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The Essential, The Important and the Indifferent

By J.S. Lamar


      THE evidences in support of the Christian religion become stronger by the lapse of time and the progress of knowledge. There may be no positive addition to the amount of this evidence, but there is continual increase of its force and effect. The fact that Christianity survives and makes progress, notwithstanding the abuses it encounters from without, makes more and more clear and certain, to the discerning mind, its inherent vitality and essential divinity. It has stood the test of all manner of perversions and counterfeits; it has been forced to carry the burden of superstition and fanaticism; it has been loaded down with unscrupulous and selfish ecclesiasticism; its heavenly spirit and benign doctrine have been covered over with the grossest caricatures; but, in spite of all, it has lived and gone forward, and at last its true features have shone out through the mask of falsehood and delusion in all their pristine symmetry and beauty.

      In like manner, the force of the instruments which, from time to time, its enemies have employed against it, has been neutralized, or else they have been captured, and converted into defensive and supporting weapons. This is signally exemplified in the bearing of natural science upon the question of miracles. The universal and uniform reign of law has been accepted as an established fact, and the idea of a supernatural intervention, which should modify the operation of law or act independently of it, has been regarded as absolutely incredible, because contrary to the settled and indisputable conclusions of science. Now, however, as knowledge advances, the thoughtful perceive that the laws of nature can not account for their own existence, nor for the origin of the matter on which they operate. Hence, by an inevitable necessity, science is compelled to base itself upon the miraculous, or else to rest its whole structure of law, of life, and of the matter which underlies them, upon the mist and mystery of the utterly unknown, which is both irrational and unscientific. If, therefore, the material universe rests upon miracle; if life, with its varied forms and characteristics, which modifies in so many ways the matter of the universe, is traced to the same source, there is certainly nothing incredible or unreasonable in saying that a spiritual system, designed to propagate and develop spiritual life, should also rest upon miracle.

      To be sure, this does not prove the miracles of Scripture, but it does take away the presumption which science was supposed to have raised against them, and by so much adds to the force of the positive testimony in their support.

      It is deeply to be regretted that, while Christianity in its essence is thus coming forth with more and more strength as the years roll away, it f should still be exhibited to the world as a thing of conflicting creeds and discordant sects. Perhaps it is not possible, in the present condition of society, to correct this injurious state of things, but certainly there ought to be wisdom enough among the professors and advocates of this religion to determine and agree upon its absolute; essentials. Hitherto this has not been done.

      It is of comparatively little moment that there should be discussion on questions which, though they may be highly important, are still not vital. The proper understanding, classification and location of such matters in the system, exhibit Christianity as the purer, the better, the more consistent. Error on these points is an evil, it may be a great evil, but still not necessarily a fatal evil. We do well to combat it with earnest force, and to substitute for it, when possible, the wholesome and beneficent truth which it has displaced. But there should be no controversy respecting those things which enter into the very constitution and life of Christianity; those which are the differentia of the system, which being present, Christianity is present, and being absent, Christianity is absent. I say there should be no controversy among Christians on these points, because the fact of their being in controversy tends to cast doubt upon the whole institution, and thus to weaken and impair its strength as an aggressive power. These things ought to be equally dear to every heart, and set forth and supported by the combined force of all Christian intelligence and affection.

      And yet, while it is obviously true that there are and must be elements and parts of Christianity which are absolutely and universally essential in it--elements without which it could not and would not be--it is still the misfortune and the reproach of Christians that they have not been able to agree as to what these essentials are. Some would place in the list matters which are simple, though it may be very highly important; others would elevate to this place matters which, in themselves, are indifferent; while some, on the other hand, would take out of this class elements which obviously belong to it.

      The churches have devoted a great deal of earnest thought to the subordinate questions. They are learned in matters of government, and can render reasons for Episcopal, for Presbyterial, and for Congregational forms; the pros and cons of ritual and non-ritual worship they have at their fingers' ends; and not only in matters of government and worship, but also in those of doctrine, particularly speculative doctrine, they are intelligent and ready. On these points, and such as these, they read and write and meditate. But the question that takes precedence of all others, that gives to them all their importance, be it much or little, that should demand consequently the first consideration, and be settled with gravest and most solemn care, this is dismissed with but slight notice, remanded as it were to some obscure corner, while the great partisan peculiarities and denominational differences are brought forward into the chief places, and honored with most respectful attention. Who gives any earnest thought or devotes any serious attention to the question, What constitutes a Christian? How a Christian should live, how he should worship, how he' should be governed, how he may best promote the interest of his church, are practically of no consequence until it has first been determined how he is to be a Christian at all. And this, the leading, the all-important, the absolutely essential question, is still awaiting solution and settlement.

