by W.T.G. Shedd
THIS is one of the most comforting and encouraging passages in the whole Scripture, to a doubting and anxious Christian. There is one instance upon record, in which it proved a strong support and consolation in an hour of great need. The late Dr. Arnold of Rugby, one of the most serious-minded and earnest men which England has produced in this century, was suddenly summoned to meet death and judgment. In the midst of perfect health he was attacked with spasm of the heart, and learned that in a moment he would be called into the infinitely holy presence of his Maker. He knew what this meant; for the immaculate purity of God was a subject that had profoundly impressed his spiritual and ethical mind. He felt the need of mercy at the prospect of seeing God face to face; and as he lay upon his death-bed, still, thoughtful, and absorbed in silent prayer, all at once he repeated, firmly and earnestly: “And Jesus said unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me thou hast believed: blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have believed.”1 Here is an actual case in which a single text operated like a cordial; and a case, too, in which there was no fanaticism or self-delusion. For Arnold’s mind was highly intellectual, and its natural tendency apart from the influences of Christianity was to criticism and skepticism. He was an Aristotelian in his mental type, and in all his scholarship and culture. But after an earnest Christian life, in the hour of sudden death, from which the litany of the Church which he honored and loved prays, “Good Lord, deliver us,” he pillowed his head upon this blessed declaration of the Redeemer, and went to his rest. Let us, therefore, approach this text and this subject as no mere abstraction, but as one that has actually been efficacious and consoling in the supreme hour of a celebrated man.
This passage of Scripture suggests a comparison between faith aided by sight, and faith independent of sight. How does the faith of the Church in an age of miracles differ from its faith when miracles have ceased? In answering this question, we propose, in the first place, to notice some of the advantages that were enjoyed by those who dwelt under the miraculous dispensation; and in the second place, to consider the advantages experienced since the days of miracles.
I. In the first place, then, what were some of the advantages enjoyed by those who lived and served God in the times of miracle?
They may all be summed up in the remark, that to a considerable extent the pious patriarch, and the pious Jew, and the first Christians, walked by sight. They believed because they saw. By this we do not mean that the ancient believer walked wholly by sight. Noah was “warned of God of things not seen as yet.” Abraham went out of his old home “not knowing whither he went.” And that long list of worthies mentioned in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, is represented as acting without assistance from the objects of time and sense, in the particular instances that are specified. But we mean to say that, comparing these forerunners of ours with ourselves, and taking into the account the whole course of their lives, they were much more aided by sight than we are.
For it was an age and dispensation of supernaturalism. God was frequently breaking in upon the ordinary course of events, and proving his existence by his visible presence. Who could doubt the doctrine of the Divine existence, who could be an atheist, as he stood under Mount Sinai and heard a voice that shook the earth and heavens saying: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me?” Who could query respecting the possibility of miracles, when he saw the waters of the Red Sea rising up like a wall upon each side of him; when he saw a dead man revived to life upon touching the bones of Elisha; when he saw, as Hezekiah did, the shadow go back ten degrees upon the sundial; when he heard Christ call up Lazarus from the tomb, and when he looked down into the vacant sepulchre of the crucified Son of God?
Now there was something in this, unquestionably, that rendered faith in God’s existence and God’s power comparatively easy to the ancient believer. The senses, when appealed to in this striking manner, by the exhibition of supernatural energy, are a very great aid to faith. Seeing is believing. Jacob, for example, must have found it no difficult thing to believe and trust in a Being who was every now and then speaking to him, directing him into new paths and places, watching over him, and delivering him from difficulties and dangers. Such a communication as that which he received from the mouth of God in the wonderful dream at Bethel, must have filled him with an unwavering belief in both the existence and the kindness of God.
