A Communion Sermon, Delivered Sept.16, 1866,
In The First Presbyterian Church, Troy, N. Y.
Rom. xii, 2. |And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God.|
By itself, this command is ambiguous. Common sense testifies that, in very many things, every Christian must, more or less, conform to the world. Many of the world's customs are not only harmless, but salutary, beautiful, ennobling, necessary to the very being of society. We need some test by which to interpret this command.
Let us first endeavor, as a means of discovering it, to clear away a preliminary error, viz.: the not uncommon idea that difference from the world is a matter of any value or consequence of itself. A great many persons, lamenting over real or supposed deficiencies of Christians, make this the staple of their complaint; you cannot distinguish them from the world: and when urging upon them some duty, or the relinquishment of some practice, enforce it by the argument, Christians should aim to be distinct from the world.
There is truth in this, but there is also falsehood. Christians, real Christians, will always be distinct from the world, and the distinction will be very clearly defined. But Christians should not make it their object to be distinct from the world. They should aim to be Christians, and let the distinction follow in its natural order and degree. Singularity, in itself, is no virtue. It is just as likely to be a vice. A man is not necessarily better because he is unlike the rest of the world. Difference from the world, therefore, is not an end of Christian discipline, but a result and concomitant of it. This distinction is of the utmost importance. If distinctiveness is regarded as an object of Christian effort, its value is sacrificed. Its tendency is to formality; to the substitution of a variety of outward standards of duty for a single inward regulative principle. To pride and self-righteousness on the ground of singularity. Such have been its developments, for instance, in certain religious sects who insisted on plainness of dress as a duty. Undoubtedly the spirit which originally prompted the requisition was good, Christlike. It was the desire to take from the useless adornment of the person and bestow upon objects of Christian effort and charity. It was the desire to remove temptations to vanity and idle display. But in too many cases these things were forgotten. Christians received the precept in the letter and not in the spirit. They came to insist on plainness of dress as a mark of a true Christian, and forgot that materials of plain or sad colors might be as costly and rich as gayer ones. They came to pride themselves on their plainness as a distinction from the rest of the world. They said bitter and unchristian things against the man who should carry a gold watch or the woman who should wear a feather or a ribbon. They perverted scripture to uphold this ridiculous whim, and brought scorn upon themselves and reproach upon the cause of Christ, because they turned their eyes from the inward, regulative power of the gospel to one of its natural developments, and looked at that until it grew out of all proportion.
How then are we rightly to apply this command?
The apostle, in giving us an answer, takes up the question at the very point at which most inquirers do, viz.: at the matter of sacrifice. For this is the way in which it presents itself to most minds. In order not to be conformed to the world, I must sacrifice much that is of the world. What, now, may I retain, and what must I relinquish?
And in Paul's answer, he strikes directly at any such method of putting the question. Non-conformity to the world involves sacrifice, it is true, but not a sacrifice made in any such spirit as this -- a spirit that ere it gives itself to Christ, sits down and begins to sort its possessions, pleasures, pursuits, into two piles, saying: |this for God, this for the world: this goes back to my treasure house, this I throw away.| Not so. He sweeps the whole into one heap, and says, |I beseech you brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, and be transformed by the renewing of your mind.| He asks that the whole man, with all his belongings, be made an offering to God, even as he says in another place, |the very God of peace sanctify you wholly, and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.| He rises above details of sacrifice to a sacrifice which includes and regulates all details; and in so doing he is but insisting upon the precept of Christ: |If any man will be my disciple, let him deny himself.| And notice particularly the meaning of this precept which is so generally but half understood. It is not, let him cut himself off from this thing or that thing, but let him deny himself; literally, let him say that self is not, and that the will of Christ is everything. Holding fast this principle a man cannot greatly err. The will of Christ and the will of the world are so diametrically opposite, that he cannot go toward the one without going away from the other. A man has no business to waste time pondering over the details of his sacrifice for Christ's sake, tormenting himself with deciding between what is right and what is wrong; what is worldly and what is heavenly. The will of Christ once heartily embraced as a rule of life will teach him to decide. Christ received into the heart will regulate its affinities and repulsions. The law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus shall make the soul free from the law of sin and death, so that it shall hate the things it once loved, and love those it once despised.
