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Vol. 1, Sermon 4 - Christian Progress by Oblivion of the Past

By Frederick W. Robertson


      Preached August 12, 1849

      "Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do; forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press towards the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus." - Phil. 3:13,14

      The first thing which strikes us on reading these verses is, that the Apostle Paul places himself on a level with the persons whom he addresses. He speaks to them as frail, weak men, and he gives them in himself a specimen of what frailty and weakness can achieve in the strength of Christ. And it is for this reason that the passage before us is one of the most encouraging in all the writings of St. Paul. For there is one aspect in which the apostle is presented to us, which is perhaps a depressing one. When we look at his almost superhuman career, reverence and admiration we must feel; but so far does he seem removed from ordinary life that imitation appears out of the question. Let us select but two instances of this discouraging aspect of the apostle's life. Most of us know the feeling of unaccountable depression which rests upon us when we find ourselves alone in a foreign town, with its tide of population ebbing and flowing past us, a mass of human life, in which we ourselves are nothing. But that was St. Paul's daily existence. He had consecrated himself to an almost perpetual exile. He had given up the endearments of domestic life forever. Home, in this world, St. Paul had none. With a capacity for the tenderest feelings of our nature, he had chosen for his lot the task of living among strangers, and as soon as they ceased to be strangers, quitting them again. He went on month by month, attaching congregations to himself, and month by month dooming himself to severance. And yet I know not that we read of one single trace of depression or discouragement suffered to rest on the apostle's mind. He seems to have been ever fresh and sanguine, the salient energy of his soul rising above the need of all human sympathy. It is the magnificent spectacle of missionary life, with more than missionary loneliness. There is something almost awful in the thought of a man who was so thoroughly in the next world that he needed not the consolations of this world. And yet, observe, there is nothing encouraging for us in this. It is very grand to look upon, very commanding, very full of awe; but it is so much above us, so little like any thing human that we know of, that we content ourselves with gazing on him as on the gliding swallow's flight, which we wonder at, but never think of imitating.

      Now let us look at one other feature in St. Paul's character - his superiority to those temptations which are potent with ordinary men. We say nothing of his being above the love of money, of his indifference to a life of comfort and personal indulgence. Those temptations only assail the lower part of our nature, and it is not saintliness to be above these: common excellence is impossible otherwise. But when we come to look for those temptations which master the higher and the nobler man - ambition, jealousy, pride - it is not that we see them conquered by the apostle; they scarcely seem to have even lodged in his bosom at all. It was open to the apostle, if he had felt the ambition, to make for himself a name, to become the leader of a party in Corinth and in the world. And yet remember we not how sternly he put down the thought, and how he labored to merge his individuality in the cause, and make himself an equal of inferior men? "Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers, servants, by whom ye believed?"

      Again, in respect of jealousy. Jealousy seems almost inseparable from human love. It is but the other side of love, the shadow cast by the light when the darker body intervenes. There came to him in prison that most cutting of all news to a minister's heart, that others were trying to supplant him in the affections of his converts. But his was that lofty love which cares less for reciprocation than for the well-being of the objects loved. The rival teachers were teaching from emulation; still they could not but bless by preaching Christ to his disciples. "What then? Notwithstanding every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice." There is not a trace of jealousy in these words.

      Once more: Degrading things were laid to his charge. The most liberal-minded of mankind was charged with bigotry. The most generous of men was suspected of avarice. If ever pride were venial, it had been then. Yet read through the whole of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, and say if one spark of pride be visible. He might have shut himself up in high and dignified silence. He might have refused to condescend to solicit a renewal of the love which had once grown cold; and yet we look in vain for the symptoms of offended pride. Take this one passage as a specimen: Behold, this third time I am willing to come unto you; ... and I will very gladly spend and be spent for you, though the more abundantly I love you, the less I am beloved.

      In this there is very little encouragement. A man so thoroughly above human resentment, human passions, human weakness, does not seem to us an example. The nearer Humanity approaches a perfect standard, the less does it command our sympathy. A man must be weak before we can feel encouraged to attempt what he has done. It is not the Redeemer's sinlessness, nor His unconquerable fidelity to duty nor His superhuman nobleness, that win our desire to imitate. Rather His tears at the grave of friendship, His shrinking from the sharpness of death, and the feeling of human doubt which swept across His soul like a desolation, These make Him one of us, and therefore our example.

