by Archibald Alexander
And this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.— 1 John v. 4.
The conquest of the world may be considered the highest object of human ambition. In different ages, a few great heroes extended their conquests so far, and brought under their dominion so many countries and nations, that, in the language of eulogy, they have been styled the conquerors of the world. But if it were possible for any man literally to gain possession of the whole world, still he would be poor; the acquisition would be of little real value, and he would remain as unsatisfied as before. Indeed, it is reported of one who came as near the dominion of the known world as any other, that when he had completed his conquests, he sat down and wept, because there was not another world to conquer. It is a truth taught by all experience, that in no form and in no quantity can this world be a satisfying portion to the immortal mind, which was made for enjoyments of a far nobler kind. It would, therefore, be a real benefit to mankind to be cured of their insatiable thirst after worldly possessions, and to have their attention directed to objects of a more excellent and durable nature. Now this is the very design of true religion, which it accomplishes, in some good degree, for all those who sincerely embrace it. But we cannot renounce the world as a portion, without incurring its displeasure. " If ye were of the world, the world would love his own; but because I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you." And this enmity is not inoperative. The opposition which exists between the spirit of the world, and the spirit of true religion must produce a conflict; for Christians and men of the world not only mingle together in the same society, but are often connected by the ties of kindred and relationship. Hence it has come to pass, in all ages, that Christianity has been the occasion of enkindling the flames of strife between the members of the same household. And although its natural tendency is to produce peace and good-will among men; yet, agreeably to Christ's prediction, it has brought " a sword." " For I am come," said the Saviour, " to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man's foes shall be they of his own household." The world which lieth in wickedness, is at enmity with God. It is under the usurped authority of the prince of darkness, who is therefore called, " the God of this world." Those, therefore, who come out from the world,
and imbibe a different spirit, will be treated as deserters, and will meet with persecution in one form or another. In this contest, if you count the apparent numbers, there is a fearful odds in favour of the world, and against the Christian soldier; but if your eyes should be opened, like those of the servant of the prophet, like him, you will be ready to exclaim, " They that be with us are more than they that be with them." He who has enlisted under the banner of the Captain of salvation, may boldly say, " If God be for us, who can be against us?"
The circumstances of this spiritual warfare vary exceedingly with the condition of the world, and of each individual. Sometimes the battle is fierce and dreadful; while, at other times, there is the appearance of a truce. This, however, is always a deceitful appearance. On the part of the enemy there never is any real cessation of hostility; and on the part of the Christian there should be none. And if, at any time, from the delusive appearance of peace, he should remit his vigilance, and fall into the sleep of carnal security, he will be exposed to the most imminent danger; his spiritual welfare will be placed in the utmost peril.
This contest, though " by poets unsung, and by senators unpraised," is the most important in its results, of any which was ever carried on in this world. It will, therefore, be worth our while to take a nearer view of it, and to inquire "how the world opposes the Christian, and how the Christian gains a victory over the world.
A victory implies a conflict, and a conflict supposes an enemy. This enemy, as we have seen, is the world. In the sacred Scriptures, the word world is used in various senses. Here, it must be taken to signify that complex idea, made up of the men of the world, with all their sentiments, maxims, plans, and pursuits, and the things of the world, including every object which can, in any way, become a temptation or an obstacle to the Christian pilgrim, in his progress to the land of promise.
