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Sermons for the Times, 7 - DUTY AND SUPERSTITION

By Charles Kingsley


      Micah vi. 6-8. Wherewith shall I come before the Lord and bow myself before the most High God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings? . . . Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams? . . . Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression; the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

      He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?

      There are many now-a-days who complain of that part of the Church Catechism which speaks of our duty to God and to our neighbour; and many more, I fear, who shrink from complaining of the Church Catechism, because it is part of the Prayer-book, yet wish in their secret hearts that it had said something different about Duty.

      Some wonder why it does not say more about what are called 'religious duties,' and 'acts of worship,' 'mortification,' 'penitence,' and 'good works.' Others wonder no less why it says nothing about what are called 'Christian frames and feelings,' and 'inward experiences.'

      For there is a notion abroad in the world, as there is in all evil times, that a man's chief duty is to save his own soul after he is dead; that his business in this world is merely to see how he can get out of it again, without suffering endless torture after his body dies. This is called superstition: anxiety about what will happen to us after we die.

      Now if you look at the greater number of religious books, whether Popish or Protestant, you will find that in practice the main thing, almost the one thing, which they are meant to do, is to show the reader how he may escape Hell-torments, and reach Heaven's pleasures after he dies: not how he may do his Duty to God and his neighbour. They speak of that latter, of course: they could not be Christian books at all, thank God, without doing so; but they seem to me to tell men to do their Duty, not simply because it is right, and a blessing in itself, and worth doing for its own sake, but because a man may gain something by it after he dies. Therefore, to help their readers to gain as much as possible after they die, they are not content with the plain Duty laid down in the Bible and in the Catechism, but require of men new duties over and above; which may be all very good if they help men to do their real Duty, but are simply worth nothing if they do not.

      Let me explain myself. I said just now that superstition means anxiety about what will happen to us after we die. But people commonly understand by superstition, religious ceremonies, like the Popish ones, which God has not commanded. And that is not a wrong meaning either; for people take to these ceremonies from over- anxiety about the next life. The one springs out of the other; the outward conduct out of the inward fear; and both spring alike out of a false notion of God, which the Devil (whose great aim is to hinder us from knowing our Father in Heaven) puts into men's minds. Man feels that he is sinful and unrighteous; the light of Christ in his heart shows him that, and it shows him at the same time that God is sinless and righteous. 'Then,' he says, 'God must hate sin;' and there he says true. Then steps in the slanderer, Satan, and whispers, 'But you are sinful; therefore God hates you, and wills you harm, and torture, and ruin.' And the poor man believes that lying voice, and will believe it to the end, whether he be Christian or heathen, until he believes the Bible and the Sacraments, which tell him, 'God does not hate you: He hates your sins, and loves you; He wills not your misery but your happiness; and therefore God's will, yea, God's earnest endeavour, is to raise you out of those sins of yours, which make you miserable now, and which, if you go on in them, must bring of themselves everlasting misery to you.' Of themselves; not by any arbitrary decree of God (whereof the Bible says not one single word from beginning to end), that He will inflict on you so much pain for so much sin: but by the very nature of sin; for to sin is to be parted from God, in whose presence alone is life, and therefore sin is, to be in death. Sin is, to be at war with God, who is love and peace; and therefore to be in lovelessness, hatred, war, and misery. Sin is, to act contrary to the constitution which God gave man, when He said, 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness;' and therefore sin is a disease in human nature, and like all other diseases, must, unless it is checked, go on everlastingly and perpetually breeding weakness, pain and torment. And out of that God is so desirous to raise you, that He spared not His only begotten Son, but freely gave Him for you, if by any means He might raise you out of that death of sin to the life of righteousness--to a righteous life; to a life of Duty--to a dutiful life, like His Son Jesus Christ's life; for that must go on, if you go on in it, producing in you everlastingly and perpetually all health and strength, usefulness and happiness in this world and all worlds to come.

