Great Texts of the Bible
In Fashion or in Favour
Be not fashioned according to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.—Romans 12:2.
1. The great aim of St. Paul in the first eleven chapters of the Epistle to the Romans is to convince his readers that men of no race or class, whether Jews or Gentiles, can claim eternal life on the ground of their own merits, but, in order to receive it, must be content to accept it humbly and thankfully from the grace of God. His own summary of his whole argument is, “For God hath concluded them all in unbelief, that he might have mercy upon all.” To this mercy or grace he traces the calling, the election, the justification, the sanctification, the peace, the joys, the hopes, and, in a word, all the blessings shown by him to be included in the portion of a Christian. These glorious privileges are all mercies, pure mercies of God.
From the commencement of the twelfth chapter to the close of his Epistle we find the Apostle presenting those mercies, the nature and fulness of which he had previously unfolded in doctrine, as motives to Christian activity. They do not produce the effect which they ought to have if they do not produce righteous and holy living. It is accordingly on the valid foundation which these mercies supply that the Apostle raises his practical exhortations.
2. St. Paul addresses men here on the hypothesis that in some sense or other they are responsible for their surroundings. He says: “Be not conformed to this world.” He would not have us for a moment listen to this suggestion of a necessity. “Be not.” He speaks as to people who make their own circumstances for themselves. And yet, in fact, the freedom of our will does not lie in any power to create or to fashion circumstances or facts or motives outside ourselves; our will has none of that properly creative or constructive power, but what it can do is to select among the actual facts and motives which lie in our circumstances already. Our freedom lies in selecting, in paying attention to, this or that element in our actual surroundings, and by thus attending to it we have the power to give it such predominant force that all the other elements in our surroundings sink by the side of it into insignificance. Thus, in fact, men can do what in effect comes to making their own surroundings.
In this London of ours there are the same surroundings for all of us, and, for the most part, they are ugly enough, grimy enough, in our atmosphere; but the artistic spirit selects, it looks to those particular buildings where it can find something which will gratify its sense of form. As the man of artistic sensibility walks up Whitehall he looks not to all the buildings indiscriminately. He selects and distinguishes the Banqueting Hall on his right. He loves its form. It is something which responds to his sense of beauty and of fitness. As he gets to the top of Whitehall he selects and distinguishes that one statue of incomparable beauty which is the distinction of London—Le Sueur’s statue of Charles I. Under the grime with which the London atmosphere has incrusted it, his eye can distinguish the lines of beauty and the majestic pose of the beautiful figure and the horse. A little farther and his imagination penetrates through the walls of the National Gallery and recalls those countless forms of beauty and of grace which have already passed into his memory from the pictures of Flemish or Italian or English School. He selects, and, by selecting, makes his own atmosphere.
So he knows what are the special glories of the sunset as it slopes along the Serpentine, what are the extraordinary beauties of the low and lurid lights which are always to be found as he walks along the Thames Embankment by day or by night. The artistic temperament selects; by selecting it attends to particular objects; it is not indiscriminate; it takes what it chooses. Thus it makes its own environment, and though it moves, in fact, among exactly the same multitudinal and thronging objects amidst which we all move, it makes its own world by that incomparable power which is possessed by the human will, of attending to what it pleases and, by attending to it, giving it the predominant force which makes that real and all the rest of little account.
And so it is with the religious man. He creates his atmosphere by what he attends to. He penetrates behind the show and glamour of the world, back to what lies behind.1 [Note: Bishop Gore.]
The question which St. Paul invites the Christians in Rome to decide is whether they ought to be in fashion with the world or in favour with God. He urges them not to be “fashioned according to this world,” but to be “transformed” or transfigured, i.e. changed from the figure or fashion of things belonging to the world into likeness to Christ. In that way they will be in harmony with God’s will, and will discover how good God is.
Thus we may separate the good advice of the Apostle into three parts, and ask—
I. What is meant by being fashioned according to this world?
II. What is meant by being transformed by the renewing of the mind?
III. What is meant by proving that God’s will is good and acceptable and perfect?
Fashioned according to this World
1. It is a custom of St. Paul to make a distinction between the “form” of a thing, which really and necessarily belongs to it, and the “fashion,” which is only a matter of outward seeming, or at best is subject to change; and so it is misleading here to talk of being “conformed” or “transformed,” when St. Paul speaks of only the good thing as a “form,” and of the bad one as a mere “fashion.” In another Epistle he says, “The fashion of this world passeth away” (1 Corinthians 7:31); here he reminds us that it is a passing thing, by the mere use of the word “fashion.”
