Sensual and Spiritual Excitement*

Guest Writer Frederick W Robertson

“Be not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is; be not drunk with wine, in which is excess, but be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:17, 18).

Preached at Trinity Chapel, Brighton, England, 4 August 1850

There is evidently a connection between the different branches of this sentence (“Be not unwise,” “understand what the will of the Lord is,” “be not drunk with wine,” “be filled with the Spirit”), for ideas that have not some connection cannot be properly contrasted—but what that connection is, is at first sight unclear. It almost appears like a profane and irreverent juxtaposition to contrast fullness of the Spirit with fullness of wine.

Moreover, the passage’s context is antithetical. Ideas are opposed to each other in pairs of contraries. So, there must be an antithesis between drunkenness and spiritual fullness. In one, intensity of feeling is produced by stimulating the senses; in the other, by vivifying the inner spiritual life. One commences with external impulses; the other, by something within. One is ruin; the other, salvation. One degrades; the other exalts.

This contrast, then, is our subject for today.


• The first point of resemblance is intoxication. On the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on the early church, believers were “filled with the Spirit” (Acts 2:4), and mocking bystanders interpreted what they saw as “These men are full of new wine” (2:13). Recipients found themselves elevated into the ecstasy of a life higher than their own, possessed of a Power they could not control. They spoke “with other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (2:4).

Jews from across the known world (2:5, 9-11), speaking various languages, were there assembled for the Feast of Pentecost. For the most part they could not communicate without an interpreter. But suddenly, when the Spirit came, “every man heard those filled with the Spirit speak in his own language” (2:6). They were amazed and marveled. “Aren’t those who speak Galileans? How hear we every man in our own tongue? … We do hear them speak in our languages the wonderful works of God” (2:7-11).

Now compare with this the impression produced on savages by the spectacle of intoxication. Spectators see a man under the influence of a force. To them the bacchanal [drunk] appears half-inspired; his frenzy seems a thing for reverence and awe, rather than for horror and disgust; the spirit that possesses him must be divine; they deify it and worship it under different names as a god.

Even to a clearer insight the effects are wonderfully similar. It is almost proverbial among soldiers that the daring produced by wine is easily mistaken for the boldness of a brave heart.

The play of imagination in the brain of the opium-eater is as free as that of genius itself, and the creations produced in that state by the pen or pencil are as wildly beautiful as those owed to the nobler influences.

In years gone by, the oratory of the statesman in the senate has been kindled by semi-intoxication, while his noble utterances were credited by his auditors to the inspiration of patriotism. It is this very resemblance that deceives the drunkard. He is led on by his feelings as well as by his imagination. It is not the sensual pleasure of the glutton that fascinates him; it is those quickened sensibilities excited in that state that he is powerless to produce by his own powers. The experience of our first parent is repeated in him: at the moment he expects to find himself as the gods, knowing good and evil, he discovers that he is unexpectedly degraded, his health wrecked, and his heart demoralized.

The finer, as well as the baser, spirits of our race are victims of such indulgence. You may remember the names of talented men who were victims of these deceptive influences: painters, poets, musicians, who began by soothing opiates to calm the overexcited nerves or stimulate the exhausted brain, who mistook the sensation for inspiration, and who became, moral, physical, and mental wrecks.

It was, therefore, no mere play of words that induced the apostle to bring these two things together: being drunk with wine versus being filled with the Spirit. That which might otherwise seem irreverent appears to have been a deep knowledge of human nature. Paul contrasts the two to distinguish two things easily mistaken for each other.

• The second point of resemblance is the necessity of intense feeling. We have fullness—fullness, it may be, produced by outward stimulus, or else by an outpouring of the Spirit. What we want is “life,” and that “more abundantly” (John 10:10). To escape from monotony, to get away from the life of mere routine and habits, to feel that we are alive—with more of surprise and wakefulness in our existence. To have less of the gelid [cold], torpid [lethargic], tortoise-like existence. “To feel the years before us.” To be consciously existing.

