'NO GREATER LOVE'
A sure mark of true religion must always be godliness. It is not morality first of all. Morality must be rooted and grounded in evangelical holiness, or else it will quickly become self-righteousness and pharisaism. True religion does not consist mainly in the possession of gifts, either natural or spiritual. We must always preserve the clear distinction between gifts and grace. It is here that we are all in danger of going astray badly. To speak in tongues, to perform wonders, to have healing powers is not the essence of true Christianity. A man may, like Judas, possess such spiritual gifts and yet be without grace.
What is true of spiritual gifts may be also said of natural gifts. Powers of speaking and of intellect are not the essence of religion. We must never suggest that cleverness or learning or education are the main things. They are very good when found in a man of God. But they are exceedingly harmful when not sanctified. Thomas Halyburton learned that lesson as a young man when an old minister told him, "Unsanctified learning has done much harm to the church." Neither morality, nor giftedness, nor eloquence, nor cleverness is the marrow of Christianity; but godliness is.
Godliness is not easy to define in a word or two. It is a hunger in the heart of a renewed man for God. It is a strange consuming passion in the soul of a believer for nearness to God. It was said of one of the philosophers that he was a "God-intoxicated man". The phrase is worth using at least to show what godliness is in the soul of a true Christian. We are not interested in whether it was aptly used of the philosopher or not. But here is the essence of true holiness of life as it is always found, more or less, in all converted persons. With this yearning for God in the heart there is nothing to compare in importance in all the universe. The measure of a man is the measure of this appetite for union and communion with the living God. Small appetite proves small grace; large appetite proves much grace; no appetite shows there is no grace at all.
There is something violent about a soul in love with God. The Bible witnesses to this fact. Abraham is ready to offer up his son as a bloody sacrifice for no other reason than that he hears this to be the will of God. The naked will of God is all he lives by. Lesser Christians could scarcely bear such a test of Divine sovereignty. Most of us would ask God for reasons. But eminent, shining piety, like Abraham's, is ready to hazard all for the love it bears to the august and dread Being of God. It obeys even when it does not understand. It is God's glory to conceal his reasons from us. It is the mark of true godliness never to ask for them. This is the essence of true love to God: "I delight to do thy will, O my God." Not always to understand it, but always to do it.
That is the difference between godliness and fanaticism. Fanaticism strives to impress by its very extremeness. Godliness is anxious solely to do God's will, whether others see it or not. Godliness does the will of God so that the right hand does not see what the left is doing. Fanaticism always blows a trumpet in one way or another, and it is not regulated by the will of God.
Fanatics are fascinating people. In a way they shame us for our mediocrity and show us something new and awesome in religion. Madame Guyon stitched the Name of Jesus to her bare flesh. John of the Cross had nails in his shirt to (as he imagined) mortify the flesh. Saint Teresa swooned when she had her rapturous visions, as she thought, of Christ. Simon Stylites stood all his life on the top of a high pillar - for God's glory as he supposed. St Antony lived as a solitary hermit in the Egyptian desert that he might contemplate the mysteries of the faith. For a moment we are awe-struck when we think of these professed Christians. But when sanity returns we recall that more has to be said.
The fanatics go terribly wrong in one point. They go beyond the will of God. They live beyond and outside the revealed will of God. They have forgotten that "to obey is better than sacrifice", and that "whatsoever is not of faith is sin". But there is in true godliness (and this is not to deny that some at least of the fanatics were truly converted persons, though misled) what we might call a kind of "inward fanaticism", so to speak. By this we mean that godliness in its higher, stronger, maturer expressions and exercises is awe-inspiring and disconcerting to us in a similar sort of way to the fanatics. The biblical saints illustrate the point. Noah built the ark for no less than one hundred and twenty years. Moses' zeal for God's glory leads him to pray: "Blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written" (Exod. 32:32). Elijah is content to be fed by ravens. John the Baptist lives on locusts and wild honey.
Paul would fain be "accursed from Christ" if he may but save his Jewish brethren (Rom. 9:3). Of all these holy men it could be said, their meat and drink was to do the will of God, to please him, to finish their work, to approve themselves to God in all things. It is godliness that inspires them. It is what lifts them above the common order of men, even Christian men.
Not that the biblical saints only are like that. The same character is to be found in the best Christians of all ages. The best saints have always had a profound, all-absorbing preoccupation with the knowledge of God. Take Augustine: "I desire to know God and my soul. Nothing more? No, nothing at all." These are the words of a religious genius. He was a dungeon of learning, a master of rhetoric, a perfect Latinist, an expert in Roman Law. But his gifts of mind are not settled on secular themes. He passes beyond them all to the Being of God. Only in knowing God is his soul brought into the haven of rest. "Our heart is restless till we find our rest in Thee."
