ISEE iniquity raging on every side. Its flames are fanned by every wind of fashion; and fresh victims are being constantly drawn in. It spreads to every class. Not the palace nor the hovel is safe. Not the lofty piles that are raised for merchandise, nor the graceful edifice that is constructed for worship.
Iniquity, whose contagion is fearful as fire, spreads and preys upon all things that are homely and comely; things useful and things sacred are not exempt. We must walk through the fire. We, who are God’s witnesses must stand in its very midst, to pour the streams of living water upon the burning fuel, and if not able to quench it, at least we must strive to prevent its spread.
I see before my mind’s eye the blackened skeletons of hundreds of fair professions. Multitudes — multitudes have perished in the valley of temptation, who once, to all human judgment, had bid fair for heaven, and made a show in the flesh. How many, too, have fallen under the attacks of Satan! This is a fire that does burn. Many a man has said, “I will be a pilgrim;” but he has met Apollyon on the road, and he has tarried back.
Many a man has put on the harness, but he has given up the battle soon; put his hand to the plow, and looked back. There are more pillars of salt than one. If Lot’s wife were a solitary specimen, it were well; but there have been tens of thousands who, like her, have looked back to the plains of Sodom, and, like her, as they are in their spirit, have stood for ever what they were — lost souls. We ought not to look upon our dangers with contempt; they are dangers, they are trials. We ought to look upon our temptations as fires: oh, they are fires! If you think they are not fires you are mistaken. If you enter, then, in your own strength, saying, “Oh, I could bear them,” you will find that they are real fires, which, with forked tongues, shall lick up your blood, and consume it in an instant, if you have not some better guard than your own creature power. “When thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.” Dr. Alexander, an eminent and most admirable American commentator, says there appears to be some mistake in the translation, because he thinks the two sentences are an anti-climax. “Thou shalt not be burned;” and then follows, “neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.” It strikes me, however, that in the second clause we have the higher gradation of a climax. “Thou shalt not be burned,” to the destruction of thy life; nor even scorched to give thee the most superficial injury, for “the flames shall not kindle upon thee.” Just as when the three holy children came out of the fiery furnace, it is said, “Upon their bodies the fire had no power, nor was a hair of their head singed; neither were their coats changed, nor had the smell of fire passed on them.” So the text seems to me to teach that the Christian church, under all its trials, has not been consumed, but more than that, it has not lost anything by its trials.
The Lord’s church has never been destroyed yet by her persecutors and her trials. They have thought they crushed her, but she lives still. They had imagined that they had taken away her life, but she sprang up more vigorous than before.
I suppose there is not a nation out of which Christ’s church has ever been utterly driven. Even Spain, which seemed at last to have accomplished it by the most persevering barbarities, finds still a few believers to be a thorn in the side of her bigotry; and as for our own denomination, in the very country where, by the most frightful massacres, it was believed that the sect of Anabaptists had been utterly extinguished, Mr. Oncken became the means of reviving it, so that throughout all Germany, and in parts of Denmark, and Prussia, and Poland, and even Russia itself, we have sprung up into a new, vigorous, and even wonderful existence. And in Sweden, where, under Lutheran government, the most persecuting edicts had been passed against us, we have been astonished to find churches suddenly spring up, for the truth has in it a living seed which is not to be destroyed.
But the church not only does not lose her existence, she does not lose anything at all. The Church has never lost her numbers. Persecutions have winnowed her and driven away the chaff, but not one grain of wheat has been taken away from the heap. Nay, not even in visible fellowship has the church been decreased by persecution. She is like Israel in Egypt; the more they were afflicted the more they multiplied. Was a bishop put to death today?
Ten young men came the next morning before the Roman proctor, and offered themselves to die, having that very night been baptized for the dead bishop, having made their confession of faith that they might occupy his position. “I fill up the vacancy in the church, and then die as he did.”
