Guest Writer Frederick W Robertson
“For whoever is born of God overcomes the world: and this is the victory that overcomes the world, even our faith. Who is he that overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:4, 5).
Preached at Trinity Chapel, Brighton, England, 5 May 1850
There are two words in the system of Christianity that have received a meaning so new, and so emphatic, as to be in a way peculiar to it, and to distinguish it from all other systems of morality and religion: world and faith.
• World. We find it written in Scripture that to have the friendship of the world is to be “the enemy of God” (James 4:4). Thus, the question arises, The world? Didn’t God make the world? Did He not place us in the world? Are we not to love what God has made? And yet meeting this distinctly we have the inspired record, “Love not the world” (1 John 2:15).
The object of the statesman is, or ought to be, to produce as much worldly prosperity as possible—but Christianity, that is Christ, speaks little of this world’s prosperity, even underrates it—nay, speaks of it at times as infinitely dangerous.
The legislator prohibits crime; the moralist, transgression; the religionist, sin. To these Christianity adds a new enemy: the world and the things of the world. “If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (2:15).
• Faith. The other word used in a peculiar sense is faith. It is impossible for anyone to have read his Bible ever so negligently, and not to be aware that the word faith, or the grace of faith, forms a large element in the Christian system. It is said to work miracles, remove mountains, justify the soul, and trample on impossibilities. Every apostle, in his way, assigns to faith a primary importance. Jude tells us to “build up ourselves in our most holy faith” (Jude 20). John tells us that “he who believes that Jesus is the Christ, is the born of God” (1 John 5:1). Paul tells us that, not by merit nor by works, but by trust or reliance only, can man be justified before God (Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11). In these expressions, the apostles only develop their Master’s meaning, when He made such statements as “All things are possible to him who believes” (Mark 9:23) and “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31).
These two words, world and flesh, are brought into diametrical opposition in the text, so that it branches into a twofold line of thought: (1) the enemy of the world and (2) the victory of faith.
THE ENEMY OF THE WORLD
In endeavoring to understand, first, what is meant by the world, we shall feel that the mass of evil which is comprehended under this expression, cannot be told in any one sermon; it is an expression used in various ways, sometimes meaning one thing, sometimes meaning another;-but we will endeavor to explain its general principles—and these we will divide into three heads: (1) the tyranny of the present, (2) the tyranny of the sensual, and (3) the spirit of society.
• The tyranny of the present. “Christ,” says the Apostle Paul, “has delivered us from this present evil world” (Galatians 1:4) and again, “Demas has forsaken me, having loved this, present world” (2 Timothy 4:10).
Let a stress be laid on the word present. Worldliness is the attractive power of something present, in opposition to something to come. It is this rule and tyranny of the present that constitutes Demas a worldly man.
In this respect, worldliness is the spirit of childhood carried on into manhood. The child lives in the present hour—today to him is everything. The holiday promised at a distant interval is no holiday at all—it must be either now or never. Natural in the child, and therefore pardonable, this spirit, when carried on into manhood, is coarse—is worldliness. The most distinct illustration given us of this, is the case of Esau. Esau came from the hunting-field worn and hungry; the only means of procuring the tempting mess of his brother’s pottage was the sacrifice of his father’s blessing, which in those ages carried with it a substantial advantage; but that birthright could be enjoyed only after years—the pottage was present, near, and certain (Genesis 25:29-34); therefore he sacrificed a future and higher blessing, for a present and lower pleasure. For this reason Esau is the Bible type of worldliness: he is called in Scripture “profane” (Hebrews 12:16); that is, not a distinctly vicious, but a secular or worldly person—an overgrown child, impetuous, inconsistent, not without gleams of generosity and kindliness, but insisting on immediate gratification.
In this worldliness, moreover, is to be remarked the gamester’s desperate play. There is a gambling spirit in human nature. Esau distinctly expresses this: “Behold I am at the point to die, and what shall my birthright profit me?” (Genesis 25:32). He might never live to enjoy his birthright; but the pottage was before him, present, certain, there.
Now, observe the utter powerlessness of mere preaching to cope with this tyrannical power of the present. Forty thousand pulpits throughout the land this day will declaim against the vanity of riches, the uncertainty of life, the sin of worldliness—against the gambling spirit of human nature; I ask what impression will be produced by those forty thousand harangues? In every congregation it is reducible to a certainty that before a year has passed, some will be numbered with the dead. Every man knows this, but he thinks the chances are that it will not be himself; he feels it a solemn thing for humanity generally—but for himself there is more than a chance. On this chance he plays away life.
