It is by no means uncommon for any one who is living a life which does not satisfy his own conscience to console himself with the fancy that if only such and such things were different around him he would be a new man, filled with a new spirit, and exhibiting a new character. But is it so very certain that this would be the case?
Such persons are apt to dream of some goodness or some virtue which under other circumstances they would make their own; and there are, in fact, few conditions more dangerous than that of this class of dreamers, whether among boys or men. To all who may be tempted in this way, our Lord's words in the parable come with a very significant warning: "Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. But he said, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead."
When insidious and delusive hope would draw us on and beguile us in any sinful way, whispering that God will some day send special gifts and messengers of grace to inspire us with new life, this is his plain answer: "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead."
And hardly any one can say that he is altogether free from this tendency to lean upon the future with vain hopes, and is in no need of the warning which this text conveys to us.
In serious moments, when the mind is calm, and neither passion nor appetite is stirring, we feel how good a thing it is to have crucified the flesh and to be living close to Christ; but when we are within the fiery circle of trial or temptation, when sinful desires arise, or passions are strong, or solicitations to evil are subtle and enticing, then we are only too ready to catch at any hopes about the vague future. To the unstable and incontinent, to those whose nature is weak while their conscience is not dead, this hope is a dangerous temptation, beguiling them with the suggestion that some day there will open before them an easy path to that virtue or self-denial to which the way is too rough at present. "Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent." By-and-by, they say, as they dream about the future, God will lay His hand upon them; the Holy Spirit will touch their souls with new life; they will receive in some inscrutable way new power, and in the exercise of this power they will cast off the bondage of sin or weakness; but how and by what means this great and necessary change is to be brought about they do not stop to think, and meanwhile they yield to worldly or fleshly appetite, trusting vaguely to an uncertain future for some Divine gift.
If you look into the thoughts and habits of your life, some of you may be compelled to acknowledge that this case is not unfamiliar to you. So men sometimes dally with a temptation, and linger beside it, courting its company, instead of flinging it away from them, as the snare of the devil, because of some secret hope that by-and-by God will place them out of the way of it, or give them some new strength against it, which as yet has not been given. How easy it is for us to entice ourselves in this way out of the narrow path of present duty into the tangled wilderness of a weak and sinful life, from which escape becomes every day more difficult.
And this enticement along the ways of sin being so easy, it may be happening to some of you. You may feel that, judged even by your own standard, which is more likely to be too low than too high, your life is somehow unsatisfactory; your better instincts may be telling you that you were born for something higher, purer, stronger than what you are or have been; and you are cherishing the hope that it will be different with you some day; your circumstances, you think, or your occupation, or your companionship will have changed, and so you fondly imagine that you yourself will be sure to change, as if your soul were just a weathercock that answers to every changing breeze. So perhaps you hope that some habit of self-indulgence or idleness will drop off, or some evil temper be eradicated; and whilst all this vague and mischievous dreaming goes on you yield very likely to some besetting sin, making no serious effort to get away from it now, and you yield all the more because of this misleading hope that some day you will be touched by a supernatural hand, and will rise up to a regenerate life. And yet our reason tells us that all this is the very essence of self-deceit, and that such dreams and hopes are the devil's most subtle temptation. This kind of vain hope is based on a complete misconception of the nature of our conflict with sin, and the way to escape from it. To think thus of spiritual gifts and the growth of the spiritual life, is to follow a very dangerous delusion. It was just such a misunderstanding that is expressed in the hope of Dives about his brethren: "If one went unto them from the dead, they will repent." Their ordinary daily teachings, he seems to say, the voice of Moses and of the prophets, the examples of good men around them, the warnings, the exhortations, these, being so familiar, may not have startled them out of their sin; but if only one were to go to them from the dead, some messenger of strange voice and aspect, who had seen hell, and could paint its horrors, then surely the course of their life would be checked and changed, and their spirit would wake up in them, and they would sin no more. But to all this comes back the stern warning of the Divine answer: "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead."
