The Laws of Christ for Common Life. Chapter 18. An Ethical Revival
14 min read
14 min read
During the last hundred years we have had two great religious movements in England, each of which may be fairly described as a religious revival. The earlier movement, originated by Whitfield and the Wesleys, rescued large masses of the English people from practical atheism. It reached the highest point of its power in the first quarter of the present century, and about 1830 began to decline.
In 1833 there were the first faint indications of a religious movement of a very different character. Scoffed at and despised in its earlier years, vehemently and passionately denounced a few years later, it continued to gather strength, until it began to change the whole temper and faith of the English Church. It has at last become, as some think, the most energetic element in the religious life of the nation.
Its influence has been felt beyond the limits of the Establishment, and even among those religious communities which are most hostile to its characteristic theology. It is to this movement that must be largely ascribed the recent activity of all Christian denominations in erecting and beautifying their church buildings. The money expended for these purposes during the last thirty years has been enormous. Ancient churches, which were falling into decay, have been restored. “Meeting-houses,” which had satisfied the tastes of several generations of devout worshippers, and which were perfectly sound from foundation to roof, have disappeared, and have been replaced with buildings having nave and chancel, Gothic arches, tower or spire, and windows blazing with angels and saints. New churches on new sites have been erected, and their architecture is a witness to the triumph of the ecclesiastical movement which took its rise at Oxford and has spread all over the land. Never, I imagine, has so large an amount of money been devoted, within the same time and within the same area, to church building. And it has been devoted freely — not forced from men by the authority of princes or by the menaces of priests.
Although there is still a vast proportion of our people that neglect public worship, it cannot be said that the churches are desolate and neglected. In cathedrals, which were once a desolation from one year’s end to another, there are now crowded congregations. Wherever the Gospel is preached with fervour and earnestness men throng to hear. And the services of every religious denomination are celebrated with greater solemnity and dignity than formerly; the arrangements for worship are no longer slovenly and careless.
Nor is this all. During the same period attempts have been made, on a great scale, to evangelise the country. Scripture-readers and city missionaries go from house to house. In the destitute parts of large towns mission-rooms are provided for the poor. New energy has been devoted to Sunday-school. From time to time men of exceptional power as evangelists, both Churchmen and Nonconformists, have preached, week after week and month after month, to numerous congregations, and, apparently, with remarkable effect.
What has come of it all? The results of the evangelical revival of the last century have been frequently discussed, and though I doubt whether we have, even yet, formed a true and complete estimate of the various elements of its weakness and power, it is in the more recent movement that we have the deeper practical interest.
Is there any analogy between the recent movement and the great revival which took place under Hezekiah, and of which we have the history in 2 Chronicles 29-31. I Can we find in the story of the Jewish people any warnings which may save us from the possible failure of the revival which, during the last fifty years, has stimulated the zeal and the activity of English Christians? At first sight, the two religious movements seem to have many points of resemblance.
Under the reign of Ahaz the Temple had been profaned, and its gates closed. Altars to Syrian gods were erected in every city of Judah, and even in the streets of Jerusalem. All this was changed at the accession of Hezekiah. As soon as he became king, he began a great reformation. The Temple was cleansed and the service restored. The people were invited to return to the God of their fathers, and the invitation created universal delight. The whole nation shared the earnestness of the king. At a great religious festival, which was held soon after he came to the throne, the priests were too few to slay the offerings which were brought voluntarily to the altars of Jehovah. “There was great joy in Jerusalem ” that the old times had come back again; “for since the time of Solomon, the son of David, king of Israel, there was not the like in Jerusalem.” Hezekiah “wrought that which was good and right and truth before the Lord his God. And in every work that he began in the service of the house of God, and in the law, and in the commandments, to seek his God, he did it with all his heart, and prospered.”
Nor does this seem to have been a mere spasmodic movement. The revival went on for many years. When the prophecy preserved in the first chapter of Isaiah was delivered, its force was unspent. In that prophecy there is no complaint that the Temple was deserted, that the solemn festivals were neglected, that sacrifices were offered reluctantly, that the people had ceased to pray.
So far, the parallel between the ancient and the modern revival seems to be fairly close. Does the parallel run farther?
