Sermon 18. (Septuagesima.)
“Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain.” – 1 Cor. 9:24.
Nothing is more clearly brought out in Scripture, or more remarkable in itself than this, that in every age, out of the whole number of persons blessed with the means of grace, few only have duly availed them of this great benefit. So certain, so uniform is the fact, that it is almost stated as a doctrine. “Many are called, few are chosen.” Again, “Strive to enter in at the strait gate; for many, I say unto you, shall seek to enter in, and shall not be able.” And again, “Wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat … Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way that leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” And St. Paul seems expressly to turn the historical fact into a doctrine, when he says, by way of remark upon his own day as compared with former ages of the Church, “Even so then, at this present time also,” that is, as formerly, “there is a remnant, according to the election of grace.” (Matt. 20:16. Luke 13:24. Matt. 7:13, 14. Rom. 11:5.)
The word “remnant” is frequent with the prophets, from whom St. Paul takes it. Isaiah, for instance, says, “Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, a remnant shall be saved.” Jeremiah speaks of “the remnant of Judah,” and the “small number,” to which a return was promised. Ezekiel, too, declares that God “will leave a remnant,” “that ye may have some,” continues the divine oracle, “that shall escape the sword among the nations, when ye shall be scattered through the countries. And they that escape of you shall remember Me among the nations, whither they shall be carried captives.” And so well understood was this, that the hope of good men never reached beyond it. Neither the promise, on the one hand, nor the hope, on the other, ever goes beyond the prospect of a remnant being saved. Thus the consolation given to the Church in the Book of Jeremiah is, that God “will not make a full end;” and Ezra, confessing the sins of his people, expresses his dread lest there should be “no remnant.” (Rom. 9:27. Jer. 44:28. Ezek. 6:8, 9. Jer. 46:28. Ezra 9:14.) Thus Christ, His Apostles, and His Prophets, all teach the same doctrine, that the chosen are few, though many are called: that one gains the prize, though many run the race.
This rule in God’s dispensations is most abundantly and awfully illustrated in their history. At the time of the Flood, out of a whole world, in spite of Adam’s punishment, in spite of Enoch’s preaching, in spite of Noah’s setting about the ark, eight only found acceptance with God, and even one of these afterwards incurred a curse. When the Israelites were brought out of Egypt by miracle, two only of the whole generation entered the land of promise. Two tribes alone out of twelve remained faithful at the time of the great schism, and continued in possession of God’s covenanted mercies. And when Christ came, the bulk of His own people rejected Him, and His Church came but of the scanty remnant, “as a root out of a dry ground.”
Moreover, it is observable that Almighty God seems as if to rejoice, and deigns to delight Himself in this small company who adhere to Him, as if their fewness had in it something of excellence and preciousness. “Fear not,” he says, “little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves.” “I pray not for the world, but for those whom Thou hast given Me.” In a like spirit, St. Paul says, “Whom He did foreknow, He also did predestinate.” And in the time of Elijah, “I have reserved to Myself seven thousand men, who have not bowed the knee to the image of Baal.” And in the time of Moses, “The Lord did not set His love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people, for ye were the fewest of all people.” (Luke 12:32. Matt. 10:16. John 17:9. Rom. 8:29; 11:4. Deut. 7:7.)
And it need scarcely be added, that the same bountifulness on God’s part, the same ingratitude on the part of man, the same scarcity of faith, sanctity, truth, and conscientiousness, have marked the course of the Christian Dispensation, as well as of those former ones of which the inspired volume is the record.
So clear is this, that persons who, from unwillingness to take the narrow way, or from other like cause, have disputed it, have scarcely anything left them to urge but certain false views or consequences, which have been, or may be, entertained concerning the doctrine. And as these misconceptions tend at once to prejudice the mind against it, and to pervert its reception of it, I shall now examine one or two of the objections to which it is exposed.
1. Now, first, it has often happened that, because the elect are few, serious men have considered that this took place in consequence of some fixed decree of God. They have thought that they were few, because it was God’s will that they should not be many. Now it is doubtless a great mystery, why this man receives the truth and practises it, and that man does not. We do not know how it comes to pass; but surely we do not tend to solve it, by saying God has so decreed it. If you say that God does absolutely choose the one and reject the other, then that becomes the mystery. You do but throw it back a step. It is as difficult to explain this absolute willing or not willing, on the part of Almighty God, as to account for the existence of free will in man. It is as inexplicable why God should act differently towards this man and that, as it is why this man or that should act differently towards God. On the other hand, we are solemnly assured in Scripture that God “hath no pleasure in the death of the wicked;” that He is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” (Ezek. 33:11. 2 Pet. 3:9.)