      But men will not hear that voice. The fact is, that simply to do right is too difficult for them, and too humbling also. They are too proud to like being righteous only with Christ's righteousness, and too slothful also; and so they go about like the old Pharisees, to establish a righteousness of their own; one which will pamper their self-conceit by seeming very strange, and farfetched, and difficult, so as to enable them to thank God every day that they are not as other men are; and yet one which shall really not be as difficult as the plain homely work of being good sons, good fathers, good husbands, good masters, good servants, good subjects, good rulers. And so they go about to establish a righteousness of their own (which can be no righteousness at all, for God's righteousness is the only righteousness, and Christ's righteousness is the only pattern of it), and teach men that God does not merely require of men to do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with their God, but requires of them something more. But by this they deny the righteousness of God; for they make out that he has not behaved righteously and justly to men, nor showed them what is good, but has left them to find it out or invent it for themselves. For is it not establishing a righteousness of one's own, to tell people that God only requires these Ten Commandments of Christians in general, but that if any one chooses to go further, and do certain things which are not contained in the Ten Commandments, 'counsels of perfection,' as they are called, and 'good works' (as if there were no other good works in the world), and so do more than it is one's duty to do, and lead a sort of life which is called (I know not why) 'saintly' and 'angelic,' then one will obtain a 'peculiar crown,' and a higher place in Heaven than poor commonplace Christian people, who only do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with their God?

      And is it not, on the other hand, establishing a righteousness of one's own, to say that God requires of us belief in certain doctrines about election, and 'forensic justification,' and 'sensible conversion,' and certain 'frames and feelings and experiences;' and that without all these a man has no right to expect anything but endless torture; and all the while to say little or nothing about God's requiring of men the Ten Commandments? For my part, I am equally shocked and astonished at the doctrine which I have heard round us here--openly from some few, and in practice from more than a few--that because the Ten Commandments are part of the Law, they are done away with, because we are not now under the Law but under Grace. What do they mean? Is it not written, that not one jot or tittle of the Law shall fail; and that Christ came, not to destroy the Law, but to fulfil it? What do they mean? That it was harm to break the Ten Commandments before Christ came, but no harm to break them now? Do they mean that Jews were forbid to murder, steal, and commit adultery, but that Christians are not forbidden? One thing I am afraid they do mean, for I see them act up to it steadily enough. That Jews were forbidden to covet, but that Christians are not; that Jews might not commit fornication, but Christians may; that Jews might not lie, but Christians may; that Jews might not use false weights and measures, or adulterate goods for sale, but that Christians may. My friends, if I am asked the reason of the hypocrisy which seems the besetting sin of England, in this day;--if I am asked why rich men, even high religious professors, dare speak untruths at public meetings, bribe at elections, and go into parliament each man with a lie in his right hand, to serve neither God nor his country, but his political party and his religious sect, by conduct which he would be ashamed to employ in private life;--if I am asked why the middle classes (and the high religious professors among them, just as much as any) are given over to cheating, coveting, puffing their own goods by shameless and unmanly boasting, undermining each other by the dirtiest means, while the sons of religious professors, both among the higher and the middle classes, seem just as liable as any other young men to fall into unmanly profligacy;--if I am asked why the poor profess God's gospel and practise the Devil's works; and why, in this very parish now, there are women who, while they are drunkards, swearers, and adulteresses, will run anywhere to hear a sermon, and like nothing better, saving sin, than high-flown religious books;--if I am asked, I say, why the old English honesty which used to be our glory and our strength, has decayed so much of late years, and a hideous and shameful hypocrisy has taken the place of it, I can only answer by pointing to the good old Church Catechism, and what it says about our duty to God and to our neighbour, and declaring boldly, 'It is because you have forgotten that. Because you have despised that. Because you have fancied that it was beneath you to keep God's plain human commandments. You have been wanting to "save your souls," while you did not care whether your souls were saved alive, or whether they were dead, and rotten, and damned within you; you have dreamed that you could be what you called "spiritual," while you were the slaves of sin; you have dreamed that you could become what you call "saints," while you were not yet even decent men and women.'

