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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
Edwin T. Winkler
From The Baptist Preacher, VOL. v., June, 1846
"And I, brethren, when I came unto you, came not with excellency of speech, or of wisdom; declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ and him crucified.” I Cor. 2:1, 2
To hold up the image of a dying Saviour to the world, is the great design of the Christian ministry. Men have learned to expect it, and to wonder, and to censure when objects of a less exalted character occupy the attention and the labors of an ambassador from God. But at the time when our text was written, the good tidings which it contains, must have excited as much of derision in the people to whom it was addressed as would be excited, were one at the present day to attempt to substitute in the place of the doctrines or ordinances of Christianity, the worship of Brahma, or the hideous rites of African idolatry.
Our text was originally addressed to the people of Corinth, the wealthiest and most beautiful city of Greece. It is not to our purpose to expatiate upon the extent of that commerce, which constituted Corinth a great treasure-house of nations, and made her merchants kings; or upon that culture which gave generals to head the armies of the republics of Greece, or on that refinement which filled her streets and palaces with the choicest and most beautiful productions of art; but we would speak of her religion. It was the religion of their fathers, and therefore venerable; it was the religion of art, and therefore beautiful. The imagination regarding it became entranced and lost in its exceeding loveliness.
The reason, nicely scrutinizing it, on a sudden shrinks back, appalled from the presence, and by the fear of those awful beings, the objects of a people's admiration. For century after century, it had been interweaving the threads of its mythology among the fibres of the national heart. It was the theme of those popular ballads that, more efficiently than laws, mould and determine public character. It had inspired those loftier poetic strains, which, requiring centuries for their production, never die, and never lose their influence. To a people, passionately fond of beauty, it had given streets adorned with colossal monuments, and religious emblems; and had thrown open temples, in which the architect, and the painter, and the sculptor had combined to exhibit the beauty of classic taste, and upon which the merchant had lavished the treasures of commercial opulence.
And when we remember that the Corinthians sung the poems which Homer sung; and admired the works which Phidias and Protogones wrought; that the sculptured majesty of Jupiter, hurling the thunder-bolt, and the Apollo touching his marble harp, towered from their temple pavements, and the penciled loveliness of the sea-born Venus smiled on them from the temple walls; that every grove, and spring, and mountain had its genius; that the stars were ruled by awful spirits, and the caves of the ocean inhabited by lovely shapes; and when we remember too, that all these forms of beauty and of awe were the offspring of their religion, we can readily imagine how it must have interwoven itself into the hopes and fears, the admiration and love, of this classic people.
We can readily imagine with what a mixture of horror and disgust they saw the apostle attacking, beneath the very shadows of their gods, the religion of their fathers. A foreigner (a barbarian, as the Greeks termed him,) standing in the midst of the splendors of paganism, assaulted the religion of poetry, and beauty, and art!
The inimitable productions of the Grecian masters were all around him, but he passed them coldly by. The pompous processions, and the Isthmian Games, and the imposing ceremonies of paganism, would naturally have attracted the curiosity of a stranger, but they had no charms for him.
The sophist reasoned in the groves and porticos, upon the principles of nature and philosophy, but the apostle paused neither to dispute with the sophist, nor to gain instruction from the lips of the philosopher. St. Paul was a man of refinement, and versed in Hebrew, and to a considerable extent, in Grecian literature, but he looked upon the refinements of Corinth as vanities, and all that was imposing to the Grecian idolater was to him but as the sounding brass and the tinkling cymbal.
Pervaded by one great idea, animated by one astonishing fact, he said nothing, heard nothing, cared for nothing, but what pertained to the great object of his mission and apostolic labors. For "I, brethren, when I came unto you," he says, "came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom; declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ and him crucified."
It is utterly impossible for language to express the claims of Christianity, more forcibly and fully than they were ex-pressed under these circumstances by these words. It is as if the apostle had said: the religion of Jesus comprehends facts, and involves duties, compared with which, human enterprise and human thought, the accumulated wealth of centuries, and the grand intellectual and moral progress and works of a nation, sink into insignificance.
I see the wings of your commerce, whitening the Mediterranean; I behold the labors of the husbandman, adorning your fields with nodding harvests; I see the immortal works of art, that beautify the streets and temples of your city; but they are to me as if they were not. Another subject, better and nobler, occupies my thoughts and inspires my actions; it is the religion that, turning away from the marble and the canvass, from the altar and the temple, takes up its abode in the heart, even of the humblest of men, and makes it the temple of the living God. It is the worship of a spiritual deity. It is the doctrine, that taking its place at the feet, looks upward ever to the countenance of Jesus,, that surrounds with glory the cross on which they have crucified my Lord. And this religion is the one thing needful; this is the all in all.
