The history of the Bible may be divided into certain epochs, and if I start without beginning at the beginning, I should say that the time of the Reformation was the period of the Bible’s liberation. Like Paul and Silas, with its feet fast in the stocks, the Bible was singing sweetly the song of grace in the midst of the dark dungeons of the middle ages, when suddenly there was a great earthquake, and the bands of all thought, of all science, of all truth, were loosed, and then, like Paul and Silas, the Bible came forth to its glorious liberty. We have not now to contend for the liberty of circulating the Scriptures. That period is over. Then came — and that period still exists — the period of the multiplication of Scripture. The Bible, when it first came out into the world translated, in the fewness of its copies, I may compare to that first bright angel which heralded the advent of our Lord; but the multitudes that have been scattered by this Society I may liken to the mighty host which suddenly were with the angels praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill towards men.” The period of the multiplication of Scripture is not over: it will continue, it must continue, as long as men multiply; and as long as there is poverty in the world, men will need to be supplied with cheap copies of the Word of God. But I do think it is time we entered more heartily into the third grand period of human history, the application of divine truth on a larger :scale, laboring to bring it home to the masses, and to make them read as, well as to possess it, and to understand it as well as to regard it as the divine Word. I believe this is more what we want in this age than even controverting objections against it. For my part, I do not undertake the task of refuting objections, because I believe that the logical faculty in me is too small, and that if I were to talk against arithmetical objectors I should be like the boy who, in the churchyard, whistled to keep his courage up, and said, “Who’s afraid?” I don’t think that is my particular work, and I believe that ninety-nine out of every hundred Christians are not called for the defense of the Gospel against infidel objectors, so much as the pressing of that Gospel home to men’s hearts, casting light upon the eyes that have been in darkness, that they may behold its glory and rejoice therein. To apply the Gospel seems to be absolutely necessary, through the help of God the Holy Spirit, that we may really know its fruits. There is a tale that when Scanderberg’s sword was hung against the wall, one who had heard of the trenchant deeds of valor done by the barbarous conqueror, said, as he looked on the sword, “I can see nothing in it.” “No,” said the man who showed it; “but if you could have seen the sinews of the brawny arm that was wont to wield it, you would have admired the sword and the arm. too.”
Now, the Word of God is nothing but; a dead letter till the Spirit of God, with omnipotent arm, grasp it, and then it cuts to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.
And we want to cry out to-day, “Lord, if thine adversaries doubt whether this be thy sword, lay Thou hold upon its hilt, and cut them to their very quick, and make them know that there is a God in Israel still, and that there is still a God’s Word.” Merely to circulate the Bible will not prove its virtues. There is no virtue in the Bible any more than there is harm in a three-volume novel, if I do not read the one or the other. If they lie there on the shelf unread, the one will do me no good and the other no harm.
Erasmus laughs at the idea of the man who attaches a benefit to the mere possession of the Bible. He likens him to one whom he calls Cyclops, who wears in his belt on this side a goodly bottle of sack, and on the other side a richly-ornamented copy of the Word of God, and says in his swaggering style, “In truth I am as good a saint as any.” Erasmus tries to disprove this, in his witty way, and says, “Prithee serve thy sack bottle as thy Bible.
There are many virtues in that bottle of sack; it warms you when you are cold; it gets your valor up when you are half afraid. But do not take it; never take the cork out of it, and then see what its virtues are.” Of course our friend objects. He admires the bottle of sack, but he likes it better when the cork is out, and, most of all, when it is against his lips, and the stream is flowing merrily. “Aye,” says Erasmus; “but what do you say to this Book?”
He says, “It is tedious.” But begin to read and study it. “Ah,” he replies, “it is all dry matter that does not concern me.” “Verily, then,” adds the other, “I see thou art indeed a true disciple of the sack, but a false disciple of the Book.” There is much truth in that wit. If people carry their Bibles as Erasmus wished this man to carry his sack, they will get no good out of them. We may scatter Bibles by millions, and reduce the price, to twopence, or nothing, but we have done nothing but add to men’s responsibility, unless we pray earnestly that God will lead men to study it, and by His Spirit bless it to their conversion, their edification, their sanctification in righteousness. I take it that, while this is necessary to show the true quality of the Bible, it is also necessary to show the true answer to objectors. My metal is of such a kind, that I thank God when the adversaries of truth are loudest. A slumbering devil, is more to be feared than a roaring devil. Let the devil roar, he shall but wake us up from our slumbers and make us the more earnestly to contend for truth. Why were there no objections to the Bible twenty years ago from high. and eminent places? Because they were not necessary to Satan’s ends. What was the Bible, then, to many of us who were slumbering, and even sound asleep — what was it but a harp that was getting out of tune because it was not played — a sword that was growing rusty because it was not used? And Satan said within himself, “As long as they do not handle these edged tools I will not; care to blunt them.” I am glad to think that the Church is being urged to activity, and I am reminded of the cynic, who, sooner than be still, would roll his tub about. Sooner than the Church should lie still, I would have her roll her Articles and doctrines about. Keep the Church still, permit its voice not to be beard crying in the wilderness, “Make straight, the way of the Lord,” and you are hindering its course and depriving it of all power to bless the world.
