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SALVATION A DIFFICULT WORK.
“Enter ye in at the strait gate; for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”
IN these words our Lord uttered a startling and awful truth. He declared, that they who make forfeit of eternal life are many, and they who gain it few. And the reason He affirmed to be this: that the way of destruction is broad, and the way of life narrow. By these words, He designed to express some great difficulty which lies in the way of salvation, some barrier which few surmount.
Now one thing is most certain; I mean, that this difficulty is not of God’s making. He “would have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”1717 1 Tim. ii. 4. “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.”1818 Ezek. xxxiii. 11. “God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whoso ever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”1919 St. John iii. 16. It is not, then, any difficulty ordained of God; and therefore it is plain that it must be on man’s part; that it is something in our own nature, I mean a moral difficulty. And what this is we will go on to examine.
And, first, strange as it may seem, the difficulty will be found in the unwillingness of men to be saved. In holy Scripture this is broadly charged upon mankind. God asks, as pleading with His people, “Why will ye die?” And our Lord, weeping over Jerusalem, “How often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!”2020 St. Matt. xxiii. 37. And again, “Ye will not come unto me, that ye may have life.”2121 St. John v. 40. And in the parable of the marriage-feast, a type of eternal life, “They all with one consent began to make excuse.” It is manifest that there is in man’s nature a deep and settled unwillingness, which is the first and great est barrier to his salvation; an unwillingness not simply to be saved, that is, to be made everlastingly blessed this, as a mere end of their desires, all men long after—but an unwillingness to be saved in the way of salvation which God has ordained. They would fain enter into the strait gate, if they could do it without repenting, or denying self, or crossing their own will, or changing their way of life. If they might-live on to the very threshold of His kingdom with an unchastened heart, and then, without struggle, shed off the unmortified body of sin and death, and enter new-born into His joy; if, after a life of self-indulgence, they could inherit eternal bliss, and so draw out the indolent, self-pleasing luxury of earth into the perfect blessedness of heaven, then, indeed, there would be no unwillingness; then the way of life should be broad enough, and many should go in thereat; and the way of destruction narrow, and there should be few that find it. But it is the severe holiness of salvation from which they shrink, because the carnal mind is enmity against God. They know that salvation is, the being saved from sin, from its guilt and from its soil, from the power with which it rules over us, from the love with which we cling to it;—in a word, it is the healing of the soul; the cleansing of its deadly sickness; the making of the sinful creature a holy being. From this men shrink by the recoil of their natural will. They too clearly see that it is from themselves that they must be saved; from what they love and pamper with perpetual license; that they must renounce what they are, and become what they are not; that they must absolutely submit their will to be changed and subdued to His will;—and they are not prepared to put so great a yoke upon themselves. And, besides this, the thought of God’s awful and searching presence, all pure, all holy, is insufferable. They feel the awful contrast of their own sullied spirits with His spotless sanctity; and they can neither endure to forsake the sins they doat on, nor dare to draw nigh Him without repentance. And this unwillingness which all men have by nature is greatly aggravated by the habit of their lives. Every act of sin excites it. Sinful acts, as they multiply into habits, and combine into a settled character, turn a man’s heart aside from God with a most stedfast alienation. The power of evil, and the hold of the world, grow stronger upon such a man. He has more to break through, more to forsake, more to mortify; and the effort becomes daily harder and less hopeful. It is not only sins of the grosser sort, and habitual familiarity with evil, that determine the will of man against God. An angry or a sullen temper, jealousy, fondness for trifles and worldly vanity, levity, ambition, and the hardness of heart which is seldom far from a soft, self-pleasing mind,—all these things foster a secret dislike of the severities of personal religion, and make a man unwilling to enter in at the strait gate. Nay, even the pure-minded have need to watch; for the world is ever shedding a silent influence upon us; it deadens the keen tact of conscience, and entangles us in unseen toils, and draws the will secretly from God. Many who are pure from grosser evil may forfeit eternal life through a slothful indisposition to strive against their conscious faults. This, then, is one form of the great moral difficulty which must be overcome by all who would enter into life.
2. There is yet another, not wholly unlike in kind, but more subtle, and therefore not less dangerous. Let us suppose a man to have made the first bold and successful struggle, to have burst through the bonds and trammels of an evil or a worldly life, and to have submitted himself to the merciful severity of God: thenceforward his life is a perpetual warfare; as before against God, so now against himself; and that because the reluctance of his natural will is not absolutely changed, but only held in check. He is willing in the main to submit to repentance and self-denial, and to the crossing of his daily choice; or, in a word, to yield himself up to be saved in the awful way of God’s appointment. But though willing in the main purpose of his mind, and in the general resolution of his heart, he is found unwilling in the particular instances which make up his actual salvation. He is willing to be delivered from all sins, until he is tempted. Each particular temptation has its lure and its spell to draw him to a new consent. His old disease returns upon him in detail. There is an uncertainty, a weakness, and a wavering about such men,—a readiness to pass impostures upon their own conscience: and all these make it hard for them to win eternal life.
The reasons of this are many. The power of his old habits is upon him still; and, as the original fault of man’s nature inclines him to evil gene rally, so they give a man a leaning and proneness to particular sins. His will is weaker on that side where it has been wont to yield; he is more vulnerable, more liable to be tempted,—as a constitutional liability to any sickness makes a man more readily take infection; for his former habits have laid up a provision for future falls. They leave in him something upon which temptation may kindle; in the words of a wise spiritual guide and bishop of the Church, they are like a taper newly quenched, which starts again into a flame at the first approaches of a light. Most unlike to Him in whom the prince of this world, when he came, had nothing on which to fasten. On Him temptations fell harmless, as sparks are quenched upon the surface of a pure fountain.
