John xvii. 3. This is life eternal, that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.
Before I can explain what this text has to do with the Church Catechism, I must say to you a little about what it means.
Now if I asked any of you what 'salvation' was, you would probably answer, 'Eternal life.'
And you would answer rightly. That is exactly what salvation is, and neither more nor less. No more than that; for nothing greater than that can belong to any created being. No less than that; for God's love and mercy are eternal and without bound.
But what is eternal life?
Some will answer, 'Going to heaven when we die.' But what before you die? You do not know? cannot tell?
Let us listen to what God Himself says. Let us listen to what the Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God, says. Let us listen to what He who spake as man never spake, says. Surely His words must be the clearest, the simplest, the most exact, the deepest, the widest; the exactly fit and true words, the complete words, the perfect words, which cannot be improved on by adding to them or taking away one jot or tittle. What did the Lord Jesus Christ say that eternal life was?
'This is eternal life, that they may know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.'
To know God and Jesus Christ; that is eternal life. That is all the eternal life which any of us will ever have, my friends. Unless our Lord's words are not complete and perfect, and do not tell us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, about eternal life, that is all the eternal life any one will ever have; and we must make up our minds to be content therewith.
To which some will answer, almost angrily, 'Of course. The way to obtain eternal life is to know God and Jesus Christ; for if we do not, we cannot obtain it.'
What words are these, my friends? what rash words are these, which men thrust into Scripture out of their own carnal conceits, as if they could improve upon the speech of the Son of Man Himself? He says, not that to know God is the way to eternal life: but rather that eternal life is the way to know God. He does not say, This is to know God and Jesus Christ, in order that they may have eternal life. Whatever He says, He does not say that. Nay, more, if we are to be very exact (and can we be too exact?) with the Lord's words, He says, that 'This is eternal life, in order that they may know God and Jesus Christ.' Not that we are to know God that we may obtain eternal life, but that we must have eternal life in order that we may know God; that eternal life is the means, and the knowledge of God the end and purpose for which eternal life is given us. However this may be, at least He says what the noble collect which we repeat every Sunday says, 'That our eternal life stands in the knowledge of God,' depends on it, and will fall without it.
'That we may know God.' Not merely that we may know doctrines about salvation, and the ways of winning God's favour, and turning away His vengeance; not merely to know what God has done ages ago, or may do ages hence, for us: but to know God Himself; to know His person, His likeness, His character; and what He is, and what He does, now and always; to know His righteousness, His goodness, His truth, His love, His mercy, His strength, His willingness and mightiness to save; in a word, what the Bible calls His glory; and therefore to admire and delight in Him utterly. That is what our eternal life stands in; that is why God has given to us eternal life in His Son, that we may know that. Oh, believe your Saviour simply, like little children, and enter into the joy of your Lord. Acquaint yourselves with God, and be at peace.
To know God; and also to know Jesus Christ whom He has sent. For St. John, when he tells us that God has already given to us eternal life, says also, that this life is in His Son. To know the Son of God, in whom the Father is well pleased, because He is His perfect Son; His exact likeness, the likeness of that glory of His, and the express image of that person and character of His, which I described to you just now; One whose life was and is and ever will be eternally all love, and mercy, and self-sacrifice, and labour, for lost and sinful men; all trust and obedience to His Father. To know Him and His life, and to come to Him, and receive from Him an eternal life, which this world did not give us, and cannot take away from us; which neither man, devil, nor angel, nor the death of our bodies, the ruin of empires, the destruction of the whole universe, and of time, and space, and all things whereof man can conceive or dream, can alter in the slightest, because it is a life of goodness, and righteousness, and love, which are eternal as the God from whom they spring; eternal as Christ, who is the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever; and nothing but our own sinful wills can rob us of them.
This is eternal life, and therefore this is salvation. A very different account of it (though it is the Bible account) from that narrow and paltry one which too many have in their minds now-a-days; a narrow and paltry notion that it means only being saved from the punishment of our sins after we die; and a very unbelieving, and godless, and atheistical notion too; which, like all unbelief hurts and spoils men's lives.
