SERMON I. The manuscript of the
following sermon bears the date of January 18, 1798 two months before Dr.
Chalmers eighteenth birthday, and a year and a half before he was licensed by
the Presbytery as a preacher of the gospel. It must have been written as a
Divinity Hall class exercise during the last session of his regular attendance
at the University of St. Andrews. Its concluding paragraphs lay bare to us
those fatal misapprehensions of the great doctrine of justification by faith
only, which were cherished by him during the first ten years of his ministry -
against which afterwards all the better fitted to guard others, because of his
having long misled by them himself.
MICAH VI. 8. He hath showed thee, 0 man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God ?"
This passage, if taken in connexion with the context, would naturally direct our thoughts to the evils of hypocrisy and superstition. It would lead us to infer that the mind alone is the seat of virtue; that in our estimation of religion we are not to have respect to the works of the hand, but only to the moral disposition of the heart. Instead, however, of adverting more the occasion of the text, I propose to consider it and of itself; and shall first endeavour to illustrate particular duties enjoined in the text, and shall then consider it in its connexion with the religion of Jesus.
The Lord requireth of thee to do justly - to love mercy. The promotion of happiness is the great end of all social duty. Wherefore is it that justice approves itself to our feelings of virtue? Because without its observance the peace, the happiness, the very existence of society would be endangered. Mercy, also, is the object of moral approbation; because by the relief of indigence, by the consolation of misery, it advances and promotes the happiness of men. Both are equally incumbent, because both conduce to the same end. In the eye of civil polity doing justly may be all that is in duty required, but in the eye of eternal reason and virtue, loving mercy is no less indispensable. It is the end which these virtues have a tendency to promote that confers upon them their moral obligation. This end is one and invariable; the means which lead to its attainment are diversified with the circumstances of the case. Justice and mercy include in them all the various manners of acting by which we can contribute to the happiness of mankind. Hence they resolve themselves into that great duty which consists in devoting our time and our labour to the welfare of others.
Benevolence or universal charity is the source from which the observance of these duties proceeds. It is this principle of love which guides through the path of duty, and is the fountain of all our social virtues. It equally calls upon us to satisfy the demands of justice and to visit the abodes of wretchedness; to discharge with fidelity the trust reposed in us, and to exercise all our tender affections. Let us cultivate this spirit of benevolence and love, and we fulfil the duties recommended in the text ; for all the commandments are briefly comprehended in this saying - "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." Let us now proceed to the last duty which the text recommends - Thou shalt walk humbly with thy God. Walking humbly with God more immediately involves in it an entire acquiescence in His authority - an unbounded resignation to His will. It is opposed to that arrogance of mind which would lead us to cavil and repine at the dispensations of His providence. But it also includes in it the whole of piety; to it may be referred all those affections of mind which should result from the relations we stand in to our Creator. It is with God that we are required to walk humbly; and if so, we must be open to every sentiment which the contemplation of His perfections is calculated to inspire - to the awe of His power, to confidence in His wisdom, and to the love of His goodness.
The man of humility strives to offer an acceptable service to the Author of being. Does God speak? he listens to His words with an awful reverence; he reposes an unlimited trust in His veracity. Does God declare His will? with unbounded faith he receives sovereign mandates, and submits to their influence. And reverence for the authority of God keeps him in the His divine commandments, and leads him to watch with trembling anxiety. But humility towards God does not consist entirely in the dread of His power, in that slavish terror which enfeebles the energy of the mind, and destroys the vitals of our happiness. The Deity hath deigned to reveal Himself to us the endearing images of our father and friend. He hath softened the sense of His greatness by giving us a view of His beneficence and love. We ought therefore to cherish sentiments of gratitude and affection, and the contemplation of the divine goodness should inspire our hearts with confidence and joy! Think not, then, that piety casts a gloom over the face of nature. Think not that sullen and dejected it retires from the world to dwell on nothing but subjects of melancholy. Think not that the sigh of sadness or the tears of penitential sorrow are its whole employments. True, the ravages of sin, the imperfections of infinite nature, may cause it to hide its face for a while in all the bitterness of grief. But soon will the light of divine countenance be restored, and that voice of heavenly consolation be heard which speaketh peace to the soul. Then piety appears arrayed in all its beauty and lustre. It harmonises with every generous feeling of our nature, and ennobles the enjoyments of life. It confers new dignity on man; and the dignity affords a new theme of gratitude and love.
