he was committing a great sin, they can say, 'Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his.' But meanwhile, like Balaam, they find it too hard to live the life of the righteous, which is the only way to die the death of the righteous. But something within them (if false preachers will but leave them alone) tells them that they will not succeed. Reason and common sense tell them so: for how can a man expect to get to a place without travelling the road which leads to it? And the Spirit of God, the Spirit of truth and right, tells them that they will not succeed: for how can a man win happiness, save by doing right? Every one shall 'receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.' So says Scripture; and so say men's own hearts, by the inspiration of God's Holy Spirit. And therefore such men's fear of death continues. And why? The text tells us the secret. As long as we do not love God, we shall be tormented with fear of death. And as long as we do not love our neighbour, we shall not love God. We may try, as thousands have tried, and as thousands try still, to love God without loving their neighbour; to be very religious, and worship God, and sing His praises, and think over all His mercy to them, and all that he has done for them, by the death of His blessed Son Jesus Christ; and so to persuade themselves and God that they love Him, while they keep in their hearts selfishness, pride, spite, uncharitableness: but they do not succeed. If they think they succeed, they are only deceiving themselves. So says St. John. 'He who loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?' But they cannot deceive themselves long. You will see, if you watch such people, and still more if you watch yourselves, that if you do not love your neighbours in spirit and in truth, then those tormenting fears soon come back again, worse than ever. Ay, whenever we indulge ourselves in hard words and cruel judgments, the thought of God seems darkened to us there and then; the face of God seems turned from us; and peace of mind and brightness of spirit, and lightness of soul, do not come back to us, till we have confessed our sins, and have let the kindly, the charitable, the merciful thoughts rise up in us once more, as, by the grace of Christ, they will rise up.
Yes, my friends, as far as I can see, people are filled with the peace of God just in as far as they are at peace with their fellow- men. They are bright, calm, and content, looking forward with cheerfulness to death, and with a humble and holy boldness to judgment, just in as far as their hearts are filled with love, gentleness, kindness, to all that God has made. They dwell in God, and God in them, and perfect love has cast out fear.
But if a man does not live in love, then sooner or later he will hear a voice within him, which whispers, Thou art going wrong; and, if thou art going wrong, how canst thou end at the right place? None but the right road can end there. The wrong road must lead to the wrong place.
Then the man gets disturbed and terrified in his mind, and tormented with fears, as the text says. He knows that the day of judgment is coming, and he has no boldness to meet it. He shrinks from the thought of death, of judgment, of God. He thinks -- How shall I meet my God? I do not love my neighbour. I do not love God; and God does not love me. The truth is, that the man cannot love God even if he will. He looks on God as his enemy, whom he has offended, who is coming to take vengeance on him. And, as long as we are afraid of any one, and fancy that they hate us, and are going to hurt us, we cannot love them. So the man is tormented with fear; fear of death, fear of judgment, fear of meeting God.
Then he takes to superstition; he runs from preacher to preacher; and what not? -- There is no folly men have not committed, and do not commit still, to rid themselves of that tormenting fear. But they do not rid themselves of it. Sermons, church-goings, almsgivings; leaving the Church and turning Dissenters or Roman Catholics; joining this sect and that sect; nothing will rid a man of his superstitious fear: nothing but believing the blessed message of the text.
And what does the text say? It says this, -- 'God is love.' God does not hate thee, He loves thee. He willeth not thy death, O sinner, but rather that thou shouldest turn from thy wickedness and live. Thy sins have not made Him hate thee: but only pity thee; pity thy folly, which will lead on the road to death, when He wishes to put thee on the road to life, that thou mayest have boldness in the day of judgment, instead of shrinking from God like a guilty coward. And what is the way of life? Surely the way of Christ, who is the life. Live like Him, and thou wilt not need to fear to die. So says the text. We are to have boldness in the day of judgment, because as Christ is, so are we in this world. And how was, and is, and ever will be, Christ in this world? Full of love; of brotherly- kindness, charity, forgiveness, peace, and good will to men. That, says St. John, is the life which brings a joyful death; for God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.
Oh consider this, my good friends. Consider this; lest when you come to die the ghosts of all your sins should rise up at your bedside, and torment you with fear -- the ghosts of every cruel word which you ever spoke against your fellow men; of every kind action which you neglected; as well as of every unjust one which you ever committed. And, if they do rise up in judgment against you, what must you do?
Cast yourself upon the love of God, and remember that God is love, and so loved us that He sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Ask Him to forgive you your sins, for the sake of that precious blood which was shed on the cross: but not that you may keep your sins, and may escape the punishment of them. God forbid. What use in having your past sins forgiven, if the sinful heart still remains to run up fresh sins for the future? No. Ask Him not merely to forgive the past, but to mend the future; to create in you a new heart, which wishes no ill to any human being, and a right spirit, which desires first and utterly to do right, and is filled with the Holy Spirit of God, the Spirit of love, by which God made and redeemed the world, and all that therein is.
So will all tormenting fears cease. You will feel yourself in the right way, the way of charity, the way in which Christ walked in this world, and have boldness in the day of judgment, facing death without conceit, indeed, but also without superstitious fear.