2. This very fact, that “the fashion of this world” is changeable and uncertain, makes it harder to give definite rules as to the way to avoid being “fashioned according to this world.” St. Paul does not attempt to do so; he does not say, “Such and such talk, such and such employments, such and such pleasures are worldly: therefore the servants of God must avoid them”; but he gives us the warning against accommodating ourselves to the fashion, whatever it be, of this world. That warning holds good however the fashion may change.
Our English virtues and vices would seem at times to go in and out of fashion like our wearing apparel. Up to the time, say, of William Cobbett, contentment was accounted a virtue in an Englishman and enthusiasm a vice. To Hume or Gibbon the words “discontented enthusiast” would have suggested a repulsive and seditious personality of the Czolgosz type—or, at least, some contemptible Ranter or Shaker. It is curious to reflect how matters altered later on when the Divine duty of discontent came openly to be preached, and Besant and Rice’s “Dick Mortiboy” impressed upon the school-feast children that unless your station in life was already among the great ones of the earth it was a despicable thing therewith to be content.1 [Note: Recreations and Reflections (from “The Saturday Review”), 373.]
Another virtue, charity or philanthropy, seems to have fluctuated in favour. In The Moonstone, Mr. Murthwaite, suggesting Godfrey Ablewhite as the possible culprit, observes, “I am told that he is a great philanthropist—which is decidedly against him to begin with.” Mr. Brough, the worthy family solicitor, cordially agreed with this, and it is pretty obvious that Wilkie Collins himself agreed with them both. The Moonstone was of course written long before charitable “slumming” came into fashion. Society philanthropists are always liable to offend by self-advertisement and the airs they give themselves of standing in loco Dei to the poor.
But the good bishop with a meeker air
Admits, and leaves them, Providence’s care.
Pope’s bishop was no doubt a worse man, but he avoided this particular rock of offence.2 [Note: Ib., 377.]
3. “The last new fashion.” There is something inherently contemptuous in the phrase. When we say of anything that it “has become a fashion,” we almost mean it to be inferred that it has become so for no particularly good reason, and will probably some day cease to be so for some reason no better. Ever since the word came to be applied in our language to men’s customs or whims, it has absorbed that other idea of change, and therefore of comparative worthlessness. Now there is nothing intrinsically worthless or wrong in mere change, or in the substitution of one “fashion” for another. In things into which the moral element does not enter, there is no harm in fashion, but obviously much good. Take the most obvious, because vulgarest, use of the term, as applied to dress. Into this “fashion,” as into everything human, the evil will, the low morality of man can intrude. Ostentation, extravagance, self-indulgence, vulgar and reckless competition in all these things must, and do, intrude. But the love of beauty, of variety, in colour and form, is not base or worldly love. It should not shame us to find pleasure in letting the eye rest upon such things, which like all God’s gifts are seen and loved first as we gaze upon the faultless beauties and the everchanging beauties of His creation. That the eye, given us to perceive and rejoice in these beauties, should long for an ever-changing succession of them, should discern the loveliness of alternation and variety, is no disgrace. Change, transition, contrast, whether in Nature or in Art—how large a part do not these make in the beauty of God’s creation, and of that human art which has grown out of the study of that creation! Should we not be grateful for the “shifting fashions”—for so they are—of God’s world, for the shifting fashions of the landscape in winter and in summer, in spring and in autumn?
Robertson had seen a great deal of the fashionable society of watering-places. With the exception of the brief interludes of Oxford and Winchester, he had lived all his days in such places. By the world generally he would himself be regarded as a man of fashion. He himself keenly appreciated the social and intellectual side of such society. But he had a thorough suspicion and dislike of the essential characteristics of these places. This comes out in his sermons and also in his letters: “If you wish to know what hollowness and heartlessness are, you must seek for them in the world of light, elegant, superficial fashion, where frivolity has turned the heart into a rock-bed of selfishness. Say what men will of the heartlessness of trade, it is nothing compared with the heartlessness of fashion. Say what they will of the atheism of science, it is nothing to the atheism of that round of pleasure in which many a heart lives—dead while it lives.”1 [Note: F. Arnold, Robertson of Brighton, 224.]
