CONGREGATIONS AND FAMILIES
VOL. III. - 1858
BY REV. J. W. PUTNAM. SCRIPTURE LESSON, LUKE 15.
"They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick."
IF it be allowable to use a metaphor, where more exact terms are scarcely
possible, and where the quality represented gains vastly more in force, than it
loses in rigid truth, it may be proper to characterize a state of grace, by the
terms moral health. The sacred writers show no reluctance in the use of this
figure, which at once suggests the analogies between spiritual wholeness and
The Saviour, while announcing himself as the Physician of souls, addresses himself to the morally infirm—thereby authorizing the use of the analogy, as both truthful and just. The Old Testament writers make choice of the same, or similar forms of speech, when speaking of kindred topics. "I shall yet praise Him who is the health of my countenance," was the exclamation of one, whose sins had overcast his fortunes with serious reverses. So likewise, Isaiah, when commending deeds of mercy, rather than the long abused forms of the Jewish ritual, and showing how much better it is "to loose the bands of wickedness, undo the heavy burdens, let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke, than to bow down his head, or afflict his soul," says "then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thy health shall spring forth speedily." But we need not stay to recite the many instances in which this, or a similar figure, is used to indicate the redeeming power of truth in the needy soul. If not the more exact language of metaphysics, it is nevertheless the comprehensive lesson of inspired wisdom, and may aid us to illustrate an important truth.
I. In the first place, we mark the fact, that health is the normal condition of man. It is not a forced, nor an unnatural state of our nature. We have proof of this in the soul itself. The commendation it bestows on virtue, and the sentiments that come forth spontaneously to censure vice, are incompatible with any other supposition. For however impressively it may be urged that man is depraved, it is equally true, that he ever bears with him the condemnatory sentence of admitted wrong, and thus, the same nature that is liable to fall so low, in point of moral integrity, bears perpetual testimony against the enemy of its peace.
Even when we go down that broad way of death, where human nature reaches its lowest state, we are not left without visible proofs, that moral health is that better condition, for which the soul was formed. And why have we this spontaneous judgment, this intuitive consciousness, that seldom ceases to urge its accusations against the wrong doer"? Why does the soul, in the very grave of worldliness and sin, commend virtue, and bear witness against the path of transgression?
In considering these more painful examples, to establish the depravity of our race, and to impress upon the mind the incapacity of man for goodness, it seems to have been forgotten, that it is the same nature, adjudged so poor, and morally impotent, that sits in judgment upon its own deeds. It has been overlooked, that from the same source, we have both the rebuke and the dread of wrong. We have not considered, that the same hand affixes the seal of censure to the criminal act, even while unwashed of guilt.
Now, if depravity were the natural state of man, and we were wholly corrupt, we could not expect this disapproval of wrong. If we were constituted otherwise than for virtue, we could scarcely account for the fact, that the soul finds so little congeniality without its moral sunlight. Into the same quarry, therefore, from which the pillars of Calvinism are hewn, we may go to confront the advocate of native depravity, with this important and significant fact, that human nature, however corrupt, utters its perpetual warning against the wrong. It is an element foreign to the native health of the soul. It is a climate in which man is not at home; and from which he is led, by his better judgment and the wiser promptings of his own heart, to seek deliverance.
Nor is it less a fact, that men universally respect what they conceive to be good. Say what we will of human depravity — and we are painfully aware, that much maybe said of it—our warped and biased powers yet possess an elasticity which no strain can fully destroy; and when once the pressure of these corrupt influences is removed, they spring to the post of loyalty. Mingle in the crowd, and you shall hear from those who are morally incapable of what they commend, the most enthusiastic praise of the generous, manly, or perhaps heroic deeds of others. This is true in history, and may be read wherever Providence has brought such deeds to the attention of the world. This poor nature, so pitiable and morally decrepit, comes forth, from the retreat of passion, and up from the pit of degradation, and from every haunt of its banished honor, into the light of a generous deed to sun itself, as in the beams of day. It has no homage for the wrong it has embraced. It is still true to the principle it has mistaken ; still loyal to the conscience it has abused. It has no praise for the temptation it has failed to resist. It cherishes the memory of the past, and turns with hope to a time when the lost shall be retrieved. It looks upward to the height from which it has fallen, and longs for the firm footing of worth; — as the invalid, depressed by wasting health, sighs for the return of those elastic energies, which have been swept by the hand of disease.