It is our design to present a hasty sketch of those prominent excellencies of Christianity, that warrant the use of such language, and the exercise of so intense and lofty an enthusiasm. We would remark, by way of division, that Christianity is surpassingly excellent, as a doctrinal and as a practical system—excellent in itself, and exhibiting its excellence in the results which it has accomplished. It is equally worthy of admiration, whether we regard it as it rose at first in lofty beauty from the hands of its divine original, or as in its progress, it spreads the rays of its celestial light down the long lapse of time.
I. Let us look at the excellency of Christianity in itself.
Christianity, as it reveals itself to us in its glory and its humiliation on the cross, exhibits more clearly and fully the character of God. The nature and attributes of the Deity had been already revealed in the Old Testament. But there was ever a cloud around them—a cloud by which was dispelled only by the work and the doctrine of Jesus.
In the Old Testament, God's love to his creatures is displayed. The Psalmist celebrates his loving kindness and tender mercy, and that ineffable goodness which supports and cherishes the varied forms of life inhabiting our globe. The writings of the prophets are not devoid of tender expostulations and melting entreaties. But the great attribute of God, which is prominently displayed in the whole Mosaic economy, the dispensation of the prophets, and the entire Jewish history, is his terrible majesty. The earliest chronicles of the human race bear its impress. A fearful curse descended upon the first man and woman, and rested like a blight and a mildew upon the beautiful world which had just been brought into being.
Sinai with its lightening and its thunders took up the solemn theme; and the Jew, as he looked back to the time when the law was given, and the institutions of his people were established, beheld, rising like a pillar in the midst of the affrighted hosts, the fire and the blackness that enveloped the awful presence of Jehovah. The Psalms exhibit God in his fearfulness; while the people to whom they were addressed, saw in the calamities that overwhelmed the hosts of their enemies, and learned by bitter experience, how fearful it was to excite the divine indignation.
It was left to the New Testament to reveal in its fullness that attribute of God, which forms the closest and sweetest bond of union between the creator and his creatures. In the birth and death of Jesus, we behold its brightest exhibitions. From his lips and in his actions, we hear expressed and re-expressed, a thousand and a thousand times, God is LOVE.
The other attributes of God render him an object of fear to us. God is holy, and we are sinful; God is just, and we are transgressors; God is omnipotent, he can destroy us; God is omniscient, our secret sins are bare before him; God is omnipresent, we cannot escape him: but God is LOVE, and we are his children! Transporting, rapturous thought! Had the religion of Jesus done no more for man, than make distinct to him this one great idea, it would have been entitled to our lasting admiration and regard. But it has done more than this.
The New Testament has thrown light upon the destiny and the duty of man. It has taught us clearly, that we are immortal. Among the early institutions of the Jews, this doctrine lay concealed beneath cloudy allegories and symbols. It became more distinct, as the time approached for the birth of the Messiah. But it was left to Christianity to exhibit this truth fully and distinctly; it was left to Jesus to illustrate it by an ascension to heaven, after a resurrection from the dead.
Four centuries before the coming of Christ, Plato had announced to the nations of paganism the immortality of the soul; but his opinions were enforced by such arguments, as were beyond the reach of the mass of mankind; and this truth was rather the object of hope than of expectation. But Christ in his own person broke the bonds of death in sunder, and rose from the grave, leading captivity captive. And now, to the soul secure in the favor of its God, death has lost its sting and the grave its victory. Dreadful fears of annihilation, or of a doubtful hereafter, no longer dismay the spirit conscious of its immortality. Our Saviour has thrown the arch of promise across the dark stream of death; and hope stands beaming on his sepulchre and pointing to his ascending Lord.
Again, Christianity has revealed to us the way of salvation. And we may here remark (and the fact, however simple and obvious, is one that we are prone to forget) that the light which we possess on this subject, was not possessed before the coming of Christ. It is easy for the Christian student to find among the instructions and forms of the old dispensation, the statement, or at least the traces of those doctrines and facts which are the characteristics of the new.
And the reason is obvious. In the person of Jesus Christ and him crucified, the mystery of godliness has been made manifest; and what was before ambiguous or entirely un-known, has been rendered distinct by the light of the glorious gospel of God's blessed son. And therefore, it is easy for us to see in both dispensations, "the parts of one stupendous whole," and in the cross of the dying Redeemer, the great central figure in the system of revealed truth.
