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ON FALLING FROM THE GRACE OF BAPTISM,
“Remember Lot’s wife.”
THIS warning, taken from the familiar history of the Jews, is a part of our Lord’s answer to those that asked when the kingdom of God should come. He warned them that it should come with no out ward and visible tokens—with few forerunning signs; and even those such as the faithful alone should read. “As it was in the days of Noe, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of man. They did eat, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise, also, as it was in the days of Lot; they did eat, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they builded; but the same day that Lot went out of Sodom, it rained fire and brimstone from heaven, and destroyed them all. Even thus shall it be in the day when the Son of 35man is revealed. In that day, he which shall be upon the house-top, and his stuff in the house, let him not come down to take it away; and he that is in the field, let him likewise not return back. Remember Lot’s wife.”99 St. Luke xvii. 26-32. Now, in thus calling up to their recollection the judgments of God in old time, our Lord teaches us to recognise the mysterious movements of His providential order, and to learn the broad analogies by which they are controlled. The flood of waters, and the over throw of Sodom, were forerunning types of judgments yet to come. In the spirit of prophetic warning He thus foreshewed the overthrow of Jerusalem, and the hair-breadth escape which was then awaiting them. But all these, including this also, were no more than types foreshortened, as it were, one behind the other, of His last coming at the end of the world. As they were in suddenness and severity, so, beyond all, shall the last coming be. As the escape of Lot, and of the remnant who were faithful in Jerusalem, even so also shall be the saving of the righteous; for the righteous shall “scarcely be saved.” As the judgment on Lot’s wife, so likewise shall be the doom of apostate Christians.
And this is the only point we will now dwell upon. We have in this a warning of a peculiar 36character; we see in it an example of the just wrath of God against those who, having been once mercifully delivered, shall afterwards fall back. She was, by a distinguishing election of God, and by the hands of angels, saved from the overthrow of the wicked. We, by the same deep counsel of God, have been translated from death to life. She perished in the very way of safety. Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall. Lot’s wife is an example of those who fall from baptismal grace.
As, for instance, of those who, having been made partakers of salvation by baptism into the Church of Christ, fall away from it through the overmastering power of sin. That a man may fall finally, and without hope, from grace given, is broadly written in holy Scripture. Men would fain have it otherwise; and some beguile themselves by the dream, that they magnify the mercies of God in contending that the gifts of grace are indefectible. Let them beware how they offer strange fire upon God’s altar. God will be served only of that which His Spirit hath consecrated to Himself. “When the righteous turneth away from his righteousness, and committeth iniquity, and doeth according to all the abominations that the wicked man doeth, shall he live? All his righteousness that he hath done shall not be mentioned: in his trespass that he hath trespassed, 37and in his sin that he hath sinned, in them shall he die.”1010 Ezek. xviii. 24. Again: “If we sin wilfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins; but a certain fearful looking for of fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries. He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses; of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace?”1111 Heb. x. 26. And once more: “It is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come, if they shall fall away, to renew them again unto repentance; seeing they crucify unto themselves the Son of God afresh, and put Him to an open shame. For the earth which drinketh in the rain that cometh oft upon it, and bringeth forth herbs meet for them by whom it is dressed, receiveth blessing from God; but that which beareth thorns and briars is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing, whose end is to be burned.”1212 Heb. vi. 4. Such is the 38gift of a new birth, held in unrighteousness; and such the end to which every baptised man, who lives in wilful and conscious sin, is perpetually tending. The sins of the flesh and of the spirit wound his inmost soul with a keen and poisoned edge; and the wounds rankle inwardly where no eye but God’s can reach. There are very many who in the visible relations of life are without reproach, and yet carry within a heart-sin, indulged in secret, which eats into their whole spiritual life with a most deadly corruption. They have been redeemed from death, and predestined to immortality, though they are dying in the very path to life. Such are the sensual, the unchaste, the intemperate, the proud, the revengeful, and the like.
