For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; But when the righteous turneth away from his righteousness, and committeth iniquity, and doeth according to all the abominations that the wicked man doeth, shall he live? All his righteousness that he hath done shall not be mentioned: in his trespass that he hath trespassed, and in his sin that he hath sinned, in them shall he die. ~ Romans 1:18, Ezekiel 18:24
And I will bring the third part through the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried: they shall call on my name, and I will hear them: I will say, It is my people: and they shall say, The LORD is my God. ~ Zechariah 13:9
Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: The ungodly are not so: but are like the chaff which the wind driveth away. Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous. ~ 1 Peter 5:8, Psalm 1:4-5
Lest there be any fornicator, or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat sold his birthright. For ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears. ~ Hebrews 12:16-17
Then I saw that there was a way to Hell, even from the gates of Heaven. ~ John Bunyan
Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it. ~ Hebrews 4:1
Salvation Scarcely Obtained Even by the Righteous, by Thomas Chalmers. Sermon IV.
And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?
~ 1 Peter 4:18
There are men of no less than three distinct classes of character who have all a part in this brief but most impressive warning. First, the righteous, of whom it is said that they scarcely shall be saved. Secondly, the ungodly; and thirdly, sinners; of whom it is asked, where shall they appear? The two last have one common resemblance; but withal, they have certain separate characteristics, which it may be well to notice on the present occasion.
I. It is unnecessary to dwell on the signification of the term righteous in the passage before us — or to insist at any great length on the distinction which obtains between the imputed and the personal righteousness of those who believe. ‘l”he one is perfect; and from the very first there is in it no scarceness, no shortcoming. The second is frail and humble in its commencement, doubtful and various in its progress, and has to struggle its uncertain way through defeats, and difficulties, and discouragements, ere it reaches its full consummation. By the one, we are delivered from the guilt of sin. By the other, we are delivered from the power of sin. In virtue of the imputed righteousness, our names are blotted out from that book of condemnation which is kept in the judicatory above. In virtue of the personal righteousness, the pollution of sin is washed away from the heart — and there is a busy work of holiness going forward on each genuine and aspiring pilgrim below. It is a firm and immutable certainty, that if a man believe, he obtains a judicial righteousness in Christ. But it is just as firm a certainty, that if a man believe, he obtains a personal righteousness in his own character. The one is just as indissolubly linked with his salvation as the other — and, if because gifted with the former, he rejoices in hope, and has a peace in his heart which passeth all understanding; then, because gifted also with the latter, he plies with utmost diligence and labour all the activities of the christian service, alike instant in duty and watchfulness and prayer.
Now, it is obvious, both from the text and from the context, that it is by their personal characteristics that the righteous are contrasted with the ungodly and the sinner. The judgment which begins with the former and ends with the latter, is a judgment which takes cognisance of personal qualities alone. On that day we shall be reckoned with for our doings — and the respective awards of the judgment-seat will proceed on the distinction, on the personal distinction which there is between them who obey and them who obey not. So that, in looking forward to that judgment-seat, our great aim should be to perfect our obedience, and to be diligent, that we may be found of Christ in peace without spot and blameless. It is thus, in fact, that we work out our salvation; not salvation from the punishment of sin, for this is effected by the blood of Christ’s atoning sacrifice — but salvation from the pollution and the power of sin, which is effected by our striving mightily according to the grace of God which worketh in us mightily. It is in the arduous prosecution of this work, that man presses onward to a mark for a prize, and feels how all his power and strength must be embarked in the undertaking, lest he should fall short of it; that, with much study and much strenuousness, he tries to bring himself nearer every day to an object which still lies in the distance before him; that, yet far be- neath the summit of moral or spiritual perfection to which he is aspiring, he plies his toilsome ascent along the narrow and the rugged path by which he is led to it. And so, the images employed in scripture for the work of Christianity, are expressive of most intense and sustained effort towards an attainment which after all may not be realised — a battle which requires complete armour, and the busy use of it, in order to secure the doubtful victory — a race which many run, but in which few will gain the prize — a narrow path, by which many shall seek to pass through the gate of life and not be able, and by which the few only who strive shall make good their entrance into the paradise of God.