For too many say to themselves, 'God must save me after I am dead, of course, for no one else can: but as long as I am alive I must save myself. God must save me from hell; but I must save myself from poverty, from trouble, from what the world may say of me or do to me, if I offend it.' And so salvation seems to have to do altogether with the next life, and not at all with this; and people lose entirely the belief that God is our deliverer, our protector, our guide, our friend, now, here, in this life; and do not really think that they can get on better in this world by knowing God and Jesus Christ; and so they set to work to help themselves by cunning, by covetousness, by cowardly truckling to the wicked ways of the very world which they renounced at baptism, by following after a multitude to do evil, and standing by, saying, 'I saw it not,' when they see wrong and cruelty done upon the earth; afraid to fight God's battles like men of God, because they say it is 'dangerous.' And so, in these evil days, thousands who call themselves Christians live on, worldly and selfish, without God in the world; while they talk busily enough of 'preparing to meet God,' in the world to come; dreaming, poor souls, of arriving at what they call 'salvation' after they die, while they are too often, I fear, deep enough in what the Scripture calls 'damnation,' before they die.
'But,' say some, 'is not salvation going to a place called heaven?' My friends, let the Bible speak. It tells us that salvation is not in a place at all, but in a person, a living, moving, acting person, who is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ. Let the Psalmists speak, and shame us, who ought to know (being Christians) even better than they, that The Lord Himself is Salvation. The whole Book of Psalms, what is it but the blessed discovery that salvation is not merely in a place, or a state, not even in some 'beatific vision' after men die; but in the Lord Himself all day long in this world; that salvation is a life in God and with God? 'The Lord is my light, and my salvation, of whom then shall I be afraid? The Lord is the strength of my life, and my portion for ever.' This is their key-note. Shame on us Christians, that we should have forgotten it for one so much lower. 'The name of the Lord,' says Solomon, 'is a strong tower: the righteous runneth into it, and is safe.' Into it: not merely into some pleasant place after he dies, but all day long; and is safe: not merely after he dies, but in every chance and change of this mortal life. My friends, I am ashamed to have to put Christian men in mind of these things. Truly, 'Evil communications have corrupted good manners; awake to righteousness and sin not, for some have not the knowledge of God.' I am ashamed, I say; for there are old hymns in the mouths of every one to this day, which testify against their want of faith; which say, 'Christ is my life,' 'Christ is my salvation;' and which were written, I doubt not, by men who meant literally what they said, whatever those who sing them now-a-days may mean by them. Now what do those hymns mean by such words, if they mean anything at all? Surely what I have been preaching to you, and what seems to some of you, I fear, strange and new doctrine. And what else does the Church Catechism mean, when it bids every child thank God for having brought him into a state of salvation? For mind, throughout the whole Church Catechism there is not one word about what people commonly call heaven and hell; not one word though 'heaven and hell' are now-a-days generally the first things about which children are taught. Not one word is the child taught about what will happen to him after death, except that his body will rise again, and that Christ will be his Judge after he is dead as well as while he is alive: but not one word about that salvation after he is dead, which is almost the only thing of which one hears in many pulpits. And why, but because the Catechism teaches the child to believe that Jesus Christ is his salvation now, in this life, and believes that to be enough for him to know? For if Christ be eternal, His salvation must be eternal also. If Christ's life be in the child, eternal life must be in the child; for Christ's life must be eternal, even as Christ Himself; and that is enough for the child, and for us also.