      And it is on this account that this passage seems to us so full of encouragement. It is the precious picture of a frail and struggling apostle - precious both to the man and to the minister. To the man, because it tells him that what he feels St. Paul felt, imperfect, feeble, far from what he would wish to be; yet with sanguine hope, expecting progress in the saintly life. Precious to the minister, because it tells him that his very weakness may be subservient to a people's strength. Not in his transcendent gifts-not in his saintly endowments-not even in his apostolic devotedness, is St. Paul so close to our hearts, as when he makes himself one with us, and says, "Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended."

      And we know not how otherwise any minister could hope to do good when be addresses men who are infinitely his superiors in almost every thing. We know not how else he could urge on to a sanctity which he has not himself attained: we know not how he could dare to speak severely of weaknesses by which he himself is overpowered, and passions of which he feels in himself all the terrible tyranny, if it were not that he expects to have tacitly understood that in his own case which the apostle urged in every form of expression: Brethren, be as I am, for I am as ye are - struggling, baffled, but panting for emancipation.

      We confine ourselves to two subjects:

      I. The apostle's object in this life.

      II. The means which he used for attaining it.

      I. The apostle's object or aim in this life was "perfection." In the verse before - " Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect." - Perfection was his unreached mark.

      And less than this no Christian can aim at. There are given to us "exceeding great and precious promises," that by means of these we might be partakers of the Divine Nature. Not merely to be equal to the standard of our day, nor even to surpass it. Not to be superior to the men amongst whom we live. Not to forgive those who have little to be forgiven. Not to love our friends, but to be the children of our Father - to be pure even as Christ is pure - to be "perfect even as our Father which is in heaven is perfect."

      It is easily perceivable why this perfection is unattainable in this life. Faultlessness is conceivable, being merely the negation of evil. But perfection is positive, the attainment of all conceivable excellence. It is long as eternity - expansive as God. Perfection is our mark: yet never will the aim be so true and steady as to strike the golden centre. Perfection of character, yet, even to the dying hour, it will be but this, "I count not myself to have apprehended." Christian life is like those questions in mathematics which never can be exactly answered. All you can attain is an approximation to the truth. You may labor on for years and never reach it; yet your labor is not in vain. Every figure you add makes the fraction nearer than the last to the million - millionth; and so it is with holiness. Christ is our mark - the perfect standard of God in Christ. But be as holy as you will, there is a step nearer, and another, and another, and so infinitely on.

      To this object the apostle gave himself with singleness of aim. "This one thing I do." The life of man is a vagrant, changeful desultoriness; like that of children sporting on an enamelled meadow, chasing now a painted butterfly, which loses its charm by being caught - now a wreath of mist, which falls damp upon the hand with disappointment - now a feather of thistle-down, which is crushed in the grasp. In the midst of all this fickleness, St. Paul had found a purpose to which he gave the undivided energy of his soul. "This one thing I do - I press towards the mark."

      This is intelligible enough in the case of a minister; for whether he be in the pulpit or beside a sick man's bed - or furnishing his mind in the study, evidently and unmistakably it is his profession to be doing only one thing. But in the manifold life of the man of the world and business, it is not so easy to understand how this can be carried out. To answer this, we observe there is a difference between doing and being. Perfection is being, not doing; it is not to effect an act, but to achieve a character. If the aim of life were to do something, then, as in an earthly business, except in doing this one thing the business would be at a stand-still. The student is not doing the one thing of student life when he has ceased to think or read. The laborer leaves his work undone when the spade is not in his hand, and he sits beneath the hedge to rest. But in Christian life, every moment and every act is an opportunity for doing the one thing, of becoming Christ-like. Every day is full of a most impressive experience. Every temptation to evil temper which can assail us to-day will be an opportunity to decide the question whether we shall gain the calmness and the rest of Christ, or whether we shall be tossed by the restlessness and agitation of the world. Nay, the very vicissitudes of the seasons, day and night, heat and cold, affecting us variably, and producing exhilaration or depression, are so contrived as to conduce towards the being which we become, and decide whether we shall be masters of ourselves, or whether we shall be swept at the mercy of accident and circumstance, miserably susceptible of merely outward influences. Infinite as are the varieties of life, so manifold are the paths to saintly character; and he who has not found out how directly or indirectly to make every thing converge towards his soul's sanctification has as yet missed the meaning of this life.

