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Sermons for the Times, 3 - A GOOD CONSCIENCE

By Charles Kingsley


      1 Peter iii. 21. The like figure whereunto baptism doth now save us (not the putting away the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

      These words are very wide words; too wide to please most people. They preach a very free grace; too free to please most people. Such free and full grace, indeed, that some who talk most about free grace, and insist most on man's being saved only by free grace, are the very men who shrink from these words most, and would be more comfortable in their minds, I suspect, if they were not in the Bible at all, because the grace they preach is too free. But so it always has been, and so it is, and so, I suppose, it always will be. Man preaches his notions of God's forgiveness, his notions of what he thinks God ought to do; but when God proclaims His own forgiveness, and tells men what He has actually done, and bids His apostle declare boldly that baptism doth now save us, then man is frightened at the vastness of God's generosity, and thinks God's grace too free, His forgiveness too complete; and considers this text and many another in the Bible as 'dangerous' forsooth, if it is 'preached unreservedly,' and not to be quoted without some words of man's invention tacked to it, to water it down, and narrow it, and take all the strength and life out of it; and if he be asked whether he believes the words of Scripture,--for instance, whether St. Paul spoke truth when he told the heathen Athenians that they and all men were the offspring of God;--or when he told the Romans that as by the offence of one, judgment came on all men to condemnation, even so by the righteousness of One, the free gift came upon all men to justification of life;--or when he told the Corinthians, that as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive;--or whether St. Peter spoke truth when he said, that 'baptism doth also now save us,'--then they answer, that the words are true 'in a sense;' that is, not in their plain sense; true, if they were only true; true, and yet somehow at the same time not true; and not to be preached 'unreservedly:' as if man could be more cautious and correct in his language than the Spirit of God, who inspired the Apostles; as if man could be more careful of God's honour than God is of His own; as if man could hate sin and guard against sin more carefully than God Himself.

      Just in the same way do people stumble at certain invaluable words in the Church Catechism, which teach children to thank God for having brought them into that state of salvation. Even very good people, and people who really wish to believe and honour the Church Catechism, and the Sacrament of Baptism, find these words too strong to please them, and say, that of course a child's being in a state of salvation cannot mean that he is saved, but that he may be saved after he dies.

      My friends, I never could find that we have a right to take liberties with the Bible and the Prayer Book which we dare not take with any other book, and to put meanings into the words of them which, in the case of any other book, would be contrary to plain grammar and the English tongue, if not to common sense and honesty.

      If you say of a man, 'he is in a state of happiness,' you mean, do you not, that he is happy now, not that he may perhaps be happy some day? If you came to me and told me that you were in a state of hunger, you would think it a very strange answer to receive if I say, 'Very well then, if you become hungry, come to me, and I will feed you?' You all know that a man's being in a state of poverty, or of misery, means that he is poor or miserable now, here, at this very time; that if a man is in a state of sickness, he is sick; if he is in a state of health, he is healthy. Then what can a man's being in a state of salvation mean, by all rules of English, but that he is saved? If I were to say to any one of the good people who do not think so, 'My friend, you are in a state of damnation,' he would answer me quickly enough, 'I am not, for I am not damned.' He would agree that a man's being in a state of damnation means that the man is damned; why will he not agree that a man's being in a state of salvation means that he is saved? Because, my friends, God's grace is too full for fallen man's notions; and therefore there is an evil fashion abroad in the world, that where a text speaks of wrath, and misery and punishment, you are to interpret it exactly, and to the very letter: but where it speaks of love, and mercy, and forgiveness, you are to do no such thing, but narrow it, and fence it, and explain it away, for fear you should make sinners too comfortable,--a plan which seems wise enough, but which, like other plans of man's wisdom, has not succeeded too well, to judge by the number of sinners who are already too comfortable though they hear the Bible misused, and God's grace narrowed in this way every Sunday of their lives.