How differently the believer of the present time is situated, in this respect, it is needless to say. If we suppose miracles to have ceased with. the age of the Apostles, then for eighteen hundred years there has been no exertion of miraculous power upon the part of God in the affairs of his Church. Generation after generation of Christians has come and gone, but no celestial sign has been given to them. They have believed that God is, and is the rewarder of those that diligently seek him, but they have never seen his shape nor heard his voice. They have had strong faith in the immortality of the soul, and the reality of a future life, but no soul has ever returned from the invisible world to give them ocular demonstration, and make their assurance doubly sure. In some instances, this reticence upon the part of God, this silence century after century, has produced an almost painful uncertainty, and wakened the craving for some palpable evidence of unseen realities. That interesting man, John Foster, is an example of this. “They never come back to tell us; they never come back to tell us,” was his passionate ejaculation upon thinking of the impenetrable cloud which envelops those who have departed this life. And all these spasmodic and baffled attempts of the false spiritualism of this day, and of former days, are another testimony to the craving natural to man for some miraculous tokens and signs. Skeptics contend that the miracle is irrational. But, certainly, nothing is irrational for which there is a steady and constant demand upon the part of human nature. The hankering which man, in all ages and in all varieties of civilization, has shown for the supernatural, proves the supernatural — as the universal hunger for bread proves that there is bread, and as the steady and continual thirst for water proves that there is water. Otherwise, there is mockery in creation. Man as a religious being expects and must have some sensible signs from another world; and therefore there has never been a religion of any general prevalence which has not had its miracles, pretended or real. The ancient Paganism, and the modern Mohammedanism, equally with the Jewish and Christian religions, claim authority upon the ground of celestial credentials.
Our brethren, then, of the Patriarchal, the Jewish, and the Early Christian times, enjoyed this advantage over us. The aids of the senses were granted to them in the exercise of faith. They were not shut up as we are to a purely mental and spiritual act. “Because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed,” might have been said to them all, as Christ said it to Thomas.
II. But our Lord said to his doubting disciple: “Blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have believed.” In this remark, he evidently implies that those who believe in him and his word without the aid of those sensible manifestations which were enjoyed by Thomas and his fellow-disciples, receive a greater blessing than they did. Let us then consider, in the second place, some of the advantages which the Church of God experiences in these latter days, when there is no miracle to assist their faith.
1. In the first place, believing without seeing is a stronger faith than believing because of sight; and the stronger the faith, the greater the blessedness. If Thomas had put credit in the affirmation of the other disciples that they had seen the Lord, and had not insisted upon seeing for himself the print of the nails, and putting his finger into the print of the nails, it is evident that his faith in the Divine person and power of Christ would have been greater than it actually was. For Christ had foretold him, in common with his fellow disciples, that he was to be crucified, and on the third day after his crucifixion would rise from the dead. Thomas had already witnessed the crucifixion, and knew that this part of his Lord’s prophecy was fulfilled. If, now, he had exercised an implicit confidence in the remainder of Christ’s prophecy, the instant that the other disciples informed him that they had seen the Lord, he would have believed them. But his doubt, and his demand to see and touch the risen Lord, evinced that his faith in the power of Christ to rise from the dead, and make his promise good, was weak and wavering. It needed to be helped out by sight, and therefore was not of so high and fine a type as it might have been.
