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Communion Sunday
Discources: III. Debatable Questions

Where no oxen are, the crib is clean: but much increase is by the strength of the ox.’—Prov. xiv. 4.

I HAVE no liking at all for an affected oddity in the choice of texts on which to found this; and you may be quite sure that I have not selected this text merely because it is out of the common way. It is quite true that the attention of an nmtive and listless congregation may be aroused, first for a few minutes, by the announcement of a particular text; and then the preacher has his chance filling the ears of such people to what may be in an important instruction. But in preaching to the congregation so intelligent and attentive as this one is not driven to any expedients partaking of the nature of clap-trap : and I now bring this text before your minds because a few days since I came upon it in the course of reading in Proverbs: and, as it often happens in the experience of every preacher, the principle implied in the words came out with special clearness, as an interesting and suitable subject of discourse. Let us pray that the Blessed Spirit may help us to draw spiritual good from what in its first intention may seem nothing more than an axiom of shrewd worldly wisdom.

Of course, you see, readily enough, the obvious meaning of the sentence. If a man has got no oxen at all, he is saved any trouble which comes of one’s having oxen: but he likewise loses the good which one gets by having oxen : and that good, Solomon implies, is greater than the trouble. Where there are no oxen in the stall, the stall is readily kept in a very tidy and orderly condition : you put it right for once, and then there is nothing to put it wrong; and so it stays right. But still, on the other side of the scale, the wise man tells us, ‘ much increase is by the strength of the ox9: the fallow field is broken up by the plough the poor ox draws: the golden harvest waves in autumn, because of the spring labours of the industrious beast: then the laden waggon bears the com to the farm-yard, drawn by the ox again: and thus useful while it lives, when at last the poor creature dies, there is not a bit of it which may not be made of service to man. You must take the animal for better for worse: and doubtless in the judgment of reasonable beings, the worse is very far overbalanced by the better.

That is the literal meaning of this proverb of Solomon. But of course you know that a proverb is not said or written for the sake of its literal meaning. The worth of a proverb lies in this, that stating one case, it suggests a hundred. It sets forth a general principle. Many are the instances in which it is as here : that there is something to be said on each side of a debatable question; and it is for the wise man to weigh the matter, and judge on which side there is most to say. Thus, in a house where there are no children, the income goes much further: the father and mother can afford to have things which if they had children they could not: the dwelling is quieter, the furniture lasts longer, there is a general orderliness. Yet, with all that, those whom God has blest with children, amid all the anxieties which attend their upbringing, would not think that any worldly advantages could make up for their loss. Then, a man to whom God has given wealth, is spared many sorry calculations, much hard toil when he has little heart for it: but on the other hand he runs the risk of living a listless, useless life, or even one of gross vice and sin. So, in a National Established Church, a clergyman, being entirely independent (so far as money is concerned) of his congregation and parishioners, may possibly (if he be a man of no principle) turn lazy, and grossly neglect his duty: the thing is conceivable, though I have hardly ever seen it. But against this possible disadvantage of the system, are to be set infinitely greater advantages : the entire deliverance of the religious instructors of the people from the temptation to preach not what is true but what is pleasant: a temptation which as you know was strong enough to enable a race of slave-holders to provide for themselves a race of preachers sneaky enough and blinded enough to preach habitually that slavery is right: the lowest point of degradation, as I think, ever reached by man.

These are examples of what Solomon says in that proverb. No doubt, the thing is very plain. It seems so plain, that you would say no sensible person would ever need to be reminded of it.

But it is just one of those things of which we all need to be reminded, every day. For who is there that does not know, that a great many people, when a plausible objection is brought forward to some belief they hold, are ready at once to give up that belief as untenable; and that a great many people too, when some plausible reason is brought forward why they should do or think something, are ready to think so or to act so, without looking to the other side of the balance of reasons ? In fact, immediately on seeing that where no oxen are the crib is clean, they determine that they shall have nothing to do with oxen,—forgetting altogether the weightier consideration on the other hand, that much increase is by the strength of the ox. In brief, brethren, the practical lesson for you and me from this text is, that because we see an objection to a thing,—even a weighty and undeniable objection,—we are not, therefore, to reject that thing, till we see what there is to be said in its behalf: and further, that although we; see a reason for a thing, a strong reason, several reasons, we are not to go straight and conclude in favour of that thing, till we look, and find, and weigh, what there is to be said against it.