      But, my friends, we call ourselves Englishmen and churchmen; let us be honest Englishmen and plain churchmen, and take our Catechism as it stands. For rightly or wrongly, truly or falsely, it does teach every christened child to thank God, not merely that it has some chance of being saved, when it dies, but that it is saved already, now, here on earth.

      Whether that is true or false is another question. I believe it to be true. I believe the text to be true; I believe that why people shrink from it is, that they have got into their minds a wrong, unscriptural, superstitious notion of what being saved, and saving one's soul alive, and salvation mean. And I beg all of you who read your Bibles to search the Scriptures from beginning to end, and try to find out what these words mean, and whether the Catechism has not kept close, after all, to the words of Scripture. It will be better for you, my friends; it will be worth your while, to know exactly what being saved means; for to judge by the signs of the times, there are, very probably, days coming in which it will be as needful for you and for your children to save your souls alive lest you die, as ever it was for the Jews in Isaiah's or Jeremiah's time, or for the Romans in St. Paul's time; and that in that day you will find the Catechism wider, and deeper, and sounder than you have ever suspected it to be, and see, I trust, that in these very words it preaches to you, and me, and our children after us, the one true Gospel and good news, which will stand, and grow, and shine brighter and brighter for ever, when all the paltry, narrow, counterfeit gospels which man invents in its place have been burnt up by the unquenchable fire with which the merciful Lord purges the chaff from His floor.

      I told you this morning what I believe that salvation was,--to know God, and Jesus Christ, whom He has sent. To know God's likeness, God's character, what God has shown of His own character, what He has done for us. To know His boundless love, and mercy, and knowing that, to trust in Him utterly, and submit to Him utterly, and obey Him utterly, sure that He loves us, that His will to us is goodwill, that His commandments must be life. To know God, and therefore to love Him and to serve Him, that is salvation.

      Now what hinders a little child, from the very moment that it can think or speak, from entering into that salvation? Not the child's own heart. There is evil in the child--true. Is there none in you and me? There is a corrupt nature in the child--true. Is there not in you and me? Woe to us if we have not found it out: woe to us if we dare to think that we are in ourselves--or out of ourselves either--one whit better than our own children. What should hinder any child whom you or I ever saw from knowing God, and His Name, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit?

      Has he not an earthly father, through whom he may know The Father? Is he not an earthly son; and through that may he not know The Son? Has he not a conscience, a spirit in him which knows good from evil? holiness from wickedness--far more clearly and tenderly than the souls of most grown people do? and can he not, therefore, understand you when you speak of a Holy Spirit, a Spirit which puts good desires into his heart, and can enable him to bring those good desires into practice?