4. There are fashions in morals as well as in art, in religion, even, as well as in social etiquette; and it is against these that St. Paul warns his Roman Christians. Whenever and wherever the shifting moral sense of Society forms its own rules and standards, without reference to the revelation of God in His Word, and in His Son Jesus Christ, these fashions take their rise—the creations of the world—with no assurance of permanence, because they depend ultimately upon the conscience of the hour, which must needs vary. This must be true of every age—of this age no less than of that of which the Apostle was writing. It is to the conscience of the hour that we are not to “conform,” or “be fashioned,” if only because it has no permanence. There is no security, even if it is decently moral to-day, that it will be the same to-morrow.
The relations of the Kingdom of heaven and the world have grown infinitely more complex since St. Paul’s day. When he wrote, the boundary line between the Church and the World was tolerably clear and defined. It is no longer so, and the World presents new fronts to the Church, or rather is so permeated by the ways, if not the spirit, of the Church, that its fashions have become both more complex and more alluring. Now the World has become leavened to a certain extent by the ethics of the Church, and the Church leavened, alas! by the lower morals of the World, so that the boundary lines between the two become fainter and more misleading. And the pressure of the World upon the Church is greater than it was in St. Paul’s day, because it touches it at a greater number of points. The fashion of the World seriously threatened the real Christians in Rome; but it now threatens in a thousand fresh ways the nominal Christians of to-day.
“Fashion,” as a term, has degraded since St. Paul’s day. Unreality, as well as instability, is inseparable from the name of “fashion.” “Why does such and such a man or woman do so and so?” “Oh, because it’s the fashion—because it’s the thing to do!” Fashion is the public opinion of the “set,” to which everything else is sacrificed. The tyranny of the “set”—how inflexible its grip! what evils has it not to answer for! The vox populi, even when it is that of the large, free, public conscience, has no security for being the vox Dei; but how when it is the voice of a sect or a clique? To be really cynical is a bad enough thing—an affront to God and an insult to the law of Christian love; but what shall we say of the cynical fashion, taken up because for the moment, and with certain people we admire, it is the sign of cleverness and distinction. Then there is the sceptical fashion. To refuse God’s revelation, in Nature and in Conscience and in His Word, is sad enough; it is matter for deep pity as well as reproach. But what shall we say when it too has no root at all, good or evil, but is taken up as a badge of enlightenment, as a mark of separation from the humdrum superstitions of the world, and to win the good opinion of those in whom the same scepticism is perhaps at least genuine?
Terrible, again, is the growing defiance of the accepted moralities and decorums—the custom-hallowed decencies and reticences of life—which we see everywhere about us. Everywhere do we see signs of this revolt against old ideas of reverence, of modesty, of charity, and of courtesy, under the pretence of protesting against whatever is unreal or hypocritical in the so-called “respectabilities” of life. Where this is a genuine revolt, having a supposed excuse in undoubted conventionalities and hypocrisies to be found among us, it is at least not ignoble; but for one person who is fired by a genuine indignation that overmasters him, how many are there who follow in the same track only to win credit for the same thing, or even, must we not say, because the laxer morality, the reduced stringency, is easier and pleasanter?
These and a thousand other fashions and follies are all around us. The satirists of the day know these things well. The world is keenly alive to its own weak points. But satire has no power to cure them, has no “healing in its wings.” For satire treats symptoms only, and no wise physician is content with this. It was one of Pope’s half-truths that
Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
As, to be hated, needs but to be seen.
But “hated” is just the wrong word here. To see the hatefulness of a thing and to hate it are quite different stages of moral growth. To hate is the correlative of to love; and when we have once begun to hate the evil that is in the world, we have also begun to hate the evil that is in ourselves, and our deliverance is at hand.1 [Note: Alfred Ainger.]
In the department of the “minor morals” various little changes of fashion are observable. The change in the drinking habits of society is too hackneyed a topic to be more than mentioned, but if we are not mistaken, a striking change has taken place in the matter of “strong language.” It is quite true that “damns had their day” once—and it is equally certain that they are having another one now. Twenty years ago when one was sitting in the stalls it was not unusual, when the obnoxious word was uttered, to hear materfamilias let fall some such remark as, “I really do think he might have left that out!” Nowadays of course it passes absolutely unnoticed; nor does any man in telling a story think it necessary to omit the word, if it comes in naturally, because of the presence of women-folk. Nay, we appeal to our readers whether they do not hear it, more or less in play, from the lips of beauty in distress—in a bunker or elsewhere. Nous ne discutons pas—nous constatons. We merely remark that the mothers of this generation would not have done it any more than they would have smoked cigarettes.1 [Note: Recreations and Reflections, 377.]