The opposition of the world is of two kinds; or it assumes two aspects, of a very opposite nature; and endeavours to stop or retard the believer by addressing two different classes of feelings, which appertain to human nature. The first is, an aspect of terror. It presents to him a formidable array of evils, which he must expect to meet with in the Christian course. It endeavours to alarm him, by holding out the prospect of losses to be sustained of things naturally desirable, of pains to be endured which are abhorrent to our nature, and does not merely threaten these evils, but actually inflicts them, in a very appalling and terrific form. Thus, when Christianity was first propagated in the world, it was met with the most determined and virulent opposition. Its professors were dragged before the judgment-seat of governors and kings. They were insulted and abused by the mob. They were " every where spoken against," and reputed to be "the offscouring of all things"—calumniated not only as the enemies of the human race, but as the enemies of the gods. They were beaten, scourged, imprisoned, tortured, thrown to the wild beasts inthe theatre, and put to death by every species of torture which diabolical ingenuity could invent. And these scenes of persecution were not confined to one country or to one age. Wherever Christians were discovered, they were persecuted with unrelenting severity, and punished with death merely because they bore the Christian name. During the greater part of three centuries, were these cruelties practised against the unoffending followers of Christ. Thousands, and tens of thousands, of every age, and of both sexes, were thus put to death; not accepting deliverance, when by uttering a single word, or by a single act of worship to the false deities of the heathen, they could have saved their lives. And this spirit ^of opposition to the genuine spirit of Christianity has never been more malignant, than when it has been exercised under the name and profession of the religion of Christ. No pagan cruelties and tortures could exceed those practised in the Spanish Inquisition. Infidels have sometimes charged all these upon Christianity itself; but this is most unjust, as the precepts and spirit of this religion are diametrically opposed to all cruelty and to all persecution, on account of religion. When the world assumed the profession of Christianity, with the change of name, there was not, generally, a change of disposition. The two contending parties still existed within the pale of the church; and the spirit of the world is not less malign, for being associated with hypocrisy. Christ's real sheep have ever been a little flock. The multitude, and especially those in power and authority, whatever name they may have assumed, have always been the enemies of the pure, spiritual religion of the gospel.
But the days of fierce and violent persecution have gone by—we hope, for ever. Even those who retain and cherish the spirit of persecution are ashamed to avow their true principles; and find it to be the best policy, in this age, to profess liberality. Christians are, therefore, no longer subjected to imprisonment and death, on account of their adherence to the gospel. But has the offence of the cross really ceased? Is no hostility to true religion felt by the world? Far from it. They that are righteous are still hated by those whose deeds are evil. They that are after the flesh, are still disposed to persecute those that walk after the Spirit. There never can be a sincere peace between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. True godliness is still hated by the world; and they who live godly in Christ Jesus, do still suffer persecution. The spirit of the world is the same as formerly, but the mode of attack is changed. Or rather, the providence of God has put a restraint on the wicked; and they now pursue the righteous with weapons of scorn, ridicule, and calumny. The war is not terminated; the contest is still going on, and will not cease as long as there is a world of carnal men.
There is, indeed, a fashionable kind of religion, against which the world feels no enmity; a religion which makes a compromise with the world, connives at its vices and follies, and shuns all seriousness of spirit, and strictness of behaviour. But this is, in fact, no other than the spirit of the world in disguise. Many professors of religion meet with no opposition from the world, because they are of the world, and the world will love its own. And the men of the world, who are wiser in their generation than the children of light, are sagacious in discovering their friends, under whatever disguise they may appear. Indeed, false professors often manifest a more bitter enmity to true religion, than the openly profane; so that there is no difficulty in discerning what manner of spirit they are of. Such have no contest with the world. Their controversy is with the genuine spirit of Christianity, which they are wont to malign as narrow, illiberal, bigoted, and inimical to human happiness and to elegant improvements in society. These pretend to have discovered an easier way to heaven, than that old thorny path of self-denial and devotion, designated by the example and precepts of Christ. They do, indeed, avoid the offence of the cross, and forsake no earthly honour or enjoyment for the kingdom of heaven. But let any one be in good earnest in matters of religion, and be influenced by its truths, in some proportion to their importance. Let him turn off his affections from the world, and no longer seek his chief happiness in its riches, honours, and pleasures. Let him turn his back on its fashionable amusements and convivial entertainments, and let him lead a life in exact conformity with the precepts of the gospel, however contrary to the fashions and maxims of the world, and he will soon learn from experience, that the world has not become f he friend of genuine piety; and that it is still true, that he who will be the friend of the world is the enemy of God. Parents often oppose their own children, and do all they can to hinder them from becoming religious; and husbands throw obstacles in the way of their wives, or wives of their husbands. The old companions of sincere converts treat them with neglect, and soon show that their affections are alienated; and sometimes, manifest their scorn and contempt by signs not to be misinterpreted. And he does not need a long time to learn, that spiritual religion is no favourite with the men of this world.
There is another aspect which the world assumes, in regard to religion. It does not always frown, but sometimes insidiously smiles. The aspect of terror which we have been considering, may produce dismay, but the danger menaced is, in that case, always manifest. But when she comes forth with all the blandishments of pleasure; or when, with the language of friendship, she soothes and caresses, and pours forth her strains of adulation, and heaps favours on the head of her intended victim, and with her siren voice incites to the enjoyment of sensual pleasure, then is the time of trial. These are the temptations which are more dangerous than fires and gibbets. And the danger is greater because it does not appear to be danger. No apprehensions are awakened. Prosperity and indulgence are naturally agreeable to every one. When the senses and appetites are addressed by baits suited to them, and no gross sins are proposed, but merely a life of elegant—and as they are called —innocent delights, the unsuspicious soul is thrown off its guard, and forgets to watch and pray against temptation; and before she is aware, is ensnared in some forbidden indulgence, or is lulled into a sleep of carnal security. The cup of worldly pleasure is always inebriating. It may be sweet to the taste, and exhilarating to the spirits, but its ultimate effects are deleterious. The soul of the Christian is never in greater jeopardy, than when all things around it wear a smiling aspect. By the deceitful-ness of riches, many high professors have been brought low in religion. While they hasted to be rich, they pierced themselves through with many sorrows, and fell into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. " For the love of money is the root of all evil." Thus fell Judas, Ananias, and Sapphira. Thus fell Demas, a companion of Paul, and a preacher of the gospel. In like manner, the honours of the world and the ambition of power and office, have been a snare to many. They cannot believe, while they prefer the honour that comes from men to that which comes from God. They who love the praise of men more than the praise of God, will be ashamed of the gospel of Christ, and will never confess his name before an ungodly and scoffing world.
But in no way does the world oppose the Christian more successfully, than by alluring him with the prospect of ease and pleasure. On this enchanted ground many have slept, and many have slidden back and fallen, so that ever afterwards, they have limped along on their pilgrimage, with broken bones. On this slippery ground, the 11 man after God's own heart,' 1 met with a sad and disgraceful fall, on account of which the mouths of the enemies of religion were opened to blaspheme and do so to this day. And on this same deceitful ground, thousands besides, have been overcome for a season, and others have fallen to rise no more At this point, the world is powerful, and the best of men left to themselves, are weak. Indeed, few who have set their faces Zionward, have escaped unhurt, in passing over this enchanted ground. Young Christians should take warning from the experience of those who have gone before them, and not foolishly confide in their own wisdom and strength. But all should be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might, and never cease to watch and pray.
