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FOR THE THEOLOGICAL MAGAZINE.
SERMON. " And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God and saying, Lord
Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord lay not this sin to their charge; and when he had said this, he fell asleep.” Acts vii. 59, 60.
flow different are the sentiments expressed in these words, from that courageous zeal, and those severe reproaches, with which this blessed martyr had heretofore treated the false accusations of the chief priests and the synagogue? He had denounced without ceasing, anathemas and maledictions against them and their posterity; and now, behold him kneeling humbly before them, and soliciting God to forgive them! Nothing but the Gospel of Christ, and the impression of his grace, can endue the human mind with qualities so eminently conspicuous in the ways of excellence thus different from each other. While Stephen addressed the Jews in the synagogue, he considered them as enemies to the divinity of Christ, and listened only to the dictates of his zeal, which induced him to pay little respect to their obstinate rejection of the truth; but when sinking under their murdering blows, he viewed them merely in the light of personal enemies, and inspired only with sentiments of charity, expressed his own forgiveness, and solicited that of heaven. We have in this first martyr, my brethren, an illustrious instance of that truly Christian virtue, which marks the genuine disciple of Christ, and which all who bear the name, are bound to practise under offences and injuries. This virtue, I say, is the distinguishing badge of the Christian religion, and its difficulty may be calculated by the small number of those who practise it.
Let us endeavour to trace to their source the principles which create this difficulty, and then to refute them. The law enjoining the forgiveness of injuries is violated, for the most part, either through ignorance or weakness, either because we are unacquainted with its extent, or shrink from its difficulties. It is therefore necessary to explain, in the first place, the true sense and latitude of this precept, and then to offer such considerations as may facilitate its practice to those who have regarded it as a task above the powers of man. Nothing is more certain, than that human passions are ever creating such disturbances in the world, that it is almost impossible to live without enemies, and be exempted from injury. These are often created by our vices, sometimes by our virtues. The greater part of men are unjust and capricious, subject to jealousy and over-delicate sensibilities; and truly difficult is it to live with them, when pursuing either the
same, or different objects, without experiencing from their passions, contention, insults, hatred, and revenge. Now religion knows no other means of maintaining the union and harmony of society, than by obliging men to terminate their quarrels, and extinguish their animosities by forgiveness of injuries. You have been, we will suppose, cruelly, unprovokedly, and unjustly offended. In this case, religion enjoins forgiveness and reconciliation. This is the law, the precept of Christ, and the rule of the Gospel; and perhaps, my brethren, a little attention will convince you, that it is a law of more extent than you have hitherto imagined. I will set down its several obligations, as detailed in the New Testament. The first of these obligations is to forgive: “ Forgive, and ye shall be forgiven*.” The second is, to forgive from our hearts: “ So likewise shall my heavenly Father do unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brothert." The third obligation is, to pardon without delay: « Let not the sun go down upon your wratht." The fourth is, to pardon all without exception: “ But I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse yous." The next obligation is, to make the first advances towards a reconciliation: “ Leave thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift|l.” And the sixth and last obligation is, “ to pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you."
Now to take up the consideration of these several obligations in the order in which they have been mentioned, let us first consider this forgiveness itself. “ Forgive," says our Lord, “ and ye shall be forgiven.” Forgive; that is, refrain from every species of revenge; for this, we know, does not consist exclusively in personal violence, homicide, or murder. There is a sullen and hidden vengeance, as well as that which courts the notice of the world. It may be moderate, or cruel: it may consist in actions or in words, in pointed raillery or malicious defamation: it may be indulged in reporting whatever can excite revenge in others: it may lurk under an air of inattention, coldness, indifference, and listlessness. When once any passion has seized upon the heart, it becomes, as: it were, the very soul of a man's actions. It possesses the malicious secret of attaching guilt to his very manner of acting or speaking; to the very manner of his refusing or granting a favour. Now the law of God prohibits all these different modificaci tions of revenge; for “ vengeance belongeth unto me, saith the Lord**.* It is not enough, therefore, to be on certain terms with an enemy, on whom we could inflict the extremes of vengeance: it is not enough that we impress a light stain upon his character, when it is in our power to destroy it; that we only attack him with obloquy, when we might overwhelm him with calumny; that we answer him in the language of petulance and raillery, when we could wound his soul with mortal anguish; that we are content to
• Luke vi. 37. || Matt. V. 24.