“One day,” says Madame de Hausset, in her curious memoirs of the Pompadour, “Madame said to the Due d’Ayen that M. de Choiseul was very fond of his sisters. ‘I know it, Madame,’ said he—‘and many sisters are the better for it.’ ‘What can you mean?’ she asked. ‘Why,’ he answered, ‘as the Due de Choiseul loves his sisters, it is thought fashionable to do the same; and I know silly girls, whose brothers formerly cared nothing for them, who are now most tenderly beloved. No sooner does their little finger ache than their brothers are running all over Paris to fetch the doctor for them. They flatter themselves that some one will say in M. de Choiseul’s drawing-room, “Ah, what a good brother is M. de—!” and that they will gain advancement thereby.’ ” We need scarcely add that the Due de Choiseul was chief minister, and the dispenser of royal favours.2 [Note: J. H. Friswell, This Wicked World, 56.]
ii. This World
1. The marginal reference here gives “age” as an alternative reading for “world”—“be not fashioned according to the age or time”—and it should not be overlooked that the Greek word, here rendered “world,” does really mean the world in special relation to time as distinguished from place or space. The changing forms or fashions to which the Apostle here refers are those which essentially belong to changes incident to time, the suppressed contrast being, of course, with a heavenly order, which is eternal. The idea is not necessarily theological: we are quite accustomed to the thought as a necessary consequent on our observations of life and history, and of the changes which every careful watcher of life must needs note in other people and even in himself.
The “Time-Spirit”—the “Zeit-Geist”—is naturalized among us as a phrase to indicate the force which we see to be exercised, however little able we are to grasp and analyse it, in each succeeding epoch of our history; and it is clearly something after the same kind that St. Paul saw to be at work in the world of his day. And because his beloved converts must needs be in daily touch with the world, though it was their first duty and privilege to be not “of it,” he had seen how necessary it was to them to beware of the subtle power, the alluring and plausible charm, which it was certain to exercise over them, unless they were forewarned and forearmed.
2. When St. Paul lifted up his voice against the world, and besought the Christians committed to his charge to be separate from it, he was thinking of that imposing paganism which was ever fronting them. With its love of pleasure, its glorification of power, its imperial pageantry, its idolatrous temples, its unredeemed Art, its seduction both for the senses and for the intellect, paganism cast its glamour over the new Christian converts. Writers so far apart as Cardinal Newman in his Callista and the author of Quo Vadis suggest to our minds the fascinating atmosphere into which Christianity was born, and where in its youth it had to fight the good fight of faith. Beneath the beauty of form and colour, the magnificence of ceremonies and arms, the arts and riches of civilization, that was an unclean and leprous world. Whether they lived in Corinth, with its unblushing worship of lust, or in Rome, which was the moral sewer of the world, or in Ephesus, where Christians were tempted by the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, or in Pergamos, where there were those who held the abominable doctrine of Balaam, or in Thyatira, where Jezebel seduced God’s servants, or in Sardis, where only a few had not defiled their garments, Christians had ever to stand on guard. No wonder that some in Corinth had fallen through the lures of the flesh, or that a Demas had forsaken the faith before that imperial magnificence. Christians had to choose between their Lord and their world, and it was a world hard to escape or to resist.
3. It is evident that the world of to-day has changed, and it is unreasonable to require of modern Christians the line of action which was necessary in the first century. The spirit of Christ has counted for something during nineteen centuries, and Western society is not arrayed in arrogant hostility to the claims and ethics of our Master. His disciples are neither persecuted nor seduced after the fashion of the former days, and it is not necessary to preach that separation which once was compulsory, or to warn against the gross temptations which once beset the disciple from street and temple, from book and Art. Religious writers have shown a want of historical insight in adopting those fiery denunciations of the world which applied to the Corinth of St. Paul and the Rome of Juvenal. But this does not mean that there is no anti-Christian world or that Christians have not need to watch and pray; it only means that war has changed its form, and instead of the clash of swords we have the unseen danger of the rifle. We have to get to the principle which underlies all forms, and what constitutes the world in every age is devotion to the material instead of to the spiritual.
