|I have more understanding than my teachers, for Thy testimonies are my study; I am wiser than the aged, because I keep Thy commandments.
| -- Psalm cxix.99, 100.
In these words the Psalmist declares, that in consequence of having obeyed God's commandments he had obtained more wisdom and understanding than those who had first enlightened his ignorance, and were once more enlightened than he. As if he said, |When I was a child, I was instructed in religious knowledge by kind and pious friends, who told me who my Maker was, what great things He had done for me, how much I owed to Him, and how I was to serve Him. All this I learned from them, and I rejoice that they taught it me: yet they did more; they set me in the way to gain a knowledge of religious truth in another and higher manner. They not only taught me, but trained me; they were careful that I should not only know my duty, but do it. They obliged me to obey; they obliged me to begin a religious course of life, which (praised be God!) I have ever pursued; and this obedience to His commandments has brought me to a clearer knowledge of His truth, than any mere instruction could convey. I have been taught, not from without merely, but from within. I have been taught by means of a purified heart, by a changed will, by chastened reins, by a mortified appetite, by a bridled tongue, by eyes corrected and subdued. 'I have more understanding than my teachers, for Thy testimonies,' O Lord, 'are my study; I am wiser than the aged, because I keep Thy commandments.'|
We may sometimes hear men say, |How do you know that the Bible is true? You are told so in Church; your parents believed it; but might they not be mistaken? and if so, you are mistaken also.| Now to this objection it maybe answered, and very satisfactorily, |Is it then nothing toward convincing us of the truth of the Gospel, that those whom we love best and reverence most believe it? Is it against reason to think that they are right, who have considered the matter most deeply? Do we not receive what they tell us in other matters, though we cannot prove the truth of their information; for instance, in matters of art and science; why then is it irrational to believe them in religion also? Have not the wisest and holiest of men been Christians? and have not unbelievers, on the contrary, been very generally signal instances of pride, discontent, and profligacy? Again, are not the principles of unbelief certain to dissolve human society? and is not this plain fact, candidly considered, enough to show that unbelief cannot be a right condition of our nature? for who can believe that we were intended to live in anarchy? If we have no good reason for believing, at least we have no good reason for disbelieving. If you ask why we are Christians, we ask in turn, Why should we not be Christians? it will be enough to remain where we are, till you do what you never can do -- prove to us for certain, that the Gospel is not Divine; it is enough for us to be on the side of good men, to be under the feet of the Saints, to 'go our way forth by the footsteps of the flock, and to feed our kids beside the shepherds' tent.'|
This would be quite a sufficient answer, had we nothing else to say; but I will give another, and that in connexion with the text; I will show you that the most unlearned Christian may have a very real and substantial argument, an intimate token, of the truth of the Gospel, quite independent of the authority of his parents and teachers; nay, that were all the world, even were his teachers, to tell him that religion was a dream, still he would have a good reason for believing it true.
This reason, I say, is contained in the text -- |I have more understanding than the aged, because I keep Thy commandments.| By obeying the commands of Scripture, we learn that these commands really come from God; by trying we make proof; by doing we come to know. Now how comes this to pass? It happens in several ways.
1. Consider the Bible tells us to be meek, humble, single-hearted, and teachable. Now, it is plain that humility and teachableness are qualities of mind necessary for arriving at the truth in any subject, and in religious matters as well as others. By obeying Scripture, then, in practising humility and teachableness, it is evident we are at least in the way to arrive at the knowledge of God. On the other hand, impatient, proud, self-confident, obstinate men, are generally wrong in the opinions they form of persons and things. Prejudice and self-conceit blind the eyes and mislead the judgment, whatever be the subject inquired into. For instance, how often do men mistake the characters and misconstrue the actions of others! how often are they deceived in them! how often do the young form acquaintances injurious to their comfort and good! how often do men embark in foolish and ruinous schemes! how often do they squander their money, and destroy their worldly prospects! And what, I ask, is so frequent a cause of these many errors as wilfulness and presumption? The same thing happens also in religious inquiries. When I see a person hasty and violent, harsh and high-minded, careless of what others feel, and disdainful of what they think, -- when I see such a one proceeding to inquire into religious subjects, I am sure beforehand he cannot go right -- he will not be led into all the truth -- it is contrary to the nature of things and the experience of the world, that he should find what he is seeking. I should say the same were he seeking to find out what to believe or do in any other matter not religious, -- but especially in any such important and solemn inquiry; for the fear of the Lord (humbleness, teachableness, reverence towards Him) is the very beginning of wisdom, as Solomon tells us; it leads us to think over things modestly and honestly, to examine patiently, to bear doubt and uncertainty, to wait perseveringly for an increase of light, to be slow to speak, and to be deliberate in deciding.
2. Consider, in the next place, that those who are trained carefully according to the precepts of Scripture, gain an elevation, a delicacy, refinement, and sanctity of mind, which is most necessary for judging fairly of the truth of Scripture.
