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St. Luke iii. 4. Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight As the lessons which are read from the ew Testament are not chosen for the particular Sunday, but are taken in their order according to the day of the month and year, so we cannot expect that there should be any particular harmony between them and the fixed parts of the service, such as the lessons from the Old Testament, and the Epistle and Gospel. But when we do find such a harmony, and can thus connect together all the portions of the Scripture which are read on the same day, the effect is particularly striking. ow this is in a great measure the case with the parts of this day's service. The Gospel speaks of the blessing upon true repentance ; and the second lesson for the morning describes the ministry of the preacher of repentance, John the Baptist ; while combined with these, the two lessons from the Book of Samuel present us with the two extremes of himian nature in the cases of Samuel and the sons of Eli ; the last so hardened in sin that they were beyond repentance ; the other so early led to God, and so constant in His service, that in the common sense of the term he had no need of it. While again the second
no JOH THE BAPTIST. lesson for this eveninc^ reminds us, that in the higher and Christian sense we all need it : that by the deeds of the law will no flesh be justified ; for that * cursed is he who continueth not in all things that are written in the book of the law to do them.'
From among all these parts of Scripture so bearing upon the same subject, I have taken for my text the words of Isaiah, by which John the Baptist described himself. He said, * I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.' And so he has been commonly called the forerunner of Jesus Christ. But it may be that many have never clearly understood what was meant by John being Christ's forerunner ; why any forerunner was needed, and what truth is declared to us in this part of God's dispensations, which showed that he ivcui needed. The subject is very vast, and might be illustrated by many examples, taken either from history or from private life. And the truth contained in it is this, that Christ's work has never l)een done eftectually in men's hearts, except so far as the work of His forerunner has been done beforehand ; that tlie biiptism of the Holy Spirit requires the previous baptism of water ; or in other words, that no man can profitably receive the truths of the Gospel, unless they find his heart made ready by repentance ; unless they find him in that state that he knows the evil of his heart, and hates it, and longs to be delivered from it. I shall not dwell long upon the examples from history, but one or two may be mentioned to show what is meant. When St. Paul dwells upon the advantage which Timothy had had in hiiving been taught the Scriptures from his childhood, and adds thiit they are able to make him wise unto salvation, througli faitli which is in Christ Jesus, inasmuch as they were profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for ccrrection, for instruction in righteousness, that the
JOH THE BAPTIST. Ill man of God might be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works, — he was comparing with this case of Timothy that of those who had been brought up in
heathenism, with nothing that could be called instruction in holiness, with little or no notion of wliat was meant by sin and repentance. These persons, when they grew up, seeing the folly of the religion of their fathers, and hearing Christ preached as one who revealed the truth concerning God, came readily over to the profession of Christianity. But they had not known Christ's forerunner, they had not been baptized with the baptism of repentance. Therefore they often turned the grace of God into lasciviousness ; they caught hold of the promises of the Gospel without having ever dreaded the threats of the law ; and therefore they naturally enough lowered the standard of Christian holiness, and instead of overcoming sin, were driven to that grievous state of denying sin to be sin, because they the children of God, as they boasted, had committed it ; and the children of God, they said, could not sin. Another example occiurred, somewhat later, and was followed by consequences more widely mischievous. When the northern nations came down upon the Roman Empire, their kings and great men were soon persuaded to become Christians, as it was called ; that is, to acknowledge Christ to be their God, and to worship Him instead of idols. In one instance we are told, that one of these chiefs became a Christian, because he ascribed a victory which he had won over his enemies to the power of Christ in his behalf, exerted in answer to a prayer which his wife had persuaded him to oflFer. We can see that here Christ's forerunner had been little known ; that no repentance had prepared the way for the word of life ; that Christ was received, not as a new principle of life into a new creatiu-e, but rather as an old principle suited to the old nature, and only presenting itself under another name. And therefore Christ's
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Gospel grew mighty in word, but not in power : the new converts, as they were called, kept their old superstitions under new names, and indulged all their old passions ; and thus it came to pass that the history of modern times has in so many points exactly resembled that of ancient times ; that wars, and cruelties, and covetousness, and injustice of every kind, prevailed as much under what was in name the kingdom of Christ, as it had done in the days of heathenism. These are the examples of history, but those of private life will come nearer to the matter. Why is it, that within our own knowledge, where all profess to believe in Christ, the work of His Spirit is yet wrought so imperfectly P Why are not our lives and thoughts Christian, as well as our outward profession ? Is it not because with us too, in so many instances, Christ has been preached to us without His forenmner ; because we have never been prepared by repentance to receive His salvation aright ? And is not this apt to l>e the case where our instruction in religion is given us so often as a matter of course along with instruction in other matters, that we hear of Christ and learn to call ourselves Cliristians without connecting that name with any cliange in our own hearts and lives, or understanding any thing of the necessity of a previous preparation ft)r it? So with us the old nature, and the old notions, and the old i)ractice, often remain unaltered ; and we otler the strange spectacle of persons calling themselves Christian?, y(^t neither speaking the Lmguage, and much less adopting tlie practice, of that kingdom of which they profess to be members. And this will account for the marked difference which sometimes takes place at a later period in life, when a person receives a strong religious impression. If we examine, we shall find that in such cases Christ's forerunner has done his work ; repentance has prepared the