Preachers may talk with airy rhetoric about the distinction between the Church and the World; but we feel, somehow, that the lines of division tend to melt away before our eyes. We cannot draw sharp lines of separation. Men may try, they have often tried, to do so in one way or another. They may wear, like Quakers, a peculiar dress, or they may ticket certain forms of amusement as “worldly,” or they may use a peculiar phraseology; but experience tells us how ludicrous and disastrous such attempts have been, to what hypocrisies and absurdities they lead. The very expression, common enough once, still occasionally appears in newspapers, the “religious world”—how unreal it sounds! No, if we are to choose between the “religious world” and the “world” without a prefix, we must frankly prefer the latter.1 [Note: H. R. Gamble.]
4. A man does not cease to be unworldly by adopting a ritual of renunciation any more than a Bushman becomes a European by washing off his grease and ochre, and attiring himself in clean linen and broadcloth. The casual gossip of the cloister may show that society and the petty interests of the butterfly crowd loom as large as ever in the imagination of its inmates. The unconscious leanings of an evangelical home ruled by the straitest maxims may show that the silly, senseless world finds a tell-tale mirror there. The trivialities of life, upon which the back has been ostensibly turned, cling like burrs to the textures of the inner man. Honest unworldliness is central to a man’s scheme of thought, and begins far down below the surface. We cannot bind it upon men by artificial precepts.
Are saints to be distinguished as men and women to whom everyday concerns offer no sort of attraction? Is their attitude towards civilization, and art, and business, and amusement that of unconcern or even of disdain? Are they to be recognized by differences of dress, or manner of speaking, from others around them? If so, Brother Lawrence in his kitchen, and Santa Zita going about her work as a housemaid, and even St. Paul weaving cloth for his tents, cannot properly be described as saints.1 [Note: A. W. Robinson, The Voice of Joy and Health, 105.]
(1) If any one is indulging in what the Prayer-Book calls “notorious sin,” i.e. sin of which no Christian can doubt that it is serious and deadly sin; if he is a scorner of God, or of his parents, a blasphemer, a fornicator, a thief, a slanderer, a liar; he must know at once, without further question, that he is “fashioned according to this world.”
A story is told of Dr. Guthrie, that, finding a little girl weeping in great distress in Edinburgh, he, pitying her, asked the reason, and discovered that she had lost sixpence. The Doctor not only supplied the money, but took the child to a baker, not far from the spot, to buy a loaf for her. “That little girl,” said the baker, “seems always to be losing sixpences, Doctor; perhaps it is her trade.” And so it was. The poor little lassie had been brought up in a “padding ken,” or a “fencing crib,” a school for young thieves; and her peculiar vocation was to take her walks abroad, drop a pretended sixpence, and burst into uncontrollable weeping. The best of the story is that Doctor Guthrie, bending down, told the child that she was now more than ever an object of pity, since she earned her living by sin, and, finding out where she dwelt, he rescued her from her terrible position.2 [Note: J. H. Friswell, This Wicked World, 14.]
(2) But, apart from open or notorious sin, if a man’s heart is so set upon anything here in this present life that the thought of the world to come is unpleasant and irksome to him, he may be said to be fashioned according to this world. When a man is so entirely taken up with his property, pursuits, schemes, and employments in this world, innocent though they may be and useful in themselves, that he is more in earnest about them than about his devotions and the preparation of his soul for death, such a man has much need to watch and pray that he enter not into temptation; to pray that he may pray better, lest by little and little he fall away, and become a thorough child of this world, before he is aware.
St. Benedict, so the old story ran, was sitting in his cell, meditating upon heaven, when suddenly the glory of this world was presented to his gaze, gathered, as it seemed, into a single dazzling and bewitching beam. But the appeal was made in vain to a heart that had dwelt among the celestial realities. Inspexit et despexit—“he saw and he scorned it.” Was that altogether un-Christlike? Did not He also turn aside with something of loathing from the vision of the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them? Did He not say, “I have overcome the world”? Was not His Apostle led by His Spirit when he declared that “if any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him”? And were not all of us called upon to “renounce” the world before we were enrolled as His disciples?1 [Note: A. W. Robinson, The Voice of Joy and Health, 112.]
(3) Again, we may be sure the world is getting or keeping too much hold of us, when we cannot bear being scorned or ridiculed for doing what we know in our heart to be right. This is especially a temptation of the world, because it is a temptation from our fellow-mortals, not from Satan, and because it is so entirely without a man.