A man who loves sin does not wish the Gospel to be true, and therefore is not a fair judge of it; a mere man of the world, a selfish and covetous man, or a drunkard, or an extortioner, is, from a sense of interest, against that Bible which condemns him, and would account that man indeed a messenger of good tidings of peace who could prove to him that Christ's doctrine was not from God. |Every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved.| I do not mean to say that such men necessarily reject the word of God, as if we could dare to conclude that all who do not reject it are therefore sure to be not covetous, drunkards, extortioners, and the like; for it is often a man's interest not openly to reject it, though it be against him; and the bulk of men are inconsistent, and have some good feelings left, even amid their sins and vices, which keep them from going all lengths. But, while they still profess to honour, at least they try to pervert and misinterpret Scripture, and that comes to the same thing. They try to persuade themselves that Christ will save them, though they continue in sin; or they wish to believe that future punishment will not last for ever; or they conceive that their good deeds or habits, few and miserable as they are at best, will make up for the sins of which they are too conscious. Whereas such men as have been taught betimes to work with God their Saviour -- in ruling their hearts, and curbing their sinful passions, and changing their wills -- though they are still sinners, have not within them that treacherous enemy of the truth which misleads the judgments of irreligious men.
Here, then, are two very good reasons at first sight, why men who obey the Scripture precepts are more likely to arrive at religious truth, than those who neglect them; first, because such men are teachable men; secondly, because they are pure in heart; such shall see God, whereas the proud provoke His anger, and the carnal are His abhorrence.
But to proceed. Consider, moreover, that those who try to obey God evidently gain a knowledge of themselves at least; and this may be shown to be the first and principal step towards knowing God. For let us suppose a child, under God's blessing, profiting by his teacher's guidance, and trying to do his duty and please God. He will perceive that there is much in him which ought not to be in him. His own natural sense of right and wrong tells him that peevishness, sullenness, deceit, and self-will, are tempers and principles of which he has cause to be ashamed, and he feels that these bad tempers and principles are in his heart. As he grows older, he will understand this more and more. Wishing, then, and striving to act up to the law of conscience, he will yet find that, with his utmost efforts, and after his most earnest prayers, he still falls short of what he knows to be right, and what he aims at. Conscience, however, being respected, will become a more powerful and enlightened guide than before; it will become more refined and hard to please; and he will understand and perceive more clearly the distance that exists between his own conduct and thoughts, and perfection. He will admire and take pleasure in the holy law of God, of which he reads in Scripture; but he will be humbled withal, as understanding himself to be a continual transgressor against it. Thus he will learn from experience the doctrine of original sin, before he knows the actual name of it. He will, in fact, say to himself, what St. Paul describes all beginners in religion as saying, |What I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. I delight in the law of God after the inward man, but I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity. I know that in my flesh dwelleth no good thing.| The effect of this experience will be to make him take it for granted, as an elementary truth, that he cannot gain heaven for himself; to make him feel himself guilty before God; and to feel, moreover, that even were he admitted into the Divine presence, yet, till his heart be (so to say) made over again, he cannot perfectly enjoy God. This, surely, is the state of self-knowledge; these are the convictions to which every one is brought on, who attempts honestly to obey the precepts of God. I do not mean that all that I have been saying will necessarily pass through his mind, and in the same order, or that he will be conscious of it, or be able to speak of it, but that on the whole thus he will feel.
When, then, even an unlearned person thus trained -- from his own heart, from the action of his mind upon itself, from struggles with self, from an attempt to follow those impulses of his own nature which he feels to be highest and noblest, from a vivid natural perception (natural, though cherished and strengthened by prayer, natural, though unfolded and diversified by practice, natural, though of that new and second nature which God the Holy Ghost gives), from an innate, though supernatural perception of the great vision of Truth which is external to him (a perception of it, not indeed in its fulness, but in glimpses, and by fits and seasons, and in its persuasive influences, and through a courageous following on after it, as a man in the dark might follow after some dim and distant light) -- I say, when a person thus trained from his own heart, reads the declarations and promises of the Gospel, are we to be told that he believes in them merely because he has been bid believe in them? Do we not see he has besides this a something in his own breast which bears a confirming testimony to their truth? He reads that the heart is |deceitful above all things and desperately wicked,| and that he inherits an evil nature from Adam, and that he is still under its power, except so far as he has been renewed. Here is a mystery; but his own actual and too bitter experience bears witness to the truth of the declaration; he feels the mystery of iniquity within him. He reads, that |without holiness no man shall see the Lord;| and his own love of what is true and lovely and pure, approves and embraces the doctrine as coming from God. He reads, that God is angry at sin, and will punish the sinner, and that it is a hard matter, nay, an impossibility, for us to appease His wrath. Here, again, is a mystery: but here, too, his conscience anticipates the mystery, and convicts him; his mouth is stopped. And when he goes on to read that the Son of God has Himself come into the world in our flesh, and died upon the Cross for us, does he not, amid the awful mysteriousness of the doctrine, find those words fulfilled in him which that gracious Saviour uttered, |And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Me|? He cannot choose but believe in Him. He says, |O Lord, Thou art stronger than I, and hast prevailed.|
