PRACTICAL PIETY by Hannah More, 1811
CHRISTIANITY UNIVERSAL IN ITS REQUIREMENTS
It is not unusual to see people ignore some of the most solemn demands of Scripture by acting as if they do not apply to them. They consider these demands as belonging to the first age of the Gospel and to the individuals to whom they were immediately addressed. Consequently, they say, the need to observe them does not apply to "contemporary Christians."
These exceptions are particularly made for some of the most important teachings so forcibly and repeatedly expressed in the Epistles. Such reasoners persuade themselves that it was only the Ephesians who were "dead in trespasses and sin." "It was only the Galatians," they say, who were told "not to fulfill the lusts of the flesh." It was only the Philippians who were "enemies of the cross of Christ." Since they know neither the Ephesians, Galatians or Philippians, they have little or nothing to do with the reproofs or threatenings which were originally directed to the converts among those people. They console themselves with the belief that it was only these pagans who "walked according to the course of this world," who were "strangers from the covenants of promise" and were "without God in the world."
But these self-satisfied critics would do well to learn that not only "circumcision nor uncircumcision avails nothing," but neither does "baptism or no baptism" (I mean as a mere form). The need in both cases is "a new creature." An irreligious person who professes to be a Christian is as much "a stranger and foreigner" as is an unbeliever. He is no more "a fellow citizen of the saints and of the household of God" than a Colossian or Galatian was before the Gospel came to him.
Before their conversion, the people to whom the apostles preached had no vices to which we are not also susceptible, but they certainly had difficulties afterwards from which we are happily exempt. There were indeed differences between them and us in external situations and local circumstances, and we should take these into account. We can recognize that the epistles were addressed to specific situations, but not exclusively so. The purpose of the Scriptures—the conversion and instruction of the whole world—were far beyond limitation to any one period. Yes, these first-century converts were called miraculously "out of darkness into the marvelous light of the Gospel." Yes, they were changed from gross blindness to illumination. Yes, by embracing the new faith they were exposed to persecution, reproach and dishonor. They were a few who had to struggle against the world. The laws, principalities and powers which support our faith oppose theirs. We cannot lose sight of these distinctions. We have inherited advantages they never knew.
But however the condition of the external state of the Church might differ, there can be no difference in the interior state of the individual Christian. On whatever high principles of devotedness to God and love to man they were called to act, we are called to act in precisely the same. It may be that their faith was called to more painful exertions, their self-denial to harder sacrifices and their renunciation of earthly things to severer trials. But this would naturally be the case. The first introduction of Christianity had to combat the pride, prejudices and enmity of corrupt human nature invested with worldly power. Those in power could not fail to perceive how much this new faith opposed itself to their corruptions and that it was introducing a spirit in direct and avowed hostility to the spirit of the world.
We can be deeply thankful that we experience the diminished difficulties of an established faith, but let us never forget that Christianity allows no diminishment of the quality or abatement in the spirit which constituted a Christian in the first ages of the Church.
Christianity is precisely the same religion now as it was when our Savior was on earth. The spirit of the world is exactly the same now as it was then. And if the most eminent of the apostles, under the guidance of inspiration, was given to lament their conflicts with their own corrupt nature (the power of temptation combining with their natural inclinations to evil), how can we expect that a weaker faith and slackened zeal will be accepted in us? Believers then were not called to a more elevated devotion, a higher degree of purity, deeper humility or greater virtue, patience and sincerity than we are called today. The promises are not limited to the period in which they were made, and the aid of the Spirit is not confined to those on whom He was first poured out. Peter expressly declared that the Holy Spirit was promised not only to them and94 their children, "but to all who are afar off, even to as many as the Lord our God shall call."
If the same salvation is now offered as was offered at first, is it not obvious that it must be worked out in the same way? The Gospel retains the same authority in all ages. It maintains the same universality among all ranks. Christianity has no bylaws, no individual exemptions, no individual immunities. That there is no appropriate way for a prince or a philosopher to achieve his own salvation is probably one reason why greatness and wisdom have so often rejected it. But if rank cannot plead its privileges neither can genius claim its distinctions. Christianity does not owe its success to the arts of rhetoric or the reason of schools, because God intended by it to make "foolish the wisdom of the world." This actually explains why the disputers of this world have always been its enemies.
It would have been unworthy of the infinite God to have imparted a partial religion. There is but one gate and that a "strait one." There is but one way and that a "narrow one." The Gospel enjoins the same principles of love and obedience on all of every condition. It offers the same aids under the same difficulties, the same supports under all trials, the same pardon to all penitents, the same Savior to all believers and the same rewards to all who "endure to the end." The temptations of one condition and the trials of another may call for the exercise of different qualities for the performance of different duties, but the same personal holiness is commanded for all. External acts of virtue may be promoted by some circumstances and impeded by others, but the graces of inward godliness are of universal force and eternal obligation.
