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Of Abounding More and More.
by the Rev. John Keble
Sermon XIII from Sermons for the Christian Year: Sermons for Lent to Passiontide
1 THESS. iv. 1.
“We beseech you, brethren, and exhort you by the Lord Jesus, 
that as ye have received of us how ye ought to walk, and
to please God, so ye would abound more and more.”

IF any one wishes to see, what it is to begin well in Christian faith and practice, and, at the same time, what care should be taken not to depend too much upon mere beginnings, however praiseworthy, he cannot do better than examine carefully these two Epistles of S. Paul to the Christians of Thessalonica.

The Apostle seems hardly to know how to say enough of their faith and charity, or of the noble and self-denying way in which they had received the Gospel. They had received it, he says, in much affliction (being persecuted by Jews, and Gentiles too, the moment they were seen to favour it), yet with joy of the Holy Ghost; joy, that is, poured into their hearts by the Holy Spirit of God; and thus they became ensamples and patterns to all the Christians of those countries; and having so received it, they continued in it, not failing at all either in their faith towards God, or in their affection to S. Paul himself. This was such a delight to him, as can only be expressed in his own affectionate words. “Brethren, we were comforted over you in all our affliction and distress by your faith: for now we live, if ye stand fast in the Lord. For what thanks can we render to God again for you, for all the joy, wherewith we joy for your sakes before our God; night and day praying exceedingly that we might see your face?” (1 Thess. iii. 8, 9, 10.)

There could not well be more promising converts; and yet the very next words show how anxious he was that they might not trust in their first promising conversion, “Praying exceedingly, that we might see your face:” to what purpose? not for his own pleasure, but “to perfect that which was lacking in their faith.” The same feeling runs through the whole of the letter; his joy in what they had done is everywhere tempered by a real and serious anxiety, lest they should stop short, and begin to think they had done enough. Both are shown together, in the verse which begins the Epistle for this day: “We beseech you, brethren, and exhort you by the Lord Jesus, that as ye have received of us how ye ought to walk, and to please God, so ye would abound more and more.”  “As ye have received of us how ye ought to walk;”—that is an acknowledgment of their having begun well: “we beseech and exhort you by the Lord Jesus, that ye would abound more and more;”—that is a call, as serious as the heart of man could imagine, not to stand still, not to suppose they had done enough.  And with reason is the verse chosen by the Church for one of her Epistles proper for Lent; since one indispensable mark of true repentance is a daily, unwearied endeavour to improve. This I shall first endeavour to shew, and then add some remarks on the sinfulness of neglecting such endeavours, the danger we are in of doing so, and the most effectual way of guarding both ourselves and others against that danger.

Now, with regard to the absolute necessity of continual improvement, it appears, in the first place, from this circumstance, that if we rightly value the first good beginning, we must, from the very nature of the case, go on from one degree of holiness to another. Men may very well do something which looks like repentance upon poor imperfect worldly reasons, and may deceive themselves and others into a notion that they are true Christian penitents; as, for example, intemperance may be left off for health or character’s sake, or a quarrel may be made up with a view to our worldly interest, or the fear of approaching death may drive men against their will to long-neglected ordinances of religion; and it is no wonder if such a repentance as this very soon begin to stand still: if, having reached such and such a point, the man imagine himself good enough, and take no more pains to be better: but this is quite contrary to the nature of true repentance upon Christian principles.

By Christian principles, I mean first a deep sense of the continual presence of Almighty God, and of the care He takes for the welfare of our souls. Consider this peculiar presence deliberately and seriously, and let it prevail with you to change your ways in earnest, and begin to turn from the sin, whatever it be, to which you feel yourself most inclined. When you have done so, you will still perceive in your heart exactly the same reason, why you should go on and repent yet more perfectly, and serve and obey your all-seeing God, yet more affectionately and sincerely: and so on from day to day, through every degree of repentance and obedience. Remember only in earnest that God is watching you, and you can never, surely, be quite satisfied with yourself; you can never think you have thought, said, and done, virtuously enough, to be fit and worthy to stand in His sight.

This, I say, would be the natural consequence of considering God’s presence in a Christian manner. I say, “in a Christian manner,” because, if we considered it apart from what the Gospel teaches, it might naturally (though not reasonably) lead many of us to despair, instead of endeavouring to improve. Men might say to themselves, “When we have done our best, there is no standing before this Just and Holy God; therefore we may as well give it up, and enjoy ourselves while can.” Such was the impiety of many, before the Gospel was made known. Let us hope that there are none among us, who are even now guilty of the like blasphemous thoughts; for indeed they are most blasphemous and inexcusable in every one who knows what Christ has done and suffered for us, and what grace and assistance His Holy Spirit is always waiting to bestow upon us. We are sure now, how feeble soever we may find ourselves, that whatever we do sincerely, in the way of goodness, is sure to tell; we dare not therefore despond, and we have no excuse whatever, if we do not carry on our first good beginnings, and repent better and better every day of our lives.

