And the Lord said, My Spirit shall nut always strive with man. Gen. 6:3.
This is a declaration of God concerning the antediluvian world. He was about to destroy them, but could not let fall one drop of water, one flash of lightning, one spark of fire. He could neither drown nor damn a man of them till the Spirit had done striving with them. For the long space of an hundred and twenty years, the period during which the ark was preparing, the Holy Ghost strove with them; and when the ark was ready, God went round it, and shut every window and every door, and he shut in Noah and his family. The sound of those closing doors, as it echoed among the hills, announced mercy fled and wrath begun. The door was shut. Then the fury of God broke forth; and rush met rush, and flood met flood, and cataract met cataract, and tempest met tempest, till the last sinner cursed God and went down. The storm raged on still. In fury, in awful sublimity, it broke forth in one wild scene of boundless grandeur. "And the Lord said, My Spirit shall not always strive with man."
In my text we have two points:
I. A great fact stated, the striving of the Spirit.
II. A dreadful event predicted, the cessation of the Spirit's striving.
First, a great fact stated. There is about this fact two things, a necessity and a certainty. First, a necessity. What do you mean, says one, by a necessity? I mean, firstly, there will be no concern about the soul's salvation without the strivings of the Spirit. Without the Spirit man is in darkness, in total darkness. He is darkness itself; there is not a glimmer in his soul. He is in death's shadow; and when a man is in the shadow, the substance is not far off. He is as dark as a Hottentot; yea, he is as dark as a devil. It is by the Spirit he is convinced, alarmed. It is by the Spirit the memory is refreshed, the conscience aroused. Yea, that unbidden tear, telling that all is not yet lost that softening tendency, that melting down with contrition, those throes of agony in the soul, all, all are the work of the Spirit. It is by the Spirit he is enabled to look to the Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world. Without the Spirit, no conviction of sin, no contrition for the past, no softening tendency, no melting view of Calvary, no concern for the soul, will ever be felt. These influences may be resisted, and this resistance may be carried on to a point in the history, until conscience lays down its functions. Then the heart is as hard as a stone, and the understanding as dark as hell can make it. Then the sinner is like a ship half foundered in midnight darkness on a stormy sea, masts gone, helm broken, and compass lost, left to the mercy of the winds and waves. Then, though he may drop a tear over the grave of some loved one, he will turn up towards the God that redeemed him the brazen front of sullen rebellion , the iron hardness will be on his soul, but an infidel he cannot become till the Spirit has given him up. Genuine infidelity can never take place till the Spirit has ceased to strive. See him, on and on and on he rushes! The space between him and hell lessens, lessens every step. The lightnings from the Bible flash around him---but, no feeling! The thunder from Sinai roars--- but, NO FEELING!! The lurid fires of hell glare up in the distance--- but, NO FEELING!!! He is LET ALONE! O, my God! of all the curses of heaven, save me and my friends from the curse of being LET ALONE.
I mean, secondly, there will be no success in the ministry without the Spirit. There will be no real heavenly fire without Divine influence. Whatever sparks of his own kindling there may be, the coldness of death and the chilliness of the grave will be on the minister's soul. I care not however eloquent, however persuasive, however pathetic, he may be. He may kindle up with all the fire of Cicero, and thunder with the eloquence of a Demosthenes; he may have at his command all the range of Bible literature, be master of criticism, wield with giant intellect the doctrines of revelation, and all will be no more than the chirping of a grasshopper.
What is the best machinery without a moving power? What would your best railway engines do without a moving power? Of what use would be your great vessels on the deep without a moving power? And we tell you that even all the grand machinery of the Gospel will do nothing without a moving power, the power of the Holy Ghost. The soul lies imbedded under thick layers of darkness, and bound up in fetters of iron. None but the Almighty Spirit can emancipate it from its bondage and snap its fetters. It is under the lightning flashes of the Spirit, under Holy Ghost preaching, that the soul is made to cry out, "What must I do to be saved?"