      Believing that the Scriptural answer to this question, and the universal agreement of Christians in that answer, is the one thing most urgently needed to promote the triumph of Christianity, the writer proposes to contribute something which he hopes will tend to lead the thoughts of earnest minds in the direction of the result. He does not for a moment flatter himself that his own conclusions will be accepted by all, or even by many, as satisfactory and final, but he does hope that the momentous interests involved will induce the reader to weigh with candor what may be written, and to reject only where, in good conscience and fidelity to God and man, he feels that he must.

      In prosecuting this purpose, the sacred Scriptures are to be regarded as the only source of authority. Preconceptions, preferences, traditional influences, and all reference to consequences, both personal and associational, are as much as possible to be laid aside, and the mind in perfect freedom is to approach the divine source of information with a hearty willingness to receive and adopt its communication. In the next place, it should be noted that the inquiry will be greatly simplified and abbreviated by considering that the absolute essentials of objective Christianity are those the reception of which makes a man a Christian. This is necessarily true, because he can not become a Christian, in any worthy sense of the term, without accepting Christianity in every part and element essential to its being, nor can he thus accept it without thereby becoming a Christian. Hence, putting these two preliminary points together, our inquiry is simply this: What, according to the Scriptures, must a man accept--that is, believe and do--in order that he may become a Christian

      THE ESSENTIAL.

      The Protestant motto, "The Bible, the whole, Bible, and nothing but the Bible, is the religion of Protestantism," is to be understood as indicating, not what is the true religion, but what is the source from which it is to be learned. The Bible reveals it, but the thing revealed is not the thing revealing. It supports, upholds, elaborates and develops it, but still the religion is one thing, and the teacher and defender of that religion, another. The Philippian jailor had never seen a Bible--the few words of the Lord which he heard and received on that memorable night made him a Christian. It is possible to conceive that he never enjoyed the benefit and blessing of additional instruction. And yet, if faithful to the light originally imparted to him, and the covenant into which he then entered, it is evident that he lived and died a Christian. Imperfect he certainly would have been in knowledge, graces, virtues needing the nurture of the sacred lessons, and the comfort and strength of brotherly communion but still a Christian. He had received Jesus Christ the Lord. His heart had bowed in loving allegiance to Him, and his life had been devoted in voluntary and unqualified submission to His authority. This was all. But this embraced everything that was absolutely essential. Christ is the embodiment of His own redeeming system, the fountain of all its light and love, the source of all its messages of grace, and all its beneficent institutions and ordinances. To accept Him, therefore, in the fullness of His nature and offices, as presented in the gospel, is the one thing needful. It establishes a vital connection between the sinner and the Saviour, the helpless and the Helper, the dying and Him who has the power over death, and, hence, Christianity, in its essence, can not necessarily be anything more, nor possibly anything less, than this.

      If the matter could be left in the form of the above general statement, there would be no room for controversy. Every one would accept it as the obvious truth. That the man who sincerely and heartily embraces Christ, and gives himself to Him, is a Christian; and that he who fails or refuses to do this, whatever else he may do, is not, is a proposition that admits of no question. But the matter can not be left here. The responsibilities of the church to the world, lying in darkness, requires her, not only to preach the necessity of the acceptance of Christ, but also to tell men how He is to be accepted, and, especially, what is absolutely essential to such acceptance.

      I suppose that no one would hesitate promptly, and without qualification or reserve, that Christ is to be accepted by faith. This is not only clearly taught in Scripture, it also follows of necessity from the nature of the case. If Christianity were a mere abstract system of precepts and doctrines, it might be different, because these could be received and complied with, regardless of the authority of him who propounds them. But as it is in its essence the allegiance of the heart and the devotion of the life to a person, such allegiance and devotion can not be given without sincere and heartfelt faith in that person. A man may be relatively good or bad without this faith--as good as Cornelius, as bad as Saul of Tarsus--but in neither case is he a Christian. Christianity is not piety, nor alms-giving; not prayer and worship; all these, in various degrees of purity and impurity, may be found in every quarter of the world, and in every kind of religion--Jewish, Mohammedan, Pagan, Christian. Hence, when the gospel feast was spread, the servants were to bring in all that they found, both good and bad. The "good" still needed the atoning blood of Christ, the inspiration of His spotless life, the support and guidance of His divine authority, and the bad needed no more. In a word, they both alike needed to become Christians by accepting the Christ and enthroning Him in their E hearts. And this they could only do by faith. It is needless to quote Scripture in support of this. It is the leading practical thought of the New Testament. We are justified by faith, sanctified by it, connected by it to the source of forgiveness, of life and salvation; so that he that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life, and he that believeth not shall not see life--"shall be damned."