This is yet more absolutely necessary, because, if men do not improve, they are, in practice, sure to go back. They cannot stay where they are; they must either grow worse or better. For it is the nature of all strong impressions to act vehemently on the mind at first, and after a little time to fade away as it were, and gradually become weaker and weaker. Thus the fear of God, and the dread of sin and punishment, in which repentance usually begins, if we do not, resolutely and on purpose, endeavour to keep them up, are sure to lose their force on our minds. We must pray to God, day after day, that we may fear Him more and more; or else, as the world continues close to us, and we cannot avoid being tempted, we are sure, in fact, day after day, to fear Him less and less. We must without any delay set about doing right, and not trust in any degree to mere right feeling, however earnest and sincere. The feeling of its own accord will grow weaker and pass away; but we shall be no losers by that, if we take care to strengthen ourselves in the habit of doing what is right and religious. S. Paul, no doubt, was more overpowered at first with remorse for his sins, and the terror of God’s presence, immediately after his conversion, than he was in after years, when the truths of the Gospel had become familiar to him. But he was improving, nevertheless, all the time; because, what he lost in intense and passionate feeling, he more than made up by his fixed, habitual piety. But if he had allowed the one to abate, without serious and constant endeavours to cherish and advance the other; if, when he waked from his trance of fear and astonishment on his conversion, he had taken no particular pains to become a better Christian, who does not see that even his good impressions would by degrees have died away, and he would, naturally and of course, have lost the benefit of God’s gracious invitation to repentance?

Just so will it turn out with any one of ourselves, who may be so presumptuous as to imagine, that he can by any means stand still in his course of piety and virtue. Suppose, for instance, a man possessed with an evil spirit of covetousness, or pride, or malice, or any bad desire, in which he may have gone on for many years;. and suppose some illness or misfortune to take place, which causes him, for a while, to have serious fears of his own everlasting condition. As long as those fears last, he will seem to himself and others, perhaps he will really be a better man than he was. But the illness goes off; the misfortune is remedied; and the emotion of fear and remorse is blunted by time, or overpowered by newer and probably more enticing passions. Is not this man in the greatest possible jeopardy? Must he not watch and pray, form deliberate resolutions, and deny himself dangerous liberties? In short, must he not spend his whole life in steadily and considerately trying to become less and less proud, less and less covetous, less and less dissolute? And if he neglect to do so, will he not of course, and without any effort, fall back into a worse condition than he was in before his partial recovery? An Apostle has taught us what to think of this. “ If after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein and overcome, the latter end. is worse with them than the beginning. For it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than after they had known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them.” (2 S. Pet. ii. 20.)

Consider what has been said, and you must perceive that the only reasonable and the only safe way is, having once begun the work of religion, to be always labouring to “abound more and more.”

And, over and above this, we are to recollect what our Blessed Saviour has clearly intimated, that there are degrees of glory in the world to come; and those who have made the best use of their time and talents shall receive the highest reward. No man can ever know for certain that he himself has done enough, considering his privileges and opportunities of various kinds, to make his salvation sure if he were to die this moment. But if he could be certain of this, still reason, and conscience, and wisdom, and gratitude, would urge him to lose no time, but press forward and forward to obtain as much as ever he could of the inestimable joys of eternity. Too many of us, up to this time, have been sadly perverting the mercy of God, in leaving it unknown to us how far He is pleased with us at any time. He meant that the uncertainty of our spiritual condition should urge us on to continual improvement; that we should never dream we had done enough. We take it as if we might indulge ourselves more freely in doubtful things; as if we had done quite enough for ourselves, when we are not quite sure that we are in a bad way. Let us be persuaded henceforth to try and have better minds.

It may help us, in judging more truly of our duty in this respect, if we put ourselves, as nearly as we can, in the place of these Thessalonians, who had learned Christianity from the lips of S. Paul himself. For, indeed, we are very nearly in their place; we, like them, have received of the Apostles how we ought to walk and to please God. The only difference is, that they received this knowledge by word of mouth, we by reading the Apostolic letters and listening to the Apostolic Church. Now what sort of a spirit and temper should we have judged these Thessalonians to be of, if we found that as soon as their teacher was gone away to Athens, they had. become careless about his instructions, thought much of what they had done already, and took no pains whatever to improve? Whatever censure we pass on them, we must acknowledge surely to be due to ourselves, in such measure as we neglect the duty of amending daily, because our Teacher is out of sight.

Yet this is what we are sure to do, if we be not constantly exhorted and reminded of it; nay, there is great reason to fear that all exhortation may prove in vain. For, first of all, having been bred up from our cradle in the knowledge and understanding of our Christian duty, we are apt to fancy ourselves familiar with the practice of it too. We are convinced in our minds that we know it well enough; and this of itself inclines us to be too soon satisfied with our accustomed way of doing it. Let us recollect ourselves a little. Have we not, up to this day, very many of us, been saying good words over and over so often, and so inattentively, that it might seem as if we imagined good thoughts and good actions would come after them of course, without any particular effort or trouble on our part? We grow tired of watching, of prayer, of self-denial, simply because it is the same thing over and over again: and so it must of course be, as long as the temptations are the same which we have to resist. But they will not be the same: they will be stronger and stronger, if we give way to this feeling of weariness. And, on the other hand, if we patiently strive against it; if we force ourselves to attend to great and eternal truths, however often we have attended to them before, our task will not perhaps seem easier to ourselves, but our reward will be surer in Heaven, and we shall stand higher in the favour of God. We shall, though we may not feel it, gradually become holier and better men, by the mere effort and anxious endeavour not to become in any degree worse.