Now this desire lies at the bottom of many forms of life which are apparently as diverse as possible. It constitutes the fascination of the gambler’s life: money is not what he wants—if he possessed thousands today, he would risk them all tomorrow—but being perpetually on the brink of enormous wealth and utter ruin, he is compelled to realize at every moment the possibility of the extremes of life. Every moment is one of intense feeling.

This “living on the edge” constitutes the charm of all those forms of life in which the gambling feeling is predominant—where a sense of skill is blended with a mixture of chance. If you ask the statesman why it is, that possessed as he is of wealth, he quits his princely home for the dark metropolis, he would reply that he loves the excitement of a political existence.

It is this, too, that gives to the warrior’s and the traveler’s existence such peculiar reality; and it is this, in a far lower form, that stimulates the pleasure of a fashionable life—that sends the votaries [those who have taken vows] of the world in a constant round from the capital to the watering-place, and from the watering-place to the capital. What they crave is intense feeling.

Now the proper outlet for this feeling is the life of the Spirit. What is religion but fuller life? To “live in the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25): what is it but to have keener feelings and mightier powers—to rise to a higher consciousness of life? What is religion’s self but feeling? The highest form of religion is charity (1 Corinthians 13:13). “Love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7). This is an intense feeling, too intense to be excited, profound in its calmness, yet it rises at times in its higher flights into that ecstatic life that glances in a moment intuitively through ages. These are the Pentecostal hours of our existence,when the Spirit comes “as a mighty rushing wind,” “in cloven tongues of fire,” “filling the soul with God” (Acts 2:2-4).


• The one fullness begins from without, the other from within. The one proceeds from the flesh and then influences the emotions. The other reverses this order. Stimulants like wine inflame the senses, and through them set the imaginations and feelings on fire; and the law of our spiritual being is that what begins with the flesh sensualizes the spirit whereas what commences in the spirit spiritualizes the senses. The misfortune is that men mistake this law of their emotions. And the fatal error is that, having found spiritual feelings existing in connection with fleshly sensations, men expect by the mere irritation of the emotions to reproduce those high and glorious feelings ….

Now it is from this point of thought that we learn to extend the apostle’s principle. Wine is only one specimen of a class of stimulants. All that begins from without belongs to the same class. The stimulus may be afforded by almost any enjoyment of the senses. Drunkenness [obsession] may come from any excess: from overindulgence in society, in pleasure, in music, and in the delight of listening to oratory, pay, even from the excitement of sermons and religious meetings. The prophet tells us of those who are drunken, and not with wine (Isaiah 29:9).

• The other point of difference is one of effect. Fullness of the Spirit calms; fullness produced by excitement satiates and exhausts …. The terrific punishment attached to the habitual indulgence of the senses is diminishing returns: it takes more and more to satisfy less and less. Experience at last forbids even the hope of enjoyment. The irritated sense, like an avenging fury, goads on with a restlessness of craving, though it has ceased to charm.

To this danger our own age is peculiarly exposed. In the primitive times, the need of keen feeling finds a natural and safe outlet in compulsory work. For instance, in warfare and survival, soldiering and healthy labor stimulate without exhausting life. But as civilization advances, a large class of the community are exempted from the necessity of work and are thrown into a life of leisure. Then it is that artificial life begins, and artificial expedients, like amusements and literature, become necessary to sharpen the monotony of existence. The resulting cultivated life is no longer a thing proceeding from inner resources, but sustained by new external impulses.

There is one peculiar form of this danger to which I would specially direct your attention. There is one nation in Europe which, more than any other, has been subjected to sensual influences. In ages of revolution, nations live fast; centuries of life are passed in fifty years of time. In such a state, individuals become subjected more or less to the influences around them. Scarcely an enjoyment or a book can be met that does not bear the impress of this intensity.

