He took his text from the prophecies of Micah, chap 6 ver. 8. “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you—but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” I felt much pleasure in the very idea of the subject proposed from this text of scripture, the moment it was mentioned; and therefore listened with the more attention, in order to discover some leading points, which might be brought forward to give me comfort. The substance of the preacher’s sermon, when separated from the flowery ornaments of it, was directed to show that the path to happiness was set before everyone; that God had shown man what was good; and that it was man’s own fault if he did not follow it; that what the Lord required was nothing harsh, or unreasonable, or difficult; but the plain, easy, self-rewarding virtues of moral obligation; and that, if, in addition to the line of doing justly, the circumstances favored the love of mercy, in relieving the needs of the wretched, where ability reached, and dropping over them the tear of sympathy where it did not, and instead of studying to be wise above what is written, respecting divine things, to walk humbly with God—these made up the sum and substance of all moral and religious concerns.
“Well, Sir,”—cried my neighbor, who had attended also the church that morning, and was coming out of the porch at the same moment with myself—”well, Sir, what are your sentiments now? I hope our worthy vicar has fully satisfied your mind.” And this he said loud enough to be heard by those around, and with that kind of triumph which a man feels when he fancies he has fully established an opinion long disputed.
“It is my mercy,” replied a poor man, who overheard my neighbor’s observation, “that I have not so learned Christ. God has indeed shown me what is good; and could I look up and say that I have followed it, all might be well. But alas! ‘I have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.’ I know not what others feel; but I am free to confess, that in many instances which my recollection now reproaches me with, and others, no doubt, which my treacherous heart has long since forgotten, I have neither ‘done justly, loved mercy, nor walked humbly with my God.’
“Though I have reason to be very thankful that God’s preventing and restraining grace has kept me from the more open and flagrant acts of injustice, yet I am conscious that self-love and self-interest have betrayed me into the doing of many things which would not bear to be ascertained by the strict equilibrium of a standard of justice, which admits no partiality. I am no less convinced also that in speaking, I have committed, on numberless occasions, a breach of that golden rule of justice which forbids reporting to another’s injury, what in similar circumstances, I would have thought wrong to have had spoken of myself. And from the imagination of man’s heart, which scripture declares to be ‘only evil continually,’ I am persuaded that, in thinking, many unkind thoughts have arisen in my mind against my neighbor, which become a violation of that law of charity which thinks no evil. I dare not, therefore, whatever others may do—I dare not risk the final decision of my everlasting welfare on the point of ‘doing justly.’
“Neither under the condition of loving mercy,’ can I find greater confidence; for I discover in my nature anger, resentment, pride, and the like corrupt passions; which, in spite of all my endeavors to suppress them, like the eruptions of a volcano, which plainly bespeak the heat within from the lava thrown without, too clearly testify that the love of mercy is not the ruling passion; and therefore never to be estimated by the few casual acts of alms-giving, which, if the heart would be faithful to acknowledge, are sometimes more the result of pride, than the pure effect of real love and charity.
“I blush at the bare mention of ‘walking humbly with God,’ in the recollection how often my rebellious heart has risen, and is continually rising, in opposition to His government and authority. Fretful and impatient under the slightest afflictions, unthankful for the greatest mercies, and though desiring in my daily prayer that His will may be done, frequently wishing it may not, and even displeased if it is, when it thwarts my own; can such a creature be said to ‘walk humbly with his God?'”
My neighbor listened to the poor man’s observations; and when he had finished, walked away with out making a reply. For my part, though it appeared that his reasoning was conclusive and unanswerable, yet I ventured to say, “If this is the state of the case, what becomes of the morality of the Christian religion? and in what sense are we to accept the sermon on the mount, with which the great Author of it opened his commission?”
“The morality of the Christian Religion,” replied the poor man, “stands, where it always stood, upon its own fixed and immoveable basis; and, sooner shall Heaven and earth pass, than one jot or tittle of the law shall fail. God does not lose his authority to command, because man has lost his power to obey.—The creditor forgoes not the right to his just due, because the debtor is become insolvent. By “the Law is the knowledge of sin.” (Rom. 3:20.) Hence the great Author of the Christian system opened his commission with the promulgation of this law, that its unalterable terms might ever stand in the front of his gospel; and ‘the man that does them shall live in them.’ (Gal. 3:12.) If, therefore, any man can appeal to this standard of decision; can look up with an uncovered, undaunted front, and challenge the strictest scrutiny over every thought, and word, and action; if there be such an obedience found as can give life, ‘truly righteousness shall be by the law.’ (Gal. 3:21.) But if both scripture and experience have concluded all under sin; if all have sinned and come short of the glory of God, and by ‘the deeds of the law, no flesh can be justified in his sight;’ then it will be found that the moral sermon of the great Author of Christianity on the mount, as well as the moral system of the great Jewish lawgiver in the wilderness, were both designed to act as ‘the school-master to bring unto Christ’ (Gal. 3:24.) and, that ‘He is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.’ (Rom. 10:4.)