But it was otherwise to the Jew. Even Abraham, the man so highly distinguished by the divine favor, believed in God; and it was counted to him for righteousness. Even the disciples of the Saviour were so entirely unacquainted with the spiritual nature of the kingdom which he came to establish, and of the way of salvation which he came to open by the sacrifice of himself, that we find them disputing for pre-eminence in his earthly kingdom.
It was the design of Christ in his coming and his work, to secure the possibility of man's salvation. For this, being rich, he became poor. For this, being the Lord of angels, he became the despised and the rejected of men. For this,, publicans and sinners were not too low to be his companions. For this, the Pharisees and spiritual lords of God's heritage were not too high nor too powerful to escape his rebukes. For this he labored and suffered. In the prosecution of this holy work, Jerusalem saw his tears, and the trees of Gethsemane bent over his midnight agony. For the accomplishment of this sublime design, the manger of Bethlehem sustained his helpless infancy, and the accursed tree upheld the torture and the shame of his expiring manhood.
The way of salvation has now been opened. God can be just and yet the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus. The poor of this world may become rich with an immortal inheritance. The afflicted mourner may be upheld by an, everlasting arm. The heart which is full of depravity and corruptions may become the temple of the Holy Spirit. He who despairs of earthly joy, may take to his bosom that hope which is as an anchor to the soul. He who trembles at the prospect of the grave, may follow the footsteps of Jesus, and go on exulting, to meet his Lord.
The blessing is not only great, but it is broad and free. It was designed to be carried into all the world and offered to every creature. Wherever a single human heart is beating, however low and degraded it may be, the gospel invitations are addressed to it. "The Spirit and the bride say come, and let him that heareth say come, and let him that is athirst come, and whosoever will, let him come, and take of the waters of life freely."
What a boon is this! How immense—how surprising! What a world of priceless blessings surrounds the cross of Christ! In comparison with this, earthly honors are but baubles; earthly pleasures are but vanities; all other subjects of human thought—all other objects of human effort are truly insignificant. We wonder not that the apostle Paul, in the city of science and literature, in the circles of refinement and the schools of philosophy, determined to know nothing save Jesus Christ and him crucified.
No unkind or unworthy action is allowed to those who would embrace this holy faith. A dedication of self to God, it claims no less than the devotion of a life-time—than the surrender of every desire and thought, every passion and energy, to the will and the service of him whose cause it has espoused. And what a service! It is the beautiful homage of a grateful heart. It is willing obedience to a just and gracious monarch. It is childlike confidence in a father. It is reverence for the source of all wisdom and excellence.
These noble precepts Christianity shares in common with Judaism. It also inculcates the duty of universal love. It teaches men, that as inheriting a common destiny, bound to the same heaven or the same hell, the creatures of the same creator, the recipients of the same bounty, and alike the heirs of immortality, they should love one another. But Christianity has advanced even beyond this point. Centuries before Christ taught, a Grecian philosopher declared that men ought not to revenge an insult that they might be like the gods. This was the height of the religion of nature.
But when Christ came, he taught—"love your enemies: do good to them that hate you, and despitefully use you, and persecute you;" and he himself, through a life of contumely and woe, caused by human hatred, has given us the most beautiful example of forgiveness of enemies that the world has ever witnessed.
The arrangements made for securing human obedience also attract our admiration. The man who has enlisted in the service of God—who is truly born again has entered into the sphere of the widest and most perfect liberty. Obedience is the offspring of love. He who loves, obeys spontaneously; and in the Christian’s heart love to God is the supreme emotion.
Not only the great aim of his life, but the ruling desire of his heart is to glorify God, and his aim must be exhibited in his actions. We do not say that the Christian does not sin, nor that he does not sometimes feel the law of God to be hard; but this we do affirm, that whenever he sins, and whenever he feels the law of God to be a restriction, it is not because the love of God is in his heart, but because he still clings to something that is opposed to this sublimest of sentiments. But let the love be perfect, and it will exhibit the fruits of spontaneous and perfect obedience.
We might enlarge upon this portion of our subject. We might appropriately consider here the inimitable and perfect character of Christ, or the symmetry of the Christian graces, or those great doctrines which are the foundations of the Christian’s hope. But we are compelled to forbear. Like the philosopher, we have gathered a few pebbles on the seashore, while the great ocean of truth lies unexplored before us.
II. We remark in the second place that Christianity has demonstrated itself to be surpassingly excellent by the results which it has accomplished.
The gospel was committed by the Saviour to the hands which seemed least able to sustain the precious charge. Gathered from the boats of the fisherman, and the stalls of the publican,—cherishing in their hearts, and heralding abroad a religion, diametrically opposed to the opinions and inclinations, and actions of the world, their labors seemed to be hopeless in the extreme.