JOH THE BAPTIST. 113 way of the Lord, and made His paths straight. For a religious impression, I suppose, means always this, that something or other has put us in mind of God's judgment^ and our danger from it has made us think of death, and how little prepared we are to meet it. The impression, in short, is one leading directly to repentance, to serious thoughts about good and evil, to a turning from the latter, and seeking the former with all earnestness; and so it puts us in a disposition to receive Christ's Gospel aright. For if we receive Christ as a Saviour from an evil which we had learned to dread and to hate, — I mean sin, — then we shall avail ourselves gladly of His aid to conquer this evil, and Christ will be truly our righteousness. But if we have not learned to dread and to hate sin, then we shall not think of going to Christ for help against it, but shall think that He will save us in our sins, instead of delivering us from them. Again, the preparation of Christ's forenmner is needed, because we are apt, as the world goes on, to take up our notions of right and wrong from those about us ; to call good what the world calls good, and evil what the world calls evil. I am not speaking now of an entire confusion between them, of calling evil good and good evil ; but rather of our taking a very low standaid of good, and a very high one of evil ; of our thinking very much of a very little good, and very little of a very great evil. This is what is meant by the prophet Isaiah, when in describing the perfect kingdom of God he says, *The vile person shall be no more called liberal, nor the churl said to be bountiful ; ' that is to say, that very low measure of liberality and bounty which we praise as a great virtue, shall then sink to its proper level ; and so, on the other hand, the sins which we treat lightly under the names of foibles or imperfections, shall then rise to their proper level, and shall be found to be the ruin of souls. VOL. VI. I
114 JOH THE BAPTIST. ow we cannot wonder that the Jews and heathens had got so low a standard of goodness and so much needed to be taught to repent, when the same thing has happened even in the light of the Gospel, and our common standard is notoriously so diflFerent from that given us in Christ's law. Thus the business of Christ's forerunner was to make men aware of this, to show them that their notions of good and evil wanted correction; that far less faults than they dreamed of would be their condemnation in God's judgment, that far higher virtues than those which they thought excellent were needed to enter into the kingdom of heaven. But what shall we do then ? Must we wait for Elijah to appear once more, for one like John the Baptist to arise in the spirit and power of Elijah, before the coming of the last great day of the Lord's judgment ? It is no unreasonable belief that the prophecy will yet be fulfilled again ; that as John the Baptist was the Elijah to prepare the way for Christ's first coming, so another Elijah may yet arise to prepare the way for His second. But whether it may be fulfilled in one individual or in more, or in any one church, or in any one people, this can be known only in its season, when God shall reveal it. Meantime we should remember that our Ijord was pleased to make the baptism of water the way by wliich we all should be admitted into His kingdom, in order to show us that His forerunner's work is ever needed ; and that as He Himself came not by water only but by water and blood, so He came not by blood only, but by blood and water ; that repentance and His salvation could never be parted from each other. So, then, the disciples of John are become the disciples of Jesus ; but the disciples of Jesus still preach, — not
alone certainly, yet they must preach it, — the baptism of John. Every minister of Christ is a minister of two
JOH THE BAPTIST. 115 ¦ I. T--- - 1 , •- -things, repentance and faith ; and either of these without the other avails not. And as every minister of Christ is a minister of repentance and faith, so every member of Christ must keep these two things together for his own salvation. If he asks. Why is my faith so weak ? is it not that bis repentance has been and is deficient, that the way of the Lord is not kept duly prepared, that the grouiid is not cleared and levelled for the foundations of Hid holy temple, and that therefore it cannot be built ? We should all of us think more of this : those of us whose lives man's judgment dare not do otherwise than approve, those of us who understand and admire the revelations of God in Christ Jesus, to whom reading the Scriptures, and exercises of prayer and praise, are anything but imwelcome, — even these may feel sometimes that their faith is weak, and may confess, if they examine themselves, that repentance has not its due place in their religion. I am not speaking of repentance for some great and manifest sin, — it may be that we have not committed any such, — but of repentance for the manifold faults and imworthiness of our lives, for falling so far short of God's perfect law, not in our practice merely, but even in our very principles. It is not an idle lesson which' our church service teaches us, when it begins with a solemn confession of sins. It is easy to repeat this over from mere habit, without thinking of it. It may be, too, that some of its expressions may be stronger than we may think applicable to every single individual. But the thought of having left undone things which we ought to have done, and having done things which we ought not to have done, and that therefore there is in ourselves no health, — that is,
that we dare not meet God's judgment as men entitled to be acquitted by it, — this is a thought which I am sure should be present to our minds whenever we come before God, and which we shoidd earnestly labour to cherish, and 12
116 JOH THE BAPTIST. to strengthen its sincerity. For indeed, if we do look into ourselves fairly, the thought will not be affected, but most sincere. It is because we do not examine oiu*8elves carefully to see how much is really amiss in us, that expressions of repentance seem exaggerated, and so we use them without meaning. But the more we do examine, the more we shall see ourselves as we are ; and then we shall be anxious to do away with some of our many evils, to be prepared in some measure for Christ's forgiveness. Then we shall go on more steadily to follow the full leading of His Spirit, till virtues, of which now we scarcely conceive, become familiar to our minds ; and it will be as sincere a matter of repentance to have failed in them, as it can now be to us to have neglected the commonest duty, or to have committed the commonest sins.
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