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SERMON VII.

SPIRITUAL PRESUMPTION.

ST. MATTHEW iv. 5-7.

“Then the devil taketh Him up into the holy city, and setteth Him on a pinnacle of the temple, and saith unto Him, If Thou be the Son of God, cast Thyself down: for it is written, He shall give His angels charge concerning Thee: and in their hands they shall bear Thee up, lest at any time Thou dash Thy foot against a stone. Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.”

THERE seems to be a manifold cunning in this invitation of the tempter. “He setteth Him upon the pinnacle of the temple,” from which no mere man could cast himself and live. He bade Him cast Himself down; scheming either to destroy the person of the Son of God, or to discover His character and power. And yet he so shaped his proposal as to insinuate an imagination of intense spiritual evil.

The pretext suggested in this temptation by 118the devil to our Lord was, that the Sonship of the true Messiah and the promises of God were a pledge to secure Him from all evil. “‘If Thou be the Son of God,’ He will take care of Thee: His angels shall bear Thee up.” From this we may gather what was the evil to which Satan tempted the Saviour of the world. It appears to suggest a presumptuous dependence on God in things where He has not promised to extend it: and a consequent presumption in running into dangers. And this, after all, will be found to resolve itself into a temptation to self-confidence. “If Thou be the Son of God:” this was the chief plea. ‘If Thou be, all must be safe to Thee. Ministering angels wait upon Thee. Nothing can work Thee harm.’

We may take this as a type of a very subtil and dangerous class of temptations; those, I mean, which beset persons of a truly religious life. When people have lived for many years in the daily practice of religion, and have been long free from habits of transgression, dangers of a new kind begin to surround them. Whatever is habitual has a tendency to become unconscious, and whatever is unconscious is liable to sudden or vehement surprises. The very freedom such people enjoy from ordinary temptations, the clearness of their daily path, makes them to feel like men dwelling in peace in a country 119once infested with enemies, but now long ago cleared of them. When we are at peace, we do not bar and fortify our dwellings, as if we were in a country swept by warfare. We throw down our walls and strongholds. We dwell securely each man under his vine and under his fig-tree. So it is in religion. After a course of repentance, and the hard struggle of conversion to God, we find ourselves at large. After the “winds and the sea” are fallen, “there is a great calm.” It is a blessed state, full of quiet and refreshing; full of calm acquiescence in our lot, and of unexcited joy in the service of God, in self-denials and prayers, in frequenting the offices of the Church, and the holy sacraments. There grows every day a fuller persuasion that the point is turned; the great work over; our lot sealed; that God loves us, and has “brought us nigh unto” Himself; that we have passed from death unto life, and are His sons. And all this is most true: Blessed be God. But there are certain habits of mind which go with such a state; and to these habits certain peculiar temptations are incident.

I. First, people who are really religious some times trust in God’s keeping, without considering the limits and conditions under which that keeping is promised to them. It is not promised absolutely, as if they should be safe anywhere, or 120in any thing, go where they may, do what they will. Neither are they extravagant enough to think so. They know very clearly that they have no warrant to look for His keeping, if they should go out of the path of duty, or run themselves into temptation. All deliberate courting of the tempter they know does at once cancel God’s promise of protection; and yet the very clearness of this truth somehow deceives them. Because it is so clear, they feel confident that they can never act in defiance of it; and therefore that this or that particular line which they are entering upon is not in defiance of it. It is very certain, however, that people someway advanced in a religious life do exceed these conditions, and find it afterwards to their sorrow, when some great fall has broken their security, and filled them with a sudden confusion. It is all then, in a moment, clear and plain, as if a veil had suddenly fallen, and their eyes were opened to behold their shame.

II. Again, the reason why they make these dangerous mistakes is, that, through habitual practice of the system of personal religion, which belongs to their lot in life, they sometimes become self-trusting; not expressly, perhaps, as if they did not know that God alone is their support, but virtually and by implication. For instance, we trust to our first impressions of what is right and wrong, safe or 121dangerous, expedient or inexpedient. We believe our judgment to be as sound as our intentions; and that our religion is a second nature, of which the impulses and instincts have come to supersede forethought and deliberation; that they may be trusted without much scrutiny. We think ourselves out of the danger of such temptations as have long failed to overcome us: so that either they will not approach us, or that, if they do, we should certainly overcome them. A multitude of sins we feel that we are in no danger of being tempted to commit. They are so contrary to our whole life; to our formed habits; to our every thought; would do so great a violence to our in most nature; our time is so much spent in reproving and trying to correct the same in others, that we should be almost inclined to laugh if any one should warn us against them.

