« PreviousContinue »
BY LEONARD BACON, A.M.
THE EXAMPLE OF CHRIST.
I John, ii. 6.—He that saith he abideth in him, ought himself also so to
walk even as he walked.
The meaning of the text is, that every Christian ought to regulate his. conduct by the example of Christ.
There are those who, while they insist on the example of Christ, refuse to acknowledge whatever we mean by the glory of his character, and deny all that we understand by the efficacy of his atonement. Against errors so subversive of the Gospel, we feel bound to be watchful. And this is right. It is right that every Christian should beware of delusion ; and it is peculiarly proper that those who are set for the defence of the Gospel should warn the churches against prevailing error.
But when the mind is placed in the attitude of controversy, it is always in danger of taking such views of the truth, as, if not decidedly erroneous, are at least distorted. He who is most zealous for the avoidance of some individual error, is often most liable to fall under the unnoticed influence of an opposite delusion. Thus Christians, and haps Christian ministers, of our day, in their zeal to defend the atonement of the Savior, and his true Divinity, may be in danger of forgetting, or rather in some degree overlooking the obligations of all, and especially of such as hope for salvation through him, to make his example the exact model of their own conduct.
I say this, by way of caution against an evil to which we are all liable. We are in danger of reading the Bible and studying its truths too much as controversialists ; and if we do so, we are in danger of fixing our attention, not too closely perhaps, but too exclusively on those particular topics of the Gospel which we are more specially zealous to support. While we are looking for proof-texts, we overlook what does not aid us in our controversy ; and thus we lose that devotional and practical effect which the reading of God's word in simplicity of soul cannot fail to produce.
If you will forget, for a season, all the views of the Gospel which you have received from controversial and abstract systems of Christian truth, and in that state of mind take up the writings of the New Testament, you will see how frequently and forcibly the example of our Lord is insisted on as a practicable subject of familiar and constant imitation. It
is nowhere made a matter of formal discussion ; but it is often brought forward, as if it were among the most powerful of all considerations to direct the feelings and fashion the conduct. When Christ would enforce on his disciples the duty of humility and mutual kindness, he tells them of what he had done in performing for them the humblest offices. The Apostle to the Gentiles, while he tells his Corinthian brethren that in all things he seeks not his own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved, calls upon them to join with him in this imitation of the Savior. In like manner when he would inspire the believers at Philippi with that lowliness of mind and that benevolence of heart which might lead them to forego, for each other's good, their individual convenience, he sets before them the example of Christ, “who being in the form of God, humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross,” receiving at last a glorious exaltation as the reward of his humility, and pains, and death. And when he would enforce the same lesson on the church at Rome, he employs the same argument ;
Let every one of us please his neighbour for his good to edification ; for even Christ pleased not himself.” So, likewise, when he would stir up the Hebrew Christians to patience, to constancy, to high and manly daring for the faith ; having told them first of the multitudes, who in every former age had labored and endured in the cause of God, and who are now looking down with sympathy, and as it were with the voice of cheering, on the pains and conflicts of the church below; he brings forward, as the last and most persuasive of all, the example of Jesus, and commands them, if they would run with patience the race set before them, to “ look unto Jesus, the author and finisher of their faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame." In these cases the example of our Lord is brought forward as a motive to the exercise of some particular virtue. But in the text the declaration is more general; the whole moral character of Christ is to be imitated by all who profess to be his. And in those numerous passages which speak of the Christian as following his Lord, as putting on the new man, or as conformed to the image of God's Son, the same proposition is intimated with equal clearness. And from these and the many other Scripture testimonies, we might without rashness conclude that one purpose which God designed to accomplish by the mission of his Son, was, that he might magnify the law by displaying before men a visible and winning example of complete obedience.
My design at this time is, to commend the example of our Lord, not only to your admiring regards, but also to your constant and diligent imitation. And that I
may do this let me exhibit its PERFECTION, its PRACTICABLENESS, and its IMPORTANCE AS A MEANS OF MORAL CULTURE.