Secondly, there is a certainty about the striving of the Spirit. I tell you, no man can go to hell-fire till the Spirit has not striven with him and given him up. That the Spirit strives with all is evident from the following considerations: 1. Christ died for all. 2. The experience of both saints and sinners testifies to it. 3. Salvation is impossible without it. 4. It is only on this ground that God can judge and condemn the wicked. He has been striving with you, and there are some characters here that have been grieving the Spirit of God. You are impressed on my heart, and I have from my God a message unto you. O, if ever I felt his blessed Spirit with me, I feel he is with me now.
1. The first character I name is the backslider. You have been grieving the Spirit of God. I would not seek to arouse your passions to excite and frighten you; but I would calmly appeal to your judgments. But, ah! why do I do this? Your judgments are enlightened; you know your duty; and if you go to hell, you will go there encircled with a halo of heavenly light. But I don't want to shut your hearts against me, neither do I want to drive you to despair. What a mercy of high heaven it is that you are not in the deeps of hell! What a mercy it is that you are in the house of God tonight! I cannot tell whether you belong to this congregation, or to some other, or to none; whether you are rich or poor, old or young; whether you fell by little and little, or whether you fell at once into some awful crime; whether you fell by tippling, by an act of dishonesty, or by whoremongering, this I know, you are a backslider, and you are here. There are just two points about your case. You have been very miserable for the last three months; like a wandering dove, you have had no rest. Now, I tell you, you will soon be in your winding-sheet, or converted to God. It will be thus one or the other. My God has sent me with this message to you. The devil has hold of you, and the Spirit of God has hold of you, and both are striving with you; one or the other will soon prevail. O, my brother! it will soon be Christ or the devil, heaven or hell, salvation or damnation. O! is there nothing that can reach you? Let me call your remembrance to the time when you were happy, happy as a saint, happy in God. You walked and talked with God; and around him, as the central point of bliss, your spirit circled. With what joy did you look up to heaven as your home! Those were blessed days, but they are gone. I could say much to alarm you; but one poor sinner ought not to be harsh with another. I know that I myself ought to have been sent to hell years ago; but the Lord had mercy upon me and pardoned my sins, and sanctified my soul, and has kept me for years. And now I say to you, with a tender heart, O, my brother, you are on the edge of the pit, on the brink of the burning lake! Another step, and you may pass the verge, and splash on the fiery wave. Come away! COME away!! O, COME AWAY TO JESUS!!!
Your distressing case reminds me of an affecting incident connected with the explosion of an American steamer a few years ago. The vessel was on her voyage from Savannah to New York. In a dangerous sea and in the dead hour of the night, the boiler burst, and about one hundred souls were launched into eternity. The vessel was torn to pieces; and, upon a few fragments of the wreck, with the mast lying across it, a number of human beings floated out to sea. They continued to drift further and further from land, till nothing but sky and water met their view. During four days, the scorching sun poured his rays upon their almost naked bodies till they were blistered. They had no food to satisfy the craving of hunger; their tongues were scorched with thirst; and to drink the salt water they knew would only increase the dreadful feeling. A hint was given by one of the sufferers that they should cast one who should die for the sustenance of the rest; but the idea of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of a fellow being was rejected with horror. As they were gazing intently into the far-off horizon, they were cheered with what at first appeared a dark spot, but which soon brightened into a sail. They raised their little flag of distress, but it was unnoticed, and the vessel disappeared. After some time another hove in view, but the signal was not seen, and she vanished away. In like manner two others appeared, but, to their anguish, they also passed out of sight. "Hope deferred maketh the heart sick." After several hours had elapsed, another sail appeared; it seemed as if it was pasted on the sky. Soon its shape altered; the outlines of a vessel could now be traced; and, to their trembling joy, seemed to be nearing them. Ah, the captain of that ship little thought how many eyes were fixed with a gaze of agony upon the white bail of his stately vessel! They hoisted their signal of distress once more, and uttered their feeble cries; but, alas! she also appeared to be shaping her course in another direction. One poor fellow, who had been dreadfully scalded, looked himself into despair, cried out, "She is gone!" and laid himself down to die. The time of extremity was God's opportunity. One eye from the vessel caught the signal; the word was passed to the deck, and resounded through the ship, "A wreck! a wreck!" In a few moments she began to bear down towards them. One of the sufferers, perceiving the change in their course, uttered the cry, "She sees us! she is coming towards us!"
