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The Message And The Man by J. Dodd Jackson

CHAPTER III. The Need for Certainty.

One of the most obvious lessons to be learned from a study of church history is a lesson teaching the necessity of the positive note in the pulpit. The great ages of Christianity have been those in which affirmation has been clear and definite and strong. The great preachers of the past have ever been positive preachers, men whose assurance concerning their message was heard in every tone of their voices, who knew in whom they had believed. Especially has this been true of those whose ministrations have been the means of great revivals of religion as seen in the awakening of zeal within the Church and the salvation of sinners. How positive were the Wesleys! How sure was Whitefield! How absolutely certain of things were the fathers of our own Church! How real to them were God and Jesus and Heaven and Hell. They were narrow, perhaps. Possibly they were often intolerant. It may have been the case that they were rather too ready to damn every one who disagreed with them as to the interpretation of the truth of God. They may not have always displayed a sweet and brotherly reluctance to brand as a heretic any person whose creed was a little more hopeful than their own. It might possibly be shown that there is some truth in the suggestion that they were not always able to render a reason for their convictions with an intelligence and a wealth of knowledge proportionate to the strength with which they held them. But they did know where they were. They could identify themselves among theologians. They were ready with a confession of faith. This is so, and this and this, they could say. That will come to pass, and that and that, they affirmed, as if they saw it all enacted before them. The result of this strong believing was seen in the production of strong belief and, better still, of determined action in those to whom they preached; for belief is at least as infectious as doubt, as the records of spiritual movements and the biographies of religious leaders of all schools will prove. There was no theorising in those camp-meeting sermons to which the people of this land were listening a hundred years ago; no |honest doubt| in those invitations heard upon the greens of the villages and in the market-places of the towns while yet the last century was young. Here were preachers as sure of their message as they were of their own existence. Of |mental reservations| they knew nothing. They had never even heard the term. They dealt in |wills| and |shalls|; not in |peradventures| or |maybes.| They said of a thing |it is| or |it is not.| They went up into such pulpits as they possessed, not to conduct a public inquiry after truth, but to declare it. They were not out in search of a gospel adapted to the needs of the age. They had found the one sure way of life adapted to this and every other time. This they cried aloud, and then lifting up their voices in song, |Turn to the Lord and seek salvation,| they went marching on, while men followed enquiring with weeping eyes, |What must we do to be saved?|

Such was the preaching of our fathers, crude enough, much of it, no doubt; lacking, perhaps, many of the literary excellencies and graces of the preaching of our later days, yet mighty because of its very sureness, because of its splendid dogmatism. The complaint goes that the pulpit of our time lacks this positive note; that by word or tone the preacher conveys the impression that he is |not quite sure.| It is reported that he suggests where once he proclaimed, surmises where once he declared. It is alleged that people are turning away from the churches because they can obtain no certain answer to the questions of the soul. Instead of quoting a |Yea| or a |Nay,| they report replies to the effect that probably the answer should be |Yea,| but that, as we are at present passing through |a period of transition,| as all our creeds are |in the melting pot,| we must wait a little while for an absolutely categorical reply, preserving, in the meantime, an open mind and a trusting heart. For purposes of consolation, and to encourage them to this trustfulness of spirit, they are told, so they relate, that |devout men are at work upon the sacred documents;| that other men, equally devout, are reconsidering the doctrines, and that, among it all, the preacher does not worry, but, with admirable calm, waits and trusts, knowing |that in the end his position will be stronger than ever for the surrender of a few defenceless outposts.| By preaching such as this possibilities are suggested which, it is said, cause more concern than comfort to the man in search of definite guidance on the most serious and vital subjects with which the mind is called upon to deal. Another statement we have heard: -- That as this kind of thing is met with almost exclusively in Protestantism it works out largely to the advantage of the Roman Catholic Church. Few weeks pass by in which we do not read of this or that well-known person who has |gone over.| As only the more prominent |converts| are mentioned in the press we may be sure that the number of unknown and relatively unimportant people who secede from Protestantism is much greater than is known. From one of this multitude came a little while ago an explanation of the step he had taken: -- |The Roman Church knows what she believes. Her priests are positive. I cannot risk my soul upon a theory; I want a fact!|

