"Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. For as many as are led by the spirit of God, they are the sons of God. For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father."--ROMANS viii. 12-15.
Let us try to understand these words. They are of quite infinite importance to us all.
We shall all agree, all of us at least who have thought at all about right and wrong, and tried to do right and avoid wrong--that there goes on in us, at times, a strange struggle. We wish to do a right thing, and at the very same time long to do a wrong one. We are pulled, as it were, two different ways by two different feelings, feel as if we were two men at once, a better man and a worse man struggling for the mastery. One may conquer, or the other. We may be like the confirmed drunkard who cannot help draining off his liquor, though he knows that it is going to kill him; or we may be like the man who conquers his love for drink, and puts the liquor away, because he knows that he ought not to take it.
We know too well, many of us, how painful this inward struggle is, between our better selves, and our worse selves. How discontented with ourselves it makes us, how ashamed of ourselves, how angry with ourselves. We all understand too well--or ought to understand, St. Paul's words: How often the good which he wished to do, he did not do, but the evil which he did not wish to do, he did. How he delighted in the law of God in his inward man; but he found another law in him, in his body, warring against the law of his mind--that is his conscience and reason, and making a slave of him till he was ready at times to cry, "Oh wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?"
We can understand too, surely the famous parable of Plato, the greatest of heathen philosophers, who says, that the soul of man is like a chariot, guided by a man's will, but drawn by two horses. The one horse he says is white, beautiful and noble, well-broken and winged, too, always trying to rise and fly upward with the chariot toward heaven. But the other horse is black, evil, and unmanageable, always trying to rush downward, and drag the chariot and the driver into hell.
Ah my friends, that is but too true a picture of most of us, and God grant that in our souls the better horse may win, that our nobler and purer desires may lift us up, and leave behind those lower and fouler desires which try to drag us down. But to drag us down whither? To hell at last, says Plato the heathen. To destruction and death in the meanwhile, says St. Paul.
Now in the text St. Paul explains this struggle--this continual war which goes on within us. He says that there are two parts in us--the flesh and the spirit--and that the flesh lusts, that is, longs and struggles to have its own way against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh. First, there is a flesh in us--that is, a carnal animal nature. Of that there can be no doubt: we are animals, we come into the world as animals do--eat, drink, sleep as they do--have the same passions as they have--and our carnal mortal bodies die at last, exactly as the animals die.
But are we nothing more? God forbid. St. Paul tells us that we are something more--and our own conscience and reason tell us that we are something more. We know that to be a man, we must be something more than an animal--a mere brute--for when we call any one a brute, what do we mean? That he has lost his humanity, his sense of justice, mercy, and decency, and given himself up to his flesh--his animal nature, till the man in him is dead, and only the brute remains. Mind, I do not say that we are right in calling any human being a brute, for no one, I believe, is sunk so low, but there is some spark of humanity, some spark of what St. Paul calls "the spirit," left in him, which may be fanned into a flame and conquer, and raise and save the man at last--unless he be a mere idiot--or that most unhappy and brutal of all beings, a confirmed drunkard.
But our giving way to the same selfish shameless passions, which we see in the lower animals, is letting the "brute" in us conquer, is giving way to the works of the flesh. The shameless and profligate person gives way to the "brute" within him--the man who beats his wife--or ill-treats his children--or in any wise tyrannises over those who are weaker than himself, he too gives way to the "brute" within him. He who grudges, envies, tries to aggrandise himself at his neighbour's expense--he too gives way to the "brute" within him, and puts on the likeness of the dog which snatches and snarls over his bone. He who spends his life in cunning plots and mean tricks, stealthy, crafty, silent, false, he gives way to the "brute" in him, just as much as the fox or ferret. And those, let me say, who without giving way to those grosser vices, let their minds be swallowed up with vanity, love of admiration, always longing to be seen and looked at, and wondering what folks will say of them, they too give way to the flesh, and lower themselves to the likeness of animals. As vain as a peacock, says the old proverb. And shame it is to any human being so far to forget his true humanity, as to have that said of him. And what shall we say of them who like the swine live only for eating and drinking, and enjoyment? Or what of those who like the butterflies spend all their time in frivolous amusement, fluttering in the sunshine, silly and helpless, without a sense of duty or usefulness, without forethought for the coming frosts of winter, against which their gay feathers would be no protection? Do not all these in some way or other give way to the animal within them, and live after the flesh? And do they not, all of them, of the flesh, reap corruption, and fulfil St. Paul's words, "If ye live after the flesh ye shall die?"
But some one will say--"Die?--of course we shall all die--good and bad alike." Is it so, my friends? Then why does our Lord say, "He that liveth and believeth in me shall never die?" And why does St. Paul say, "If ye through the spirit do mortify," that is crush, and as it were kill, "the deeds of the body," all those low animal passions and vices, "ye shall live."