It is by dint of painful and assiduous striving that salvation is at length carried; and just as the courser may be said scarcely to have won, who, with the utmost of his power and fleetness hath made good his distance by a hair-breadth of space, or within a moment of time, so it is said of the righteous by the apostle in our text, that scarcely they are saved.
Now the question we have to put upon all this is, whether the righteous of our day, or those who deem themselves to be so, are really comporting themselves in a way answerable to such a representation? Are they running, so as that they may obtain? Are they fighting, so as that they may gain a hard-won victory. Are they striving, so as that they may force an entrance of great obstruction and difficulty? Where, we ask, are there any symptoms of a work and of a warfare, or of that busy earnestness which a state of probation like ours would seem so imperiously to demand? There is a whole host of people, we are aware, who do stand forth and signalise them- selves as the Religionists of the day.
But amid all the pretence and profession by which they are distinguished, where is the practical exercise 1 Where the strenuous, the sustained effort that cometh out of desirous hearts and doing hands? How many or how few are there of these who are diligently plying at the real task- work of Christianity? — who are making a business of their sanctification? — who are labouring for Heaven, as if pursued by the conviction that without labour they will never make it out, and that even after their utmost labour, they will but save their distance, and scarcely reach the goal which they are tending to? Surely, if they proceeded on this view of the matter, their appearance altogether would be that of men upon the stretch — of men, all whose faculties were pressed into a mighty service — of men in a state of constant and great urgency, on a way beset with many obstacles, and their progress through which required the forth-putting of all their strength, and of all their busy expedients. Now we scarcely see this degree of intensity any where. Not certainly among all, if indeed among any, of those who are called the professing people. They have more the semblance of men who have been lulled to sleep by the sound of a pleasant song, than of men who have been roused into action by a spirit-stirring call. Their orthodoxy has acted rather as a sedative than a stimulant. It has cradled them into a state of repose rather than brought them out into a state of exertion. They are more like men under the power of an opiate, than of men who, awoke from lethargy, and now in the attitude of readiness for service, have their loins girded about and their lamps burning.
Christianity is grievously misunderstood, whenever it is imagined that all this activity and labour are not called for. They are sadly misled by their creeds and their systems, who fancy the death of Christ to be that terminating object, in which the believer has only to rest and do nothing. Instead of this, it is the starting-post of a busy career, whence the Christian breaks forth with hope and alacrity on all the services of a new obedience. ” Christ gave himself for us,” says the apostle, ” that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto him- self a peculiar people zealous of good works.” The faith of the gospel so en- larges the heart, as to make him by whom it is actuated, run in the way of the commandments. There is nought, surely, of indolence in this. The work which it is given a Christian to do, is not a work done so easily, that it may be lightly, or carelessly, or superficially gone about — • but a work done with such exceeding difficulty, that they who do accomplish it, accomplish it but scarcely, and so it is but scarcely that they are saved.
To keep the heart with all diligence — to keep the heart in the love of God — to dwell with ever-recurring contemplation on those objects of faith by which gratitude and affectionate loyalty, and all the purposes of new obedience are upholden — to keep a strict and resolute guardian- ship over the inner man, amid the temptations by which it is both plied from without, and most insidiously operated upon from within — to watch over the infirmities of temper, the perpetual aberrations of selfishness and vanity — to follow after peace when surrounded by provocatives to war, to maintain charity in the midst of crudest provocations — to be patient under calumny and injustice; and master that most difficult of all achievements, the love of enemies who have hurt or affronted or betrayed us — to bid away all the incitements of sensuality, so as both to have purity in the heart and temperance in the habits, in the presence of a thousand besetting solicitations : In addition to these labours of the unseen Spirit, to fill the whole history with the doings of a visible obedience — to labour in our closets, to labour in our families, to labour in the ordinances of religion, to labour in the attentions and the offices of social intercourse, to labour in the visitations of liberality and kindness, to labour yet with a spirit schooled out of all its worldliness in the business of our callings — these, these are the tests of Christianity here; and these, when done to the glory of God, and in the name of Jesus, will be the triumphs of Christianity hereafter.