      One would have supposed that an element so essentially and transcendently important as this would have been studied with most scrupulous and anxious care, so as to be perfectly sure of including in the term "faith" all that necessarily and Scripturally belongs to it. Instead of which, men have sometimes played upon the word; contracted it to the smallest possible dimensions; emptied it of much of its necessary meaning, and actually substituted the term in place of its own contents and significance. The word faith is accepted instead of the thing--as if a trick of logic could save a soul.

      Now, the Scriptural faith, through which such great and eternal blessings are promised, is not merely a blind trust that Christ will bestow these things upon us; but we are taught precisely what we are to believe concerning Christ, and in what character He is to be received. This is matter of revelation. It is taught by the Father in heaven. It is the subject of the Gospels, and to establish and confirm it was the object for which they were written. What we are to believe, therefore, is that Jesus is "the Christ, the Son of the living God." And we are to receive Him as such, or we do not have faith. A mere intellectual assent to this proposition, a concession, or even a feeling that it is true, is not sufficient. Our convictions must be so deep and earnest and heartfelt that it leads to an actual and practical acceptance of the Lord Jesus in the character and offices which make Him the Christ. Wordy and windy professions of faith have no saving virtue. "Why call ye me Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?" Those who reject His authority practically deny, and, therefore, in their hearts deny, the Christhood of the Saviour, the very thing which is essential in the Christian faith. Hence, the Protestant dogma of "justification by faith alone" should be more carefully stated (and, indeed, it were better that the unscriptural phrase were entirely y abandoned), lest it lead, as very often it does, to the false expectation of justification by the mere act of believing. For if men understand "faith alone" to exclude, not simply the works of the law and of human merit, but also the practical recognition of the authority of Christ, manifested by a voluntary and unreserved submission to that authority, such is not faith in the Scriptural sense, and if men are justified by this, they are justified, not by faith, but without faith.

      In a word, the faith of the gospel, the faith so' essential to the acceptance of Christ and the blessings offered in Him and through Him, includes obedience to Him as a part of itself. This truth not only follows necessarily from the nature of the formula of the faith, quoted above, but is also clearly taught by the apostle. For example, in Rom. 10:16: "But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Esaias with, Lord, who hath believed our report?" The "report" is evidently the good news, or gospel of Christ. Isaiah foretold that many would not believe it, and, in proof that this was fulfilled, the apostle points to the many who have not obeyed it. The necessary conclusion is, that true belief of the gospel involves obedience to it. Otherwise we should have the absurdity of Christ accepted by faith, enthroned in the heart, welcomed, honored, loved, trusted, adored, at the same moment that He is repudiated and rejected.

      But obedience is a life-work, a daily submission to the Master and consecration to His service. At what point in this obedient course may one claim to have accepted Christ, or to have become a Christian? Obedience being essential to the change, and obedience in its amplest meaning being the service of the whole life, we should expect that something would be, therefore, prescribed, as an approved and acceptable entrance upon the life service.

      Previous to the introduction into the church of infant baptism, there was no confusion, hesitation nor doubt upon this point. The plain and explicit declaration of the Saviour, illustrated by the teaching and practice of the apostles, requiring believers to be baptized as the consummating and consecrating act of their conversion, as the act of obedience which tested their faith in the Saviour as the Christ and brought them into covenant relations with Him, these declarations were gladly, and gratefully received as the answer of the Lord Himself to man's most solemn question, "What must I do to be saved?"

      No disaster which has overtaken the church has been fraught with greater evil than that which substituted, for the divine ordinance of baptizing believers for the remission of sins, the human institution of infant baptism. It has confused the whole scheme, deprived believers of the test which the Master Himself provided, and of the settled and certain assurance of acceptance and salvation which He was graciously pleased to append to that test, thus leaving men in the agony of doubt and uncertainty, or else forcing them, as it were, to rely upon excited feelings and fanatical transports instead of the word of God.

      As a natural consequence, distrust of the word of the Lord has been the painful result, and men will gravely argue against the plainest, the most positive and explicit declaration of the Saviour, while claiming to be justified by faith in Him--as if they could believe in Him, in any proper sense, while disbelieving His truth.