Nevertheless, it does happen, and that not unfrequently, that really religious people fall into those very sins against which they believe themselves altogether proof. God in His mercy suffers them to find out their self-confidence, by a fall which breaks them asunder. They wake up, to find that they have been walking upon the brink of endless dangers; that Satan has beset all their path with snares; that all the while he has ceased to tempt them, he has been lulling them into security, bribing 122them to take off their outposts and watches; and, at the same time, he has been laying traps and digging pitfalls on every side, so that they can scarce turn without falling into a snare. Perhaps nothing short of a heavy fall would open their eyes; nothing less would kindle the self-reproach and the shame which must abase their pride, and teach them their own utter helplessness, and the tenderness with which they ought to handle the sins of other men. There is an ingratitude in self-confidence; a forgetfulness of God, by whom alone we stand. It is like the self-complacency of He rod, when he made his oration unto the people;6666   Acts xii. 21. or the self-exaltation of Nebuchadnezzar, when he “walked in the palace of the kingdom of Babylon, . . . and said, Is not this great Babylon, that I have built for the house of the kingdom by the might of my power, and for the honour of my majesty?”6767   Dan. iv. 29, 30. For these things God brings us down, leaving us to ourselves. He withdraws His hand; and we fall heavily, and become a by word and a reproach. “They that sit in the gate speak against” us, “and the drunkards make songs upon” us.6868   Ps. lxix. 12.

One great fall makes the scales to drop from men’s eyes, and they see themselves surrounded by the danger of many worse; that this is perhaps 123the least, yet it is very stunning. They see how far they have ventured into dangerous ways; how they have chosen their own path; withdrawn from God’s keeping; how relaxed is their whole character; how open to the inroads of sin; how many of their best points consist only in not being tempted. And God, in His love, suffers them to learn this at any cost, for fear of worse; and all that they have been in time past seems cancelled. All their profession, acts of religion, almsdeeds, fasts, prayers, humiliations, seem to be gone, as things they have now no right in. They have brought a shame on all, and shewn its hollowness; and after many years of professed religion, while others are looking on them as saints, they are with in full of shame and desolation; words of respect are dreadful rebukes, especially if they were once deserved. They are now forced down to begin all over again; to come to God as the poor prodigal; to take the lowest place of all, that of “the servant who knew his Lord’s will, and did it not.”6969   St. Luke xii. 47. Fearful discipline, full of a searching anguish of heart. Yet necessary, and, if necessary, blessed; for all things are better than to be a castaway. Any suffering in this world, rather than to perish in the world to come. Any shame now, rather than shame before Christ at His coming with the holy angels.

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I have endeavoured to suggest briefly what is the nature of those temptations by which religious people are peculiarly beset; and have very slightly noticed what seems to be the cause of their liability to be overcome by them. We will hereafter consider the mysterious design of God in permitting them to be abased with such falls. To sum up what has been said in the fewest words, I will add, that want of circumspection and of a watchful salutary fear of falling, is in itself a tempting of God. How much more, then, the venturous way in which some men enter upon paths which are either not pointed out to them by God’s providence, or even forbidden! But at present we have chiefly to consider the dangers which beset religious minds. A few words will be enough to shew, what need there is even for the most advanced and practised in religion to watch without ceasing against the manifold dangers of our fallen state. Our whole life is a spiritual combat. While we live we must contend. This is not our rest.

