Does it seem strange to you that St. Paul should warn you, that you are not debtors to your own flesh? It is not strange, when you come to understand him; certainly not unnecessary: for as in his time, so now, most people do live as if they were debtors to their own flesh, as if their great duty, their one duty in life, was to please their own bodies, and brains, and tempers, and fancies, and feelings. Poor people have not much time to indulge their brains; and no time at all, happily for them, to indulge their fancies and feelings, as rich people do when they grow idle, and dainty, and luxurious. But still, too many of them live as if they were debtors to their own flesh; as if their own bodies and their own tempers were the masters of them, and ought to be their masters. Young men, for instance, how often they do things in secret of which it is a shame even to speak, just because it is pleasant. Young women, how often do they sell themselves and their own modesty, just for the pleasure of being flattered and courted, and of getting a few fine clothes. How often do men, just for the pleasure of drink, besot their souls and bodies, madden their tempers, neglect their families, make themselves every Saturday night, and often half the week, too, lower than the beasts which perish. And then, when a clergyman complains of them, they think him unreasonable; and by so thinking, show that he is right, and St. Paul right: for if I say to you, My dear young people (and I do say it), if you give way to filthy living and filthy talking, and to drunkenness, and to vanity about fine clothes, you will surely die -- do you not say in your hearts, 'How unreasonable: how hard on us! If we can enjoy ourselves a little, why should we not? It is our right, and do it we will; and if it is wrong, it ought not to be wrong.' Why, what is that but saying, that you ought to do just what your body likes: that you are debtors to your flesh; and that your flesh, and not God's law, is your master. So again, when people grow older, perhaps they are more prudent about bad living, and more careful of their money: but still they live after the flesh. One man sets his heart on making money, and cares for nothing but that; breaks God's law for that, as if that was the thing to which he was a debtor, bound by some law which he could not avoid to scrape and scrape money together for ever. Another (and how often we see that) is a slave to his own pride and temper, which are just as much bred in his flesh: if he has been injured by any one, if he has taken a dislike against any one, he cannot forget and forgive: the man may be upright and kindly on many other points; prudent, too, and sober, and thoroughly master of himself on most matters; and yet you will find that when he gets on that one point, he is not master of himself; for his flesh is master of him: he may be a strong-minded, shrewd man upon most matters but just that one point: some old quarrel, or grudge, or suspicion, is, as we say, his weak point: and if you touch on that, the man's eye will kindle, and his face redden, and his lip tremble, and he will show that he is not master of himself: but that he is over-mastered by his fleshly passion, by the suspiciousness, or revengefulness, or touchiness, which every dumb animal has as well as he, which is not part of his man's nature, not part of God's image in him, but which is like the beasts which perish.
Now, my friends, suppose I said to you, 'If you give way to such tempers; if you give way to pride, suspicion, sullen spite, settled dislike of any human being, you will surely die;' should you not, some of you, be inclined to think me very unreasonable, and to say in your hearts, 'Have I not a right to be angry? Have I not a right to give a man as good as he brings?' so confessing that I am right, after all, and that some of you think that you are debtors to your flesh, and its tempers, and do not see that you are meant to be masters, and not slaves, of your tempers and feelings.
Again. Among poor women, as well as among rich ones, as they grow older, how much gossiping, tale-bearing, slandering, there is, and that too among people who call themselves religious. Yes, I say slandering; I put that in too; for I am certain that where the first two grow, the third is not far off. If gossiping is the root, tale- bearing and harsh judgment is the stem, and plain lying and slandering, and bearing false witness against one's neighbour, is the fruit.
Now I say, because St. Paul says it, 'that those who do such things shall surely die.' And do not some of you think me unreasonable in that, and say in your heart, 'What! are we to be tongue-tied? Shall we not speak our minds?' Be it so, my good women, only remember this: that as long as you say that, you confess that you are not masters of your tongues, but your tongues are masters of you, and that you freely confess you owe service to your tongue, and not to God. Do not therefore complain of me for saying the very same thing, namely, that you think you are debtors to your flesh -- to the tongues in your mouths, and must needs do what those same little unruly members choose, of which St James has said, 'The tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity, and it sets on fire the whole course of nature, and is set on fire of hell.' And again: 'If any person among you seem to be religious, and bridles not his tongue, but deceives himself, that person's religion is vain.'
Again: -- and, my good women, you must not think me hard on you, for you know in your hearts that I am not hard on you; but I must speak a word on a sin which I am afraid is growing in this parish, and in too many parishes in England; and that is deceiving kind and charitable persons, in order to get more help from them. God knows the temptation must be sore to poor people at times. And yet you will surely find in the long run, that 'honesty is the best policy.' Deceit is always a losing game. A lie is sure to be found out; as the Lord Jesus Himself says, 'There is nothing hid which shall not be made manifest;' and what we do in secret, is sure, unless we repent and amend it, to be proclaimed on the housetop: and many a poor soul, in her haste and greediness to get much, ends by getting nothing at all. And if it were not so; -- if you were able to deceive any human being out of the riches of the world: yet know, that a man's life does not consist in the abundance of the things which he possesses. And know that if you will not believe that, -- if you will fancy that your business is to get all you can for your mortal bodies, by fair means or foul, -- if you will fancy that you are thus debtors to your own flesh, you will surely die: but if you, through the Spirit, do mortify the deeds of the body, you shall live.