Then let us commend this plan of endeavoring to bring the Scriptures home to people’s hearts. I do think that the best answer to objectors is the answer that David gave to his envious brethren when they said, “Because of thy pride and the naughtiness of thine heart, thou art come down that thou mightest see the battle.” Oh, beardless youth, so ruddy and fair of countenance, get thee back to thy sheep! But David has no answer. “Is there not a cause?” — is quite sufficient to reply. But in a little while you shall see David’s answer, He came back carrying in his hand the head of the great monster, dripping with clots of gore, and as he holds it up, there is a triumphant refutation of the objection — Because of thy pride. Go you and evangelize London; scatter light in dark alleys; carry the Gospel to the South Seas and Africa, and make the whole world ring with it, and you need not stop to answer objections. This is the best logic — this is the noblest argument — the application of the Word — “the entrance of thy Word giveth light.” Pray God to bring the Word home to the heart and the conscience, and it shall give light. I may, therefore, with as much brevity as possible, just say that I think the Bible Society, while it continues its efforts to spread the Bible, will always do well to listen with earnestness to the advice, and look with great affection upon the efforts of those who wish to make it a Society for Bible reading and Bible understanding, as well as Bible distributing.
While we want collectors and auxiliaries, and all that, we do want more of the Bible-reading element — more Bible expounding to the people. It strikes me, that here in England we greatly need more Bible catechizing of the children of all classes. I was very much struck with the Scotch, how vastly superior their children are to our youngsters in the knowledge of the Scriptures. I sometimes take young men into my institution for the ministry whose education is very deficient, and I sometimes find these good, earnest young English brethren, though they have read the Scriptures, not thoroughly acquainted even with the historical parts and narratives, but often make sad blunders. Now though I have dealt with many Scotchmen, I never met with one who was not thoroughly acquainted with the narrative, and well instructed in the doctrine. I attribute that to the use of catechisms, and I think that if we could revive more and more the use of a good catechism, or the catechetical principle of bringing home, by question and answer, the doctrines and truths of Scripture to the lads of our villages, we should be doing a world of good. The way to secure the masses would be to secure them when young. I remember being greatly puzzled when I was a child. One of my earliest difficulties was, — not the source of the Nile; I had not got the length of that, — but a certain matter which was far more wonderful. On a shelf in my grandfather’s parlor was a little vial, containing an apple just the size of the largest part of the bottle. Now, I had no business to touch anything on the mantelshelf; that was forbidden.
But whenever I could get alone. I took a chair and got the vial down, and tried to find out how the apple could possibly have got down that small neck. I thought the vial must have had a false bottom, and I really wonder how it was that in my various essays I did not, in my zeal and scientific diligence, manage to break the bottle, and so get a sound thrashing. But it happened, quite accidentally, that this great; mystery of nature — one of the problems that I thought scarcely the wisest men of the East could solve — -became unraveled. One day, as I walked in the garden, it came to me that my grandmother had put a little apple inside the bottle while it was growing, and that; it grew there to its present size. And thus, “Nature well known, no prodigy remained.”
I could not but think of that while standing here. We cannot get men under Biblical influence very readily after they are grown up; but if we can put them inside the bottle when they are little ones, I am sure we shall be following the analogy of nature. And we have quite a Scriptural precedent for it, for we find that Timothy knew the Scriptures from his youth up. I am afraid that some distinct Sunday School teaching is not what it should be with regard to Bible teaching; and I should like all of us who have to teach others to look very much after this laboring for the good of young people. And, then, again, I think that the exposition of Scripture should become more and more a distinct feature in our congregations. It may possibly be, that, in some cases, the service will not allow a practice into which some of us have fallen, of always expounding the Lessons as we :read them; but there might be extra services, of which that should be the main feature. There might be little Bible-reading parties, intended to break up difficult parts, and presided over by some brother who had the ability to study the chapter, and that would be exceedingly profitable. In Wycliff’s days it was the classes that used to do so much good — classes that met and studied Scripture, and then dispersed, scattering abroad the knowledge they had gathered in that manner. It was these classes that brought on the Reformation; and I say it is thus that we must maintain the Reformation.