      Under the most solemn circumstances, on an; occasion forever hallowed and dear, when He was sending out His apostles on the express mission; of propagating His religion by making men Christians, He distinctly, plainly and formally tells them how this is to be done: "Preach the gospel to every creature; he that believeth and is baptized shall be saved." If this commission can be rejected, if its terms can be varied, if its provisions, either in whole or in part, can be set aside as nonessential, then Christianity is not an authoritative system, and faith in its Founder is mere emptiness and vanity. If we can repudiate this, we can repudiate all; and if we can repudiate all, we can repudiate Him.

      If, then, the Scriptures, and the great source of light and love and life, brought to view in the Scriptures, are to be regarded as authority, and trusted as the only competent teachers on the subject before us, we must conclude that

      1. There is no Christianity where Christ is not accepted.

      2. He is not accepted where there is no Scriptural faith in Him.

      3. There is no Scriptural faith in Him without obedience.

      4. The first overt act of obedience, after the preparation of mind and heart, the command which stands in the forefront of the system, and which, resting alone upon Christ's authority, is the test of faith and submission, is baptism into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

      It is clear, from the practice of the apostles, that they so understood the Christian religion. They preached Christ, led men by evidence to believe that He was the Christ, and then they immediately baptized them. Under their administration men became Christians, not by faith alone, but, like the Corinthians, they heard, believed, and were baptized. It was so in the beginning of the gospel, it continued so to the end of the period of inspiration, and, hence, if the question is to be settled by the only authority which Protestants can recognize--the Scriptures of truth--there can be no doubt that we have found the essentials of the Christian religion. With these, men were regarded as Christians; without them, they were not.

      THE IMPORTANT.

      It will require but a brief space in which to exhibit what is necessary to be shown under this head. Having seen that the whole Bible, and even the whole of the New Testament, is not involved in the process of becoming a Christian, we now reach the point where all of it has place. The larger part of the Bible serves to support, to illustrate and to elaborate its absolutely essential truths. In some sense, therefore, everything connected with Christianity is essential to it--if not to its being, to its well-being. But while some truths are designed to impart life, others are for nourishing and developing that life: some make us Christians; others make us better, wiser, stronger Christians. The former are absolutely, the latter are relatively, essential. The former build us on the foundation, the latter build us up on it. These latter, therefore, to avoid confusion, are classed here as important. Hence, we say that "all scripture given by inspiration of God is," not absolutely essential to individual salvation, but "profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished for all good works." Hence the gradual process of growth in knowledge, and the infinitely varied adaptations of the Scriptures to the different classes and states of men. Surely, it can not be necessary to do more than enunciate the general proposition. It is so obviously correct that no one will call it in question, while all will appreciate the importance of studying and learning the sacred Scriptures for the sake of their confirmatory facts, their helpful precepts, their stimulating examples, their encouragements, warnings, admonitions, and for the hopes and prospects which they set before the faithful, and for the light which they cast upon the darkness of present trials, and the solution they furnish of the problems of mysterious providences.

      We may also include, under the present head, the numerous subordinate questions which, from time to time, agitate and divide religious society. Most of them are worthy of consideration, even when viewed in the abstract, and a Christian will find comfort and satisfaction in reaching clear and trustworthy conclusions respecting them. The speculative doctrines of theologians, and their views and positions respecting recondite and obscure passages of Scripture, are of this class. The origin of evil, the effect of Adam's sin, the doctrine of election and predestination, of final perseverance or of possible lapse, the modus of spiritual operation, and the like, are questions which, positively speaking, it may not be very important to understand. When such speculative dogmas become the postulates of a system, and mold and color the institutions of Christ so as to affect and change the meaning of the gospel, we are obliged, if they are pressed upon our consideration at all, either to reverse the process of their propounders and bring these speculations to the test of the gospel, or else incur the danger of perverting and misunderstanding the very truth as it is in Jesus.

      It is not necessary, for example, that we hold any philosophy of regeneration. The teaching of the Saviour and the apostles sets forth the whole subject with perfect explicitness, so that we know definitely and precisely what regeneration means, and how it is to be effected. But when we see the entire orthodox community wedded to a theory of regeneration which sets aside this authoritative teaching, and actually trusting in this theory, preaching it, practicing it, relying upon it, and with indefatigable zeal propagating it, notwithstanding its direct antagonism to some of the vital essentials of Christianity, the importance of the question is at once apparent.

      But this field is too extensive to be traversed in detail. I, therefore, leave it for the final subject of this paper.

      THE INDIFFERENT.