Now it is quite possible that this complaint is greatly an exaggeration. It is certain that many are blamed while comparatively few are guilty. It is quite possible to be too much disturbed and alarmed by criticisms of the Church and her preachers. These criticisms do not all come from the sincerest friendliness; neither are they always absolutely without bias, or invariably founded upon extensive observation. The Church at her worst has always been better -- she always will be better -- than her enemies allow. The same is true of preaching. Still it is wise to ask ourselves, when a criticism is laid against either Church or preacher, whether there may not be a grain or two of truth to the bushel of chaff. It would be a misfortune if in our contempt for this same chaff we should lose the corn hidden there. Where there is smoke it is well to remember there is always, at least, a smoulder of fire. Grant that much has been made of little, which is a weakness of the critic in every time, and that all the rumour has resulted simply from some lack of definiteness on the part of a few. Grant, also, that as the criminal is always far more talked about for his transgression than the honest man for his honesty, so the man who betrays his doubts in the pulpit is far more discussed than the ninety-and-nine sure men who go on their unsensational way according to standards made and received from old time amongst us. Grant all this, and it will still remain to be said that the preaching of the present day, in those churches where the right of private judgment on matters of faith and doctrine is recognised, would, to make the least of it, be all the better for a more positive tone.

But how has it come to pass that there should have occurred, even in the small degree in which we admit it, a loss of the sureness which means so much in the preaching of the word of truth? The question is a large one, and to answer it fully much more than all the paper composing this book would be required. It may be that the spirit of the age is not a spirit favourable to belief. In some periods faith is glorified; in others, doubt. In these days, it might be thought from much we hear, a little scepticism is the one sure evidence of intellectuality; while steadfastness in the creed of one's youth proves the possession of a dull and narrow mind and the existence of that hopeless mental condition known as fossilisation. Ours are the days of science, and science has frightened some people terribly concerning religion, though it would almost appear that she is now beginning, in some measure, to repent, and is turning to soothe the timorous souls whom she formerly terrified. Ours are days of criticism too, and the criticism has largely been concerned with the very writings wherein are recorded those words upon which we have relied as containing the way of life. Some things said to have been discovered have disturbed us a little, though why they should have done so it is difficult, upon reflection, to see. We have been too prone, perhaps, to surrender ourselves to such a feeling as is natural to those anxious moments when, having called a consultant to the bedside of a sick friend, we have just uttered the request, |Now, Doctor, tell us candidly the worst.| All these things would be mentioned in the long history which would be needed fully to narrate the causes of the slight slackening of faith noted here and there; but, for all the importance which would probably be ascribed to each in turn, they are not the only reasons; they are not even the chief reasons. Those, we are bold to say, are not intellectual, but moral and spiritual!

And these moral and spiritual causes of doubt in relation to eternal and divine things will emerge as we proceed to try to answer the question, which now arises, as to how we can recover that measure of certainty which we have lost, and which we must regain, with additions, if we would achieve that power in the work of preaching which is needed to turn the hearts of men towards God and goodness. Notwithstanding all that may be said as to the difficulties of the situation, we venture to think that the lines upon which confidence may be won back again are not impossible of discernment.

For, simple as the suggestion may be; lacking all flavour of the extraordinary as it does; without novelty and confessedly old-fashioned; we have but this to commend to all who waver and doubt, to all whose voices falter as they seek to utter the mighty affirmations of the Gospel: -- That the way to win again the old assurance is to come back to the source of their sublime vocation, determined, whatever may befall, there to abide all the long and trying day. |Reach hither thy finger,| He said to the doubter whose faith had well-nigh died for loss of a few days' open vision, |Reach hither thy finger and behold My hands and reach hither thy hand and thrust it into My side and be not faithless but believing.| The spirit of St. Thomas comes upon us all at times, perhaps more often in youth than age. Occasionally it comes uninvited; sometimes, alas! we open the door and bid it enter. There is but one way of escaping this spirit, and it is recorded in this old history. Surely for doubting souls in all ages was this experience of Thomas written down!

