Such are the two great principles which Paul puts in strong contrast in the prescription we are now considering. He places opposite to one another "foods" and "grace"; Ceremonialism and the Gospel; Ritualism and the free love of God in Christ Jesus. And then he lays down the great principle that it is by "grace," and "not foods," that the heart is strengthened.
Now "strengthening of the heart" is one of the great wants of many professing Christians. Especially is it longed after by those whose knowledge is imperfect, and whose conscience is half enlightened. Such people often feel in themselves much indwelling sin, and at the same time see very indistinctly God's remedy and Christ's fullness. Their faith is feeble, their hope dim, and their consolations small. They want to realize more tangible comfort. They fancy they ought to feel more and see more. They are not at ease. They cannot attain to joy and peace in believing. Where shall they turn? What shall set their consciences at rest? Then comes the enemy of souls, and suggests some shortcut road to establishment. He hints at the value of some addition to the simple plan of the Gospel, some man-made gimmick, some exaggeration of a truth, some flesh-satisfying invention, some improvement on the old path—and whispers, "Only use this, and you shall be strengthened." Plausible offers flow in at the same time from every quarter, like quack medicines. Each has its own patrons and advocates. On every side the poor unstable soul hears invitations to move in some particular direction, and then shall come perfect strength.
"Come to us!" says the Roman Catholic. "Join the Catholic Church, the Church on the Rock, the one, true, holy Church; the Church that cannot err. Come to her bosom, and rest your soul in her protection. Come to us, and you will find strength!"
"Come to us!" says the extreme Ritualist. "You need higher and fuller views of the priesthood and the Sacraments, of the Real Presence in the Lord's Supper, of the soothing influence of daily service, daily masses, confession to priests, and priestly absolution. Come and take up sound Church views, and you will find strength!"
"Come to us," says the violent Liberationist. "Cast off the traditions and rules of established Churches. Enjoy religious liberty. Throw away forms and Prayer-books. Join our party. Cast in your lot with us, and you will soon be strengthened."
"Come to us!" say the Plymouth Brethren. "Shake off all the bondage of creeds and Churches and systems. We will soon show you higher, deeper, more exalting, more enlightened views of truth. Join the brethren, and you will soon be strengthened!"
"Come to us!" says the Rationalist. "Lay aside the old worn-out clothes of unfruitful schemes of Christianity. Give your reason free scope and play. Begin a freer mode of handling Scripture. Be no more a slave to an ancient old book. Break your chains—and you shall be strengthened!"
Every experienced Christian knows well, that such appeals are constantly made to unsettled minds in the present day. Who has not seen that, when boldly and confidently made, they produce a painful effect on some people? Who has not observed that they often beguile unstable souls—and lead them into misery for years?
"What does the Scripture say?" This is the only sure guide. Hear what Paul says. Heart strength is not to be obtained by joining this party or that. It comes "by grace, and not by foods." Other things have a "show of wisdom" perhaps, and give a temporary satisfaction "to the flesh." (Colossians 2:23). But they have no healing power about them in reality, and leave the unhappy man who trusts them nothing bettered—but rather worse.
A clearer knowledge of the Divine scheme of grace, its eternal purposes, its application to man by Christ's redeeming work; a firmer grasp of the doctrine of grace, of God's free love in Christ, of Christ's full and complete satisfaction for sin, of justification by simple faith, a more intimate acquaintance with Christ the Giver and Fountain of grace, His offices, His sympathy, His power; a more thorough experience of the inward work of grace in the heart—this, this, this is the grand secret of heart strength. This is the old path of peace. This is the true panacea for restless consciences. It may seem at first too simple, too easy, too cheap, too commonplace, too plain. But all the wisdom of man will never show the heavy-laden a better road to heart-rest.
Secret pride and self-righteousness, I fear, are too often the reason why this good old road is not used. I believe there never was a time when it was more needful to uphold the old Apostolic prescription than it is in the present day. Never were there so many weak and worried Christians wandering about, and tossed to and fro, from lack of knowledge. Never was it so important for faithful ministers to set the trumpet to their mouths and proclaim everywhere, "Grace, grace, grace, not foods, establishes the heart."
From the days of the Apostles there have never been a lack of quack spiritual doctors, who have professed to heal the wounds of conscience with man-made remedies. In our own beloved Church there have always been some who have in heart turned back to Egypt, and, not content with the simplicity of our worship, have hankered after the ceremonial fleshpots of the Catholic Church. To hear the Sacraments incessantly exalted, and preaching played down; to see the Lord's Supper turned into an idol, under the pretext of making it more honorable; to find plain worship overlaid with so many newfangled ornaments and ceremonies that its essentials are quite buried—how common is all this! These things were once a pestilence which walked in darkness. They are now a destruction which wastes in noonday. They are the joy of our enemies, the sorrow of the Church's best children, the damage of English Christianity, the plague of our times. And to what may they all be traced? The neglect and the forgetfulness of Paul's simple prescription: "Grace, and not foods, strengthens the heart."
Let us take heed that in our own personal religion, grace is all. Let us have clear systematic views of the Gospel of the grace of God. Nothing else will do good in the hour of sickness, in the day of trial, on the bed of death—in the swellings of Jordan. Christ dwelling in our hearts by faith, Christ's free grace the only foundation under the soles of our feet—this alone will give peace. Once let in self, and forms, and man's inventions, as a necessary part of our religion—and we are on a quicksand! We may be amused, excited, or kept quiet for a time, like children with toys, by a religion of "foods." Such a religion has "a show of wisdom." But unless our religion is one in which "grace" is all—we shall never feel strengthened.
