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THE METHODIST NEW CONNEXION MAGAZINE.
Theology and General Literature. . ANCIENT FAITH AND MODERN SCEPTICISM.
A SERMON BY WILLIAM COOKE, D.D., PREACHED AT THE CONFERENCE HELD AT NEWCASTLE-ON-TYNE, 1865,
AND PUBLISHED BY THE REQUEST OF THE CONFERENCE. * These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them... And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise : God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.”-Heb. xi. 13, 39-40.
"Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.” -Matt. xxiv. 35. In condescending mercy God has given to mankind a Revelation of Himself, and that. Revelation'is contained in the Bible.' , Widely different, however, is the manner in which the Revelation is regarded. Some reject it altogether: all avowed infidels do this. Others profess to revere it as a record of the religious sentiments and traditions of antiquity, but deny. the accuracy of many of its statements, and discard all that is miraculous and supernatural. Such is the conduct of German neologists and their disciples in this country., Others, the best and wisest of our race, accept the Revelation as from God, and cordially believe all its facts and all its doctrines, solely on the evidence of inspiration. This was the faith of patriarchs, prophets, and apostles, and such is the faith of all true Christians. We freely admit there are difficulties in Revelation--doctrines that transcend our reason, and facts which surpass natural philosophy; and such there always were, even when Revelation consisted of only a few words. But a true faith accepts the whole Revelation of God, with all its difficulties and mysteries. Indeed, to limit our faith by the evidence of scientific facts, would be to believe in Science, not in Revelation; and to restrict our confidence to that which is logically probable, would be to substitute reason for faith. And yet the reason thus set in antagonism to faith is but a low, shallow exercise of the intellect, unworthy of the name of reason ; for faith is compatible, and, indeed, co-operative, with the highest reason, properly so called. Yea, this reason looketh farther and higher than the
domain of Nature, and teacheth the soul to rest upon principles more stable than the laws of the universe—the veracity, the holiness, and the immutability of God. For it is the very essence of faith to take the God of truth and love at his word; to believe all that he says, because reason itself affirms that he cannot lie; and thus both faith and reason are assured that, whatever difficulties, improbabilities, or even apparent contradictions, there may be between Nature and Revelation, God's word must be true; and the light of the future shall dispel the obscurity of the present, and fully justify and honour the most absolute confidence in God. This is the confidence which God requires, and in requiring which he both glorifies himself, and promotes the wisdom, the safety, and the holiness of man, and, by a salutary disciplinary process, prepares him for a higher state of being.
This truth is finely illustrated in the eleventh chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Here the apostle expatiates on the subject of faith, its nature, its trials, and its triumphs, as exemplified in the experience and history of Old Testament saints. He shows that all those saints were believers—believers in promises, the fulfilment of which was often distant, and often surrounded with difficulties, improbabilities, and contradictions in Nature and the laws of science. Yet that confidence was necessary to their personal salvation, and as a cardinal virtue—as a germ-principle from which grew those grand moral excellences which adorned and ennobled their character. The faith they exercised, though tried, and oft severely tried, was never dishonoured by God. However improbable the promise, scientifically considered, time proved its veracity; however long delayed, the blessing came at last. What was prophecy in one age became fact in another; that which patriarchs beheld by faith, became vision to their posterity. But there is one promise which, in my text, is specially emphasized as “the Promise," and which, though believed by all the Old Testament saints, was never fulfilled during their own lifetime, nor during the period of the Jewish dispensation, or until its very close. What was that promise ? Was it the promise that the seed of Abraham should be greatly multiplied ? Nay ; that was fulfilled when Israel was in Egyptian bondage. Was it the promise that Abraham's seed should enter the land of Canaan ? Nay; that was fulfilled in the days of Joshua. Was it the promise that Abraham's “seed should possess the gate of their enemies ?” Nay; that was fulfilled in the victorious reign of David, when all their enemies were vanquished, and the conquered dominions were incorporated with the kingdom of Israel, then extending from the river of Egypt in the south, to the entering of Hamath in the north, from the river Euphrates in the east, to the Mediterranean Sea in the west, embracing a territory of about 60,000 square miles. What, then, was that promise which all the ancient patriarchs and prophets. had received and believed, but which not any of them saw accomplished ? It was the promise of the Saviour the first promise given, now at last fulfilled ; that grand promise which pervaded the Old Testament, and formed the very basis and essence of all others. Its delay was a constant trial of their faith; but, for wise and benevolent reasons, God postponed its accomplishment to a period
when his own glory and the best interests of man could be the most effectually promoted.