      And so all this superstition has had the same effect as the false preaching in Ezekiel's time had. It has strengthened the hands of the wicked, that he should not turn from his wicked way, by promising him life; and it has made the heart of the righteous sad, whom God has not made sad. Plain, respectable, God-fearing men and women, who have wished simply to do their duty where God has put them, have been told that they are still unconverted, still carnal-- that they have no share in Christ--that God's Spirit is not with them--that they are in the way to endless torture: till they have been ready one minute to say, 'Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die'--'Surely I have cleansed my hands in vain, and washed my heart in innocency;' and the next minute to say, with Job, angrily, 'Though I die, thou shalt not take my righteousness from me! You preachers may call me what names you will; but I know that I love what is right, and wish to do my duty;' and so they have been made perplexed and unhappy, one day fancying themselves worse than they really were, and the next fancying themselves better than they really were; and by both tempers of mind tempted to disbelieve God's Gospel, and throw away the thought of vital religion in disgust.

      And now people are raising the cry that Popery is about to overrun England. It may be so, my friends. If it is so, I cannot wonder at it; if it is so, Englishmen have no one to blame but themselves. And whether Popery conquers us or not, some other base superstition surely will conquer us if we go on upon our present course, and set up any new-fangled, self-invented righteousness of our own, instead of the plain Ten Commandments of God. For I tell you plainly they are God's everlasting law, the very law of liberty, wherewith Christ has made us free; and only by fulfilling them, as Christ did, can we be free--free from sin, the world, the flesh, and the Devil. For to break them is to sin: and whosoever commits sin is the slave of sin; and whosoever despises these commandments will never enjoy that freedom, but be entangled again in the yoke of bondage, and become a slave, if not to open and profligate sins, still surely to an evil and tormenting conscience, to superstitious anxieties as to whether he shall be saved or damned, which make him at last ask, 'Wherewithal shall I come before the Lord? Will the Lord be pleased with this, that and the other fantastical action, or great sacrifice of mine?' or at last, perhaps, the old question, 'Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? Shall I cheat my own family, leave my property away from my children, desert them to shut myself up in a convent, or to attempt some great religious enterprise?'--Things which have happened a thousand times already, and worse, far worse, than them; things which will happen again, and worse, far worse than them, as soon as a hypocritical generation is seized with that dread and terror of God which is sure to arise in the hearts of men who try to invent a righteousness of their own, and who forget what God's righteousness is like, and who therefore forget what God is like, and who therefore forget what God's name is, and who therefore forget that Jesus Christ is God's likeness, and that the name of God is 'Love.'

      Now, I say that the Church Catechism, from beginning to end, is the cure for this poison, and in no part more than where it tells us our duty to God and our neighbour; and that it does carry out the meaning of the text as no other writing does, which I know of, save the Bible only.

      For what says the text?

      'He hath showed thee, O man, what is good.'

      Who has showed thee? Who but this very God, from whom thou art shrinking; to whom thou art looking up in terror, as at a hard taskmaster, reaping where He has not sown, who willeth the death of a sinner, and his endless and unspeakable torment? The very God whom thou dreadest has stooped to save and teach thee. He hath sent His only begotten Son to thee, to show thee, in the person of a man, Jesus Christ, what a perfect man is, and what He requires of thee to be. This Lord Jesus is with thee, to teach thee to live by faith in thy heavenly Father, even as He lived, and to be justified thereby, even as He was justified by being declared to be God's well-beloved Son, and by being raised from the dead. He will show thee what is good; He has shown thee what is good, when He showed thee His own blessed self, His story and character written in the four Gospels. This is thy God, and this is thy Lord and Master; not a silent God, not a careless God, but a revealer of secrets, a teacher, a guide, a 'most merciful God, who showeth to man the thing which he knew not;' that same Word of God who talked with Adam in the garden, and brought his wife to him; who called Abraham, and gave him a child; who sent Moses to make a nation of the Jews; who is the King of all the nations upon earth, and has appointed them their times and the bounds of their habitation, if haply they may feel after Him and find Him; who meanwhile is not far from any one of them, seeing that in Him they live, and move, and have their being, and are His offspring; who has not left Himself without witness, that they may know that He is one who loves, not one who hates, one who gives, not one who takes, one who has pity, not one who destroys, in that He gives them rain and fruitful seasons, filling their hearts with food and gladness. This is thy God, O man! from whose face thou desirest to flee away.

