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THE SONS OF GOD.
“As many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.”
ST. PAUL here shews us what is the end and law of our regeneration. The Son of God was made man, that we might be made the sons of God. The Holy Ghost came down to continue in us this work of our redemption. We were made sons of God by regeneration in the baptism of water and of the Holy Ghost. Our adoption was a free, unsought, undeserved, and sovereign act of God, for His only Son’s sake. Creation was not more sovereign, nor was the dust of the ground more passive when the first man was made in God’s likeness, than we, when, through baptism, we were born again as sons of God.
But St. Paul is here speaking, not of our adoption as it is an act on God’s part, but of our sonship 28 as it is a spiritual reality and actual attainment on our part.
We were made sons by baptism: we become sons by obedience. How can we become sons, if we were already made so? As we were made man by our natural birth, whereby we obtained the nature and capacities of manhood, we become men by natural growth, whereby what is in germ and virtue becomes actual and perfect.
It is in this sense that St. John says, “As many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”55 St. John i. 12, 13. Baptism is our adoption, as birth is our life. As life is natural birth produced, so sonship is the spirit of adoption produced. To be led by spiritual instincts, lights, and inspirations, is to become, and therefore in a very and eternal reality to be, sons of God.
But St. Paul does not mean, that none but they who are led by the Spirit are sons. The very word led implies obedience to the Spirit of adoption. For many are regenerate who will not obey. All who are baptised are drawn; but they only are here said to be “led” who follow the leading of the Spirit. When St. Paul says, “All are 29not Israel who are of Israel,”66 Rom. ix. 6. he does not mean that faithless Israelites are not of the lineage of Israel. Nor, when our Lord called Nathanael “an Israelite indeed,”77 St. John i. 47. did He mean that they who were not true to their name were not indeed of God’s chosen nation. So. in this place, as many as follow where the Spirit leads, they are sons of God indeed.
This, then, is our calling, and this is the test of our adoption.
How many simply deride it. In this day of light, when we are told that manhood is divine, and that, when conscious of his divinity, man is what the tempter promised, the grace of God in our adoption is looked down upon as a superstition of human childhood, a figment of the mind, or a remnant of mediaeval credulity. How many disbelieve it because they cannot find it in their own consciousness, therefore cannot realise it; and what they cannot realise they deny. How many profess to believe, and yet choose their own path, are their own leaders; consciously evading the leading of their baptism in all its higher and deeper paths, in all that cross their own inclinations. How many stifle and lower their spiritual life by empty, unworthy, frivolous trifling; by ease, luxury, sloth, softness, self-indulgence, 30 and acquiescence in relaxed maxims of the world. How few truly realise the spirit of their adoption, and become sons of God in life, energy, and act. How few, I mean, realise the personality and presence of the Holy Spirit. How few live in the consciousness that they are within the sphere of a Divine person, loving, compassionate, long-suffering, who, from their childhood, has been guiding and bearing with them.
Let us, then, try ourselves, and see how it is with us; whether or no we be sons of God in that one only sense which shall stand when all things shall be tried by fire. For in one sense sons of God we must be for ever. We can destroy ourselves, but we cannot efface our baptism; we may mar the image of God, but not our baptismal cross; we may forfeit the bliss of our adoption, but we cannot evade the doom of reprobate sons. This must be our chiefest bliss or our deepest anguish, and abide with us for ever. Let us, then, well try ourselves, lest we be deceived.
There are three certain marks by which we may ascertain our true sonship.
1. The first mark is a ready will. It may be asked, How does the Spirit of God lead us? In what way? Is it in any way distinguishable from the actings of our natural conscience; and if so, how may we distinguish it? How am I to know 31what is His leading? and what am I to do to follow it?