      In pressing towards this "mark," the apostle attained a prize; and here I offer an observation, which is not one of mere subtlety of refinement, but deeply practical. The mark was perfection of character, the prize was blessedness. But the apostle did not aim at the prize of blessedness, he aimed at the mark of perfectness. In becoming perfect he attained happiness, but his primary aim was not happiness.

      We may understand this by an illustration. In student life there are those who seek knowledge for its own sake, and there are those who seek it for the sake of the prize, and the honor, and the subsequent success in life that knowledge brings. To those who seek knowledge for its own sake the labor is itself reward. Attainment is the highest reward. Doubtless the prize stimulates exertion; encourages and forms a part of the motive, but only a subordinate one: and knowledge would still have "a price above rubies," if there were no prize at all. They who seek knowledge for the sake of a prize are not genuine lovers of knowledge - they only love the rewards of knowledge: had it no honor or substantial advantage connected with it, they would be indolent.

      Applying this to our subject, I say this is a spurious goodness which is good for the sake of reward. The child that speaks truth for the sake of the praise of truth, is not truthful. The man who is honest because honesty is the best policy, has not integrity in his heart. He who endeavors to be humble, and holy, and perfect, in order to win heaven, has only a counterfeit religion. God for His own sake - Goodness because it is good - Truth because it is lovely - this is the Christian's aim. The prize is only an incentive; inseparable from success, but not the aim itself.

      With this limitation, however, we remark that it is a Christian duty to dwell much more on the thought of future blessedness than most men do. If ever the apostle's step began to flag, the radiant diadem before him gave new vigor to his heart, and we know how at the close of his career the vision became more vivid and more entrancing. "Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of glory!" It is our privilege, if we are on our way to God, to keep steadily before us the thought of home. Make it a matter of habit. Force yourself at night, alone, in the midst of the world's bright sights, to pause to think of the heaven which is yours. Let it calm you and ennoble you, and give you cheerfulness to endure It was so that Moses was enabled to live amongst all the fascinations of his courtly life, with a heart unseduced from his laborious destiny. By faith... "esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt." Why? "For he had respect unto the recompense of the reward." It was so that our Master strengthened his human soul for its sharp earthly endurance. "For the joy that was set before him, He endured the cross, despising the shame." If we would become heavenly-minded, we must let the imagination realize the blessedness to which we are moving on. Let us think much of rest - the rest which is not of indolence, but of powers in perfect equilibrium. The rest which is deep as summer midnight, yet full of life and force as summer sunshine, the sabbath of eternity. Let us think of the love of God, which we shall feel in its full tide upon our souls. Let us think of that marvellous career of sublime occupation which shall belong to the spirits of just men made perfect; when we shall fill a higher place in God's universe, and more consciously, and with more distinct insight, co-operate with God in the rule over His Creation. "I press towards the mark - for the prize."

      II. We pass to our second topic. The means which St. Paul found available for the attainment of Divine and perfect character. His great principle was to "forget the things which were behind, and to reach forward to the things which were before." The wisdom of a divine life lies hid in this principle. I shall endeavor to expand the sentiment to make it intelligible.

      What are the things behind, which are to be forgotten?

      1. If we would progress in Christian life, we must forget the days of innocence that lie behind us. Let not this be misunderstood. Innocent, literally, no man ever is. We come into the world with tendencies to evil; but there was a time in our lives when those were only tendencies. A proneness to sin we had; but we had not yet sinned. The moment had not yet arrived when that cloud settles down upon the heart, which in all of after-life is never entirely removed: the sense of guilt, the anguish of lost innocence, the restless feeling of a heart no longer pure. Popularly, we call that innocence; and when men become bitterly aware that early innocence of heart is gone, they feel as if all were lost and so look back to what they reckon holier days with a peculiar fondness of regret. I believe there is much that is merely feeble and sentimental in this regret. Our early innocence is nothing more than ignorance of evil. Christian life is not a retaining of that ignorance of evil, nor even a returning of it again. We lose our mere negative sinlessness. We put on a firm manly holiness. Human innocence is not to know evil; Christian saintliness is to know evil and good, and prefer good. It is possible for a parent, with over-fastidious refinement, to prolong the duration of this innocence unnaturally. He may lock up his library, and prevent the entrance to forbidden books; he may exercise a jealous censorship over every book and every companion that comes into the house; he may remove the public journal from the table, lest an eye may chance to rest upon the contaminating portion of its pages; but he has only put off the evil hour. He has sent into the world a young man of eighteen or twenty, ignorant of evil as a child, but not innocent as an angel who abhors the evil. No; we can not get back our past ignorance, neither is it desirable we should. No sane mind wishes for that which is impossible. And it, is no more to be regretted than the blossom is to be regretted when fruit is hardening in its place; no more to be regretted than the slender gracefulness of the sapling, when you have got instead the woody fibre of the heart of oak of which the ship is made; no more to be regretted than the green blade when the ear has come instead, bending down in yellow ripeness. Our innocence is gone, withered with the business-like contact with the great world. It is one of the things behind. Forget it. It was worth very little. And now for something of a texture more firm, more enduring. We will not mourn over the loss of simplicity, if we have got instead souls indurated by experience, disciplined, even by fall, to refuse the evil and to choose the good.