      Next, 'He hath showed thee, O man.' Not merely, 'He hath showed thee, O deep philosopher, or brilliant genius;'--not merely, 'He hath showed thee, O eminent saint, or believer who hast been through many deep experiences:' but, 'He hath showed thee, O man.' Whosoever thou art, if thou be a man, subsisting like Jesus Christ the Son of Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh; thou labourer at the plough, tradesman in thy shop, soldier in the battle-field, poor woman working in thy cottage, God hath showed thee, and thee, and thee, what is good, as surely and fully as He has shown it to scholars and divines, to kings and rulers, and the wise and prudent of the earth.

      And He hath showed thee; not you. Not merely to the whole of you together; not merely to some of you so that one will have to tell the other, and the greater part know only at second-hand and by hearsay: but He hath showed to thee, to each of you; to each man, woman, and child, in this Church, alone, privately, in the depths of thy own heart, He hath showed what is good. He hath sent into thine heart a ray of The Light who lighteth every man who comes into the world. He has given to thy soul an eye by which to see that Light, a conscience which can receive what is good, and shrink from what is evil; a spiritual sense, whereby thou canst discern good and evil. That conscience, that soul's eye of thine, God has regenerated, as He declares to thee in baptism, and He will day by day make it clearer and tenderer by the quickening power of His Holy Spirit; and that Spirit will renew Himself in thee day by day, if thou askest Him, and will quicken and soften thy soul more and more to love what is good, and strengthen it more and more to hate and fly from what is evil.

      Next, 'He hath showed thee, O man, what is GOOD.' Not merely what will turn away God's punishments, and buy God's rewards; not merely what will be good for thee after thou diest: but what is good, good in itself, good for thee now, and good for thee for ever; good for thee in health and sickness, joy and sorrow, life and death; good for thee through all worlds, present and to come; yea, what would be good for thee in hell, if thou couldst be in hell and yet be good. Not what is good enough for thy neighbours and not good enough for thee, good enough for sinners and not good enough for saints, good enough for stupid persons and not good enough for clever ones; but what is good in itself and of itself. The one very eternal and absolute Good which was with God, and in God, and from God, before all worlds, and will be for ever, without changing or growing less or greater, eternally The Same Good. The Good which would be just as good, and just, and right, and lovely, and glorious, if there were no world, no men, no angels, no heaven, no hell, and God were alone in his own abyss. That very good which is the exact pattern of His Son Jesus Christ, in whose likeness man was made at the beginning, God hath showed thee, O man; and hath told thee that it is neither more nor less than thy Duty, thy Duty as a man; that thy duty is thy good, the good out of which, if thou doest it, all good things such as thou canst not now conceive to thyself, must necessarily spring up for thee for ever; but which if thou neglectest, thou wilt be in danger of getting no good things whatsoever, and of having all evil things, mishap, shame, and misery such as thou canst not now conceive of, spring up for thee necessarily for ever.

      This seems to me the plain meaning of the text, interpreted by the plain teaching of the rest of Scripture. Now see how the Catechism agrees with this.

      It takes for granted that God has showed the child what is good: that God's Spirit is sanctifying and making good, not only all the elect people of God, but him, that one particular child; and it makes the child say so. Therefore, when it asks him, 'What is thy duty to God and to thy neighbour?' it asks him, 'My child, thou sayest that God's Spirit is with thee, sanctifying thee and showing thee what is good, tell me, therefore, what good the Holy Spirit has showed thee?--tell me what He has showed thee to be good, and therefore thy duty?'

