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The Christian Life by Thomas Arnold


LUKE xiv.33.

Whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple.

In order to show that these words were not spoken to the apostles alone, but to all Christians, we have only to turn to the 25th and 26th verses, which run thus: -- |And there went great multitudes with him, and he turned and said unto them, If any man come to me, and hate not his father and mother, and wife and children, and brethren and sisters, yea and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.| The words were not, then, spoken to the twelve apostles only, as if they contained merely some rule of extraordinary piety, which was not to be required of common Christians; they were spoken to a great multitude; they were spoken to warn all persons in that multitude that not one of them could become a Christian, unless he gave himself up to Christ body and soul. Thus declaring that there is but one rule for all; a rule which the highest Christian can never go beyond; and which the lowest, if he would be a Christian at all, must make the foundation of his whole life.

Now take the words, either of the text or of the 26th verse, and is it possible to avoid seeing that, on the very lowest interpretation, they do insist upon a very high standard; that they do require a very entire and devoted obedience? Is it possible for any one who believes what Christ has said, to rest contented, either for himself or for others, with that very low and very unchristian standard which he sees and knows to prevail generally in the world? Is it possible for him not to wish, for himself and for all in whose welfare he is interested, that they may belong to the small minority in matters of principle and practice, rather than to the large majority?

And because he so wishes, one who endeavours to follow Christ sincerely can never be satisfied with the excuse that he acts and thinks quite as well as the mass of persons about him; it can never give him comfort, with regard to any judgment or practice, to be told, in common language, |Everybody thinks so; everybody does so.| If, indeed, this expression |everybody| might be taken literally; if it were quite true, without any exception, that |everybody thought or did so;| then I grant that it would have a very great authority; so great that it would be almost a mark of madness to run counter to it. For what all men, all without a single exception, were to agree in, must be some truth which the human mind could not reject without insanity, -- like the axioms of science, or some action which if we did not we could not live, as sleeping and eating; or if there be any moral point so universally agreed upon, then it must be something exceedingly general: as, for instance, that truth is in itself to be preferred to falsehood; which to dispute would be monstrous. But, once admit a single exception, and the infallible virtue of the rule ceases. I can conceive one single good and wise man's judgment and practice, requiring, at any rate, to be carefully attended to, and his reasons examined, although millions upon millions stood against him. But go on with the number of exceptions, and bring the expression |everybody,| to its real meaning, which is only |most persons,| |the great majority of the world;| then the rule becomes of no virtue at all, but very often the contrary. If in matters of morals many are on one side and some on the other, it is impossible to pronounce at once which are most likely to be right: it depends on the sort of case on which the difference exists; for the victories of truth and of good are but partial. It is not all truth that triumphs in the world, nor all good; but only truth and good up to a certain point. Let them once pass this point, and their progress pauses. Their followers, in the mass, cannot keep up with them thus far: fewer and fewer are those who still press on in their company, till at last even these fail; and there is a perfection at which they are deserted by all men, and are in the presence of God and of Christ alone.

Thus it is that, up to a certain point, in moral matters the majority are right; and thus Christ's gospel, in a great many respects, goes along with public opinion, and the voice of society is the voice of truth. But this, to use the expression of our Lord's parable, this is but half the height of that tower whose top should reach unto heaven. Christianity ascends a great deal higher; and therefore so many who begin to build are never able to finish. Christ's disciples and the world's disciples work for a certain way together; and thus far the world's disciples call themselves Christ's, and so Christ's followers seem to be a great majority. But Christ warns us expressly that we are not his disciples merely by going a certain way on the same road with them. They only are His, who follow Him to the end. They only are His, who follow him in spite of everything, who leave all rather than leave him. For the rest, He does not own them. What the world can give they may enjoy; but Christ's kingdom is shut against them.

Speaking, then, according to Christ's judgment, and we must hold those to be of the world, and not of Him, -- and therefore in God's judgment, to be the evil and not the good, -- who do not make up their minds to live in His service, and to refer their actions, words, and thoughts to His will. Who these are it is very true that we many times cannot know: only we may always fear that they are the majority of society; and therefore we are rather anxious in any individual's case to get a proof that he is not one of them, because, as they are very many, there is always a sort of presumption that any given person is of this number, unless there is some evidence, or some presumption at any rate, for thinking the contrary.

When we speak, then, of the good and of the evil side in human life, in any society, whether smaller or larger, -- this is what we mean, or should mean. The evil side contains much that is, up to a certain point, good: the good side, -- for does it not consist of human beings? -- contains, unhappily, much in it that is evil. Not all in the one is to be avoided, -- far from it; nor is all in the other by any means to be followed. But still those are called evil in God's judgment who live according to their own impulses, or according to the law of the society around them; and those are to be called good, who, in their principles, whatever may be the imperfections of their practice, endeavour in all things to live according to the will of Christ.