Now may we be convinced of the propriety of applying the epithet "good" to humility or piety towards God. Alas, it is only in the sense of His wise providence that we can find any rational support to the soul amidst the present scenes of obscurity and confusion! Man mourns over his afflictions; cares and anxieties distract his mind. Following after peace, earnest in the pursuit of happiness, the events of every day convince him of the fallacy of his hopes - every hour brings on new topics of lamentation and complaint. What then shall he do? Shall he sit down under the despondency of continual apprehension, destitute of all hope in futurity, and incapable of the sublime exertions of virtue? In sullen despair shall he drag out his miserable existence without a generous sentiment to elevate his mind, and without a ray of consolation to cheer the gloom of life? No; let the infinite wisdom and unbounded goodness of God be impressed on his mind; let him contemplate those provisions which the Author of nature hath made for the encouragement and comfort of His creatures; and let him fit himself by the exercises of humility and piety for the enjoyment of the blessings which these provisions ensure ; - then will be dispelled those clouds of sorrow and darkness which overhung his mind; the peace of his soul will be completely restored. Resting with an humble assurance on the favour of his God, he looks forward with joy to that felicity which His goodness gives him reason to expect. Amidst the storms and the tempests of life he extends his prospects to the regions of everlasting peace. Let us therefore recognise the goodness of genuine humility. It is good in the moral sense, because in the eye of reason and of virtue it naturally results from that relation which subsists between man and his Maker; and it is good also in the natural sense, because it alleviates the evils of this present life, and prepares us for the enjoyment of eternal felicity. In the same manner we must acknowledge the goodness of benevolence.
The exercises of pure and perfect benevolence would convert this vale of tears into a paradise of bliss. Under its benign influence want and its attendant evils would be banished from the earth; men would feel little of the evils, and would enjoy in perfection the blessings of life. Why has the populous city become an habitation for the beasts of the desert? Wherefore is that a dreary wilderness which was formerly crowned with the blessings of eternity - where innocence and peace took up their abode, and n.othing was heard but the voice of joy? We are not to say that Nature was unkind, or that she delights in the misery of children. We have seldom to ascribe it to the ravage of the elements, or to any of those evils which are essential to our to the wickedness and depravity of the human heart - the the direr effasions of passion - to the mad ambition of wealth and of power. These are the principal sources of human wretchedness; and these it is the direct tendency of benevolence to supress. Under its happy reign all would enjoy the exquiste pleasures of loving and of being beloved - pleasures which are congenial to the heart and make up the chief part of our happiness.
Though the powers of nature should conspire ot our peace, yet the voice of love would invite us to gladness. Though the heavens should withhold their rain, and earth forbear to yield its increase; or though the fair face of nature should be overcast in the gloom of night, and the blast of the storm should threaten to overwhelm us; yet supported by the kind endearments of friendship, we may continue unruffled and serene, and our minds be open to the most feeling enjoyments. On the other hand, let everything without unite is gratify our desires and increase our enjoyments; let the labour of the year be crowned with success; let the seasons join concert for our accommodation and ease; let the sun diffuse in due proportion his cheering influences; let the fury of the tempest be allayed, and all around us be clothed in mildness and beauty; unless the heart of man accords with the beneficence of nature; unless his mind is open to the warm impressions of sympathy and love - misery will still be our lot; the tale of woe will still be heard in our streets; and this world will continue the abode of wretchedness.
The sufferings of Job were aggravated in the extreme. Yet the loss of his wealth, the ravages of disease, the death of his children, the dissolution of the most endearing connexions in nature, were all unable to shake the patient fortitude of his mind. Still could he raise to heaven the voice of gratitude and resignation: The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away; blessed be His name. But when his companions and friends - instead of allaying the anguish of his grief, instead of taking upon them the part of a comforter - began to insult him with their bitter accusations, then the vigour of his mind was unequal to the arduous contest, and his soul, no longer able to support itself, was subjected to the mingled emotions of indignation and grief. Nature is kind enough, if we only were kind to one another. But often, alas, do the dark designs of malice work in our breasts; often do the silly emotions of pride and of envy obstruct the enjoyments of social intercourse. 0 that the principle of benevolence within us were powerful enough to eradicate these passions from our hearts. 0 that we were sacrificing our absurd notions of importance and dignity, our views of interest and ambition, to that great object - the good of others. 0 that the sufferings of our fellow-men were calling forth the tears of sympathy, and rousing to exertions of beneficence and love; then the burdens of life would bear light upon us, and our days would pass in the pure enjoyment of innocence and virtue.
Let us now proceed to consider the religion of Jesus in its connexion with the spirit of the text.