The natural conscience is indeed the throne of the Holy Spirit within us. It is the power in us over which He presides, and by which He guides us. There is by nature a light which separates between right and wrong, between truths and falsehoods; and to this natural light the Spirit of God adds yet greater light. There is a light infused by baptism which strengthens and extends the light of nature. New faculties are awakened in the soul, and new powers implanted. Faith is a new sense; and to this sense the realities of the world unseen are lifted up. New objects and laws are revealed by the illumination of truth; new affections and perceptions are elicited by the inspirations of grace. This is the passive state of the soul born again of the Spirit. But here the trial begins. It is by our will that we are to be proved and judged. In the midst of all this growing, overwhelming light, the will may remain stubborn and rebellious. Faults in childhood growing into the sins of boyhood, hardening into the entanglements and obstinacy of manhood, establish a deliberate resistance in the will against the light of the Spirit.
We often see the most promising forms of character slowly fading off. For a time there is a kind of negative declension. No marked and active 32 faults appear; but nothing is advancing towards holiness and the mind of Christ. They seem for a while to stand still, as we see in an arrow’s flight a momentary pause before it begins to descend. So they never go beyond a certain point; then for a while they hang in suspense—then slowly fall. Then some one sin appears, long nourished in secret, now at last revealed; some one parasite, which has clung about them, and slowly confirmed its grasp around the whole strength and stature of their character. And this one sin gives the fatal wound to their spiritual life. They deliberately choose this sin; and this choice in riper years overmasters the grace of their baptism. The responsible agent rejects God’s free gift, received in unconsciousness at the font.
So even with refined faults, which equally produce an intense variance of the will, and even a more subtil spirit of hostility against God. Such, I mean, as pride, ambition, selfishness, fastidious refinement, supercilious confidence in self. All these estrange the will from God; and the will is the centre and quick of our probation.
For this estrangement of the will creates reluctance, struggling, opposition, and a slavish or rebellious heart. What more miserable state than to have our reason clearly convinced of the sovereignty of God’s Spirit, and our will averted from 33Him? Such Christians are sons by God’s grace; but slaves and rebels by their own deliberate choice.
This, then, is the first mark—a ready will to follow where the light of the Spirit leads. When we come to some hard choice between pleasure and duty, between a desire to venture and a motion to forbear, we come to our place and hour of trial. The motions in our conscience are admonitions from God; they are given to be obeyed.
It is dangerous to delay. When our Lord called one to follow Him, and he answered, “Suffer me first to go and bury my father,” what answer did he receive? “Let the dead bury their dead.”88 St. Matt. viii. 21, 22. So with us; hesitation brings reasons for delay; and delay gives time for temptation: one hour’s delay brings unknown hindrance. The motions of God’s Spirit are like the flowing of the tide, which, taken at the full, will lift us over every bar: tarry and lose them, and we may be stranded for ever.
There is a golden chain, a thread frail and delicate, by which He leads us on.
In some it is drawing them to conversion. Their past life rises up into its true shape and colour, and they are moved to flee from it. They see its sin, or hollowness, or presumption. Then they are drawn onward to holier aspirations and deeper purposes. They desire to turn with their 34 whole heart to God, and to begin a life altogether new in aim, intention, and character. This is the leading of the Spirit, the crisis of their trial.
In some, again, who have passed beyond this point, it is drawing them to the grace of deeper penitence. This keener self-reproach and clearer insight into their own sinful consciousness are given them to break up the insensible and easy confidence with which some absolve themselves. But it is a gift that must be followed.
In some it is drawing them on from commandments to precepts, from precepts to counsels of perfection. The light which rises in the soul, if slighted, declines surely to its setting. If we will not go on to more devotion, self-denial, and love, we shall fall back into less. To some it is as much the crisis of their spiritual life to follow, one by one, into the narrower paths of toil, prayer, and the cross, as to others to leave the broad way that leadeth to destruction. “To him that hath shall be given; but from him that hath not, even that which he hath shall be taken away.” If we hang back, the golden thread may snap asunder, and we fall back into any measure of declension.
Let us beware, then, how we tarry and debate. Lingering is a provocation of God’s patience. He would be loved and honoured by a free and filial service. All depends on a will ready and prompt 35to obey. Who knows what, by a single act of the will, you may gain or lose? You are, it may be, at the cross roads, where the ways part asunder,—the one to life eternal, the other to eternal death. What you do will leave its character in the book of God’s remembrance. As we choose, so we shall be. What we will we are. Our will is our whole being summed into one intense, deliberate act. Resist the Spirit of God, and you may be cast out of our Father’s sight; follow, and you shall be His sons, by grace, for ever.