Here then, I say, he surely possesses an evidence perfectly distinct from the authority of superiors and teachers; like St. Paul, he is in one way not taught of men, |but by the revelation of Jesus Christ.| Others have but bid him look within, and pray for God's grace to be enabled to know himself; and the more he understands his own heart, the more are the Gospel doctrines recommended to his reason. He is assured that Christ does not speak of Himself, but that His word is from God. He is ready, with the Samaritan woman, to say to all around him, |Come, see a man, which told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ?| Or, again, in the words which the Samaritans of the same city used to the woman after conversing with Christ; |Now we believe, not because of thy saying| (not merely on the authority of friends and relatives), |for we have heard Him ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world.|
The Bible, then, seems to say, -- God is not a hard master to require belief, without affording grounds for believing; only follow your own sense of right, and you will gain from that very obedience to your Maker, which natural conscience enjoins, a conviction of the truth and power of that Redeemer whom a supernatural message has revealed; do but examine your thoughts and doings; do but attempt what you know to be God's will, and you will most assuredly be led on into all the truth: you will recognize the force, meaning, and awful graciousness of the Gospel Creed; you will bear witness to the truth of one doctrine, by your own past experience of yourselves; of another, by seeing that it is suited to your necessity; of a third, by finding it fulfilled upon your obeying it. As the prophet says, |Bring ye| your offering |into Mine house,| saith the Lord, |and prove Me now herewith, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing that there shall not be room enough to receive it.|
My brethren, it is always reasonable to insist upon these subjects; but it is peculiarly so in times when a spirit of presumptuous doubting is in many places abroad. As many of us as live in the world must expect to hear our faith despised, and our conscientious obedience ridiculed; we must expect to be taunted and scorned by those who find it much easier to attack another's creed than to state their own. A little learning is a dangerous thing. When men think they know more than others, they often talk for the sake of talking, or to show their ability (as they think), their shrewdness and depth; and they speak lightly of the All-Holy God, to gratify their empty self-conceit and vanity. And often it answers no purpose to dispute with such persons; for not having been trained up to obey their conscience, to restrain their passions, and examine their hearts, they will assent to nothing you can say; they will be questioning and arguing about every thing; they have no common ground with you, and when they talk of religion they are like blind persons talking of colours. If you urge how great a gift it is to be at peace with God, or of the arduousness and yet desirableness of perfection, or the beauty of saintliness, or the dangerousness of the world, or the blessedness of self-control, or the glory of virginity, or the answers which God gives to prayer, or the marvellousness and almost miraculousness of His providences, or the comfort of religion in affliction, or the strength given you over your passions in the Most Holy Sacrament, such persons understand you not at all. They will laugh, they will scoff, at best they will wonder: any how what you say is no evidence to them. You cannot convince them, because you differ from them in first principles; it is not that they start from the same point as you, and afterwards strike off in some wayward direction; but their course is altogether distinct, they have no point in common with you. For such persons then you can only pray; God alone can bring down pride, self-conceit, an arrogant spirit, a presumptuous temper; God alone can dissipate prejudice; God alone can overcome flesh and blood. Useful as argument may be for converting a man, in such cases God seldom condescends to employ it. Yet, let not such vain or ignorant reasoners convert you to unbelief in great matters or little; let them not persuade you, that your faith is built on the mere teaching of fallible men; do not you be ridiculed out of your confidence and hope in Christ. You may, if you will, have an inward witness arising from obedience: and though you cannot make them see it, you can see it yourselves, which is the great thing; and it will be quite sufficient, with God's blessing, to keep you stedfast in the way of life.
Lastly, let me remark how dangerous their state is who are content to take the truths of the Gospel on trust, without caring whether or not those truths are realized in their own heart and conduct. Such men, when assailed by ridicule and sophistry, are likely to fall; they have no root in themselves; and let them be quite sure, that should they fall away from the faith, it will be a slight thing at the last day to plead that subtle arguments were used against them, that they were altogether unprepared and ignorant, and that their seducers prevailed over them by the display of some little cleverness and human knowledge. The inward witness to the truth lodged in our hearts is a match for the most learned infidel or sceptic that ever lived: though, to tell the truth, such men are generally very shallow and weak, as well as wicked; generally know only a little, pervert what they know, assume false principles, and distort or suppress facts: but were they as accomplished as the very author of evil, the humblest Christian, armed with sling and stone, and supported by God's unseen might, is, as far as his own faith is concerned, a match for them. And, on the other hand, the most acute of reasoners and most profound of thinkers, the most instructed in earthly knowledge, is nothing, except he has also within him the presence of the Spirit of truth. Human knowledge, though of great power when joined to a pure and humble faith, is of no power when opposed to it, and, after ail, for the comfort of the individual Christian, it is of little value.
May we, then, all grow in heavenly knowledge, and, with that end, labour to improve what is already given us, be it more or be it less, knowing that |he that is faithful in little is faithful also in much,| and that |to him that hath, more shall be given.|
Rom. vii.15, 18, 22, 23.