Now, the particular danger to which I allude is French novels, French romances, and French plays. The overflowing of that cup of excitement has reached our shores. I do not say that these works contain anything coarse or gross—better if it were so: evil that comes in a form of grossness is not nearly so dangerous as that which comes veiled in gracefulness and sentiment. In French literature subjects that are better not touched on at all are discussed, examined, and exhibited in all the most seductive forms of imagery. You would be shocked at seeing your son in a fit of intoxication; yet, I say it solemnly, better that your son should reel through the streets in a fit of drunkeness, than that the delicacy of your daughter’s mind should be injured, and her imagination inflamed, with false fire. Twenty-four hours will terminate the evil in the one case. Twenty-four hours will not exhaust the effects of the other.

I speak that which I do know; and if the earnest warning of one who has seen the dangers of which he speaks realized, can reach the heart of one Christian parent, he will put a ban on all such works, and not suffer his children’s hearts to be excited by a drunkenness that is worse than that of wine. For the worst of it is, that the men of our time are not yet alive to this growing evil; they are elsewhere—in their studies, counting-houses, professions—not knowing the food, or rather poison, on which the wife’s and daughter’s intellectual life is sustained. It is precisely those who are most unfitted to sustain the danger, whose feelings need restraint instead of spur, and whose imaginations are most inflammable, that are specially exposed to it.

• On the other hand, spiritual life calms while it fills. True it is that there are Pentecostal moments when such life reaches the stage of ecstasy. But these were given to the Church to prepare her for suffering, to give her martyrs a glimpse of blessedness to sustain them in their terrible struggles. True it is that there are Pentecostal hours when the soul is surrounded by a kind of glory, and we are tempted to make tabernacles on the mount (cf Matthew 17:4), as if life were meant for rest; but out of that very cloud there comes a voice (cf 17:5) telling of the Cross, and bidding us descend into the common world again, to simple duties and humble life. This very principle seems to be contained in the text. The apostle’s remedy for this artificial feeling is “speaking to one another in psalms and hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:19).

Strange remedy! Occupation fit for children—too simple far for men: as astonishing as the remedy prescribed by the prophet to Naaman (2 Kings 5:10)—to wash in simple water, and be clean; yet here lies an important truth. In ancient medical phraseology, herbs possessed of healing natures were called simples; in God’s laboratory, all things that heal are simple—all natural enjoyments, all the deepest, are simple too. At night, man fills his banquet-hall with the glare of splendor, which fevers as well as fires the heart; and at the very same hour, as if they intended contrast, the quiet stars of God steal forth, shedding, together with the deepest feeling, the profoundest sense of calm ….

The meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
~William Wordsworth (1806)

This is exceedingly remarkable in the life of Christ. No contrast is more striking than that presented by the thought that that deep and beautiful life was spent in the midst of mad Jerusalem. Remember the Son of Man walking quietly in Solomon’s porch (John 10:22, 23), when the streets all around were filled with the revelry of innumerable multitudes, who had come to be present at the annual feast. Remember Him pausing to weep over his country’s doomed metropolis (Luke 19:41), unexcited, while the giddy crowd around Him was shouting “Hosannah to the Son of David!” (19:37, 38; Matthew 21:15). Remember Him in Pilate’s judgment-hall, meek, self-possessed, standing in the serenity of truth, while all around Him was agitation—hesitation in the breast of Pilate, hatred in the bosom of the Pharisees, and consternation in the heart of the disciples.

And this, in truth, is what we want: we want the vision of a calmer and simpler beauty, to tranquilize us in the midst of artificial tastes; we want the draught of a purer spring to cool the flame of our excited life; we want, in other words, the Spirit of the life of Christ, simple, natural, with power to calm and soothe the feelings that it rouses: the fullness of the Spirit that can refresh but never stupify!

“If any occupation or association is found to hinder our communion with God or our enjoyment of spiritual things, then it must be abandoned … or burned. Whatever I cannot do for God’s glory must be avoided.” ~AW Pink

Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit: Hole of Horcum, North York Moors National Park, England

*Adapted from Frederick W Robertson [1816-1853], Sermons Preached at Brighton / Third Series (London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co, 1884), sermon 9. Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.


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