Young people often come to their pastor saying: |If I become a Christian, must I give up such and such things? Must I discharge such and such duties?| And for myself I reply to them -- |I have no answer to give you. I will not encourage you to come to Christ in this mean, bargain-making spirit. If your conscience tells you a thing is wrong, as it does in many cases, you have no need to ask me if Christ will require its relinquishment. You know he will, without any compromise. But when it comes to any doubtful matter, waive that question. You have nothing whatever to do with it now. Christ requires of you to be willing to obey him implicitly in all things, without regard to your own feelings or preferences, your own prosperity or safety, no matter what duties or sacrifices obedience involves; and I simply ask you are you willing to do this? If you are not, Christ does not want you. A young man goes to a recruiting office to enlist. The sergeant examines him, and says: 'you are just the kind of man I want. Here, put down your name. Your bounty is so much; your pay will be so much.' The recruit takes the pen in his hand, but stops suddenly in the act of writing his name, and says: 'How far shall I be required to march daily? What kind of a tent shall I have? Must I do picket duty beyond regular hours? To what kind of a climate am I to be sent?' How long do you suppose the officer would keep patience with such a man? How many of these questions would he pretend to answer, even if he could? He would simply say to the man: 'we make no terms with you, sir, beyond your bounty and pay. If you enlist, you do so with the understanding that a soldier has nothing to do but obey orders; to serve where, when, and how he may be directed. If you want to know these things, enlist, and you will find out when you are in service.' Just so I say to one who begins inquiring into the details of Christ's service: If you want to find out, enlist. Commit your life to Christ's keeping. Devote yourself to Christ's service, and 'if any man wills to do his will, he shall know of the doctrine.' An inquirer for salvation, tormenting himself about what he must do and what relinquish, forgets that he is in no condition to decide such a question. To decide it he wants just that spiritual insight and those new affinities which faith in Christ and the consequent renewal of his nature will give him. He wants to see these things from a stand-point which he has not yet attained. He had far better let them go for the present, and concentrate his resolution on this one point: 'I give myself to Jesus without reserve. Whatever he tells me I may enjoy I will endeavor to enjoy in his love and fear. Whatever he bids me cast away, though it be a right hand, I will cut it off and cast it from me.' | A young man once came to me saying: |There seems to be but one thing in the way of my entire surrender to Christ. If I become a Christian, and a member of the church, I don't see how I can ever take any public part in the religious meetings. If I could only decide whether God required this of me, I think my way would be clear.| I said to him, |My brother, you are not called on to settle that question now. You have no means of deciding it. You had better drop it altogether for the present. God has promised that if you will commit your ways unto him he will direct you. Now I believe you sincerely want to do God's will, and that you are ready, whenever he shall show it you, to pledge yourself to do your duty. Leave the matter there; and if, at any time, this duty should be thrust upon you, do it in God's name and strength.| He soon after joined the church, and has borne himself since with a fidelity and devotion which speak well for the thoroughness of the work of grace in him.
Now this is what the apostle means by a living sacrifice. This spirit of consecration infused into sacrifice fills it with life. The sacrifice becomes |living| only when self dies; when the man says
|Here Lord, I give myself away:
'Tis all that I can do.|
The other method of securing nonconformity to the world by acting for the mere sake of difference or according to circumstances, constitutes a dead sacrifice. Such were the sacrifices of the Pharisees. They thanked God they were not as other men; but the difference was but outward. To the spectator's eye they were not conformed to the world. They did not dress like it. Their prayers were longer and more frequent. They did not eat with publicans and sinners. But these differences had become the chief end of their religious life. Their development was like arranging the limbs of a corpse for exhibition. They were not the natural, spontaneous outgrowths of a living inward principle; and hence the Pharisees have passed into history as the representative hypocrites of all time.