The doctrine, then, which is implied in the text, does not lead us to any hard notions of God. He is a most loving Father still, though few are chosen. His mercy is over all His works, and to no one does the word of life come but with the intent that he may live. If the many remain in unbelief, they “are not straitened” in God’s love, but they “are straitened in their own bowels.” Man will not be what by God’s renewing and cooperating grace he might be. It is man’s doing, not God’s will, that, while the visible Church is large, the Church invisible is small.
2. But it may be said that this doctrine lies open to another objection: that to believe that few only find the gate of life, necessarily makes a man self-confident and uncharitable towards others, whether he considers himself predestined to life or not. Every one, it is said, will place himself on the safe side of the line, and, of course, will place his friends with him; and all others he will give over, as if they were to be classed among the many. Now the text, and the verses which follow it, supply the readiest answer to this objection. St. Paul speaks as if the Christian course were a race, in which one only out of many could succeed. And what is the conclusion he arrives at? “I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection, lest that by any means when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.” You see how far the holy Apostle was from security and self-satisfaction, though he, if any one, would have had a right to feel easy about his state. And the exhortation he gives his brethren is, “So run, that ye may obtain.” Are candidates for a prize confident, because only one can gain it? What is the meaning then of asserting that “they which run in a race” take it for granted that they are on the winning side?
And yet it is quite true that there are men who, in consequence of holding the doctrine that the chosen are few, instead of exerting themselves, become proud and careless. But then, let it be observed, these persons hold another doctrine besides, which is the real cause of their carnal security. They not merely think that Christ’s flock is small, but that every man can tell whether or no he belongs to it, and that they do know that they themselves belong to it. Now, if a man thinks he knows for certain that he shall be saved, of course he will be much tempted to indulge in a carnal security, and to look down upon others, and that, whether the true flock of Christ is large or small. It is not the knowledge that the chosen are few which occasions these bad feelings, but a man’s private assurance that he is chosen.
St. Paul tells us, that whom God “did foreknow He also did predestinate,” and “whom he did predestinate, them He also called; and whom He called them He also justified; and whom He justified, them He also glorified;” but he does not say that God discloses this to the persons who are subjects of it. He has deep and eternal counsels, but they are secret ones; He has a decree, founded on righteousness and truth, but it is not revealed. We know not, we cannot know, whom God has chosen for salvation; and while we understand this, and keep it before us, we shall not be puffed up about ourselves, nor harsh and censorious towards others, though we bear in mind ever so much that the gate of heaven is narrow, and few there be that find it.
This, I think, is very plain; yet it may be useful to enlarge upon it. Let us take an illustration, not exact, but sufficient for the purpose. Supposing we had to cast lots for some worldly benefit, a sum of money, or some desirable post, or the like, and only three or four out of a great number could succeed, how should we be affected beforehand? Should we be at all led to speculate or judge who were to be successful, who unsuccessful? And why not? Because it would be idle to employ our thoughts about an event which nothing we saw before us, nothing we could see, tended to discover to us; idle to attempt to decide in a case where there were no means of deciding. For what any of us could know, one man had as good a prospect as another. We should feel as much as this, that a certain prize was destined for some out of all of us; we should feel anxious and expectant, and that would be the end of the matter. Now, as regards our heavenly prospects, the decision indeed is not a matter of chance; God forbid!—but yet it is as much hid from us as if it were. Nothing that we see, or think we see, can enable us to decide about the future. We do not know but those who are the greatest sinners now, may repent, reform, and in severity and austereness of life surpass ourselves; the last oftentimes become the first. Nor do we know about ourselves, however fair we seem, but we may fall away. We cannot compare ourselves with others at all. All we know is, and a most awful thought it is, that out of the whole number of those who have received the Christian calling, out of ourselves and our friends, and all whom we see and hear of in the intercourse of life, but a few are chosen; but a few act up to their privileges. Now, considering the inscrutable darkness in which the event lies, hid almost like the time of judgment in the prescience of Almighty God, is this a thought to fill us with confidence and pride, or is it not rather an exceedingly solemn and dreadful thought? Should a prophet declare that out of a given number of persons but a few would be alive this time next year, that the greater part would die, should we, under any circumstances, feel altogether easy, were our health ever so good in appearance, or were there ever so many older persons than ourselves in the number addressed? Should we not be made very anxious at every little indisposition, or at every symptom of illness, or at every chance of accident from without? Should we have much heart for speculating about others?
