"They say unto Him, We are able." Matt. xx. 22.
THESE words of the holy Apostles James and John were in reply to a very
solemn question addressed to them by their Divine Master. They coveted,
with a noble ambition, though as yet unpractised in the highest wisdom,
untaught in the holiest truth,—they coveted to sit beside Him on His Throne
of Glory. They would be content with nothing short of that special gift
which He had come to grant to His elect, which He shortly after died to
purchase for them, and which He offers to us. They ask the gift of eternal
life; and He in answer told them, not that they should have it (though
for them it was really reserved), but He reminded them what they must venture
for it; "Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of and to be
baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? They say unto Him, We
are able." Here then a great lesson is impressed upon us, that our duty
as Christians lies in this, in making ventures for eternal life without
the absolute certainty of success.
Success and reward everlasting they will have, who persevere unto the
end. Doubt we cannot, that the ventures of all Christ's servants must be
returned to them at the Last Day with abundant increase. This is a true
saying,—He returns far more than we lend to Him, and without fail. But
I am speaking of individuals, of ourselves one by one. No one among us
knows for certain that he himself will persevere; yet every one among us,
to give himself even a chance of success at all, must make a venture. As
regards individuals, then, it is quite true, that all of us must for certain
make ventures for heaven, yet without the certainty of success through
them. This, indeed, is the very meaning of the word "venture;" for that
is a strange venture which has nothing in it of fear, risk, danger, anxiety,
uncertainty. Yes; so it certainly is; and in this consists the excellence
and nobleness of faith; this is the very reason why faith is singled out
from other graces, and honoured as the especial means of our justification,
because its presence implies that we have the heart to make a venture.
St. Paul sufficiently sets this before us in the eleventh chapter of
his Epistle to the Hebrews, which opens with a definition of faith, and
after that, gives us examples of it, as if to guard against any possibility
of mistake. After quoting the text, "the just shall live by faith," and
thereby showing clearly that he is speaking of what he treats in his Epistle
to the Romans as justifying faith, he continues, "Now faith is the substance,"
that is, the realizing, "of things hoped for, the evidence," that is, the
ground of proof, "of things not seen." It is in its very essence the making
present what is unseen; the acting upon the mere prospect of it, as if
it really were possessed; the venturing upon it, the staking present ease,
happiness, or other good, upon the chance of the future. And hence in another
epistle he says pointedly, "If in this life only we have hope in Christ,
we are of all men most miserable." [1 Cor. xv. 19.] If the dead are not
raised, we have indeed made a most signal miscalculation in the choice
of life, and are altogether at fault. And what is true of the main doctrine
itself, is true also of our individual interest in it. This he shows us
in his Epistle to the Hebrews, by the instance of the Ancient Saints, who
thus risked their present happiness on the chance of future. Abraham "went
out, not knowing whither he went." He and the rest died "not having received
the promises, but having seen them afar off; and were persuaded of them,
and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims
on the earth." Such was the faith of the Patriarchs: and in the text the
youthful Apostles, with an untaught but generous simplicity, lay claim
to the same. Little as they knew what they said in its fulness, yet their
words were any how expressive of their hidden hearts, prophetic of their
future conduct. They say unto Him, "We are able." They pledge themselves
as if unawares, and are caught by One mightier than they, and, as it were,
craftily made captive. But, in truth, their unsuspicious pledge was, after
all, heartily made, though they knew not what they promised; and so was
accepted. "Are ye able to drink of My cup, and be baptized with My baptism?
They say unto Him, We are able." He in answer, without promising them heaven,
graciously said, "Ye shall drink indeed of My cup, and be baptized with
the baptism that I am baptized with."
Our Lord appears to act after the same manner towards St. Peter: He
accepted his office of service, yet warned him how little he himself understood
it. The zealous Apostle wished to follow his Lord at once: but He answered,
"Whither I go thou canst not follow Me now, but thou shalt follow me afterwards."
[John xiii. 36.] At another time, He claimed the promise already made to
Him; He said, "Follow thou Me;" and at the same time explained it, "Verily,
verily, I say unto thee, when thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and
walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt
stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither
thou wouldest not." [John xxi. 18-22.]
Such were the ventures made in faith, and in uncertainty, by Apostles.
Our Saviour, in a passage of St. Luke's Gospel, binds upon us all the necessity
of deliberately doing the like,—"Which of you, intending to build a tower,
sitteth not down first and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient
to finish it? Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not
able to finish it, all that behold it, begin to mock him, saying, This
man began to build, and is not able to finish." And then He presently adds,
"So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath,
he cannot be My disciple:" [Luke xiv. 28-33.] thus warning us of the full
sacrifice we must make. We give up our all to Him; and He is to claim this
or that, or grant us somewhat of it for a season, according to His good
pleasure. On the other hand, the case of the rich young man, who went away
sorrowful, when our Lord bade him give up his all and follow Him, is an
instance of one who had not faith to make the venture of this world for
the next, upon His word.
