1 John iii. 2. "Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure."
Let us consider this noble text, and see something, at least, of what it has to tell us. It is, like all God's messages, all God's laws, ay, like God's world in which we live and breathe, at once beautiful and awful; full of life-giving hope; but full, too, of chastening fear. Hope for the glorious future which it opens to poor human beings like us; fear, lest so great a promise being left us, we should fall short of it by our own fault. Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed on us, that we should be called the sons of God.
There is the root and beginning of all Christianity,--of all true religion. We are the sons of God, and the infinite, absolute, eternal Being who made this world, and all worlds, is our Father. We are the children of God. It is not for us to say who are not God's children. That is God's concern, not ours. All that we have to do with, is the awful and blessed fact that we are. We were baptised into God's kingdom, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Let us believe the Gospel and good news which baptism brings us, and say each of us;--Not for our own goodness and deserving; not for our own faith or assurance; not for anything which we have thought, felt, or done, but simply out of the free grace and love of God, seeking out us unconscious infants, we are children of God. "Beloved now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be." It doth not yet appear what the next life will be like, or what we shall be like in it. That there will be a next life,--that death does not end all for us, the New Testament tells us. Yea, our own hearts and reasons tell us. That sentiment of immortality, that instinct that the death of our body will not, cannot destroy our souls, or ourselves--all men have had that, except a few; and it is a question whether they had it not once, and have only lost it by giving way to their brute animal nature. But be that as it may, it concerns us, I think, very little. For we at least believe that we shall live again. That we shall live again in some state or other, is as certain to our minds as it was to the minds of our forefathers, even while they were heathens; as certain to us as it is that we are alive now. But in that future state, what we shall be like, we know not. St. John says that he did not know; and we certainly have no more means of knowing than St. John.
Therefore let us not feed our fancies with pictures of what the next world will be like,--pictures, I say, which are but waking dreams of men, intruding into those things which they have not seen, vainly puffed up in their fleshly minds--that is in their animal and mortal brain. Let us be content with what St. John tells us, which is a matter not for our brains, but for our hearts; not for our imaginations, but for our conscience, which is indeed our highest reason. Whatever we do not know about the next world, this, he says, we do know,--that when God in Christ shall appear, we shall be like Him. Like God. No more: No: but no less. To be like God, it appears, is the very end and aim of our being. That we might be like God, God our Father sent us forth from His eternal bosom, which is the ground of all life, in heaven and in earth. That we might be like God, He clothed us in mortal flesh, and sent us into this world of sense. That we might be like God, He called us, from our infancy, into His Church. That we might be like God, He gave us the divine sense of right and wrong; and more, by the inspiration of His holy spirit, that inward witness, that Light of God, which lightens every man that cometh into the world, He taught us to love the right and hate the wrong. That we might be like God, God is educating us from our cradle to our grave, by every event, even the smallest, which happens to us. That we might be like God, it is in God that we live, and move, and have our being; that as the raindrop which falls from heaven, rises again surely, soon or late, to heaven again; so each soul of man, coming forth from God at first, should return again to God, as many of them as have eternal life, having become like to God from whom it came at first. And how shall we become like God? or rather like Christ who is both God and man? To become like God the Father,--that is impossible for finite and created beings as we are. But to become somewhat, at least, like God the Son, like Jesus Christ our Lord, who is the brightness of His Father's glory, and the express image of His person, that is not impossible. For He has revealed Himself as a man, in the soul and body of a man, that our sinful souls might be made like His pure soul; our sinful bodies like His glorious body; and that so He might be the first born among many brethren. And how? "We know that when He appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is."
