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Give To SermonIndex : Christian Books : LECTURE XII PROVERBS i. 28.

The Christian Life by Thomas Arnold



Then shall they call upon me, but I will not answer; they shall seek me early, but they shall not find me.

Christ's gospel gives out the forgiveness of sins; and as this is its very essence, so also in what we read connected with Christ's gospel, the tone of encouragement, of mercy, of loving-kindness to sinners, is ever predominant. What was needed at the beginning of the gospel is no less needed now; we cannot spare one jot or one tittle of this gracious language; now, as ever, the free grace, that most seems to be without the law, does most surely establish the law. But yet there is another language, which is to be found alike in the Old Testament and in the New; a language not indeed so common as the language of mercy, but yet repeated many times; a language which we also need as fully as it was ever needed, and of whose severity we can no more spare one tittle than we can spare anything of the comfort of the other. And yet this language has not, I think, been enforced so often as it should have been. Men have rather shrunk from it, and seemed afraid of it; they have connected it sometimes with certain foolish and presumptuous questions, which we, indeed, do well to turn from; but they have not seen, that with such it has no natural connexion, but belongs to a certain fact in the constitution of our nature, and is most highly moral and practical.

The language to which. I allude is expressed, amongst other passages, by the words of the text. They speak of men's calling upon God, and of his refusing to hear them; of men's seeking God, and not finding him. Remember, at the same time, our Lord's words, |Ask, and ye shall receive; seek, and ye shall find.| I purposely put together these opposite passages, because the full character of God's Revelation is thus seen more clearly. Do we doubt that our Lord's words are true, and do we not prize them as some of the most precious which he has left us? We do well to do so; but shall we doubt any more the truth of the words of the text; and shall we not consider them as a warning no less needful than the comfort in the other case? Indeed, as true as it is, that, if we seek God, we shall find him; so true is it that we may seek him, and yet not find him.

Now, then, how to explain this seeming contradiction? We can see at once, that these things are not said of the same persons, or rather of the same characters at the same time. They are said of the same persons: that is, there is no one here assembled who is not concerned with both, and to whom both may not be applicable. Only they are not and cannot be both applicable to the same person at the very same time. If God will be found by us, at any given moment, on our seeking him, it is impossible that, at that same moment, he should also not be found. Thus far is plain to every one.

And now, is it true of us, at this present time, that God will be found by us if we seek him, or that he will not be found? If we say that he will be found, then the words of the text are not applicable to us at present, although at some future time they may be; and then we have that well-known difficulty to encounter, to attempt to draw the mind's attention to a future and only contingent evil. If we say that he will not be found, then of what avail can it be to say any word more? Why sit we in this place, to preach, or to listen to preaching, if God, after all, will not be found? Or, again, should we say that there are some by whom he will not be found, then who are they that are thus horribly marked out from among their brethren? Can we dare to conceive of any one amongst us that he is such an one; that there are some, nay, that there is any one amongst us, to whom it is the same thing whether he will hear, or whether he will forbear; who may close his ears as safely as open them, because God has turned his face from him for ever? It were indeed horrible to suppose that any one of us were in such a state; and happily it is a thought of horror which the truth may allow us to repel.

But what, if I were to say, that now, at this very moment, the words of the text are both applicable to us, and not applicable? Is this a contradiction, and therefore impossible? Or is it but a seeming contradiction only, and not only possible, but true? Let us see how the case appears to be.

We should allow, I suppose, that the words of the text were at no time in any man's earthly life so true as they will be at the day of judgment. The hardest heart, the most obdurate in sin, the most closed against all repentance, is yet more within the reach of grace, we should imagine, whilst he is alive and in health, than he will be at the day of the resurrection. We can admit, then, that the words of the text may be true, in a greater or less degree; that they will be more entirely true at the last day, than at any earlier period, but yet that they may be substantially true, true almost beyond exception, in the life that now is. Now carry this same principle a little farther, and we come to our very own case. The words of the text will be more true at the day of judgment, than they ever are on earth; and yet on earth they are often true substantially and practically. And even so, they may be more true to each of us a few years hence, than they are at this moment; and yet, in a certain degree, they may be true at this moment; true, not absolutely and entirely, but partially; so true as to give a most solemn earnest, if we are not warned in time, of their more entire truth hereafter, -- first, in this earthly life; then most perfectly of all, when we shall arise at the last day.

It may be, then, that the words of the text, although not applicable to us in their full and most fatal sense, may yet be applicable to us in a certain degree: the evil which they speak of may be, not wholly future and contingent, and a thing to be feared, but present in part, actual, and a matter of experience. This is not contradiction: it is not impossible; it may be our case. Let us see whether it really is so, that is, whether it is in any degree true of us, that when we call upon God he will not answer; that when we seek him, we shall in any manner be unable to find him.

It is manifest that, in proportion as Christ's words |Seek, and ye shall find,| are true to any man, so are the words of the text less true to him; and in proportion as Christ's words are less true to any one, so are the words of the text more true to him. Now, is Christ's promise, |Seek, and ye shall find,| equally true to all of us? Conceive of one -- the thing is rare, but not impossible, -- of one who had been so kept from evil, and so happily led forward in good, that when arrived at boyhood, his soul had scarcely more stain upon it than when it was first fully cleansed, and forgiven, in baptism! Conceive him speaking truth, without any effort, on all occasions; not greedy, not proud, not violent, not selfish, not feeling conscious that he was living a life of sin, and therefore glad to come to God, rather than shrinking away from him! Conceive how completely to such an one would Christ's words be fulfilled, |Seek, and ye shall find!| When would his prayers be unblessed or unfruitful? When would he turn his thoughts to God without feeling pleasure in doing so; without a lively consciousness of God's love to him; without an assured sense of the reality of things not seen, of redemption and grace and glory? Would not the communion with God, enjoyed by one so untainted, come up to the full measure of those high promises, |It shall come to pass, that before they call, I will answer, and while they are yet speaking, I will hear?| Would it not be plain, that God was as truly found, by such a person, as he was sought in sincerity and earnestness?