II. Having shown how the world opposes the Christian, we come next to explain how the Christian gains the victory. " And this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith." The faith to which this victory is ascribed is not that historical or speculative faith, which nearly all persons in Christian countries possess, and which is the effect of education. This faith, in its origin, does not differ from the faith of heathens and Mohammedans, and in its effects, is powerless. Such a faith never, in any case, overcomes the world; for it is dead and unfruitful. The apostle is careful to let us know, that the faith of which he speaks, is the fruit of regenerating grace, the act of the renewed soul; for in the first clause of the verse, from which our text is taken, he says, " For, whosoever is born of God overcometh the world.' None achieve this great victory, but souls "born of God;" for none beside possess a true faith. Some may allege, that their faith is not the mere prejudice of education, but the result of a thorough and impartial examination of the evidences of divine revelation. To such it is still necessary to insist, that though their faith is rational, as being founded on good and solid reasons, yet it comes far short of a saving faith. The faith under consideration, requires no new birth to produce it; it is merely the offspring of man's reason. But it may be asked, In what respect is it defective ? If the reasons on which it is built are sound, and the assent unwavering, what could be added to it? To which it may be briefly answered, that we may have convincing evidence of the truth of a thing, while this evidence does not present the object itself in its true light. But when our faith produces an effect, it arises from the nature of the truth believed. No evidence of gospel truth gives to the mind a discernment of the true quality of spiritual objects, but the illumination of the Spirit. "The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God ; they are foolishness unto him, neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned." Genuine faith is a conviction, or full persuasion of the truth, produced by the illumination of the Holy Spirit. The evidence on which this faith is founded, being the beauty and excellence of the truth perceived, cannot but be operative ; for it is impossible that the rational mind should see an object to be lovely, and not love it. Such a faith must, therefore, " work by love and purify the heart," and be fruitful of good works. This view of saving faith agrees with Paul's definition " Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." Faith, if I may be allowed the expression, is the eye of the soul by which it looks into the spiritual world, and realizes future and eternal things. The Scriptures constantly testify, that all ungodly men are destitute of the true knowledge of God. They may perceive the mere verity and relative connexion of divine truth, but the beauty and glory of the truth, they see not. Just as a blind man may be convinced by feeling and by testimony of the reality of the existence of the sun, but he can form no idea of this celestial luminary in its glory, as he runs his daily race through the heavens.
There is a wide and real distinction between merely intellectual ideas of divine things and those which are spiritual. The unregenerate man may be endowed with a powerful intellect, and he may exercise his reasoning powers on divine truth, and may draw just conclusions respecting them; but he can never by the mere exercise of reason attain to spiritual ideas, any more than the man born blind can attain to the knowledge of light and colours, by logical reasoning; or the deaf mute attain to the correct idea of sounds in some other way. The weakest Christian, even the mere child, by the illumination of the Spirit, possesses a species of knowledge, to which the philosopher can never attain, by the utmost exertion of unassisted reason. And this knowledge is far more excellent, than that of any human science, however sublime or useful. From the foregoing view of the nature of faith,
it will not be difficult to understand how it overcomes the world. It will only be necessary to bring to view two principles, to account for the power of faith, by which it achieves this great victory. The first is, that our estimation of the value of objects is always comparative. The child knows nothing which it esteems more valuable than its toys; but when this child rises to maturity, and the interesting objects of real life are presented to it, the trifling baubles which engaged the affections in childhood, are now utterly disregarded, and considered unworthy of a moment's thought.
Again, suppose a person in a low and obscure condition, whose mind has been occupied with small concerns and trivial objects, to have suddenly presented to him the prospect of great wealth and distinction—or say, a kingdom; how quickly would such a man lose all his former estimation of his little cottage and his implements of industry ! His mind would now be completely absorbed in the contemplation and pursuit of 4hose more splendid objects, which glitter in his sight. Just so, by means of faith, objects infinitely more valuable and interesting, than any which this world contains, are presented to the mind in their true character. Upon the view of these things, the affections relinquish their hold of earthly things, and however strong the grasp by which they were embraced, they are now voluntarily resigned for the sake of those more excellent things which faith reveals to the soul. With these objects full in view, the glory of this world fades away, and all its grandest objects appear trivial, and little worthy of the pursuit of a rational and immortal mind. The riches, honours, and pleasures of the world, are to the person in the exercise of faith, like the toys of children to the man of mature age. He cannot be persuaded to give his affections to sublunary objects, who is persuaded that an exceeding and eternal weight of glory is within his reach. Such an one will cheerfully part with an earthly portion, for the sake of a heavenly inheritance. The world may frown upon him, may brand with folly his new pursuit, may follow him with its obloquy and contempt, may endeavour to conquer his resolution by every species of torture, but it cannot shake, much less change his purpose. His language still is, " My heart is fixed, 0 God, my heart is fixed." Even though his enemies kill the body, his faith assures him that they cannot injure his better part. " Fear not," says Christ, "them that kill the body and have no more that they can do." Even while the body is on the rack, or in the flames, by faith he sees " a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens." He sees his gracious and almighty Redeemer holding out to him a crown of life. He is assured that as soon as his soul leaves the body, it shall be with Christ in Paradise ; and that there is in heaven reserved for him " an inheritance among the saints in light, which is incorruptible, undefiled, and fadeth not away." Is it strange then, that wiith these views which a genuine faith affords, the Christian should be a conqueror over the world, in all the hostile forms which it may assume ?