If then faith be the essence of a Christian life, and if it be what
I have now described, it follows that our duty lies in risking upon Christ's
word what we have, for what we have not; and doing so in a noble, generous
way, not indeed rashly or lightly, still without knowing accurately what
we are doing, not knowing either what we give up, nor again what we shall
gain; uncertain about our reward, uncertain about our extent of sacrifice,
in all respects leaning, waiting upon Him, trusting in Him to fulfil His
promise, trusting in Him to enable us to fulfil our own vows, and so in
all respects proceeding without carefulness or anxiety about the future.
Now I dare say that what I have said as yet seems plain and unexceptionable
to most of those who hear me; yet surely, when I proceed to draw the practical
inference which immediately follows, there are those who in their secret
hearts, if not in open avowal, will draw back. Men allow us Ministers of
Christ to proceed in our preaching, while we confine ourselves to general
truths, until they see that they themselves are implicated in them, and
have to act upon them; and then they suddenly come to a stand; they collect
themselves and draw back, and say, "They do not see this—or do not admit
that"—and though they are quite unable to say why that should not follow
from what they already allow, which we show must follow, still they persist
in saying, that they do not see that it does follow; and they look about
for excuses, and they say we carry things too far, and that we are extravagant,
and that we ought to limit and modify what we say, that we do not take
into account times, and seasons, and the like. This is what they pretend;
and well has it been said, "where there is a will there is a way;" for
there is no truth, however overpoweringly clear, but men may escape from
it by shutting their eyes; there is no duty, however urgent, but they may
find ten thousand good reasons against it, in their own case. And they
are sure to say we carry things too far, when we carry them home to themselves.
This sad infirmity of men, called Christians, is exemplified in the
subject immediately before us. Who does not at once admit that faith consists
in venturing on Christ's word without seeing? Yet in spite of this, may
it not be seriously questioned, whether men in general, even those of the
better sort, venture any thing upon His truth at all?
Consider for an instant. Let every one who hears me ask himself the
question, what stake has he in the truth of Christ's promise? How would
he be a whit the worse off, supposing (which is impossible), but, supposing
it to fail? We know what it is to have a stake in any venture of this world.
We venture our property in plans which promise a return; in plans which
we trust, which we have faith in. What have we ventured for Christ? What
have we given to Him on a belief of His promise? The Apostle said, that
he and his brethren would be of all men most miserable, if the dead were
not raised. Can we in any degree apply this to ourselves? We think, perhaps,
at present, we have some hope of heaven; well, this we should lose of course;
but after all, how should we be worse off as to our present condition?
A trader, who has embarked some property in a speculation which fails,
not only loses his prospect of gain, but somewhat of his own, which he
ventured with the hope of the gain. This is the question, What have we
ventured? I really fear, when we come to examine, it will be found that
there is nothing we resolve, nothing we do, nothing we do not do, nothing
we avoid, nothing we choose, nothing we give up, nothing we pursue, which
we should not resolve, and do, and not do, and avoid, and choose, and give
up, and pursue, if Christ had not died, and heaven were not promised us.
I really fear that most men called Christians, whatever they may profess,
whatever they may think they feel, whatever warmth and illumination and
love they may claim as their own, yet would go on almost as they do, neither
much better nor much worse, if they believed Christianity to be a fable.
When young, they indulge their lusts, or at least pursue the world's vanities;
as time goes on, they get into a fair way of business, or other mode of
making money; then they marry and settle; and their interest coinciding
with their duty, they seem to be, and think themselves, respectable and
religious men; they grow attached to things as they are; they begin to
have a zeal against vice and error; and they follow after peace with all
men. Such conduct indeed, as far as it goes, is right and praiseworthy.
Only I say, it has not necessarily any thing to do with religion at all;
there is nothing in it which is any proof of the presence of religious
principle in those who adopt it; there is nothing they would not do still,
though they had nothing to gain from it, except what they gain from it
now: they do gain something now, they do gratify their present wishes,
they are quiet and orderly, because it is their interest and taste to be
so; but they venture nothing, they risk, they sacrifice, they abandon nothing
on the faith of Christ's word.
For instance: St. Barnabas had a property in Cyprus; he gave it up for
the poor of Christ. Here is an intelligible sacrifice. He did something
he would not have done, unless the Gospel were true. It is plain, if the
Gospel turned out a fable (which God forbid), but if so, he would have
taken his line most unskilfully; he would be in a great mistake, and would
have suffered a loss. He would be like a merchant whose vessels were wrecked,
or whose correspondents had failed. Man has confidence in man, he trusts
to the credit of his neighbour; but Christians do not risk largely upon
their Saviour's word; and this is the one thing they have to do. Christ
tells us Himself, "Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness;
that, when ye fall, they may receive you into everlasting habitations;"
[Luke xvi. 9.] i.e. buy an interest in the next world with that wealth
which this world uses unrighteously; feed the hungry, clothe the naked,
relieve the sick, and it shall turn to "bags that wax not old, a treasure
in the heavens that faileth not." [Luke xii. 33.] Thus almsdeeds, I say,
are an intelligible venture and an evidence of faith.
