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by the Rev. John Keble
Sermon XX from Sermons for the Christian Year: Sermons for Lent to Passiontide
S. MATT. xii 45.
"The last state of that man is worse than the first."

THESE fearful words are our Saviour’s conclusion of a parable, which He had just been addressing to the unbelieving Jews.  They had said in their spite and malice, that the very miracles our Lord was performing in their sight, were not His own, but the work of an evil spirit.  “He casteth out devils” they said, “by Beelzebub, the prince of the devils.”

Our Saviour, having first shown them how senseless, as well as how impious this was, went on to warn them of their own extreme danger, in a parable taken from the circumstances of the case.  It is likely that if we had lived in that time and country, and had seen with our eyes persons whom we knew to be  possessed, as many were then, with evil spirits, we should be so much the better able to understand the particulars of this parable.  Thus much, however, we do understand, that God’s Providence, for wise purposes permitted the devil to torment men, their minds and bodies, with a kind of madness; which being known to be the evil spirits’ work, gave occasion to many wonderful proofs of our Lord’s divine power and authority, not only over ordinary diseases, but also over the powers of darkness.  And it should seem from this parable of our Lord’s, that when a person had been once possessed in this way, and cured, he was yet liable to a return of the mischief, unless he were very careful of himself.  So indeed one might suppose, from the restless and malicious temper of the devil and his angels; and so, we are told, it was with them.

Suppose one of them gone out of a man, and wandering, as it were, through dry and desolate places; he would still go on, longing and wishing to be somewhere, where he might practise his power of mischief, to find some one whom he might torment as before.  Suppose it occurred to such an evil spirit, to return unto his house from whence he came out: i. e., to go back, and try, if he could possess and torment the same person again.  Our Saviour intimates, that if he found the house empty, swept and garnished; i. e. if he found the mind and body of the unhappy patient in a fit state of preparation for him, the relapse would be seven times worse than the original illness; he would take to him “seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they would enter in and dwell there, and the last state of that man would be worse than the first.”  A frightful picture indeed! and one of which the full horror would be understood by those who heard Him speak, much better than we can understand it, because they had seen such cases; indeed they had just that hour been present, while He cured a very malignant one; and they knew, most likely, among other things, how apt the evil spirit was to return, and how dreadful and hopeless the affliction then became.  So much the more must they have been alarmed, as many as had any serious thought, when they heard Him, in conclusion, apply this dreadful parable to themselves; “So shall it be also to this evil generation;” i. e., “you Jews, who have rejected My Gospel, will find before long that it is with you, as if an evil spirit had been cast out, and had returned with seven worse spirits, and gotten entire hold of a man.  Your last state will be worse than your first.”

To understand this, we may consider what was the state and temper of the Jewish people, at the time of our Lord’s appearance among them.  Having gone on for some hundred years without any kind of idolatry, they reckoned themselves especial favourites of Almighty God; considered themselves chosen, above all the nations of the earth, to be His people, in such a sense, that they need not fear His ever rejecting them.  On this, as on other occasions, our Saviour took pains to correct this great and deadly mistake of theirs.  It is as if He had said to them, “Your nation was once of old, like this man before he was cured, in the power of an evil and unclean spirit.  You were, as your own Scriptures tell you, wholly given to the worst idolatry, and to those deadly sins, which idolatry brings with it.  For this, you were carried away captive to Babylon, and other miseries came upon you, which, by God's grace, succeeded at last in driving out the unclean spirit; you have now lived in your own land more than four hundred years, free from what, in former days, was your great sin, the worshipping of idols.  But do not therefore lift yourselves up, nor imagine yourselves safe in God’s favour.  The evil spirit, once cast out, may return, may find a place prepared for him, may enter in and dwell there; and your last state may be worse than your first.  Nay, it is sure to be thus with you, if you go on as you have now begun.  For although you have not worshipped false gods, you have not set up images to kneel to, yet you have rejected the true God by rejecting His Son, and ascribing His miracles to the devil.  Beware how you go on to reject His Holy Spirit too.  Your last chance will be then gone; He will give you over to a reprobate mind; the evil spirits will work their own way with you, and bring you to destruction both of body and soul.”

