And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise:…
The point in these words on which we wish to fasten is, that it was through faith that the worthies, of whom St. Paul speaks, obtained "a good report." There is here a distinct assertion that faith, and nothing but faith, gained for the most distinguished saints their high pre-eminence; that if they enjoyed a larger than the ordinary share of the Divine favour, it was in consequence of their believing with a more than common steadfastness. Neither does our text stand alone in furnishing such a representation. Throughout Scripture faith is represented as most acceptable to God, and as securing to man the highest privileges and recompenses; and it is on this very account that the gospel is so distasteful to numbers, that numbers would reject it, and devise a better theology for themselves.
I. Now it is very easy, but very unfair, to speak of faith as an act of the mind, which only follows where there is testimony enough, and over which, therefore, a man has little or no control, and which, consequently, ought not to be made the test or criterion of any moral qualities. We call this unfair because it takes no account of the influence which the affections exert over the understanding, in consequence of which a man will readily believe some things, and positively disbelieve others, though there shall be no difference in the two cases in the amount of furnished testimony. Just think for yourselves: if I bring you intelligence of a matter in which you have no personal concern, which you have no interest whatever in either proving or disproving, the mind is likely to be fairly impartial, and to give its decision on a just estimate of the evidence which I adduce. But suppose the intelligence to be of an obnoxious and troublesome character; suppose that if proved true it will compel you to exertions or sacrifices which you shrink from being called upon to make. Here is a widely different case. The strongest feelings of a man will be at once up in arms, and we shall find it needful to make assurance doubly sure before we can gain credit for the unpalatable truth. Apply this to the matter of revealed religion. Let, then, the Bible, with all its credentials, be submitted for the first time to a man whose reason is in full vigour for investigating truth; is he likely to feel any pleasure in the doctrines of the Bible? Are they such as he can be supposed to feel any wish to find and prove true? No; these doctrines present him with a portrait of himself whose accuracy he must undoubtedly be unwilling to admit. And though, indeed, the Bible, not content with exposing to him his condition, offers him a remedy, nevertheless this remedy itself is offensive to his pride. Now tell me, is it fair to say of a man who receives as true a document, thus humbling to himself, thus imposing duties from which nature shrinks; is it fair to say of him that he merely yields to a certain amount of testimony, which left him no choice? Nay, this is altogether wrong: even the evidences of the Christian religion are not such as leave no option to the student; they are such as will be sure to prove convincing, where there is diligent and candid inquiry; where there is a wish to ascertain truth, and a determination to obey it when once ascertained; but it is not such a testimony as is sure to prevail, even in the absence of all such qualifications. It is not a testimony addressing itself to the senses, graven on the earth, or glaring from the firmament, and forcing conviction alike on the careless and the diligent. It is, on the contrary, a testimony which may be overlooked by indolence, and overcome by prejudice. It will not ordinarily commend itself to the man who sits down to its investigation with hostile feelings and bitter prepossessions, hoping to be able to reject it as defective. Therefore you cannot say of the man who yields to this evidence that he only submits to what could not be withstood. He might have resisted, he would have resisted, had he not brought to the inquiry a teachable spirit, a sincere wish to discover truth, and a fixed resolve to conform to its dictates. But go beyond the evidences, go to the truths which revelation unfolds, and you will see still more clearly that believing presupposes the possession, or requires the exercise of dispositions which are confessedly excellent. There must be humility in him who believes, for from the heart he confesses himself unclean and undone. There must be the submission of the understanding to God, for much has to be received which cannot be explained. There must be a willingness to suffer, for Christianity summons to tribulation; there must be a willingness to labour, for Christianity sets a man about the most arduous duties. We do not know any achievement so remarkable, so little to have been expected from a proud, prejudiced, and depraved creature, such as man naturally is, as the believing in a record so humiliating, so condemnatory of lust, so rigid in enjoining duties, as is the gospel of Jesus Christ. You might tell us of great exploits, of splendid deeds, which have earned for those who wrought them surpassing renown; but we should not fear that any of the heroes had done a nobler or a more admirable thing than is effected by any one who exercises the faith of which my text speaks. Yes, give place, ye great ones of the earth, who have drawn the homage of your fellow-men by penetrating the secrets of nature, improving the arts, advancing the commerce, strengthening the institutions, or subduing the enemies of your country. We would bow before a lowlier and, nevertheless, a more illustrious throng; we would find a higher title to respect, and we see that throng, and we acknowledge that title in those of whom an apostle could say, "These all obtained a good report through faith."
