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The preacher .
THE TESTIMONY OF OUR VIRTUES.
BY THE REV. HENRY MELVILL, B.D.,
IN THE CATHEDRAL CHURCH OF ST. PAUL, LONDON.
“Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence; shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live!"Hebrews xii. 9.
There is a very important and interesting argument involved in this saying of the Apostle—the argument from what we are as men to what we might be, and ought to be, as Christians. A dutiful child submits meekly to a father's correction : why, then, do we not submit meekly to the correction of God? The mere fact of submission to the human goes far towards showing that it is not through any actual inability that we refuse submission to the Divine Parent. The thing required is of the same sort in both cases, and he who can yield it in the one might, if he would, yield it also in the other. The reasoning, in short, is a reasoning from what men are as members of society to what they ought to be as creatures of God; and they may be brought under condemnation if they fail to act towards God, displaying himself under certain characters, as they act towards their fellow-men, who bear these same characters, though only subordinately. In the writings of the prophet Malachi you will find God himself using the argument which is implied, if not advanced in our text. “A son honoureth his father, and a servant his master: if then I be father, where is mine honour and if I be a master, where is my fear?" And this reasoning is of very wide application-so that what we may term our social conduct will furnish overwhelming evidence against us at the last, if we are not found amongst those who have loved and served God; for God and this you should carefully ponder-God asks from us nothing but what we as members of society show ourselves well able both to do and to give. If he demand faith in his word, are we not capable of believing? Are we not accustomed to believe, yea, and to allow our belief to influence our practice whenever there is a sufficiency of testimony? And will not this, our capacity of believing, demonstrated as it is by facts of daily occurrence, justify our condemnation, if we fail to put faith in the declara. tions of Scripture? In like manner, if God demand from us gratitude and love, does he demand what we are unable to give ? On the contrary, we are so constituted that we naturally feel thankful to a benefactor, and any one of us who could receive kindness, and yet show himself void of all affection towards the giver, would make himself an object of scorn and abhorrence, as wanting the common sensibilities which characterize our nature. If then God manifestly bring himself into the position of a benefactor, if he assume towards us that character, and justify the assumption by continually doing us good, it is very evident that he has right to ask from us in return gratitude and love-that in asking them he only asks what we continually prove ourselves able to give, and that consequently, if we refuse what is asked of us, there will be needed nothing beyond our conduct in the several intercourses of of life to prove us without excuse, if finally condemned for not giving God our hearts. And once more--if God ask obedience to his laws and submission to his authority, he asks only what we are in the daily habit of rendering to earthly superiors; nothing is needed but that the authority be unquestionable, and submission follows, for the most part, as a matter of course; so that we are continually proving ourselves all prepared to obey, if the right to command be clearly established. Well, then, if God, reveal himself under the character of a governor, and if he require us to live as his subjects, he may surely appeal to our conduct in reference to earthly magistrates, as proving us without excuse if we wilfully violate his laws.
Thus our text involves a principle of very general application ; and we perhaps little think what material of condemnation we heap up against ourselves by the conscientious discharge of every relative duty, while we remain virtually strangers to the power of religion. It is upon this point that we are very anxious to fasten your attention-on the condemning power of social virtues, over and above their non-justifying power. These social virtues prove incontestibly that we are capable of acting agreeably to certain relations in which we stand to others, or in which others stand to us; and if God stand to us, or if we stand to God, in those very relations, why, the social virtues only witness that it is through no unavoidable defect in constitution that we fuil to act towards God as those relations demand. They make it clear that he does not ask us for what we have not to give, seeing that they are them. selves what he asks; at least they are in reference to the creature what is demanded of us in reference to the Creator. If he ask gratitude for benefits, we are capable of being grateful; if he prove himself a Father, and ask the obedience of sons, we are capable of reverencing a parent; if he show himself our ruler, and require that his authority be respected, we are capable of honouring a governor; if he claim his dues, and demand that we render him his own, we are capable of abhorring dishonesty and maintaining an unimpeachable integrity. Then do not the social virtues-inasmuch as it is only of these after all that God asks the exercise in reference to himself-do they not prove beyond the power of gainsaying, that what is demanded from us is what might be rendered? And will they not condemn us at the last, if found affectionate to every friend but the best, grateful to every benefactor