The essential character of this self-sacrifice will farther appear from a correct understanding of the phrase reasonable service. On this, two things must be remarked.1st, that the expression does not belong to the words |living sacrifice| alone, but to the whole exhortation. In other words, it is not the living sacrifice which is a reasonable service, but the presenting the bodies a living sacrifice, |holy, acceptable unto God.| 2dly, it is to be noted that the expression |reasonable service| is very commonly misunderstood to mean a service which is proper or becoming; which we have the best of all reasons for rendering. This is all true; but this is not what the text means. It signifies a service whose main spring is in the thinking, reasoning, spiritual department of man's nature -- a spiritual service rendered to a God who is a spirit, and who requireth to be worshiped in spirit and in truth. Of such Peter says: |ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.| In pursuance of this idea, the apostle, in our text, after speaking of the presenting of the body as a living sacrifice, and of such a presentation as a reasoning service, gives us the key to the whole thought by his final exhortation, |be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind;| so that it is clear that the outward conformity of the body to God's will, is made both a living sacrifice and a reasoning service by having its mainspring in a renewed mind. Only thus will the body be offered alive to God. Only thus will the mind be truly transformed. All the outward developments of the life will then bear the stamp of a reasoning service. The way of peace will be chosen from conviction. The will, self-impelled, will set toward God. The conscience will be alive with a divinely inspired sensitiveness. All the affections and desires, of their own accord, will stretch their hands towards Christ, and the renewed man will daily realize that the water which Jesus gives is in him, living water, springing up into everlasting life.
It is then clear, I think, from what has been said, that nonconformity to the world is not the aim, but one of the incidents of Christian life. The Christian's aim is distinctly stated here to be the proving of the will of God -- that which is good, acceptable and perfect. Yet nonconformity to the world will develop itself as a necessary incident of Christian living. Being transformed by the renewing of the mind, the outward life will necessarily be transformed also, and will cease to be conformed to the world. The soul which desires that which is good, acceptable, perfect, can no longer find affinity with that which is bad, imperfect, and displeasing to God. The differences are not incidental, they are generic. The Christian and the world belong to different orders; are regulated by different laws. The Christian is, as it were, grafted upon the new stock, and can no more bear the fruit of his old sinful life, than the ingrafted branch can bear its former fruit. Old things have passed away. All things have become new. He is a new creature in Christ Jesus. These differences have not to be marked by finely drawn lines of casuistry. There are indeed points at which the worldly and the Christian life run for a little way parallel. Points where neither party can very well act differently from the other. But for all that, the divergence is wide enough at many other points to leave no doubt. I am speaking now of true Christians, thoroughly renewed in the spirit of their mind; courageous, unflinching, consistent Christians: not of those whifflers and compromisers who call themselves Christians, and who try to trim between God and the world, so as to relinquish no advantages on the side of either. A man cannot live many hours by the rule of Christ without coming into direct issue with the world. And now, as to these points of difference, they are, of course, too numerous to be dealt with in detail. And I can, therefore, only call your attention to one or two classes of them.
1st: On which I need not dwell, is the class of worldly sins. Of course the transformed man will not be conformed to the world in these. Not that a Christian never errs, by any means, but that the general current of his life will set in the direction of pleasing God, and away from those things which are plainly contrary to his will.
