1 Cor. i. 4, 5, 7. "I thank my God always on your behalf, for the grace of God which is given you by Jesus Christ. That in every thing ye are enriched by Him, in all utterance, and in all knowledge . . . So that ye come behind in no gift; waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Who shall also confirm you unto the end, that ye may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ."
This text is a very important one. It ought to teach me how I should treat you. It ought to teach you how you should treat your children. It ought to teach you how God, your heavenly Father, treats you. You see at the first glance how cheerful and hopeful St Paul is about these Corinthians. He is always thanking God, he says, about them, for the grace of God which was given them by Jesus Christ, that in everything they were enriched by Him, in all utterance and in all knowledge. And he has good hope for them. Nay, he seems to be certain about them, that they will persevere, and conquer, and be saved; for Christ Himself will confirm them (that is strengthen them) to the end, that they may be blameless in the way of our Lord Jesus Christ.
If we knew no more of these Corinthians than what these words tell us, we should suppose that they were very great saints, leading holy and irreproachable lives before God and man. But we know that it was not so. That they were going on very ill. That this is the beginning of an epistle in which St Paul is going to rebuke them very severely; and to tell them, that unless they mend, they will surely become reprobates, and be lost after all. He is going to rebuke them for having heresies among them, that is religious parties and religious quarrels--very much as we have now; for being puffed up with spiritual self-conceit; for despising and disparaging him; for loose lives, allowing (in one case) such a crime among them as even the heathen did not allow; for profaning the Lord's Supper, to such an extent that some seem even to have got drunk at it; for want of charity to each other; for indulging in fanatical excitement; for denying, some of them, the resurrection of the dead; on the whole, for being in so unwholesome a state of mind that he has to warn them solemnly of the fearful example of the old Israelites, who perished in the wilderness for their sins--as they will perish, he hints, unless they mend.
And yet he begins by thanking God for them, by speaking of them, and to them, in this cheerful and hopeful tone.
Does that seem strange? Why should it seem strange, my friends, to us, if we are in the habit of training our children, and rebuking our children, as we ought? If we have to rebuke our children for doing wrong, do we begin by trying to break their hearts? by raking up old offences, by reproaching them with all the wrong they ever did in their lives, and giving them to understand that they are thoroughly bad, and have altogether lost our love, so that we will have nothing more to do with them unless they mend? Or do we begin by making them feel that however grieved we are with them, we love them still; that however wrong they have been, there is right feeling left in them still; and by giving them credit for whatever good there is in them--by appealing to that; calling on them to act up to that; to be true to themselves, and to their better nature; saying, You can do right in one thing--then do right in another--and do right in all? If we do not do this we do wrong; we destroy our children's self-respect, we make them despair of improving, we make them fancy themselves bad children: that is the very surest plan we can take to make them bad children, by making them reckless.
But if we be wise parents--such parents to our children as St Paul was to his spiritual children, the Corinthians--we shall do by them just what St Paul did by these Corinthians. Before he says one harsh word to them, he will awaken in them faith and love. He will make them trust him and love him, all the more because he knows that through false teaching they do not trust and love him as they used to do. But till they do, he knows that there is no use in rebuking them. Till they trust him and love him, they will not listen to him. And how does he try to bring them round to him? By praising them:--by telling them that he trusts them and loves them, because in spite of all their faults there is something in them worthy to be loved and trusted. He begins by giving them credit for whatever good there is in them. They are rich in all utterance and all knowledge; that is, they are very brilliant and eloquent talkers about spiritual things, and also very deep and subtle thinkers about spiritual things. So far so good. These are great gifts--gifts of Christ, too,-- tokens that God's spirit is with them, and that all they need is to be true to His gracious inspirations. Then, when he has told them that, or rather made them understand that he knows that, and is delighted at it, then he can go on safely and boldly to tell them of their sins also in the plainest and sternest and yet the most tender and fatherly language.
This is very important, my friends. I cannot tell you fully how important I think it, in more ways than one. I am sure that if we took St Paul's method with our children we should succeed with them far better than we do. And I think, I have thought long, that if we could see that St Paul's method with those Corinthians was actually the same as God's method with us, we should have far truer notions of God, and God's dealings with us; and should reverence and value far more that Holy Catholic Church into which we have been, by God's infinite mercy, baptized, and wherein we have been educated.
For, and now I entreat you to listen to me carefully, you who have sound heads and earnest hearts, ready and willing to know the truth about God and yourselves, if St Paul looked at the Corinthians in this light, may not God have looked at them in the same light? If St Paul accepted them for the sake of the good which was in them, in spite of all their faults, may not God have accepted them for the sake of the good which was in them, in spite of all their faults? and may not He accept us likewise? I think it must be so. For was not St Paul an inspired apostle? and are not these words of his inspired by the Holy Spirit of God? But if so, then the Spirit of God must have looked at these Corinthians in the same light as St Paul, and therefore God must do likewise, because the Holy Spirit is God. Must it not be so? Can we suppose that God would take one view of these Corinthians, and then inspire St Paul to take another view? What does being inspired mean at all, save having the mind of Christ and of God,--being taught to see men and things as God sees them, to feel for them and think of them as God does? If inspiration does not mean that, what does it mean? Therefore, I think, we have a right to believe that St Paul's words express the mind of God concerning these Corinthians; that God was pleased with their utterance and their knowledge, and accepted them for that; and that in the same way God is pleased with whatsoever He sees good in us, and accepts us for that. But, remember, not for our own works or deservings any more than these Corinthians. They were, and we are accepted in Christ, and for the merits of Christ. And any good points in us, or in these Corinthians, as St Paul says expressly (here and elsewhere), are not our own, but come from Christ, by the inspiration of His Holy Spirit.