When Isaiah delivered this prophecy, the religious activity of the nation was, I have said, unrelaxed. But, in God’s name, he speaks of it with fierce indignation and scorn. The sacrifices which the people offered with such fidelity — offered to the true God, offered in obedience to the Divine law— provoked the Divine disgust. The people that crowded the Temple are asked, ” Who hath required this at your hands, that ye should trample My courts? ” Your monthly assemblies for worship, your Sabbath services, ” My soul hateth; they are a trouble to Me; I am weary of bearing them. And when ye stretch forth your hands I will hide Mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers I will not hear.”
These words are alarming. They ought to be specially alarming to English Christians just now. It appears that we may be very active in church building; may give our time and our strength and our money ungrudgingly to the maintenance of the institutions of Divine worship; may have a deep and hearty delight in the public service of God; may even be. successful in our zealous endeavour to prevail upon the great masses of the people to attend church; and that God may come to regard all that we have done, not only with dissatisfaction, but with abhorrence. What was begun well may end badly. What is good as far. as it goes, may be a grievous offence to God because it does not go farther. What had the Divine approval in its earlier days may at last provoke the Divine anger. A religious revival which appears to be a great success, may, after all, be in God’s sight a disastrous failure.
The Jewish revival under Hezekiah was wrecked because it was not accompanied by a great reformation in morals. With all the religious zeal which the king had created, the private and public life of the people still continued terribly corrupt. How is it with ourselves? Has the religious movement of the last fifty years produced any considerable ethical reform? The theological aspects of the movement, which are ominous enough, may for the moment be disregarded.
As far as I am able to form any judgment on the question, there has been a positive improvement in Christian morality during this period; there has, at least, been an improvement in some directions. But I fear that the improvement has been only partial.
A selfish absorption in their own personal salvation cannot be charged indiscriminately on the Christian men and women of our times. They devote themselves in large numbers to movements for the alleviation of the’ distress and the instruction of the ignorance by which they are surrounded. The Christian Church recognises more clearly than in the last generation its responsibilities to the poor and the wretched. There are larger numbers of good men than there were fifty years ago who are faithful to municipal and political duty. In some other directions there are the signs of a moral reformation. There is greater sobriety in the Church than there was in the last century and in the beginning of the present century, and drunkenness is visited with sterner condemnation.
That the Sunday-schools and the ” Missions ” of all Churches have done very much to rescue large numbers of persons from a grossly vicious life is certain. What has happened within my own observation in connection with the work of Mr. Moody, and in connection with other evangelistic work of which I have a personal knowledge, has happened all over the country. Violent men and women have become gentle and quiet, the profane have become reverent and devout, and drunkards have become sober. Wherever the Church has reached those who were living in flagrant .vice, it has reformed them.
But it is possible that while there has been a genuine reform among those who were guilty of gross sins, and while on the part of Christian people generally there may have been a new earnestness in the discharge of some duties, the ethical revival has not kept pace with the religious, and the greater zeal for the building of churches and the celebration of religious services may not have been accompanied with any considerable and general improvement in Christian character. When there is great religious excitement there ought to be (1) an elevation of the moral ideal of the Church; and there ought to be (2) a nearer approach to that ideal in the lives of Christian men. Apart from these two results of a religious revival, the excitement may soon disappear, and may, in the long run, prove to be mischievous rather than beneficial. The most earnest and zealous evangelistic work — the most successful evangelistic work — ought to be accompanied and followed by a patient endeavour to discover more perfectly, and to obey more faithfully the will of God in relation to our common life. If we insist exclusively on God’s infinite mercy, and suppress the recognition of His august authority, our “solemn assemblies” will be an offence to Him that loveth righteousness and hateth iniquity; oitr worship will be an ” abomination” to Him; when we “spread forth our hands” in meetings for imploring the manifestation of the power and mercy of the Holy Spirit, He will ” hide ” His eyes from us, and when we ” make many prayers” He “will not hear;” Christ will refuse to be a Saviour if He is not acknowledged as a Prince.