If we examine the Scriptures, we shall find that that faith is most pleasing to God, and is regarded by him as of the best quality, which leans least upon the creature, and most upon the Creator. Whenever man rests his whole weight upon God; whenever the Christian trusts the bare word of his Lord and Master without any aid from other sources; God is most honored. Take the case of Abraham. We have already noticed that in some respects he was not called to exercise so simple and entire a trust in the Divine word as we are. He lived in a period of miracle, and was the subject of miraculous impressions. But there were some emergencies, or critical points, in his life, when his faith was put to a very severe trial — times when, in the Scripture phrase, God “tempted” him. These were the instances in which his experience resembled more that of the modern than that of the ancient believer, and it is with reference to them that he is styled the “father of the faithful.” Consider the trial of his faith when commanded to sacrifice Isaac. This child had been given to him by a miracle; for Isaac was born as truly against the ordinary course of nature as Christ himself. Abraham did indeed manifest doubt when God promised him this son — showing that his faith at that point was infirm. But when the promise had been fulfilled, and Isaac was growing up before him in beauty and in strength, then he certainly knew that God is almighty, and faithful to his word. Here, up to this point, the faith of the patriarch was resting very much upon sight and sensible things. But when he is suddenly commanded to take this very child who had been given to him by a miracle, and whose death would apparently nullify the Divine promise that in his seed all the kindreds of the earth should be blessed — when he is commanded, without a word of explanation, to sacrifice the son of promise, to obey was the highest conceivable act of pure faith. It did not rest at all upon any thing that could be seen. It was mere and simple confidence in the authority and power of God. He only knew that it was the Eternal Jehovah who had given him the awful order to put the sacrificial knife to the heart of his child, and the Eternal Jehovah must be obeyed at all hazards. This was the crowning act of faith upon the part of Abraham, and God put great honor upon him for it, because Abraham had put great honor upon God in hoping against hope, and following in the path of the Divine command without a ray of earthly light.
Now, it is to this uncommon species, this high degree of faith, that the modern believer is invited. We have never seen a miracle. We have never witnessed the manifestations of God’s supernatural power. We have only read the record of what He did, in this way, thousands of years ago. It is indeed an authentic record, yet it cannot, from the nature of the case, make such a startling impression upon us as would the very miracles themselves — as would the very plagues of Egypt, the passage of the Red Sea, the thunders of Sinai, the resurrection of Lazarus, the darkness, the quaking of the earth, the rending of the rocks and opening of the graves, that accompanied the Crucifixion. As Horace long ago said: “That which comes in by the ear does not affect us like that which comes in by the eye.” Our faith must therefore rest more, comparatively, upon the simple authority of God. As an act, it must be more purely mental and spiritual. Inasmuch as we see less with our outward vision, we must believe more with the very mind and heart. And here is the greater strength and superiority of the modern faith. The inward powers of the soul are nobler than the five senses; and their acts have more worth and dignity than the operations of the senses. Reason is a higher faculty than sense. If I believe in the power and goodness of God only because, and only when, I see their operation in a given instance, I do not give him any very high honor. There is no very great merit in following the notices of the five senses. An animal does this continually. But when I believe that God is great and good, not only when 1 have no special evidence from material phenomena, but when these phenomena seemingly teach the contrary; when my faith runs back to the nature and attributes of God himself, and is not staggered in the least by anything that I see, then I give God great honor. I follow higher dictates than those of the five senses. I believe with the mind and heart; and with the mind and heart I make confession unto salvation. My faith is not sensuous, but spiritual. 1 rectify the teachings of mere time and sense, by the higher teachings of revelation and the spiritual mind.
That bold and eloquent North-African father, Tertullian, speaking of miracles, remarks: “I believe the miracle because it is impossible.”2 This remark has been a theme for the wit of the unbeliever, because he understood Tertullian to say that he believed an absolute impossibility. This is not the meaning of the celebrated dictum. Tertullian means that he believes that a thing which is relatively impossible — which is impossible with man — is for this very reason possible with God. The Creator must have the power to work a miracle, from the very fact that the creature has no such power. For if God can never rise above the plane upon which a creature acts, then it is a natural inference that he is nothing but a creature himself. If a thing that is impossible for man is impossible for God also, what is the difference between God and man? “I believe, therefore,” says Tertullian, “that the Creator is able to work a miracle, for the very reason that the creature cannot. Its impossibility in respect to finite power, makes it all the more certain in respect to infinite. I believe the thing in reference to God, because in reference to man and man’s agency it is an utter impossibility.”
This is sound reasoning for any one who concedes the existence of God, and believes that he differs in kind from his creatures. Tertullian only utters in a striking paradox the thought of St. Paul, when he says to King Agrippa: “Why should it be thought a thing incredible with you that God should raise the dead?” and the affirmation of our Lord: “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.”
