APOSTASY FROM CHRIST TO BE DREADED.
A SERMON ON
JOHN vi. 67, 68.
Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away? Then Simon Peter answered, Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.
These words were occasioned by a remarkable falling off among the followers of our Lord. Vast numbers of people attended his ministry, and no wonder. The sanctity of his character, the benevolence of his heart, the amazing miracles that he wrought, and especially his sweet, heavenly, powerful manner of preaching, could not but excite great multitudes to follow him. Thousands and thousands listened to him with pleasure; and yet the number of his genuine disciples was very small.
Having performed an amazing miracle, in feeding five thousand people with five loaves, the people were satisfied that he was the Messiah, and determined to make him a king. Our Lord withdrew, and crossed the sea. The people followed him, when he took occasion to deal very closely with them, and to point out the cause of their not coming to him for life. This gave them great offence; but it proved who were his true disciples, and that the rest were such only in pretence. The whole of his conference with them displays the faithfulness of Christ, and the fickleness of men.
The words of our text are very affecting. Many of his nominal disciples having left him, he puts the question to the twelve apostles, " Will ye also go away!" Will you follow their example, or will you abide with me? Peter, in the name of the rest, dreading the thought of apostasy, answered,— "Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life:" we can never expect such happiness from another. And he answered well; for those who forsake Christ will never mend themselves, go where they will.
The words may be usefully applied to ourselves. Let us consider Jesus as putting the same, question to every one of us; and may we, with Peter's sincerity, make the same reply.
1. Let us consider the question, "Will ye also go away?" This question was put to persons who had professed some regard for Christ. They had seen his miracles with admiration; they had heard his preaching with delight; and they had crossed the lake to meet him again. The same question, therefore, as put to us, supposes a professed regard for Christ, as set before us in the gospel: for if we have not in some sense come to him, of course we cannot forsake him. But as the people of old followed him from false motives, and with wrong views, it may be proper for us to consider, what it is that makes many among us profess to follow him. And it is plain that the little profession which some make is the mere effect of custom. They are Christians because their parents are such , and because their neighbours are such. It is the religion of the country; and were these people in Turkey, they would be Mahometans. The influence of superiors or friends sometimes brings them to hear the gospel, and the love of novelty keeps them under it for a time. Some persons are much struck with the fervency of a minister of Christ, who speaks in earnest, and from the heart; while the seriousness, the fervour, and the singing of a lively congregation, make an additional impression. Self-interest and worldly advantage make other men professors; as the people referred to in our text followed Christ for the loaves and fishes. A few others were alarmed by sickness and the fear of death, or affected at some public calamity.
But if a person's religion has no better foundation than these afford, we wonder not at his apostasy. Sooner or later such professors will go back and follow Christ no more. And the world abounds with temptations, which will be fatal to those who have not "the root of the matter" in them. It may be profitable to point out some of these.
Persecution frightens some. Our Lord has bid us expect opposition in following him; for "they who will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution." We must "take up the cross" if we follow him; and those who sit not down to count the cost, will be offended when the trial comes. If relations and friends are angry and frown upon them; if superiors and employers withdraw their favours; if their neighbours ridicule and laugh at them, they begin to repent of becoming religious. They regard man more than God, and resolve to be religious only so far as may consist with their worldly ease and advantage. These are the people described by our Lord in the parable of the sower, Matt. xiii. 20. "He that received the seed into stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it. Yet hath he not root in himself, but endureth for a while: for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended."
Worldly pleasures, worldly cares, and worldly connexions make others forsake Christ. The Christian life is a spiritual life. Whoever is led by the Spirit, will not fulfil the lusts of the flesh, nor walk according to the flesh. "If we live after the flesh we perish; but if we, through the Spirit, do mortify the deeds of the body, we shall live." If we are Christians indeed, the world will be crucified to us, and we to the world; and though we are in it, we shall not be of it. But if the professor forgets this, and is drawn by degrees into self-indulgence; if he gets a taste for gaiety and public amusements; if he can visit the playhouse, and sit down at the card-table, he will gradually lose the savour of the gospel; and, finding a manifest contradiction between the two masters he serves, he will soon quit one of them. He cannot follow Christ and the world too.