And we may profitably consider what this means in its application to our own life. Such a warning is evidently meant to remind us that the mystery of sin in human life is not to be got rid of by any such reliance on vague hopes. This mystery of sin in the heart and life, misleading, weakening, dragging us down, means in fact the subtle, poisonous, creeping power which evil inclinations exercise over a weak and depraved will. Are we, then, to trust to some sudden visitation from above, for which we make no preparation, to break down or overthrow a power of this kind? On the contrary, the words of this parable stand here to declare to us that it is nothing less than perversity and folly in any man to go on either defiling his nature, or degrading it, or even neglecting to strengthen and support it, under this delusion that some day the breath of Heaven will sweep it clean or give it new vigour. And your own experience is in exact accordance with these parabolic warnings of the Saviour. You know that your moral and spiritual nature is now at this present time undergoing a process of continual and momentous change, that every day, or week, or month leaves its mark upon it; and that your soul's life means not waiting for some angel of God's providential grace to visit you and carry you up into a new air; but it means that you are weaving the web of your unchangeable destiny by your use or abuse of the gifts of God that are in your hands to-day.
Born into the world with the taint of inherited corruption in us, as also with the germs of pure affection and high instinct and purpose, we have to take care for ourselves and for each other that the taint does not eat out the good, by growing into sins of boyhood or of youth, or by hardening into depraved habits in our manhood. If we let our youth take an unhappy downward course, whether in taste or habit, every day puts salvation farther off from us, because every day any fault which is indulged or nursed tends to grow deeper and more inveterate; and yet, forgetting this, how many, while their early years are running to waste, nurse the vain hope that some day they will receive the sudden baptism of a new birth.
So, then, instead of vaguely trusting, any of us, to the hope of what some future call or help or happy visitation may do for us, let us obey the Divine injunction, which, when rightly understood, is very pressing, urging us, as we hope to see good days, to be very jealous of our present life and its tendencies; let us do this, standing always firm and immovable in the things that are pure and of good report.
However it may be in some other matters, in this matter of our moral and spiritual life, the greatest, the most important, the most serious thing of all, it is almost invariably true that the child is father of the man, and we feel that we have no right to expect it to be otherwise. In our everyday consideration of life, we recognise all this: we speak of growth in character and formation of habit as facts which no one would ignore, and which cannot be overestimated. But to acknowledge these, and at the same time to trust that God will hereafter arrest any stream of sinful tendency in us which we ourselves do not attempt to stop now, is to add presumption to sin.
When we speak of Heaven and Hell, we have in our thoughts the vision of those ultimate points towards which the diverging courses of men's lives are slowly tending day by day. And the question rises: "On which of these lines is my life travelling at the present time, and towards which side of the impassable gulf?"
At present we know that the way of Christ is still open before us, and that He calls us with a voice which never grows weary; but we feel equally that the future is dark, if we waste or misuse the present, and we do not know how long the heavenward path may be as open, or as easy, as it is to-day. For the question is not a question of God's untiring patience or the never-failing love of Christ. It is not how long will His Spirit continue to strive with us, as it has striven hitherto, through the care and love of parent or friend, through the exhortations or efforts of a teacher, or the example of a companion, or in a thousand other ways. The question is rather whether it is not folly to expect that God will send upon us some other more powerful regenerating and strengthening influence, if we are now neglecting all this care and love and patient striving on our behalf. "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead."
Consider these things while life is fresh, and good influences are present with you. Whatever our faults may be, they all come under this one rule, that to-day is given us to win our freedom from their power -- to- day and not to-morrow. The question which is pressed home through the warning of this parable is thus a very plain one: "What is my future hope or prospect, if I let this or that particular sin lurk and linger in my heart, feeding upon me every day, and growing stronger in consequence? What if I do not resist any fault that has a hold upon me? What if I do not pray to be delivered from it? What if I do not flee from it?"
If you hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will you be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.