      2. In the next place, it is wise to forget our days of youth. Up to a certain period of life it is the tendency of man to look forward. There is a marvellous prodigality with which we throw away our present happiness when we are young, which belongs to those who feel that they are rich in happiness, and never expect to be bankrupts. It almost seems one of the signatures of our immortality that we squander time as if there were a dim consciousness that we are in possession of an eternity of it; but as we arrive at middle age, it is the tendency of man to look back.

      To a man of middle life, existence is no longer a dream, but a reality. He has not much more new to look forward to, for the character of his life is generally fixed by that time. His profession, his home, his occupations, will be for the most part what they are now. He will make few new acquaintances - no new friends. It is the solemn thought connected with middle age that life's last business is begun in earnest; and it is then, midway between the cradle and the grave, that a man begins to look back and marvel with a kind of remorseful feeling that he let the days of youth go by so half enjoyed. It is the pensive autumn feeling - it is the sensation of half sadness that we experience when the longest day of the year is past, and every day that follows is shorter, and the lights fainter, and the feebler shadows tell that nature is hastening with gigantic footsteps to her winter grave. So does man look back upon his youth. When the first gray hairs become visible - when the unwelcome truth fastens itself upon the mind that a man is no longer going up the hill, but down, and that the sun is already westering, he looks back on things behind. Now this is a natural feeling, but is it the high Christian tone of feeling? In the spirit of this verse, we may assuredly answer, No. We who have an inheritance incorruptible and undented, and that fadeth not away, what have we to do with things past? When we were children, we thought as children. But now there lies before us manhood, with its earnest work; and then old age, and then the grave, and then home.

      And so manhood in the Christian life is a better thing than boyhood, because it is a riper thing; and old age ought to be a brighter, and a calmer, and a more serene thing than manhood. There is a second youth for man, better and holier than his first, if he will look on and not back. There is a peculiar simplicity of heart and a touching singleness of purpose in Christian old age, which has ripened gradually and not fitfully. It is then that to the wisdom of the serpent is added the harmlessness of the dove; it is then that to the firmness of manhood is joined almost the gentleness of womanhood; it is then that the somewhat austere and sour character of growing strength, moral and intellectual, mellows into the rich ripeness of an old age made sweet and tolerant by experience; it is then that man returns to first principles. There comes a love more pure and deep than the boy could ever feel; there comes a conviction, with a strength beyond that which the boy could never know, that the earliest lesson of life is infinite, Christ is all.

      3. Again, it is wise to forget past errors. There is a kind of temperament which, when indulged, greatly hinders growth in real godliness. It is that rueful, repentant, self-accusing temper which is always looking back, and microscopically observing how that which is done might have been better done. Something of this we ought to have. A Christian ought to feel always that he has partially failed, but that ought not to be the only feeling. Faith ought ever to be a sanguine, cheerful thing; and perhaps in practical life we could not give a better account of faith than by saying that it is, amidst much failure, having the heart to try again. Our best deeds are marked by imperfection; but if they really were our best, "forget the things that are behind" - we shall do better next time.

      Under this head we include all those mistakes which belong to our circumstances. We can all look back to past life and see mistakes that have been made, to a certain extent perhaps, irreparable ones. We can see where our education was fatally misdirected. The profession chosen for you perhaps was not the fittest, or you are out of place, and many things might have been better ordered. Now on this apostolic principle it is wise to forget all that. It is not by regretting what is irreparable that true work is to be done, but by making the best of what we are. It is not by complaining that we have not the right tools, but by using well the tools we have. What we are, and where we are, is God's providential arrangement - God's doing, though it may be man's misdoing; and the manly and the wise way is to look your disadvantages in the face, and see what can be made out of them. Life, like war, is a series of mistakes, and he is not the best Christian nor the best general who makes the fewest false steps. Poor mediocrity may secure that; but he is the best who wins the most splendid victories by the retrieval of mistakes. Forget mistakes: organize victory out of mistakes.