Justice, mercy, and piety, are all that are or can be required of us by God. Hence if we are bound to acquiesce in the doctrines and to obey the precepts of the gospel, this acquiescence and this obedience must be the consequence of one or other of those duties which are enjoined in the text. Faith in the religion of Jesus must be the necessary effect of walking humbly with God, if the testimony of the apostles and evangelists be entitled to belief. This will appear from considering the nature of that evidence by which Christianity is supported. Those arguments for its truth which are derived from our experience of the usual conduct and behaviour of men have never been refuted. And on the validity of these arguments, we are capable of forming a right, unerring judgment; since the conduct of men in all states and circumstances is the subject of daily observation. But whence are the objections of our opponents derived?
They are derived from some supposed defect in the scheme or dispensation of Christianity; from something which they imagine to be inconsistent with the nature of God, or unworthy of His perfections. But can this invalidate the force of that evidence which we know how to measure and becertain? When reasoning on the conduct of men, we can form our conclusions with certainty and precision; but when reasoning on the conduct of God, we are involved in the clouds of ignorance and error. We are unable to scan the ways or trace the operations of unerring wisdom. We cannot determine on the rectitude of the divine dispensations, since we know them not in all their relations and all their extent. It is not for us, the frai1 insects of a day, who are yet in the childhood of existence,who scarce have had time to look about us in the immense theatre of our being; it is not for us to oppose the feeble powers of our reason to the wonders of Omnipotence. When we know the mechanism of the universe, when we are acquainted with the laws by which its vast operations are conducted, when we can trace the connexions which run through the various systems of being - then, and then only, are we entitled to decide on the propriety of the means which the Author of nature may adopt for the completion of His designs. Seeing then our ignorance in the ways of God, we must be cautious of making some supposed inconsistency with His attributes a ground of rejecting what is proposed as the revelation of His will. No opinion that we may form of His conduct can ever be the criterion of its truth or falsehood. But the case is different with regard to the conduct of men; here we can reason with all the confidence of truth. Shall therefore a mere assumptiou on the methods of the divine administration counterbalance those arguments on which alone we are capable of deciding with assurance? I leave it to the determination of sound philosophy.
Thus Christianity approves itself to our understandings as being divinely inspired, and we fail in our duty to God if we believe not its doctrines, nor submit to its precepts.
When inquiring into the divine will we would observe that the doctrines of revelation are laid before us with different degrees of light and clearness. Hence we would receive them with the hesitation of partial knowledge, or with the confidence of truth. What is clearly revealed we would treasure up in our minds as of the most essential importance. What is hid in obscurity or is remote from our apprehensions we would regard with an awful reverence, but would forbear to reason on with the assurance of dogmatism. But, alas! this natural order has been inverted - and to this we are in a great measure to ascribe the corruptions of Christianity. Instead of employing their zeal in maintaining that faith and that practice which are clearly laid down in Scripture, and which it insists upon as our duty to God and as essential to our happiness, many have directed their chief attention to those subjects on which it is undecided and obscure. They have attached the highest degree of importance to those doctrines which transcend the limits of our faculties, and to these they have sacrificed all that can inform the understanding or improve the heart.
Thus religion is made to consist in dark speculations and unprofitable inquiries. The beautiful simplicity of the gospel is defaced, and a dark veil of mysticism intercepts from our view the light of divine truth. The effects of heavenly instruction are lost on the world, since Christianity thus perverted from its original excellence is unsuited to the natures and capacities of reasonable beings. The corrupters of evangelical purity, in accordance with their zeal for the particular doctrines they have espoused, maintain the absolute necessity of believing in them. Thus in their systems of theological truth, they have had the audacity to heap article on article, and to crown all with this thundering asserertion - that eternal misery awaits those who should dare to dissent. What a lamentable deviation from the spirit of the text! Here the rewards of heaven are attached to the exercise of our virtuous affections. And what is the line of conduct which these would lead us to adopt ? They lead us to repose an unlimited confidence in the veracity of God, to examine the revelation of His will with humility and candour, and to keep our minds open to those impressions which the perusal of its contents are fitted to produce. If therefore the tenets of these rehigionists are contained in the Scriptures of truth, it will be a dictate of piety that we acquiesce in them, since it would be an insult on the Divine Being to withhold our assent.