Some time ago, at the close of a meeting, a young man remained behind, and after the way of salvation was explained, he was urged to decide for Christ. His answer was, “I dare not,” and the reason he gave was that he would be the only Christian in the workshop, and he dreaded the taunts and laughter of his workmates, and so he turned away from Christ for fear of a laugh. How different was the conduct of the young recruit—a lad of eighteen years of age—who stood as bravely as any Christian hero ever did. For two or three weeks he was the butt of the camp because he knelt and said his prayers, and testified for his Master. At length his company was ordered to the seat of war, and the battle came, and after a fierce fight the dead body of the young Christian was carried back, and the ringleader of his persecutors said, “Boys, I couldn’t leave him. He fought so bravely that I thought he deserved a decent burial.” And as they dug a grave and buried him, a comrade cut his name and regiment on a piece of board, and another added, “I guess you’d better put in the words ‘Christian Soldier’; he deserves it, and it may console him for all our abuse.” That is the courage we want. The courage that “hates the cowardice of doing wrong,” as Milton magnificently puts it, and the daring that stands unmoved amid scorn and obloquy. If you want to see that courage at its best, then look at Christ, and listen to these words of the Apostle, “Who for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.”1 [Note: J. E. Roberts.]
Transformed by the Renewing of the Mind
1. The word transform occurs elsewhere in the New Testament on two occasions. It is the word used to denote our Lord’s Transfiguration (Matthew 17:2; Mark 9:2); and it is the word employed by St. Paul to describe that growing conformity to the likeness of our Lord, which results from the contemplation of His excellency: “We all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed”—transformed or transfigured—“into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
2. “A transfigured life” suggests to us, in the light of the Lord’s Transfiguration, even nobler and loftier aspirations and hopes than the phrase “a transformed life.” And there lie in it and in the context such thoughts as these: the inward life, if it is healthy and true and strong, will certainly shape the outward conduct and character. Just as truly as the physical life moulds the infant’s limbs, just as truly as every periwinkle shell on the beach is shaped into the convolutions that will fit the inhabitant by the power of the life that lies within, so the renewed mind will make a fit dwelling for itself.
To a large extent a man’s spirit shapes his body; within limits, of course, but to a very large and real extent. Did you never see some homely face, perhaps of some pallid invalid, which had in it the very radiance of heaven, and of which it might be said without exaggeration that it was “as it had been the face of an angel”? Did you never see goodness making men and women beautiful? Did you never see some noble emotion stamp its own nobility on the countenance, and seem to dilate a man’s very form and figure, and make the weakest like an angel of God? Have there not been other faces like the face of Moses, which shone as he came down from the Mount of Communion with God? Or, as Milton puts it,
Oft converse with heavenly habitants
Begins to cast a beam on the outward shape,
The unpolluted temple of the mind.
Even as the fashion of His countenance was altered, so the inner life of Christ, deep and true in a man’s heart, will write its presence in his countenance, and show how awful and how blessed goodness is.1 [Note: A. Maclaren.]
Do you remember the scene in Roderick Hudson, a story written by Henry James? The hero, who is a young artist, has wandered to Rome, and there drifted into a life of selfish indulgence. But far away from the old American home a mother’s prayers had followed him. Her absent boy made her forget self in those moments when she kneeled at the throne of Grace; then face and soul become strangely plastic. She was conscious of no change as the years sped, but when at last she crossed the ocean in search of her son, and they met in the foreign city, the artist asked in surprise: “What has happened to your face? It has changed its expression.” “Your mother has prayed a great deal,” she replied. “Well, it makes a good face,” answered the artist. “It has very fine lines in it.”2 [Note: A. G. Mackinnon.]
3. Now, how is this transfiguration to take place in our lives? We are not left in doubt as to the power which is to produce the change. It is the work of the Holy Spirit. We are to be transformed by the renewing of the mind; the change must begin within; we must invoke spiritual influences, power from on high. It will not be denied us if we seek it. “Ask, and ye shall receive.” We must not begin trying to correct outward habits till we have implored inward grace. We must believe that the Holy Spirit is willing to make His abode in our hearts.