And by this time some of you are asking, 'Live? Die? What does all this mean? When we die we shall die, good or bad; and in the meantime we shall live till we die. And you do not mean to tell us that we shall shorten our lives by our own tempers, or our tale- bearing, though we might, perhaps, by drunkenness?'
My friends, if such a question rises in your mind, be sure that it, too, is a hint that you think yourself a debtor to the flesh -- to live according to the flesh. For tell me, tell yourselves fairly, is your flesh, your body, the part of yourself which you can see and handle, You? -- You know that it is not. When a neighbour's body dies, you say, perhaps, 'He is dead,' but you say it carelessly; and when one whom you know well, and love, dies, -- when a parent, a wife, a child, dies, you feel very differently about them, even if you do not speak differently. You feel and know that he, the person whom you loved and understood, and felt with, and felt for, here on earth, is not dead at all; you feel (and in proportion as the friend you have lost was loving, and good, and full of feeling for you, you feel it all the more strongly) that your friend, or your child, or the wife of your bosom, is alive still -- where you know not, but you feel they are alive; that they are very near you; -- that they are thinking of you, watching you, caring for you, -- perhaps grieving over you when you go wrong -- perhaps rejoicing over you when you go right, -- perhaps helping you, though you cannot see them, in some wonderful way. You know that only their mortal flesh is dead. That their mortal flesh was all you put into the grave; but that they themselves, their souls and spirits, which were their very and real selves, are alive for evermore; and you trust and hope to meet them when you die; -- ay, to meet them body and soul too, at the last day, the very same persons whom you knew here on earth, though the flesh which they wore here in this life has crumbled into dust years and ages before.
Is not this true? Is not this a blessed life-giving thought -- I had almost said the most blessed and life-giving thought man can have -- that those whom we have loved and lost are not dead, but only gone before; that they live still to God and with God; that only their flesh has perished, and they themselves are alive for evermore?
Now believe me, my friends, as surely as a man's flesh can die and be buried, while he himself, his soul, lives for ever, just so a man's self, his soul, can die, while his flesh lives on upon earth. You do not think so, but the Bible thinks so. The Bible talks of men being dead in trespasses and sins, while their flesh and body is alive and walking this earth. It talks, too, of a worse state, of men twice dead; of men, who, after God has brought their souls to life, let those souls of theirs die down again within them, and rot away, as far as we can see, hopelessly and for ever. And what is it which kills a man's soul within him on this side the grave, and makes him dead while he has a name to live? Sin, evil-doing, the disease of the soul, the death of the soul, yea, the death of the man himself. And what is sin but living according to the flesh, and not according to the spirit? What is sin but living as the dumb animals do, as if we were debtors to our own flesh, to fulfil its lusts, and to please our own appetites, fancies, and tempers, instead of remembering that we are debtors to God, who made us, and blesses us all day long; -- debtors to our Lord Jesus Christ, who bought us with His own blood, that we might please Him and obey Him; -- debtors to God's Holy Spirit, who puts into our minds good desires; -- debtors to our baptism vows, in which we were consecrated to God, that He, and not this flesh of ours, might be our Master for ever?
This is sin; to give way to those selfish and evil tempers, against which I warned you in the beginning of my sermon, and which, if any man indulges in them, will surely and steadily, bit by bit, kill that man's soul within him, and leave the man dead in trespasses and sins, while his body walks this earth.
My friends, do not fancy these are merely farfetched words out of a book, made to sound difficult and terrible in order to frighten you. God forbid! When Scripture says this, it speaks a plain and simple truth, and one which I know to be a truth from experience. I speak that which I know, and testify that which I have seen. I have seen (and what sadder or more fearful sight?) dead men and dying walk this earth in flesh and blood; men busy enough, shrewd enough upon some points, priding themselves, perhaps, upon their cleverness and knowledge of the world, of whom all one could say was, The man is dead; the man is lost, unless God brings him to life again by His quickening Spirit: for goodness is dead in him; the powers of his soul are dead in him; the hope of being a better man is dead in him; all that God wishes to see him be and do, is dead; God's likeness and glory in him is dead: he thinks himself wise, and he is a fool in God's sight; for he sees not God's law, which is the only wisdom: he thinks himself strong, but he is utterly weak and helpless; for he is the slave of his own tempers, the slave of his own foul lust, the slave of his own pride and vanity, the slave of his own covetousness. Oh, my friends, people are apt to be afraid of what they call seeing a ghost -- that is, a spirit without a body: they fancy that it would be a very shocking thing to meet one; but as for me, I know a far more dreadful sight; and that is, a careless and a hardened sinner -- a body without a spirit. Which is uglier and ghastlier -- a spirit without a body, or a body without a spirit? And yet such one meets, I dare not think how often.