Such, in substance, was our Lord’s warning to the scorners and unbelievers of His time.  And in a few years they found it as true, as all unbelievers, before long, will find the terrors they now scoff at.  Having crucified Christ and blasphemed the Holy Ghost, as if many devils had entered into them, they plunged into such sins, and underwent such a grievous punishment, as have made the very name of Jew (according to the prophecy) “ an astonishment, and a proverb, and a by-word to all nations under Heaven.” (Deut. xxviii. 37.)

But our Lord did not utter the warning for those impenitent Jews alone.  It holds just as good of all who have been in any sense, by His mercy, delivered from their old sins, from those perverse and evil habits which possessed them like unclean spirits.  It is true of every one of them, that as long as they are is this world, they are in danger, more or less, of relapsing into their bad ways, and that if they do so relapse, their last state will be worse than their first.

As Christians, baptized into Christ’s Church, taught to pray to the Father in His Name, favoured with the promise of His Holy Spirit, we all are like persons delivered from an evil spirit, i. e., we are put in such a condition, we have such help placed within our reach, that we may shake off the chains of darkness, we may love and serve our Redeemer, if we will.  But our enemy is not finally put down, nor are we quite beyond his reach.  There is not a Christian soul in the world, but has great reason to fear continually, lest the devil return and undo that good work which was begun at Baptism, and which the Church is daily labouring to complete, by instruction, warning, prayers, and sacraments.  He is always restless and uneasy, like a person turned out of his home, and wandering in dry and desert regions, till he can lay hold again of those souls, which the grace of God and the care of the Church, bringing them to early baptism, has taken away from him and put in the arms of our Saviour.  For this purpose he loses no time, but, from the very moment they are able to think, carefully throws temptations in their way; persuades them that prayer, the service of God, obedience to parents, and respect for their betters, are dull, unpleasant, Wearisome things, for which there will be time enough by and by; for the present, they need only to enjoy themselves.

These lessons of the evil spirit we are but too willing to practise: they fall in with our corrupt nature, and suit us so perfectly well, that it is surprising how thoroughly we contrive to learn them, often before we are out of our childhood: and as long as men refuse the means of grace, every hour of their trial on earth, which was meant to prepare them for eternal life, will only make them more and more the children of hell and of lost spirits.

Thus it happens, that Christian countries are full of persons of all ages and stations, leading the lives and practising the tempers of heathens; persons of whom we may reasonably say, that it had been better for them had they never been baptized, better had they never seen a church, nor ever heard the names of God and of Christ.  Their present state (let us hope, by God’s grace, that it may not prove their last state,) is surely much worse than their first: as much so, as impenitent wicked Christians are worse than mere ignorant heathens.

There is however among Christians one kind of wickedness, more particularly answering to our Saviour’s description in the text; the wickedness of those who relapse into any sin, after they appear to be cured of it, when, by the grace of God’s good Spirit, the habit of ill-doing appears to be broken, and they seem to be able to keep themselves in order.  Concerning such as these, I suppose, the Apostle S. Peter gives us warning: "If after they have escaped the pollutions of the world by 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.  But it is happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog is turned to his own vomit again, and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire.” (2 S. Pet. ii. 20, 21.)

It seems that the Apostle is speaking, more especially, of such sins as the word “pollution” would lead us to think of; such sins as are not fit to be named, much less practised, among Christians.  Into these “sinful lusts of the flesh,” he seems to say, a relapse after penitence is especially to be dreaded; and sad experience shows us the reason.  It very rarely indeed happens, that persons who have once, by God’s special grace, been recovered from sins of that kind, if they again fall into the same evil habit, finish by an effectual repentance at last.  Their hearts become cold, and hard, and dead; after one or two relapses, they scarcely think it worth while to repent, knowing as they do by fatal experience, how likely they are to sin again; and thus, in mind and desire at least, they do not leave off sinning till they die.