Thus, all those ancient worthies "died in faith, not having received (the fulfilment of) the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them.” And thus they obtained “a good report through faith"—they thus received not “the Promise." - God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.” That is, their dispensation could not realize its ultimate purpose without being supplemented by a better one. The truth they believed could not be fully developed until Christ came; and the Church itself could not have its richest development of knowledge and salvation, nor its designed extension and triumph be complete, without the fulness of the Gospel economy. But Christ having come, all these were secured. For now, the truth of the ancient covenant was verified, the most important predictions were accomplished, and the power of God was seen subordinating all past events to the fulfilment of his own purposes ; and thus the final issue of his wonderful dispensations in the past, gave the fullest certainty of the future, and made it manifest that though heaven and earth shall pass away, his words shall not pass away. In further illustration of this subject, we notice
I. That the faith of God's people has, in all ages, been exercised with natural difficulties and physical impossibilities.
II. Yet the results have fully honoured God's veracity, and the faith of his people.
III. That faith in God is one of the highest offices of reason, and an element of the sublimest philosophy.
In illustrating our first proposition, we shall keep before us the great promise referred to by the apostle-the promise of the Saviour --because, being the first promise made to man, and being constantly reiterated in various forms during the former dispensations, it was the common object of faith to all the Old Testament saints; it was a promise, too, in which their faith was most severely tried, and which, therefore, affords the most instructive practical lessons to all believers.
The first promise of a Saviour was given immediately after the Fall, and was embodied in the malediction pronounced against the Tempter and adversary of man :-“I (Jehovah God) will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel." How brief and condensed this ancient promise, compared with the expanded history of Christ in the four evangelists; and how figurative and obscure, as well as brief! Though much is implied, how little is expressed and unfolded! Nothing is said respecting the nature of Christ, except that he should be the seed of the woman; nothing said of the character of Christ, except that he should be the enemy of Satan; nothing of the sufferings of Christ, except that his heel should be bruised; and nothing of the triumphs of Christ, except that he should bruise the serpent's head. Not a word is uttered, not a hint is given, as to the time when, or as to the place where, the Deliverer should appear. Yet that one promise, so brief, obscure, and enigmatical, was the Gospel, containing germs of truth to be afterwards unfolded to fill the earth with light, and eternity with joy. That promise was what mankind,
in those early ages, had to accept and rely upon for salvation. Other great truths had to be believed; but this was the evangelical promise of the covenant, faith in which was essential and indispensable. It mattered not what else men believed ; if they disbelieved this, they were undone. To reject it was death; to accept it, and depend upon it with a penitent heart, was life-everlasting life. Many did accept it, and their example is worthy of imitation. Let us glance at the faith of some.
ABEL, the first martyr, cordially believed that ancient promise. Yet what support did the faith of Abel derive from facts, and the ordinary course of Nature ? None at all. Cain, his brother, was a wicked unbeliever, a rejecter of God's covenant; was it then likely that the promised Deliverer should come through him ? Abel himself had no progeny ; and Adam, his father, had no other sons. Whence, then, could come the promised “ seed ?” Nature was silent, facts were all negative ; reason could draw no favourable inference from anything external. But there was God's promise, resting on God's own fidelity; and that was enough. Abel believed that promise, despite all its obscurity, mystery, and apparent improbability. Nor was his faith a feeble and inoperative speculation, but a vital principle. It was a faith which justified, for by it "he obtained witness that he was righteous." It was a faith that fortified him against the infidelity and opposition of his brother. It was a faith which sustained him under the agonies of martyrdom ; for amid his dying throes, he bore testimony to his confidence in the promise of the Saviour. Abel died in faith.*
Enoch is another eminent example of faith. Yet, what had he to believe and rely upon for salvation ? That brief and obscure promise made to Adam ; and if it were supplemented by any new revelation, still it was a promise or prophecy as yet unfulfilled, though more than six hundred years t had now elapsed since the first promise was made. The ordinary progeny of man had rapidly increased, but the promised “Seed of the woman" had not yet come ; nor was there in the aspect of the times any signs of his coming. Indeed, the head of the serpent, instead of being crushed, was waxing stronger as centuries revolved. The unbelieving race of Cain, now powerful in numbers, were flourishing amidst their unbelief, rising in wealth and social influence, cultivating the arts of music, poetry, and luxury. I Faith and piety were declining even in the Church, wickedness was abounding in the world, and the power of the tempting fiend daily gathering strength. Why, then, if the promise of a Deliverer were true, was it still delayed? Thus carnal reason would question, and thus the sceptical world did openly demand, asking, with a sneer, " Where is the promise of his coming ?” meanwhile mocking at the credulity of saints, and boasting of the freedom, the independence, the luxury, and the rationality of unbelief. Yet Enoch, amid these discouragements, accepted the ancient promise, with all its delay, and all the improbabilities suggested by carnal reason and urged by secular interests. Nor was his faith a cold, wavering assent, but a