All is dross that is not found in God, that leads not to God, that lifts us not up to God. This is what condemns the purely academic person, the pure scholar. He is an idolater at heart. He rises no higher than his studies. His darkened heart is in love with the creature, and is content to terminate on his researches, on the secular level. It is a squalid and unworthy terminus for the mind of any man. It is to miss the wood for the trees. The unstudied Christian is higher in the scale by far than the studied unbeliever. The ignorant Christian rises to the Source of all, which is God. The scholar without Christ is a "fool" (Psa. 14:1) because all his learning does not bring him to penetrate the secret of the universe, which is to be found in Christ alone.
Calvin begins his Institutes with the point which Augustine made much earlier: "Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves." These are the first words of that great book. It is not that Calvin is simply picking up the threads where Augustine had left them a thousand years before. That he does do. But it is not the artificial effect of a self-conscious imitator. There was inevitability in it. Calvin's concept of theology is the very practical one that it is only truth from God that promotes godliness in man. This comes out very clearly from the whole title to the Institutes, which begins: "The Basic Teaching of the Christian Religion, comprising almost the sum of godliness and whatever it is necessary to know on the doctrine of salvation." That is the burden of the matter for Calvin: truth in order to godliness. It is the echo of Paul‚s phrase, "the doctrine which is according to godliness" (1 Tim. 6:3). This emphasis is the hall-mark of all the greatest theological writing and all the best evangelical preaching.
Herman Bavinck was stating what had been believed by all his best predecessors when he wrote in his Inaugural Address as Professor of Systematic Theology in the Free University of Amsterdam: "Religion, the fear of God, must therefore be the element which inspires and animates all theological investigations. That must be the pulse beat of the science." It is the same, basically, as what we have in the more homely words of M'Cheyne, that God does not require of us great learning but great likeness to Jesus Christ. At first sight it might appear that Bavinck is at variance with M'Cheyne. The former is talking about the importance of theological study: the latter about Christian living. But both are entirely agreed in this, that godliness - the fear of God, likeness to Christ - must be regarded as at the root of all that is best in the experience of the believer. At this one thing we aim above all else.
It should be the thoughtful and conscious aim of the Christian to grow in godliness. The immature Christian is content with little morsels of the knowledge of God. The young Christian is delighted with his books and his grasp of the orthodox creed. This is right and proper in its own way. But we must go on to perfection and to spiritual manhood in the personal, experimental enjoyment of the knowledge of God. Our books, our sermons, our communion seasons, our fellowship meetings of all kinds must be valued by us only as they lead us to a deeper knowledge of God himself. The aim is not personal pleasure but personal godliness.
It is difficult to measure growth in the knowledge of God because it is many-sided and comes to light in a variety of ways. But we suggest that there are in Scripture a number of marks of the maturing soul. For one thing, weariness with sin and with ourselves. The soul that is in love with God must be increasingly out of love with its sinful self. The product of this is meekness. No wonder Moses was the meekest man on earth. Job, too, was the greatest saint then alive (according to the judgment of God). Both men were remarkable for their meekness. They were so near the throne that they abhorred themselves in sackcloth and ashes.
Another test of growth in godliness is a developed moral sensitivity. The holier the Christian, the more he feels the spirituality and strictness of the Moral Law of God. That is why Calvin spends such a large part of his Institutes in expounding the Decalogue. Indeed, the Westminster Shorter Catechism takes up more time on the Ten Commandments than it does on basic theology. Developed Christian godliness is godliness in detail, obedience to the jot and tittle of the Law as well as to the broad general principles of Christian morality.
It will not do to criticize this Catechism as though it were badly balanced. The balance is deliberately and consciously made. The Catechism is not just to inform the head but to reform the heart and to mould the life.
We mention a third evidence of growing piety. It is fear of God. Careless Christians have low views of the strictness of God. They treat him as one of themselves. He is welcomed as a Father, but scarcely as a Judge before whom we shall all one day stand when "every mouth shall be stopped". Growth in godliness will always correct low views of God. Aaron had low views of God when he made the golden calf. But Moses' soul burned with holy indignation to the extent that he broke the tables of stone. He could not rest till the guilty had been slain and the calf ground to powder. He was higher in godliness than Aaron by many diameters. That was the great difference between them. Both were saved men, both were heirs of glory: but Moses was far more in the fear of the Lord. He excelled in godliness all who lived in his day. All the saved are godly. Conversion plants the seed of God in the heart. But the godly have much need of further godliness. Perhaps one of the deepest needs we all have as Christians today is this: to catch the vision which Calvinists in their best days have always cherished of the serious call to a devout and holy life.
We tend to say "saved" and "unsaved". But the saved are themselves called to "perfect holiness in the fear of God". As one of the old divines put it: "The lowest degree of grace will bring salvation to you, but not much glory to God." We would be the better if we lived in the light of M'Cheyne's expression: "Live so as to be missed when you die."