Have you ever thought about the large place the New Testament gives to our mind? In the very next verse to this St. Paul goes on to say, “For I say, through the grace that was given me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but so to think as to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to each man a measure of faith.” That is characteristic of New Testament teaching. “Set your mind on the things that are above.” When St. Peter was trying to lead Jesus Christ into temptation, Jesus said to him, “Thou mindest not the things of God.” And when St. Paul is describing people who are alienated from God, he says they “mind earthly things.” You and I become like the things we think about. If we let our mind be a caravansary for all sorts of evil thoughts, we shall become evil. If we fix our mind upon worldly things, we shall become worldly. If we fix our mind upon things that are above, where Christ is, we shall become like Christ. We grow like the things we think about, and the renewing of the mind means that there is implanted in our heart, if we will have it so, a Divine power that will enable us to think about the things that have praise and virtue until we are changed into their image. We can be transformed by the renewing of our mind.1 [Note: J. E. Roberts.]
The real secret of a transfigured life is a transmitted life—Somebody else living in us, with a capital S for that Somebody, looking out of our eyes, giving His beauty to our faces, and His winningness to our personality.2 [Note: S. D. Gordon.]
That ye may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”
1. These remarkable words give the reason or motive why those to whom St. Paul wrote should seek for such a change. The meaning of the words is this: that we may, each one in our own experience, prove—that is, make proof of—that will of God which is good, and acceptable, and perfect.
Good, acceptable, perfect. These adjectives may either qualify the “will of God” as in the Authorized Version, or be in apposition to it, as in the Revised Version margin. The latter construction agrees better with the rhythm of the sentence. The will of God is identified with what is “good” in the moral sense; “acceptable,” well pleasing (that is, to God); and “perfect,” that is, ethically adequate or complete.
You wish to know what is the will of God which you must follow amid the dark perplexities of your life. Well, remember that the will of God is a living will. It develops from age to age. It moves within a world of constantly changing circumstances, and amid conditions which, like man’s life upon the earth, never continue in one stay. It is one thing to be sure that Jesus Christ dealt with the various situations that confronted Him with the certain authority of a sovereign conscience. It is quite another to examine His teaching in order to discover a moral code, or a system of casuistry which will apply to every development of social and personal life. There are those who hope to settle each matter that comes to them for decision by opening the sacred volume and accepting the first text on which the eye falls as revealing the Divine Will. There is more reason in this method of consulting the oracles of God than in that attitude towards it, still far too popular, which seems to regard it as a sort of religious red book, where precepts of conduct are to be learned as though they were the details of drill. Why, even the old Hebrews were taught that the way in which God reveals His mind to His children is more intimate and spiritual than this. “The word is nigh thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart.” The Word of God is not graven on stone; it is written on the tablets of the heart. Not outward conformity to a system, but the inward response to the self-revealing Spirit is that secret of the Lord which is with them that fear Him.1 [Note: J. G. Simpson.]
2. To see the great importance of this declaration let us inquire, in the first place, what it implies. Now it implies two things.
(1) Our salvation is the will of God.—It is the will of God that we should be good, and holy, and acceptable in His sight; that (to gather all into one word) we should be saved; and that, if we are not saved, it is not because it is God’s will to leave us to perish, but in spite of God’s will, which would have us saved.
The will of God is not an eccentric will, like that of His wayward creatures, neither is it an arbitrary will, the will of one who is merely All-Power; but it is the will of Him who is Holiness, Wisdom, and Love, just as much as Power. When, therefore, He wills our salvation, He wills it in a certain way: in the way of truth, and wisdom, and love. He wills, that is, first, that we should truly be; that we should be not mere machines through which He works, but reasonable beings—beings who can choose; who can love Him; who can return love for love.1 [Note: S. Wilberforce.]
He told me that in the loneliness of his own room he had been thinking of his sinful and wretched life, and feeling how impossible it was for him ever to be a different man, when all of a sudden, just like a voice in his soul, he heard the announcement that Christ alone can take away the sins of a man. In a flash he saw that he had nothing to do but surrender; that he was not to strive, but to be grateful; that God was only asking him to believe, not to struggle, not to build up the ruins of his life. “I simply gave myself to God,” he said quietly. “I don’t know how else to put it. I surrendered, laid down my arms, and felt all through my soul that I was pardoned and restored.” That is nine years ago. For nine years this man has not only been immune from drink, has not only made a comfortable home for his children, has not only been a first-rate workman and a good citizen, but throughout those nine years he has been, in Sister Agatha’s phrase, “a worker for Christ, beloved by all, and a hiding-place for many.” If you could see the brightness of his face and feel the overflowing happiness of his heart, you would better realize the miracle of conversion. The man is a living joy.2 [Note: H. Begbie, In the Hand of the Potter, 266.]
