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Sermons To The Natural Man by William G.T. Shedd

PREFACE.

It is with a solemn feeling of responsibility that I send forth this volume of Sermons. The ordinary emotions of authorship have little place in the experience, when one remembers that what he says will be either a means of spiritual life, or an occasion of spiritual death.

I believe that the substance of these Discourses will prove to accord with God's revealed truth, in the day that will try all truth. The title indicates their general aim and tendency. The purpose is psychological. I would, if possible, anatomize the natural heart. It is in vain to offer the gospel unless the law has been applied with clearness and cogency. At the present day, certainly, there is far less danger of erring in the direction of religious severity, than in the direction of religious indulgence. If I have not preached redemption in these sermons so fully as I have analyzed sin, it is because it is my deliberate conviction that just now the first and hardest work to be done by the preacher, for the natural man, is to produce in him some sensibility upon the subject of sin. Conscience needs to become consciousness. There is considerable theoretical unbelief respecting the doctrines of the New Testament; but this is not the principal difficulty. Theoretical skepticism is in a small minority of Christendom, and always has been. The chief obstacle to the spread of the Christian religion is the practical unbelief of speculative believers. |Thou sayest,| -- says John Bunyan, -- |thou dost in deed and in truth believe the Scriptures. I ask, therefore, Wast thou ever killed stark dead by the law of works contained in the Scriptures? Killed by the law or letter, and made to see thy sins against it, and left in an helpless condition by the law? For, the proper work of the law is to slay the soul, and to leave it dead in an helpless state. For, it doth neither give the soul any comfort itself, when it comes, nor doth it show the soul where comfort is to be had; and therefore it is called the 'ministration of condemnation,' the 'ministration of death.' For, though men may have a notion of the blessed Word of God, yet before they be converted, it may be truly said of them, Ye err, not knowing the Scriptures, nor the power of God.|

If it be thought that such preaching of the law can be dispensed with, by employing solely what is called in some quarters the preaching of the gospel, I do not agree with the opinion. The benefits of Christ's redemption are pearls which must not be cast before swine. The gospel is not for the stupid, or for the doubter, -- still less for the scoffer. Christ's atonement is to be offered to conscious guilt, and in order to conscious guilt there must be the application of the decalogue. John Baptist must prepare the way for the merciful Redeemer, by legal and close preaching. And the merciful Redeemer Himself, in the opening of His ministry, and before He spake much concerning remission of sins, preached a sermon which in its searching and self-revelatory character is a more alarming address to the corrupt natural heart, than was the first edition of it delivered amidst the lightnings of Sinai. The Sermon on the Mount is called the Sermon of the Beatitudes, and many have the impression that it is a very lovely song to the sinful soul of man. They forget that the blessing upon obedience implies a curse upon disobedience, and that every mortal man has disobeyed the Sermon on the Mount. |God save me,| -- said a thoughtful person who knew what is in the Sermon on the Mount, and what is in the human heart, -- |God save me from the Sermon on the Mount when I am judged in the last day.| When Christ preached this discourse, He preached the law, principally. |Think not,| -- He says, -- |that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets. I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law till all be fulfilled.| John the Baptist describes his own preaching, which was confessedly severe and legal, as being far less searching than that of the Messiah whose near advent he announced. |I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire; whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.|

The general burden and strain of the Discourse with which the Redeemer opened His ministry is preceptive and mandatory. Its keynote is: |Thou shalt do this,| and, |Thou shalt not do that;| |Thou shalt be thus, in thine heart,| and, |Thou shalt not be thus, in thine heart.| So little is said in it, comparatively, concerning what are called the doctrines of grace, that it has often been cited to prove that the creed of the Church has been expanded unduly, and made to contain more than the Founder of Christianity really intended it should. The absence, for example, of any direct and specific statement of the doctrine of Atonement, in this important section of Christ's teaching, has been instanced by the Socinian opponent as proof that this doctrine is not so vital as the Church has always claimed it to be. But, Christ was purposely silent respecting grace and its methods, until he had spiritualized Law, and made it penetrate the human consciousness like a sharp sword. Of what use would it have been to offer mercy, before the sense of its need had been elicited? and how was this to be elicited, but by the solemn and authoritative enunciation of law and justice? There are, indeed, cheering intimations, in the Sermon on the Mount, respecting the Divine mercy, and so there are in connection with the giving of the Ten Commandments. But law, rather than grace, is the main substance and burden of both. The great intention, in each instance, is to convince of sin, preparatory to the offer of clemency. The Decalogue is the legal basis of the Old Dispensation, and the Sermon on the Mount is the legal basis of the New. When the Redeemer, in the opening of His ministry, had provided the apparatus of conviction, then He provided the apparatus of expiation. The Great High-Priest, like the Levitical priest who typified Him, did not sprinkle atoning blood indiscriminately. It was to bedew only him who felt and confessed guilt.

This legal and minatory element in the words of Jesus has also been noticed by the skeptic, and an argument has been founded upon it to prove that He was soured by ill-success, and, like other merely human reformers who have found the human heart too hard, for them, fell away from the gentleness with which He began His ministry, into the anger and denunciation of mortified ambition with which it closed. This is the picture of Jesus Christ which Renan presents in his apocryphal Gospel. But the fact is, that the Redeemer began with law, and was rigorous with sin from the very first. The Sermon on the Mount was delivered not far from twelve months from the time of His inauguration, by baptism, to the office of Messiah. And all along through His ministry of three years and a half, He constantly employs the law in order to prepare his hearers for grace. He was as gentle and gracious to the penitent sinner, in the opening of His ministry, as he was at the close of it; and He was as unsparing and severe towards the hardened and self-righteous sinner, in His early Judaean, as He was in His later Galilean ministry.