A great many people have been so brought up, both as regards their religious belief and their ecclesiastical views, that their actual convictions are subjected to a peculiar risk. These people (and there are many of them) have grown up under the impression that on the questions on which they have been trained to hold decided opinions, all the reasons are on one side, their own side : and when they come to find that it is not so, but that very plausible objections may be stated to their most cherished beliefs, their confidence in these beliefs is rudely shaken ; and they are (in some cases) ready to throw them aside and go over to new ways of thinking. If they had been taught (which is the fact), that wherever rational beings, not personally interested in the issue, have been ranged on different sides of a question, there must have been reasons to be pleaded on either side: that on hardly any debatable question are all the reasons on one side: then they would not have been shaken by the first skilfully-put objection to their hereditary beliefs : They would have thought, This is just what we expected, or might have expected: and even if they were not able to answer the objection at once, or at all, they would not cast aside the old belief till they had weighed the reasons on either side, and found out on which side was the greater weight. It is the preponderance of reasons and likelihoods which has determined the intelligent creed of the race, on all questions lesser and greater; and will to the end. It is not that nothing whatsoever could be said on the wrong side. Go into any court of justice, so called; and you will find how much an ingenious counsel will find to say in support of the falsest and most preposterous conclusion. Take an example. We have all been taught since we were children that certain of the essential doctrines of the Roman Church (which I hope none of you will ever call the Catholic Church) are wrong. We believe, and are sure, that they are wrong. But though there is an overwhelming balance of reason against them, which makes one (in some cases) practically as sure that they are wrong as that two and two make four; still, there is something to be said, such as it is, for even the worst of them. Take for instance the keeping back the Bible from the people : refusing to allow a man to read the Bible without the Church's explanations of it, and the priest's permission. To us, nothing appears more flagrantly wrong than to deprive any man of God's written word. Still, the Romanist has something to say for himself. He puts it that there is so much difficulty in understanding much of the Bible; that such pernicious errors have followed from false interpretations of it. All true: some of the cruellest and wickedest things men ever did in this world, they have sought to justify by the authority of God’s word. But still, on the balance of reasons: considering that for one hard text in the book, there are a hundred perfectly plain; and that for one man the Bible has led wrong, there are ten thousand it has led right; we come back, after looking at the Roman objection, to the old conviction of our childhood, that God’s word is to be put in the hand of all; 'those holy scriptures, which are able to make wise unto salvation, through faith which is in Christ Jesus.'

Think, even, of the dogma of the Infallibility of the Church. The keen Protestant puts that dogma as an instance of unheard-of arrogance. The devout Romanist puts it as an instance of deep humility and earnest faith. He says he ventures not to think that the Church, in her own wisdom, is able to keep infallibly right: but he has perfect confidence that God will not suffer the Church to deliberately fall into error. Two very different ways of putting the same thing. I do not admit, that in the face of facts,—in the presence of examples manifold of the Church's erring,—the Roman suggestion shakes me for one instant from my conviction that (as is said in the Confession of Faith) 'the purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error.' Still, the other view, though wrong, is arguable. And if a case be arguable at all, there is no doubt that in skilful hands the worse may be made to seem the better reason.

Further: there are matters pertaining to our religious belief, questions as to which there are reasons on each side; but as to which we come to our conclusion not merely by feeling the force of the reasons which support the conclusion we come to; but also by persuading ourselves that we have seen through all objections to it,—that we are able to answer, and set aside, all the reasons and arguments which look the opposite way. This, certainly, is a very assuring and comfortable thing. We can be in no perplexity whatever as to how the balance inclines, if all the weights be in fact in one scale and none at all in the other. But there are cases in which we hold a belief, and hold it firmly, though all the while we see reasons against it which are not merely plausible and weighty at first sight, but which we cannot, after the fullest thought, answer at all. We hold our belief: and we are sure it is sound: though we are well aware that there are objections to it which are by us unanswerable. There is one notable case, in which we are quite sure of each of two truths, which yet seem to us to contradict each the other. Each is true : yet each is liable to an unanswerable objection.

