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Sermon 4:  Acceptance of Religious Privileges Compulsory 
by John Henry Newman 
(Note: This sermon was not originally written for a parish.)
"And the lord said unto the servant, Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may filled." Luke xiv. 23.

THE Parable of the Great Supper, from which these words are taken, is found also in St. Matthew's Gospel, with this especial addition, that of the guests thus brought in by force, one was found not having on a wedding garment, who in consequence was not simply dismissed as unworthy, but condemned to punishment. "Friend, how camest thou in hither, not having a wedding garment? and he was speechless. Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth; for many are called but few are chosen." [Matt. xxii. 12-14.] "Friend, how camest thou in hither?" You may suppose he might have answered, "I was forced in;" but our Saviour says, "And he was speechless," and pronounces his everlasting punishment. Surely, there is something very awful and startling in the doctrine thus contained in the Parable. It would seem from thence that we are compelled to accept of religious advantages, for the use of which we are answerable, for the misuse of which we shall be condemned. We are compelled to become Christians, yet this compulsion is not taken into account when the day of reckoning comes. The same doctrine is implied in the parable of the talents. The servant who hid his lord's talent, seems to have had some such thoughts about fairness and justice, as the natural man so often indulges in now,—some idea of being quits and even with him, if he left his gift alone,—as if he could wash his hands (as it is said) of the whole business, and venture neither the gain nor the loss; feeling that it was a delicate matter that was put upon him, that there was great risk of failing, that his lord was an austere kind of man, hard to please, having his own views of right and duty, and unreasonable; and that, consequently, it was safest to keep aloof, to have no cares on any score, and so escape the danger. But here again this selfish reasoner is met by the same stern necessity, so to call it. The law of his nature is urged upon him, by the Creator of that law; a sort of uncontrollable destiny is represented as encompassing him; the destiny of accountableness, the fate of being free, the unalienable prerogative of choosing between life and death, the inevitable prospect of heaven and hell. "Out of thine own mouth will I judge thee, thou wicked servant." [Luke xix. 22.] — "Cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness." [Matt. xxv. 30.]

And so again of Judas our Lord says, "Woe unto that man by whom the Son or man is betrayed. It had been good for that man if he had not been born." Yet he was born, he was suffered to betray, and he was condemned.

The same is the doctrine of the Old Testament; as, for example, in the memorable words in the prophet Ezekiel, in which Almighty God says to the Israelites, "That which cometh into your mind shall not be at all, that ye say, We will be as the heathen, as the families of the countries, to serve wood and stone; As I live, saith the Lord God, surely with a mighty hand, and with a stretched out arm, and with fury poured out, will I rule over you … And I will cause you to pass under the rod, and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant." [Ez. xx. 32-37.]

Now, before proceeding to observe upon this very solemn and certain truth (certain if Scripture is true), I would entreat you to consider who it is who has propounded it in the parable in question. It is our Lord Christ. Here, as in other places, He has not left to His servants,—He has taken upon Himself (what may be called) the responsibility, I might even say the odium, of declaring startling doctrines. Consider then His words and works, as displayed in the Gospels. Is He not the author of a religion which we every day hear called, and most truly called, mild, beneficent, charitable, and cheering? Is not His own character, as the common voice of all men proclaims, most meek, gentle, considerate, and loving? Can any one read the history of His life and death without being himself convinced of the truth of this universal judgment? much more, can any one in any degree enter into the depths of the gracious doctrine of the Atonement, His expiation of sin on the Cross, without possessing a clear assurance that there is nothing in the whole world that can be done for us which He has not done and will not do? Yet He it is who leaves us under this bond. By His sighs and tears then, by His toilsome wanderings, by His earnest speeches, by His agony and death, by all He has done, all He has suffered, He seems to entreat us to have confidence in Him; He condescends to entreat us to take on trust the truth and the equity of His words, when He declares that we are compelled to receive God's mercies, yet punished for the misuse of them.

Now I shall enlarge somewhat upon the general state of the case, and then show how Christians are especially interested in it.