What sadder sight, if you recollect that men need not be thus; that God hates seeing them thus; that they become thus, and die down in sin, in spite of God, with all heaven above, and God the Lord thereof, crying to them, Why wilt thou die? What sadder sight? How many have I seen, living, to all intents and purposes, as if they had no souls; as if there were no God, no Law of God, no Right, no Wrong; caring for nothing, perhaps, but drink and bad women; or caring for nothing but scraping together a little more money than their neighbours; or caring for nothing but dress, and vanity, and gossiping, and tale-bearing; and yet, when one came to know them, one saw that that was not what God intended them to be; that He had given them hearts which they had hardened, good feelings which they had crushed, sound brains which they had left idle, till one was ready to weep over them, as over something beautiful and noble ruined and lost; and looked on them as one would on a grand tree struck by lightning, decayed and dead, useless, and only fit to be burned, with just enough of its proper shape to show what a tree it ought to have been. And so it is with men and women: hardly a day passes but one sees some one of whom one says, with a sigh, 'What a worthy, loveable, useful person, that might have been! what a blessing to himself and all around him! and now, by following his fallen nature, and indulging it, he is neither worthy, nor loveable, nor useful; neither a blessing to himself nor to any human being: he might have been good for so much, and now he is good for nothing; for the spirit, the immortal soul which God gave him, is dead within him.'
My friends, I would not say this, unless I could say more. I would not say sad words, if I could not follow them up by joyful and hopeful ones. It is written, 'If ye live after the flesh, ye shall die;' but it is written also, 'If ye, through the Spirit, do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.' It is promised -- promised, my friends, 'Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.'
Through the Spirit, through God's Spirit, every soul here can live, now and for ever. Through God's Spirit, Christ not only can, but will, give you light. And that Spirit is near you, with you. Your baptism is the blessed sign, the everlasting pledge, that God's Spirit is with you. Oh, believe that, and take heart. I will not say, you do not know how much good there is in you; for in us dwells no good thing, and every good thought and feeling comes only from the Spirit of God: but I will say boldly to every one of you, you do not know how much good there may be in you, if you will listen to those good thoughts of God's Spirit; you do not know how wise, how right, how strong, how happy, how useful, you may become; you do not know what a blessing each of you may become to yourselves, and to all around you. Only make up your mind to live by God's law; only make up your mind, in all things, small and great, to go God's way, and not your own. Only make up your mind to listen, not to your own flesh, temper, and brain, which say this and that is pleasant, but to listen to God's Spirit, which says this is right, and that is wrong: this is your duty, do it. Search out your own besetting sins; and if you cannot find them out for yourself, ask God to show you them; ask Him to give you truth in the inward parts, and make you to understand wisdom in the secret places of your heart. Pray God's Spirit to quicken your soul, and bring it to life, that it may see and love what is good, and see and hate what is wrong; and instead of being most hard on your neighbour's sin, to which you are not tempted, be most hard on your own sin, on the sin to which you are most tempted, whatsoever that may be. You have your besetting sin, doubt it not; every one has. I know that I have. I know that I have inclinations, tempers, longings, to which if I gave way, my soul would rot and die within me, and make me a curse to myself, and you, and every one I came near; and all I can do is to pray God's Spirit to help me to fight those besetting sins of mine, and crush them, and stamp them down, whenever they rise and try to master me, and make me live after the flesh. It is a hard fight; and may God forgive me, for I fight it ill enough: but it is my only hope for my soul's life, my only hope of remaining a man worth being called a man, or doing my duty at all by myself and you, and all mankind. And it is your only hope, too. Pray for God's Spirit, God's strength, God's life, to give your souls life, day by day, that you may fight against your sins, whatsoever they are, lest they kill your souls, long before disease and old age kill your bodies. Make up your minds to it. Make up your minds to mortify the deeds of the body; to say to your own bodies, tempers, longings, fancies, 'I will not go your way: you shall go God's way. I am not your debtor; I owe you nothing; I am God's debtor, and owe Him everything, and I will pay Him honestly with the service of my body, soul, and spirit. I will do my duty, and you, my flesh, must and shall do it also, whether it is pleasant at first, or not:' and be sure it will be pleasant at last, if not at first. Keep God always before your eyes. Ask yourself in every action, 'What is right, what is my duty, what would God have me do?' And so far from finding it unpleasant, you will find that you are saving yourself a thousand troubles, and sorrows, and petty anxieties which now torment you; you will find that in God's presence is life, the only life worth having, and that at His right hand are pleasures for evermore. Oh, be sure, my friends, that in real happiness you will not lose, but gain without end. If to have a clear conscience, and a quiet mind; if to be free from anxiety and discontent, free from fear and shame; if to be loved, respected, looked up to, by all whose good word is worth having, and to know that God approves of you, that all day long God is with you, and you with God, that His loving and mighty arms are under you, that He has promised to keep you in all your ways, to prosper all you do, and reward you for ever, -- if this be not happiness, my friends, what is?