† Matt. xvii. 35.
# Eph. iv. 26. ** Heb. x. 30.
Matt. v. 44.
humble, mortify, and debase him, when able to crush him under our feet; for the law of God forbids revenge of every kind, and of every degree; as well that which is confined within the limits of malignity, as that which terminates in the excesses of fury. Nay, the very desire of revenge is forbidden by the law of God, for we are commanded « to forgive every one his brother from our hearts."
Many Christians revenge not themselves on an enemy, who still would wish to do so. Considerations of a prudential nature re. strain them from open violence and insult; but the heart being more free than the hand, it is suffered to indulge itself in the unbridled transports of anger and aversion. Who can enumerate all the horrours which are cherished there, when the foul demon of vengeance once gains admittance into it? what criminal desires are instantly excited? Perhaps the very death of an enemy, accompanied with every circumstance of aggravated cruelty, becomes the object of its wishes; or, at any rate, such a portion of infamy, humiliation, and calamity, as may render him contemptible or wretched. Now, although these sentiments be confined entirely to the heart, yet are they manifest transgressions of this law. Human laws, and human observation, merely regard the outward conduct; but God exacts the sacrifice of our hearts and affections, so that if forgiveness be not found there, we evidently stand guilty of the sin of revenge; and this forgiveness must be applied to injuries of every kind, however grievous and atrocious they may be.
The three objects which generally stand highest in human estimation, are property, reputation, and life. Has your property, then, been injured by an enemy? If such injury be unimportant, pass it by without notice; if he take thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. Has your honour been insulted? if the insult be triffing, rather run the risk of its being repeated, by turning the other cheek to the smiter, than listen without reflection to the suggestions of vengeance. Is an attempt made upon your life? even then, let no emotions of revenge interfere with its preservation. But what! you will say, are we then to suffer ourselves to be plundered, insulted, and destroyed with impunity? My brethren, no construction of this precept can be supposed to authorize such a conclusion. The learned St. Augustin, commenting upon these maxims of the Gospel, attributes to them a twofold force and tendency to regulate our outward behaviour under injuries, and to subdue and chasten the inward sentiments of our hearts. With respect to the former, the Gospel advises us rather to put up with slight affronts and injuries, than seek redress by vexatious retaliation: but with respect to the latter, on no account does the Gospel allow a spirit vindictive and resentful. No obligation, therefore, exists, says this father, of complying literally with the metaphorical language of the Scripture, which tells us to relinquish still more of our property to him who has already plundered us of a part, or to invite a second blow from him who has smitten us on the cheek; much Tess can it be supposed that we are commanded to submit to the
violence of an assassin. Any prohibitions of this kind would contravene the great laws of nature, which Christ came not to abrogate but to spiritualize and to exalt, by giving them a direction, and animating them with motives calculated to remove the influence of passion, and to ground their execution on the basis of reason. In a word, while human laws are instituted in society to check and punish the destructive ravages of the vindictive passions, religion strikes at the very root of the evil, by prohibiting that rancorous disposition, that propensity to vengeance so natural to human nature, and so fertile in crimes most fatal to our race. This Gospel law is unqualified and immutable, and no circumstance whatever can dispense with its obligations. The most provoking and oppressive grievances may be redressed from a spirit of private justice, and publick advantage, but never from a spirit of resentment and vengeance. If you ask when this obligation of forgiveness exists, the answer is immediately, upon the spot, at the very moment the offence is committed. The heart of a Christian must not harbour for an instant such an inmate as revenge. "Let not the sun go down upon your wrath." What then are we to think of those obstinate and inveterate hatreds, on which the sun not only has gone down in the evening, but has, moreover, accomplished his annual revolution? But some one may say, were you only acquainted with the enemy whom I detest; his dark and malicious disposition exceeds all belief. He is a monster of ingratitude and perfidy, who, in order to injure me, bids defiance to all the laws of confidence and friendship; an obscure insect, whom I drew from the dust, now striving to rise upon the ruins of my character; a serpent whom I have nourished in my bosom, ever watching to sting me to the heart. Admitting that the distorted pencil of prejudice and passion has not contributed to overcharge this picture, still must we have recourse to the Gospel, where we shall not find that the divine Lawgiver permits revenge in one case, and forbids it in another; that he overlooks it with respect to those who owe us every thing, and punishes it when exercised on those who owe us nothing: but he says, without exception, « Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.” But you will say, perhaps, how often is this forgiveness to be repeated? My brethren, as often as an offence is committed. Every fresh injury imposes on you a fresh obligation; and if your enemy should never cease to be unjust, yet must not you ever cease to be charitable. « Is it enough,” says Peter to our Saviour, « to pardon my enemy as much as seven times?" No, said he, it must be done seventy times seven; that is to say, you must exercise forgiveness an indefinite number of times; or, in other words, as often as you are offended.