We are watching with anxiety the drift of considerable numbers of men towards religious unbelief — with anxiety, though with less alarm than we once felt; for, if I am not greatly mistaken, the faith of the Church is firmer and its courage higher than they were a few years ago. But though the alarm is less, the anxiety remains. We see clearly that we are involved in a grave struggle with unbelief — a struggle less ‘perilous than some of the conflicts through which the Church passed triumphantly in past times, but sufficiently serious to task all our strength. We are also deeply concerned by the religious indifference of great masses of people who are unaffected by speculative objections to the Christian faith. We are entreating God to give greater energy and larger success to all the various forms of our Christian work. Our only hope is in Him. If He refuse to listen to our prayers, our position is desperate.
At such a time it is very necessary for us to remember that we have no right to expect that God will keep His promises unless we keep His commandments. The words of the prophet, ” Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before Mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do well,”” were addressed, not to the irreligious, but to those who were zealous in attending the services of the Temple and in offering their sacrifices on the altar of God. And the words which follow, ” Come, now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool,” are not an assurance that God will forgive the sins of men who have lived an irreligious life if they become devout, but an assurance that He will forgive the sins of those who have been earnest in religious services, if they set themselves honestly to the moral reformation of their own conduct. If they “put away the evil of their doings,” if they “cease to do evil, learn to do well,” God will have mercy upon them.
The moral reformation which is necessary if we are to make sure of the Divine mercy for ourselves, is equally necessary if we are to produce any general and deep and lasting impression oii the community. No matter how noble may be the churches that we build, no matter how solemn may be the religious services which we celebrate, no matter how earnestly we may preach the Gospel, no matter with what fervour we may pray to God to grant us a great religious revival, we shall fail utterly, if, in our ordinary life we show no practical proof that in the kingdom of heaven, to which we profess to belong, there is a loftier type of character than in the world outside.
Men may fairly say to us: “You are requiring us to acknowledge the authority of God — of the living God. You tell us that He abhors evil and loves righteousness, and that His ‘commandment is exceeding broad,’ and covers the whole extent of human life. But where is the proof that you yourselves are ruled by His authority? What are the laws which you keep and which we do not? What nobler virtue does God require than is required by the common opinion of Society? You say you have a revelation of His will concerning human life; but where is the trace in your business that God’s laws are better than the laws which we discover for ourselves? Where is the trace of it in your homes? Where is the trace of it in your discharge of public duty?
“You working-men who profess to be Christians, — do you work harder when the foreman is out of sight than the men who do not profess to live in the eye of God? Are you more careful of your master’s property? Are you less selfishly set on serving your own interests?
“You masters who profess to be Christians, — are you less reckless than other men in speculation? Are you more careful to give to your customers goods of the precise quality which you lead them to expect? Are you more careful not to take advantage of their ignorance? Do you care less about making a fortune rapidly, and more about carrying on your business honestly? Do you really bring all your business transactions under the eye of God? Do you submit your ledger to Him, and your pricelist, and your bill-book, and your advertisements? If you do, has God’s judgment on your transactions any effect? In your relations to your workmen are you more just and more merciful than other men, remembering that you have a Master in heaven?
“Of what use is it to tell us that zue ought to acknowledge the authority of this God whom you profess to obey, when it does not appear that His authority makes any difference to you? Show us by practical proof that there is a Divine kingdom in the world, governed by Divine laws, and that through Christ you have found your way into it, and we shall begin to believe that this kingdom is real; but if you are just like other men, we shall conclude that it is a dream.”
They may say to us again: ” Why do you ask us to believe in a judgment to come? Do you believe in it yourselves? Is there any proof that you are restrained by it from sins which you would commit if you did not believe in it? Has it any greater influence on youth than the dread of public shame has on this, or than the authority of our own consciences? If the judgment to come will be all that you say it will, you, who believe in it, ought to be constantly under its control.
“And the future life of glory of which you Christians speak — what manner of persons ought you to be, what manner of persons would you be, if you thought that life was real? Would it be possible for you to be so ambitious of winning the poorest earthly honours, if you believed that you had within your reach crowns that will never lose their lustre, thrones whose -foundations will never be shaken? If you believed in the heaven which you sing about, would you care so much for wealth, and pleasure, and social consideration? Would you be as disturbed as the rest of us by earthly troubles? Do you believe in the glory of heaven? If you do, where is the proof of it?