The other principle to which I alluded is this
The true method of expelling from the soul, one set of affections, is to introduce others of a different nature, and of greater strength. The soul of man must have one governing affection, to which all others must yield. It is on this principle that Christ said, " Ye cannot serve two masters. Ye cannot serve God and mammon." Suppose a devotee of sensual pleasure to be suddenly seized with ambition, or avarice, in a very high degree. The effect would immediately be, that he would cease to seek happiness in the indulgence of bodily passions, and he would be led to pursue assiduously the .new object, whether honour or wealth, for which he now entertains an affection of paramount strength. Such chancres have sometimes been observed in the history of men. But though changes of this kind are real, and great, and are hailed by many as a great reformation; yet there is really no moral change. It is but the substitution of one vicious affection for another. But when faith comes into operation, and love to God becomes the predominant affection, there is not only a great change, but a moral transformation of the soul, from the sinful love of the creature, to the holy love of the Creator. Now the world is conquered. Faith working by love has achieved the victory. The soul is restored to something of its pristine order and beauty. Light has arisen out of darkness, and order out of confusion. Verily, there is " a new creation."
The believer can forsake not only riches and honours, but father and mother, wife and children, and life itself, for the sake of the honour of God his Saviour. In vain does the world attempt to turn him aside by its terrors and persecutions; by faith he triumphs over all the cruelties and indignities which she can heap upon him. And if she endeavours to subdue him from his allegiance by spreading before him all her charms, her wealth, her honours, and fascinating pleasures, if faith be in lively exercise, all these will be spurned. Like Moses, the believer will prefer the cross of Christ to all the momentary pleasures of sin, and to all the treasures of Egypt. This power of faith to conquer is not a vain boast, but a practical reality. This victory has been achieved by multitudes, yea, by every true believer; and will continue to be achieved, as long as the world stands.
1. If what has been said be true, then we must conclude that genuine faith is rare in the world ; yea, rare among professors. For when we take a survey of the Christian world, how small the number who seem to have gained a victory over the world! The thirst for riches, honours, and pleasures, is almost universal. By earthly passions the great multitude are subdued and enslaved. Still the words of our Lord are applicable, " Wide is the gate, and broad is the way which leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat; while strait is the gate and narrow is the way which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it." O ! professing Christian, let go your too eager grasp of the world, or it will sink you to ruin.
Beware of covetousness, and remember that it is written, that covetousness is idolatry, and such shall never enter into the kingdom of heaven. Flee from idolatry, and seek that faith which is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
2. Let not the poor and afflicted in this world, who believe in Christ, be discouraged. You, my brethren, are placed in the circumstances most favourable to a victory over the world. Those fascinating temptations which have ensnared and ruined so many professors, are removed far from you. You should not repine at your poverty, for riches might have proved ruinous to your souls. And ye, who endure severe affliction, bear it with patience, and even be thankful for it, because " these light afflictions which are for a moment, work out for us a far more exceeding weight of glory." Soon all sense of pain shall cease for ever, and all our feelings of sorrow shall be swallowed up in never ending felicity. "Fight then the good fight of faith; lay hold on eternal life." Henceforth there is laid up for you a crown of life, which God the righteous Judge will give you at that day. " Be faithful unto death," saith the Lord, u and I will give you a crown of life."
From the book Practical Sermons to be Read in Families and Social Meetings by Archibald Alexander