Now, this is the kind of faith that does not lean upon the five senses, but goes back to the rational idea and intrinsic nature of God. The Supreme Being can do anything; and whatever he does is wise and good. This is faith in its higher and stronger actings. The mind reposes upon God simply and alone. It does not ask for the ways and means. All that it requires is, to be certain that the Divine promise has been given; that God has pledged his word in a given instance; and then it leaves all to Him. Whether the laws of nature work for or against the promised result is a matter of not the slightest consequence, provided that the Author of nature, who taketh up the isles as a very little thing, and holds the waters in the hollow of his hand, has said that it shall verily, come to pass. This is the simplest and strongest form of faith. “Blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have believed.” And this is the form of faith to which we are invited.3
2. In the second place, faith without sight honors God more than faith that is assisted by sight. We cannot show greater respect for any one than to take his bare word. In human circles it is the highest praise that can be accorded, when it is said of a person: “I have his word for it, and that is enough.” If we are compelled in a given instance to go back of the man’s word or promise, and scrutinize his integrity or his pecuniary ability; if we must doubt the person and look into his character or circumstances, our faith in him is not of the strongest kind, and we do not put the highest honor upon him. There are comparatively few men of this first class and standing; comparatively few of whom the whole community with one voice will say: “We want no examinations and no guarantees; we trust the man; we have his word and promise, and this is sufficient.” But when such men do stand forth year after year, strong and trustworthy because they fear God and love their neighbor as themselves, what an honor is put upon them by the implicit, unquestioning confidence which is felt in them — by the faith in the mere person, without the sight of his ways and means.
Precisely so is it with faith in God. Just so far as we withhold our confidence in him until we can see the wisdom of his ways, just so far do we dishonor him; and just in proportion as we trust in him because he is God, whether we can perceive the reasons of his actions or not, do we give glory to him. Suppose a sudden sorrow is sent from his hand, that appears wholly dark and inexplicable — that a missionary is cut down in the bloom of life, and in the midst of great usefulness among an unevangelized and degraded population; that a wise and kind father is taken away from a family that leans entirely upon him. If in these instances no questions are asked, and no doubts are felt or expressed; if the Church and the children of God say with David: “I am dumb with silence because Thou didst it,” what an honor do they render to God by such absolute confidence. And he so regards it, and accepts it, and rewards it.
For the faith in such cases terminates upon the very personality and nature of God. It passes by all secondary causes and agencies, and reposes upon the First Cause. Oftentimes our faith is of such a mixed character, that it honors the creature as much as the Creator. We exercise confidence, partly because God has promised, and partly because we see, or think we see, some earthly and human grounds for faith. For example, if we expect that the whole world will be Christianized, partly because of the Divine promises and prophecies, and partly because the wealth and civilization and military power of the earth are in the possession of Christian nations, we honor the creature in conjunction with the Creator; and this is to dishonor him, for he says: “My glory will I not give to another.” The faith of the Church is of the purest, highest kind, only when she trusts solely and simply in time promise and power of her covenant God, and looks upon all the favoring earthly circumstances as results, not as supports, of this promise. The fact that Christian missions are being aided very materially by the wealth, and civilization, and military power of the Protestant world, is not an independent ground of confidence that Christian missions will ultimately evangelize the earth. We must not put any earthly and human agency into equality and co-ordination with the Divine. The creature in itself is nothing; and it derives all its efficiency from God, who is the first cause and last end of all things. Take away the promises, and purposes, and controlling agency of God, and where would be the wealth, the civilization, and military power of Protestant Europe and America? If we rest our faith in a glorious future for our wretched world, upon what these can accomplish by an independent agency; if we rest upon two arms, the arm of God, and the arm of flesh, our faith is infirm, and it does no real honor to our Maker. “Sufficient is Thine arm alone, and our defence is sure.” And it will be one of the signs of that mightier faith which will herald the dawn of the millennium, when the Church, leaving its mixed confidence in the Creator and creature; leaving its partial trust in wealth, civilization, arts, sciences, commerce, armies, and navies, shall settle down once more upon the one immutable ground of confidence — the word, and the power, and the pity of the Everlasting God. This was the mighty faith of the Early Church. The civilization of the Greek and Roman world was arrayed against them, and they could not lean upon it in conjunction with God, if they would. They were shut up to the mere power and promise of the Most High. They leaned upon God’s bare arm. And what honor did they give Him in this; and how did he honor them in return!