Excessive cares are almost as dangerous. They distract the mind, and make it unfit for religious duties. They steal away the heart from Christ. Anxiety about the world perplexes the mind; and they who "will be rich," and determine, at all events to make a fortune, usually make such compliances with that view, as are inconsistent with their profession; they "fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition." 1 Tim. vi. 9. Thus our Lord saith, "He also that receiveth seed among thorns, is he that heareth the word; and the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word and he becometh unfruitful."
Worldly connexions ruin others. It is a precept of great importance, but too little regarded; "Be not unequally yoked with unbelievers." Christians should marry "only in the Lord." How many "have made shipwreck of faith and of a good conscience" by neglecting this rule; and by presuming upon their ability both to keep their own ground, and influence their partner also. When Lot was about to leave Sodom, the angels bid him give warning to all his relations of the destruction that was coming; accordingly "he went to his sons-in-law, who married his daughters, and said, Up! get ye out of this place, for the Lord will destroy this city; but he seemed to them as one that mocked." Thus the two daughters who had married carnal men perished, while the two who were with him at home, escaped the fire with their father. Gen. xix.
Familiarity with worldly men has a bad influence on the mind. "They that feared the Lord of old times, spake often one to another;" the primitive Christians were much together, and continued daily in social religion; and while they did so, they were edified and multiplied. But if professors needlessly associate with wicked and vain persons, they will soon resemble them, learn their manners, and go back from Christ.
Negligence in religious duties is another cause of apostasy. The means of grace are of divine appointment; they are wisely calculated to promote the life of God in the soul; and they have the promise of the Lord's blessing to make them effectual. They cannot therefore be slighted without injury. As the body must suffer, if there be not proper attention to wholesome food; so the soul must be injured if prayer be omitted, or carelessly attended to. Declensions in religion usually begin in the closet, then extend to social duties, and at length to the duties of the Sabbath and the house of God. Be not slothful then; but "be diligent;" followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises.
The falls and divisions of some professors have a very ill effect upon others. It is common for beginners in religion to entertain too high an opinion of serious characters, and to place too much confidence in them; and if any of these miscarry, they are hurt, and rashly conclude that there is no reality in religion. But they forget that there was a Judas among the twelve, and in every age there have been apostates; "nevertheless, the foundation of God standeth sure, the Lord knoweth them that are his." But "woe to the world," and to ignorant professors of this sort, "because of offences; for it must needs be that offences come: but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh."
This chapter will furnish us with another common cause of apostasy. We shall find that it was the Doctrine of Christ which offended those "many disciples who went back, and walked no more with him." Let us see what this offensive doctrine was.
The multitude had followed him because of the miraculous entertainment he gave them. This raised their hopes of his being a temporal king, and of their getting rich in his service. Our Lord, who knew their thoughts, directed them to seek not the bread which perisheth, but that which indureth to eternal life; not meat for their bodies, but for their souls. He also declared himself to be that meat; that he came down from heaven; that he would give his flesh for the life of the world; and that except a man should eat his flesh and drink his blood, he could have no life in him: but that whoever should partake of him should never die, but have eternal life.
These high and mysterious declarations confounded and offended them. They murmured when he said he came down from heaven, for they knew Joseph, his reputed father: and having no spiritual ideas of his discourse, they cried, "How can he give us his flesh to eat?” In short, they thought these "hard sayings," not to be understood or believed.
Our Lord still maintained the doctrine of his descent from heaven, and intimated that, ere long, they would see him ascend thither. He told them that eating his flesh was not to be taken in the gross sense of the words, but was to be understood spiritually. He also shows them that their cavils and murmurs arose from the ignorance, corruption, and unbelief of their hearts; and that they needed divine teaching to make them wise to salvation, and that no man could or would come to him, and believe upon him, without superior assistance. "No man can come unto me, except the Father, who sent me, draw him."
These were the sublime and mysterious, but great and glorious truths, which so offended the Jews, and occasioned such a falling off among the disciples.
And is it not just the same to this day? Do we not still find that these doctrines give offence? The claim of Christ to a divine origin is opposed by some. The doctrine of his atonement is rejected by others. And the humbling doctrines of the necessity of divine influences, and of the sovereignty of God in bestowing them where he pleases, are held in abhorrence by many. Talk to men of morality, virtue, and good works, and they will hear you; but speak of grace, of the blood of Christ, of faith in his blood, of being taught of God, and drawn by the Spirit, and then they cry Enthusiasm! Methodism, &c. But let us not be offended at this. It should confirm us in the belief of the truth. And while many go back and follow Christ no more, let us consider him as putting this solemn question to us, "Will ye also go away?"