(1.) For it must be remembered, that the great est saint may be tempted to the worst of sins. I do not say the temptation will prevail; God for bid; but that temptations may be addressed to him; and if the most saintly minds may be tempted, how much more are we open to the incursions of temptation! It is true of our blessed Lord alone, 125that the devil, after he was once fully foiled in his endeavour to seduce Him from God, began thence forward for ever to oppose and to afflict Him. There was no hope of prevailing against Him, because the prince of this world had nothing in Him. There was no inward sin on which to work by allurements or stimulants. Not so with us: to the end of life we carry a fallen nature, with its taints and proneness to evil. This is mortified and kept under in those that live a holy life, but still in some sort remains within. To the end the prince of this world has something in us; and to this he addresses his flatteries and persuasions. How strange it seems to us to read of Abraham’s falsehood, David’s awful and complex sin, the denials of Peter, the contention of Paul and Barnabas! If such saints were tempted and overcome, how shall we escape temptations and down falls? It is true that, as men grow in grace, temptation loses much of its power over them, St. John says, “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for His seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.”7070   1 St. John iii. 9. And again: “We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not; but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not.”7171   1 St. John v. 18. That is to say, that in every saint there is 126 the power of the Holy Ghost, which is more than sufficient to ward off temptations. The gift of regeneration, unfolded into a new spirit, is so at variance with the solicitations of evil, that it would do a great violence to itself if it should deliberately sin; the circumspection of the regenerate is such that the snares and assaults of Satan are powerless and vain. All this describes the spiritual strength and matured stedfastness of those that are holy. It is not an immunity from temptation, but a moral power residing in the will, by which the tempter is perfectly repelled. It does not say, that holy men are not tempted. It does not mean, that the holiest cannot fall. To the end, all stedfastness is subject to the laws of probation. But in us, who, alas, are neither strong nor holy, save in the measure common to ordinary Christians, there must ever be the danger of being, not only tempted, but overcome. Our past religion will not save us. Our stedfastness is not in what we have been, but in what we are: and we are, most of us, still weak and frail. What may befall a saint may easily prevail against us. So long as we are in the flesh, the eye and the ear are open, and the imagination is rest less and full of visions. These may be mortified indeed, and then sin will address itself to them in vain. But address itself it will; and the habits of watchfulness and self-control may be relaxed, and 127the character let down to a pitch where sin has a greater sway and a surer dominion.

Spiritual declension is a very awful reality, and the most devout may fall into it. Of this we have sufficient proofs and examples in holy Scripture; and any one who has examined his heart must also know how his state has varied at various times. In times of sorrow, or any great fear, we know what a peculiar tenderness of conscience; what a dread of trifling even with a thought of sin; what gentleness and kindly dispositions we have felt towards all, even unworthy persons, and to their very faults; what an awful, and yet blessed, perception we have had of God’s nearness to us, and how open our hearts have been towards Him; what circumspection in all the least actions of our life. After the lapse of a few years, or sometimes of a few months, how has all this been changed; what a slumber and inertness of the inner life; what dulness of conscience; what fearlessness of sin; how little compunction at having inwardly assented to temptation! We seem not to be the same persons: as if we had lost our identity—had become altogether changed, and had passed into a worse nature. There is something fearful and depressing, in the highest degree, to find ourselves so fallen. The recollection of past times, when our heart was clear and peaceful, is both an humiliation and a 128rebuke. And it is with a bitter sadness that we say, “Oh, that I were as in months past, as in the days when God preserved me; when His candle shined upon my head, and when by His light I walked through darkness; as I was in the days of my youth, when the secret of God was upon my tabernacle!”7272   Job xxix. 2-4.

(2.) Another truth to be remembered is, that the worst sins come on insensibly. They seldom, if ever, present themselves to a holy mind in their full outline at once. They very seldom become really visible in their first approaches. They lie masked behind indifferent things, mingled in the duties and offices of our station, covered even with a religious aspect; then they shew themselves only in part, which, taken alone, may be harmless, but prepares the way for that in which the true evil lies. When the serpent tempted Eve, he did not at once put before her the act of disobedience, but first engaged her thoughts with the question, “Yea, hath God said?” There needs much preparing to break the startling effect of a temptation. If we could see at once the full reach and depth of the evil, we should be saved by our very fears. Dread would make us recoil. We should not so much as trust ourselves in the indifferent things which are the avenues to it. We would rather 129die than commit it. Besides, most of the dangers of religious people lie in the region of things that are lawful. They do not overstep the boundaries which separate things permitted from things for bidden; into the latter they seldom, if ever, willingly allow themselves to go. The tempter must overtake them within the range of their own permitted sphere, and therefore must use lawful things as the matter of his temptations. Lawful things out of season or out of measure, become to them the occasions of falling. Breaches of self-control, of self-chastisement, of vigilant watchfulness, of circumspect care over acts, words, and even thoughts; these are the beginning, and through these he prevails to entangle us in excesses, irregularities, immoderation. At the outset we see nothing, and there really is nothing, in which we may not allow ourselves. But in the season, measure, and use, there lies the whole character of the act, and the whole probation of our will.