But we must not narrow this warning to the grosser kinds of sin. The disobedience of Lot’s wife was not that she went back to Sodom, but that she looked back. Doubtless she verily thought that she was pressing on to safety; but her heart was not right in her. She was disobedient in will, and in the hankerings and longings of the mind. The unchanged bent of the heart found expression in a slight but significant act. She looked back: and that forbidden gaze betrayed a multitude of unchastened thoughts, and a world of disobedience.
We must, therefore, apply this same warning not only to those who, through the power of 39indulged sin, fall grossly from baptismal grace, but also to all who, in any way, and for any hindering cause, fall back from the holiness of life, of which baptism is both the source and standard. By your baptism you are pledged to a life of sanctity. The life of Christ is your example. Your calling is, to be ever growing in likeness to the Son of God. Who, then, is there that needs not to remember Lot’s wife? Who of us is so inflexibly bent to wards God, as not to be often wavering? whose face so stedfastly set to Zoar, as never to look aside—as never to look back? Where is the man who has so repented of past evil, that he does not sometimes cast back, in unwary thoughts, a hankering look behind? Who has so gained the mastery of himself, as not to be again overmastered? Who has so renounced the world, as not to wax weak at its allurements? Who has so braced himself to the secret discipline of a self-denying life, as not at times to shrink from the hardness he has chosen for his portion? Well is it, and better than we dare hope, if there be none here among us, who, after renouncing a vain, trifling, self-pleasing life, have again yielded themselves, little by little, to be led by the gaudy follies of the world; none whom the opposition of men with out God, or the jeering banter of supercilious minds, or the imposing comments of self-important 40people, have not slackened, if not checked, in their flight from eternal death. Too surely there are such among us. The world has a clinging hold; and gain, and ease, and levity, and the pomps of life, are cunning baits; and gibes, and laughter, and the grave mockery of familiar friends, are keen weapons of offence; and it is no easy task to bear up against the stream which is ever setting away from God, and to keep the eye of the soul ever waking, and to live in conscious fellowship with the world unseen. It is our natural bias to decline from God. There is somewhat within us which is ever slackening its intention, ever rekindling its old imaginations, ever feeling around for its old sup ports, ever looking back on its former self. What we once were cleaves so closely to us, that we shall never be wholly free till the morning of the resurrection. The holiness to which our baptism has pledged us is so pure and high, that we faint at the greatness of our way. Of the whole body of baptised men on earth, none are perfect—few are near perfection—many, it must be feared, are energetically evil. And between these two extremes is every measure of approach or departure from God; and on this twofold movement men are perpetually passing and repassing, in the manifold changes of their moral state, and in the partial relapses and recoveries of their spiritual life.41
Now, from all this we must learn, first, that any measure of declension from our baptismal grace is a measure of that same decline of which the end is, a hopeless fall from God. I say, it is a measure of the same movement; as a day is a measure of a thousand years. It is a state and inclination of heart which differs from absolute apostacy not in kind, but only in degree. Surely, the first symptoms, all slight though they be, of a pestilence, which is beyond the skill of healing, must needs be greatly feared. Such are small sins, slight tamperings with the edge of conscience, half-unwilling returns to forsaken evil, passive re-admission of once-banished faults; all these are the first beginnings of an impulse and a direction which leads to a settled determination of the heart from God. Every day the deposed powers of evil steal back, and re-assert their dominion: first, a failing, then faults, then a sin, then a mingled throng of lesser acts of disobedience—willed, not done, be cause, though longed for, not as yet ventured on; and so the whole character recoils in all its parts from God. How often do we see such examples in those who have been brought to better thoughts by a sharp and threatening sickness, or by a heart breaking cross m life, or by the edge of a cutting sorrow; and yet afterwards, in the restored buoyancy 42of health or heart, have inwardly declined from the warmth and sincerity of their better resolutions! It may be they were earnest for a long season, and moved on a higher level, had loftier aspirations, purer joys, and keener sympathies. But, after all, by slight relapses, they sunk back, and grew commonplace, and ended in a low, dull, dubious life, upon the very boundaries of wilful disobedience.