“Pause therefore one moment, and examine how the account stands between God and your conscience. In the present season of lightness and inattention, a multitude of occurrences of frailty, and sometimes what deserves a harsher name, pass away in the stream of time, noiseless and inaudible, and are soon swallowed up in the gulf of oblivion. But in that hour, when the Lord will lay ‘judgment to the line, and righteousness to the plumbline,’ if you and I have no better righteousness than our own to trust in, no Surety to stand in our stead, no Advocate to plead our cause—an effect infinitely more awful than that which loosed the loins of the impious monarch we read of will take place, when ‘weighed in the balance and found lacking.'” (Dan. 5:6.)
I knew not what to reply, and therefore remained silent. The poor man, bidding me farewell, left me to ruminate on the solemn inquiry, “How should man be just with God?” (Job 9:2.)
I felt the same force of what he said. It was a harsh sound; and the vibration long dwelt upon my ear, “How shall man be just with God?” It followed me to what Job calls the “visions of the night;” (Job 4.) and even then, like the spectre which he saw, the same expostulating voice seemed to cry, “How shall man be just with God?”
The stern demand rang through all the chambers of the conscience, as if a thousand voices had concurred to proclaim the utter impossibility of answering the question in the very moment of proposing it; and as an echo reverberates from broken walls, so the sound of conviction returned from my broken heart. “By the deeds of the law no flesh can be justified in his sight.” (Rom. 3:20.)
It is with some degree of grateful recollection that I look back upon this part of my history; and bless God, while I trace his divine hand graciously interposing by the instrumentality of this poor man, to rescue me from the dangerous path of delusion into which I had turned, when seeking justification by the deeds of the law. I can now enter into the participation of David’s experience upon a similar occasion, and feel somewhat of that spirit which he felt in the instance of the wife of the Carmelite, when under a deep conviction of that sin-preventing providence, he cried out, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, who sent you this day to meet me; and blessed be your advice, and blessed be you.” (1 Sam. 25:32.) In like manner I find cause to bless God in the review of this instance as the Author, the poor man as the instrument, and his advice as the means, which the Lord was pleased to commission, for the emancipation of my mind from a self-confidence which, if cherished, must have ultimately ended in my eternal ruin.
And my reader, will I hope forgive me if I interrupt the progress of the history for a moment, only to remind him, that unless the mind be brought under similar conclusions respecting the unalterable and inflexible right of God’s demands, “woe unto him who strives with his Maker!” We may fancy what we please, and frame a standard of our own for God to go by, according to our notions of the fitness of things; as if an arraigned culprit at the bar should stand up and prescribe laws to his judge! but it would be well to consider, before it be too late, the very solemn tone of decision in which scripture has settled the point, which leaves the subject at once determined and without appeal. “Behold he puts no trust in his saints, even his angels he charges with folly. What then is man, that he should be clean? and he which is born of a woman, that he should be righteous?” (Job 4:18; 15:14.)
The reader will forgive me if I introduce an anecdote in this place, which will serve under divine teaching to explain this memorable scripture of the Lord by the prophet, and throw a light upon it, in perfect analogy to the whole tenor of the gospel.
When I was in Gloucestershire, some two years since, a clergyman, whose views of divine things did not then perfectly agree with mine—but who kindly called upon me to propose certain questions, on those passages of scripture in which he supposed we very much differed; and began his interrogations by proposing this portion in the prophecy of Micah. “Suppose (said he), I was to preach tomorrow among my people on this text, how would you recommend me to comment upon it?” I said, “As soon as you have read before them the sacred words themselves, you might very safely say, I take for granted, that everyone who hears me is desirous to follow up the footsteps of the prophet in those acts of holy obedience. And as the highest instance of every other must be to do justice to God; are you everyone of you so convinced of sin, and the natural state in which everyone of you was born in the Adam-fall transgression, that both by original, and actual iniquity, you justly merit the present, and everlasting displeasure and punishment of Almighty God? And that in yourself, as you stand alone before God, you cannot escape the damnation of hell? This conviction wrought in the heart by the Holy Spirit, and unreservedly acknowledged by the mouth before God; is doing justice to Almighty God. And where this conviction is deeply wrought in the soul, what the prophet adds will immediately follow, namely, to love mercy; that is to know, and love, and delight in the glorious Person who is mercy itself, and whose glorious work, of the great salvation, wrought out by the Lord Jesus Christ, brought in mercy and peace and all covenant blessings. And where those two leading principles are inwrought in the regenerated heart by the divine unction of God the Holy Spirit; that self-convinced, self-condemned, self-loathing sinner will indeed walk every day, and all the day, humbly with God. (Deut. 8:2, 3. Ezek. 16:63.)
My visitor expressed himself so much satisfied with this view of the subject, that he said, he would certainly preach upon it according to this statement the following Lord’s day. What took place afterward, I know not—but the reader will forgive this short tangent.” -Robert Hawker [Zion’s Pilgrim]