So again the man who, when his prospects in the world are good, gives
up the promise of wealth or of eminence, in order to be nearer Christ,
to have a place in His temple, to have more opportunity for prayer and
praise, he makes a sacrifice.
Or he who, from a noble striving after perfection, puts off the desire
of worldly comforts, and is, like Daniel or St. Paul, in much labour and
business, yet with a solitary heart, he too ventures something upon the
certainty of the world to come.
Or he who, after falling into sin, repents in deed as well as in word;
puts some yoke upon his shoulder; subjects himself to punishment; is severe
upon his flesh; denies himself innocent pleasures; or puts himself to public
shame,—he too shows that his faith is the realizing of things hoped for,
the warrant of things not seen.
Or again: he who only gets himself to pray against those things which
the many seek after, and to embrace what the heart naturally shrinks from;
he who, when God's will seems to tend towards worldly ill, while he deprecates
it, yet prevails on himself to say heartily, "Thy will be done;" he, even,
is not without his sacrifice. Or he who, being in prospect of wealth, honestly
prays God that he may never be rich; or he who is in prospect of station,
and earnestly prays that he may never have it; or he who has friends or
kindred, and acquiesces with an entire heart in their removal while it
is yet doubtful, who can say, "Take them away, if it be Thy will, to Thee
I give them up, to Thee I commit them," who is willing to be taken at his
word; he too risks somewhat, and is accepted.
Such a one is taken at his word, while he understands not, perhaps,
what he says; but he is accepted, as meaning somewhat, and risking much.
Generous hearts, like James and John, or Peter, often speak largely and
confidently beforehand of what they will do for Christ, not insincerely,
yet ignorantly; and for their sincerity's sake they are taken at their
word as a reward, though they have yet to learn how serious that word is.
"They say unto Him, We are able;"—and the vow is recorded in heaven. This
is the case of all of us at many seasons. First, at Confirmation; when
we promise what was promised for us at Baptism, yet without being able
to understand how much we promise, but rather trusting to God gradually
to reveal it, and to give us strength according to our day. So again they
who enter Holy Orders promise they know not what, engage themselves they
know not how deeply, debar themselves of the world's ways they know not
how intimately, find perchance they must cut off from them the right hand,
sacrifice the desire of their eyes and the stirring of their hearts at
the foot of the Cross, while they thought, in their simplicity, they were
but choosing the quiet easy life of "plain men dwelling in tents." And
so again, in various ways, the circumstances of the times cause men at
certain seasons to take this path or that, for religion's sake. They know
not whither they are being carried; they see not the end of their course;
they know no more than this, that it is right to do what they are now doing;
and they hear a whisper within them, which assures them, as it did the
two holy brothers, that whatever their present conduct involves in time
to come, they shall, through God's grace, be equal to it. Those blessed
Apostles said, "We are able;" and in truth they were enabled to do and
suffer as they had said. St. James was given strength to be steadfast unto
death, the death of martyrdom; being slain with the sword in Jerusalem.
St. John, his brother, had still more to bear, dying last of the Apostles,
as St. James first. He had to hear bereavement, first, of his brother,
then of the other Apostles. He had to bear a length of years in loneliness,
exile, and weakness. He had to experience the dreariness of being solitary,
when those whom he loved had been summoned away. He had to live in his
own thoughts, without familiar friend, with those only about him who belonged
to a younger generation. Of him were demanded by his gracious Lord, as
pledges of his faith, all his eye loved and his heart held converse with.
He was as a man moving his goods into a far country, who at intervals and
by portions sends them before him, till his present abode is well-nigh
unfurnished. He sent forward his friends on their journey, while he stayed
himself behind, that there might be those in heaven to have thoughts of
him, to look out for him, and receive him when his Lord should call. He
sent before him, also, other still more voluntary pledges and ventures
of his faith,—a self-denying walk, a zealous maintenance of the truth,
fasting and prayers, labours of love, a virgin life, buffetings from the
heathen, persecution, and banishment. Well might so great a Saint say,
at the end of his days "Come, Lord Jesus!" as those who are weary of the
night, and wait for the morning. All his thoughts, all his contemplations,
desires, and hopes, were stored in the invisible world; and death, when
it came, brought back to him the sight of what he had worshipped, what
he had loved, what he had held intercourse with, in years long past away.
Then, when again brought into the presence of what he had lost, how would
remembrance revive, and familiar thoughts long buried come to life! Who
shall dare to describe the blessedness of those who find all their pledges
safe returned to them, all their ventures abundantly and beyond measure
Alas! that we, my brethren, have not more of this high and unearthly
spirit! How is it that we are so contented with things as they are,—that
we are so willing to be let alone, and to enjoy this life,—that we make
such excuses, if any one presses on us the necessity of something higher,
the duty of bearing the Cross, if we would earn the Crown, of the Lord
I repeat it; what are our ventures and risks upon the truth of His word?
for He says expressly, "Every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren,
or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for My
Name's sake, shall receive an hundred-fold, and shall inherit everlasting
life. But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first."
[Matt. xix. 29, 30.]
Copyright © 2000 by Bob Elder. All rights reserved.
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