1. In the first place, consider what first of all presents itself to our thoughts, our birth into the world. Allow that this is a world of enjoyment, yet unquestionably it is a world of care and pain also. Most men will judge that the pain on the whole exceeds the enjoyment on the whole. But, whether this be so or not with most men, even if there be one man in the whole world who thinks so, that is enough for my purpose. It is enough for my purpose, if only there be one person to be found, who thinks sickness, disappointment, anxiety, affliction, suffering, fear, to be such grievous ills, that he had rather not have been born. If this be the sentiment only of one man, that one man, it is plain, is, as regards his very existence, what the Christian is relatively to his new birth, an unwilling recipient of a gift. We are not asked, whether we will choose this world, before we are born into it. We are brought under the yoke of it, whether we will or no; since we plainly cannot choose or not choose before the power of choice is bestowed on us, this gift of a mortal nature.

This is one of the thoughts which to the pride of reflecting but irreligious minds is sometimes a stumbling block. Arrogant, impatient, rebellious hearts, finding themselves possessed of this gift of life and reason, fight against what they cannot undo—they turn it against itself, and argue against it by means of it. They beat and break themselves fruitlessly against the destiny to which they are chained; and since they cannot annul their creation, they think to revenge themselves by blasphemously rising against their Creator. "Why am I made? why cannot I annihilate myself? why must I suffer?" Such as these are the questions with which they fatigue themselves; sometimes even rushing out of life by self-inflicted violence, from the frantic hope that perchance they have power over their own being. And when they have committed that fatal deed, and find themselves, as assuredly they do, still sentient, conscious, independent beings, with their own thoughts and wills and tastes and judgments, who can imagine the horror that possesses them in that their new state of existence? the horror of finding themselves without bodies, without any thing to touch, any thing to turn upon, and wreak their fury upon, with nothing but themselves,—without bodies, yet living, living without aught of power over the principle of their life, which rests upon the will of Him alone, who called them into being, and whom they have blasphemed!

Or sometimes this want of resignation takes another turn. Many there are who, without thus rising against the will of God, yet will not admit that it is their duty to serve Him under that dispensation, whatever it is, to which He has chosen to subject them, that they are accountable for what they do, and must bring forth from within, by the power of their will, what may duly respond to the circumstances in which they stand. Accordingly, they deliberately and on principle suffer themselves to be borne down the stream of life passively, by whatever happens to them. Does temptation come to them? they yield to it; does danger? they are cowards; inducements to virtue? they are virtuous; is religion in fashion? they take up a profession; in no case entering into the simple and momentous truth, that the circumstances which come upon them, are matters external both to their own choice and their responsibility,—are but conditions appointed by Almighty God, under which they find themselves placed (why, it boots not to inquire), and which it is their wisdom to take as such, to take, use, and improve.

I have noticed these instances of want of resignation, not for their own sake, but in order to illustrate, by the contrast, that law of our birth, of which I am speaking, viz., that we are brought, without our consent being asked, into a certain state of things, into a life of suffering, and of moral discipline; and are imperatively required to obey God under it, as if we had brought ourselves into it, on the pain of fearful consequences, if we do not.

2. Such is our condition as men; it is the same as Christians. For instance, we are not allowed to grow up before choosing our religion. We as little choose our religion as we choose to be born. It is done for us without our having part in it. We are baptized in infancy. Our sponsors promise for us. Now considering how great on the one hand the privileges of Baptism are, and on the other how great the risk of resisting and abusing them, this is a very serious thought. St. Paul's words about the danger of quenching the gift of grace are decisive—"It is impossible (he says) for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were 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." [Heb. vi. 4-6.]

Now I can fancy a person saying, who had fallen into sin, "O that I had never been baptized! O that I did not incur this great risk! O that the one Baptism once applied for the remission of sins were yet to come! O that I had not already had that cleansing once for all, and were quit of the necessity of striving continually to keep myself in the state into which I have been brought!" But this cannot be; we are Christians from our earliest years, we can decline neither the great privilege nor the responsibility of it; and, instead of shrinking from the responsibility, rather we must comfort ourselves with the privilege, with the contemplation of the fulness of the aid given us to help us in all our trials; and, thus encouraged, we must go on to cooperate with God manfully.