(2) It is given to us to make trial of this will of God—to experience it; to prove it; to find it working in us; to know that it is real, by its life within ourselves. This Will of God is on our side; it is not in word and by accommodation, but indeed true, that He would have us perfect, acceptable, and blessed; and if we will but seek to be renewed, we shall know that all this is indeed so, by His blessed power day by day renewing us ourselves.
The primary meaning of the word “prove” in our text is to recognize, discern, discriminate. Hence we find that to come thus into affinity with God is to evolve an organ of spiritual consciousness. We cannot even know one another except through affinity. This is everywhere the key to intimacy with a person. It is this that conducts us behind the veil, and admits us to the adytum—the holy place of personality which is screened from the common gaze. The same law holds for the Divine. Love and loyalty and likeness to God will admit us to the secret place of His will. “The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him.”3 [Note: H. Howard.]
3. We have examined what the words imply. Let us now see some of the consequences which follow.
(1) The danger of thwarting God’s will.—Here is the key to the secret history of every careless life amongst us Christians, in its course and in its end. In its course—for such a life is a continuous striving against the will of God for us; against His gracious will that we should be good, and perfect, and acceptable before Him.
(2) The assurance of success.—What an untold might would be ours in striving against sin, if we did indeed believe it to be God’s will that we should overcome in the struggle! The first condition of success is the expectation of succeeding. How it nerves the soldier’s arm to know that he fights under a general who has always conquered. And so it is also in all the conflicts of our spiritual life. The lack of such confidence is one of the most common grounds of our weakness. We do not strengthen ourselves in God; we doubt His good will towards us; we practically shut Him out of our thoughts; and we are lost.
(3) The reality imparted to the spiritual life.—The “proving” of God’s will is that which gives a sense of true reality to all the spiritual world around us and within us. God’s word, prayer, the holy Sacraments, all the ordinances of Christ’s Church, as well as the more hidden suggestions of the blessed Spirit, through the heart and conscience—these are all full of a living reality for him who knows that he is here training under the active loving energies of the Almighty Will.
I worship Thee, sweet Will of God!
And all Thy ways adore,
And every day I live, I seem
To love Thee more and more.
Thou wert the end, the blessèd rule
Of our Saviour’s toils and tears;
Thou wert the passion of His Heart
Those three-and-thirty years.
And He hath breathed into my soul
A special love of Thee,
A love to lose my will in His,
And by that loss be free.
He always wins who sides with God,
To him no chance is lost;
God’s Will is sweetest to him, when
It triumphs at his cost.
When obstacles and trials seem
Like prison-walls to be,
I do the little I can do,
And leave the rest to Thee.1 [Note: F. W. Faber.]
In Fashion or in Favour
Ainger (A.), The Gospel and Human Life, 137.
Balmforth (R.), The Evolution of Christianity, 107.
Burrows (H. W.), Lenten and Other Sermons, 29.
Candlish (R. S.), The Two Great Commandments, 40.
Flint (R.), Sermons and Addresses, 145.
Gamble (H. R.), The Ten Virgins, 63.
Greenhough (J. G.), in Great Texts of the New Testament, 181.
Hayman (H.), Rugby Sermons, 99.
Howard (H.), The Summits of the Soul, 83.
Inge (W. R.), All Saints’ Sermons, 181.
Jackson (G.), Memoranda Paulina, 38.
Keble (J.), Sermons for the Christian Year (Christmas and Epiphany), 396.
Knight (G. H.), Full Allegiance, 43.
Lucas (H.), At the Parting of the Ways, 256.
Macaskill (M.), A Highland Pulpit, 28.
Maclaren (A.), Creed and Conduct, 122.
Maclaren (A.), Expositions: Romans, 230.
Manning (H. E.), Sermons on Ecclesiastical Subjects, iii. 3.
Percival (J.), Some Helps for School Life, 237.
Selby (T. G.), The Divine Craftsman, 229.
Simcox (W. H.), The Cessation of Prophecy, 251.
Simpson (J. G.), Christian Ideals, 111.
Temple (F.), Rugby Sermons, i. 282.
Watson (J.), The Inspiration of our Faith, 122.
Wilberforce (S.), Sermons, 237.
Christian World Pulpit, lix. 161 (Gore); lxv. 45 (Stewart); lxxix. 276 (Roberts).
Contemporary Pulpit, 2nd Ser., v. 40 (Vaughan); vii. 38 (Maurice).