Seldom do we find a soul so far lost to this intuitive sense of honor, as to approach the shrine of acknowledged merit, without the offering of homage. If there be those who have mistaken the better cause for the worse ; nay, many who have chosen the broad way of death, it, is not that they arc morally incapable of good ; but because habit has gained a temporary victory. While, on the other hand, the fact of a general disposition, on the part of man, to respect and honor moral worth, remains unquestioned. Nor does it matter what form excellence may take; our admiration goes forth unsought. It may be the example of the martyr, standing calmly in the presence of authority, wielding the executioner's axe ; — or it may be the heroism of the patriot, pledging life and honor in some revolutionary struggle ; — or it may be the moral fortitude of him, who stands upon the deck of the foundering ship till she goes clown to the bottom of the sea. For such deeds, the soul lias a spontaneous respect, and responds its generous commendation.
This thought has a good illustration, in the two persons most prominently connected with the loss of the steamship "Central America," some time ago. "While one met only with censure, for his supposed cowardice and unmanly desertion of his post, in the hour of danger, the other was as warmly applauded for his fidelity and moral courage in the same trying scene. His presence of mind, — his heroic endeavors, up to the last moment, won the heart of the whole nation. And while the waves shall roll, or lift their crests against the night sky, his name and memory shall inspire the mariner to emulate his virtues, and shall mark the way of manly worth and Christian duty. One such example outweighs all baser treasures, and gives us greater wealth than a fleet of steamers.
To what has thus been said, we may further add that, in the absence of all knowledge to the contrary, every presumption is in favor of the essential integrity of our nature;. Public sentiment does not suspect a man, nor does private judgment condemn him, until his character has been presented in an odious light. The discovery of wrong, or wrong falsely attributed to him, must precede the condemnatory sentence. So well is this known, and so universally acknowledged, that the first step of any enemy, who would induce others to join in the sentiment he cherishes toward you, is to sully your reputation, or blacken your name.
The "common people" heard the early promulgators of the Gospel gladly, until persuaded by their rulers and elders that they blasphemed. It was not until common report and prejudice had clothed them with the odious character of traitors to the law, and conspirators against the national faith, that, the honest heart of the populace rose up to crush them. And the entire scope of history warrants us in saying, that the strong resentments and hatreds men have manifested, one toward another, have been induced by real or imaginary baseness of character.
We will not, however, pursue this branch of our topic, further than to seek an explanation of these common and conceded principles, by which the soul, in daily contact with the world, is governed. Do they not fully sustain our statement, that moral health is the normal state of man, — that sin and wrong are intruders in the heart, which has been thus abundantly endowed from on high 1 Shall we not find the soul as amply endowed for moral excellence and worth, as the body, for health 1 Shall we not learn from the tone of its capabilities, and the bent of its sympathies, that health is the end, for which it was formed?
II. In the second place, it will be seen that health in a component or elemental good. It is not a benefit alien to the soul, — a foreign quality, to be pursued and captured, on a Held altogether extraneous to our nature. Many people talk about getting religion, as a man might get an estate, or a suit of clothes. It is implied, that we must go out somewhere in search of it, choose the quality we desire, make the purchase of the article, and bring it home to the heart. On the contrary, we believe it to be a necessity, which invests the whole man. We believe that no terms of mere patronage, however liberal, can supplant these inevitable conditions of health. It must possess ourselves far more than we arc able to occupy it, as a bequest from heaven. Only as the Sun of Righteousness sends down his quickening rays into the chambers of the soul, and man is transformed into the moral likeness of God, can he be considered a religious man.
We cannot bring ourselves to think that a mere police, to keep watch over the peace of man, to suppress the outbreaks of passion, or to arrest the offending members for the purposes of justice, comprehends the office, much less the nature of religion. but, as health is something that belongs to every pulsation of the heart, and whose warmth and glow pervade the entire system, from the crown of the head to the sole of the foot, so is moral health, an element that dwells in life's inner temple, to influence every thought and deed, to temper our loves and hates, and to inspire the soul with unswerving loyalty to truth, justice and God. It is never bought, as a spiritual luxury: It is never hired, as a police: The inexorable conditions of health are its only terms.
This, perhaps, will be more apparent if we consider for a moment what is antecedent to health. Hunger and thirst, the air and the sunlight, make no compromises, and accept no bribes. There is no way to defraud Providence, by any worthless, nor indeed by any foreign substitution, for these conditions of health. If we prove false to the integrity of these laws, which reign over us, health blesses us no more. If we abuse our trust, or attempt to usurp authority over these servants of the Most High, the chains of the sensualist and the pit of the drunkard are the price we must pay.