So again with respect to our education. We are brought up as Christians. We may not, we cannot stand aloof, and say we will keep our judgment unbiassed, and decide for ourselves. We find ourselves Christians; and our duty is, not to consider what we should do if we were not Christians,—not to go about disputing, sifting the evidence for Christianity, weighing this side or that,—but to act upon the rules given us, till we have reason to think them wrong, and to bring home to ourselves the truth of them, as we go on, by acting upon them,—by their fruits on ourselves. Heathens indeed may be bound to go into the question of evidences, but our duty is to use the talents of which we find ourselves possessed, and to essay their genuineness by deeds, not by arguments.

These are instances (such as I proposed to give) of our being forced into the possession of certain advantages or disadvantages, and being obliged to act up to this our state, to cooperate with it, according to the inward power given us, instead of drawing back from it. You see how parallel the Christian method is to that of nature. God appoints us by nature to be the sons of sinful Adam, responsible beings, with never-dying souls,—by force, as it were; and by means of the Church, in like manner, He gives us the Sacrament of the new birth, and educates us in right principles, whether we will or no.

3. But this compulsion on the part of the Church is still more urgent and extensive than I have yet mentioned, and it may be right therefore to give a few additional instances of it, in order to impress upon your minds the principle on which it is founded.

First, then, I will instance the remarkable fact, that (as it appears) whole households were baptized by the Apostles, which must include slaves as well as children. It would seem that grown persons, if dependent on the master of the house, were, on his conversion, made partakers of his privileges and his duties. This was so ordered in the Old Testament, in the case of Abraham, whose circumcision was followed, by divine command, by the circumcision of his servants with him; "all the men of his house, born in the house, and bought with money of the stranger." [Gen. xvii. 27.] In like manner we read in the Acts, that when Lydia was converted, not only she herself was baptized, but, almost as a matter of course (for such is the impression conveyed by the sacred narrative); "her household" [Acts xvi. 15, 33.] was baptized also. Again, when the jailor at Philippi is baptized, it is not only he, but "he and all his straightway." Again, in the first Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul speaks of having baptized "the household of Stephanas." [1 Cor. i. 16.] The circumstances and conditions requisite for this procedure, and the limitations by which it was guarded, need not here be considered; I wish merely to point out the principle involved in the procedure itself.

Another remarkable instance of the force which was put upon men by the early Church, will be found in the then existing usage of bringing such as had the necessary gifts to ordination, without asking their consent. The primitive Christians looked upon Ordination very differently (alas for ourselves!) very differently from this age. Now the ministerial office is often regarded as a profession of this world,—a provision, a livelihood; it is associated in men's minds with a comparatively easy, or at least not a troubled life,—with respectability and comfort, a competency, a position in society. Alas for us! we feel none of those terrors about it, which made the early Christians flee from it! But in their eyes (putting aside the risk of undertaking it in times of persecution) it was so solemn a function, that the holier a man was, the less inclined he felt to undertake it. They felt that it was in some sort to incur the responsibility of other men, and to be put in trust with their salvation; they felt it was scarcely possible to engage in it, without the risk of being besprinkled with the blood of ruined souls. They understood somewhat of St. Paul's language when he said that necessity was laid upon him, and woe to him unless he preached the Gospel. In consequence they shrank from the work, as though (to use a weak similitude) they had been bid dive down for pearls at the bottom of the sea, or scale some precipitous and dizzy cliff. True, they knew that abundance of heavenly aid would be given them, according to their need; but they knew also, that even if any part of the work was to be their own, though they were only called on to cooperate with God, that was in such a case fearful undertaking enough. So they literally fled away in many instances, when they were called to the sacred office; and the Church as literally took them by force, and (after the precedent of St. Paul's own conversion) laid necessity upon them.