I am thinking of that great and sure doctrine, that God not only foreknows but fore-ordains all we do. And yet we know that we are free: that we're not fettered by that fore-ordination in our choice of the course we shall take: that we are responsible for all we do,—which we should not be if we were imply constrained like a machine to run along the rules laid down for us. That doctrine of Predestination, as it is called: it is not to say it stands in the authoritative Creed of the Christian Church: not to ;ay that it must stand there forasmuch as it is plainly aught in the New Testament: in the nature of things you cannot get away from it if you believe in God at all. And yet, we know that we are free: we know that whensoever we do wrong, it is our own Fault and not God's: we know in our conscience that we deserve punishment when we do wrong, which we should not deserve if we were mere machinery: and furthermore, after all talk of the doctrine of Election to a share in Christ's Atonement, after all is said concerning God’s Elect, we know well that if we have not till now accepted the Gospel salvation, the ruinous doing is entirely our own: we might, if we would. Now these things cannot be reconciled. One seems to say, you shall stick to the track marked out for you and never leave it by a hair’s-breadth: The other seems to say, You are free,—free as air, free as the air is not,—to choose your track for yourself. One says, you can never believe in Christ and be saved unless you were appointed to that ages before you were born. The other says, as firmly, and far more practically, Believe in Christ and be saved : Free to you and free to every sinner that will take it is His great salvation. We are sure of each truth: and to us they seem contradictory. They cannot be so, indeed, or they would not both be true: for the contradiction of truth must be falsehood: but only God knows how they are to be reconciled. It must come to this at the last; and we had far best admit it from the first: in the candid spirit of him who wrote the text, and admitted that something might be said against what he yet was sure of.

Now I know, as many clergymen know, that there are good men and women, earnestly thoughtful about their soul’s salvation, to whom this doctrine of Election is a hindrance and a difficulty. I am constrained to say that it seems to me the doctrine w ill be so, only in morbid moods. It is not a difficulty which will practically lie heavily on a healthful mind, or permanently do so: it is a difficulty which for a time; and in seasons of depression, and the tendency to take warped views which comes of that; has probably been felt by all. Just let the old puzzle be stated, that any now perplexed by it may be comforted by recognizing in it that which has been in the experience of many others: and which they did not see through, but grew out of it, and learned to be quite content in the presence of it without seeing through. It is this: If I am appointed to be saved, I shall be saved without doing anything or taking any trouble: and if I am not appointed to be saved, then I shall not be saved however much thought and pains I may take: Wherefore, I shall do nothing. Now, there is no refutation of any argument like a practical refutation: and no stronger proof that there is a flaw in reasoning than that the reasoning lands you in a practical absurdity. Yet, without pretending to answer that difficulty which I have just stated, let me say this: That all practical perplexity about Election and Predestination comes of this: that people vaguely think that their eternal state is more predestined than the events in their earthly life. If you keep it clearly before you, that your eternal state is predestined exactly in the same sense in which everything you say and do every day of your life is predestined, the practical perplexity will vanish: you may find it as difficult as ever to make up your mind as to what you ought to think about it all, but you will have no difficulty earthly in making up your mind as to what you ought to do. For just as the fact that God fore-ordained whether you should come to church to-day or not would not lead any sane person among you to sit down in the morning and say, If I am appointed to go to church I shall be taken without my doing anything, and if I am appointed not to go to church I shall not get there however hard I try: even so, the fact that God has appointed whether we are each to be saved, is a fact with which we practically have nothing to do: The thing for us, in spiritual matters exactly as in worldly, is to go and take all the proper steps towards the end we want, and to use all the suitable means. Whether or not you are to reach heaven, is appointed exactly as it is appointed whether or not you are any day to get your daily food. Of course, if you do not use the means to get your daily food, you will not get it. If you do use the means to get it, then by God’s blessing you will get it. And it is so with our soul’s salvation: exactly and identically so. If you are in earnest for that, go and pray for it and labour for it: Go and take it in God’s way: there is no obstacle with Him: Go and cast your soul upon Christ: Do not wait and try to clear up the riddle of the universe first: Do. not think to see through secret things which we may leave with God, before you begin. If you do that, you will never begin : and your doom will be on your own head. See, this day there are set before you blessing and cursing, life and death: Therefore choose life and good, and turn away from death and evil.

