We find in our Meetings persons who are perplexed by the doctrinal statements about Holiness or entire Sanctification and equivalent terms. Some take our words to mean more than we intend; others think the statements imply less than we mean; some put the standard too high, whilst others put it altogether too low.
At the close of a recent Meeting a gentleman said to me, 'I greatly enjoyed your address, but I am sure you will never get people to follow that line, because you advocate an abnormal life. It cannot be lived.' Equally I find men who in an indefinite way imagine that high states of emotion dispense with standards of morality such as truth, honour, and rectitude in business. And it is with great difficulty that we make the Bible standard plainly understood.
I think, however, that very few are perplexed as to what we mean by the consecration side of Holiness. There is, in all who are moderately well instructed in Bible truth, a living sense of God's claims, a recognition of what I may call the law of consistency, and a feeling that, as a matter of duty, we really ought to yield to those claims, and devote ourselves to doing His will. That is what Jeremiah meant when he called upon the people to join themselves unto the Lord in 'a perpetual covenant that shall not be forgotten'.
We all recognize how right it is for buildings to be dedicated to God's service; we call them the houses of God. We also see the rightness of contributing gifts to help God's cause; and yet men and women are so slow to fully and definitely join themselves unto the Lord, that is, to put the sacred mark upon their entire lives, and recognize their duty in spending their lives for God alone. They are slow to regard their bodily, mental, and other powers and faculties as belonging to God, and slower still in yielding their hearts in supreme love to Him who loved them, and gave Himself for them.
I am often puzzled as to why religious people who, in their business life, are regularly making covenants and contracts, either for labour or material, should so fail to follow on similar lines in their relations to God. My duty called me lately to examine a contract, and I found the basis expressed in terms like these: 'This is an agreement between So-and-so in the first part and So-and-so in the second part'. And then on each side there were pledges and responsibilities and commitments; finally, the contract was 'signed, sealed, and delivered' by the two contracting parties. Now, that illustrates precisely what is meant by a covenant with the Lord. He, on the one part, and we on the other part, uniting for a common purpose, and each undertaking definite responsibilities to secure the purpose desired.
Mind, this covenanting with God is not a case of bargaining. I know that it pays to be on right relationships with God, and to do His will; but do not forget -- He settles and dictates the terms, our part is to comply and surrender.
Moses puts this in a simple but beautiful way to his people when he said, 'Thou hast avouched the Lord this day to be thy God, and to walk in His ways, and to keep His statutes, and His commandments, and His judgments, and to hearken unto His voice: and the Lord hath avouched thee this day to be His peculiar people, as He hath promised thee, and that thou shouldst keep all His commandments'. The appeal of the Apostle is also familiar to us all, 'I beseech you, therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service'.
Jesus always kept this before His disciples. He certainly talked of daily cross-bearing, and following and confessing Him before the world; but He was careful to say to them, 'There is no man that hath left house, or parents, or brethren, or wife, or children, for the kingdom of God's sake, who shall not receive manifold more in this present time, and in the world to come life everlasting'.
Our songs and prayers are full of the same ideas, and we are again face to face with the appeal expressed by Jeremiah: 'Come, let us join ourselves unto the Lord in a perpetual covenant that shall not be forgotten'. Now, there are certain features of this covenant-making that I should like to look at.
1. To begin with, it is to be an inward act, a thing of the heart. I believe in outward tokens of religious life and feeling, such as standing up, raising the hand, coming to the table, and similar modes of testimony; but if any of these outward acts are mere forms, they are next to useless. The heart must be in it if the covenant is to be properly made and maintained.
One frequently hears it said, 'Ah, yes, I do it in my heart. I can get the blessing in my seat or at home quietly. I do not believe in this public line of declaration, and this parade of one's sacred experiences'. Well, I believe, in both the inward and the outward. If, however, we cannot have both, by all means let us have the covenant made in sincerity of heart, for without that the whole thing is in vain.