It will be said, will not my indulgence harden the heart of my adversary? will not fresh injuries be the consequence of my ready forgiveness? I trust, my brethren, that this is seldom the case; for vengeance creates vengeance; like the polypus it reproduces itself, and your anger inflames that of your adversary. Were he VOL. I.--No. II.
to behold you mild, and patient, and moderate, and conceive you disposed to pardon a second injury, very rarely would he proceed to a third. But even in the supposition of his abusing your for frase bearance, this crime could never justify your departure from duty. The sacrifices which religion requires from her children, be they ever so numerous or painful, can never contract the bounds of their obligations; on the contrary, the more afflictions, and sor: fwry, la rows, and humiliations they meet with, the more they resemble tek po their crucified Master; and this conformity, especially when re. sulting from the malicious and uncontrollable passions of fellow. tite mortals, so far from sinking them into despondency and grief, should become the object of their ambition and glory.
Let him wait upon me, therefore, you will say; let that person puista who has so frequently and so cruelly injured me, make the first advances towards a reconciliation, and I will forget all that is past; I will forgive him every thing; I will sacrifice all my feelings to late my religion and duty. When the aggression is manifestly on the part of an adversary, these sentiments appear to be a compliance with the law; for we are then only commanded to leave our gift med before the altar, and to go first and be reconciled to our brother, when we remember that he has aught against us: so that the first put he step to a reconciliation is enjoined on the offender. But when put the injury is mutual, as is generally the case, the obligation of perill a making the first advances is mutual also, and the heart truly de pelo sirous of Christian harmony and love, will not examine too scru. **t ir pulously in which scale of the balance the reasons for animosity for preponderate. Of this it is fully persuaded, that the sublime efo Save forts of divine and supernatural charity are the distinguishing Rt of marks of the disciples of Jesus. “ By this,” says he, “ shall all to men know that ye are my disciples.” The Publicans, he further wus! tells us, love those who love them, they treat those with indiffere kod ence from whom they have nothing to expect; but ye, Christians, de must love those who hate, and persecute, and offend you. I do kito t not tell you to love them from feelings of taste, sympathy, or in- vitene clination, the sweet sources of intimate connexions and friendship, mis for this would be impossible; I am willing even that you should at feel a repugnance to loving them: but my law still is, that you alto love them notwithstanding this repugnance; that you set aside and some disregard the injury which has been done you, at least so far as e re
the affections are concerned; that charity should efface every ano mance • gry feature from the heart, and instead of the odious representa com
tion of an enemy, should exhibit to the mind every human being, scho friend or enemy, as an image of the Deity, a brother in Christ, a moc member of his family, and a claimant, under him, of human coma ater miseration and active benevolence. I say active benevolence, for spidi the love of enemies includes also the obligation of rendering them to the common services of society. “ If your enemy hunger," says usk Christ, “ give him meat, if he be thirsty, give him drink. When unjustly accused, withhold not your patronage; refuse him no such credit aş might uphold his tottering fortune; disdain not be