These are the treasures laid up for us in Heaven — not as forming our title-deed to that glorious inheritance of the saints, but as forming our meetness for its exercises and its joys. All the possible acts and virtues of humanity put together, cannot build up a claim to Heaven; but they build up the indispensable character of Heaven. They compose not that imputed righteousness of Christ which is the meritorious plea; but they compose that personal righteousness of his disciples which is their essential preparation.
And it is the magnitude of that preparation; it is the loftiness, the spirituality of that law, with the graces and perfections of which they are called upon to clothe themselves; it is the mighty range or extent of a commandment whereof the Psalmist says, that it is exceeding broad — these make the work and the labour of Christianity such that it scarcely can be done — these, as constituting the salvation of believers from sin unto righteousness, give emphatic truth to the saying, that the righteous scarcely can be saved. Now the first class of believers who ought to feel the force of this representation, are they who have embraced the faith of the gospel. What an impressive warning to all such that it is but scarcely they shall be saved ! You may win, but hardly, and as if within a hair-breadth.
Now to make this out, are you working hardly? Does your seeking amount to any thing like striving? Are you at all like men putting forth your whole might for carrying some point of difficulty?
When the fortress stands in a position that is nearly impregnable, Ave find that all the strength and all the tactics of besiegers are put forth in the business of storm- ing it. Is the kingdom of Heaven, we ask, suffering this violence at your hands; and where are your high resolves, your busy expedients, your struggles and your onsets for taking it by force. Where are your ardent prayers for strength; and then, the stirring up or the putting forth of that strength which is in you for great and arduous performances? And, do you watch as well as pray? It is not the devotion of a little time in the morning, followed up by an utter relaxation of spirit through the day — It is not the observation of all the Sabbath punctualities followed up by a week of earthliness — It is not the sacramental decency, or even the sacramental fervour, followed up by a year, throughout the general tenor of which, you breathe like other men the air of this world’s business and this world’s companionship — It is not thus that you acquit yourselves like servants, who, as if under the immediate eye of Heaven, are working and waiting for their Lord. Awaken, awaken, then all ye, who sit at ease in Zion, if ye would escape the fearfulness which shall overtake the hypocrite, the doom of those who say. Lord, Lord, while they do not the things which he says.
II. Now if such be the ordeal which even the righteous must undergo, what must become of the ungodly. If the former can scarcely pass the judgment in safety, how is it possible that in that judgment the latter can stand? It begins, it would appear, at the house of God, and there it so searches and scrutinises, that it is but hardly and by a little way, that many, even of Christ’s own disciples, shall be found on the right side of the line of demarcation. It ends with those who stand afar off’ from the precincts of holiness or of heaven, and among them it will be a consuming fire. If the saints, with all their prayers and pains and struggles upon earth, shall but have won their distance by a hair-breadth, and by their much strenuousness have forced, and scarcely forced their admittance within the door of the kingdom — ah ! what will become of those sinners, the care of whose souls cost them no strenuousness, who live here as they list, and make this evanescent world their resting- place, without an effort or a wish beyond it. Surely, if among God’s own people the sacred jealousy of His nature act as a refiner’s fire, to separate the almost from the altogether Christian, it must go forth in one mighty and devouring tide of conflagration among the hosts of the rebellious.
Our purpose in distinguishing the ungodly and the sinners into two classes, is if possible to excite salutary alarm in the breasts of those, who imagine of themselves that they are not sinners — who at least imagine of themselves that they are not in danger, because in reputation and good will among men, they are free from the disgrace of all gross and notorious delinquencies. They lie not. They steal not. They oppress not the poor; nor do they violate either the equities of business or the proprieties of good neighbourhood. It is a most frequent, nay a most natural delusion among such, that they are not great sinners — and for this best of all reasons that they are chargeable with no great sins. They will not admit the magnitude of their guilt — neither will they admit the magnitude of their danger, till some specific or definite transgression can be alleged against them. In the absence of these they feel a complacency in their present state, and are visited with no disturbance at least, in the contemplation of their future prospects. They stand alike exempted from remorse and terror. And it serves to foster this tranquillity of spirit more, if to the absence of all which they deem to be positively bad, they add the presence of much that is positively good in their character — if they be amiable in the relations of domestic and social life, if they be kind and companionable among their fellows, if they be erect and untainted in honour, if they be trusty in friendship, if they be devoted in patriotism.