The question is the language of affection. It speaks the kindness of his loving heart. Our gracious Lord has a real concern for his servants, for his friends, for his brethren; and he is not willing to part with them. But he would have them serve him freely, and without constraint. He keeps no slaves. This question was put to try them, to give them an occasion of reflecting upon their own happiness, and upon the misery of those who had just forsaken him. And it operated accordingly. It gave occasion for the excellent answer of Peter, which we now proceed to consider.
2. Then Simon Peter answered him. Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.
In this answer, we see the character of the man who made it. Peter was bold and forward, but sincere, affectionate, and candid. He speaks in the name of all his brethren, taking it for granted they were all of the same mind; though, alas! there was a Judas, a devil, among them; one who had "no part nor lot in this matter." Peter answers the question of our Lord by another question— To whom shall we go? We seek eternal life, and where can we find it but in thee. It is as if he had said, Whose disciples shall we be if we cease to be thine? Shall we go to the heathen philosophers for instruction? They are become vain in their imaginations: professing themselves to be wise, they are fools in the matter of eternal life. Shall we go to the scribes and Pharisees? They are blind leaders of the blind. Shall we go to Moses? He will send us back to thee. Therefore we will stay where we are: we shall never do better.
It is observable that in Peter's answer, eternal life appears to be the grand object of the disciples; and the reason why they would not forsake Christ is, because he has the words of eternal life. He teaches the true doctrine of eternal life, and he is able and willing to give us eternal life, as his discourse has largely shown. Let it then be remembered that,
Serious thoughts of eternity, and sincere desires for eternal life, have powerful tendency to prevent apostasy.
Serious thoughts of eternity! Alas! how few possess them. In how few do they abide and operate! How few live under the daily impression of the shortness of time, and the length of eternity! Which is as much as to say, How few are believers! For it is the office of faith to look forward to things "not seen," and to be influenced by them as if they were present. And, indeed, this forms the grand distinction between the children of God and the children of this world. He that is of the earth is earthly; he thinks and speaks of earthly things: he that is born of heaven, is heavenly minded. "That which is born of the flesh, is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit, is spirit." And it highly concerns each of us to know which of these is our character. It must be one. There is no middle state. And according to our state here, such will be our state hereafter. If eternal life be not our pursuit, it will never be our portion.
Those who are duly affected with eternal things, will certainly be desirous of instruction. They will seriously inquire how eternal life may be obtained. "What shall we do to be saved?" is the substance of their inquiry. Even the people who forsook Christ asked a question of this kind, ver. 28,— "What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?" Our Lord gave them this plain answer,—"This is the work of God, that ye believe in me." As elsewhere also he declares, "He that believeth on me shall not perish, but have ever lasting life."
Everything that relates to eternal life depends on Jesus. He has the words of eternal life. He discovered it more fully, and revealed it more plainly, than any of the prophets. His gospel gives us a clear account of the blessed life and immortal glory of soul and body in the heavenly world. It shows us the true and spiritual nature of that state, and what will be the business and blessedness of glorified saints. It leaves us to no uncertain conjectures, poetical fancies, or sensual notions of paradise: but clearly describes it as a state of knowledge, purity, and bliss, in the presence of Immanuel, God with us.
The true and only way to eternal life is revealed by Christ. Many ways have been devised by men. A thousand superstitions have been invented by crafty or deluded men, and imposed upon the world as means of obtaining eternal felicity. Every country and every imposter has produced something with this view; and carnal men still ludicrously and profanely talk of every one setting up his own ladder to heaven. But away with all these. Christ has the words of eternal life. "Whither I go," said he to his disciples, "ye know, and the way ye know." John xiv. 4. Thomas, mistaking his meaning, said, "Lord, we know not whither thou goest, and how can we know the way?" This mistake gave occasion for a charming declaration on our Lord's part. "Jesus saith unto him, I am the Way—the Truth—and the Life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me." No words before were ever so plain. The substance of this great truth was indeed taught by sacrifices. These preached the necessity of a Mediator, and showed that without shedding of blood there could be no remission of sins; but it remained for him who is the Truth, the substance of all the Old Testament types, himself to say, I am the Way. Christ by his death opened the gates of heaven. The cross of Christ is the only key that opens the door of glory. "We have boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus." This alludes to the High Priest of the Jews, who once a year went into the holy of holies with the blood of an animal. The way into this was by the veil which separated it from the holy place. Our way to heaven is through the veil of Christ's body, crucified for us. And it is remarkable that, at the time of his death, the veil of the temple was rent in two, without hands, from the top to the bottom; which signified, that every obstruction to our entrance into heaven was removed by the death of Jesus; so that we may now draw near to God, and enter into glory, in full assurance of faith.