If more needed to be said to take away the practical perplexity of Predestination (and it is that only I meddle with), it might be this: Think Who it is that predestines all things! It is God, only Wise, only Good, All-merciful, Who wills not that one should perish, but all believe and live! Are you content to leave it all in His bands? Whatever He does must be right. Think: If you were asked now, would you wish to appoint what things shall happen to you through this year,—or would you rather leave it all to the appointment of your Saviour,—which would be the safer and wiser thing to do? Would you, if you might, take the awful responsibility of deciding the year’s events for you and yours: or not infinitely rather leave the decision with Christ? Well, as you would trust Him with all yet to do, even so with all already done! Thy will be done!

It must be a right, a wise, a loving will. You provide carefully for your little children: and you expect them to trust you. And He, the Best Father above, the Father Which is in heaven, Who loves His poor sinful children as never did earthly mother,—He has ordered all things: and He looks that we should trust where we cannot understand. Which by His grace we will, now and evermore!

And now, coming towards the end of my discourse, I will tell you what it was that was in my mind when I thought of my text to-day, with its plain common-sense suggestion that a prudent man before determining to accept an opinion or not to accept it will weigh what is to be said on both sides: consider, to take a familiar phrase, both pros and cons: and not be taken in by a plausible or even a weighty statement of reasons till he sees what is to be urged on the contrary. Last week I glanced over a printed document which some of you may also have seen, which sets out a grave indictment against the Church of our fathers: a long list of charges against her: leading those who sent forth that document to the conclusion that she ought to be overthrown. Of the motives of the persons who published that attack upon the Church of Scotland I know nothing: as I know nothing of themselves. I wish to believe they are honest in what they do : though it is hard to think so in the face of the crafty but clumsy paper they have issued; in which I am bold to say the real reasons of their hatred of the National Church are carefully concealed. There is not one of the arguments for national Atheism which could not be answered at half a minute's notice: not one which (religiously) has a feather's weight. And I remarked, not with anger but with contempt, that the little document concludes by setting forth that we, who hold as vital the principle of a national profession of Christianity, are sure to have recourse to various mean tricks with the view of keeping things as they are. For very naturally, the persons who wrote that paper suppose we are somewhat like themselves. Now, I am not going to refute the reasons, such as they are, which are stated in that document: but only to counsel all of you, if in these coming months you have pressed upon you, as it seems to be designed you should, statements to the prejudice of the Church, and what seem plausible arguments against her continued existence and power,—never to attach any consequence to these till you have gone and asked some competent adviser what there is to be said upon the other side: whether those statements are true,—whether those arguments are sound,—whether, if there be weight in them, they are not counter-balanced by reasons of tenfold weight. With the distinct statement before me that the Church is forthwith to be systematically assailed, I deem it my duty to say so much by way of caution: more than this I will not say in this place. It is not here that such questions are to be argued out: and you know it is not my way to touch them. My duty here is to preach the Gospel of Christ: and to try to forget the enmities and jealousies which are the scandal and weakness of the Christian Church; and which in the eyes of shrewd worldly men cast an air of falsity and of ridicule on all fair pretences and public talk of unity and concord. Nor do I believe that in your hearing the Church of our fathers needs to be either defended or apologized for. I venture not to say that she is perfect, any more than any institution on earth is perfect; nor to say that either in government or worship she is incapable of being improved. But I say she was good enough for better men: our fathers lived and died in her: and I say there is no Christian virtue which may not be practised and perfected within her pale. That is the great thing after all. And surely it is well for the nation that in each parish over the land there be an educated man set who has no other end than the good of sinful souls; and who is ready at the call of every poor sick creature that would be counselled or prayed with. I should like to know what good it would do to any mortal that this state of things should cease: unless indeed to the envious and sordid soul that grudges the Church her little patrimony, — the little saved at the Reformation from hypocritical robbers,—which is the patrimony of the poor, and which costs no living man a farthing.

But remember, Christian friends, that you are the Church: and that with you (under God) it abides whether she shall stand or fall. A living Church will not fall: and it is with you to say whether ours shall be a living Church. A Christian Church is an assemblage of Christian people: it is by striving to deepen our own spiritual life, and strengthen it, that the Church will be strengthened and vivified. All her old renown; all her doings in ages past; all her worldly advantages; will not maintain the Burning Bush if her people turn cold-hearted and undevout; known among their fellow-Christians in the land for less zeal, less work, less liberality. That reproach has sometimes been cast at us: God grant it never come true! Rather let us seek higher degrees in grace: simpler faith in the Redeemer, and souls more filled with the Blessed Spirit of God.

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