Nearing them rapidly the vessel loomed up within a short distance of them, and the clangor of the captain's trumpet rang over the wave, "Be of good cheer, I will save you!" I need scarcely tell you they were soon on board, filled with adoring gratitude to God, and thanksgiving to their deliverer. Your state of soul reminds me of the perilous condition of these shipwrecked passengers. You were sailing onward to heaven with a happy soul, and the breezes of grace were propitious; but an explosion took place, to the astonishment of Heaven, and you made shipwreck of faith and a good conscience. Thank God, you have not gone down to hell, like many other backsliders! You have floated out upon the mere fragments of your hopes, into the ocean of despair. You have grieved the Spirit; and of you it may well be said,
"His passage lies across the brink Of many a threatening wave, And hell expects to see him sink, But Jesus lives to save!"
Yes, "Jesus lives to save;" and it is written, "He is, able to save to the uttermost." The promises have been obscured from the eye of your faith by strong temptation. Again and again you have found yourself unable to reach them; and, like the vessels which hovered for a little before the vision of those distressed persons, and then vanished, so have the promises to your apprehension; but the God of the promises is at hand. If we would but induce you to repent, to lift up your signal of distress, your signal would be seen in heaven. The Captain of your salvation would draw nigh, and you would exclaim, "He sees me! He sees me! he is coming towards me! he is -- see!"
"Lo! on the wings of love he flies, And brings salvation nigh."
O! you would hear the voice of your great Deliverer, saying, "Be of good cheer, I will save you." But persist in grieving the Holy Spirit and your doom is sealed.
2. There is another character in this congregation. I don't know whether you are a backslider or not. You may be decent in your conduct; you may respect religion, believe in its great, awful and solemn verities; but you are undecided, you halt. You have a father and a mother unconverted, who, in all probability would give their hearts to God if you would lead the way. You have been laid on a bed of affliction; you solemnly promised God to serve him; but your resurrection to health was a resurrection to sin. God has been striving to convert you, to make your conversion instrumental in the salvation of your parents, but you have stood out; and my God has sent me solemnly to warn you against the soul-destroying sin of putting off. I tell you, if you refuse, God will speedily send death, the winding sheet, the coffin, the white border round your face, the shut eye, the blanched cheek, the cold, cold grave. I tell you, if you refuse to let God preach a sermon to your parents from your conversion, he will preach a sermon to them from that coffin, from your pale corpse, from your shut eye, your bordered face, your blanched cheek, your yawning grave. I tell you, it will soon be the one or the other, conversion or damnation. What shall it be? Will you now yield to God? You delay, you grieve the blessed Spirit, and he comes less and less powerfully every time. God says, "My Spirit shall not always strive with man." Come, oh my God! and save this halting soul!
3. There is another character in this congregation deeply impressed on my heart. You are a pew-holder, and a friend to the preachers. I hope you are not too great a friend. I mean, you invite them to your homes on Sunday evenings, after preaching, to your hospitality, to your ale and wine. They make engagements to take supper with you previous to going to their appointments: their word must be kept; and the consequence is, the prayer-meeting is left, penitents are not led to Jesus, and the churches do not flourish. Ah, this hospitality! The ale and wine have been the bane of Methodist preachers, and the curse of Methodism. (Let us praise God that this is not applicable to the American clergy and let us pray that the principles of total abstinence may be speedily embraced, by our English brethren. Editor.) I tell you, you are a curse to the churches. I don't mean to say you intend to do the preachers harm. No you love the ministers, and I honor you for it. If you saw one of them poorly clad, you would put your hand in your pocket and give him a suit of clothes. I say, I honor you for your love to God's servants; still your table, your ale, your wine, have proved a snare. The Lord save you from being a curse to his church! You are a pew-holder, you have had a seat in God's house for the last fifteen years. I might go further, no; I stop just there, fifteen years, just fifteen years. I will not attempt to say how much evil you have done by your example; how many souls you have prevented from joining the people of God; how much you have impeded the Redeemer's progress. I will not stop to say why God sent leanness into your soul; why you have not prospered in business; nor why God has cursed your property and cursed your family. For fifteen years the blessed Spirit has been wooing, alluring, arguing, and trying to turn you to God; but, while this planet has rolled round the sun fifteen times, you have been fighting against God! Let me now solemnly, in the sight of high heaven, ask you,
1st. How long do you mean to remain as you are?