but the chief, obedient to every ruler but the supreme, honourable in every dealing but the largest and the most important? It is in this way that there is evidently a condemning power in the social virtues, and the power will be greater as the virtues are the more conspicuous. The man of great native kindliness of heart has evidently less excuse than one of a morose nature for withholding from God the offerings of thankfulness. Where there is an instinctive abhorrence of everything base and dishonourable, there cannot be the shadow of an apology for defrauding God of his dues; where there is a natural love of order and respect for dignity, what can be said in defence of disloyalty towards the Almighty? Where there is a fine generosity, a gushing sensibility, a quick apprehension of what is noble and disinterested, what shall extenuate the indifference to the gospel, with all its mighty tale of love and condescension and conquest ? And thus how possible it is that the man who has been literally the ornament and the benefactor of his species, exemplary in the discharge of every relative duty, his word an oath, his friendship a treasure, his heart a well-spring of benevolence, but who all along has been a stranger to godliness, may find himself at last arraigned and condemned on the very ground of his having been so distinguished by whatsoever things are "pure and lovely and of good report;" the very virtues, the very qualities, the very actions, on which he is now perhaps disposed to rest with a sweet complacency, which he may secretly regard as meritorious enough to secure him an everlasting reward--oh! these may rise up against him at the judgment—these may convict him of inexcusableness in having failed in his duties to his Creator- these may be the witnesses that he might have obeyed, and loved, and feared, and honoured, the universal parent, the universal governor : and all upon the principle so clearly involved in the statement of our text-"We have had fathers of our flesh; we have given those fathers reverence: might we not, then-ought we not, then-to have been in subjection to the Father of spirits, and lived ?"
Now, I have thus engaged you with the general argument, rather than with the particular case presented by the text. Now, however, we will confine ourselves to that case—the case being that of parents and children, and the implied argument, that the reverence which we show to our earthly father will be a swift witness against us, if we fail in the reverence which is due to our heavenly Father.
There is no more beautiful and graceful affection of our nature than that which subsists between parents and children. We must admire this affection,
as exhibited amongst inferior animals; there is no page in natural history more attractive than that which tells how tenderly the wild beast of the forest will watch her young, or with what assiduousness the fowls of the air will tend their helpless brood. And in the human race the affec. tion goes far beyond this ; for if not more intense at the first, it is abiding and reciprocal; the love of a parent for a child does not terminate, as with animals, when that child has grown into strength and asks no further help-it continues through life, increasing, for the most part, rather than diminishing, so that though the child may have been long absent from his home, wandering in foreign lands, or domesticated among strangers, yet can he always reckon that the hearts of his father and mother beat kindly towards him, and he has only to present himself at their door, to unlock a tide of rich sensibilities, and be folded in ardent embraces, and welcomed with a deep gratulation. And this affection of a parent for a child is not merely a graceful and beautiful sentiment, shedding a charm over the privacies of domestic life-it is one of the chief mainsprings of human activity, and contributes perhaps more than anything else to the keeping together the elements of society. It is quite extraordinary, if you come to think, how this single affection or instinct will tie down a man to unwearied occupation, so that he will toil night and day to gain subsistence for his family. He might betake himself to another scene, where having only himself to provide for, he might live in comparative ease ; but his young ones have nestled round his heart--he cannot be tempted by any prospect of relief to desert those who lean on him as a father and therefore, with a heroism which would draw on itself intense admiration, if it were not so common, he will employ all his energies, and wear down all his strength in obtaining a sufficiency for those beneath his roof. Thus is Bociety virtually knit together by and through parental affection. And you hare only to suppose this affection extinguished, so that fathers and mothers cared nothing, or only for a short time, for those to whom they gave life, and you destroy the fine play of a healthful activity, and slacken the bonds which make fast communities. And whilst parents are thus abidingly and profitably actuated by affection for their children, children maintain an affection towards their parents, scarcely less graceful, and scarcely less adrantagcous. If it have been a very interesting and touching spectacle, that of a mother bending devotedly over her infant, or that of a father spending himself unhesitatingly that he might earn bread for his little ones, certainly it is not a less interesting, and not a less touching, when the couch of the aged parent is sedulously attended by a daughter, or the tottering steps of the old man are sustained by an affectionate son. There is scarce anything which, in our eyes has so much of moral gracefulness and beauty as this return to the parents of all the kindness and assiduousness which flowed forth from them on their offspring-the repayment in reverential attentions and dutiful devotion of benefits received in infancy and childhood. This is not so much an instinct as a principle, and, accordingly, while the Bible contains no precept as to loving children, it contains a most express precept as to honour. ing parents, so that there is given to the latter the character of a high duty, to whose performance we are urged by a distinct and full promise. And the point to which I have to bring you is, that this duty is very generally and very faithfully performed. Of course there are exceptions, but these provoke unmingled reprobation, as though all the feelings of a community rose up against that unnatural being, a thankless child, and prompted the fitness of casting him from its circles. We hardly know in which case the flow of this tide of indignation is the strongest-whether against the parent who can forsake or ill use a child, or against the child who can desert or dishonour a parent; we are inclined to think that of the two spectacles the latter more moves the popular anger-that of the child deserting or dishonouring a parent. There is a feeling that the parent is deficient in instinct, but that the child is deficient in a principle-that the parent refuses to confer, but that the child refuses to repay an obligation; and thus there is a practical consciousness that there is an ingratitude and a baseness in the unnatural child which can hardly be charged on the unnatural parent-so that while the one has done violence to one of the commonest and strongest principles of our nature, the other has proved himself callous to one of the strongest dictates of morality. But the fact is, that in far the majority of instances the filial, like the parental duties, are carefully discharged. It is comparatively but seldom that children show want of affection towards a father and a mother, when that father and
that mother have done their part as parents; whether it be in the highest or the lowest families of the land, there is generally a frank yielding to its heads of that respect and that gratitude which they have a right to look for from their offspring.
There is no disputing the first statement of the text; for it is the general rule. “We have had fathers of onr flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence.” But how now as to the inference which St. Paul would draw from this statement? How as to our subjection to another and a higher Father, “the Father of spirits ?" If it be the common rule—the exceptions not being such as to bring the rule into question—that children give reverence to their fathers, surely if God be a Father he too will be reverenced. Once establish the relationship, and the reverence and submission will follow almost of course! Alas! no. God is indeed a Father ; the very character under which he has been pleased specially to reveal himself, and under which he encourages us to address him is that of “Our Father in heaven," and never did earthly parent lavish so much tenderness on a child, nor bear with him so gently in his helplessness or waywardness as God in his dealings with every one amongst ourselves. It would be quite idle to compare God in his paternal character with the best of human fathers, for earthly affection is limited in power-even where not defective in steadfastness it often cannot effect what it feels to be for the good of its object, and often through mistake effects what is not. But with God there is unlimited ability, and at the same time unbounded acquaintance with wants and their adequate supply, so that he can neither withhold what would be for our advantage, nor bestow what would not; and when it might have been expected, from the inscrutable majesty of his nature, that he would have come forth under some vast and overwhelming character, fitted to cause the inhabitants of this earth to shrink away in terror, it pleased him to throw open his dwelling place, that there he might be discovered as the universal parent, gathering all his might and all his knowledge into a sort of shield which might be spread over the whole human family, and giving its truth to the touching description,"Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him.”
Therefore I stay not to demonstrate to you the paternal character of him whom our text styles, “the Father of spirits ;” it is the character which per. vades the whole of revelation, and is outlined by the whole of Providence, The question is not as to whether God acts towards us as a father-it is only whether we act towards God as children; and here comes the melancholy contrast between men as members of particular families, and men as members of the uuiversal family. The very beings who can recognize most cordially the claims of earthly parents, who can yield them a reverence and a homage which give to the domestic picture a rich moral beauty, and who would show themselves virtuously indignant at any tale of filial disobedience or unthankfulness, these have only to be viewed as children of God, and presently they may be convicted of all that unnaturalness, all that ingratitude, all that baseness, on which they are ready to pour unmingled reprobation. You cannot for a moment profess to deny, that in the heart which is all alive to filial emotions, and which beats with so true an affection towards a father and a mother, that the whole strength is centred in the showing them respect and ministering
their com there may be an utter indifference towards the heavenly parent-ay, no more practical remembrance of him “ in whom we live, and