2d. A marked difference develops itself in the region of the motives, the tempers, the dispositions, and the principles of action. Sometimes it is difficult to pronounce upon these differences with certainty, yet some of them are easily recognizable. Two men will often do precisely the same thing from different motives. A Christian and a worldly man, for example, are foully abused by a profane ruffian. Both receive the abuse in silence, and go their way without bestowing any attention upon him. But the two are commonly actuated by very different impulses. The one turns away with anger and loathing, and is silent because it is beneath his dignity to reply, or to notice the aggressor. The other, though tempted to anger, remembers the example of him whom he serves. Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again and leaves the railer, striving to pity his ignorance, and to forget his insult. Pride accomplishes, outwardly, in the one case, what Christian humility does in the other. So in cases of great affliction, it is sometimes hard to decide, from outward indications, whether divine grace or native force of will is the stronger. The worldly man will exhibit equal composure with the Christian; will seem, for the time, to accept the visitation with no less equanimity than the other. But those who are much with men under such circumstances, and come perhaps as close to their hearts as it is possible for man to do, recognize a very decided difference. They know that the composure which springs from stoicism, iron nerve, indomitable will, is a different thing from that which is born of submission and resignation to the will of God. That the one but crowds the sharp grief deeper into the heart, and shuts up the fountain of healing tears, and makes the man hard and sullen and defiant, and chills his sympathies, and disposes him to solitary brooding, and after all, gives way at last, and leaves him a broken reed, while the other finds in the breach which God made in his cherished plans, an opening through which heaven smiles on him, rises on the ruins of his wrecked hopes to a purer and more unselfish life, draws sweetness out of his sorrow, and wins a firmer trust in God, and a deeper and more comprehensive sympathy for his sorrowing brethren everywhere. These differences are endless. They cover every variety of experience. The world talks of the dignity of man, asserts his knowledge and his unimpaired judgment. The Christian distrusts his deceitful heart and fallen nature, and becomes a little child that he may know the truth. The world walks by sight and sneers at faith. Faith is the Christian's atmosphere, out of which he cannot breathe freely. The world talks of law, the Christian of providence. The world knows God, either vaguely, as a deity to be feared for his power, and but dimly apprehended by man, or as a mere aggregate of laws divorced from any real, apprehensible personality. The Christian communes and walks with him daily as a tender, loving, and wise father.
But I hasten to a third class of differences, with which I shall deal more at length: I mean those which appear in the Christian's conduct respecting those things which he uses in common with the world. Under this head falls that large class of actions, which, in themselves considered, have no moral value, but acquire one from the end they are made to serve, the manner in which they are pursued, or the motive in which they originate. On these arise the most perplexing of all moral questions, the most subtle cases of conscience, and too often, I grieve to say, the most acrimonious discussions. Under this head are included most of those vexed questions as to amusements, dress, meat and drink, and the like. And this text, I am sorry to say, has been made the basis for inculcating some most false and pernicious doctrines concerning these things.
Now it seems to me that very many of the difficulties which arise on these subjects are quite unnecessary, and would be in great part destroyed by resting upon the simple, unequivocal testimony of the Bible. I do not think that God's Word is at all wanting in explicitness on these points. Here is this text for instance. Nothing can be plainer. It tells us our first great duty is to submit our wills to God's will; to commit ourselves to his guidance without reserve, a living sacrifice; to be transformed; and that when this shall have been done, we shall know what the will of God is; we shall practically prove what is good and acceptable and perfect, and, as a matter of course, shall not be conformed to the sinful principles and practices of the world. Now it follows from this that whatever is good and acceptable and perfect, not opposed to the new principle of life in us, is ours, given us by God to use and enjoy; and that in the use and enjoyment of it within the limits he prescribes, we are not conformed to the world in any bad sense. I say this, well aware that every one of these things contains capabilities for abuse, and that the world does most sadly abuse them; and this brings me directly to my point that the difference between Christians and the world as respects these things is to be developed in the proper use and regulation by Christians of what the world abuses. Christians are not to be driven from every point which the world sees fit to occupy by the hue and cry of nonconformity. They are to remember that in these things there is a duty to be done as well as a pleasure to be enjoyed, and that they are to show their nonconformity, not by abandoning, but by refusing to conform to the world's excesses, and by insisting on the restraining principles of God's Word. Let us here hold closely by the opening thought of our discussion, that conformity to the world in itself is no sin, and nonconformity in itself no virtue. Conformity to the world is sinful when the world's practice is sinful and not otherwise.
