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THE DANGER OF MISTAKING KNOWLEDGE FOR OBEDIENCE.
“But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: for he beholdeth himself and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was.”
ST. JAMES is here warning the great body of the Church against a very common and subtle temptation; that is, the substituting of Christian knowledge for Christian obedience.
The Gospel had in it such an overwhelming power of speculative and moral truth as to subdue a mixed multitude of men to a sort of professed allegiance to the mysteries of God. It came into the world as a veiled light of transcendent brightness, revealing the mystery of the Godhead, and the condition of mankind; resolving the doubts of the wise, and unravelling the perplexities of the unlearned; it laid open the secrets of the unseen 118world, and put a continuous meaning into the great movements of the world we see; it made man to know and to feel that he is a fallen and sinful being, and that God, of His great love, has pledged to him the forgiveness of his sins. And thus, as it declared the character of God, and the standing of man before Him, and the mysteries of life and death, and hell and heaven, it silenced the disputations of contending schools, and won men to itself by the yearnings of their hearts, and the convictions of their understanding, and the judgments of conscience, and a miraculous consent of will; it held up each man to himself, as in a mirror of supernatural truth, revealing depths of evil which men knew not before; and thus there was gathered round the Gospel a mixed and numberless multitude of all kinds and character of life; from the holiest to the least purified, from the man who is sanctified beyond the measure of his knowledge, to the man whose knowledge was as full as his life was unholy.
Now this is the sin and the danger against which St. James warns them; against the sin, that is, of having knowledge without obedience, and the danger of hearing without doing the word of God. He tells them that all such knowledge is in vain, nay worse than in vain. And this is what we will more fully consider.119
1. In the first place, we must remember that this knowledge without obedience ends in nothing. It is, as St. James says, like a man who looks at his own face in a glass. For the time he has the clearest perception of his own countenance; every line and feature; even the lightest expression, is visible, and, by the mysteriously retentive power of the mind, he holds it for a while in what we call the mind’s eye: but when he has gone his way, the whole image fades, and the vividness of other objects overpowers it, so that he becomes habitually more familiar with the aspect of all other things than with his own natural face. Nothing can better express the shallowness and fleetingness of knowledge without obedience. For the time it is vivid and exact, but it passes off in nothing—no resolution recorded in the conscience, or, if recorded, none maintained; no change of life, no thing done, or left undone, for the sake of the truth which is shadowed upon the understanding. And this is the folly which our Lord rebukes in the parable of the man that built his house upon the sand. He was not comparing the solidity of doctrinal foundations; but exhibiting the folly and disappointment of knowledge without obedience. “Every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: and 120the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”2929 St. Matthew vii. 26, 27.
2. But it must also be considered that knowing without obeying is worse than in vain. It inflicts a deep and lasting injury upon the powers of our spiritual nature. Even in the hardest of men, a knowledge of Christianity produces an effect upon the conscience and the heart. It excites in a man certain convictions and emotions, and these are mysterious gifts of God; they are the first movements of the moral powers that are within us, the first impulses to set us in motion towards God. It is by these inward strivings that knowledge brings a man to repentance and to eternal life. But they are only movements and impulses—means to a further end, and good in so far as they attain that end. In their own nature they are most transitory: they can be prolonged only by issuing in obedience, and thereby settling into principle; or, if they issue in nothing, by keeping up a perpetual succession of the same excitements. Now here is the peril of habitually listening to truths which we habitually disobey. Every time we hear them, they goad the conscience, and stir the heart; but every time with a lessened force, and, as it were, with a blunter edge;—not, indeed, that they can 121lose aught of their own power and keenness, but because the often-excited mind grows languid and dull; its senses, often acted on, are deadened; the passive powers of the mind wear out, as the ear seems to lose all hearing of familiar sounds, or as a pampered palate is vitiated and its functions destroyed. So is it with men who from their baptism have been familiar with the mysteries of Christ. In childhood, boyhood, manhood, the same sounds of warning, and promise, and persuasion, the same hopes and fears, have fallen on a heedless ear, and a still more heedless heart: they have lost their power over the man; he has acquired a settled habit of hearing without doing. The whole force of habit—that strange mockery of nature—has reinforced his original reluctance to obey; and long familiarity with truth makes it all the harder to recognise,—as the faces of those we most intimately know are often less distinct in our memory than those we have seen but seldom, and therefore noted all the more exactly.