      But some may answer, 'How can you say that the Holy Spirit teaches the children their Duty, when it is their schoolmaster, or their father, who teaches them the Ten Commandments and the Catechism?'

      My friends, we may teach our children the Ten Commandments, or anything else we like, but we cannot teach them that that is their duty. They must first know what Duty means at all, before they can learn that any particular things are parts of their Duty. And, believe me, neither you nor I, nor all the men in the world put together, no, nor angel, nor archangel, nor any created being, nor the whole universe, can teach one child, no, nor our own selves, the meaning of that plain word DUTY, nor the meaning of those two plain words, I OUGHT. No; that simple thought, that thought which every one of us, even the most stupid, even the most sinful has more or less, comes straight to him from God the Father of Lights, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit of God, the Spirit of Duty, Faith, and Obedience.

      For mind--when you teach a child, 'If you do this wrong thing-- stealing, for instance--God will punish you: but if you are honest, God will reward you,' you are not teaching the child that it is his Duty to be honest, and his Duty not to steal. You are teaching him what is quite right and true; namely, that it is profitable for him to be honest, and hurtful to him to steal: but you are not teaching him as high a spiritual lesson as any soldier knows when he rushes upon certain death, knowing that he shall gain nothing, and may lose everything thereby, but simply because it is his Duty. You are only enticing your child to do right, and frightening him from doing wrong; quite necessary and good to be done: but if he is to be spiritually honest, honest at heart, honest from a sense of honour, and not of fear; in one word, if he is to be really honest at all, or even to try to be really honest, something must be done to that child's heart which nothing but the Spirit of God can do; he must be taught that it is his DUTY to be honest; that honesty is RIGHT, the perfectly right, and proper, and beautiful thing for him and for all beings, yea, for God Himself; he must be taught to love honesty, and whatsoever else is right, for its own sake, and therefore to feel it his Duty.

      And I say that God does that by your children. I say that we cannot watch our children without seeing that, though there is in them, as in us, a corrupt and wilful flesh, which tempts them downward to selfish and self-willed pleasures: yet there is in them generally, more than in us their parents, a Spirit which makes them love and admire what is right, and take pleasure in it, and feel that it is good to be good, and right to do right; which makes them delight in reading and hearing of loving, and right, and noble actions; which makes them shocked, they hardly know why, at bad words, and bad conduct, and bad people. And woe to those who deaden that tenderness of conscience in their own children, by their bad examples, or by false doctrines which tell the children that they are still unregenerate, children of the Devil, not yet Christians; and who so put a stumbling-block in the way of Christ's little ones, and do despite to the Spirit of Grace by which they are sealed to the day of redemption. I see parents thinking that their children are to learn the deceitfulness of the human heart from themselves, and the working of God's Spirit from their parents; but I often think that the teachers ought to be converted indeed, that is, turned right round and become the learners instead of the teachers, and learn the workings of God's Spirit from their children, and the deceitfulness of the human heart from themselves; if at least the Lord Jesus's words have any real force or meaning at all, when He said, not, 'Except the little children be converted, and become as you,' but, 'Except ye be converted, and become as one of these little children, ye' (and not they) 'shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven.'

      Believe me, my friends, that your children's angels do indeed behold the face of their Father which is in heaven; that there is a direct communication between Him and them; and that the sign and proof of it is, the way in which they understand at once what you tell them of their duty, and take to it, as it were, only too readily and hopefully, and confidently, as if it were a thing natural and easy to them. Alas! it is neither natural nor easy, and they will find out that too soon by sad experience: but still, the Divine Light is there, the sense of duty is in their minds, and the law of God is written in their hearts by the Holy Spirit of God, who is sanctifying them, not merely by teaching them to hope for heaven, or to dread hell, but by showing them what is good.