2. Another mark of a filial spirit is a loving heart.
All men are ruled by either love or fear: there is no intermediate state. “Perfect love casteth out fear,” and a ruling fear casteth out love. They may be mingled for a while; but one or the other must bear rule and sway at last. And this is a sure criterion. “For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.’99 Rom. viii. 15. He would have from us the service of sons, loving, glad, and grateful, without stint or measure; not saying, How much must I do? but How much may I, how much can I do? How much time, substance, service, or thought can I give to Him?
There are no weights and measures among the 36 vessels of the sanctuary. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” He gave Himself wholly for us; what shall we not give to Him again? The service of our Father is perfect freedom; fearless, and yet fearing alway; fearing to offend; fearing to come short; fearing our own unworthiness; fearing to appear in His spotless Presence; but fearing nothing else. The true service of sons is pure love: not for safety, nor for reward; not to escape hell, nor to gain heaven; hut to serve, please, and glorify our Lord, who loved us purely and without cause, except His own eternal love.
Now, what is your motive? Why do you live a Christian life? Why do you keep an outward habit of religion? Why do you pray? Why do you communicate? Is it from the conclusions of the intellect? because you are convinced of the duty, as with a mechanical certainty? Is it because such a life beseems the dignity of man, or the order of the world, or the well-being of families and the social state? Is it from passive and unquestioning dispositions,—a sort of dead bias, gained in childhood? Is it from the support of an outward system? the custom of others? the daily warnings of the bell? the altar inviting every week? Is it that good education has passed into the decorum of life and the channel of worldly happiness 37and worldly interest, and because, with no change of heart, your life has fallen into a vague and beaten track? Or is it from a conscious filial love to God and to our Lord Jesus Christ?
If not, what are all these motives? How will they endure the piercing of those eyes which are as a flame of fire?
What is God’s kingdom but love? What but love is God’s service? What are all things,—knowledge and spiritual science, prayers, fasts, alms, communions—without love in the heart? The soul that loves not is dead.
3. And to take one more: a third mark of a filial spirit is a peaceful conscience.
St. Paul says, “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit that we are the children of God.” Now in this we may deceive ourselves. Many are in peace who have built upon no true foundation. And some who might be at peace will not suffer themselves to rest. A peaceful conscience must be a clean conscience. The peace of an unsifted conscience is either self-deceit or insensibility. None are more at peace in this sense than they who have no consciousness of sin, no perception of God’s presence, no shrinking from His spotless purity.
But this peace is not the witness of the Spirit with our spirit. It is the security of a torpid heart; the stupor of a silent conscience. Easy as 38 it is for dark and impure hearts to deceive themselves in this deep scrutiny, to cleansed and single hearts all is plain and clear. Our own spirit, that is, our whole inward consciousness, bears witness by the instinct of its own sincerity, by the steadiness of its desires after God, and by its delight in loving and serving Him. Where these things are, there can be no self-deceit. Though conscious of manifold imperfections, of a multitude of temptations, of frequent faults, and of a sinfulness which still cleaves to the soul as mortality to the body, yet a sincere heart cannot long or greatly deceive itself. It is our ultimate rule, ordained by God Himself. “If our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things. Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence towards God.” And where there is this testimony in our own hearts, there will always be the witness also of the Spirit; not by visions or the voice of words, nor by peculiar revelations or unusual tokens; but by the calm and steady shining of His presence. To every cleansed conscience God gives a special clearness of spiritual sight. The objects of faith unveil themselves, as the face of the earth when the morning mists ascend. The visible world has a limited horizon, near and circumscribed; but the world unseen has no boundaries to the gaze of faith. The 39saints of all times and dispensations, the companies of just men made perfect, the heavenly court, the throne of God, the purpose, mind, and will of the divine kingdom, the reality of all laws and mysteries of grace, stand out ever more and more clearly and vividly before the pure in heart. And with clearer sight comes greater strength; and with greater strength a greater ease in the whole life of faith.