(3.) And once more; it is the nature of such temptations to prevail before we become aware of them. It is only by retrospect that we really find ourselves to be fallen; as we cannot mark changes of our natural growth and countenance but by recollection. I do not mean, that all along there are no intimations that things are going wrong. Such, indeed, there are; but they are very subtil and 130very gradual, so as to be almost imperceptible in their advance. They seem to be checked when really they are advancing, and to be kept at bay when they have already gained the mastery. And then, when we find ourselves taken in the snare, we see also the whole course of the temptation; and how many times we might have withdrawn ourselves; and how many admonitions we received; and how uncalled for was our original self-exposure to the danger: we then see how self-sought it was, how gratuitous, how wanton. And we bitterly reproach ourselves when it is too late, and see a thousand things which ought to have been our protection; a thousand warnings, any one of which would now seem to be enough to startle us into a posture of defence. These are among our saddest thoughts. We can but reproach our folly. We feel to have shut ourselves out from God; to have forfeited all claim to be heard. When we pray, it seems as if He had surrounded Himself with a cloud, that our prayer should not pass through. The sin we have been betrayed into stands before us in a fearful stature, and seems to overshadow us, hiding the face of God and the cross of Christ from our sight. That which men would have chosen martyrdom rather than commit, they sometimes find themselves to have committed at the suggestion of an ordinary temptation.

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Now, I have intentionally avoided giving examples of any particular sins, because there is a danger of seeming to limit to certain classes of temptations that which is common to all. Examples make general statements more vivid and definite; but they also narrow and circumscribe the reach and extent of them. What has been said will apply to any kind of sin, whether of the flesh or of the spirit, which can prevail against any one who in the main lives a life of obedience. What sins can so prevail, and the particular forms of them, it is not my intention now to consider; but one caution may be given. Let us all, in whatsoever state we are, howsoever long we may have lived a religious life, nevertheless watch against every sin of every kind, great and small, of the flesh and of the spirit. There is none we may give over watching against; for we are in most danger of those against which, feeling ourselves secure, we watch the least.

Let us now consider, in a few words, what is the mysterious design of God in permitting even religious people to fall.

1. First, it is evidently to break their presumption, to destroy self-trusting, and to awaken a watchful and humble dependence on His grace and keeping. There is a tendency in us all, even in the midst of the acts of a holy life, to tower 132too high, and to become unsteady in our exaltation. This must be abased, “lest, being lifted up with pride,” we “fall into the condemnation of the devil.”7373   1 Tim. iii. 6. This one temper will destroy the whole spiritual life. It makes all religion a mere formality. Prayers, confessions, fastings, humiliations what are all these to a mind that is possessed with a self-trusting spirit? Even ascetic rules only brace this self-confidence more intensely, and raise it to a higher pitch. It is so easy to be severe to ourselves, when we are not tempted to be otherwise. Half of our severity has in it no real principle of self-discipline, as we soon find when we are tempted to relax. This is a secret we must needs learn, or we shall have but imperfect knowledge of ourselves; and through imperfect self-knowledge, imperfect repentance, imperfect humiliations. It is by such falls that God reveals to us what is in ourselves, and excites in us a horror of our own obstinate corruptions. They are the scourges of our sloth, the chastisements of our lukewarmness, and judgments upon our presumption in “tempting the Lord our God.”