Now this is a very plain rule. It is Christ's rule. Paul takes it directly from Christ. But I am aware that another question enters here, namely, that of expediency. There may be private considerations tending to make the relinquishment of a harmless thing expedient for you or for me. There may be considerations growing out of your relations to others which may render use inexpedient. In such cases, expediency, of course, assumes to you the obligation of law. But as regards these cases no man can decide for you. The Bible throws them on your own conscience. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. Expediency is a matter for individuals. No law can be laid down for it. The two things necessarily exclude each other. If you lay it down that such a course is expedient for every one, you remove the matter at once from the region of expediency, and put it on the ground of law; and this course no man nor body of men is ever justified in pursuing. Such a step trenches on the sacred enclosure of the individual moral sense, a holy of holies, into which man and his Maker alone enter. At the same time, abundant light will be given to every humble, faithful child of Christ, to settle these questions of expediency. When love to God is the moving principle of a man's life, it develops in him an insight which guides him unerringly through questions where casuistry would become hopelessly entangled. You may see the same truth illustrated in your own homes. See that loving, obedient child, whose highest delight is to perform your behest and anticipate your wishes. How very few errors that child commits, even in cases where you have laid down no rule. It reaches the knowledge of your wishes through a kind of instinct as reliable as it is undefinable. Surely faith ought to teach us to expect a clew through such mazes from a Father who has promised that he will direct the paths of those who acknowledge him.
And here, I insist, whether the question be one of law or of expediency, has been a grave error of the church in not trusting enough to this inward principle of life in the soul, to this insight of love, to regulate the outward developments of the life, and to prevent the obliteration of the lines between the church and the world. She has busied herself too much with details, and not enough with that which lies back of them; too much with the circumference and not enough with the centre. Christ teaches us that if the fountain be pure, the streams must be pure. But the church, in her unconscious distrust of the purifying power of the fountain, has thrown into the streams such abundance of mint, anise, and cummin, that the taste of the original water is sometimes sadly impaired. Too often, while she has been busy with the streams, the fountain head has been gathering unsuspected poison. While I recognize the church's duty to watch carefully over Christ's flock, to counsel, rebuke, restrain, I think that she has encouraged, in many cases, by her want of faith in the power of the relation between Christ and the believer, an artificial religious life, a factitious conscience, a life wanting the freedom and naturalness of movement properly engendered by the gospel. I think she should have insisted more on having this clearly defined and constantly maintained, more on a full assurance, and a lively faith, and an ever burning love, and less on details which these would have regulated of themselves. I believe that if she had done this, and moreover had preached the word literally and boldly to the people, had told the people their privilege to use God's gifts, and pointed them to the principle of love to God as competent to regulate use, and not twisted its declarations into warrants for the abridgment of Christian liberty, -- there would be in the church to-day more simple, strong, manly, intelligent piety, and far less conformity to the world. This distinction between safe and unsafe truths is a Romish and not a Protestant idea; and the temporary gain secured by acting upon it is more than counterbalanced by the final pernicious result.
It is far safer for me and for you that I preach this truth to you boldly and plainly; and I have a special object in bringing it to your notice now, at this solemn season when you are reviewing the past, and making a new consecration of yourselves to the service of Christ.
Here, as you renew your original vow to come out from the world, it is well that you do this with no vague idea of what you promise. What I shall now say applies to most if not all of you, but especially to the younger members of the church. As you enter upon a season of special religious activity, you also enter upon a season which society is wont to devote largely to pleasure. Ere another communion season shall have come round, the season for evening entertainments and festal gatherings, will be at its height. From the nature of circumstances you will be called upon to participate in these more or less; and it is at these points that the temptation to conformity to the world will be most likely to assail you.