2nd. How long do you mean to rebel against God?
Depend upon it, matters will not long continue as they are. God has a controversy with you; he will ere long bring it to a close; the crisis is approaching. If you intend to be saved, you must make haste, and delay not. Your conscience is almost seared; sermons are scarcely of any use to you; under the soul-subduing scenes of Calvary you melt not; the judgments of God make upon you but little impression. Your damnation slumbereth not. This message to you, if not the savor of life unto life, will be of death unto death. O! I am afraid I am preparing some of you for the fever, the pestilence, the winding sheet; I mean you who are resisting the Spirit. You have been listening to the knockings, the knockings of the Holy Ghost; but you have closed and barred up the door of your heart. The last knocking will come, for the Lord said, "My Spirit shall not always strive with man." Great God! touch tonight this pew holder's heart!
4. One character more. You have joined some church; you pass for a Christian, you go the round of Christian duties; but you have no happiness, no living joy, no bright hope, no burning love. I ask you, do you think you have ever been converted? When was it? Under what circumstances did it take place? Is it possible that such a change could have taken place, and you know nothing of it? There was a time when the Spirit strove with you. Yes, he has been striving with you by that hard heart, that lean soul, that standing doubt. And you cannot tell but that the influence which is now moving on your soul may be the last effort Heaven will make for your salvation. What I want to do tonight is, to arouse you to a sense of the peril of your situation. What can be done to awaken you from your deep and death-like slumbers? You are here, here before God. I have described your character, you know it. You have a witness in your own bosom. You feel, you know you are not right; but it is not too late, you may yet be saved. But when the Spirit is gone, damnation follows.
I proceed to state the results of resisting God's Holy Spirit.
II. The dreadful event predicted, the withdrawal of the Spirit. First, the fact. Under the Jewish economy there was a law of extremity; there were sins for which there was no forgiveness, no blood, no lamb, no sacrifice, no provision made. Is there such a law under the Christian dispensation? I answer, there is; and that law Jesus Christ read up eighteen hundred years ago. It is contained in Matt. 12:31. "All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men, but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men." This sin is not some sudden work, not some one deed, but a quenching of the Spirit, a settled resistance, day by day, till the blessed Spirit is vexed, quenched, driven away. Dr. Chalmers observes on this subject, "The sin against the Holy Ghost is not some awful and irrevocable deed, around which a disordered fancy has thrown a superstitious array, and which beams in deeper terror upon the eye of the mind from the very obscurity by which it is encompassed." No; it is resisting the Holy Wooer till he has left us alone. Than being left alone by the Spirit, there is but one thing more awful can happen to a sinner, and that is DAMNATION. I again say, nothing this side of hell-fire is so bad as to be given up by the Spirit.
Secondly, the consequences.
1. Left without feeling; as the Bible says, past feeling.
2. Left without desire.
3. He will die very suddenly.
I believe, in my soul, that the cause of multitudes of sudden deaths is the quenching of the Spirit. "There is a sin unto death; I do not say that he shall pray for it." I John 5:16, 17.
This sin may be of a two-fold character, relating both to body and soul.
Relating, first, to the body. God lays that young woman on the bed of death in the morning of her days, in the very bloom of life; she has sinned a sin unto the death of the body. There, amidst the pain of a dissolving frame, she sheds tears of bitter repentance; and there, in that last struggle, in life's last hour, finds mercy. She is just saved, saved as by the skin of her teeth: the soul saved, the body destroyed. Take care that some of you do not go to the grave before your time.