But now, take the most of us: suppose us not to have been kept carefully from evil, nor led on steadily in good; suppose us to have reached boyhood with bad dispositions, ready for the first temptation, with habits of good uncultivated; suppose us to have no great horror of a lie, when it can serve our turn; with much love of pleasure, and little love of our duty; with much, selfishness, and little or no thought of God: suppose such an one, so sadly altered from a state of baptismal purity, to be saying his prayers as he had been taught to say them, and saying them sometimes with a thought of their meaning and a wish that God would hear them. But does God hear them? I ask of your own consciences, whether you have had any sense that he has heard you? whether death and judgment, Christ and Christ's service, have become more real to you after such prayers? If not, then is it not manifest, that you have sought God, and have not found him; that you have called upon him and he has not heard? You know by experience, that you are not as those true children who are ever with him, who listen to catch the lightest whisper of his Spirit, for whom, he, too, vouchsafes to bless the faintest breathing of their prayer.

Or, again, in trying to turn from evil to good, have you ever found your resolutions give way, the ground which you had gained slide from under your feet, till you fell back again to what you were at the beginning? Has this ever happened to us? If it has, then in that case, also, we sought God, but failed to find him; the victory was not yours, but the enemy's; the Spirit of Christ did not help you so as to conquer.

Take another case yet again. Has it ever happened to any of you, to have done a mischief to yourselves which you could not undo? It need not be one of the very highest kind; but has it ever happened, that, by neglect, you have lost ground in the society in which you are placed, which you cannot recover; that your contemporaries have gained an advance upon you, while you have not time left to overtake them? Does it ever happen that, from neglecting some particular element of learning in its proper season, and other things claiming your attention afterwards, you go on with a disadvantage, which you would fain remove, but cannot? Does it, in short, ever happen to any, that his complete success here is become impossible; that whatever prospects of another kind may be open to him elsewhere, yet that he cannot now be numbered amongst those who have turned the particular advantages here afforded them to that end which they might and ought to have done?

To whomsoever this has happened, the truth of the words of the text is matter of experience, not in their full and most dreadful extent, but yet quite enough to prove that they are true; and that just as he now feels them in part, so, if he continues to be what he is, he will one day feel them wholly. He feels that it is possible to seek God, and not to find him; he has learnt by experience that neglected good, or committed evil, may be beyond the power of after-regret to undo. It is true, that as yet, to him, other prospects may be open: prospects which, probably, he may deem no less fair than those which he has forfeited. This may be so; but the point to observe is, that one prospect was lost so irretrievably by his own fault, that afterwards, when he wished to regain it, he could not. Now God gives him other prospects, which he may realize: but as he forfeited his first prospect beyond recovery, so he may do also with his last: and though ill-success at school may be made up by success in another sphere, yet what is to make up for ill-success in the great business of life, when that, too, has been forfeited as irrecoverably; when his last chance is gone as hopelessly as his first?

Now, surely there is in all this an intelligible lesson. I am not at all exaggerating the importance of the particular prospect forfeited here: but I am pressing upon you, that this prospect may be, and often is, forfeited irrecoverably; that when you wish to regain it, it is too late, and you cannot. And I press this, because it is a true type of the whole of human life; because it is just as possible to forfeit salvation irrecoverably, as to forfeit that earthly good which is the prize of well-doing here, with this infinite difference, that the last forfeit is not only irretrievable, but fatal; it can no more be made up for, than it can be regained. Here, then, your present condition is a type of the complete truth of the text: but there are other points, to which I alluded before, in which it is more than a type; it is the very truth itself, although, happily, only in an imperfect measure. That unanswered prayer, of which I spoke, those broken resolutions, -- are they not actually a calling on God, without his hearing us; a seeking him, without finding him? We remember who it was that could say with truth to his Father, |I know that thou nearest me always.| We know what it is that hinders God from hearing us always; because we are not thoroughly one in his Son Christ Jesus. But this unanswered prayer is not properly the State of Christ's redeemed: it is an enemy that hath brought us to this; the same enemy who will, in time, make all our prayers to be unanswered, as some are now; who will cause God, not only to be slow to listen, but to refuse to listen for ever. Now we are not heard at once, we must repeat our prayers, with more and more earnestness, that God, at last, may hear, and may bless us. But if, instead of repeating them the more, we do the very contrary, and repeat them the less; if, because we have no comfort, and no seeming good from them, we give them up altogether; then the time will surely come when all prayer will be but the hopeless prayer of Esau, because it will be only the prayer of fear; because it will be only the dread of destruction that will, or can, move us: -- the love of good will have gone beyond recall. Such prayer does but ask for pardon without repentance; and this never is, or can be, granted.

So then, in conclusion, that very feeling of coldness, and unwillingness to pray, because we have often prayed in vain, is surely working in us that perfect death, which is the full truth of the words of the text. Of all of us, those who the least like to pray, who have prayed with the least benefit, have the most need to pray again. If they have sought God, without finding him, let them take heed that this be not their case for ever; that the truth, of which the seed is even now in them, may not be ripened to their everlasting destruction, when all their seeking, and all their prayer, will be as rejected by God, as, in part, it has been already.

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