I know many people do not think thus. They think of God as looking only at our faults; as extreme to mark what is done amiss; as never content with us; as always crying to men, Yes, you have done this and that well, and yet not quite well, for even in what you have done there are blots and mistakes; but this and that you have not done, and therefore you are still guilty, still under infinite displeasure. And they think that they exalt God's holiness by such thoughts, and magnify His hatred of sin thereby. And they invent arguments to prove themselves right, such as this: That because God is an infinite being, every sin committed against Him is infinite; and therefore deserves an infinite punishment; which is a juggle of words of which any educated man ought to be ashamed.
I do not know where, in the Bible, they find all this. Certainly not in the writings of St Paul. They seem to me to find it, not in the Bible at all, but in their own hearts, judging that God must be as hard upon His children as they are apt to be upon their own. I know that God is never content with us, or with any man. How can He be? But in what sense is He not content? In the sense in which a hard task-master is not content with his slave, when he flogs him cruelly for the slightest fault? Or in the sense in which a loving father is not content with his child, grieving over him, counselling him, as long as he sees him, even in the slightest matter, doing less well than he might do? Think of that, and when you have thought of it, believe that in this grand text St Paul speaks really by the Spirit of God, and according to the mind of God, and teaches not these old Corinthians merely, but you and your children after you, what is the mind of God concerning you, what is the light in which God looks upon you. For, if you will but think over your own lives, and over the Catechism which you learned in your youth, has not God's way of dealing with you been just the same as St Paul's with those Corinthians, teaching you to love and trust Him almost before He taught you the difference between right and wrong? I know that some think otherwise. Many who do not belong to the Church, and many, alas! who profess to belong to the Church, will tell you that God's method is, first to terrify men by the threats of the law and the sight of their sins and the fear of damnation, and afterwards to reveal to them the gospel and His mercy and salvation in Christ. Now I can only answer that it is not so. Not so in fact. These preachers themselves may do it; but that is no proof that God does it. What God's plan is can only be known from facts, from experience, from what actually happens; first in God's kingdom of nature, and next in God's kingdom of grace, which is the Church. And in the kingdom of nature how does God begin with mankind? What are a child's first impressions of this life? Does he hear voices from heaven telling little children that they are lost sinners? Does he see lightning come from heaven to strike sinners dead, or earthquakes rise and swallow them up? Nothing of the kind. A child's first impressions of this life, what are they but pleasure? His mother's breast, warmth, light, food, play, flowers, and all pleasant things,--by these God educates the child, even of the heathen and the savage:--and why? If haply he may feel after God and find Him, and find that He is a God of love and mercy, a giver of good things, who knows men's necessities before they ask,--a good and loving God, and not a being such as I will not, I dare not speak of.
I say with the very heathen God deals thus. We have plain Scripture for that. For we have, and thanks be to God that we have, in such times as these, a missionary sermon preached by St Paul to the heathen at Lystra. And in that is not one word concerning these terrors of the law. He says, I preach to you God, whom you ought to have known of yourselves, because He has not left Himself without witness. And what is this witness of which the apostle speaks? Wrath and terror and destruction? Not so, says St Paul. This is His witness, that He has sent you rain and fruitful seasons, filling your heart with food and gladness. His goodness, His bounty,--it is the witness of God and of the character of God. There is wrath and terror enough, says St Paul elsewhere, awaiting those who go on in sin. But then what does he say is their sin? Despising the goodness of God, by which He has been trying to win mankind to love and trust Him, before He threatens and before He punishes at all. So much for the terrors of the law coming before the good news of the gospel in God's kingdom of nature.
And still less do the terrors of the law come first in God's kingdom of grace, which is the Church. They did not come first to you or to me, or to any one in His Church who has been taught, as churchmen should be, their Catechism. If any have been, unhappily for them, brought up to learn Catechisms and hymns which do not belong to the Church, and which terrify little children with horrible notions of God's wrath, and the torments prepared not merely for wicked men, but for unconverted children, and then teach them to say,--
"Can such a wretch as I Escape this dreadful end?"
so much the worse for them. We, who are Church people, are bound to believe that God speaks to us through the Church books, and that it was His will that we should have been brought up to believe the Catechism. And in that Catechism we heard not one word of these terrors of the law or of God's wrath hanging over us. We were taught that before we even knew right from wrong, God adopted us freely as His children, freely forgave us our original sin for the sake of Christ's blood, freely renewed us by His Holy Spirit, freely placed us in His Church;--that we might love Him, because He first loved us; trust Him because He has done all that even God could do to win our trust; and obey Him, because we are boundlessly in debt to Him for boundless mercies. This is God's method with us in His Church, and what is it but St Paul's method with these Corinthians?
Believe this, then, you who wish to be Churchmen in spirit and in truth. Believe that St Paul's conduct is to you a type and pattern of what God does, and what you ought to do. That God's method of winning you to do right is to make you love Him and trust Him; and that your method of winning your children to do right is to make them love and trust you. Let us remember that if our children are not perfect, they at least inherited their imperfections from us; and if our Father in heaven, from whom we inherit no sin, but only good, have patience with us, shall we not have patience with our children, who owe to us their fallen nature?
Ah! cast thy bread upon the waters,--the bread which even the poorest can give to their children abundantly and without stint,--the bread of charity,--human tenderness, forbearance, hopefulness,--cast that bread upon the waters, and thou shalt find it after many days.