For we shall see Him as He is. Herein is a great mystery, and one which I do not pretend to fathom. Only this I can try to do--to shew how it may seem possible and reasonable, from what is called analogy, that is by judging of an unknown thing from a known thing, which is, at least, something like it. Now do we not all know how apt we are to become like those whom we see, with whom we spend our hours--and, above all, like those whom we admire and honour? For good and for evil, alas! For evil- -for those who associate with evil or frivolous persons are too apt to catch not only their low tone, but their very manner, their very expression of face, speaking, and thinking, and acting. Not only do they become scornful, if they live with scorners; false, if they live with liars; mean, if they live with covetous men; but they will actually catch the very look of their faces. The companions of affected, frivolous people, men or women, grow to look affected frivolous. Indulging in the same passions, they mould their own countenances and their very walk, also the very tones of their voice, as well as their dress, into the likeness of those with whom they associate, nay, of those whose fashions (as they are called) they know merely by books and pictures. But thank God, who has put into the hearts of Christian people the tendency towards God--just in the same way does good company tend to make men good; high- minded company to make them high-minded; kindly company to make them kindly; modest company to make them modest; honourable company to make them honourable; and pure company to make them pure. If the young man or woman live with such, look up to such as their ideal, that is, the pattern which they ought to emulate--then, as a fact, the Spirit of God working in them does mould them into something of the likeness of those whom they admire and love. I have lived long enough to see more than one man of real genius stamp his own character, thought, even his very manner of speaking, for good or for evil, on a whole school or party of his disciples. It has been said, and truly, I believe, that children cannot be brought up among beautiful pictures,--I believe, even among any beautiful sights and sounds,--without the very expression of their faces becoming more beautiful, purer, gentler, nobler; so that in them are fulfilled the words of the great and holy Poet concerning the maiden brought up according to God, and the laws of God--
"And she shall bend her ear In many a secret place, Where rivulets dance their wayward round, And beauty, born of murmuring sound, Shall pass into her face."
But if mere human beings can have this "personal influence," as it is called, over each others' characters, if even inanimate things, if they be beautiful, can have it--what must be the personal influence of our Lord Jesus Christ? Of Him, who is the Man of all men, the Son of Man, the perfect and ideal Man--and more, who is very God of very God; the Author of all life, power, wisdom, genius, in every human being, whether they use to good, or abuse to ill, His divine gifts; the Author, too, of all natural beauty, from the sun over our heads to the flower beneath our feet? Think of that steadily, accurately, rationally. Think of who Christ is, and what Christ is--and then think what His personal influence must be--quite infinite, boundless, miraculous. So that the very blessedness of heaven will not be merely the sight of our Lord; it will be the being made holy, and kept holy, by that sight. If only we be fit for it. For let us ask ourselves the question,--If St John's words come true of us, if we should see Him as He is, would the sight of His all- glorious countenance warm us into such life, love, longing for virtue and usefulness, as we never felt before? Or would it crush us into the very earth with utter shame and humiliation, full and awful knowledge of how weak and foolish, sinful and unworthy we were?--as it does to Gerontius in the poem, when he dreams that, after death, he demanded, rashly and ambitiously, to see our Lord, and had his wish.
That is the question which every one must try to answer for himself in fear and trembling, for, he that hath this hope in Him purifieth himself, even as He is pure. The common sense of men--which is often their conscience and highest reason--has taught them this, more or less clearly, in all countries and all ages. There are very few religions which have not made purifying of some kind a part of their duty. The very savage, when he enters (as he fancies) the presence of his god, will wash and adorn himself that he may be fit, poor creature, for meeting the paltry god which he has invented out of his own brain; and he is right as far as he goes. The Englishman, when he dresses himself in his best to go to church, obeys the same reasonable instinct. And, indeed, is not holy baptism a sign that this instinct is a true one?--that if God be pure, he who enters the presence of God must purify himself, even as God is pure? Else why, when each person, whether infant or adult, is received into Christ's Church, is washing with water, whether by sprinkling, as now, or, as of old, by immersion, the very sign and sacrament of his being received into God's kingdom? The instinct, I say, is reasonable, and has its root in the very heart of man. Whatsoever we respect and admire we shall also try to copy, if it be only for a time. If we are going into the presence of a wiser man than ourselves, we shall surely recollect and summon up what little wisdom or knowledge we may have; if into the presence of a holier person, we shall try to call up in ourselves those better and more serious thoughts which we so often forget, that we may be, even for a few minutes, fit for that good company. And if we go into the presence of a purer person than ourselves, we shall surely (unless we be base and brutal) call up our purest and noblest thoughts, and try to purify ourselves, even as they are pure. It is true what poets have said again and again, that there are women whose mere presence, whose mere look, drives all bad thoughts away--women before whom men dare no more speak, or act, nay, even think, basely, than they would dare before the angels of God.