” And the supreme fact — the death of Christ as the atonement for the sins of the world — if your faith in this were real, you would be unselfish, filled with universal charity, eager for every generous act of self-sacrifice. A love so great, manifested in a way so august and awful — if you believed in it — would reproduce in you, and in all who profess to have received forgiveness through the death of Christ, its own noble and wonderful perfection.”
This kind of reasoning, though it may not be expressed, is being silently carried on in the minds of many who reject the Christian revelation, or who look upon it with indifference. There may be much injustice in it and much uncharitableness. We may know that the great facts in which we profess to believe exert a real and powerful influence on our practical life, and that we are different men from what we should be if we did not believe in them. But it remains true that the Church of Christ in our time is menaced by the same kind of peril under which the supremacy of the Church of Rome fell in the sixteenth century. The Church of Rome, as it has been well said, lost her doctrinal authority because she had first of all lost her pre-eminence in righteousness.
The religious revival we ought to long for, pray for, and work for, is a revival that shall affect the morals of the Church as well as its worship and religious sentiment, and ennoble the w^iole life of those who bear the Christian name. The power of the Church depends quite as much on the steadfast justice, the courageous truthfulness, the tender mercy of Christian people, as on the soundness of their creed and the fervour of their religious zeal.
I long to see the day when ‘the faith of the Church shall be so strong that the promises of God will be the adequate consolation of all Christian people in their earthly sorrows, and when the great hope of immortal glory will fill their hearts with perpetual gladness and their lips with a perpetual song; when the Church will be inspired with a more fervent love and thankfulness in the presence of the cross of Christ and with a more passionate loyalty to His throne; when worship will cease to be a weariness, and when in prayer all Christian men will approach God with perfect confidence in His power and willingness to answer them. But I also long to see the time when the Church will discover in the teaching and example of Christ the outlines of a far diviner morality; when the noblest natural ethics will look poor and dim compared with the ideal of perfection for which the Church will strive, and which, in the strength of the Spirit of God, it will largely fulfil; when the equity, truthfulness, frankness, courage, industry, patience, temperance, self-sacrifice, public spirit, gentleness, charity of those who bear the Christian name, will be a perpetual demonstration of the presence and the power of the Holy Ghost.
A moral revival is as necessary as a revival of faith and of the religious affections. It is not our own salvation merely which is at stake, though our personal peril ought to create alarm if, while professing to trust in the love of God, we are habitually violating His law; for our religious faith and fervour do not in any sense palliate our moral guilt, but aggravate it. and, instead of averting ultimate condemnation, will only make it more terrible. But the authority of the Christian faith is also at stake. If Christian men are not actually controlled in their common life by all that they profess to believe; if their worship has no effect upon their common work, they are contributing more powerfully to the temporary triumph of scepticism than the writers who are most hostile to religious truth. The wonderful story of the Incarnation, — it is we who are making it incredible if we are not manifestly trying to live a nobler life than those who deny it. The authority of God, — it is we who are teaching men that there is nothing in it, if we are not afraid to sin against Him. The great promises of immortality, — it is we who are persuading men that they are but the dreams of an excited imagination, if they do not make us almost indifferent to the transient successes of this mortal life, if they do not enable us to bear the hardships of poverty with a cheerful courage, and if they do not cool the fierce passion for wealth. The warnings of God, which threaten unrighteousness with tribulation and wrath, indignation and anguish, — it is we who encourage the world to regard them without alarm, if, while they are on our lips, they do not restrain us from sin. A Church full of the life of God, loyal to the throne of God, eager, to do the will of God, is certain to be a victorious Church. But a Church in which the Divine commandments are broken — no matter though its buildings are thronged with excited worshippers; no matter though there may be magnificent generosity in the support of religious institutions; no matter though its prayers may seem to be fervent; no matter though its preachers may be eloquent and impassioned; no matter though its creed may be defended by the learning of scholars and the wit and genius of a whole army of apologists — will do nothing to propagate a real faith in the Gospel of Christ and to rescue men from eternal destruction. Men will refuse to listen to its message, and God will refuse to listen to its prayer.