So, also, truth for the; intellect, and love for the heart, have terms scarcely less exacting; while the offender against their integrity is pursued with inevitable consequences. And ever vain and weak must be all the shifts we make, to bribe these ministers of the Holy One, or to corrupt their honor. Such attempts are visited with the same unhappy results, upon the better sympathies and purer fountains of our being. Perverted loves and torturing superstitions recoil upon the offender, as abused appetites upon the sensualist, and with a far greater loss of health, than his. And thus it will be seen, that we have little faith in any attempt to obtain religious life by spiritual contract, or by the purchase of an alien or vicarious good. Moral health surely must flow from the fountain within. Only as the soul is healed by the Great Physician, and its powers arc redeemed by Divine grace, is there gospel health. Only as man becomes spiritually whole, as well as externally correct, has he received the truth, and entered upon the enjoyment, of religious freedom. Only as life is pervaded and shaped by the vital power of good, rather than adorned with a negative innocence, can we allow that the sublime privilege of Christian redemption has been reached.
III. We pass to remark in the third place, that moral health is not the result of coercion, but of voluntary homage. Neither is it, so much, what we will, as what God wills. We have already said that the laws of hunger and thirst, as antecedent to physical health, are subject to no repeal; nor may we disregard them, except at our peril. The necessity for bread is not the servant, to whom we say, " go, and he goeth, or come, and he cometh;" nor that other servant, with whom flattery shall prevail, to accept a stone. It refuses to be bribed, by any promise we can make; and as stubbornly resists all the force we can bring. I think it is not straining the analogy, to attach the same importance and necessity to that law of the soul, which demands the bread of life, "that man may eat thereof and not die."
Faith and love are quite as unwilling subjects of-coercion as hunger or thirst. Many persons have a loose way of speaking upon this subject, and seem to regard it only as a question of safety. Their method of reasoning is, in effect, and frequently in form, — you must believe, because your safety requires it; or you must not believe, because you incur great risk of your immortal welfare. And thus, it is implied, that there is a legitimate sequence between our fears and our faith ; between our perils and our loves; between scourging a man, and enlightening his mental convictions. If this were the way to approach the truth, and belief were so ready an act of the will, how easily Peter might have held to his denial, and escaped imprisonment for preaching Christ! Paul should not have faltered, on the way to Damascus, nor renounced his commission from the chief priests and elders. But, on the other hand, he claims that necessity was laid upon him, and that he must not only believe the Gospel, but preach it also, because of its truth, lie would as soon have thought of allaying hunger with a threat, as of importuning his convictions with a question of safety. He would as soon have met, and attempted to rout the appetites from their fortress, as to subdue conscience with menace.
I see not how any man's convictions can be trammeled by the despotism of, " you must," or, " you must not," without giving us the best reason for distrusting their integrity. To say, that we may accept a given doctrine on any other ground, than an honest conviction of its truth, implies corruption and foul play with the witnesses within. And, for one whose mental honesty has been, or may be thus bribed, Christ has given us the true, as well as the best term : it is hypocrite. We must, therefore, think it as poor religion, to attempt to cure the soul by exorcising its hunger for the broad of life with coercive terror, as it would be poor practice to essay perfect health, by expelling appetite as a devil.
" You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you," is the authoritative command, by which man is bidden to take up his cross and follow where truth shall lead the way. It is not ours to choose from the suggestions of caprice, but truth calls us — if not always on the platform of debate, nor by the whirlwind of impassioned speech, yet, ever more, in the whispers of conscience—the still small voice of God.
Just as little, will our loves and hates, as our menial convictions, conform to any coercive law. When Christ says, "no man can come to me except the Father draw him," he speaks to a quality in man that can have but one Sovereign. He vests the soul with authority, that never bows to a foreign yoke. Our admiration of a landscape, a picture, or a symmetrical figure, is spontaneous. A good deed, an amiable character, or an upright life, commands unpremeditated homage. A charitable disposition, a generous nature, or a merciful heart, wins the same commendation; not because we will, but whether we will or not. So, on the other hand, those qualities that provoke dislike and hatred, are not unlovely by any act of ours, but they are so — because God, in the constitution of the soul, has decreed them contraband. And the condemnation with which they are visited, by the spontaneous judgment of all pure minds, is the seal of His own displeasure.
The command to love God, therefore, presupposes those attributes in Him, which win the sympathies of the soul, and draw from the purest fountains of our nature. It is misnaming things, to call that, religion, which demands the repeal of these laws of sympathy, that we may find woe con genial and tyranny lovely. It seems to us something worse than this, to convert the system of Christ, which teaches us sentiments divine with charity and love, — principles in which all holy spirits join, and visits us with hopes, in which the best of earth have found their ever-present help, into an engine for provoking our self-love, or exciting our distrust of God.