I. The example of Christ is perfect. It illustrates every description of moral excellence. By this I mean that his conduct was a living exhibition of the whole duty of man. The history of our Lord is not merely what we
see in some poetic conceptions of excellence—the development of a single virtue. It is the complete union of all attributes that can be conceived of as virtuous and praiseworthy in human character; the perfect combination of whatsoever things are true, or honest, or just, or pure, or lovely, or of good report. Here is devotion, deep, fervent, and unwavering. Here is faith in God, ever corresponding to the devotion which it nourishes. Here is benevolence, wide as the universe, and active for the happiness of all within the circuit of its influence. Here is fortitude, which nothing can appal, and constancy that never swerves. Here is patience, that stands up to endure under every affliction ; and submission, bowing without a murmur to the will of God—though he command the extremity of toil and the agony of death. Here is industry, devoting every moment' and every faculty to the accomplishment of the plans which his benevolence had conceived and his piety had sanctified.' Here is meekness, that remained unmoved under the grossest indignities, and amid provocations the most grievous to be borne. Here is humility, that exulted not in the hosannas of applauding thousands, nor in the offered robes of royalty, nor in the consciousness of power and wisdom and every excellence that men admire—a lowliness of soul that delighted in retirement from applause, that chose the humblest companions for his retinue of friends, and that fled from before his countrymen, not when danger threatened, not when anger burst forth in fury, but when they would have taken him by force and made him king. Here, in short, is the development of every virtue that can ennoble the character of man, the exhibition of every excellence that can find acceptance with God.
II. As the example of Christ exhibits every description of moral excellence, it is also held forth as a practicable subject of imitation for all
Here I am aware of contradicting, in some sort, if not the opinions, at least the indefinite impressions of many a Christian. The impression is not unfrequent among those who call themselves the followers of Christ, that, though they are bound to imitate their Lord, it is enough if they follow him, like Peter, "a great way off;" and therefore, though they may tread in his steps, it is with a timid and a hesitating progress.
There lurks within their minds the feeling, that it is impossible for them to be conformed to the image of the Son of God, and that therefore they are not to aim at a point so elevated as his spotless example. Such an impression is fatal to the growth of piety. And therefore, I repeat it, the example of Christ is a practicable example for universal imitation.
The excellences of Christ's example, which we are called to imitate, are excellences of which all men are capable. And the reason is, they are moral excellences and human excellences. They consist not in the power, and majesty, and wisdom of the Deity, but in the voluntary actions, the choices, the preferences of the man Christ Jesus. The example of Christ has nothing to do with the peculiar constitution of his person, or with the adorable faculties of his divine nature; it has respect only to the manner in which he employed his faculties. It consists not in his mys
terious oneness with his Father on the throne of heaven, but in his devotion—those prayers consuming the long watches of the night—those fastings and strivings with human trials——those solitary communings with his God and our God. It consists not in the power that raised the dead and swayed the elements ; but in his benevolence,—that ruling determination of his mind, under the influence of which he “went about doing good.” It consists not in the wisdom that unveiled futurity, and brought down instruction from the skies ; but in the kindness and gentleness that condescended to the prejudices of the weak, and the ignorance of the unenlightened. It consists not in his office as the Redeemer of the world, nor in the great results that were depending on his obedience and death ; but in that obedience itself, in the patience that endured to the end, in the humility that rejected earthly honours and distinctions, in the submission that cried “ Thy will, not mine, be done,”—in the self-denial that forewent all personal convenience and comfort for the promotion of his object, and in all those moral excellences which were the glory and perfection of his human nature. All these excellences, you perceive, belonged to his conduct, not to the peculiar constitution of his being ; they are moral and human excellences; and consequently not one of them is beyond the capacity of any mind which is not incapable of every moral action. Say not that Christ was free from human infirmities ; for then what means it, that he took part of flesh and blood? Whạt means it, that in all things it behooved him to be made like unto his brethren? What means the story of his perilous temptation? What means it that he can be touched with the feeling of our infirmity, and hath been tried in all points like as we are, yet without sin? You cannot deny, then, that the excellences of Christ's example are excellences of which all men are capable, except by arming the impenitent with an unanswerable excuse for all their unbelief and hardness of heart.
