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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 42

Sermon — Galatians v. 1

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Galatians v. 1.

"The liberty wherewith Christ hath made us fre'

A Few Sundays ago I endeavoured to point out to you, my friends, some of the lessons which, it appeared to me, were taught by present social and political troubles. To-day, I propose to address to you a few plain remarks on the ecclesiastical and religious troubles of the present, and to draw your attention to the lessons which these troubles seem to teach us.

Ecclesiastical and religious history runs no more smoothly than social and political history. From the beginning the Christian Church has been the battle-field of contending parties. Even when the Master was on earth, his disciples strove as to which should be the greatest. Even a Paul and a Peter had their sharp contentions. Even Churches, over which the great Apostle of the Gentiles presided, had their sects and party cries—"I am of Paul, and I of Apollos, and I of Cephas, and I of Christ." The present times form no exception to the rule. As in the days of our Lord, as in the time of Peter and Paul, as in the Corinthian and Galatian Churches of the first century, as in the days of Athanasius and Arius in the fourth century, of Augustine and Pelagius in the fifth century; or to come down to a later period, as in the clays of Luther, Calvin, Zwinglius, and them that follow after, of whom the time would fail us to tell, so is it to-day. From the beginning until now the history of Christianity has been a history of conflict between opinion and opinion, sect and sect, genuine Christianity and pseudo-Christianity, darkness and light. The course of our religion, as of all human life, has been like a winding stream flowing over a rugged channel, now lost in darkness, now foaming and swelling over its narrow banks, now dashing against jutting rocks, now sweeping away opposing sand-banks with the houses which foolish men had raised upon them.

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Never was there a time perhaps since the Protestant Reformation when men's minds have been so much stirred as at present. The waters roar and are troubled, the mountains shake with the swelling thereof. As in the political world the demos has taken to itself its power and reigned, so in the religious world. The divine right of kings in the one case, the divine right of ecclesiastical rulers in the other, has been superseded by a new order of things. And just as in the State we are beginning to feel the full force of the democratic movement which has been gradually maturing, so in the Church we are also beginning to feel all that was meant by the Protestant Reformation. Principles are being pressed to their fulfilment—questions which were once only in the background come to the front, and clouds which were only like a man's hand now cover the heavens with threatening darkness.

This movement in the Church does not take its rise from one source. It is partly political. We all know how the Protestant Reformation was not a purely religious movement. There were those who took part in it from political motives. So, still, the cry for liberty in the Church is in part a cry born of our democratic tendencies. The present movement in the Church is partly also intellectual. The revival of learning had something to do with the Protestant Reformation. So, still, the intellectual activity of the Western nations has much to do with the demand for religious liberty and the present conflict of opinions. The expanding, searching, truth-loving mind seeks room in which to live and move. And lastly, this movement in the Church is religious in the strict sense of that word. The Protestant Reformation was in great measure brought about by the low spiritual tone, and the gross immoralities of the Church. Had the Church, in the sixteenth century, been a deeply spiritual and moral Church—had there been men in it of the stamp of the Oxford Tractarians—men like Newman or Manning, a reformation would have been much more difficult. So, still, the demands of men's moral and spiritual nature have some-thing to do with the modern struggle. The Christian soul cries out for what is spiritual and true. It rebels against what crushes our finer feelings, or materialises the spiritual. The so-called liberal writers and teachers of our day have not been mere intellectual men. They have been driven out of old grooves of thinking and speaking by their hearts and souls, as well as by their intellects, just as we are told our first Protestant reformers page 3 were—just as men like Wicklyffe, Huss, Luther, Wishart, Knox, were moved from the heart, as well as from the head—may we not say? just as the Lord Himself and his Apostle Paul, the greatest reformers whom the world has ever seen, were no mere political or intellectual giants, but men who, by the power of their mighty souls, stirred the world and shook the old religions to their foundations. Thus, as we have said, the present movement in the Church does not take its rise in one source. It is political, intellectual, moral and spiritual. The streams issuing from these different sources have met and formed that mighty rushing river whose waves to-day lift up their heads and make a mighty noise.