And in this view the characters of Jacob and Esau are, as it seems to me, full of instruction; and above all to us here. For I have often observed that the early age of an individual bears a great resemblance to the early age of the human race, or of any particular nation; so that the characters of the Old Testament are often more suited, in a Christian country, for the instruction of the young than for those of more advanced years. To Christian men, looking at Jacob's life, with the faults recorded of it, it is sometimes strange that he should be spoken of as good. But it seems that in a rude state of society, where knowledge is very low, and passion very strong, the great virtue is to be freed from the dominion of the prevailing low principle, to see and resolve that we ought and will live according to knowledge, and not according to passion or impulse. The knowledge may be very imperfect, and probably is so: the practice may in many respects offend against knowledge, and probably will do so: yet is a great step taken; it is the virtue of man, in such a state of society, to follow, though imperfectly, principle, where others follow instinct, or the opinion of their fellows. It is the great distinguishing mark, in such a state of things, between the good and the evil; for this reason, amongst many others, that it is the virtue, under such, circumstances, of the hardest attainment.

Now, the Scripture judgment of Jacob and Esau, should be in an especial manner the basis of our judgment with regard to the young. None can doubt, that amongst the young, when they form a society of their own, the great temptation is to live by impulse, or according to the opinion of those around them. It is like a light breaking in upon darkness, when a young person is led to follow a higher standard, and to live according to God's will. Esau, in his faults and amiable points alike, is the very image of the prevailing character amongst boys; sometimes violently revengeful, as when Esau looked forward with satisfaction to the prospect of his father's death, because then we should be able to slay his brother Jacob; sometimes full of generosity, as when Esau forgot all his grounds of complaint against his brother, and received him on his return from Mesopotamia with open arms; -- but habitually careless, and setting the present before the future, the lower gratification before the higher, as when Esau sold his birth-right for a mess of pottage. And the point to be noted is, that, because of this carelessness, this profaneness or ungodliness, as it is truly called in the New Testament, Esau is distinguished from those who were God's people; the promises were not his, nor yet the blessing. This is remarkable, because Esau's faults, undoubtedly were just the faults of his age: he was no worse than the great majority of those around him; he lived as we should say, in our common language, that it was natural for him to live. He had, therefore, precisely all those excuses which are commonly urged for the prevailing faults of boys; yet it is quite certain that the Scripture holds him out as a representative of those who were not on the side of God,

If the Scripture has so judged of Esau and Jacob, it must be the model for our judgments of those whose circumstances, on account of their belonging to a society consisting wholly of persons young in age, greatly resemble the circumstances of the early society of the world. I lay the stress on the belonging to a society wholly formed of young persons; for the case of young persons brought up at home, is extremely different; and their circumstances would be best suited by a different scriptural example. But here, with you, I am quite sure that the great distinguishing mark between good and evil, is the endeavouring, or not endeavouring, to rise above the carelessness of the society of which you are members; the determining, or not determining, to judge of things by another rule than that of school morality or honour; the trying, or not trying, to please God, instead of those around you: for the notions and maxims of a society of young persons are like the notions and maxims of men in a half-civilized age, a strange mixture of right and wrong; or rather wrong in their result, although with some right feeling in them, and therefore as a guide, false and mischievous. That it is natural to follow these maxims, is quite obvious: they are the besetting sin of your particular condition; and it is always according to our corrupt nature to follow our besetting sin. It is quite natural that you should be careless, profane, mistaking evil for good, and good for evil; but salvation is not for those who follow their nature, but for those in whom God's grace has overcome its evil; it is for those, in Christ's language, who take up their cross and follow him; that is, for those who struggle against their evil nature, that they may gain a better nature, and be born, not after the flesh, but after the Spirit of God.

What is to be said to this? or what qualification, or compromise, is to be made in it? The words of the text will authorize us, at any rate, to make none: their language is not that of indulgent allowance; but it is a call, a loud and earnest, even a severe, call, it may be, in the judgment of our evil nature, -- to shake off the weight that hangs about us; to deliver our hearts from the dominion of that which cannot profit, and to submit them to Christ alone. This is God's judgment, this is Christ's word; and we cannot and dare not qualify it. They are evil, for God and Christ declare it, who judge and live after the maxims of the society around them, and not after Christ; they are evil who are careless; they are evil who live according to their own blind and capricious feelings, now hot, now cold; they are evil who call evil good, and good evil, because they have not known the Father nor Christ. This, and nothing less, we say, lest we should be found false witnesses of God: but if this language, which is that of Scripture, seem harsh, to any one, oh! let him remember how soon he may change it into the language of the most abundant mercy, of the tenderest love; that if he calls upon God, God is ready to hear; that if he seeks to know and to do God's will, God will be found by him, and will strengthen him; that it is true kindness not to disguise from him his real danger, but earnestly to conjure him to flee from it, and to offer our humblest prayers to God, for him and ourselves, that our judgments and our practice may be formed only after his example.

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