The way of certainty is the way of the extended hand. Ultimately the preacher's faith depends upon the use he makes of his own spiritual opportunities. |If any man will do His will he shall know of the doctrine whether it be of God.| There is an intimate connection between intellectual results and moral and spiritual conditions. The surrender of the will to God is always followed by an increase of spiritual intelligence. That this is true we have seen proved unnumbered times as lowly piety has revealed sublimities of faith and trust. Spiritual things are, and must be, spiritually discerned.

And this is not so hard to understand as may appear. A life surrendered to the will of God is of all lives the most peaceful and composed. It is lived in an atmosphere of repose. In such an atmosphere the mind has an opportunity of looking upon the great spiritual mysteries in the light proper to their contemplation and consideration. It is a life of good works too, and good works tend to establish the gospel by which they were inspired. It would not be easy -- we had almost said it would be impossible -- to find a man engaged in hard and constant toil for Jesus Christ who would complain that he suffers from doubt as to the truth of the faith he serves. Unbelief is not unfrequently the penalty of indolence. It might in many instances be found possible to trace the doubts of men to their slackness in the service of God.

The same spiritual laws as regulate the experience of every saint of God regulate those of the preacher. His Sabbath note will be according to his week-day living. Let him be all the week absorbed in material things only; let him seek only his own gratification, only his own wealth or pleasure or advantage; let him walk only in the lower paths, and he must not be surprised if, as he stands up upon the Sabbath, his voice be found to have lost the old ring of joyful and glorious assertion. He must not be astonished if his grasp of heavenly mysteries and promises and provisions be slack, and if, as a result, he speaks in halting tones. If his daily walk be far from the side of his Lord, he must not wonder if other spirits find their way to his ear and fill it with whispers of doubt and fear which make his testimony hesitant and of small effect for good. We say he must not be surprised at these things. No, nor must he find the reasons for this weakening of his faith in the message itself, though that will inevitably be the chief temptation of such dangerous hours. He should ask first concerning the life he is living, whether it is of a sort to make faith an easy thing. He should ask concerning his personal observance of the Master's counsel of prayer and self-denial and cross-bearing. It is pleasanter, no doubt, to seek the reasons for one's unbelief in intellectual than in moral directions. The former method may flatter us a little; the latter is often very painful!

And yet by inquiring as to our moral condition the whole secret will often be discovered. There is also another question to ask: -- If we understand the promises of our Lord, in even a slight degree, He gives to all whom He calls into the holy ministry the assurance of a Comforter who will guide them into all truth, and bring all things to their remembrance whatsoever He has said. Are we quite able, we who are afflicted with doubts which sometimes make it hard to preach, are we quite able to say that we have honoured Him in putting His promises to the proof as we might have done? Was not one of the Master's words to us |It shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak|? There was no uncertainty in the Upper Room in that glad but awful moment when the pledge of the ages was fulfilled to the children of the new and better covenant. Let us seek that experience again. Let us begin our quest at the cross, with a prayer for forgiveness, and a vow of reconsecration. Let us wait upon Him for a renewal of that divine outpouring of which He has never disappointed His chosen messengers when they have sought it at His hand, meanwhile denying themselves, taking up their cross and following Him. Let us but obtain that baptism, and all our crippling and alarming scepticisms will vanish, and the full round tone of fearless confidence return. Such a return is the need of the present hour -- spiritual certainty in an age of materialism, the one sure antidote for all its cares. Thus only can come that revival of religion for which we have sighed and looked so long. Be assured that there can be no such work of grace as this unless the message of the pulpit be with definiteness and confidence. Here would the answer to many a question, the solution of many a problem be found. Hearers would be conscious of a new tone in the delivery of the weekly word. Truth would be spoken as if it were truth indeed, and in their very consciences men would know it to be true. No longer would the way of life be pointed with trembling finger. Once again the ambassador would stand forth in all his royal glory and cry |Thus saith the Lord,| and now Sinai's thunders, now Calvary's gales of grace, would give majesty and tenderness to his voice!