      Finally, past guilt lies behind us, and is well forgotten. There is a way in which even sin may be banished from the memory. If a man looks forward to the evil he is going to commit, and satisfies himself that it is inevitable, and so treats it lightly, he is acting as a fatalist. But if a man partially does this, looking backward, feeling that sin when it is past has become part of the history of God's universe, and is not to be wept over forever, he only does that which the Giver of the Gospel permits him to do. Bad as the results have been in the world of making light of sin, those of brooding over it too much have been worse. Remorse has done more harm than even hardihood. It was remorse which fixed Judas in an unalterable destiny; it was remorse which filled the monasteries for ages with men and women whose lives became useless to their fellow-creatures; it is remorse which so remembers by-gone faults as to paralyze the energies for doing Christ's work; for when you break a Christian's spirit, it is all over with progress. Oh, we want every thing that is hopeful and encouraging for our work, for God knows it is not an easy one. And therefore it is that the Gospel comes to the guiltiest of us all at the very outset with the inspiring news of pardon. You remember how Christ treated sin. Sin of oppression and hypocrisy indignantly, but sin of frailty - "'Hath no man condemned thee ?' 'No man, Lord.' 'Neither do I condemn thee; go, and sin no more.'" As if he would bid us think more of what we may be than of what we have been.

      There was the wisdom of life in the proverb with which the widow of Tekoah pleaded for the restoration of Absalom from banishment before David. Absalom had slain his brother Amnon. Well, Amnon was dead before his time; but the severity of revenge could never bring him back again. "We must all die," said the wise woman, "and are as water spilt upon the ground, which can not be gathered up again." Christian brethren, do not stop too long to weep over spilt water. Forget your guilt, and wait to see what eternity has to say to it. You have other work to do now.

      So let us work out the spirit of the apostle's plan. Innocence, youth, success, error, guilt - let us forget them all.

      Not backward are our glances bent,

      But onward to our Father's home.

      In conclusion, remember Christian progress is only possible in Christ. It is a very lofty thing to be a Christian; for a Christian is a man who is restoring God's likeness to his character; and therefore the apostle calls it here a high calling. High as heaven is the calling wherewith we are called. But this very height makes it seem impracticable. It is natural to say, All that was well enough for one so transcendently gifted as Paul to hope for: but I am no gifted man; I have no iron strength of mind; I have no sanguine hopefulness of character; I am disposed to look on the dark side of things; I am undetermined, weak, vacillating; and then I have a whole army of passions and follies to contend with. We have to remind such men of one thing they have forgotten. It is the high calling of God, if you will; but it is the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. What the world calls virtue is a name and a dream without Christ. The foundation of all human excellence must be laid deep in the blood of the Redeemer's cross, and in the power of His Resurrection. First let a man know that all his past is wrong and sinful; then let him fix his eye on the love of God in Christ loving him - even him, the guilty one. Is there no strength in that - no power in the knowledge that all that is gone by is gone, and that a fresh, clear future is open? It is not the progress of virtue that God asks for, but progress in saintliness, empowered by hope and love.

      Lastly, let each man put this question to himself, "Dare I look on?" With an earnest Christian, it is "reaching forth to those things which are before." Progress ever. And then just as we go to rest in this world tired, and wake up fresh and vigorous in the morning, so does the Christian go to sleep in the world's night, weary with the work of life, and then on the resurrection-day he wakes in his second and his brighter morning. It is well for a believer to look on. Dare you? Remember, out of Christ, it is not wisdom, but madness to look on. You must look back, for the longest and the best day is either past or passing. It will be winter soon - desolate, uncheered, hopeless, winter-old age, with its dreariness and its disappointments, and its querulous broken-heartedness; and there is no second spring for you - no resurrection-morning of blessedness to dawn on the darkness of your grave. God has only one method of salvation, the Cross of Christ. God can have only one; for the Cross of Christ means death to evil, life to good. There is no other way to salvation but that; for that in itself is, and alone is, salvation. Out of Christ, therefore, it is woe to the man who reaches forth to the things which are before. To such I say; My unhappy brethren, Omnipotence itself can not change the darkness of your destiny,

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