It is so with the child: you tell him of the consequences of today’s idleness—but the sun is shining brightly, and he cannot sacrifice today’s pleasure, though he knows the disgrace it will bring tomorrow. So it is with the intemperate man: he says, “Sufficient to the day is the evil, and its good; let me have my portion now.” So that one great secret of the world’s victory lies in the mighty power of saying “Now.”
• The tyranny of the sensual. I call it tyranny because the evidences of the senses are all powerful, in spite of the protestations of the reason. In vain you try to persuade the child that he is the one moving, and not the trees that seem to flit past the carriage. In vain we remind ourselves that this apparently solid earth on which we stand, and which seems so immovable, is in reality flying through the regions of space with an inconceivable rapidity. In vain philosophers would persuade us that the color the eye beholds resides not in the object itself, but in our perception. We are victims of the apparent, and the verdict of the senses is taken instead of the verdict of the reason.
Precisely so is it with the enjoyments of the world. The man who died yesterday, and whom the world called a successful man—for what did he live? He lived for this world—he gained this world. Houses, lands, name, position in society—all that earth could give of enjoyments—he had: he was the man of whom the Redeemer said that his thoughts were occupied in planning how to pull down his barns and build greater (Luke 12:18). We hear men complain of the sordid love of gold, but gold is merely a medium of exchange for other things: gold is land, titles, name, comfort—all that the world can give. If the world be all, it is wise to live for gold.
There may be some little difference in the degree of degradation in different forms of worldliness; it is possible that the ambitious man who lives for power is somewhat higher than he who merely lives for applause, and he again may be a trifle higher than the mere seeker after gold—but after all, looking closely at the matter, you will find that, in respect of the objects of their idolatry, they agree in this, that all belong to the present. Therefore, says the apostle, “all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but of the world” (1 John 2:16), and are only various forms of one great tyranny. And then when such a man is at the brink of death, the words said to the man in our Lord’s parable must be said to him. “You fool, the houses you have built, the enjoyments you have prepared; and all those things that have formed your life for years—when your soul is taken from them, what will they profit you?” (cf Luke 12:20).
• The spirit of society. World has various meanings in Scripture; it does not always mean the Visible, as opposed to the Invisible; nor the Present, as opposed to the Future: it sometimes stands for the secular spirit of the day—the Voice of Society.
Our Savior says, “If you were of the world, the world would love its own” (John 15:19). The apostle says, “Be not conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2); and to the Gentiles he writes, “In time past you walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit which now works in the children of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:2). In these verses, a tone, a temper, a spirit is spoken of. There are two things—the Church and the World—two spirits pervading different bodies of men, brought before us in these verses—those called the Spirit-born, and those called the World, which is to be overcome by the Spirit-born: “Whatever is born of God overcomes the world” (1 John 5:4).
Let us understand what is meant by the Church of God (cf 1 Corinthians 15:9; Galatians 1:13). When we speak of the Church, we generally mean a society to aid men in their progress Godward; but the Church of God is by no means coextensive in any age with that organized institution we call the Church; sometimes it is nearly coextensive—that is, nearly all on earth who are born of God are found in it, nearly all who are of the world are extraneous to it—but sometimes the born of God have been found distinct from the institution called the Church, opposed to it—persecuted by it. The earthly Church is a blessed ordinance of God, organized for the purpose of representing the eternal Church and of extending its limits, but still subordinate to it.
The eternal Church is “the general assembly and church of the firstborn which are written in heaven” (Hebrews 12:23), the selected spirits of the most High, who are struggling with the evil of their day; sometimes alone, like Elijah, and like him, longing that their work was done; sometimes conscious of their union with each other. God is continuously raising up a succession of these—His brave, His true, His good. Apostolic succession, as taught sometimes, means simply this—a succession of miraculous powers flowing in a certain line. The true apostolic succession is—not a succession in an hereditary line, or line marked by visible signs that men can identify, but a spiritual succession.
The Jews looked for an hereditary succession; they thought that because they were Abraham’s seed, the spiritual succession was preserved; John the Baptist told them that “God was able of those stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Matthew 3:9). Therefore, this spiritual succession is in the hands of God alone; and they are here called the God-born, coming into the world variously qualified; sometimes baptized with a spirit that makes them, like James and John, the sons of thunder (Mark 3:17); sometimes with a milder spirit, as Barnabas, that makes them sons of consolation (Acts 4:36); sometimes having their souls indurated [formed] into an adamantine [unbreakable] hardness that makes them living stones—rocks like Peter, against which the billows of this world dash themselves in vain, and against which “the gates of hell shall not prevail” (Matthew 16:18). But whether as apostles, or visitors of the poor, or parents of a family, born to do a work on earth, to speak a word, to discharge a mission, which they themselves perhaps do not know till it is accomplished—these are the Church of God—the children of the Most High—the noble army of the Spirit-born!