And with this agrees that great text of Scripture, 'When the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive.' People now-a-days are apt to make two mistakes about that one text. First they forget the 'when,' and read it as if it stood, 'If the wicked man turn away from his wickedness in this life, he shall save his soul in the next life:' but the Bible says much more than that. It says, that when he turns, then and there, that moment he shall save his soul alive. And next, they read the text as if it stood, 'he shall save his soul.' Here again, my friends, the Bible says a great deal more; it says, that he shall save his soul alive. Perhaps that does not seem to you any great difference? Alas, alas, my friends, I fear that there are too many now, as there have been in all times, who do not care for the difference. Provided 'their souls are saved,' by which they mean, provided they escape torment after they die, it matters nothing to them whether their souls are saved alive, or saved dead; they do not even know the difference between a dead soul and a live soul; because they know nothing about eternal death and eternal life, which are the death and the life of eternal persons such as souls are; they say to themselves, if they be Protestants, 'I hope I shall have faith enough to be saved;' or if they be Papists, 'I hope I shall have good works enough to be saved;' valuing faith and works not for themselves; yea, valuing--for I must say it--Almighty God Himself, not for Himself and His own glory, but valuing faith and works, and the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, only because, as they dream, they are so many helps to a life of pleasure beyond the grave; not knowing this, that living faith and good works do not merely lead to heaven, but are heaven itself, that true, real eternal heaven wherein alone men really live; that true, real eternal life which was with the Father, and was manifested in Jesus Christ, whom St. John saw living upon earth that same Eternal Life, and bore witness of Him that His life was the light of men; that eternal life whereof it is written, that God hath brought us to life together with Christ, and raised us up, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus:--not knowing this, that the only life which any soul ought to live, is the life of God and of Christ, and of the Spirit of God and Christ; a life of righteousness, and justice, and truth, and obedience, and mercy, and love; a life which God has given to us, that we may know and copy Him, and do His works, and live His life, for ever:--not knowing this also that eternal death is not merely some torture of fire and worms beyond the grave: but that this is eternal death, not to live the eternal life which is the only possible life for souls, the life of righteousness and love; a death which may come on respectable people, and high religious professors, while they are fancying themselves sure to be saved, as easily and surely as it may on thieves and harlots, wallowing in the mire of sins.
For what is this same eternal death? The opposite surely to eternal life. Eternal life is to know God, and therefore to obey Him. Eternal life is to know God, whose name is love; and therefore, to rejoice to fulfil His law, of which it is written, 'Love is the fulfilling of the law;' and therefore to be full of love ourselves, as it is written, 'We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren;' and again, 'Every one that loveth, knoweth God, for God is love.' And on the other hand, eternal death is not to know God, and therefore not to care for His law of love, and therefore to be without love; as it is written on the other hand, 'He that loveth not his brother abideth in death.' 'Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer;' and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him; and again, 'He that loveth not, knoweth not God, for God is love.' Eternal death, then, is to love no one; to be shut up in the dark prison-house of our own wilful and wayward thoughts and passions, full of spite, suspicion, envy, fear; in fact, in one word, to be a devil. Oh, my friends, is not that damnation indeed, to be a devil here on earth, and for aught we know, for ever and ever?
Do you not know what frame of mind I mean? Thank God, none of us, I suppose, is ever utterly without some grain of love left for some one; none of us, I suppose, is ever utterly shut up in himself; and as long as there is love there is life and as long as there is life there is hope: but yet there have been moments when one has felt with horror how near, and how terrible, and how easy was this same eternal death which some fancy only possible after they die.