But if it be so--and so it is--what must we be, to be fit to appear before Him who is Purity itself?--before that spotless Christ in whom is no sin and who knows what is in man; who is quick and piercing as a two- edged sword, even to the dividing asunder of the joints and marrow, so that all things are naked and open in the sight of Him with whom we have to do? What purity can we bring into His presence which will not seem impure to Him? What wisdom which will not seem folly? What humility which will not seem self-conceit? What justice which will not seem unjust? What love which will not seem hardness of heart, in the sight of Him who charges His angels with folly, and the very heavens are not clean in His sight? Who loved Him better, and whom did He love better, than St John? Yet, what befel St John when, in the spirit, he saw Him even somewhat as He is?--"And I fell at His feet as dead." If St John himself was struck down with awe, what shall we feel, even the best and purest among us? All we can do is to cast ourselves, now and for ever, in life, in death, and in the day of judgment, on His boundless mercy and love-- who stooped from heaven to die for us and cry, God be merciful to me a sinner.
Therefore, I have many fears for some who are ready enough to talk of their fulness of hope and their assurance of salvation, and to join in hymns which express weariness of this life and longings for the joys of heaven, and prayers that they may depart and be with Christ. If they are not in earnest in such words they mock God; but if they are in earnest, some of them, I fear much, tempt God. What if He took them at their word? What if He gave them their wish? What if they departed and entered the presence of Christ, only to meet with a worse fate than that of Gerontius? Only to be overwhelmed with shame and terror, because, though they have been talking of being with Christ, they have not been trying to be like Christ; because they have not sought after holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord; because they have not tried to purify themselves, even as He is pure; and have, poor, heedless souls, gone out of the world, with all their sins upon their head, to enter a place for which they will find themselves utterly unfit, because it is a place into which nothing can enter which defileth, or committeth abomination, or maketh a lie, and from which the covetous are specially excluded; and in which will be fulfilled the parable of the man who came to the feast, not having on a wedding garment,--Take him, bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness. There shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Assurance, my friends, may be reasonable enough when it is founded on repentance and hatred of evil, and love and practice of what is good. But, again, assurance may be as unreasonable as it is offensive. We blame a man who has too much assurance about earthly things. Let us beware that we have not too much assurance about heavenly things. For our assurance will surely be too great, unreasonable, built upon the sand, if it be built on mere self-conceit of our own orthodoxy, and our own privileges, or our own special connection with God.
Meanwhile it has been my comfort to meet with some--would God they were more numerous--who, instead of talking of their assurance of salvation, lived in a state of noble self-discontent and holy humility; who could see nothing but their own faults and failings; who, though they were holier than others, considered themselves as unholy; though they were doing more good than others, thought themselves useless; whose standard of duty was so lofty, that they could think of nothing, but how far they had failed in reaching it; who measured themselves, not by other men, but by Christ Himself; and, doing that, had nought to say, save, "God be merciful to me a sinner." And for such people I have had full assurance, just because they had no assurance themselves. And I have said in my heart, These are worthy, just because they think themselves unworthy. These are fit to appear in the presence of God, just because they believe themselves unfit. These are they who will cry at the day of judgment, in wondering humility,--Lord, when saw we Thee hungry, or thirsty, or naked, or in prison, and visited Thee? And will receive for answer,--"Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto Me." "Thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of thy Lord."
To which end may God of His mercy bring us, and all we love. Amen.