The universality of its requirements is one of Christianity's most distinguishing characteristics. In the pagan world it seemed sufficient that a few exalted people, a few fine geniuses should soar above the mass. But it was never expected that the mob of Rome or Athens should aspire to any religious feelings in common with Socrates.
The most incontrovertible proof that "the world did not know God through wisdom" is furnished by ancient Greece. At the very time and in the very country in which knowledge and taste had attained their utmost perfection, when education had given laws to human intellect, atheism first assumed a shape and established itself into a school of philosophy. It was at the moment when the intellectual powers of Greece were carried to their highest pitch that it was settled as an infallible truth in this philosophy that the senses were the highest natural light of mankind. And it was in the most enlightened age of Rome that this atheistic philosophy was transplanted there.
It seems as if the most accomplished nations stood in the most pressing need of the light of revelation; for it was not to the dark corners of the earth that the apostles had their earliest missions. One of Paul's first and noblest expositions of Christian truth was made before the most august assembly in the world, on the Areopagus in Athens—although it appears that only one person was converted. In Rome some of the apostle's earliest converts belonged to the Imperial Palace. It was to the metropolis of cultivated Italy, to the "regions of Achaia," to the opulent and luxurious city of Corinth, in preference to the barbarous countries of the uncivilized world that some of his first epistles are addressed.
Even natural religion was little understood by those who professed it. It was full of obscurity until viewed by the clear light of the Gospel. Not only did natural religion need to be clearly comprehended, but reason itself remained to be carried to its highest pitch in countries where revelation was professed. Natural religion could not see itself by its own light, reason could not extricate itself from the labyrinth of error and ignorance in which false religion had involved the world. Grace has raised nature. Revelation has given a lift to reason and taught her to despise the follies and corruptions which obscured her brightness. If nature is now delivered from darkness, it was the helping hand of revelation which raised her from the rubbish in which she lay buried.
Christianity has not only given us right conceptions of God, of His holiness, of the way in which He would be worshiped, it has really taught us the right use of reason. It has given us those principles of examining and appraising by which we are enabled to judge the absurdity of false religions. "For to what else can be ascribed," says Sherlock, "that in every nation that names the name of Christ, even reason and nature see and condemn the follies to which others are still, for want of the same help, held in subjection?"
Suppose, however, that Plato and others seem to have been taught of heaven, yet the point is that their philosophy made no provision for the common people. The millions were left to live without knowledge and to die without hope. For what knowledge or what hope could he acquired from their preposterous though amusing and elegant mythology? But they provided no common principle of hope or fear, of faith or practice, no source of consolation, no bond of charity, no communion of everlasting interests, no equality between the wise and the ignorant, the master and the slave, the Greek and the barbarian.
A religion was needed which would apply to everyone. Christianity happily filled the common urgent need. It furnished an adequate answer to the universal distress. Instead of perpetual but unexpiating sacrifices to appease imaginary deities, it presents "one oblation once offered, a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world." It presents one consistent scheme of morals growing out of one uniform system of doctrines; one perfect rule of practice depending on one principle of faith. It offers grace for both. It encircles the whole sphere of duty with the broad and golden zone of charity, stamped with the inscription, "A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another."
Were this command uniformly observed, the whole frame of society would be cemented and consolidated into one indissoluble bond of universal brotherhood. This divinely enacted law is the seminal principle of justice, charity, patience, forbearance—in short, of all social virtue. That it does not produce these excellent effects is not owing to any defect in the principle, but in our corrupt nature which so reluctantly and imperfectly obeys it. If it were conscientiously adopted and substantially acted upon, if it were received in its true spirit and obeyed from the heart, human laws might he rescinded, courts of justice abolished and treatises of morality burned. War would no longer be an art, nor military tactics a science. We should be patient and kind, and so far from "seeking that which is another's," we would not even seek our own.
But let not the soldier or the lawyer be alarmed. Their expertise is not in danger! The world does not intend to act upon the divine principle which would injure their professions, and until this revolution actually takes place, our fortunes will not be secure without the exertions of the law, nor our lives without the protection of the military.
All the virtues have their appropriate place and rank in Scripture. They are introduced as individually beautiful, and as organically connected. But perhaps no Christian grace was ever more beautifully described than charity. Her incomparable painter, Paul, has drawn her at full length in all her fair proportions. Every attitude is full of grace, every feature full of beauty. The whole portrayal is perfect and entire, lacking nothing.
Who can look at this finished piece without blushing at our own lack of likeness to it? Perhaps a more frequent contemplation of this exquisite figure, accompanied with earnest endeavor to become more like it, would gradually lead us, not simply to admire the picture, but would at length incorporate us into the divine original.
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