These are the virtues which uphold, nay beautify the societies of the earth — but what we affirm of one and all of them is, that they do coexist with ungodliness. Along with the presence of these social moralities, there may be the absence or utter destitution of all the sacred moralities. That is a pleasing light which is struck out by the mere workings of instinct in the hearts and among the habitations of men. But it differs from that light which cometh down from the upper sanctuary. The one is no more like to the other than the tiny lustre of the glow- worm is like unto the firmament’s meridian blaze. There may be nought of the celestial in this earth-born virtue; and it is a possible, nay a frequent, thing that men shall live and breathe in its atmosphere, yet live without God.
Now, it is for the sake of grouping these men into a company by themselves, that we view the ungodly of our text, as separate from the sinners of our text.
They in truth form a distinct class of society — accomplished, and perhaps brilliantly accomplished in the moralities of earth, yet without one thought or one visitation in their spirits of any practical earnestness about the heaven that lies beyond it — free of all those sins which would be termed delinquencies in the world, yet most surely as free of all devotedness in their hearts to Him who made the world — surrounded by the regards of kindness and the obeisances of respect in their neighbourhood below, yet living in a perpetual exile of the affections from Him who is above, at once the Father and the Judge of the human family — lulled into complacency by the thought of the many duties and the many decencies whereof they acquit themselves, yet hastening onward to that day of account, when tried by the question, ” What have you done unto God?” they shall be left without a speech and without an argument. Surely, if they who have cared and striven and sought after God all their days, yet after all are but scarcely saved — well may it he asked, what shall become of those who have never cared. If with the one there be such difficulty of salvation, what are we to conclude of the other, but that with them there is the certainty of damnation 1 If it be with so much ado that the righteous pass through the ordeal of their coming judgment, how is it possible that the ungodly can stand?
We are not charging you with aught which the world would call monstrous.
We charge you only with the negatives of character. You have no practical, no perpetual sense of God. We are not speaking of your vices. We speak only of your defects. You are deficient from seared-ness. It is not by your profligacies, but simply by your negations that we describe you. You have no godliness, or you are ungodly. Your consciences can tell, whether such be a just representation of yourselves. It can make palpable the difference between the habit of your souls, and that of those whose eye, and the aspiration of whose heart, are ever towards the upper sanctuary — whose delight is in communion with God, and whose chief dread it is to offend Him — who bear upon their spirits at all times a reverential impression of His sacredness; and who strive, with all their vigour and all their vigilance, to uphold that frame of the affections, which most befits the expectant of heaven, and best prepares for its holy services. You can best say if it be thus with you; and whether you now realise those longings and those labourings of the life of faith, by which all the feelings of the inner man, and all the doings of the outer man, are consecrated to the business of a high calling. Even they who are the most strenuous and the most devoted in this business of piety — even they but scarcely shall be saved; and what, we repeat, can become of those, who, from their cradles to their graves, do but grovel in the dust of that earth which they tread upon, and live without God in the world?
Think not then, that you might sleep on in safety because you have had no crimes. That judgment which shall at length awaken you, will fall in weightiest vengeance upon your head, if it but find you in a state of negation and nakedness. You fancy, that you have done nothing against God. But it is enough that you have lived without God. You are not conscious of such disobedience as any distinct or specific act of rebellion.
But enough, that you have not yielded obedience to His reign. It will be vain to allege that you never were a rebel against Him, if He can allege that He never had the rule over you. They are your own wills that have ruled you. It is by the waywardness of your own affections that you have walked. It may not have been on a way of profligacy or on a way of scandalous profaneness; but still it was your own way, and not His way. You have carried it all your lives long, independently of God. Perhaps without any gross violation of the decencies of life, but then you have a taste for decency. Perhaps without any glaring infraction of the integrities of business; but then, you have a native principle of integrity. Perhaps with an habitual homage to the voice of society, and even an occasional homage to the voice of your own conscience; but reckless all the while to the voice of God, and relatively to Him, in as deep a slumber of unconsciousness as if He were a nonentity or a phantom. Now, you refuse to hear the voice of His rightful authority; and so afterwards you shall be made to hear the thunders of His righteous condemnation.