Consider, again, that men even here, with all the drawbacks upon spiritual health incident to life, have risen to a purer atmosphere ; and leaving such appeals far behind, have passed out of the reach of coercive power. Think of appealing to the selfishness of Paul! If dangers, or regard to life, or love of the world, were of any avail to beget in his breast a respect for power without mercy, were there not perils enough at Jerusalem 1 Was there not dismay in the court of Agrippa, and the prisons of Nero ? Or had he been susceptible to the bribe of personal safety, and ready to break faith with conscience, to receive deliverance as the price of unlawful homage, were there not temptations in the way to eminence? — temptations, in the great promise of future distinction, already won, in the school of Gamaliel? Might not the hope of kindred, as they anxiously watched the star of his rising fortunes, beguile his heart from the suicidal purpose of disloyalty to the traditional faith I Could not the memories of all that is dear in friendship, — all that men prize of the past, dissuade him from a step that, in the eyes of men, would overcast his life with perpetual disgrace?
The man, whose integrity was of this muscular make, and whose outlook upon the moral landscape was wo fur above all intimidation, on the one hand, and all bribes, 011 the other, must have been a poor subject for a religion, whose fundamental power is coercion by the terrors of hades.
We will not, however, pause here to present a tithe of the examples with which history abounds, similar to the above; many of them, though not equally illustrious, are yet equally in point. Think of winning Luther from his mission, with the bribe of personal safety ! Think of expelling Howard from the chambers of mercy, with a threat! Think of these men, and such as these, coming down from the almost celestial courts, where they have mirrored back upon earth the divine rays of truth, charity and fidelity to God, to enter heaven under the uplifted thong of coercive terror! If heaven were thus conditioned, and this were the door to the kingdom, what should save us from moral effeminacy, and the leprosy of an easy conscience, as the very conditions of our acceptance with God? For those great souls, who knew as little of terror to deter them from duty, as of reward to tempt them from wisdom's way, no such entrance to the celestial kingdom is befitting. The herdsman drives his cattle ; but grace heals and wins the immortal soul.
IV. We pass to one further remark. While moral health is a normal state, and not an exotic condition of the soul; while it is an elemental good, and not simply an extraneous benefit; while it is attained by healing and persuasive grace, rather than by coercive; force, its conditions are inevitable. The man who looks for health in any other way, than by preserving the integrity of the laws upon which it depends, will surely be disappointed. Nor can a man allow the integrity of his loves to be corrupted, or in any way swerve from fidelity to them, except at equal, or even greater peril. There is no strategy by which Providence can be defrauded in this matter. The world has no evasion, however choice in expedients, — nor has the church any device, however venerable to our warped and misguided affections, by which to annul these conditions, or outwit the law. God, who calls us to preside over these trusts, has left us no choice but to accept them. As soon may the stars renounce allegiance to the forces that control them, as man break faith with these principles, unharmed.
There would seem to be a great misapprehension, as well as not a little insensibility upon this subject, in the public mind. One denies that slavery has anything to do with religion; another queries as to the propriety or the right of Christianity to deal with intemperance. I should as soon think of denying that the plague has anything to do with the health of the community; and would as soon question the relevancy of a case of disease before a medical college.
Finally, while it must be quite obvious that a vicarious remedy docs not bring us to Christ, to embrace his truth, and receive the baptism of his love, but is wholly an expedient, by which we attempt to rid ourselves of moral desert, — the question should come home to every heart, Do I approach the Great 1'hysician, that I maybe spiritually whole? Let us enquire diligently, if this is what we aim to promote, by prayer and life. Is Christ ever in our thoughts, as " the way, the truth and the life 1" Would we be morally free, morally saved, morally whole f Is this the prize of the high calling in God, we would win ? If so, then as health is the most welcome promise to the invalid, and wasting strength the greatest earthly loss, so shall there be for us no greater joy, than to be perfect as God is perfect, and no greater calamity, than a corrupt and alien heart.
To this end, may God help us—help us to consider and care for our spiritual health ; help us to " seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness," as the important work of life. May the good and great of -the Past, aid us to form and pursue none but worthy aims. May we hear as wisdom exhorts, and experience entreats us, to pursue the paths of peace. And may the life and spirit of Christ lead us ever in the way of Christian fidelity and faithful endeavor—that our day may be blessed on earth, and blessed in the memories we leave as our last mid best bequest to the world.
LET US PRAY.
ALMIGHTY GOD, in whom we live, and have our being: we thank Thee for Thy mercies, which are new every morning, and fresh every evening; for Thy daily care and unfailing goodness; for Thy just rewards, which crown our labors and trials; for Thy truth, bestowed for the healing of the nations; for Thy grace, freely given for the redemption of man. May our hearts receive the baptism of Thy spirit, that our light may go forth as the morning, and our health spring forth speedily. Wilt Thou bless, to our growth in grace, the counsels of Thy wisdom, the admonitions of Thy providence, and make us whole in Christ Jesus our Lord. AMEN