Again; a sincere Christian will be on his guard, that he make no dangerous comparisons between himself and his neighbours. It will never do to take it for granted that we keep our place in respect of piety and goodness; that we are no worse than we were, in fact;—because we are no worse in comparison with them. It may be that all around you are gone astray from GOD, and in the way to everlasting ruin. If such turn out to be the case, you may excuse and flatter yourself now, that you are no worse than they; but it will be little comfort to you in the day of account, when you find that your condemnation is as bad as theirs. Obvious however as these reflections are, very few Christians indeed. have courage to bear them practically in mind. We look to see what our neighbours are doing, instead. of applying ourselves, with all our might, to the performance of God’s will as soon as we know it; and thus throw away, one after another, our best chance of improvement and perfection. Each time that we give way to bad example, our transgression seems more natural and easy to us, till at length it comes as a matter of course, and we hardly reckon ourselves the worse for it. There is no such enemy to real amendment, as a too anxious regard either to the opinions or example of others.

These are some of the many temptations which beset us at every moment of our lives, and are the cause why too many Christians, instead of seeking to abound more and more, go backward in goodness as they draw nearer their latter end; temptations, great, and near, and powerful; it is impossible, do what we will, to remove ourselves quite out of their reach. They must be met and overcome, for they cannot be avoided. 

And how are we to meet them? By true principles and steady purposes; by a deep mistrust of ourselves, and as deep a confidence in that Almighty Spirit, who is always at hand to help us.  The Apostle, in three words of the text, has pointed out to us what we should do.  “We beseech you, brethren,” says he, “and exhort you, by the Lord Jesus.”  That Name once mentioned, enough is said to awaken, in any considerate Christian, a fixed resolution to improve daily, and a comfortable hope of grace to do so.

For we are not to suppose that S. Paul introduced. the sacred Name of our Saviour merely to strengthen his own expression, and make the Thessalonians more attentive. There is more in it, a great deal, than this comes to. It was as if he had said, “Do you believe in good earnest that the Son of God died on the cross, to save you from your sins? then remember that you must be conformed to His death, or He will have died in vain for you; that the Lord Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Redeemer, is now and ever present with you, by His divine power and Godhead; that He seeks your salvation now as anxiously as when He prayed for you, hanging on the Cross; that He feels all your wants and infirmities, knows exactly where your weak places are, and is prepared to strengthen and assist you the moment you seriously ask Him? Can you believe this, and lie slothfully down, not caring whether you please or offend Him; whether you are growing better or worse?" 

Again, when S. Paul calls on us to abound more and more, by the Name of Jesus Christ, it was as if he had said, “Do you believe what the Gospel tells you of our Blessed Master’s pure and perfect example? that He spent His nights in prayer and His days in charity? that He ‘went about doing good?’ that His worst enemies could find no fault in Him? that He laid down His life for His betrayers and murderers, and died praying to His Father for them? Do you indeed believe this? Then how can you be contented to live as you are living? to die as you are likely to die? so very imperfect in your faith, your purity, and charity; so very unlike your Holy and Divine Redeemer. How can you be at rest a single moment, without trying at least to come a little nearer His example, before your time of trial is over?”

Again, the Name of our Lord is here used to put us in mind to Whom we are accountable; as if it were said, “In the Name of Him Who will come to be your Judge, I charge you to be careful of every moment of your time, every talent of your mind and body. I charge you, make the most of them all; for you know not how soon you may be called to answer for all, in a world where it will be too late to think of improving.”

Lastly, the Name of Christ is used to remind all who have ears to hear, of His aweful warnings concerning those who are too soon contented with their own imperfect repentance. “When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest.” The evil one being driven out of our souls and bodies, either by Baptism or by true and sufficient repentance, will not rest until he have obtained a lodging in one miserable person or another: and if he possibly can, he will return to the same again. Beware of him: for if he find the house empty, he will not return alone, but with “seven other spirits more wicked than himself.” They will “enter in and dwell there:" there will be little or no chance of their being ever any more cast out: “and the last state of that man will be worse than the first;” by how much he has abused greater grace, and become more like a fallen angel.

“I beseech you therefore, brethren, and exhort you by the Lord Jesus;” by His Cross and Passion; by His continual Fatherly Presence; by His gracious and perfect Example; by His severe threatenings against the unprofitable; and by His coming again to be our Judge:—I beseech you, “that as ye have received of us how ye ought to walk and to please God, so ye would abound more and more.”