Consider again the case of the drunkard.  Suppose a man, touched with remorse, beholding the misery his wicked selfishness causes to those who are nearest, and ought to be dearest to him; and, moved to remorse by the good Spirit of God, suppose such a man to leave off his dangerous habit; suppose him to resist so many temptations as to be reckoned a sober man.  If he is not a religious man too; if he has not used himself every day to beg pardon at the foot of the Cross, and to implore the grace of the Holy Spirit; it is but too likely that in some unguarded hour the old temptation will prevail against him: he will be again entangled therein, and overcome; and having once given way, the devil will find no great difficulty in persuading him that he may, as well give way twice, then three times, and so on, as often as may happen to be pleasant or convenient.  Whenever his conscience begins to smite him, whenever God’s Providence sends a warning, or calls him by the motions of His good Spirit, the chilling thought will arise at the same time, “I have tried all this before, and it ended in nothing; it will be but trouble lost.  I may just as well enjoy myself as other people do, and think no more of it.”  Thus the wretched drunkard goes on, plunging into sin deeper and deeper, till his conscience is seared with a hot iron, and he quite loses all wish to repent.

By these two examples of sensuality and intemperance (and it is much the same in all others sins,) you see that a man’s condition is naturally worse after relapsing, than before repentance: to which the Scripture teaches us to add, that he is in a spiritual sense far worse off, because he has done so much more towards grieving God’s Holy Spirit.  It is somewhat in ,the same way, as when any person in worldly matters fall into error and imprudence, after having been repeatedly checked in it by the warnings of a kind and good friend.  The friend, vexed and offended, departs, and checks and warns him no more.  So when people wilfully relapse, after they had found by their own experience that the Heavenly Comforter was willing to help them, that they might be good if they would use the means of grace; this is just provoking Him to do as He did to the Jews in His anger; to give them up to their own hearts’ lusts, and let them follow their own imaginations.  And if they have not God’s Holy Spirit to help them, how can they go right for a single moment?

What then is to be done, seeing relapses are so very dangerous, and human nature so very weak?  Some, perhaps, may try to flatter themselves, that they may as well continue in their first sin, and spare themselves the trouble of all kinds of repentance.  That is, having a sickness on them, which is sure to be mortal, left to itself, they will not take the only medicine which can cure them, lest they should fail to take it properly, and relapse and die after all.  I trust there are some at least here, who are more grateful to their Saviour, and more careful of their souls, than to deal so madly, so unkindly, with them.  They will consider, what our Lord had pointed out as the true reason of these sad and frequent relapses.  The evil spirit in the parable, returning to his house whence he came out, found it empty, swept, and garnished; and therefore it was no hard matter for him to enter in and dwell there, and seven worse spirits with him.  So when any man’s darling bosom sin had appeared to be cast out by the grace of God, it is but too common for that man to be found, when next the same temptation returns, with a mind empty, swept, and garnished to entertain it.  That is, though men leave off their transgression for a while, they do not in earnest turn their hearts towards other and better things; they do not fill up the void in their desires, with thoughts of Him, Who is their only hope, Christ crucified for their sins; they do not humbly and constantly seek that grace and strength from above, without which they can do nothing against God’s enemies and their own.  They imagine they have done great things in turning for awhile from some one evil habit; quite forgetting that God would have them not only obey Him but love Him; would have them love Him in Christ Jesus, with all their heart, and all their soul, and all their mind, and all their strength.  That is the only preparation of heart which will enable you to resist your spiritual enemy, when having been once repulsed, he returns to the charge, in the hope of taking you unawares.  An earnest wish to please Him who laid down His life for you, cherished and maintained by fervent prayer for the help of His Almighty Spirit, and by humble communion with Him in all the ways which He has ordained; this will keep you armed at all points.  But without this true Christian piety, your partial amendments for the world’s sake will not secure you from grievous relapses; will not free you from the sentence of those, who shall be found at the last day to have received the grace of God in vain.