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On Spiritual Declension.
“ Peter followed afar off.”—Luke xxii., 54.
What! Peter, the courageous, the zealous Peter, who had made such a noble confession of his Lord--who had always been so prompt and indefatigable in his cause--who had declared himself ready to die for his sakedoes he begin to waver ? does he follow his Lord afar off, like one ashamed to desert him, and yet afraid to stand by him ? Yes, that man who appeared so ardent, so confident, so heroic, now acts the part of a hesitating coward, and follows his Saviour afar off. The language of the text not only describes the literal distance of his person from Christ, but indicates the state of his mind. His heart was distanced from him ; hence, although he did not totally forsake him, yet he followed with faint and faltering steps.
But Peter has many imitators in the present day, of whom it may be said with equal propriety, they follow Jesus afar off. The time once was when they followed hard after him, and beheld his glory, the glory of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth ; but now to them Jesus has lost his charms; he is like a root out of dry ground ; there is no form nor corneliness in him that they should desire him—the gold has become dim, and the most fine gold is changed. They are no longer delighted in the service of God, for to them his yoke is hard, and his burden is heavy.
I. In addressing you from the words of the text, we shall consider, in the first place, what is implied in following Christ. The apostles followed Christ, both literally and morally, as his personal attendants and approved disciples. They gladly received his word, acknowledged his Messiahship, and obeyed his injunctions. In these respects we ought to be followers of God as dear children.
1. We should follow Christ as our Teacher, to instruct us. Jesus Christ is a Teacher come from God to instruct us. He left the bosom of the Father, and came down from heaven to earth to declare him to us, to make known his perfections, and to reveal his mind and will concerning man. In particular, he has come to inform us what plan his heavenly Father has devised for the restoration of a guilty world to his favor; and in what way they must walk so as to please and honor him. He directs us to come to him with the docility of little children, and receive instruction from his lips : Learn of me, says he, for I am meek and lowly in heart ; that is
, for I can bear with your infirmities, and will carefully convey instruction to you, as you are able to receive it. It was in this way that Mary sat at his feet, whilst her more worldly-minded sis
ter Martha was deeply interested to provide for the guests she was about to entertain, a rich and sumptuous repast; and this was the good part which Mary chose, and which our Lord assured her should never be taken from her. To inculcate this lesson, and to induce this habit, was the real scope of our Lord's address to the rich youth, who desired to know what he must do to inherit eternal life. Our Lord told him he must keep the commandments. And when the young man, ignorant of their spiritual import, affirmed that he had kept them all from his youth up, our Lord said to him, Go and sell all thou hast vnd come and follow me, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; by which he meant, not that the sacrifice of earthly treasures would purchase those which are eternal, but that, by disincumbering his mind of earthly cares, and attending diligently to the instructions that should be given him, he should gradually be guided into all truth, and finally attain that eternal life about which he had professed so much concern. This is what our Lord requires at our hands also; and not merely at the commencement of our Christian course, but throughout our whole lives. After he had taught his disciples during the whole of his ministerial life, even after he was risen again from the dead, he both expounded to them out of the prophets all that related to himself, and opened their understandings, that they might understand the Scriptures ; and in like manner must we, to the latest hour of our lives, come to him for the illumination of our minds by his word and Spirit. We shall still need the same teaching as at first, and must come to him for that spiritual eye-salve which he alone can give.
2. It is not sufficient, however, that we follow him as our Teacher ; we must, also, follow him as our Master, to rule over us. We call him Lord and Master, and we say well ; for so he is. But to what purpose shall we call him Lord, Lord, if we do not the things he says ?
S? . His word must be a law to us at all times, and under all circumstances. There is no authority whatever that is to be regarded in comparison as his. When the apostles were forbidden to preach in his name, they made this appeal to their rulers : Whether it be right to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. No menaces should ever intimidate or deter us from the path of duty; we must say with St. Paul, None of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto me, so that I may discharge the duty that I owe unto my Lord, and approve myself to him as a faithful servant.
3. We must, furthermore, follow him as our Saviour, to save us. There is no other Saviour, no other name under heaven given among men whereby we can be saved. It is he, and he only, who has power to deliver us from the dominion of sin, and impart to us that holiness and purity by which we can be admitted into the presence of God. Through him we must be reconciled to the Father ; and by him we may be justified from all things from which we could not be justified by the law of Moses. Hence he says, look unto me,
and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth. As the serpent was lifted up in the wilderness, that the wounded Israelites might look unto it and be healed, so, says our Lord, have I been lifted up, that whosoever shall believe in me may not perish, but have everlasting life. But we must look to him alone. We must receive him as a whole and entire Saviour; for he will not endure any rival. If St. Paul desired to be found in Christ, not having his own righteousness, but the righteousness which is of God in Christ Jesus, much more must we renounce all dependence upon our own works, and seek to be justified by Christ alone. As in heaven there is but one song, To him that loved us and washed us from our sins in his own blood, and made us kings and priests unto God and the Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever; so on earth there must be an entire and exclusive affiance in him for all the blessings of salvation.
4. Finally, we must follow him as our example, to regulate the whole of our life and conversation. When he washed his disciples' feet, he declared, that he intended in this symbolical act, to show how they were to demean themselves towards each other; and, by the example he then set, to inculcate the necessity of their performing, towards the meanest of their brethren, every act of condescension and love. We are, also, informed by St. Peter, that, under still more trying circumstances, the Lord Jesus Christ has set us an example, that we should follow his steps ; and more especially in those duties which are most difficult and self-denying. As he did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth, and when
he was reviled, he reviled not again, and when he suffered threatened not, but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously; so we, under all the heaviest afflictions that can come upon us, are to suffer them with all meekness; blessing those who curse us, and praying for those who despitefully use us, and persecute us. Our determination, through grace, must be, not to be overcome of evil, but to overcome evil with good. In one word, the whole mind must be in us that was in Christ Jesus ; and under all imaginable circumstances, we must approve ourselves as followers of Christ, walking as he walked, and doing those things only which will please and honor our Father which is in heaven. It must, at all times, be our meat and drink, to do the will of our heavenly Father.