The words of Christ are "the words of eternal life " on another account. They are the means and instrument of that new and spiritual life in the soul, whereby it is prepared for eternal life. The words that I speak unto you, said our Lord, verse 63 of this chapter, they are spirit and they are life; they are to be taken not in a carnal, but in a spiritual sense; and they are the means of conveying the Holy Spirit, whose influence is effectual unto spiritual and eternal life. It is by the gospel that "Christ speaketh from heaven," and when the gospel is accompanied with the power of the Spirit, "the dead hear the voice of the Son of God, and live." For this purpose it was that the apostles, though forbidden of men, were commanded of Christ, to "go stand and speak in the temple to the people all the words of this life." By the same words the children of God are directed, established, encouraged, and nourished unto eternal life.
In the view of advantages like these, well might Peter say, "Lord, to whom shall we go?" Eternal life is our aim. Thy words reveal it. Thou showest us the way to it. Thou art thyself the way. Thy word is the seed of life in our souls. Yea, thou art eternal life. To whom then can we go? We cannot, we dare not, we will not forsake thee.
Such, my brethren, are the sentiments of every gracious soul. With such views as these we shall "cleave to the Lord with purpose of heart," and abhor the thoughts of apostasy from him.
Have we come to Christ? Are we in any sense his followers? If not, as we have already said, we cannot forsake him: but our case is no less dangerous. Woe be to those who, in a Christian land, a land of bibles and of sermons, "refuse to hear him that speaketh from heaven." Woe be to us if he should say to us, "Ye will not come unto me that ye might have life." O, consider of it, thoughtless souls. If you would have eternal life—and surely you wish for it—remember you must have the words of eternal life. You must learn the way of life. Yon must be interested in Jesus who is the life. The Lord incline you, while it is called to-day, to hear his voice and live.
What we have heard of the words of life should endear them to us. The doctrines of grace are not idle speculations, or needless disputings about words and names; they are not a vain thing; they are words of life. O then "let the word of Christ dwell in us richly," let us lay it up in our hearts, and prize it above our chief treasure.
And now let us consider Christ himself as putting this question to each one of us—Wilt thou go away? Others do. We live in a day when great numbers do. Like the apostate Jews referred to in our text, their carnal minds, filled with reasoning pride, reject the gospel, revile the scriptures, deny Christ, and renounce the very name of Christian. The Lord pity them, and bring them back again to his fold! But wilt thou also go away? O consider well before you go. To whom will you go? Will you go to the modern philosophers? Not for eternal life surely. They say there is no such thing; and if you do want eternal life, where will you find it but in Jesus; Will you go back into the world? Alas! it is vain, and will deceive you. Will you return to sin and folly? It will insure your eternal death. Resolve then with Peter to cleave to Christ.
But pray for preserving grace. Be sensible of your weakness, and pray—"Lord, leave me not to my own will. To be willing to go away and leave thee, is to be willing to perish; and I shall infallibly be willing to do it, if thou leavest my will to itself." You must watch and pray continually. Resist the first motions to coldness, negligence, and apostasy. Guard against the seductions of the world, and the bewitching pleasures of sin. And may God fulfil his gracious promise—"I will put my fear in their heart, that they shall not depart from me."
"Lord, thou alone hast pow'r, I know,
To save a wretch like me;
To whom, or whither could I go,
If I should turn from thee?
"No voice but thine can give me rest,
And bid my fears depart;
No love but thine can make me bless'd,
And satisfy my heart.
"What anguish has that question stirr'd,
If I will also go?
Yet, Lord, relying on thy word,
I humbly answer—No."