With this comes also a deeper sense of the presence of God; a sense which grows up into a consciousness finer than all thought, and independent of all reflection. It is as the consciousness of an eye ever upon us,—an eye of love, in which it is happiness to live; a countenance ever shining downwards; a light lifted up in token of goodwill; a reality out of ourselves and yet within us, or rather in which—as in the air or noonday light—we are enshrined, enfolded, and encompassed. This is the witness of the Spirit with our spirit; something too deep and intimate for words, too high and subtil for logical proof; but sure, real, and perceptible by faculties above reasoning or sense.
Have you, then, these three marks of the sons of God: a ready will, a loving heart, a peaceful conscience? If so, happy are ye. If not, what are you doing, hoping, expecting?40
Take, then, some rules by which to seek this true spirit of a son. There are two ways to it:
1. By learning obedience even in the least things.
There is nothing small which God has commanded: His greatness makes all about Him to be great. Nothing is little by which He may be greatly pleased, or greatly offended. A thought is a little thing, and yet it may be a great provocation of the divine Majesty; for every sin has the whole virus and principle of sin. So every duty, even the least duty, involves the whole principle of obedience. And little duties make the will dutiful, that is, supple and prompt to obey. Little obediences lead into great: “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much.”
The daily round of duty is full of probation and of discipline: it trains the will, heart, and conscience. To be holy we need not to be prophets or apostles. The commonest life may be full of perfection. The duties of home are a discipline for the ministries of heaven. A faithful servant has the heart of a son of God. A dutiful child lives in the spirit of adoption. An obedient wife exercises the whole grace of submission. A faithful pastor may labour in the spirit of an apostle; and a soul in wrongs or sufferings may gain a 41martyr’s crown. It is specially the common, unnoticed duties of life which are the safest and most searching tests. They have no ostentation or excitement, but are done from inward force, and a fruitful principle of duty.
2. The other way to a filial spirit is by habitual communion in the holy sacrament.
From the font we are invited to the altar. Once washed, we need to be perpetually fed with spiritual food. The life that was breathed into us from above cannot be sustained without the Bread of heaven.
What, then, is the state of those who never communicate? Sinful Christians slay their souls by wounds or poison: every sin that a man commits violates the gift of life. Slothful Christians starve their souls by wasting and exhaustion. Inconstant and irregular communicants undermine their spiritual steadfastness. Seldom communions make cold communions. Frequent communion is the best preparation for the altar; the communion of last Sunday for the next, of yesterday for to-day.
It is by habitual fellowship with the presence of our Lord that our will is united with His will, our heart with His heart, our conscience with His Spirit.
It is by this union that we attain the will to 42 choose His will, the will to cross our own. A will turned against itself is a token of the presence of God. As, if water should climb upward to its springs, or fire turn its points of flame downward to the earth, we should see and know that One greater than nature is here; so, when we choose pain and reject pleasure, when we will not what we will, but are willing for that against which our will is naturally bent, we may adore the presence of Him Whose Will gives law to all. Seek Him, then, continually in the even obedience of home, and in His presence at the altar, and He shall lead you by the path of the sons of God to the peace of His kingdom.
Your way shall be sure; I do not say it shall be smooth. In bringing many sons to glory, He hath made the Leader of their salvation, the first who trod the path, “perfect through suffering.”1010 Heb. ii. 10. He may ordain this also for you. We know not: God knoweth. But, smooth or rough, the way shall be sure; and He will lead you unto the end, through all changes of life, through all shadows of the world, through struggles and pain, hope and fear, sorrow and the cross, up the ascending path, by chastisements and warnings, by sudden visitations and lingering cares, by tokens in your home and at the altar, by persuasions more moving than 43words, by pledges more assuring than a miracle, until every son shall be conformed to the Son incarnate, eternal, “the image of the invisible God, the first-born of every creature,”1111 Col. i. 15. in the kingdom of our Father.44
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