Once more; in such a man as we speak of, the new strength of better habits is not as yet confirmed. And here again the power of past evil reappears. It not only claims a dominion of its own, but it mars the beginnings of a holier character. It perpetually breaks up the first foundations, unsettling them as soon as they are laid, baffling our toil, and mocking us by continual defeats. No man knoweth, but God only, what is the hurt inflicted upon man’s spiritual nature by familiar consent to evil; what is the deterioration of the moral being in the scale of His redeemed creatures. It scathes and deadens the spiritual sense, and leaves fearful scars and seams on our inmost soul. It seems to make us less susceptible of holiness: for by a course of disobedience not only is the antagonist resistance of the mind increased, but even its passive powers are diminished. As, for instance, what is it that hinders the deeper sorrow of repentance, but a former habit of treating sin with levity? What makes devotion well nigh impossible, but a past habit of living with out prayer? What makes it so hard to sustain a habitual consciousness of God’s presence, but an early habit of living without that consciousness? There has come over the spiritual nature an inaptness, and often an antipathy. As in some men the keenness of the eye and ear is blunted, and the very first laws of harmony and beauty be come unintelligible, and even irksome; so is it with holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord. We squander and abuse the mysterious powers of our spiritual being, and daily create around us new obstructions in the way of our salvation, narrowing the path and straitening the gate by which alone we can enter into life.
But hitherto I have seemed to speak only of those who, after an evil or worldly life, turn to repentance. And yet this warning is for all. It was spoken absolutely. To all mankind, as fallen men, the way of life is not more blessed than it is arduous. And that for this reason, because “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption.”2222 1 Cor. xv. 50. There must pass on each a deep and searching change. And this change, though it be wrought in us of God, is wrought through our striving. It is no easy task to gird up the energies of our moral nature to a perpetual struggle. The most watchful feels as one that strives against the half-conscious drowsiness of an oppressive poison; the purest, as he that leaves upon driven snow a dark and sullying touch; the most aspiring, as a man that aims his shafts from a strained and slackened bow; the most hopeful of eternal life, as one that toils for a far shore in a rolling and stormy sea. It is a hard thing to be a Christian. It is a hard thing to keep ourselves unspotted from the world. It is a hard thing to force our way, making an armed retreat into a position of safety; for sin, that great and manifold mystery of ill, whose root no man hath ever found, whose goings forth were before the world was made, and whose legions are unseen, hovers around with a terrible strength, and still more terrible craft. It ever hangs upon our skirts, and harasses our way to life; it waits through every day, and watches in every hour; it besets all our paths, and lurks beside all our duties; it mingles in our toils, and hides in our secret chamber, and masks itself under our religion, and follows us to the altar of God. Through all this we have to win our way to life. “We wrestle not with flesh and blood”—for then we might endure it, beholding our enemy and grappling with him face to face,—“but we wrestle against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”2323 Ephes. vi. 12. These throng the way to life, and cast down the unwary, and overbear the wavering soul, and mar the beginnings of repentance: therefore are they who find eternal life but few.
Such, then, is the warning of our Lord. And these are some of the many difficulties which beset our way to heaven. We are bid to strive. Salvation is not the by-play of our idle hours, when the mind is wearied with overtoiling for this life, or cloyed with the oppressive customs of the world. It demands a manly and a resolute heart, or that still strength which faith gives to the most feminine and gentle spirit.
Beware, then, of an easy, acquiescing temper, which lulls you to be secure. What is meant by “wide is the gate and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction,” but that a man needs only to follow his own will; only to let his thoughts, and words, and lusts wander and run on unchecked, and he is in as fair a way to perish, as a ship without a helm, where there is but one haven and a thousand shoals? By a natural law man leans towards destruction. It may be called the gravitation of a fallen being; and let a man only be at ease in himself, and satisfied with what he is, and consent to the usurping customs of the world, drawing in the unwholesome breath of refined evil, and letting his moral inclination run its natural course, without check or stay, and he will most surely tide onward, with an easy and gentle motion, down the broad current of eternal death. Such a man is seldom strongly tempted. The less marked solicitations of the tempter are enough. The suggestion of a great sin might rouse his conscience, and scare him from the toils. We may take this, then, as a most safe rule, that a feeling of security is a warning to be suspicious, and that our safety is to feel the stretch and the energy of a continual strife.
But there is also another thing to remember. Our blessed Lord did not give this warning to discourage, but to rouse us. He well knew that men always despise things easy to be done; that they think what may be done easily may be done at any time; and that what may be done by a little effort is often never done at all. And men are ever ready to believe that it is no hard task to enter into life; and this, as knowing neither the holiness of God’s kingdom, nor the sin that is in themselves. He therefore told them the naked truth, startling, awful, and unpalatable as it must ever be; and by this He tried the reality and strength of their intentions. Let no man, therefore, go away cast down. A consciousness of difficulty is to the true of heart a spur to efforts, and therefore a pledge of success at last. Only resolve to win eternal life, and He will accept your resolution as a pure offering. Measure your daily life upon your resolve; shun all things that can betray your stedfastness; cleave to all that may strengthen or confirm your vow. Only be true to yourselves; and all help and all succour shall be given you. Twelve legions of angels shall wrestle for you, rather than that one faithful spirit perish from the way of life. To this end you were born, and for this cause came you into the world, that you should inherit the kingdom of God. Lose this, and all is lost. “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul; or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”
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