      I know one hindrance at least; and that is his parents' sins; when the parents' harshness or neglect tempts the child to fancy that God The Father is such a Father to him as his parents are, and that to be a child of God is to look up to his heavenly Father with dread and suspicion as to a hard taskmaster whose anger has to be turned away, and not with that perfect love, and trust, and respect, and self-sacrifice, with which the Lord Jesus Christ fulfilled His Father's will and proclaimed His Father's glory: or when the parents' unholiness and lip-religion teach the child to fancy that the Holy Spirit means only certain religious fancies and feelings, or the learning by heart of certain words and doctrines, or, worst of all, a spirit of bondage unto fear; instead of knowing Him to be, as He is, the Spirit of righteousness, and love, and joy, and peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, meekness, temperance: or when, again, parents by their own teaching, do despite to the Spirit of Grace in their own child, and destroy their child's good conscience toward God, by telling the child that it does not really love God, when it loves Him, perhaps, far better than they do; by telling the child that its sins have parted it from God, when its sins are light, yea, are as nothing in the balance compared to the sins they themselves commit every day, while they claim for themselves clearer light and knowledge than the child, and thereby condemn themselves rather than the child; when they darken and defile the pure and beautiful trust and admiration for its Heavenly Father, which God's Spirit puts into the child's heart, by telling it that it is doomed to I know-not-what horrible misery and torture when it dies; but that it can escape from that wretched end by thinking certain thoughts, and feeling certain feelings; and so (after stirring up in the child all manner of dreadful doubts of God's love and justice, and perhaps driving it away from religion altogether by making it believe that it has committed sins which it has not committed, and deserves horrible tortures which it has not deserved), do perhaps at last awaken in it a new love for God, but one which is not like that first love, that childlike love; one which, I fear, is hardly a love for God at all, but principally a selfish joy and delight at having escaped from coming torments. This is the reason, my friends; and this hindrance, at least, I know. I will not copy those parents, my friends, and tell them, as they tell their children, that they are bringing on themselves endless torture; but I must tell them, for the Lord Christ has told them, that they are bringing on themselves something--I know not what--of which it is written, that it were better for them that a millstone were hanged about their necks, and that they were drowned in the depth of the sea. Oh, my friends, if I speak sternly, almost bitterly, when I speak of parents' sins, it is because I speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. I plead for Christ's little ones: I plead for the souls and consciences of those little children of whom Christ said, 'Suffer the little children to come unto me;' not that they might become His, but because they were His already; not that they might win His love, but because He loved them from all eternity: not that they might enter into the kingdom of heaven, but, because they were in the kingdom of heaven already; because the kingdom of heaven was made up of such as them, and the angels who ministered unto them always beheld the face of our Father who is in heaven. Yes; I plead for those children, of whom the Lord said, 'Except ye be converted,' that is, utterly turned and changed, 'and become as little children, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven.' Deep and blessed words, which are the root-rule of all true righteousness; which so few really believe at heart, any more than the Pharisees, and Sadducees, and Herodians of old did. Up and down, all over England, I hear men of all denominations saying, not, 'Except we grown people be converted and become as little children;' but, 'except the little children be converted, and become like us, grown people.' God grant that the little children may not become like too many grown people! God grant it, I say. God grant that our children may not become like us! God grant that they may keep through youth and manhood, and through the grave, and through all worlds to come, the tender and childlike heart, which we too often have hardened in ourselves by bigotry and superstition, and dead faith, and lip-worship! And I can have good hope that God will grant it. I can have hope that God will teach our children and our children's children truly to know Him whose name is Love and Righteousness, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, as long as I see His providence preserving for us this old Church Catechism, to teach our children what we forget to teach them, or what we have not faith enough to teach them.

      Yes, I can have hope for England; and hope for those mighty nations across the seas, whose earthly mother God has ordained that she should be, as long as the Catechism is taught to her children.