Opposed to this stands the mighty confederacy called the World. But beware of fixing on individual men to stigmatize as the world. You may not draw a line and say, “We are the sons of God, you are the sons of the world.” The world is not so much individual as it is a certain spirit; the course of this world is “the spirit that now works in the children of disobedience” (Ephesians 2:2). The World and the Church are annexed as inseparably as the elements that compose the atmosphere. Take the smallest portion of this that you will, in a cubic inch the same proportions are found as in a temple. In Noah’s ark there was a Ham; in the small band of the twelve apostles there was a Judas.
The spirit of the world is forever changing—impalpable; forever eluding, in fresh forms, your attempts to seize it. In the days of Noah, the spirit of the world was violence (Genesis 6:11). In Elijah’s day it was idolatry (1 Kings 16:29-33). In the day of Christ it was power concentrated and condensed in the government of Rome (Luke 2:1). In ours, perhaps, it is the love of money (1 Timothy 6:10). It enters in different proportions into different bosoms; it is found in a different form in contiguous towns; in the fashionable watering place, and in the commercial city: it is one thing at Athens, and another in Corinth. This is the spirit of the world—a thing in my heart and yours: to be struggled against, not so much in the case of others, as in the silent battleground of our own souls.
THE VICTORY OF FAITH
Faith is a theological expression; we are apt to forget that it has any other than a theological import; yet it is the commonest principle of man’s daily life, called in that region prudence, enterprise, or some such name. It is, in effect, the principle on which alone any human superiority can be gained. Faith, in religion, is the same principle as faith in worldly matters, differing only in its object: it rises through successive stages. When, in reliance on your promise, your child gives up the half-hour’s idleness of today for the holiday of tomorrow, he lives by faith; a future supersedes the present pleasure. When he abstains from overindulgence of the appetite, in reliance on your word, that the result will be pain and sickness, sacrificing the present pleasure for fear of future punishment, he acts on faith: I do not say that this is a high exercise of faith—it is a low one—but it is faith.
Once more: the same motive of action may be carried on into manhood; in our own times two religious principles have been exemplified in the subjugation of a vice. The habit of intoxication has been broken by an appeal to the principle of combination, and the principle of belief. Men were taught to feel that they were not solitary stragglers against the vice; they were enrolled in a mighty army, identified in principles and interests. Here was the principle of the Church—association for reciprocated strength; they were thus taught the inevitable result of the indulgence of the vice. The missionaries of temperance went through the country contrasting the wretchedness, degradation, and filth of drunkenness with the domestic comfort, health, and regular employment of those who were masters of themselves. So far as men believed this, and gave up the tyranny of the present for the hope of the future—so far they lived by faith.
Brethren, I do not say that this was a high triumph for the principle of faith; it was in fact, little more than selfishness; it was a high future balanced against a low present; only the preference of a future and higher physical enjoyment to a mean and lower one. Yet still to be ruled by this influence raises a man in the scale of being: it is a low virtue, prudence, a form of selfishness; yet prudence is a virtue. The merchant, who forecasts, saves, denies himself systematically through years, to amass a fortune, is not a lofty being; yet he is higher, as a man, than he who is sunk in mere bodily gratification. You would not say that the intemperate man—who has become temperate merely to gain honor and happiness—is a great man, but you would say he was a higher and a better man than he who is enslaved by his passions, or than the gambler who improvidently stakes all on a moment’s throw. The worldly mother who plans for the advancement of a family, and sacrifices solid enjoyments for a splendid alliance, is only worldly wise, yet in that maneuvering and worldly prudence there is the exercise of a self-control that raises her above the mere giddy pleasure-hunter of the hour; for want of self-control is the weakness of our nature—to restrain, to wait, to control present feeling with a large foresight, is human strength.
Once more, instead of a faith like that of the child, which overleaps a few hours, or that of the worldly man, which overpasses years, there may be a faith that transcends the whole span of life, and, instead of looking for temporal enjoyments looks for eternal rewards.
This is again a step. The child has sacrificed a day; the man has sacrificed a little more. Faith has now reached a stage that deserves to be called religious; not that this, however, is grand; it does but prefer a happiness hereafter to a happiness here—an eternal well-being instead of a temporal well-being; it is but prudence on a grand scale—another form of selfishness—an anticipation of infinite rewards instead of finite, and not the more noble because of the infinitude of the gain; and yet this is what is often taught as religion in books and sermons. We are told that sin is wrong, because it will make us miserable hereafter. Guilt is represented as the shortsightedness that barters for a home on earth—a home in heaven.