Such I understand to be the meaning of the phrase, to follow Christ. And those who follow him fully, who have respect for all of his commandments, and go without the camp bearing reproach, will be strong in the Lord and the power of his might. Such persons will be healthy, and thriving, and growing Christians. But, alas ! what multitudes there are, who run well for a season, then are hindered; their goodness, like the morning cloud and the early dew, soon vanishes away. If they follow Christ at all, it is like Peter, afar off
II. Having considered what we are to understand by following Christ, we shall now proceed, in the second place, to inquire what
is implied in following him afar off. Peter followed afar off. St. Peter's mind was agitated between hope and despair; his fears had vanquished his zeal, and his doubts had subdued his confidence. He was rapidly sinking into that state of mind, which finally led him to deny his Lord and Master. He, however, at this time, still felt some attachment to his Saviour. Without this, he would not have followed him at all, under such circumstances of danger. Indeed, considering how long and how sincerely he had loved him, it would be unreasonable to suppose, that he had, in so short a time, become wholly indifferent to his Master. It would be contrary to nature, to imagine that he had, all at once, lost the whole of his attachment to his Redeemer.
Some degree of love is, also, found in those who follow Christ afar off now; indeed, no one can follow him at all without it. They have some attachment to his name, to his cause, to his ways, and to his people. Their condition resembles the church at Ephesus; of whom the angel said: I know thy works, and thy labor, and thy patience, and how thou comst not bear them which are evil; and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars; and hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name's sake hast labored, and hast not fainted. Nevertheless, I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. It is this love, although cold and feeble, that distinguishes this state from that of formalists, hypocrites, worldlings, and apostates. But this state is also distinguished from that of a faithful and devoted Christian.
1. The love of Peter was in a decaying condition. Had it been as warm, as ardent, and as vigorous as formerly, no trouble nor danger would have kept him at a distance from his dear Redeemer. Instead of following him afar off, he would have followed hard after his Saviour, and been ready to have shared the same fate of his Lord and Master. He would have followed him to prison, and to death, rather than to have denied him. But his love was now relaxed, his zeal abated, his energies paralyzed, and his confidence shaken. His love, though not wholly extinguished, yet burnt with a feeble and languid flame.
And such is the case with his modern imitators—their holy ardors are damped, and almost ready to expire. Their love is war. ing cold, and receiving the chill of death. Their devotions are marked with formality, coldness, and indifference. And such, I fear, is the state of many who hear me to-day. Once you could say, Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name, and forget not all his benefits ; but now, "hosannas languish on your tongues, and your devotion dies.” The time has been, when, with David, you could affirm, As the hart panteth after the water-brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God: my soul thirsteth for God, for the living God; but now, like the sluggard, you say, A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands
to sleep. Formerly you could declare, from a happy state of experience, My cup is full and running over ; but now you exclaim, My leanness, my leanness, wo is me! And does this languid and dying frame of mind excite no alarm, create no uneasiness? Do you rest contented, in this land of drought and barrenness, where all is withered, and dried, and parched up? In this dreary land there is no dew to water the soul, no blossoms to delight the eye, no odors to regale the senses, no fruit to sustain the life. This is the land into which you have wandered; here you have hung your harps upon the willows—here you have sat down to languish, to faint, and to die. O remember, if you are satisfied to rest in this state, God will not be satisfied for you to rest here. You are in that state of lukewarmness, which God so supremely hates, so utterly abominates: I would, says he, that thou wert cold or hot ; so, then, because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth. And if he spews you out of his mouth, where will he spew you? He will spew you into hell; he will spew you into the lake that burneth with fire and brimstone; he will spew you into the blackness of darkness forever.
2. Peter's heart, at this time, was in a divided, irresolute state. It Auctuated to and fro, and halted betwixt two. He followed Christ because he loved him, but he followed afar off, because he did not love him with an undivided heart. The love of ease, of honor, or of life, combated the love of Jesus, chilled its ardor, and weakened its energies. He had too much generosity, and too much love to his Master, wholly to abandon him ; but he had too much selfishness to abandon all for his sake. Unhappy condition! agitated and torn by conflicting principles and passions, and not wholly subdued by any:
And such is the state of many indolent and loitering followers of the Saviour, at the present day, feeling it “worse than death their God to love, and not their God alone." Their hearts are divided, their affections are divided, and their minds are divided like a double-minded man, they are unstable in all their ways. They are surrounded by objects full of attraction, drawing them different ways-sometimes one prevailing and sometimes another. Now they are diverted from duty by fashionable society-now by worldly pleasures—now by the corroding cares of life-now by the praises of men—and now by improper associates. In the midst of these aberrations, their consciences check them—the Spirit of God reproves them—the Holy Scriptures condemn them—and the faithful minister of the gospel warns them. They do not follow the Lord fully, but are double-hearted and faint-hearted—unwilling to forsake the path of pity, yet walking in it with feeble and hesitating steps. They are sickly, and weakly, and puny; full of doubts, and fears, and discouragements. They sin and confess; and confess and sin. They comply with the forms of religion, but find no inward delight in the service of God; they are, therefore, led to doubt the truth of