We must get unintelligent knowledge of what God tells us in His Word, by studying therein, and then spreading abroad that same intelligent knowledge amongst others by expounding it.
Then, again, we must ourselves labor more and more to get into the spirit and soul of Scripture. My heart has often turned away in sadness when I have read my Bible without being profiled thereby, as I am certain I have.
For I hold that the mere reading of a chapter is nothing. “The letter killeth,” we say of it; but it is when we get into the chapter, and when the chapter gets into us — when we not only gather the sense, but mark, learn, and inwardly digest the bread of life — then it is that we get the good out of it. I find commentaries very useful; but, after all, many a text that will not open to a commentary will open to prayer. Just as the stone-breakers go down on their knees to break the flints on a heap, I believe we often break up texts better on our knees than in any other position. When we draw near to God, feeling that Holy Scripture is His incarnate truth, and we want to get beyond the mere veil, — when we can have boldness to enter thus within the veil, — then Scripture becomes a real power to us, then it gives us a force which will make our efforts tell upon the world at large.
And we want, dear friends — and here I conclude — we want, if we would exercise more influence upon others, to cultivate in our own souls a greater deference and respect for the Word of God in all things. The habit of sometimes making jokes upon Scripture is a very bad one, and one greatly to be avoided. I forget the exact words of quaint old Fuller, but I think he says, “If I want to wash my hands, can I find no other place than a Church font?” and I put it in my own words — If I want to play the fool, can I find no other vestments in which to make my motley than the words of God’s own Scripture? Cheerfulness is to be cultivated, but that levity which takes the Word of God and prostitutes it to its own purpose is to be detested and abhorred as next akin to blasphemy. We must cultivate the highest reverence for God’s Word, especially as to our obedience, to it. Perhaps the last thing the Bible will do for the Church is that after which many of us are sighing — it will establish the unity of the Church. When we shall all become reverent subjects of God, and obedient to God’s will, as we find it in Scripture, we shall all come close to one another. All attempts to create unity apart from truth must fall to the ground, and let them. Unity of action for God’s glory we can have even despite our minor differences, and I trust we shall ever have it; but to attempt to form a Church on any other basis than that of definite fixed principles must be an attempt to build a house upon the sand, and it must come down. First purity, and then unity; first truth, and then oneness. I would not sell a principle of God’s Word for all the brotherly love under heaven, because I hold that brotherly love which will not let me keep my conscience clear is not such brotherly love as Christ inculcated in the Holy Scriptures. Firmness to truth there must be — aye, and to every particle of it — to everything that you have received of the Lord. Let us seek no union by throwing aside those truths which God has clearly revealed to us. The Bible is to be the great pacificator of all sects — the great hammer of all schismatics. The Bible is to be the end of all disunion. The Bible, when we shall be brought to read it with reverent eye, and receive it with meek and humble heart, bringing us to itself’, shall, in the Spirit of God, bring us to one another. I would rather have a little discussion now and then as to the principles which divide us, and then, if we have dissented on any point without due grounds, let our dissent be ended. Oh! if we could get the Bible spirit, and say whatever I do not find here I will throw overboard — we should have a blessed unity established.
And it is because that this unity is coming on, that Satan is very wroth. We shall live, some of us, to see the day when we shall be distinguished the whole world over for our unity. I think I see looming in the future the rising of the sun that shall scatter all the mists of our bigotry. Some of us shall live to behold that happy day. Already this very Meeting presents to us the blessed presage of it, but the consummation can never come, except we hold the Bible spread the Bible, and press the Bible home upon the heart and conscience of everyone with whom we meet. May I beg of you — most of whom I have never seen before — this very day to try and teach something scriptural to somebody. Every day a line, and then what a poem will your life’s psalm be! Every day a soul, and, oh, what soulwinners you will be! Every day a seed, and then what a harvest shall you have! Every day a star, and then what; a galaxy of glory shall glitter there!
Every day a gem, and then what, a crown of honor shall you have to put upon the head of your Christ! Every day a note, and then what a song shall that be which shall roll from you, poor mortal, but God-inspired, Godhelped men, up to the throne of the great One who sits above us all.