Let us look at the text again. "If ye live after the flesh ye shall die." If you give way to those animal passions and vices--low and cruel--or even merely selfish and frivolous, you shall die; not merely your bodies--they will die in any case--the animals do--for animals they are, and as animals die they must. But over and above that--you yourselves shall die--your character will die, your manhood or your womanhood will die, your immortal soul will die. The likeness of God in you will die. Oh, my friends, there is a second death to which that first death of the body is a mere trivial and harmless accident--the death of sin which kills the true man and true woman within you. And that second death may begin in this life, and if it be not stopped and cured in time, may go on for ever. The black horse of which I spoke just now, may get the mastery and drag us down, down, into bogs out of which we can never rise--over cliffs which we can never climb again--down lower and lower--more and more foolish, more and more reckless, more and more base, more and more wretched. And then there will be no more use in saying, "The Lord have mercy on my soul," for we shall have no soul left to have mercy on.
This is the dark side of the matter--a very dark one: but it has to be spoken of, because it is true; and what is more, it comes true only too often in this world. God grant, my dear friends, that it may not come true of any of you.
But there is also a bright side to the matter--and on that I will speak now, in order that this sermon may end, as such gospel sermons surely should end, not with threats and fear, but with hope and comfort.
"If ye through the spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live." If you will be true to your better selves, if you will listen to, and obey the spirit of God, when He puts into your hearts good desires, and makes you long to be just and true, pure and sober, kind and useful. If you will cast away and trample under foot animal passions, low vices, you shall live. You shall live. Your very soul and self shall live, and live for ever. Your humanity, your human nature shall live. All that is humane in you shall live. All that is merciful and kind in you, all that is pure and graceful, all that is noble and generous, all that is useful. All in you that is pleasant to yourselves shall live. All in you that is pleasant to your neighbours. All in you that is pleasant to God shall live. In one word, all in you that is like Christ--all in you that is like God--all in you that is spirit and not flesh, shall live, and live for ever. So it must be, for what says St. Paul? "As many as are led by the spirit of God, they are the sons of God." Those who let the spirit of God lead them upward instead of letting their own animal nature drag them downward, they are the sons of God. And how can a son of God perish? How can that which is like God and like Christ perish? How can he perish, who like Christ is full of the fruits of the spirit? of love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance? The world did not give them to him, and the world cannot take them from him. They were not bestowed on him at his bodily birth--neither shall they be taken from him at his bodily death--for those blessed fruits of the spirit belong neither to the flesh nor to the world, but to Christ's spirit, and to heaven--to that heaven in which they dwell before the throne of God--yea, rather in the mind of God Himself, the eternal forms of the truth, the beauty, the goodness--which were before all worlds--and shall be after all worlds have passed away.
Oh! choose my friends, especially you who are young and entering into life. Remember the parable of the old heathen, about the two horses who draw your soul. Choose in time whether the better horse shall win, or the worse; whether your better self, or your worse, the Spirit of God or your own flesh, shall be your master--whether you will rise step by step to heaven, or sink step by step to death and hell? And let no one tell you. That is not the question. That is not what we care about. We know we shall do a great many wrong things before we die. Every one does that; but we hope we shall be able to make our peace with God before we die, and so be forgiven at last.
My dear friends, that kind of religion has done more harm than most kinds of irreligion. It tells you to take your chance of beginning at the end--that is just before you die. Common sense tells you that the only way to get to the end, is by beginning at the beginning, which is now. Now is the accepted time. Now is the day of salvation, and you are accepted now, already, long ago.
What do you or any man want with making your peace with God? You are at peace with God already. He has made His peace with you. An infinitely better peace than any priest or preacher can make for you. You are God's child. He looks down on you with boundless love. The great heart of Christ, your King, your Redeemer, your elder brother, yearns over you with boundless longing to draw you up to Him, that you may be noble as He is noble, pure as He is pure, loving as He is loving, just as He is just. Try to be that. God will at the last day take you as He finds you. Let Him find you such as that--walking not after the flesh, but after the Spirit; and then, and then only, there will be no condemnation for you, for you will be in Christ Jesus. Do not--do not talk about making your peace with God some day--like a naughty child playing truant till the last moment, and hoping that the schoolmaster may forget to punish it. No, I trust you have received the Spirit. If you have, then look facts in the face. I trust that none of you have received the Spirit of bondage, which is slavery again unto fear. If you have God's Spirit you will see who you are, and where you are, and act accordingly--you will see that you are God's children, who are meant to be educated by the Son of God, and led by the Spirit of God, and raised day by day, year by year, from the death of sin, to the life of righteousness, from the likeness of the brute animal, to the likeness of Christ, the Son of Man!