      For see. This Catechism does not begin with telling children that they are sinners: they will find that out soon enough for themselves, poor little things, from their own wayward and self- willed hearts. Nor by telling them that man is fallen and corrupt: they will find out that also soon enough, from the way in which they see people go on around them. It does not even begin by telling them that they ought to be good, or what goodness and righteousness is; because it takes for granted that they know that already; it takes for granted that The Light who lights every man who comes into the world is in them; even the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, stirring up in their hearts, as He does in the heart of every child, the knowledge of good and the love of good. But it begins at once by teaching the child the name of God. It goes at once to the root of the matter; to the fountain of goodness itself; even to God, the Father of lights. It is so careful of God's honour, so careful that the child should learn from the first to look up to God with love and trust, that it dare not tell the child that God can destroy and punish, before it has told him that God is a Father and a Maker; the Father of spirits, who has made him and all the world. It dare not tell him that mankind is fallen, before it has told him that all the world is redeemed. It dare not talk to him of unholiness, before it has taught him that the Holy Spirit of God is with him, to make him holy. It tells him of a world, a flesh, and a devil: but he has renounced them. He has neither part nor lot in them; and he is not to think of them yet. He is to think of that in which he has part and lot, of which he is an inheritor. He is to know where he is and ought to be, before he knows where he is not and ought not to be: he is to think of the name of God, by which he can trample world, flesh, and devil under foot, if they dare hereafter meddle with his soul. In its God-inspired tenderness and prudence, it dare not darken the heart of one little child, or tempt him to hard thoughts of God, or to cry, 'Why hast thou made me thus?' lest it put a stumbling-block in the way of Christ's little ones, and dishonour the name and glory of God. It tells him of the love, before it tells him of the wrath; of the order, before it tells him of the disorder; of the right, before the wrong; of the health, before the disease; of the freedom, before the bondage; of the truth, before the lies; of the light, before the darkness; in one word, it tells him first of the eternal and good God, who was, and is, and shall be to all eternity, before and above the evil devil. It tells him of the name of God; and tells him that God is with him, and he with God, and bids him believe that, and be saved, from his birth-hour, to endless ages. It does not tell him to pray that he may become God's child; but to pray, because he is God's child already. It does not tell him to love God, in order that he may make God love him; but to love God because God loves him already, and has loved him from all eternity. It does not tell him to obey Jesus Christ, in order that Christ may save him; but to obey Christ because Christ has saved him, and bought him with his own blood. It does not tell him to do good works, in order that God's Spirit may be pleased with him, and come to him, and make him one of the elect; neither does it tell him, that some day or other, if he is converted, and feels certain religious experiences, he will have a right to consider himself one of God's elect: but it tells him to look man and devil in the face, he, the poor little ignorant village child, and say boldly in the name of God, 'I am one of God's elect. The Holy Spirit of God is sanctifying me, and making me holy. God has saved me; and I heartily thank my Heavenly Father, who has called me to this state of salvation.' It tells him to believe that he is safe-- safe in the ark of Christ's Church, as Noah was safe in the ark at the deluge; and that the one way to keep himself within that ark is to obey Him to whom it belongs, who judges it and will guide it for ever, Jesus Christ, the likeness of God; and that as long as he does that, neither world, flesh, nor devil, can harm him; even as Noah was safe in the ark, and nothing could drown him but his own wilful casting himself out of the ark, and trying to free the flood of waters by his own strength and cunning.

      It tells him, I say, that he is safe, and saved, even as David, and Isaiah, and all holy men who ever lived have been, as long as he trusts in God, and clings to God, and obeys God; and that only when he forsakes God, and follows his own selfishness and pride, can anything or being in earth or hell harm him.

      And do not fancy, my friends, that this is a mere unimportant question of words and doctrines, because a baptized and educated child may be lost after all, and fall from his state of salvation into a state of damnation. Still more, do not fancy that if a child is taught that he is already a child of God, regenerated in baptism, and elect by God's Spirit, that therefore he will neglect either vital faith or good works--heaven forbid!

      Is it likely to make a child careless, and inclined to neglect vital truth, to tell him that God is his Father and loves him utterly, and has given His only begotten Son to die for him? Is it not the very way, the only way, to stir up in him faith, and real hearty trust and affection towards God? How can you teach him to trust God, but by telling him that God has shown himself boundlessly and perfectly worthy to be trusted by every soul of man; or to love God, but by showing him that God loves him already? Is it likely to make a child careless of good works, to tell him that God has elected and chosen him, and all his brothers and schoolfellows, to be conformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ, and that every good, and honourable, and gentle thought or feeling which ever crosses his little heart, does not come from himself, is not part of his own nature or character, but is nothing less than the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, nothing less than the voice of Almighty God Himself, speaking to the child's heart, that he may answer with Samuel-- 'Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth?' Is it likely to make a child careless about losing eternal life, to tell him that God has already given to him eternal life, and that that life is in His Son Jesus Christ, to whom the child belongs, body, soul, and spirit?

      Judge for yourselves, my friends. Think what awe, what reverence, purity, dread of sin, would grow up in a child who was really taught all this, and yet what faith and love to God, what freedom, and joyfulness, and good courage about his own duty and calling in life.

      And then look at the fruits which in general follow a religious education, as it is miscalled; and take warning. For if you really train up your children in the way in which they should go, be sure that when they are old they will not depart from it--a promise which is not fulfilled to most religious education which we see around us now-a-days; from which sad fact, if Scripture be inspired and infallible, we can only judge that such is not the way in which the children should go; and that because it is a wrong way, therefore God will not, and man cannot, keep them in it.

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