For, my friends, were you ever, any one of you, for one half hour, completely angry, completely sulky? displeased and disgusted with everybody and everything round you, and yet displeased and disgusted with yourself all the while; liking to think everyone wrong, liking to make out that they were unjust to you; feeling quite proud at the notion that you were an injured person: and yet feeling in your heart the very opposite of all these fancies: feeling that you were wrong, that you were unjust to them, and feeling utterly ashamed at the thought that they were the injured persons, and that you had injured them. And perhaps, to make all worse, the person about whom all this storm had arisen in your heart, was some dear friend or relation whom you loved (strange contradiction, yet most true) at the very moment that you were trying to hate. Oh, my friends, if one such dark hour has ever come home to you; if you have ever let the sun go down upon your wrath, and so given place to the devil, then you know something at least of what eternal death is. You know how, in such moments, there is a worm in the heart, and a fire in the heart, compared with which all bodily torment would be light and bearable; a worm in the heart which does not die: and a fire in the heart which you cannot quench: but which if they remained there would surely destroy you. So intolerable are they, that you feel that you will actually and really die, in some strange unspeakable way, if you continue in that temper long. Do not there open at such times within our hearts black depths of evil, a power of becoming wicked, a chance of being swept off into sin if one gives way, which one never suspected till then; and yet with all these, the most dreadful sense of helplessness, of slavery, of despair?--God grant that may not remain, for then comes the mad hope to escape death by death, to try by one desperate stroke to rid oneself of that self which is for the time one's torment, worm, fire, death, and hell. And what is this dark fight within us? What does the Bible call it? It is death and life, eternal death and eternal life, salvation and damnation, hell and heaven, fighting together within our hapless hearts, to see which shall be our masters. It is the battle of the evil spirit, who is the Devil, fighting with the good spirit, who is God. Nothing less than that, my friends. Yes, in those hateful and shameful moments of pride, or spite, or contempt, or self-will, or suspicion, or sneering, on which when they are past we look back with shame and horror, and wonder how we could have been such wretches even for a moment,--at such times, I say, our heart is a battle-field, on which no less than the Devil himself, and God Himself are fighting for our souls. On one side, Satan trying to bring us into that state of eternal death in which he lives himself; Satan, the loveless one, the self-willed one, the accuser, the slanderer, slandering God to us, slandering man to us, slandering to us the friends we love best and trust most utterly; yea, slandering our own selves to us, trying to make us believe that we are as bad, ought to be as bad, and must always be as bad as we seem for the time to be; that we cannot shake off our evil passions, that we cannot rise again out of the eternal death of sin into the eternal life of righteousness. And on the other side, the Spirit of God and of His Christ, the Spirit of eternal life, the Spirit of justice, and righteousness, love, joy, peace, duty, self-sacrifice, trying to make us know Him and see His beauty, and obey Him, and be at peace; trying to raise us again into that eternal life and state of salvation which the Lord Jesus Christ has bought for us with His most precious blood.
Oh, awful thought! Life and death, the Devil himself, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, fighting in your heart and in mine, and in the heart of every human being round us! And yet most blessed thought, hopeful, glorious,--full of the promise of eternal victory! For greater is He that is with us, than he that is against us; and He who conquered Satan for Himself, can and will conquer him for us also. No thing can separate us from the love of Christ; no thing, yea no angel, or devil, principality, or power; no thing, but only ourselves, only our own proud and wayward will and determination to the Devil's voice in our hearts, and not the voice of Christ, the Word of Life, who is nigh us, in our hearts, even in our darkest moments, loving us still, pitying us, ready, able and willing to help all who cast themselves on Him, and raise us, there and then, the very moment we cry to Him and renounce the Devil and our own foolish will, out of self-will into God's will, out of darkness into light, out of hatred into love, out of despair into hope, out of doubt into faith, out of tempest into peace, out of the death of sin into the life of righteousness, the life of love and charity, which abideth for ever. Oh, listen not to the lying, slanderous Devil, who tells you that by your own sin you have lost your share in Christ, lost baptismal grace, lost Christ's love--Lost His love? His, who, were you in the very lowest depths of hell, would pity you still? His love, who Himself went down into hell, and preached to the spirits in prison, to show that he did care even for them? Not so: into Him you have been baptized. His cross is on your foreheads, His Father is your Father:--and can a father desert his child, even though he sinned seventy and seven times, if seventy and seven times he turn and repent? Can man weary God? Can the creature conquer and destroy the love of his Creator? Can Christ deny Himself? Not so; whosoever thou art, however sorely tempted, however deeply fallen, however disgusted and terrified at thyself, turn only to that blessed face which wept over Jerusalem, to that great heart which bled for thee upon the cross, and thou shalt find him unchanged, the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever, the Lord of life and love, able and willing to save to the uttermost all who come to God through Him, and the accusing Devil shall turn and flee, and thou shalt know that thy Redeemer liveth still, and in thy flesh thou shalt see the salvation of God, and cry, 'Rejoice not against me, Satan, mine enemy; for when I fall I shall arise.'