Was a woman strangled or tortured publicly? Twenty women appeared the next day, and craved to suffer as she suffered, that they might honor Christ.
Did the Church of Rome in more modern times burn one of our glorious reformers — John Huss — yet did not Martin Luther come forward as if the ashes of Huss had begotten Luther? When Wycliffe had passed away did not the very fact of Wycliffe being persecuted help to spread his doctrines? and were there not found hundreds of young men who in every market-town in England read the Lollard’s Scriptures, and proclaimed the Lollard’s faith? And so, depend upon it, it shall ever be. Give a dog a bad name, and you hang him; give a Christian a bad name, and you honor him.
Do but give to any Christian some ill name, and before long a Christian denomination will take that name to itself, and it will become a title of honor. When George Fox was called “Quaker,” it was a strange name — one to laugh at; but those men of God who followed him called themselves Quakers too, and so it lost its reproach. They called the followers of Whitefield and Wesley Methodists; they took the title of Methodists, and it became a respectful designation. When many of our Baptist forefathers, persecuted in England, went over to America to find shelter, they imagined that among the Puritans they would have a perfect rest, but Puritan liberty of conscience meant, “The right and liberty to think as they did, but no toleration to those who differed.” The Puritans of New England, as soon as ever a Baptist made his appearance amongst them, persecuted him with as little compunction as the Episcopalians had the Puritans. No sooner was there a Baptist, than he was hunted up, and brought before his own Christian brethren. Mark you, he was brought up for fine, for imprisonment, confiscation and banishment, before the very men who had themselves suffered persecution. And what was the effect of this? The effect has been that in America, where we were persecuted, we are the largest body of Christians. Where the fire burnt the most furiously, there the good old Calvinistic doctrine was taught, and the Baptist became the more decidedly a Baptist than anywhere else, with the most purity and the least dross. Nor have we ever lost the firmness of our grip upon the fundamental doctrine, for which our forefathers stained the baptismal pool with blood, by all the trials and persecutions that have been laid upon us; and never shall we.
Upon the entire church, at the last, there shall not be even the smell of fire.
I see her come out of the furnace. I see her advance up the hill towards her final glory with her Lord and Master, and the angels look at her garments; they are not tattered. Nay, the fangs of her enemies have not been able to make a single rent therein. They draw near to her; they look upon her flowing ringlets, and they are not crisp with heat; they look upon her very feet, and though she has trodden the coals they are not blistered, and her eyes have not been dried up by the furiousness of the seven times heated flame. She has been made more beautiful, more fair, more glorious, by the fires, but hurt she has not been, nor can she be. Turn, then, to the individual Christian, and remember, that the promise stands alike firm and fast with each believer. Christian, if you be truly a child of God, your trials cannot destroy you; and what is better still, you can lose nothing by them.
You may seem to lose for to-day, but when the account comes to be settled, you shall not be found to be a farthing the loser by all the temptations of all the world, or all the attacks of Satan which you have endured. Nay, more, you shall be wondrously the gainer. Your trials having worked patience and experience, shall make you rich. Your temptations having taught you your weakness, and shown you where your strength lieth, shall make you strong.
There is a brother who has had wave upon wave of affliction: everything goes against him. He is an upright, honest, indefatigable merchant, yet, let him do what he will, his substance wastes away like snow before the sun. It appears that for every ship of his the wind blows the wrong way, and where others win by the venture he loses all: “Sees every day new straits attend, And wonders where the scene shall end. ” When I spoke of walking through the fire, he said, “Ah! that is what I have been doing; I have been walking through it these months, to God and my own soul alone is it known how hot the furnace is.” Brother, will you take home this text? “When thou goest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned.” When your troubles are all over, you shall still be left, and what is more, “Neither shall the flame kindle upon you.” When the winding up time comes, you shall not be any the loser. While you think you have lost substance, you shall find when you read Scripture, that you only lose shadows. Your substance was always safe, being laid up in the keeping of Christ in heaven. You shall discover in the issue, that these trials of yours were the best things that could happen to you. The day will come when you will say with David, “I will sing of judgment and mercy.” “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I have kept thy word.”