II. Let us advance a step further; let us proceed from the preliminaries, as they may be called, to the consequences of faith, and we shall find fresh warrant for that "good report" of which our text speaks. For faith, you observe, cannot be a barren or an uninfluential principle. It is not so with regard to inferior truths, much less can it be so in regard to the truths of the Bible. Let us fasten on certain of the doctrines which God has revealed, and certain of the virtues which God demands, and let us see whether faith in the one will not be of necessity productive of the others. For example: it is a portion of the Scriptural revelation that God is omniscient and omnipresent; that nothing can be hid from His scrutiny, but that He is ever at hand, a vigilant inspector, to note human actions, and register them for judgment. Can this be really believed, and yet the believer fail to be intently earnest to approve himself in God's sight? Will be ever think himself in a solitude, ever act as alone and unobserved? Will not rather his faith produce a holy reverence, an awful fear of the Almighty? The Bible tells him, moreover, of an amazing scheme of rescue, planned and executed by God, on behalf of himself and his fellow-men. Can this be believed, and yet the believer not glow with intense love towards a gracious and benevolent God, who has done such surprising things for his good? Yea, and toward his fellow-men, seeing that they are objects of the same mercy with himself, and therefore equally precious in the sight of his Creator? Oh! will not faith, genuine faith in the mighty truths of redemption, make a man feel as an affectionate son towards God, and as an affectionate brother towards all men? And yet further, along with the revelation of this amazing scheme of mercy, the Bible sets forth conditions, apart from which we can have no share in the blessings procured by Christ's death, imposing duties, on the performance of which our future portion is made to depend, and annexing promises and threatenings, just as though we were to be judged by our own works, irrespective of the work of the Redeemer. It tells us of a heaven, and it tells us of a hell, and dealing with us as accountable creatures. Faith in these things must animate to effort, to obedience, to self-denial; and he who is really a believer in the revealed truths as to man's everlasting state, and the indissoluble connection between conduct here and condition hereafter, will necessarily be one who struggles for mastery, and wages continual war with the world, the flesh, and the devil. There is no strangeness, then, at all. Faith is precisely that condition of the soul which such a Being as God might have been expected to approve; for having given the revelation contained in the Bible, to require faith in its disclosures is to require that the understanding submit itself, that pride be cast down, that the "flesh be crucified with its affections and lusts," and that every energy be consecrated to His service. Where, then, is the marvel if He have been pleased to ordain that it should be through faith that men " obtain a good report."
III. Finally, to impress, it possible, the argument on every hearer, we will represent the nature and achievement of this principle of faith. We, you and I, live in the midst of allurements and temptations, what is without conspiring with what is within to bind us to earth, and make us cleave to it as our home and our all; and whilst we are thus entangled there comes a revelation from the invisible God, a revelation of amazing truths connected with His nature and with His purposes to ourselves, His guilty and depraved creatures; in this revelation you and I are bidden to believe — bidden on the express declaration that in return for our faith we shall be admitted into privileges which thought cannot measure. And is it an easy thing to believe? Easy! it is to lay aside prejudice, it is to become as little children, it is to submit implicitly to God's authority. Easy! it is to abandon what we love, to forego what we desire, to do what we dislike, to endure what we dread! Easy! it is to cut off the right hand, pluck out the right eye, wrestle with principalities and powers, to despise death, and anticipate futurity! Easy! do it, ye who count it so easy. Ye who make so light of believing — believe. Ye who represent faith as a mere nothing, have faith. You would invite us to some great and hard achievement, we invite you to a greater and harder; we match believing against all your doing; we match it in difficulty, we match it in results. There is nothing which you admire which we may not attempt in our own strength, but we must have the power of the Lord God Almighty ere we can believe in Him whom He hath sent.
(H. Melvill, B. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: