1 Thess. v. 23.
"And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and 1 pray God your whole spirit, and soul, and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ".
THE Cross conquered, as we have seen; but what did the doctrine of the Cross effect for those among whom it prevailed ? My brethren, we know, alas ! what was the condition of the civilised world when the true Light first dawned upon its darkness. We know its haughty power, its brilliant refinement, its unutterable shame! Arrayed like the Apocalyptic harlot in gems and purple, its heart was stony with cruelty and diseased with lust. Robed like the blaspheming Herod in tissue of silver, within it was eaten of worms. Its literature—so elaborate, so sad, so stained—is a true reflex of its state.
God willed that we should see by palpable proofs how, amid all its boasted wisdom, the heart of the heathen world was darkened into foolishness, and that the condition which some would gloss over with the name of a healthy animalism was in reality a sick and sickening putrescence. But it is dangerous to gaze even for a moment down the abysses into which the nature of man may fall. For us, let it be enough to glance with a shudder, and to pass by not unwarned; let it be enough to note how, in his Epistle to the Romans, the great Apostle who was its contemporary seized, as it were, that haughty, glittering, abominable civilisation, and with firm hand, in letters which are indelible, branded upon its insolent and shameless brow the festering stigma of his stern and terrible rebuke.
Such then was the world into which—not to destroy but to revivify,—not to annihilate but to ennoble,—the Apostles of Christ passed forth to preach His doctrine. Silently, insensibly, but with certain transformation, like the leaven in the meal, that doctrine made its way. We have seen how the heathens emptied upon it the vials of their fury and their scorn; how Rabbi and Sophist, Pontifex and Emperor joined hand in hand for its destruction; and yet, long before Christians were known as anything but a strange sect, who could stand in the fire without a tremor, and face the Libyan tiger with a smile, — long before they had won the shadow of a material victory, — the truths which they taught had largely moulded the opinions of their persecutors. We catch the echo of them in a Seneca, we listen to their very accents in an Aurelius. The vernal breeze of this new religion breathed health and hope into a decrepit Paganism for many a long year before the spring itself had dawned; the morning was spread upon the mountains for two centuries before its glory reached the plains.
It is not—and to this point I would ask attention—it is not that we claim a mere antecedence and originality for the separate precepts of Christianity. Their victory, their beneficence, their unique superiority were not due to this. Many of those precepts, viewed as mere literary utterances, had been enounced in the world before. No small portion even of the Lord's prayer may be found, it is believed, in Hebrew writings. To us there is absolutely no point in the sneer of sceptics, that the most distinctive rules of Christianity may be paralleled from secular sources. On the contrary, we have always rejoiced to know that God left not Himself without witness, and that what St. Paul so finely describes as His richly-variegated wisdom had long been visible in part by that light which lighteth every man that is born into the world. It is perfectly true that, if from east to west we ransack the literature and the philosophy of the habitable globe, we may here and there cull some memorable aphorism resembling those which we too reverence in our heritage of moral truths ; and, at epochs separated from each other by thousands of years, it is possible to catch now and then a glimpse of those prismatic hues which may be combined into the pure white ray of Christian doctrine. Yet what candid reasoner, even were he an unbeliever in Christianity, could dream of comparing any one of the sacred books, or the men who originated them, or the systems in which they issued, with the Gospels, or with Christianity, or with Christ? With every desire to admit their services, with no temptation to depreciate their worth, what is the calm and deliberate judgment which History forces us to pronounce ?
Ah, the most golden idol of Pagan excellence stands but on feet of clay. There is flagrant intellectual error in their very wisest; there is fearful moral aberration in their very best. Over their graves, as in the sigh of the wailing wind, we hear the words, " The world by wisdom knew not God." They were the foremost men of all ages in brilliant Greece, in stately Rome, in immemorial China, in imperial Persia, in free Arabia, in solemn Hindostan: the Buddha was a prince, wealthy, and beautiful, and strong; and Confucius was a descendant of nobles and a counsellor of kings; and Plato, with his haughty aristocratic genius, so towered over the greatest of his time, that they could only reach to lay their garlands of admiration at his feet;—yet to compare any one of these with Him who spent all but three years of His humble life as the carpenter of Nazareth, is to match a dim and uncertain twilight with the sun at noon; and the least in the Kingdom of Heaven—the least who obeys and loves his Lord—the most unlettered, the most ignorant, the most obscure—not perhaps in man's judgment, but in the judgment of the Angels and of God—the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than these.
And why? Not only because there was in the precepts of Christianity a reality, which, as precepts, they had never possessed before, not only because they rang more true, but also because they alone were active, living, efficacious, self-renewing. The very best systems of human philosophy were stricken with a fatal impotence. Like the gathered blossoms stuck in the careless garden of a child, they may look lovely for a time, but because they have no root they wither away. Ending mostly in high-sounding conversations among an illuminated few, they were powerless amid the general degradation either to awaken the conscience or to guide the life. Even when the truths of Christianity had insensibly pervaded the moral atmosphere, and the books and the lives which it inspired were in the hands and before the eyes of men, the very best and greatest of the heathen not only failed to surpass, but failed even at an immeasurable distance to rival them. Barely could they cast out the devil from their own souls: they never aspired, in their hopelessness, to exorcise it from the society which it tormented. There is an eloquent wisdom and subtle charm in the writings of the Neronian minister, the crippled slave, the blameless Emperor; but in the Gospels and the Epistles we find no deep drawback, like the haughty apathy of the one, the concentrated egotism of the second, the unbroken sadness of the third.