And this surely is the real state of the case. Our means of judging ourselves or others are so very insufficient, that they are practically nothing; and it is our wisdom to let the attempt alone. We may know about ourselves, that at present we are sincere and earnest, and so far in God’s favour; we may be able to say that such and such words or deeds are right or wrong in another; but how different is this from having the capacity to decide absolutely about our or his eternal doom! How different this from being able to take in the whole compass of our lives, the whole range and complication of our thoughts, words, deeds, habits, principles, and motives! How different from being able to argue from what we see to what God knows, or from discerning whether the divine seed has taken root in particular minds! St. Paul himself, though conscious of nothing, says to the Corinthians, “Yet am I not hereby justified, but He that judgeth me is the Lord; therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts.” (1 Cor. 4:5.) We cannot estimate the real value of anything which we or others do; or how it stands in making up their or our final account in God’s sight. What is a sign of faith in one man, is not in another; what is a great deed in one man, is not in another. The differences of disposition, education, and guidance are so great, and make the problem so intricate, that it would seem to be the height of madness (were it not sometimes attempted by persons not mad) to attempt to solve it. St. Paul says in one place that he has not “attained.” On the contrary, at the end of his life, after fighting a good fight, then he says that “henceforth there was laid up for him a crown of righteousness.” (Phil. 3:12. 2 Tim. 4:8.) Thus there was a point at which, and not before, his salvation was, practically speaking, secured. What happened in his case, may, for what we know to the contrary, happen in ours also; and the point at which victory is certain may vary in the case of every one of us.
Or, again, let us recur to the Apostle’s words in the text: “Know ye not,” he says, “that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain.” When a number of persons are contending for a prize, since one alone can obtain it, it is plain that no one, from what he knows about himself, can conclude anything concerning his own success; because, even be he ever so likely in himself, yet another may be more likely. The event is utterly and totally hid from him, unless he be very well acquainted with his rivals. Now here, again, the illustration used is not altogether parallel. In the prize which we run for, praised be God, there is no such rivalry of one against another; there is no restriction; and if all did their duty, all would succeed. Yet the effect is the same as regards our knowledge, as if only one could succeed; I mean, we do not know the standard by which God will judge us. Nothing that we are can assure us that we shall answer to what He expects of us; for we do not know what that is; what we are can but cheer us and give us hopes and good spirits. In contending for the prize, it is of no use to be second best. He who comes second, as little gains it as he who comes last. And so in striving to enter in at the strait gate, unless we rise to that which God requires of us, unless we attain, no matter how near we once were to attaining;—after all, it has come to this, that we have not attained. This thought will surely ever keep us from dwelling on our own proficiency, whatever it is; rather it will lead us, with the great Apostle, to “follow after, if that we may apprehend that for which we are apprehended of Christ Jesus.” It is not till life is over, when we have lived in the fear of God consistently, when death has put its seal upon us, and cut us off from the chance of falling, that others, surveying us, and observing our consistency and perseverance in well-doing, will humbly trust that we are in St. Paul’s case, to whom, after “finishing his course,” it was revealed that “a crown of righteousness was laid up for him.”
The doctrine, then, that few are chosen though many be called, properly understood, has no tendency whatever to make us fancy ourselves secure and others reprobate. We cannot see the heart, we can but judge from externals, from words and deeds, professions and habits. But these will not save us, unless we persevere in them to the end; and they are no evidence that we shall be saved, except so far as they suggest hope that we shall persevere. They are but a beginning; they tell for nothing till they are completed. Till we have done all, we have done nothing; we have but a prospect, not possession. If we ultimately do attain, every good thing we shall have done will have tended to that attainment, as a race tends to a goal; but, unless we attain, it will not have so tended; and, therefore, from no good thing which we do can we argue that we are sure to attain.