III. So much for the subtle delusion of those who are ungodly, but feel not themselves to be sinners — and just because, whatever may be the hidden delinquencies of their spirit, there are no specific delinquencies of outward conduct with the matter of which they are chargeable. He who ventures upon the latter kind of disobedience, belongs to a distinct genus of character from that of mere ungodliness. And hence the distinction we would make between the ungodly and the sinner. The one simply cares not for God. The other, more resolute, lifts against Him an open defiance. The one, led by his own will, can perhaps only be charged with the distance of his affections from the person or character of God. The other, in formal and active resistance to the Divine will, may be charged with the despite done by his actions to the authority of God. The one is only disaffected. The other is more, he is disobedient: and while the former is but upon the neutral ground of indifference to God, the latter has planted his daring footstep within the distinct and the declared landmark of a forbidden territory. Such is the difference between him who is ungodly, and him who is a transgressor. The one is destitute of the feeling of loyalty. The other, more stoutly rebellious, hath broken the laws. He hath more outraged Heaven’s high sovereignty. He hath more braved, and bid defiance to the authority of God.
It is the more visible nature of his delinquency which lays him opener to the conviction of sin, than the man of decent morality, yet withal rooted ungodliness; and thus also would we explain the declaration of Christ, that publicans and sinners enter the kingdom of heaven before the Pharisees. They are more easily conscience-stricken, just because their sins are more conspicuous. Their fraud, or their falsehood, or their drunkenness, or their impurity, or their sabbath profanations, or their blasphemies, or their acts of oppression and violence; these are more glaring insignia of revolt against the government of Heaven, than is the latent, the lurking ungodliness of a worldly moralist — even though it should leaven his whole heart, and thoroughly- impregnate every deed of his history. Both will be reckoned with on the great day of manifestation — the one by the secret things of his heart, which shall then be revealed; the other by the deeds done in his body, which shall then be judged. But the inward secrets may not be palpable now while the outward deeds are abundantly so. The apostle makes a distinction between those sins which are open before-hand, and those which follow after. It is a distinction realised by the ungodly and the sinner of our text. The rebellion of the former has its firm though unseen hold in the recesses of his bosom The rebellion of the latter is written in such characters upon his forehead as may be seen and read of all men.
It is thus, that while often difficult to awaken conviction in the hearts of the mere ungodly — the heart of the sinner may be reached by reading to him in the deeds of his history his own character; and by reading to him, in the character of these deeds, the tremendous destiny which awaits him. It is thus that we would try to lay an arrest on the career of the transgressor. We would appeal to his own consciousness of his own doings. We would remind him of the sabbaths that he has violated, or of the execrations that he has poured forth, or of the impurities and excesses that he has indulged in, or of the dishonesties in business that he has committed, or of the relative duties that he has broken, or of the calumnies, whether heedless or malignant, wherewith he has soiled a neighbour’s reputation. We need not speak to him of the ungodliness that is in his heart, when things like these have broken out upon his history — the overt-acts of rebellion — the expressions of a distinct and declared warfare against Heaven’s throne. And O, if he but knew the in- violable sacredness of Him who sitteth thereon — of Him whose eyes are as a flame of fire, and before the rebuke of whose countenance all the derision and defiance of the hardiest in wickedness must at length melt away? — surely he would judge it better to recall himself in time, than to appear with all the aggravations of his uncancelled guilt before the judgment-seat. The voice of welcome and of good-will still calls upon him from his mercy-seat; and that God, the book of whose remembrance is laden with the record of his misdoings, is still willing that they shall all be blotted out in the blood of the great atonement : and if he will only break off his sins by righteousness and turn him to Christ who is mighty to save, the way of renovation is yet open; and the great Lawgiver, whom he has so often offended, beckons him to draw nigh and taste of His graciousness Such is the offer now : but let both the sinner and the ungodly re- collect, that this season of opportunity will soon pass away. The invitations of God’s tenderness will give place, and that speedily, to the terrors of a vengeance which will burn all the more fiercely because of a slighted gospel, and a rejected Saviour. Be alive then to the urgency of the present call, to the power and the encouragement of the present invitation. Kiss the Son while He is in the way — lest his wrath should begin to burn — when blessed only shall they be who have put their trust in Him.