The excellences of Christ's character are excellences which all men are commanded to possess and cultivate. The devotion, the faith, the patience, the submission, which we see in Jesus,—his benevolence, his industry, his humility,—all the virtues which are so forcibly exhibited in his history, and which make up that character of perfection, are virtues which every man is daily called to exercise. Whenever you can find a man on whom there is no obligation to benevolence, or to industrious enterprise in the work of serving God,-whenever you can find a man who has no need of devotion or of faith, no calls for the exercise of patience and submission, no occasions for fortitude and constancy, or of whom meekness and humility are not required, whenever you can find such a man, you will find a man who need not make the character of Christ the model of his own. But till such a man be found, it cannot be questioned that the example of our Lord is an example of the very excellences which all mankind are bound to possess and exhibit.
Nor is this all. The circumstances in which Christ lived, and the scenes through which he passed, are, for the most part, of that plain and every-day description which makes the exhibitions of his perfect excellence more familiar to the comprehension, and more accessible to the imitation of all. Had he been born amid the pomp and splendors of royalty; had he been called, like Moses, to contend with a proud, capricious monarch, and to exercise dominion over a rude and wayward people; or had it been his lot to act like Joshua upon the tented field and in the bloody conflict ;-pure and perfect as his example might have been, it would have been, or at least it would have seemed to be, only an example for kings and rulers, or an example for distinguished patriots, the founders of a nation's laws, or the defenders of a nation's freedom. It would have been difficult to bring down the exhibitions of his holiness from the bewildering splendor of their circumstances, to the familiar apprehension and daily imitation of the great majority of men. But as it is, there is no such difficulty. His excellences of character are enveloped with no glare of circumstances ; they are all personal excellences, and all naked to our perception. His virtues we contemplate and admire, not as the virtues of a lawgiver or a conqueror, but as the virtues of a man. And thus, in the wise designs of God, this high example of every moral excellence is held out before men of every condition as a subject for their daily imitatiòn.
III. As the example of Christ is perfect and practicable, so likewise it is wisely provided for mankind as a most important means of moral culture. It is wisely provided, because human nature is moved, especially to virtue, by example rather than by precept; and because human nature is made for lofty purposes, and succeeds best where its aim is the highest.
The measure of all moral character, the rule by which all human actions will be tried, is the holy law of God. That law he has written in his word, intelligible to every apprehension, and enforced by high rewards and awful penalties. But such is the perverseness of the human mind, that it is not easily attracted to obedience by the mere precept of the law, which seems to it like some cold and formal abstraction.' The bent of man in all his dispositions is wayward; and, therefore, in the effort after moral excellence, he needs peculiarly the influence of example. He needs no such influence to ead him away from God, and away from all that constitutes the true dignity and happiness of his own existence. In all the paths of sin he can walk, as if by instinct, without a guide, and without the traces of a footstep before him. But when he is to be brought back he needs a thousand arguments, and instruction in a thousand forms. It is not enough to hold up before him the pure and plain directions of the law, even though it be enforced with all that is glorious in its rewards, and all that is awful in its penalties. He shrinks from these holy requisitions, as if they were a thing as impossible to be performed as they are discordant with his feelings. He needs to see the excellence of the law, and the beauty of obedience, moving, as it were, before him in some living form, and thus provoking him to admire, to love, to imitate. Hence it is that the holy deportment, the constant, active, exemplary piety of Christians is of so much importance, so indispensable to the successful preaching of the word. Hence it is that the godliness of an individual