In the textbook of ethics studied in one of our universities, virtue is defined as “that which is done at the command of God for the sake of an eternal reward.” So then, religion is nothing more than a calculation of infinite and finite quantities; vice is nothing more than a grand imprudence; and heaven is nothing more than selfishness rewarded with eternal well-being!
Yet this, you will observe, is a necessary step in the development of faith. Faith is the conviction “that God is a rewarder of them who diligently seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6); and there is a moment in human progress when the anticipated rewards and punishments must be of a Muslim character—the happiness of the senses. It was thus that the Jews were disciplined; out of a coarse, rude, infantile state, they were educated by rewards and punishments to abstain from present sinful gratification: at first, the promise of the life which now is; afterward, the promise of that which is to come. But even then the rewards and punishments of a future state were spoken of, by inspiration itself, as of an arbitrary character; and some of the best of the Israelites, in looking to “the recompense of reward” (Hebrews 10:35), seemed to have anticipated, coarsely, recompense in exchange for duties performed.
Last is that which alone deserves to be called Christian faith—“Who is he that overcomes the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Christ?” (1 John 5:5). The difference between the faith of the Christian and that of the man of the world, or the mere ordinary religionist, is not a difference in mental operation, but in the object of the faith—to believe that Jesus is the Christ is the peculiarity of Christian faith.
The anticipated heaven of the Christian differs from the anticipated heaven of any other man, not in the distinctness with which its imagery is perceived, but in the kind of objects hoped for. The apostle has told us the character of heaven. “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has it entered into the heart of man to conceive the things God has prepared for them that love Him. But God has revealed them to us by His Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:9, 10)—which glorious words are sometimes strangely misinterpreted, as if the apostle merely meant rhetorically to exalt the conception of the heavenly world, as of something beyond all power to imagine or to paint. The apostle meant something infinitely deeper: the heaven of God is not only that which “eye has not seen,” but that which eye can never see; its glories are not of beauty for the eye, or melody for the ear—not such joys as genius in its most gifted hour (here called “the heart of man”) can invent or imagine: it is something these sensuous organs of ours never can appreciate—bliss of another kind altogether, revealed to the spirit of man by the Spirit of God—joys such as spirit alone can receive.
Do you ask what these are? “The fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance” (Galatians 5:22). That is heaven, and therefore the apostle tells us that he alone who “believes that Jesus is the Christ,” and only he, feels that. What is it to “believe that Jesus is the Christ”? It is to believe that He is the Anointed One, that His life is the anointed life, the only blessed life, the blessed life divine for thirty years; and if so, the blessed life still, continued throughout all eternity. Unless you believe that, you do not believe that Jesus is the Christ.
What is the blessedness that you expect? to have the joys of earth with the addition of the element of eternity? Men think that heaven is to be a compensation for earthly loss: the saints are earthly-wretched here, the children of this world are earthly-happy; but that, they think, will be all reversed—Lazarus, beyond the grave, will have the purple and the fine linen, the splendor, and the houses and the lands that Dives had on earth (Luke 16:19-31): the one had them for time, the other will have them for eternity. That is the heaven that men expect—this earth sacrificed now that it may be treasured forever.
Nor will this expectation be reversed except by a reversal of the nature. None can anticipate such a heaven as God has revealed, except they that are born of the Spirit; therefore, to believe that Jesus is the Christ, a man must be born of God (John 3:3). You will observe that no other victory overcomes the world: for this is what John means by saying, “Who is he that overcomes the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Christ?” For then it comes to pass that a man begins to feel that to do wrong is hell; and that to love God, to be like God, to have the mind of Christ, is the only heaven. Until this victory is gained, the world retains its stronghold in the heart.
Do you think that the temperate man has overcome the world, who, instead of the short-lived rapture of intoxication, chooses regular employment, health, and prosperity? Is it not the world in another form that has his homage? Or do you suppose that the so-called religious man is the world’s conqueror by being content to give up seventy years of enjoyment to win innumerable ages of the same species of enjoyment? Has he not only made earth a hell that earthly things may be his heaven forever?
Thus, the victory of faith proceeds from stage to stage: the first victory takes place when the present is conquered by the future; the last, when the visible and sensual are despised in comparison of the invisible and eternal. Then earth has lost its power forever; for if all that it has to give be lost eternally, the gain of faith is still infinite.
“If we thirst for life and love eternity, it is likely that there are an eternal life and an eternal love to satisfy that craving.” ~Frederick W Robertson
Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee
*Adapted from Frederick W Robertson [1816-1853], Sermons Preached at Brighton / Third Series (London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co, 1884), sermon 2. Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.