Take Up the Challenge – Pt.1

Take Up the Challenge – Pt.1

“Keep back Your servant also from presumptuous sins; Let them not have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, and I shall be innocent of great transgression.” Psalm 19:18.

Another psalmist promises to the man who dwells “in the secret place of the Most High” that “he shall not be afraid for the terror by night, nor for the arrow that flieth by day, nor for the pestilence that walketh at noonday,” but shall “tread upon the lion and adder.” These promises divide the dangers that beset us into the same two classes as our psalmist does–the one secret; the other palpable and open. The former, which, as I explained in my last sermon, are sins hidden, not from others, but from the doer, may fairly be likened to the pestilence that stalks slaying in the dark, or to the stealthy, gliding serpent, which strikes and poisons before the naked foot is aware. The other resembles the “destruction that wasteth at noonday,” or the lion with its roar and its spring, as, disclosed from its covert, it leaps upon the prey.

Our present text clears with the latter of these two classes. “Presumptuous sins” does not, perhaps, convey to an ordinary reader the whole significance of the phrase, for it may be taken to define a single class of sins–namely, those of pride or insolence. What is really meant is just the opposite of “secret sins”–all sorts of evil which, whatever may be their motives and other qualities, have this in common, that the doer, when he does them, knows them to be wrong.

The Psalmist gets this further glimpse into the terrible possibilities which attach even to a servant of God, and we have in our text these three things–a danger discerned; a help sought; and a daring hope cherished.

A Danger Discerned

Note, then, the first of these, the dreaded and discerned danger–“presumptuous sins” which may “have dominion over” us, and lead us at last to a “great transgression.”

Now the word which is translated “presumptuous” literally means that which boils or bubbles; and it sets very picturesquely before us the movement of hot desires–the agitation of excited impulses or inclinations which hurry men into sin in spite of their consciences. It is also to be noticed that the prayer of my text, with singular pathos and lowly self-consciousness, is the prayer of “Thy servant,” who knows himself to be a servant, and who therefore knows that these glaring transgressions, done in the teeth of conscience and consciousness, are all inconsistent with his standing and his profession, but yet are perfectly possible for him.

An old medieval mystic once said, “There is nothing weaker than the devil stripped naked.” Would it were true! For there is one thing that is weaker than a discovered devil, and that is my own heart. For we all know that sometimes, with our eyes open, and the most unmistakable consciousness that what we are doing was wrong, we have set our teeth and done it, Christian men though we may profess to be, and may really be. All such conduct is inconsistent with Christianity but we are not to say, Therefore, that it is incompatible with Christianity. Thank God! that is a very different matter. But as long as you and I have two things–viz., strong and hot desires, and weak and flabby wills–so long shall we, in this world full of combustibles, not be beyond the possibility of a dreadful conflagration being kindled by some devil-blown sparks. There are plenty of dry sticks lying about to put under the cauldron of our hearts, to make them boil and bubble over! And we have, alas! but weak wills, which do not always keep the reins in their hands as they ought to do, nor coerce these lower parts of our nature into their proper subordination. Fire is a good servant, but a bad master; and we are all of us too apt to let it become master, and then the whole “course of nature” is “set on fire of hell” The servant of God may yet, with open eyes and obstinate disregard of his better self, and of all its remonstrances, go straight into “presumptuous sin.”

Another step is here taken by the Psalmist. He looks shrinkingly and shudderingly into a possible depth, and he sees, going down into the abyss, a ladder with three rungs on it. The topmost one is wilful, self-conscious transgression. But that is not the lowest stage; there is another step. Presumptuous sin tends to become despotic sin. “Let them not have dominion over me.” A man may do a very bad thing once, and get so wholesomely frightened, and so keenly conscious of the disastrous issues, that he will never go near it again. The prodigal would not be in a hurry, you may depend upon it, to try the swine trough and the far country, and the rags, and the fever, and the famine any more. David got a lesson that he never forgot in that matter of Bathsheba. The bitter fruit of his sin kept growing up all his life, and he had to eat it, and that kept him right. They tell us that broken bones are stronger at the point of fracture than they were before. And it is possible for a man’s sin–if I might use a paradox which you will not misunderstand–to become the instrument of his salvation.

But there is another possibility quite as probable, and very often recurring, and that is that the disease, like some other morbid states of the human frame, shall leave a tendency to recurrence. A pin-point hole in a dike will widen into a gap as big as a church-door in ten minutes, by the pressure of the flood behind it. And so every act which we do in contradiction of our standing as professing Christians, and in the face of the protests, all unavailing, of that conscience which is only a voice, and has no power to enforce its behests, will tend to recurrence once and again. The single acts become habits, with awful rapidity. Just as the separate gas jets from a multitude of minute apertures coalesce into a continuous ring of light, so deeds become habits, and get dominion over us. “He sold himself to do evil.” He made himself a bond-slave of iniquity. It is an awful and a miserable thing to think that professing Christians do often come into that position of being, by their inflamed passions and enfeebled wills, servants of the evil that they do. Alas! how many of us, if we were honest with ourselves, would have to say, “I am carnal, sold unto sin.”

That is not the lowest rung of the slippery ladder. Despotic sin ends in utter departure.

The word translated here, quite correctly, “transgression,” and intensified by that strong adjective attached, “a great transgression,” literally means rebellion, revolt, or some such idea; and expresses, as the ultimate issue of conscious transgression prolonged and perpetuated into habit, an entire casting off of allegiance to God. “No man can serve two masters.” “His servants ye are whom ye obey,” whomsoever you may call your master. The Psalmist feels that the end of indulged evil is going over altogether to the other camp. I suppose all of us have known instances of that sort. Men in my position, with a long life of ministry behind them, can naturally remember many such instances. And this is the outline history of the suicide of a Christian. First secret sin, unsuspected, because the conscience is torpid; then open sin, known to be such, but done nevertheless; then dominant sin, with an enfeebled will and power of resistance; then the abandonment of all presence or profession of religion. The ladder goes down into the pit, but not to the bottom of the pit. And the man that is going down it has a descending impulse after he has reached the bottom step and he falls–Where? The first step down is tampering with conscience. It is neither safe nor wise to do anything, howsoever small, against that voice. All the rest will come afterward, unless God restrains–“first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear,” and then the bitter harvest of the poisonous grain.

Be continued tomorrow

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