Once more, consider the conduct of the Church from the very first time any civil countenance was extended towards it, and you will have a fresh instance of this constraining principle of which I speak. What are national conversions, such as took place in the middle ages, when kings submitted to the Gospel and their people followed, but going out into the highways and hedges, and compelling men to come in? And though we can conceive cases in which this urgency was unwisely, overstrongly, unseasonably, or too extensively applied, yet the principle of it is no other than that of the Baptism of households mentioned in the Acts. Again, what was it but this religious and charitable force (so to call it) which once guarded the true doctrine with state penalties, and made a man think twice and thrice before he rashly uttered any light words, or promulgated any heterodox tenet? a public duty, which is now altogether neglected, from the abuse of it in certain times and places, and the proneness of men on a reaction to run from one extreme into another.

4. And now let me notice, in conclusion, the light which the law of Providence I have been explaining casts upon the circumstances and mode in which one other ordinance of the Church is administered,—I mean Confirmation. Though in some respects individual Christians are always under the constraining power of the Church, yet as life goes on, they are more and more withdrawn from it; and, compared with what they were in childhood, they may at a certain time be called free men. They enjoy no longer, at least in the same sense as before, the privilege and mercy of being dependent. Confirmation is the last act on the part of the Church before she parts with them. She blesses them, and sends them out from the home of their youth to seek their fortunes in the world. She ends her constraint of them by a blessing; she blesses them by force and lets them go. They are sent to receive it by their friends; they submit, and are then set free. O my brethren, both young and old, this is an awful thought,—a most affecting thought, indeed, to those who witness a Confirmation, but a most awful thought to those who take part in it. You who have the care of young people, see to it that you bring them to be confirmed; let not the time slip by; let them not get too old. Why? because then you cannot bring them; the time of constraint is passed; they are their own masters. But you will say that you may perhaps still have influence with your children and dependents, and can get them to come, though they be past age. O but what if we be not willing to receive them? So perchance it may be. I mean, that when a man or woman is grown, much more is required of them than before, and they less likely to be able to answer it. When persons are young, before their minds are formed, ere they have sullied their baptismal robe, and contracted bad habits, this is the time for Confirmation, which conveys to them grace whereby they may perform that "good work" which Baptism has begun in them. But when they have gone into the world,—whatever their age be, for it varies in different persons,—when they have begun the war with world, flesh, and devil, when their minds are now grown into some determinate shape, and much more when they have wilfully sinned in any gross way, are they likely to be fitly prepared for Confirmation, even if they are persuaded to offer themselves? When a grown person comes coldly, and indifferently, and merely because his friends send him to us, can we, ministers of Christ, receive him? Can we receive, as if being in a mere negative state, one who, as being of mature years, ought to be mature in his religious principles also? Beware, then, all who have the care of the young, lest you let slip the time of bringing them for God's grace, when you can bring them, for it will not return. Bring them while their hearts are tender: they may escape from you, and you may not be able to reclaim them.

On the other hand, the same considerations come home with greater force to the young themselves: it is their own concern. They who are of an age to be confirmed should come to be confirmed at once, lest they get too old to be confirmed,—I mean lest they be first confirmed in another way, a way which will keep them from this holy confirmation, lest they receive that miserable confirmation, which those have who rush into sin,—the touch of this infectious world, and the imposition of the devil's hand upon them. You do not know yourselves, my brethren; you cannot answer for yourselves; you cannot trust your own promises about yourselves; you do not know what will become of you, unless you receive the gifts of grace when they are offered. They are, as it were, forced upon you now. If you put them from you, doubtless you can in this case overcome that force, you can be stronger than God's mercy. You may put off this holy ordinance, because you do not at present like a strict religious life,—because you take no interest in your eternal prospects. Alas! for what you know, you will be taking a step never to be retrieved. This blessed means of grace, perchance would change your heart and will, and make you love God's service. But the season once lost will never return. Year after year may pass, and you will be further and further from God. Perhaps you will rush into open and wilful sin: perhaps not; but still without loving God at all the more. Your heart may be upon the world; you may pass through life in a cold, unbelieving, narrow spirit, with no high aims, no love of things invisible, no love of Christ your Saviour. This will be the end of your refusing the loving compulsion of Almighty God:—slavery to this world, and to the god of this world. God save us all, young and old, from this, through Jesus Christ.

Copyright © 2000 by Bob Elder. All rights reserved.  
Used with permission from the Newman website.