Would To God We Might All Understand It
If this sleeper be not outwardly vicious, his sleep is usually the deepest of all: whether he be of the Laodicean spirit, “neither cold nor hot,” but a quiet, rational, inoffensive, good-natured professor of the religion of his fathers; or whether he be zealous and orthodox, and, “after the most straitest sect of our religion,” live “a Pharisee;” that is, according to the scriptural account, one that justifies himself; one that labours to establish his own righteousness, as the ground of his acceptance with God.
This is he, who, “having a form of godliness, denies the power thereof;” yea, and probably reviles it, wheresoever it is found, as mere extravagance and delusion. Meanwhile, the wretched self-deceiver thanks God, that he is “not as other men are; adulterers, unjust, extortioners”: no, he doeth no wrong to any man. he “fasts twice in a week,” uses all the means of grace, is constant at church and sacrament, yea, and “gives tithes of all that he has;” does all the good that he can “touching the righteousness of the law,” he is “blameless”: he wants nothing of godliness, but the power; nothing of religion, but the spirit; nothing of Christianity, but the truth and the life. – Charles Wesley, “Awake Thou That Sleepest”, preached before university at Oxford, April 4, 1742
I’ve been struggling the past day or so, unable to settle in my mind anything about which to write. It became so frustrating yesterday afternoon that I’m afraid I snapped at my wife when she tried to have a civil conversation with me. This morning, that sense of frustration returned. I know that part of it is wanting to write about one thing, but finding myself afraid of repetition; I want to say another thing, but my thoughts aren’t quite straight, not quite ready to be set out. So, around in circles I go!
This morning, I thought it best to look elsewhere for inspiration. The Sermons of John Wesley are available online thanks to Nebraska Nazarene University. I clicked open the sermon on Ephesians 5:14 to discover it was actually a Charles Wesley sermon. Right away, I was struck by this glorious poet of grace preaching a good old hellfire-and-brimstone sermon. Let’s make no mistake: Wesley was taking the task, the text, and his role with the utmost seriousness. Recognizing that with the Christian faith we have to do, quite literally, with life and death, he wasted no time making clear that to be the sleeper addressed by the author of Ephesians, one need not be “a sinner” in some conventional moral sense. The sleepers to whom the author of Ephesians writes, and to whom Wesley preaches, are we Christians in the Church, so confident in our salvation, so righteous in our life, relishing the power granted those offered the keys to heaven and hell.
In these opening paragraphs, I heard Wesley speaking to me.
Unless we are offered some beatific vision, even those who claim the name “Christians” should, at times, be reminded that even our best sense of our salvation might well be our own conscience seeking solace in empty words and gestures. Until we are perfected in love – to which Wesley refers, and which need always be kept in mind – our life is always a journey through the morass of sin and brokenness that is our creaturely lot. We cannot become holy in heart and life if we are not first judged and convicted of our basest and deepest sinfulness, “that one dark blot” that cannot come clean through our own efforts. Part of the life of the Christian is the reminder that our lives are not our own; our salvation is not for us; no matter how precious we hold ourselves to be in the sight of God, ours is an existence always balanced on the sharpest of edges; no matter how much we attend worship or profess our adherence to the faith or tithe or serve those in need; we must always remember that it is the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, that same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead, that saves us, grants us the faith to live with true conviction that we are, indeed, wishing to flee the wrath to come. This and this alone wakes us from whatever comfortable slumber holds us.
But know ye not, that, however highly esteemed among men such a Christian as this may be, he is an abomination in the sight of God, and an heir of every woe which the Son of God, yesterday, to-day, and for ever, denounces against “scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites” he hath “made clean the outside of the cup and the platter,” but within is full of all filthiness. “An evil disease cleaveth still unto him, so that his inward parts are very wickedness.” Our Lord fitly compares him to a “painted sepulchre,” which “appears beautiful without;” but, nevertheless, is “full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.” The bones indeed are no longer dry; the sinews and flesh are come upon them, and the skin covers them above: but there is no breath in them, no Spirit of the living God. And, “if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.” “Ye are Christ’s, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you”: but, if not, God knoweth that ye abide in death, even until now. . . .
Wherefore, “awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead.” God calleth thee now by my mouth; and bids thee know thyself, thou fallen spirit, thy true state and only concern below. “What meanest thou, O sleeper Arise! Call upon thy God, if so be thy God will think upon thee, that thou perish not.” A mighty tempest is stirred up round about thee, and thou art sinking into the depths of perdition, the gulf of God’s judgements. If thou wouldest escape them, cast thyself into them. “Judge thyself, and thou shalt not be judged of the Lord.”
Awake, awake! Stand up this moment, lest thou “drink at the Lord’s hand the cup of his fury.” Stir up thyself to lay hold on the Lord, the Lord thy Righteousness, mighty to save! “Shake thyself from the dust.” At least, let the earthquake of God’s threatenings shake thee. Awake, and cry out with the trembling jailer, “What must I do to be saved” And never rest till thou believest on the Lord Jesus, with a faith which is his gift, by the operation of his Spirit.
It is a good thing to hear that before we hear the words of pardon we always hear the words of judgment. It is good to remember that our faith is not our own, but a gift from God, the gift that speaks to our hearts and lives, the Spirit that gives life and offers new life. Conviction of sin keeps us honest, particularly when offered in the starkest terms. This thing we do, we don’t do through any power of our own. This life is not ours, but is lived in and through the crucified and risen Christ, the Spirit quickening our dead lives for the glory of the Father. No matter how well we think of ourselves; no matter how well others think of us, no matter how awake we believe ourselves to be, it all may yet be a dream, the consolation of our hardened hearts.
No, no more plural here. This is addressed to me at the moment. I believe that no matter how much I claim to confess; no matter how much I may, indeed, love; no matter how I hope for the coming of the fullness of the New Creation already begun in the Risen Christ; no matter all this, there is always that part, the chaff that needs to be separated and tossed on the fire to be burned. My prayer this morning is that chaff is not all of me, that my life no longer serves whatever purposes I might have, but that I will lives only for the glory of God.
I wish to remember that it is the Spirit who brings life. I want only to confess this simple reality: that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, proving God’s love for us.
Hellfire-and-brimstone is good for the soul. It helps keep us humble, reminding us whose we are, and that the alternatives are stark and eternal.