III. In the last place, I proceed to examine the INSTRUCTIVE FACT which Paul records. He says, "Ceremonial foods are of no value to those who eat them."
We have no means of knowing whether the Apostle, in using this language, referred to any particular Churches, or individuals. Of course it is possible that he had in view the Judaizing Christians of Antioch and Galatia, or the Ephesians of whom he speaks to Timothy in his pastoral Epistle; or the Colossians who caused him so much inward conflict; or the Hebrew believers in every Church, without exception. It seems to me far more probable, however, that he had no particular Church or Churches in view. I rather think that he makes a broad, general, sweeping statement about all who in any place had exalted ceremonies at the expense of the doctrines of "grace." And he makes a wide declaration about them all. They have gotten no good from their favorite notions. They have not been more inwardly happy, more outwardly holy, or more generally useful. Their religion has been most unprofitable to them.
Man-made alterations of God's precious medicine for sinners; man-made additions to Christ's glorious Gospel, however greatly defended and plausibly supported, do no real good to those who adopt them. They confer no increased inward comfort; they bring no growth of real holiness; they give no enlarged usefulness to the Church and the world.
Calmly, quietly, and mildly—but firmly, decidedly, and unflinchingly, the assertion is made, "Ceremonial foods are of no value to those who eat them." The whole stream of Church history abundantly confirms the truth of the Apostle's position. Who has not heard of the hermits and ascetics of the early centuries? Who has not heard of the monks and nuns and recluses of the Roman Catholic Church in the middle ages? Who has not heard of the burning zeal, the devoted self-denial of Romanists like Xavier, and Ignatius Loyola? The earnestness, the fervor, the self-sacrifice of all these classes, are matters beyond dispute. But none who read the records of their lives carefully and intelligently, can fail to see that they had no solid peace or inward rest of soul. Their very feverish restlessness is enough to show that their consciences were not at ease. None can fail to see that, with all their furious zeal and self-denial, they never did much good to the world. They gathered round themselves admiring partisans. They left a high reputation for self-denial and sincerity. They made men wonder at them while they lived, and sometimes canonize them when they died. But they did nothing to convert souls.
And what is the reason of this? They attached an overweening importance to man-made ritual and ceremonies, and made less than they ought to have done of the Gospel of the grace of God. Their principle was to make much of "ceremony," and little of "grace." Hence they verified the words of Paul, "Ceremonial foods are of no value to those who eat them."
The very history of our own times bears a striking testimony to the truth of Paul's assertion. In the last twenty-five years, scores of clergymen have seceded from the Church of England, and joined the Church of Rome. They wanted more of what they called Catholic doctrine and Catholic ceremonial. They honestly acted up to their principles, and went over to Rome. They were not all weak, and illiterate, and second-rate, and inferior men; several of them were men of commanding talents, whose gifts would have won for them a high position in any profession. Yet what have they gained by the step they have taken? What profit have they found in leaving "grace" for "ceremonies," in exchanging Protestantism for Catholicism? Have they attained a higher standard of holiness? Have they procured for themselves a greater degree of usefulness? The religious system which exalts ceremonies and man-made ritual, does no real good to its adherents, compared to the simple old Gospel of the grace of God.
Let us turn now, for a few moments, to the other side of the picture, and see what "grace" has done. Let us hear how profitable the doctrines of the Gospel have proved to those who have clung firmly to them, and have not tried to mend and improve and patch them up by adding, as essentials, the "foods" of man-made ceremonies.
It was "grace, and not foods," which made Martin Luther do the work that he did in the world. The key to all his success was his constant declaration of justification by faith, without the deeds of the law. This was the truth which enabled him to break the chains of Rome, and let light into Europe.
It was "grace, and not ceremonial foods," which made our English martyrs, Latimer and Hooper, exercise so mighty an influence in life, and shine so brightly in death. They saw clearly, and taught plainly, the true priesthood of Christ, and salvation only by grace. They honored God's grace—and God put honor on them.
It was "grace, and not ceremonial foods," that made Romaine and Venn, and their companions, turn the world upside down in England, one hundred years ago. In themselves they were not men of extraordinary learning or intellectual power. But they revived and brought out again the real pure doctrines of grace.
It was "grace, and not ceremonial foods," that made Simeon and Daniel Wilson and Bickersteth such striking instruments of usefulness in the first half of the present century. God's free grace was the great truth on which they relied, and continually brought forward. For so doing God put honor on them. They made much of God's grace—and the God of grace made much of them.
The list of ministerial biographies tells a striking tale. Who are those who have shaken the world, and left their mark on their generation, and aroused consciences, and converted sinners, and edified saints? Not those who have made asceticism, and ceremonials, and sacraments, and services, and ordinances the main thing; but those who have made most of God's free grace! In a day of strife, and controversy, and doubt, and perplexity, men forget this.
Facts are stubborn things. Let us look calmly at them, and be not moved by those who tell us that daily services, processions, incense, bowings, crossings, confessions, absolutions, and the like, are the secret of a prosperous Christianity. Let us look at plain facts. Facts in old history, and facts in modern days, facts in every part of England, support the assertion of Paul. The religion of "ceremonial foods" does "not profit those that are occupied therein." It is the religion of grace which brings inward peace, outward holiness, and general usefulness.