Armed only in the panoply of the Spirit, single-handed and alone, they went forth to engage in a contest with the universe. Shall we trace the progress of their cause from the planting of the seed in the cities of the East and West, until a mighty tree arose, bearing its thousand fruits, and stretching far and wide its sheltering branches?
They are the topics of history, with which we all are familiar. We know how men received the word, and how thickly converted souls gathered around the apostles, as the gems in the crown of their rejoicing. We know how the persecutions that threatened it, transformed the blood of the martyrs into the seed of the church. We have read how vainly the potentates of the earth opposed it. We know how it passed from heart to heart, from house to house, from city to city, until it reached the hearts of kings, and became the religion of nations. It spread from Rome to her provinces. Barbarian hordes received it, and civilization, and the blessings of social life, followed in its train. Britain received it, and Britain became the mistress of the seas. It crossed the ocean, and entered the howling wildernesses of America, and America became a mighty nation.
The skeptic may sneer at this proof, but it is no less true, and no less convincing. It is a startling, although universally received fact, that where the Christian religion is, there refinement and happiness are; and where the Christian religion is not, the people are enveloped in the grossest barbarity. And those nations which are the highest in point of intelligence, which have made the greatest progress in the arts and sciences, and in literature, which are the most powerful, the most wealthy and the most happy, are those in which Christianity is preserved in its greatest purity.
The religion of Jesus has affected nations by affecting men. Entering as a fire in the midst of the corruptions of the human heart, it has purified and dissipated them. It has given man purer thoughts. It has excited more sublime desires. It has offered a realization to his loftiest hopes. It has afforded him an object of thought suited to the capacities of an immortal being. It has therefore encouraged and accelerated the advance of his mind, and thus has it directly, yet efficiently, surrounded his home with comforts, and blessed his country with refinement, and law, and liberty. It has made man noble, while it has made him happier. It has moulded the most excellent characters that the world has ever seen. It has inspired the greatest self-denial, and the most generous acts. It has given freedom to the burdened captive of sin; and has wakened the dead in iniquity, to life, and light, and immortality.
Friends and brethren, if the doctrine of the cross contains such sublimities and conveys such blessings, what claims has it upon our attention and our regard? In the decision of this question, we challenge the exercise of the most nicely discriminating judgment, and of the most frozen heart. Let the value of Christianity be regarded as a matter of rigid calculation, let it be computed and compared with the value of all earthly systems, and of all other objects of human thought; and let men act with regard to it only as rational beings, and there is not a voice on earth but would unite with that of the apostle, “Yea, yes, hereafter we determine to know nothing save Jesus Christ and him crucified!”
Brethren, you have learned by experience the value of this great lesson—the sweetness of this solemn truth. You have felt what a world of joy and peace, of hope and consolation exists in the words, "Jesus Christ and him crucified." Oh, may the impression that it has made, never be effaced from your minds. If ever earthly considerations would come between us and our God, let us remember the claims which the gospel has upon us. Let us remember that its claims are the greatest and most imperative of all claims, and that it comes to us recommended by the noblest of all motives. Let us remember that all things are as nothing in comparison with this.
We may lose honors and sources of pleasure, we may lose friends, and possessions, and home, but if we possess the Christian’s hope, and are fellow-heirs of the Redeemer's kingdom, we are rich in our poverty. This world may surround us with its adulations and its prosperity, and all the sources of pleasure that wealth can command, may be at our disposal, but without a heavenly inheritance, we are poor indeed. Then let us banish from our hearts every object and desire that may come into competition with this sacred claim.
Let us regard no pleasure as too exquisite to be sacrificed; no sacrifice as too great to be made, which is demanded by the holy cause which we have espoused. Let us labor to overcome every passion, to sanctify every thought. Let our desires aim at no less glorious an object than the confident persuasion that neither life, nor death, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of-God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Sinner, a parting word to you. You have listened to an imperfect representation of the excellency of the gospel. With its broad, free provisions, it is offered to your acceptance. We beseech you to pause and consider. We beseech you to act in this matter with the consciousness that you are deciding upon the most important interest of your life. Oh, let not this offer pass by unheeded! You must confess that the great claims of the gospel upon you are Just. You cannot refuse it the admiration of your understanding, even while you deny its admission into your heart.
Oh, now in the presence of the Almighty, throw open the portals of your heart and admit the blessed visitant. If you refuse, we are compelled in sorrow to warn you of the fearful consequences. We warn you that if you reject it, it will but add to your condemnation, that the claims of God's glorious gospel have been exhibited to you to-day. Oh, when this gospel is so exceedingly rich and precious, so excellent and noble, how can you hope to escape if you neglect so great salvation!