Most of you are probably aware of the ground I have recently taken before the public on the subject of amusements; a position which has excited considerable comment, and some censure. I do not see why it should. There is nothing novel in my views on this subject. I have merely stated the gospel principle, the principle which Christ propounded, and by which he lived -- that the proper and only way to preserve our pleasures or anything else from abuse, is to put Christian leaven into them. That our duty in such matters, is not to give them over bodily to the devil and to the world, to be abused and perverted at their pleasure; but to save them from such perversion, and make them legitimate instruments of Christian joy and growth, by using them in the name and under the law of Christ. If these things are evil, we have no right to have anything to do with them. If they are, though not evil in themselves, so under the dominion of evil, and so dependent upon evil for support, as the theatre, for example, is, that Christian participation cannot separate them from their abuses, we ought to abandon them. But as to the general principle, that it is abuse and not proper use which Christ condemns, and that many of the things which the devil has usurped, are as much yours as his, there can be no doubt. I have not one word to modify or retract of what I have written on this subject. Challenged, I would reiterate it word for word, if I knew I should go from this pulpit to my grave. And I dare any Christian to draw from what I have written, or from what I have said to-day, license for improper conformity to the world. If you do so, depend on it, you and not I will be condemned. And I rejoice especially to-day, in having assumed this position; because I have never had so good ground from which to counsel you as to your intercourse with the world of pleasure. If I were to put this matter to you on the ground of men's rules and decrees, if I were to try and show you, by subtle hair-splitting, that this thing is one degree more capable of abuse than that thing; and that, therefore, you may use that, and must abandon this, I should expose myself to merciless logic, and to just ridicule. I leave this ground entirely. I put myself on God's word, and say to you this morning, be not conformed to this world. I say to you as the first, the indispensable requisite for deciding in what conformity consists, see that your relations to Christ are properly adjusted. Present yourselves living sacrifices to him. Be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Submit your will to the will of God without reserve. Then shall you be able to prove what is his will, what is good and acceptable and perfect. Then shall your judgment be so enlightened as to enable you to render a reasoning, a reasonable, a thoughtful and discriminating service. This is the first thing.
For this I pray for you. For this I am anxious for you, that you be vitally united to Christ; that you have a living, active faith in him; a clear witness of your acceptance with him, an ever burning love for him. If you have these, I know that the details of your lives, whether they concern your pleasures, or your business, or your studies, will take care of themselves. But remember this prerequisite. Do not go away saying, |my pastor says I may lawfully indulge in this or that, and I need give myself no further trouble about it.| I say to you no such thing. I say that you want your whole nature renewed by the indwelling of Christ, and that without this you are not safe in the world one moment. That without this you are in continual danger of conformity to the world. Without this you are in no condition to decide in what you may engage, or how far you may engage in it without abuse. Withal, you will need to trouble yourself about these matters; to study God's law; to watch closely your own heart and life; to avoid needless temptation; to exercise strong resolution when pleasure beckons you beyond the bounds erected by Christian duty. I bid you rejoice in your youth. I bid you use those amusements which are innocent in themselves, freely and with gratitude to God, but to beware of their abuse. I can safely tell you some things which God's word will teach you as to this matter. It will tell you that where you make pleasure the end and rule of your life, and duty the exception, you are guilty of abuse. It will tell you that when pleasure saps the fountains of your health, when it steals away your hours of sleep, and tempts you to excessive indulgence of appetite at an hour which nature prescribes for the rest and recuperation of your organs, when it leads you to expose yourself to sickness by inadequate clothing -- it is a gross abuse for which God will hold you accountable. It will tell you that when any description of pleasure trenches on the limits of modesty, it is an abuse; that the public embracing of young men and women in the vile dances of the day, is an offense against decency, an abomination against which manly nobleness and maidenly delicacy ought to cry out with all their power. It will tell you that when pleasure of any kind interferes with your covenant obligations to the church, and keeps you from the ordinances of God's house, it is an abuse; a conformity to the world, against which God warns you in this text.
Come then and give yourselves to Christ, not repelled by any false, ascetic views of his religion, but believing, as his word entitles you to believe, that it is the promoter of innocent joy, of healthy and grateful recreation, of the highest and purest pleasures. Come, and he shall show you by his own life how to be in the world, yet not of it. How to live in strictest conformity to duty, and yet be free indeed, and exhibit to the world a broad, noble, generous Christian life -- a life in the spirit and not in the letter. He shall teach you to live by the insight of love, and not by the prescriptions of a bare scheme of duty. Oh, that you may grow to the stature of perfect men and women in Christ; that you may be living examples of a reasoning service, models of a piety, enthusiastic yet judicious; all aglow with the love of Christ carried into every detail of your lives, into your pleasures, your conversation, your business; bringing everything, great and small, into conformity with the law of Christ, and making the whole life move sweetly and harmoniously round him. You will not then be a worldly church. You will not then be stumbling blocks to the kingdom of Christ. You will be living epistles, read and known of all men, and they, seeing your good works, shall glorify your father which is in Heaven.