      In the associated life and work of Christians, or in the exhibition and perpetuation of Christianity as a living institution, questions arise about matters in themselves essentially indifferent, but which, nevertheless, may have a relative importance. These often grow into living issues, and, if not wisely handled, may become the nuclei of parties. They are easily understood and appreciated when viewed in the distance, as matters of history, but when present, with all the passing preferences and antagonisms to which they give birth, the greatest circumspection and wisdom are required in dealing with them. One party will always be inclined to attach to them the high class of essentials, while the opposite, recognizing their abstract indifference, will be in danger of treating them with indifference. But, however trivial a matter may be, it acquires a sort of importance, and becomes sometimes practically momentous, by reason of the feelings and prejudices which are engendered by it.

      There is nothing in which such a state of things is more likely to arise than in matters of public worship. These are left largely to the discretion, taste and sense of propriety of the worshipers; and tastes and judgments are likely to be forever, as they have always been, various. One man will think an organ the best thing possible to improve and perfect the singing of a congregation. Another, disgusted with the time and tune of untaught singers, will oppose congregational singing altogether, and insist that the choir and organist should alone participate in the service. Another still regards the organ itself as an abomination, and insists that it must be ruled out or it will rule him out. His sense of propriety is averse to it, his feelings are aroused against it, and ten chances to one if he does not come to fancy that his conscience is involved in the matter, and that the introduction of an organ is a sin as of witchcraft. All parties search the Scriptures for authority, pro and con, and finding none, as, of course, they do not, the matter not being the subject of Scripture teaching at all, they strain and force different texts into a sort of simulated support of their respective positions, while heart-burnings, uncharitable speeches, and all manner of evil thoughts, grow and multiply, until they die at last a natural death, and some other folly springs up to be nourished by the same passions, and pass through the same stages.

      What is needed on this whole class of questions is the hearty recognition, without reserve or qualification, of the liberties and rights of others.

      No man, who has looked with philosophic care upon the present state of denominationalism, can have failed to notice that parties aggregate largely upon the single point of taste. Nine-tenths of those who are Presbyterians are so, not because they appreciate the distinctive doctrines of that sect, or really care anything about them, but because they like the Presbyterian way of doing things. Others, whose tastes, feelings, habits and preferences are different, go to the Methodists, for a similar reason. Others of a different type still become Episcopalians. And so, through the whole round. It is only the few who are actuated by consideration of doctrine and creed; for, whether true or false, it is beyond doubt that the prevailing opinion is that in these respects one church is about as good as another. But, aside from these, every man has his preference, and takes position as it leads him.

      There is a profound philosophy underlying all this that the successful, the predominant, the true, catholic church of the future will be sure to recognize and act upon. It is the philosophy of not only tolerating, but of providing for, the various tastes and peculiar preferences of the respective classes of men on all these matters of indifference. Hold firmly, teach faithfully, and without any wavering or compromise, the essential truth. Make men Christians according to Christ's law, and develop and perfect their moral and spiritual nature by His word and ordinances. Make them one in Him, one in their deference to His authority and their honor for His word, and in all things else leave them free. If they want an organ, let them have it. If they are averse to it, respect their preference. If they wish to conduct their worship like the Presbyterians, the Methodists, the Episcopalians, the Lutherans, let them do so, not only without censure, but with approbation.

      But, alas! such is the weakness of human nature, and such the intolerance of the human heart, that we must have uniformity respecting all these secondary matters, even if it hazards the success of vital truth. Men must accept our tastes, be governed by our preference, worship in our mode, or have no place and no recognition among us.

      For myself, I should prefer this spontaneous variety, on all these non-essential matters, to a stale, dry, dead uniformity. We seldom need two churches just alike in the same town. And it would be a positive blessing if, when there are several, each should be composed of those who find there their own peculiar tastes provided for, and their innocent preferences gratified. Thus without sects or denominations, with perfect concord and agreement in faith and doctrine, we should be able to reach all classes, and gather in and save from all quarters. Without this we shall address only a small fraction, and the multitudes will find among the diversities of denominations the satisfaction and comfort which we refused to afford them.

      In cases where, from the sparseness of population or other causes, it is not possible to provide for all, the hearty recognition of the principle will lead in every instance to such compromises and adjustments as will be acceptable, because seen to be, under the circumstances, the best that can be done. The main point is to establish and honor the principle that unity of faith is consistent with diversity of opinion; and, moreover, that the freedom proclaimed for diversity of opinions is meaningless and delusive, unless it extends to the practices dictated by those opinions.

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