And truly the sound of these many waters has gone through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. The literature of the day is intensely theological. You cannot read a common magazine without stumbling on the religious question. Even the newspapers must talk about it, in their own sometimes flippant way. The Churches, and especially our own Presbyterian Churches, are being stirred and shaken by it to their very foundations. Read the accounts of our last Scottish Assemblies. The Church, which of all others was regarded as the most conservative and orthodox, has suddenly developed the newest tendencies of theological thought. I refer to the Free Church of Scotland which, by a majority of only two in her Assembly, has decided to libel one of her most distinguished professors, on account of his views regarding the date and authorship of the Book of Deuteronomy. A sister Church, the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland, has also suspended one of her well-known ministers because of his views on future punishment. The Established Church of Scotland has rejected, not for the first time, a motion to relax the formula of subscription which has to be signed by her elders. These are but ripples on the surface of a great movement which is going on secretly and silently often but surely, in the depths of all our Churches. These are but the straws which show in what direction the wind is blowing. The painful discussions, the restlessness, anxiety, sense of insecurity, suspicion winch these cases have given rise to, are symptomatic of a wide-spread movement, of pain, restlessness, sense of insecurity, anxiety, suspicion and distrust, far wider and deeper than many suppose. Who that loves the Church of Christ, brethren, believing that in it is wrapped up the light and hope of this dark world—who that loves his fellow-men, and longs for the progress and perfection page 4 of his race—can fail to be touched by these signs of the times, and to look on with eager interest and beating heart at the advance of that mighty tidal wave which, rising in the day of Luther, and gathering force through these three eventful centuries of education, research, philosophy, and criticism, is now rolling over the Christian Church, causing the hearts of good men often to tremble, like that of Eli for the ark of God, while vile men walk on every side, and rejoice in the unseemly panic and consternation!

This, brethren, is no alarmist view of the present state of ecclesiastical affairs; and what is, perhaps, far more important, of the religious perplexities and fears by which the hearts and minds of many good Christian people have in these days been beset. No one who has eyes to see and ears to hear, can fail to discern these plain signs of the times; and no one who is religiously in earnest can fail to ask what these things mean.

Now, what are some of the lessons which these dangers and troubles should teach us?

In the first place, the ecclesiastical and religious troubles of the present, like the social and political troubles of the present, to which a few Sundays ago we referred, should teach us the Necessity for Education.

As in the State, so in the Church. The Christian people have become alive to their liberty and to their power. The choice of their ministers is entrusted to them. They read and think for themselves after a fashion. They virtually control the Church. They are the Church. With them practically, and even theoretically, lies the ultimate appeal. You have manhood suffrage in the State. You have the same in the Church. A very solemn and awful power this is which has been given into the hands of the Christian people, and one which, once acknowledged, cannot be again disallowed. The time has gone past when congregations and churches could be led whithersoever their office-bearers desired. An appeal has to be made to men's understandings. Even our Roman Catholic brethren (as witness the remarkable, and in many respects excellent, lectures and addresses lately published, by Dr. Vaughan of Sydney,) have to make use of such appeals, and call upon us, in the name of reason, to return to the fold of their venerable Church. Often, we think, perhaps, that it might be better if the mass of people would submit to some infallible authority in religious as in political matters; but there is little hope of this, even if competent authority, either page 5 in Church or State, were more readily to be found than it is. There is no help for it. We must go on as Providence seems to direct, "following the truth in love," trusting in God "as a faithful Creator," to guide us to the right end, though we may have a long journey and some hard experiences before us.