      And herein, I say, the simple and noble old Church Catechism, by faith in God's Spirit, does indeed perfect praise out of the mouths of babes. Without one word about rewards or punishments, heaven or hell, it begins to talk to the child, like a true English Catechism as it is, about that glorious old English key word, DUTY. It calls on the child to confess its own duty, and teaches it that its duty is something most human, simple, everyday, commonplace, if you will call it so. I rejoice that it is commonplace; I rejoice that in what it says about our duty to God, and to our neighbour, it says not one word about those counsels of perfection, or those frames and feelings, which depend, believe me, principally on the state of people's bodily health, on the constitution of their nerves, and the temper of their brain: but that it requires nothing except what a little child can do as well as a grown person, a labouring man as well as a divine, a plain farmer as well as the most refined, devout, imaginative lady. May God bless them all; may God help them all to do their Duty in that station of life to which it has pleased God to call them; but may God grant to them never to forget that there is but one Duty for all, and that all of them can do that Duty equally well, whatever their constitution, or scholarship, or station of life may be, provided they will but remember that God has called them to that station, and not try to invent some new and finer one for themselves; provided they remember that they are to do in that station neither more nor less than every one else is to do in theirs, namely, to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with their God.

      In a word, to be perfect, even as their Father in heaven is perfect. To do justly, because God is just, faithful, and true, rewarding every man according to his works, and no partial accepter of persons; so that in every nation he that feareth God and worketh righteousness is accepted by Him.

      To love mercy, because God loves mercy; to be merciful, because our Father in heaven is merciful; because He willeth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he should turn from his wickedness and live; because God came to seek and to save that which is lost, and is good to the unthankful and the evil; and because God so loved sinful man, that when man hated God, God's answer to man's hate, God's vengeance upon man's rebellion, was, to send His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believed in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

      And to walk humbly with your God, because--and what shall I say now? Does God walk humbly? Can there be humility in God? Can God obey? And yet it must be so. If, as is most certain from Holy Scripture, man, as far as he is what man ought to be, is the image and glory of God; if man's justice ought to be a copy of God's justice, and man's mercy a copy of God's mercy, and all which is good in man a copy of something good in God: if, as is most certain, all good on earth is God's likeness, and only good because it is God's likeness, and is given by God's Spirit,--then our walking humbly with God, if it be good, must be a copy of something in God. But of what?

      That, my friends, is a question which can never be answered but by those who believe in the mystery of the ever-blessed Trinity, The Father, The Son, and The Holy Ghost. It is too solemn and great a matter to be spoken of hastily at the end of a sermon. I will tell you what little I seem to see of it next Sunday, with awe and trembling, as one who enters upon holy ground. But this I will tell you, to bear in mind meanwhile, that if you wish to know or to do what is right, you must firmly believe and bear in mind this,--that God's justice is exactly like what would be just in you and me, without any difference whatsoever: that God's mercy is exactly like what would be merciful in you and me; and that, as I hope to show you next Sunday, God's humility, wonderful as it may seem, is exactly like what would be humble in you and me. For I warn you, that if you do not believe this, you will be tempted to forget God's righteousness, and to invent a righteousness of your own, which is no righteousness at all, but unrighteousness. For there can be but one righteousness--mind what I say--only one righteousness, as there can be only one truth, and only one reason. Forget that, and you will be tempted to invent for yourselves a false justice, which is dishonest and partial; a false mercy, which is cruel; a false humility, which is vain and self-conceited; and you will be tempted also, as men of all religions and denominations have been, to impute to God actions, and thoughts, and tempers, which are (as your own consciences, if you would listen to God's Word in them, would tell you) unjust, cruel, and proud; and then you will be tempted to say that things are justifiable in God, which you would not excuse in any other being, by saying: 'Of course it must be right in Him, because He is God, and can do what He will.' As if the Judge of all the earth would not do Right; as if He could be anything, or could do anything, but the Eternal Good which is His very being and essence, and which He has shown forth in His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who went about doing good because God was with Him. We all know what the good which He did was like. Let us believe that God the Father's goodness is the same as Jesus Christ's goodness. Let us believe really what we say when we confess that Jesus was the brightness of His Father's Glory, and the express image of His Person.

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