I hope, in introducing my own experience here, I shall not be thought guilty of egotism. I have had, for years, a list of persons to pray for; and, when one dies, I strike off that name and put on another. Letter after letter comes announcing the death of some one or other of them. O, how many has death struck off my list! I hope you Christians have your lists. Whether you have or not, the great Jesus has you all on his list, and he pleads for you; but there is a limit to his pleading. He is represented in the parable of the barren fig tree, as saying, "Let it alone this year also, and if it bring forth fruit, well; but if not, after that thou shalt cut it down." As soon as ever Jesus shall strike you off his list, the Holy Ghost will give you up. Then, when the Holy Ghost gives you up, damnation follows: this is the consequence . I ask, then, will you come out? Come out boldly and take your stand for God. You, backsliders; you who are undecided, who stand in the way of the conversion of your father and mother; you, pew-holder; you, unconverted professors, will you decide for Christ? Decide now. I tell you, you are reaching a point on which your destiny turns; the fearful crisis approaches that decides your fate. Yes, soon it will be with you conversion or damnation. I know some of you do not like this kind of preaching. I know I may be sinking in the estimation of many intelligent persons in this congregation. I have suffered more from this kind of prophetic preaching than from anything else; but I have weighed well the consequences. I know what will win human applause, and I am willing to make the sacrifice. I am willing to be a fool for Christ's sake. Ah, says one, you are doing this for effect! Amen! AMEN! Before earth, heaven, and hell, I proclaim, I AM AIMING AT EFFECT.
Now, I tell you, when the Spirit has ceased to strive with you, you will present, on your dying bed, a horrible spectacle. Not long since, in a certain town, a man was dying, a man who respected religion, who had sat in the house of God for years; and, as his end approached, his mind was in a fearful state. One of the members connected with the chapel where he sat went to see him and freely held out to him the promises, and told him salvation was free as the air. The dying man waved his hand and said, "Stop! stop! I could believe all you say, were I not offering the dregs of life to God." Death seized him, and the last words he was heard to utter were, "I could believe all you say, were I not offering the dregs of life to God." And you whom I now address, I tell you, you are sinners against God. I do not charge you with swearing, with Sabbath-breaking, with whoremongering, with adultery, but you are sinners. And what is your sin? I answer, it is mental rebellion; you refuse to yield to God's claims. Who is the greatest sinner in the universe? Why, the devil. And what was the sin of the devil? Mental rebellion. Some time ago, a number of ministers met together for the purpose of holding revival meetings. One of those ministers had a son whose heart was unsubdued. He had been trained up at their family altar; he had listened, from time to time, to the word of God; had heard, from day to day, the pleadings of his father with Heaven for his conversion. Yet he still stood out. He had constantly before him the holy example of a devoted father and mother and, in answer to their private intercessions for him, he had been the subject of deep convictions; but he resisted the Spirit. He was seen one night at the revival meeting. One of the ministers entreated him to give his heart to God; but, in sullen rebellion, he still resisted. When the meeting closed, and he returned home, his anxious mother got him alone, and urged him to yield to God (you know how mothers can plead). He gave that mother a look as fierce as that of a demon, and said, "Mother, I tell you, I would rather be damned than yield." No sooner had the words escaped his lips, than he stumbled, and fell at her feet. When she raised him up, he was a corpse; his face was blanched in death. But I have not told you all; the last words she heard him say were, "I am damned, I am damned!" Why such a tender mother's heart was permitted to be wrung with anguish so deep, God only knows. Now, what was the sin of that young man? Why, mental rebellion.
God's Holy Spirit is striving now with you, backslider; with you that are undecided; with you, pew-holders; with you, uncontrite professors; and you refuse to yield. What is the sin you are now deliberately committing? Why, mental rebellion. Now, I ask you, will you seek the forgiveness of your sins? I tell you, if you leave this chapel tonight unsaved, you are guilty of mental rebellion. The young man said, in words, "I would rather be damned than yield." You say, by conduct that speaks louder than words, "I would rather be damned then yield." I leave the great Author of the universe, before whose tribunal you must stand, the Judge of men, to decide which is the greatest sinner. "And the Lord said, My Spirit shall not always strive with man."