2. Another purpose of God in thus humbling even those who in many things are His servants is, to teach them to be forbearing and compassion ate towards those that are fallen. A self-trusting 133spirit is almost always censorious, harsh, exacting. With an artificial standard of its own, it is in considerate and unsympathising to others. Such people are quick to see blots in others, and to censure them; ready to observe their falls, and to find out the aggravating features of their case. They have an honest zeal against sin; but they have little tenderness for sinners. Their admonitions have a sharp edge, and their reproofs sound like reproaches. Even truth in their mouth is uncharitable, and their warnings are without mercy. People often are not aware of all this. They speak as they feel. What they say seems deserved; and perhaps it is so; but, it may be, they are not the persons who ought to say it. It may be that the very same sins, or even worse, lie coiled within them. All the time they are virtually what those they reprove are in act. In others they are, by anticipation, condemning themselves. They go on recording hard censures, laying up unsparing verdicts, against the day when a sudden fall shall point them all against themselves. Now this sort of character is by no means uncommon; nor is it necessarily hypocritical, but simply self-deceiving. They have presumed upon God, and their own strength; and have learned to speak in a language above themselves. And God corrects this by leaving them to themselves, and suffering them to be 134tempted in a season of weakness, when their natural strength, on which they rest, is all they have. They fall; and learn what St. Paul meant when he said, “Brethren, if any man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.”7474   Gal. vi. 1. The consciousness of having fallen in the like way, makes a man afraid to act the reprover. He feels his words recoil upon himself; and he speaks as he himself can bear it, making his own heart the measure of his words, and his own case the interpreter and pleader for the falls of others. All his past censures come back upon him with a fearful severity; and he feels as if he could never rebuke any one again. It seems as if the worst he ever had to reprove were better than himself. It seems to him as if he could never any more use rebukes, but only beseech them, with tender compassion, and even with tears, to join him in humbling themselves before One who alone is without sin. It is true, indeed, that the perfect holiness of saints has in it a tender compassion and a loving pity, like to the Spirit of Christ Himself. They have received of Him the gift of tenderness to sinners, without the fearful discipline of personal falls; and theirs is the highest and most healing sympathy. But for us, weak Christians, the school 135of pity is the melancholy experience of our own humiliations. And well is it to learn compassion any how; for the harsh and impatient are not near to the kingdom of heaven. Let us not venture to reprove any without a vivid recollection of our own past falls; nor in any way speak of the sins of others without a deep sense of our own .

3. And, lastly, it is to teach us our need of fixed and particular rules for the government of our lives; and that not in great matters only, but in the least; because it is in little things that the first approaches of sin are made to religious minds. We must not trust in general rules, in good intentions, in the expectation of being able to meet particular temptations by defences adopted on the spot. We need much forethought, foresight, and determination. Our system of discretionary rules must spread over all our life; over our duties, our devotions, our intercourse with others, whether of the Church or of the world; it must prescribe to us counsels of wisdom for our whole bearing, our words, our personal habits. Wherefore, St. Paul says, “Whether ye eat or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.”7575   1 Cor. x. 31. No part of our daily life is too slight to admit of a holy intention, as none is too small to become the seat of great temptations. Another reason for this carefulness 136in prescribing even the detail of our daily life is, that unless our rules are fixed, they cannot become habitual and confirmed. The very strength and life of all self-discipline is order, certainty, and decision. Our true safeguard against temptation is, to be the same at all times, in all companies, in all places; not to vary, and adapt ourselves to the humour of others, thereby adopting their temptations with their habits; but to be always and every where ourselves, and to oppose to the temptations of the world the consistency of a matured and practised habit of self-control. Indeed, in this most men err grievously. They are strict at home, and lax abroad; that is, they are rigid when they are not tempted, and loose when they are in the midst of temptations; watchful where the danger is little, and off their guard where it is great: whereas they ought, on the contrary, to be all the more severe, rigorous, watchful, and guarded, be cause they are out of their sheltered retirement, and beset by the illusions and solicitations of the world. Yet we seldom see men who are devout and careful at home even equally so in society. And to what bitter reproaches, to what hours of miserable retrospect, to what fearful havoc in the spiritual life, does this relaxation lead! How do men that go forth with many saintly tokens upon them, come home in remorse, to put ashes upon their heads!

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Alas, the world’s kisses are death to the hidden life. The world is perilous in its array; full of seducing spirits, crafty, fair- seeming, versatile, and deadly. We may well fear it. Well is it if we fear it greatly; for few there be that fear it at all. Happy are they who walk unspotted of the world, in ways of lowliness and self-mistrust; and happy they whose pride is abased, and whose presuming hearts are brought down by a salutary humiliation. Piercing as the discipline may be, better is it to have a spiritual sorrow, “sharper than any two-edged sword,” than to walk proud and blindfold, “deceiving and being deceived,” tempting the Lord our God.

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