Such is the way back to certainty, if certainty in any of us have been lost for a little while. Yet, even as we name it, there comes again to our ears the old enquiry so often heard as an explanation of durance in Doubting Castle: -- How does all this accord with the advice constantly given to men to seek to win each a creed for himself? Is it not a man's duty to make his inherited beliefs and the things which are told him the subjects of his individual inquiry and of his own personal judgment and proof? Yes; all this is true but other things are true as well.

The first of them is surely this: -- That a man should have won this creed for himself before he set out to provide a creed for other people. Once more, preaching is not a public inquiry after truth but a declaration of it. The man who has not got beyond the stage of inquiry has no right to be in the pulpit at all. Some preachers are always making confessions as to their difficulties. It ought to be seen that the people do not come to hear of the preacher's difficulties, but to be helped in their own. Another thing that is true is this: -- That it is surely not the best way of winning a creed to begin by doubting the truth of everything in order to get at the truth of something, as many seem to do. Surely it is not the best way of winning a belief of one's own to conduct an inquiry with the object of finding how much is false of the things we have been taught. Why not begin with the purpose of finding out how much is true? Why not seek for confirmations as well as for contradictions? It is surely something to the credit of the things instilled into us as children that unnumbered generations of great and holy and thoughtful men have found in them their spiritual sustenance and salvation. It might have a helpful effect to ask why it should be left to you or me, so late in time as the beginning of the twentieth century, to make the discovery that the faith which has inspired |saints, apostles, prophets, martyrs,| which has saved its millions, satisfying the deepest longings of the heart and the highest demands of the intellect; the faith which has inspired the purity, the benevolence, the courage and endurance of a long, long past -- is only in a very limited and partial degree the truth of God. A due appreciation of the significance of history ought, it might seem, to be enough to make it appear, even to the youngest and most daring of us, an impossible thing that teaching which has produced such triumphs can be false.

Then as to this search for |a creed for himself| which, we are reminded, it is every man's duty to make: -- It also remains to be said that for success in this pursuit, as for success in some other pursuits, an observance of spiritual laws is needful. A man should seek for his creed as prayerfully as he seeks for any help of which he ever finds himself in need. The path of prayer is the path of light and of truth. The mistake often made is this, that we try to find this creed without seeking the help of God. |I will be inquired of saith the Lord.|

One more question: -- Is the possession of this certainty consistent with progress? Are we not told to expect new light as years pass on? Has not every preacher the right to look upon himself as the possible organ of new revelations to his fellows? Even so; but light will not contradict light. As the glimmer of the dawn grows into the brilliance of the day, the rays of the sun, falling ever more brightly upon the landscape, bring more clearly into view the features which at first were dim and dreamlike. As the glory creeps over vale and hill, touching here a winding river, there a patch of vivid green, yonder a window of some distant dwelling, new points of beauty and interest are continually being revealed; but the scene, though better discerned, is still the same as first burst upon our view at the moment when the sun leaped into the firmament from behind yon eastern hill. Further revelations we may indeed look for, but they will only be new chapters of the |old, old story,| and |continuations| at that. They are for confirmation, not disturbance. God cannot contradict Himself. No one was more sure of the law-givers than the prophets; no one more in accord with the prophets than the apostles. Our Lord came not to destroy but to fulfil.

So then certainty is consistent with progress; with an attitude of receptivity toward new light. A firm belief in what the Lord told us yesterday is harmonious with an eagerness to hear what He may have to add to-day. It is indeed to be regarded as proof of our faith in yesterday's communication that we hearken for to-day's word. Certainty is possible to the preacher, and certainty he must have!

Yes, certainty he must have; for the people ask for it, and have a right to demand it from those who stand up in God's name to teach them His way. We have read of blind guides, |blind leaders of the blind.| Such a leadership is that of the preacher who has no sure word to speak. For his own soul's sake the ambassador must have certainty, for what life can be more wretched than the life of a man set up to proclaim a message doubted of his own spirit. For God's sake; for the sake of the Gospel to be uttered; for the sake of the high purpose of that Gospel he must be sure. Without certainty there can be no truly effective and successful preaching!

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