3. One other misconception of this doctrine shall be mentioned, and then I will conclude. It may be said, then, that the belief that true Christians are few leads men to isolate themselves in their own opinions, to withdraw from the multitude, to adopt new and extravagant views, and to be singular in their conduct, as if what the many held and did could not be right. This may sometimes be the case; but I would have it remarked, that if true Christians are few, they must in a certain sense be singular. Singularity indeed is no proof that we are right in our opinions, or are Christ’s chosen, because there are a great many ways of being singular, and all cannot be right. And persons are often, as is objected, singular, from love of being so, from conceit, or desire to excite remark; and therefore it does not follow that even those who profess the views of Christ’s true servants, are themselves in their number. But, on the other hand, neither does it follow, because men are singular in their opinions, that they are wrong, nor, because other opinions are generally received in their day, that therefore these are right. If the multitude of men are ever in the broad way “that leadeth to destruction,” there is no ground for maintaining that, in order to be right in our religious views, we must agree with the many; rather, if such as persons are, their opinions are also, it would seem to be certain that those opinions which are popular will ever be mistaken and dangerous as being popular opinions. Those who serve God faithfully must ever look to be accounted, in their generation, singular, intemperate, and extreme. They are not so; they must guard against becoming so; if they are so, they are equally wrong as the many, however they may in other respects, differ from them; but still it is no proof that they are so, because the many call them so. It is no proof that they are so, because others take it for granted that they are, pass their doctrines over, put their arguments aside without a word,—treat them gravely, or are vexed about them, or impatient with them, or ridicule them, or fiercely oppose them. No; there are numberless clouds which flit over the sky, there are numberless gusts which agitate the air to and fro: as many, as violent, as far-spreading, as fleeting, as uncertain, as changing, are the clouds and the gales of human opinion; as suddenly, as impetuously, as fruitlessly, do they assail those whose mind is stayed on God. They come and they go; they have no life in them, nor abidance. They agree together in nothing but in this, in threatening like clouds, and sweeping like gusts of wind. They are the voice of the many; they have the strength of the world, and they are directed against the few. Their argument, the sole argument in their behalf, is their prevalence at the moment; not that they existed yesterday, not that they will exist tomorrow; not that they base themselves on reason, or ancient belief, but that they are merely what every one now takes for granted, or, perhaps, supposes to be in Scripture, and therefore not to be disputed:—not that they have most voices through long periods, but that they happen to be most numerously professed in the passing hour. On the other hand, divine truth is ever one and the same; it changes not, any more than its Author: it stands to reason, then, that those who uphold it must ever be exposed to the charge of singularity, either for this or for that portion of it, in a world which is ever varying.
What a most awful view does human society present to those who would survey it religiously! Go where you will, you find persons with their own standards of right and wrong, yet each different from each. Thus everywhere you find both a witness that there is a standard, and yet an evidence everywhere that that standard is lost. Go where you will, you find in each separate circle certain persons held in esteem as patterns of what men should be; each sect and party has its Doctors, its Confessors, and its Saints. And in all parties you will find so many men possessed of good points of character, if not exemplary in their lives, that to judge by appearances, you do not know why the chosen should not be many instead of few. Your very perplexity in reconciling the surface of things with our Lord’s announcements, the very temptation you lie under to explain away the plain words of Scripture, shows you that your standard of good and evil, and the standard of all around you, must be very different from God’s standard. It shows you, that if the chosen are few, there must be some particular belief necessary, or some particular line of conduct, or something else different from what the world supposes, in order to account for this solemn declaration. It suggests to you that perchance there must be a certain perfection, completeness, consistency, entireness of obedience, for a man to be chosen, which most men miss in one point or another. It suggests to you that there is a great difference between being a hearer of the word and a doer; a well-wisher of the truth, or an approver of good men or good actions, and a faithful servant of the truth. It suggests to you that it is one thing to be in earnest, another and higher to be “rooted and grounded in love.” It suggests to you the exceeding dangerousness of single sins, or particular bad habits. It suggests to you the peril of riches, cares of this life, station, and credit.
Of course we must not press the words of Scripture; we do not know the exact meaning of the word “chosen;” we do not know what is meant by being saved “so as by fire;” we do not know what is meant by “few.” But still the few can never mean the many; and to be called without being chosen cannot but be a misery. We know that the man, in the parable, who came to the feast without a wedding garment, was “cast into outer darkness.” (Matt. 22:13.) Let us then set at nought the judgment of the many, whether about truth and falsehood, or about ourselves, and let us go by the judgment of that line of Saints, from the Apostles’ times downwards, who were ever spoken against in their generation, ever honoured afterwards,—singular in each point of time as it came, but continuous and the same in the line of their history,—ever protesting against the many, ever agreeing with each other. And, in proportion as we attain to their judgment of things, let us pray God to make it live in us; so that at the Last Day, when all veils are removed, we may be found among those who are inwardly what they seem outwardly,—who with Enoch, and Noah, and Abraham, and Moses, and Joshua, and Caleb, and Phineas, and Samuel, and Elijah, and Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and the Baptist, and St. Paul, have “borne and had patience, and for His Name-sake laboured and not fainted,” watched in all things, done the work of an Evangelist, fought a good fight, finished their course, kept the faith.
John Henry Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, Vol. 5, 18