But if we are to go on, brethren, in any true sense of the word, we must have more and deeper education. The three R!s, a merely commercial or technical education, such as we are often disposed to rest satisfied with, will not suffice. The Christian people must have a wider knowledge and a richer culture. For consider what are the questions which are coining up for us to decide. They are questions upon the highest subjects, questions which need hard heads and clear minds, as well as pure hearts, to solve. Take, for example, the two questions to which I have already alluded, the date and authorship of the book of Deuteronomy, and the conditions of a future state. Or take such questions as the exact date and origin of the Gospels, the authorship of the Acts and Epistles, the Pauline theology, the connection between Judaism and Christianity, the origin and growth of religious ideas, the miraculous element in Scripture—necessity and free-will, the doctrine of sin, the doctrine of sacrifice, or the apparently simple question, What is religion, and what is Christianity? These and other problems have arisen and will yet arise, as men begin to reflect. They will be brought to the front as one set of theologians comes into conflict with another and as such subjects are discussed in popular magazines or on public platforms. They cannot be avoided. The Church will be brought face to face with them, and deal with them she must. Now, how are the majority, or even a large minority of our people to deal with such questions? How are they to give an intelligent vote or voice in important Church matters at all, if they have not, as we have said, a wider knowledge and a richer culture than they at present possess? It is not necessary that all should be theologians, any more than it is necessary that all should be scientific politicians in order to exercise the franchise; but it is necessary that they should be more intelligent, better informed, and able to arrive at a commonsense and Christian judgment, or to recognise such a judgment when arrived at by others. It is necessary that they should be more intelligent and better informed, were it only to enable them to suspend their judgment where all the facts of a case are not before them.

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And yet, brethren, though this seems perfectly plain, what do we find? Do we not often find the most lamentable ignorance, superstition and prejudice, or that flippant in capacity which treatsall religious matters with impatience or disdain! We find the Christian people not only uneducated in general subjects, but ignorant of that very Bible to which they either clamorously appeal, or against which they foolishly and captiously talk. We find that, though we have had about a century of Biblical scholars and critics, the people's knowledge of the Bible is superficial, some parts of it being almost unknown to many, almost undiscoverable by well-dressed congregations. We find even teachers of religion ignorant of what has been said and thought about its different books, their date, authorship, and meaning. With how little but "the letter" do we find even those to be acquainted who profess to know their Bibles well! And when we go beyond the Bible, with what ignorance or misunderstanding of religious subjects do we not meet! Are there twenty people here to-day who have even heard of some of those questions to which we have already alluded? And yet we are coming up face to face with such questions, a nd on the answer perhaps to them, we are to determine whether a minister is fit to be a minister of Christ and a physician of souls or not! We are called to give our judgment on men who have made such questions their life-study, and say whether they are orthodox or not! We, the Christian people, have taken the power into our own hands, and yet know nothing of Church history, nothing of what Bible scholars have said, nothing of what good earnest men whose minds have been cast in a different mould from ours, or whose experience has been different from, perhaps wider and more varied than ours, have thought and felt! The thing is monstrous. We are to decide on questions to which we had never given a week's serious thought previous to their being brought before us! We are to decide as to who wrote the Pentateuch, as to the date of the Psalms, as to the theology of Paul and John, and other such like matters; and yet we hardly know our Bibles—at least we do not know the literature of the Bible!

It is this ignorance, brethren, which lies at the root of much of the commotion and disturbance which we are at present witnessing in the ecclesiastical world. Ignorance is the mother of superstition, fear, and angry confusion. If these important intellectual difficulties which are coming to the front, are to be fairly met by us for ourselves—if the men who are pushed to the ecclesiastical page 7 bar are to be fairly tried by the Christian people—we must have a wider knowledge and a richer culture in the Church, among the elders, the ministers, and the private members of our congregations. This, I think, is the first lesson which present ecclesiastical troubles plainly teach—the necessity for better education and instruction in the school, in the home, and from the pulpit—so that both young and old may be able to meet intelligently the problems which in the course of Providence are presented to them.

A second lesson which present troubles seem to teach us is—The Necessity for Moke Ecclesiastical Liberty. Here we stumble, my friends, upon a very intricate and difficult subject, but it is one which the Church must face in some way or other, if she is to have intelligent, truthful, and competent ministers and elders to preside over her, and if she is to be a healthy, vigorous Church, doing the work which God has given her to do in the present and the future.

Intelligent, educated men, will not readily enter a society where they are liable any moment to be bearded, misrepresented and abused by thoughtless or ignorant people. Conscientious men will not care to be tied down by burdensome formulas of subscription. Prudent men will not care to become servants of a Church which may any day turn round upon them, and threaten them and their families with pains and penalties, if in the course of their study and experience they should come to take a different view from that which they may previously have held of literary questions or theological theories. Good men—men with the free spirit of Jesus Christ in them, will not care to have their souls' life hampered by the commandments of men and the tradition of the elders, or to be tied down as to what they should think and feel, by popular prejudice or the limited experiences of others. The free man of Christ cannot suffer his heart and soul to be made the slaves of men. And so the consequence will be that the management of the Church will fall into the hands of the ignorant—the lazy—the fanatical—the honest and pious, but weak-minded—or into the hands of mere "use and wont" men. This is no imaginary danger, my friends. It is a real danger which at present besets us, and to which it would be well if all who really love the Church, and desire to see her doing all that she might do, and being all that she might be, would take heed ere it be too late.

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But it may be said, What would you have? Will you allow infidels and atheists to rush in upon us? Certainly not, if we can avoid it (though it is difficult, even under the present system, to prevent practical unbelievers from invading the offices of the Church.) But we would have the door to office in the Christian Church thrown open wide as Christian charity can open it—wide as we can think Christ Himself would throw it open were He here again. We would have the door of admission to Church membership, eldership, and ministry widened, so as to admit every man, otherwise qualified by a certain amount of necessary knowledge or by special gifts, who in his life and conversation showed, as only life and conversation can show, that he belonged to the band of Christ's disciples, and was inspired with the spirit of Christ. We would have the door of ecclesiastical liberty so wide that no such unseemly wrangling and division could take place as we have lately witnessed in our Scottish Churches, wrangling and division over questions which can only be fairly settled in the quiet impartial atmosphere of the student's study. We would, in the interest of fair play, honesty, and truth, have it so ordered that no good man who was willing to do Christ's work and labour for God's Kingdom, should be in danger of pains and penalties, or be branded as anti-Christian because his views on the authorship of Deuteronomy, or the exact conditions of the future world, or the Song of Solomon, or the nature of angels, were different from the popular conceptions on such subjects. We are not saying that it is all the same what views on these and other subjects a Christian holds, but simply that there is something of more importance than these, and that the truth on these things would be more likely to be discovered if men felt that they were free to think and search and speak—if they felt that the only thing which could bring disgrace upon them would be unfaithfulness to the law of truth and love, neglect of Christian duty, prejudice, bigotry, or dishonest judgment.

Doubtless, brethren, we have ecclesiastical liberty to a certain extent. There are points which by almost universal consent have been left open. No man now would be interfered with for not accepting the doctrine of six days creation, or of the damnation of the heathen, or for exercising his critical powers on what are considered "non-essential" matters. Common sense and growing enlightenment would not suffer any one to be persecuted for differing page 9 on certain points from the traditions of the Fathers; but our ecclesiastical liberty is more wrung from us than gracefully granted, and any day some less enlightened member of the Church may put the ecclesiastical machinery in motion to crush a more enlightened brother for his views on Deuteronomy, or the Song of Solomon, or the future life, or some other question of theology or literary criticism. We must have orderliness in the Church, no doubt,—some recognised symbols and forms—but the present cumbrous system seems rather to lead to disorderliness, anger, malice, and all uncharitableness, and is in many ways unfavorable to the attainment of truth.

A last lesson, brethren, which present troubles seem to teach us is The Necessity for More Spiritual and Practical Views of What Christianity is.

The root of much trouble is, that we have confounded Christian faith, hope, and charity with certain intellectual propositions, with certain views of history, with certain traditions and commandments of men. We are like those in the Galatian Church to whom the Apostle Paul wrote so urgently, bidding them leave the old legalistic and traditional view of religion, and stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ had made them free. We are like the Corinthians who called themselves by party names, mistaking party for Christianity. A great deal of our quarrelling and discussion, and also, it may be added, of our honest perplexity and consternation about new views and innovations in doctrine and ritual, may be accounted for by the fact that we have not realised what it is to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, and have departed from the simplicity of "the troth as it is in Jesus." What was it that made the Apostle Paul so tolerant, so clear, and so sensible, in his judgment of the questions which the Corinthians and Galatians brought before him? What raised him above party-strifes and war-cries? Was it indifference? No; it was simply this, that he had apprehended more fully than others that "for which he had been apprehended by Christ Jesus." It is when we see into the heart of things, when we have grasped principles, that our minds become clear and calm. And this is the reason why we are not calm: We are not spiritually minded; we have not seen into the heart of Christianity, and have not felt in our souls the liberty wherewith Christ has set us free—the liberty of sons in a father's house—the liberty of Christ's friends, whose page 10 hearts beat in unison with His. "In Christ Jesus," wrote Paul to the Galatians, who were still wrangling about circumcision, still associating Christ with the observance of "days and months and times and years"—"In Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, but faith which worketh by love." Had the Galatians only realised this, questions of ritual and doctrine would have fallen into their proper place. And so, if the Church of the present day realised this more fully—that to be a Christian is to be a spiritually-minded man, to be in spiritual sympathy with Jesus, to be a friend of Christ, and a child of the Highest—if we more fully realised that Christianity is a life hid with Christ in God, a practical earnest life of faith and love, a battle for the Kingdom of God and His righteousness—questions about the authorship of Deuteronomy or the Song of Solomon or future punishments, about Sabbath days and ritual, and other matters which now seem to us so important, and over which we wrangle and quarrel, calling each other bad names—would fall into their proper place, and the truth about them would be more likely to be reached. We have need of the Apostle Paul among us again, with his clear spiritual eye, to point out to us what it is to be a Christian, to bid us yield ourselves to the Spirit of Christ, and leave other things to settle themselves in a rational and truthful way. Our Churches and Church-Courts need to be baptised afresh with the Holy Ghost and with fire, with the living, loving Spirit of Him who came not to sit in judgment on men's opinions, but to preach good tidings to the poor; to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord; and who commanded His disciples to seek first—not orthodoxy or heterodoxy, not details of Church government or ecclesiastical "orders," not seat-rents, collections, and other external matters on which we spend so much thought and breath—but the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. "Be perfect," said he, "as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. Whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my mother and sister and brother." "In Christ Jesus," said Paul, "neither circumcision availeth anything nor uncircumcision, but a new creature."

All these disputes and troubles seem to me to read us a lesson, and it is this, that we should go back more to the simple elements of religion, and thinking less of the letter of the Bible, less of forms and traditions page 11 strive to cultivate a deeper, simpler, healthier, more Christ-like and Paul-like piety.

Christian brethren, let us seek to learn these lessons. Strive, in the first place, to be as intelligent and enlightened as you can be in your intellectual views on religious questions; strive as conscientious and responsible men to follow the truth in love; strive also to teach your children religion in the most intelligent and enlightened way, for it is on account of your children more even than of you that I am concerned.

Use your influence, in the second place, in support of ecclesiastical liberty. If you are really in earnest, if you really love the Church and desire that she should fulfil her noble mission to your families, your nation, your fellow-men, do not stand aloof as you are at present doing, and leave one or two men to fight the battle single-handed, but speak a decided word when you can in favour of toleration and charity as being the soundest and most Christian policy amid present troubles.

And, lastly, cultivate a deeper and healthier piety (I do not use the word as a mere cant phrase)—a humble, reverent, and devout mind—a wholesome, practical Christianity, which shall be known, not by its words or forms merely, but by the tenor of your lives. Cultivate that spiritual knowledge of the truth which alone can make you free—free as a son in a father's house,—partakers of that spiritual insight, that liberty of love, wherewith Christ has made us free; without which, however rich and wide our mental culture, however great our ecclesiastical liberty, we cannot hope to "come unto the unity of the Faith, unto a perfect man in Christ.

Fergusson and Moore, Printers, 48 Flinders Lane East, Melbourne.