We see, then, as the result of this discussion, that while our brethren of the Patriarchal, Jewish, and Early-Christian eras found it easier, in some respects, to believe in God and unseen realities, by reason of the supernatural manifestations that were granted to them, we of these last times enjoy the privilege of exercising a faith that is more robust and firm because more purely spiritual, and a faith that puts more honor upon God. Provided we do rise above the clogs of the body and of sense; provided we do exercise a simple unwavering confidence in God as God, in spite of all the outward infidelity of the day, and the more dangerous inward infidelity of our imperfect hearts; we shall hear him saying to us: “Others have believed because they have seen: blessed are ye, because ye have not seen, and yet have believed.”
From this subject, it is evident that God is the sole object of faith. There is a difference between belief and faith; between believing, and believing in, and on, and upon. We may believe a man; we may believe an angel; but we may believe in and on God alone. Faith is the recumbence, and resting, of the mind; and the mind can find no rest in a creature. All creatures stand upon a level, so far as self-sufficiency is concerned; and if we cannot find rest in ourselves, how can we in a fellow-worm. As we look into our own natures, and discover that they are ignorant, weak, and sinful, and then look around for what we lack, we shall never find it in a creature. All creatures are ignorant, weak, and finite. Only God is wise, mighty, and infinite. “Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man in whom there is no help. Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the Lord his God.”
Furthermore, if God is the sole object of faith, then we must beware of a mixed or partial faith. We must not trust partly in God, and partly in his creatures. He will receive no divided honors. As in our justification by the atonement, we cannot trust partly in the blood of Christ, and partly in our own good works, so in our more general relation to God, our confidence must not rest upon any combination or union between Him and the works of his hands. We are told by St. Paul, and we well know, that Christ must be our sole atonement, and that we must not attempt to add to his finished oblation by our own sufferings, or deeds. Our absolution at the bar of justice must be no composite affair; depending partly upon what our Substitute has done, and partly upon what we have done. The whole, or none, is the rule here. And so must be our faith in God. We must repose our whole weight upon Him alone. Anything short of this, dishonors that exalted and infinite Being who never enters into partnership with his creatures; that All-sufficient Being, of whom, and through whom, and to whom are all things.
We know these things, happy are we if we do them. It is the highest accomplishment of the Christian life, actually and perfectly to believe in God in Christ. We are continually pulled back from this blessed and this mighty act of faith, by our detestable pride and creature-worship. It is a great art to desert the creature in all its forms, and live and move in our Creator and Redeemer. Especially is it a great, a divine art, to do this in reference to our sin and guilt. Who shall teach us, when remorse bites, and anxiety respecting the last account weighs us down — who shall teach us how to believe in Christ, the Lamb of God, without a scintilla of doubt, with an absolute and undivided confidence? He Himself must do this. He is the author and the finisher of faith.
W.G.T. Shedd (1820-1894) was both a Congregational and, later a Presbyterian pastor. He had a distinguished career as a Professor of English Literature prior to his work at the theological seminaries at Auburn Seminary in Andover and finally at Union Seminary in New York. He is best known for his three-volume Dogmatic Theology, Calvinism: Pure & Mixed, Sermons to the Natural Man and Sermons to the Spiritual Man. He also wrote The Doctrine of Endless Punishment. All the titles mentioned have been published by the "Banner of Truth Trust."
This sermon has been taken from the volume, Sermons to the Natural Man, first published in 1876 and later printed in the "Banner of Truth Trust" edition of 1977, pp.153-166.