Or perhaps there is some young woman — and the case I am about to paint is a very common one — alas! too common in this city. You love the Savior, my sister, but you are very poor, and you have to earn your living by that sorriest of all means. When the sun rises in the morning he sees you with that needle in your hand, “Sewing at once with a double thread; A shroud as well as a shirt. ” and all day long you have scarcely time to rest for meals, and at eventime, when the fingers are worn and the eyes are heavy, you shall have need to refrain from sleep because the pittance is so small that you can scarcely live upon it. We know hundreds of that class who always constrain our pity, because they work so hard for so little wage. Peradventure your mother is dead, and your father does not care about you; he is a drunken sot, and you would be sorry to meet him perhaps in the street. You have no helper, no friends. You do not care to tell anybody; you would not like to take anything if charity should offer it to you; you feel it the hardest thing of all is to be tempted as you are. There seems to you to be by the path open the road to plenty, and in some degree to delight. But you have said, “No, no!” and you have loathed the temptation, and you have stood — and I have known how year after year some of you have fought with temptation, and struggled on, when sometimes you were well-nigh starved; but you would not do this great wickedness against God.
My sister, I pray you take the encouragement of Scripture to strengthen you for the future battles. You have been going through the fires. But you are not consumed yet, and I bless God, upon your garments the smell of fire has not passed. Hold on, my sister, hold on, through all the sorrow thou hast, and all the bitterness which is heavy enough to crush thy spirit; hold on, for thy Master sees thee. He will encourage and strengthen thee, and bring thee more than conqueror through it all in the end.
How cruel sometimes worldly young men are to Christian young men!
Cruel — for when there are a dozen worldlings and only one Christian, they consider it to be honorable for the dozen to set upon one. Twelve big, tall fellows will sometimes think it a fine game to pass from hand to hand some little lad of fifteen, and make sport and mockery of him. There is honor, it is said, among thieves, but there seems to be no honor at all among worldlings when they get a young Christian in this way. Well, young man, you have borne with it; you have said, “I will hold my tongue and won’t say a word,” though your heart was hot within you, and while you were musing the fire burned. Remember, the anvil does not get broken, even if you keep on striking it, but it breaks all the hammers. Do you do the same. Only hold on, and these fires shall not consume you. If the fire should burn up your piety, it would only prove that your piety was not worth having. If you cannot stand a few jokes and jeers, why, you are not builded together in that habitation of God which he hath made fireproof.
Bear up, and in the end you will find that this hard lot of yours, this severe discipline, did you a deal of good, and made you a better man than you ever would have been if you had been dandled on the lap of piety, and kept from the battle. In after years your high and eminent post of usefulness may be, perhaps, owing to the severe and harsh discipline to which you were put in your younger days. “It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth.”
Or, mayhap, I am speaking to some one who has met with opposition from his own ungodly relations. Remember how Jesus said, “I am come to send fire on the earth, and what will I, if it be already kindled? From henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, two against three and three against two.” Perhaps your father has threatened you, or what is more bitter still, your husband has threatened to discard you. Now indeed you are walking through the fires. He rails at your godliness, makes a mock of everything you love, and does his best by cruelty to break your heart. My dear sister in Christ, you shall not be burned by the fire. If grace be in your heart, the devil can’t drive it out, much less your husband. If the Lord has called you by his grace all the men on earth, and all the fiends in hell can’t reverse the calling; and you shall find in the end that you have not suffered any loss; the flame has not kindled upon you. You shall go through the fire and bless God for it. From a dying bed, or at least through the gates of Paradise you shall look back upon the dark path of the way and say it was well, it was well for me that I had to carry that cross, and that now I am permitted to wear this crown.