We must also learn from this example, that all such fallings back from our baptismal grace are great provocations of God’s most righteous severity. The sin of Lot’s wife was not only disobedience, but ingratitude. While Lot lingered, she was saved by the hand of angels; “the Lord being merciful unto them.”
And we, brethren, who have been taken out of a dead world to be grafted into the Church of the living God, how shall not we be held in the bond of a twofold guilt? Even after many and great commendations for faith, and patience, and zeal for His name, He that walketh in the midst of the golden candlesticks, warned the Church in Ephesus: “Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. Remember, therefore, from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will 43come unto thee quickly, and remove thy candle stick out of his place, except thou repent.”1313 Rev. ii. 4, 5. These are awful words. There are two things which God hates—backsliding and lukewarmness; and there are two which He will avenge—an alienated heart, and a will at war with His. Who can foretell what forfeiture of blessings, what withdrawal of grace, what clouding of the conscience, what hiding of God’s countenance, what weakness, what confusion of soul, may be the righteous chastisement of a secret falling away of the heart from God? Thus even in this life God looks out upon those that reject Him, and troubles them: and who knows whereunto these things may grow? “Remember Lot’s wife:” and who hath said, “If any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him.”
If these things be so, how shall we hold fast our stedfastness? There is no other sure way but only this,—ever to press on to a life of deeper devotion—to a lowlier repentance, and more earnest prayers—to a more sustained consciousness of God’s continual presence—and to a keener watchfulness against the first approaches of temptation. But all that can now be offered in particular is one or two plain rules by way of caution.
1. First of all, then, beware of remembering past 44faults without repentance. The recollection of our sins is safe only when it is a part of our self-chastisement. To look back upon them without shame and sorrow, is to offend again. God alone can simply behold evil without contamination; for memory, like a gnawing stream, gathers its tinge from the soil through which it winds its sullen way. So is it, above all, with impenitent recollection of sins once indulged. Our present character imbibes again the quality of past evil. We soon cease to fear what we can endure to think upon; and we soon grow again to behold the lust we once have served with the same eyes of favour and desire as when we were its slaves. There arises an interior assent to sins which we dare not outwardly commit. Past sin becomes present by a renewed adhesion of the heart; and even though we never offend again in the same outward form as before, some new and subtler evil is thrown out from the stock of our original disobedience.
2. Another thing to beware of is, making excuses for our present faults without trying to correct them. Nothing so wears down the sharpness of conscience, and dulls its perception of our actual state, as self-excusing. It is the most certain way to forfeit all true knowledge of ourselves; it directly fosters and strengthens the faults we are attempting to excuse; it weakens the corrective 45powers of religion, the first and chief of which is a sincere confession of every swerving of the will from God. From this there can nothing come but a declining of heart, and an estrangement of the sore and irritable mind. And these things draw a darkness over the conscience, which hides the face of God. A little while ago, and such men were warm and forward in religion, now they feel chilled and backward; for the justified fault is a harboured canker, and the repulsion of an alienated will thrusts them away from God.
3. And lastly, beware of those particular forms of temptation which have already once held you in their power, or sapped your better resolutions. Every man has his own particular character, and every character its own particular cast. We have our characteristic faults and our characteristic weakness. Sometimes the same sins prevail again over the same man; sometimes an opposite sin; sometimes lesser faults, but in a greater multitude; sometimes fewer, but in a greater intensity. There can be no general precepts in this matter, any more than in the healing of the body. Beware of evils which have once prevailed against you, as knowing their malignity; beware of those which have never as yet had dominion, as not knowing what may be their fearful strength. Beware of a retroverted heart, and of the glancing aside of the imagination, 46and of the slack obedience of the will. Angels hands have been about you from the waters of holy baptism. Their guidance, unseen, unfelt, has drawn you again and again from ills which your hearts had chosen. In seasons of weakness they have stayed you up; in the hour of wavering they have kept you from falling. Before is the city of refuge—the world that lieth in wickedness is behind. “Escape for thy life: look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the plain: escape to the mountain, lest thou be consumed.”1414 Gen. xix. 17. “Remember Lot’s wife.”47
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