But the faith of Christianity is praiseworthy and meritorious only because it is derived from the influence of virtuous sentiments on the mind. Hence the labours of those are grossly misapplied who inculcate the belief of certain religious truths as the method of obtaining the favour of heaven. Let us rather endeavour to inspire men with affections; let us impress upon their hearts the sentiments of humility and piety; and let us refer the revelations of divine will to their own examination. They will there recognise the doctrines which it is incumbent on them to believe and they will discern the sources of this incumbency. Let us themble to think that anything but virtue can reconcile us to the Almighty. True, we wander in the paths of vanity and darkness, and Christ is pointed out to us as our only refuge against the terrors of guilt; but the acknowledgimnt of our Saviour, that faith in Him which is essential to our happiness, is brought about by the impulse of moral sentiment, and unless it were so, we cannot see how it could ensure to us the favour of heaven. In nothing has the genius of mysticism more displayed itself than in the delineations of that faith which is a requisite to salvation. We recognise the faith of Christianity as that which is derived from the force of reason, and the energy of virtuous sentiment. But the misguided votaries of superstition and fananaticism have involved this subject in darkness.
They talk bf faith, and their notions of this faith are contradictory and absurd; a faith which consists not in the assent of the understanding, but in some strange undefinable affection of the mind - a faith not derived from the calm exercises of the inquiring facilility - or from the sober suggestions of humility and piety; but a faith which precedes all examination, and is said to be the primary source of all that is good and excellent in the human character. I ask the man of common sense, if he can form to himself any idea of this faith - the favourite topic of declamation with these famed religionists. But they love to soar aloft; their ears are soothed, their imaginations are dazzled with those high-sounding words, those notable phrases which they think can explain all the mysteries of theological science. We consider the faith of Christianity to be the humble assurance of an honest mind which grounds its confidence on the consciousness of its own sincerity, on the view of the divine goodness, and on the contemplation of those provisions which the Author of nature hath made for the encouragement of erring mortals.
But the perverters of the truth as it is in Jesus have determined that to be the saving faith which none but the presumptuous can entertain; not that faith which worketh by love, which purifieth the heart, and which overcometh the world, but that faith which, according with the pride of their minds, elevates them in their own esteem as the peculiar favourites of heaven. This faith (horrible to relate) they carry about with them as an amulet against the reproaches of a guilty conscience, and thus do they stifle the feelings of nature, and check the sentiments of virtue. Sanctioned by this faith they may oppress the poor, the fatherless, and the widow - they may betray the interests of an unsuspecting friend, while they lay claim to the friendship of heaven. Sanctioned by this faith they may indulge in every excess of sensual voluptuousness, while they have confidence in their hearts towards God, who is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity.
Sanctioned by this faith they may meditate on schemes of robbery and murder, while they exclaim with exultation - Lo, the Spirit of Jesus is in us. - O my soul come not thou into their secret; unto their assembly mine honour be not thou united. Instruments of cruelty are in their habitations; they bathe their hands in the blood of innocence; they lurk in the dark haunts of villany; and, good God! they sit secure amidst such enormities, and rejoice in their presumption as the mark of intimacy wit.h the Spirit, and of growth in grace. 0 Christianity whither hast thou fled? where hast thou taken up thine abode? We sought for thy instructions, but counsels were darkened by words without knowledge. We sought for thy beauties, and the picture of horrid deformity was exhibited to our view. We sought for thy consolations, and our souls were appalled with the sounds of horror and despair. Surely thou art despoiled of thy graces and thy ornaments. Surely thou hast resigned the lovely honours of thy head. We took thee for the messenger of glad tidings, for the of love, peace, and joy; but we have seen thee clothed with terror, and striking with dismay thy slavish worshippers. - took thee for the support and encouragement of virtue, but, we have seen all that accords with the feelings of our minds despised and overlooked, and we have seen thy blessings attached to the pride of censorious dogmatism, and to the confidence of presumption, and to the unmeaning effusions of flase zeal. The soul formed to sentiments of generosity sickens at the prospect and must either rise superior to the prejudices of the times or (dreadful alternative) shelter itself in infidel repose.
Let us therefore pray the Father of Spirits that He would dispel those clouds of ignorance and error which overwhelm the nations; that He would enable them to see the religion of Jesus in its native purity; that He would enable them to see it through that veil of mysticism with which the pernicious superstition of men bath invested it; that He would enable them to see it as the offspring of reason and virtue. Then they will leave their dark and intricate speculations. They will learn to relish the simplicity of the gospel - that affecting strain of sentiment which pervades it - that warm spirit of benevolence which it breathes - those sublime precepts of morality which it inculcates. They will learn to admire and to imitate the rational and elevated piety, the ardent charity, the pure and exalted virtue of Jesus and His apostles.
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