We may learn much from an old Hebrew custom referred to in the twenty-first chapter of Exodus, which shows that the Jewish people understood the nature of true devotion. Under the Mosaic law a bondservant could only be held by his master for six years; in the seventh he was 'to go out free for nothing'. But if the servant came to his master, and said, 'I don't want to go; I love you; I will not go out free; I will serve you for ever', the master would reply, 'If you really mean that, let us have it settled, and settled in public'. The master would then bring the servant to the judges to register the agreement, and would also take him to the doorpost, and with an awl bore a hole through the man's ear, fastening him to the post. This was the sign of a perpetual covenant, and everybody who saw it knew that the man's self-surrender to his master was real, binding, and permanent.
We have no such ceremony in our public Meetings, but we can have the definite declaration, 'I love Thee, O Lord, and I will serve Thee; and here and now I bind myself in an everlasting covenant to serve Thee for ever'.
2. Then, again, a true covenant is a deed which commits you to active and definite service. Some covenant-makings are largely sentimental; a kind of religious IOU or promise to pay, and I fear some are treated as the Irishman treated his responsibility when, having signed a promissory note for a debt, he exclaimed, 'Thank God, that is done with!'
The vows and covenant-making which God wants are those which will be followed by something practical. The states of emotion and high spiritual contemplation are right in so far as they assist men to realize the presence of God and Divine things; but to answer their purpose they must carry men out to activity and self-denying service for God and those around them. The highest type of religion is a combination of the experimental and the practical, the inward and the outward, the personal and the relative. Our consecration must include what God can get out of us as well as what we obtain from Him.
I found a parable the other day in a legend of the Greek Church which is worth repeating. That Church has two favourite saints -- St. Cassianus, the type of monastic asceticism, and St. Nicholas, the type of genial, active, unselfish, laborious Christianity. St. Cassianus enters Heaven, and Christ says to him, 'What hast thou seen on earth, Cassianus?' 'I saw', he answered, 'a peasant floundering with his wagon in a marsh'. 'Didst thou help him?' 'No.' 'Why not?' 'I was coming before Thee,' said St. Cassianus, 'and I was afraid of soiling my white robes'.
Just then St. Nicholas enters Heaven, all covered with mud and mire. 'Why so stained and soiled, St. Nicholas?' said the Lord. 'I saw a peasant floundering in a marsh,' said St. Nicholas, 'and I put my shoulder to the wheel, and helped him out'. 'Blessed art thou', answered the Lord. 'Thou didst well; thou didst better than Cassianus.' And He blessed St. Nicholas with fourfold approval. The moral is so obvious that I need not labour the application of my parable.
3. Let me also impress upon you that covenant-making must be a believing act. That is to say, when you come up to the altar of consecration, and say, 'Here I give my all to Thee', you must believe that if you are good for your word the Lord is also good for His. So that what you give, God accepts; what you claim, God gives. That may appear a very simple way of putting the faith that saves and sanctifies, but in all its simplicity it is true, for 'He is faithful who hath promised'.
4. Then comes the all-important necessity of standing to your consecration at all costs. 'Let us join ourselves to the Lord in a perpetual covenant that shall not be forgotten.' God wants men and women who stand to their covenant; who, having made their pledges and promises, are not turned aside by difficulties or temptations, but say and mean, as we sing sometimes --
High Heaven, that heard the solemn vow,
In the Book of Judges there is the story of a man named Jephthah. He made a vow, and when the test came he found it involved the sacrifice of one who was all the world to him -- his daughter, and she was his only child. Jephthah rent his clothes, and almost broke his heart; and, no doubt, everybody expected him to set aside his vow; but, no, he stood to it, declaring, 'I have opened my mouth unto the Lord, and I cannot go back'. There are some, thank God, who equally stand to their covenants with Him; but, alas! that so many open their mouths, and sing and say words of consecration, but when the temptation comes they do not stand to their vows.
Of all the people who hinder the cause of Jesus Christ, I think the most lamentable cases are those who go back upon their Lord. Having spoken, they do not fulfil their word; having vowed, they do not perform their vows. They lack that decision which can be expressed in the words, 'I will pay my vows unto the Lord now in the presence of His people', and I want to urge all such to join with those of us who, bowing before the Divine altar, renew our covenant, resolving by His grace to bind ourselves in perpetual devotion and service.
Take my poor heart, and let it be