It is sometimes said that the surest way to produce conviction of sin is to preach the Cross. There is a sense in which this is true, and there is a sense in which it is false. If the Cross is set forth as the cursed tree on which the Lord of Glory hung and suffered, to satisfy the demands of Eternal Justice, then indeed there is fitness in the preaching to produce the sense of guilt. But this is to preach the law, in its fullest extent, and the most tremendous energy of its claims. Such discourse as this must necessarily analyze law, define it, enforce it, and apply it in the most cogent manner. For, only as the atonement of Christ is shown to completely meet and satisfy all these legal demands which have been so thoroughly discussed and exhibited, is the real virtue and power of the Cross made manifest.

But if the Cross is merely held up as a decorative ornament, like that on the breast of Belinda, |which Jews might kiss and infidels adore;| if it be proclaimed as the beautiful symbol of the Divine indifference and indulgence, and there be a studious avoiding of all judicial aspects and relations; if the natural man is not searched by law and alarmed by justice, but is only soothed and narcotized by the idea of an Epicurean deity destitute of moral anger and inflicting no righteous retribution, -- then, there will be no conviction of sin. Whenever the preaching of the law is positively objected to, and the preaching of the gospel is proposed in its place, it will be found that the |gospel| means that good-nature and that easy virtue which some mortals dare to attribute to the Holy and Immaculate Godhead! He who really, and in good faith, preaches the Cross, never opposes the preaching of the law.

Still another reason for the kind of religious discourse which we are defending is found in the fact that multitudes are expecting a happy issue of this life, upon ethical as distinguished from evangelical grounds. They deny that they deserve damnation, or that they need Christ's atonement. They say that they are living virtuous lives, and are ready to adopt language similar to that of Mr. Mill spoken in another connection: |If from this position of integrity and morality we are to be sent to hell, to hell we will go.| This tendency is strengthened by the current light letters, in distinction from standard literature. A certain class, through ephemeral essays, poems, and novels, has been plied with the doctrine of a natural virtue and an innate goodness, until it has become proud and self-reliant. The |manhood| of paganism is glorified, and the |childhood| of the gospel is vilified. The graces of humility, self-abasement before God, and especially of penitence for sin, are distasteful and loathed. Persons of this order prefer to have their religious teacher silent upon these themes, and urge them to courage, honor, magnanimity, and all that class of qualities which imply self-consciousness and self-reliance. To them apply the solemn words of the Son of God to the Pharisees: |If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see, therefore your sin remaineth.|

It is, therefore, specially incumbent upon the Christian ministry, to employ a searching and psychological style of preaching, and to apply the tests of ethics and virtue so powerfully to men who are trusting to ethics and virtue, as to bring them upon their knees. Since these men are desiring, like the |foolish Galatiana,| to be saved by the law, then let the law be laid down to them, in all its breadth and reach, that they may understand the real nature and consequences of the position they have taken. |Tell me,| says a preacher of this stamp, -- |tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law,| -- do ye not hear its thundering, -- |cursed is every one that continueth not in ALL things that are written in the law, to do them!| Virtue must be absolutely perfect and spotless, if a happy immortality is to be made to depend upon virtue. If the human heart, in its self-deception and self-reliance, turns away from the Cross and the righteousness of God, to morals and the righteousness of works, then let the Christian thinker follow after it like the avenger of blood. Let him set the heights and depths of ethical perfection before the deluded mortal; let him point to the inaccessible cliffs that tower high above, and bid him scale them if he can; let him point to the fathomless abysses beneath, and tell him to descend and bring up perfect virtue therefrom; let him employ the very instrument which this virtuoso has chosen, until it becomes an instrument of torture and self-despair. In this way, he is breaking down the |manhood| that confronts and opposes, and is bringing in the |childhood| that is docile, and recipient of the kingdom.

These Sermons run the hazard of being pronounced monotonous, because of the pertinacity with which the attempt is made to force self-reflection. But this criticism can easily be endured, provided the attempt succeeds. Religious truth becomes almighty the instant it can get within the soul; and it gets within the soul, the instant real thinking begins. |As you value your peace of mind, stop all scrutiny into your personal character,| is the advice of what Milton denominates |the sty of Epicurus.| The discouraging religious condition of the present age is due to the great lack, not merely in the lower but the higher classes, of calm, clear self-intelligence. Men do not know themselves. The Delphic oracle was never less obeyed than now, in this vortex of mechanical arts and luxury. For this reason, it is desirable that the religious teacher dwell consecutively upon topics that are connected with that which is within man, -- his settled motives of action, and all those spontaneous on-goings of his soul of which he takes no notice, unless he is persuaded or impelled to do so. Some of the old painters produced powerful effects by one solitary color. The subject of moral evil contemplated in the heart of the individual man, -- not described to him from the outside, but wrought out of his own being into incandescent letters, by the fierce chemistry of anxious perhaps agonizing reflection, -- sin, the one awful fact in the history of man, if caused to pervade discourse will always impart to it a hue which, though it be monochromatic, arrests and holds the eye like the lurid color of an approaching storm-cloud.

With this statement respecting the aim and purport of these Sermons, and deeply conscious of their imperfections, especially for spiritual purposes, I send them out into the world, with the prayer that God the Spirit will deign to employ them as the means of awakening some souls from the lethargy of sin.

Union Theological Seminary,
New York, February 17, 1871.

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