3. But there is a yet further danger still; for knowledge without obedience is an arch-deceiver of mankind. “Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves”—deceiving, i.e. as if you were any the nearer heaven for a cold, barren consciousness that the Gospel is the word of God, or a clear intellectual perception of 122its several doctrines. Nay, it deceives a man into the belief that he really is what he so clearly knows he ought to be; that he is really moving onward in the path which he so clearly knows he must walk in, if he would inherit the kingdom of God. It is a wonderful imposture men pass upon themselves. One would think, the clearer a man’s knowledge of what he ought to do and be, the clearer would be his perception of the vast moral distance between that high standard and his actual state. But, no. The heart is a busy mocker of the conscience: it borrows of the understanding and of the imagination visions and shadows of eternal truth, and it flatters the conscience into a pleasant belief that such are its own spontaneous dictates and intentions; it cheats it into appropriating, as its own moral character, the mere shadows which lie on the surface of the intellect. And from this comes the ready and exact profession of religion which is often found in the mouth even of irreligious men: they know so well what a holy character ought to be, that they are able exactly to describe it. They can sketch out all its outline, and fill in its detail, and colour it, by what we should call the merely imaginative or graphic powers of the mind. And as the most undisguised fictions often move our lower feelings as deeply as truth itself, emotions come in to help the cheat, and a man really kindles 123at his own vivid descriptions; but he deceives others less than he deceives himself. When he speaks of the love of God, or the passion of Christ, or the heavenly Jerusalem, or the crowns of martyrs, and the holiness of saints, and the happiness of a Christian life, the topics grow upon him, and he moves himself, much as he might by some pathetic tale, and his emotions flatter him into the belief that he is a man of religious feelings; and then how can he doubt that his heart is religious too? So we mock ourselves, and Satan ensnares us. We draw a haze, as it were, over the clear eye of the conscience, by the warmth of kindled emotions; and the outlines of our slighted knowledge are verily taken for the realities of a holy life. This will be found to be the true key of many characters. We see men who know every thing a Christian has need to know to his soul’s health, and yet are as little like Christians in their daily habit of life, as if they had never reached beyond the moral philosophy of heathen schools. But nothing would make them believe it;—they have deceived their own selves. Again; there are men who can never speak of religious truth without emotion, and sometimes not without tears; and yet, though their knowledge has so much of fervour as to make them weep, it has not power enough to make them deny a lust. Ay, brethren, 124it will be found with most of us, that we verily believe ourselves to be better than we are. It is a pleasant flattery, and a quiet self-indulgence, which winds itself through our minds, and soothes them when we are ill at ease. We overrate what we do well; we wink at what we do amiss. We comfort ourselves that we know better, and shall therefore do better another time. We fall back on our better knowledge, as a makeweight against our worse practice, and as a pledge of future improvement, forgetting that it aggravates our present faults.
4. And this brings us to another thought: this knowing and disobeying it is that makes so heavy and awful the responsibilities of Christians. The servant that knew his Lord’s will, and did it not, shall be beaten with many stripes; but the servant who knew not his Lord’s will, and did not make ready, shall be beaten with few stripes. It is a good plea and a prevailing, to say, “Lord, I knew not that it was Thy will.” Even Saul was for given, albeit he persecuted the Church of God. “I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief.” But knowledge is a great and awful gift: it makes a man partaker of the mind of God; it communes with him of the eternal will, and reveals to him the royal law of God’s kingdom. A man cannot know and slight these things without 125grievous and fearful sin. “It is better not to have known the way of righteousness, than after they have known it to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them.” To hold this knowledge in unrighteousness, to imprison it in the stifling hold of an impure, a proud, or a rebellious heart, is a most appalling insult against the majesty of the God of truth.
For whom were the heaviest words of doom reserved by our most patient and gentle Lord, but for those that had known Him, but not obeyed? “Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon which have been done in you, they had a great while ago repented, sitting in sackcloth and ashes: but it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than for you. And thou, Capernaum, who art exalted to heaven, shalt be thrust down to hell.”3030 St. Luke x. 13-15.
What was this but the recoil of truth upon the soul that had slighted its warning voice? “Whosoever shall fall upon this stone shall be broken; but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder.”3131 Ibid. xx. 18.
These, then, are some of the many reasons why we have need to watch against this subtle temptation. It is a vain and hurtful thing, full of 126deceit and danger, to hear and not to do, to know and not to obey, the Gospel; and it is a temptation to which the Church, though exposed at all times, is most especially liable when the means of knowledge are greatly multiplied, and the bonds of discipline are greatly relaxed;—and such a state of the Church is ours now, at this day. From baptism to the end of life, you have God’s holy word, and the holy sacraments, the fasts and festivals, and all the sacred admonitions of things old and new, to force a knowledge of religion even upon the unwilling mind. It is as the light of heaven, which we cannot choose but see, though we may wilfully shut our eyes. In such a state, the danger of living far behind the light we have is in finitely great; especially as our rule of self-discipline is chiefly made by each man for himself; and the custom of the world, which is unchangeably at variance with the mind and Church of God, bears heavily upon us. We have to breast it and to stem it, and are perpetually carried by it away from our resolutions. But these are perilous declensions, making great havoc in the inward character of the mind.
Steadily resolve, therefore, to live up to the light you possess. There is an unity, a sameness, and a strength about a consistent character. The light you already have is great, and great therefore 127must be your obedience; and remember that to linger behind, or to follow afar off, is as if you should suffer your guide to outstrip you in the night-season. You hold your present knowledge on the tenure of obedience: to disobey it, is to dim its brightness, and yet to deepen your responsibility; for we shall answer even less heavily for what we still have than for what we have lost. These are fearful words: “They received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved. And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie: that they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.”3232 2 Thess. ii. 10-12.
But though for the most part your knowledge is great, there are some who feel or believe their own light to be small. It is not in the greatness of the light, but in the closeness with which we follow it, that we shall find safety. “Thy word is a light unto my feet, and a lantern to my path.” It is the clear dictate of conscience, enlightened by even a single ray of truth, guiding the details of a Christian’s daily life, that will bring him to heaven. Therefore, once more, let us learn not to delay to follow with readiness the guidance of right knowledge. If it do but beckon or point you in the way of obedience, follow without lingering. 128The first penetrating conviction, and the kindled emotion, and the momentary willingness which raises the eyes of obedient hearts to higher and holier paths, and dislodges even a stubborn mind from its most settled purpose, these are sent as the first impulses to launch you in an heavenward course. Do not slight them: beware how you stifle them. They are as fleeting as the memory of a reflected image. It may be you have them now: if lost, it may be you shall have them never again.
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