A SERIOUS CALL TO A DEVOUT AND HOLY LIFE
by William Law
Showing how difficult the practice of humility is made, by the general spirit and temper of the world. How Christianity requireth us to live contrary to the world.
EVERY person, when he first applies himself to the exercise of this virtue of humility, must, as I said before, consider himself as a learner, that is to learn something that is contrary to former tempers and habits of mind, and which can only be got by daily and constant practice.
He has not only as much to do as he that has some new art or science to learn, but he has also a great deal to unlearn: he is to forget and lay aside his own spirit, which has been a long while fixing and forming itself; he must forget and depart from abundance of passions and opinions, which the fashion, and vogue, and spirit of the world, has made natural to him.
He must lay aside his own spirit; because as we are born in sin, so in pride, which is as natural to us as self-love, and continually springs from it. And this is one reason why Christianity is so often represented as a new birth, and a new spirit.
He must lay aside the opinions and passions which he has received from the world; because the vogue and fashion of the world, by which we have been carried away as in a torrent, before we could pass right judgments of the value of things, is, in many respects, contrary to humility; so that we must unlearn what the spirit of the world has taught us, before we can be governed by the spirit of humility.
The devil is called in Scripture the prince of this world, because he has great power in it, because many of its rules and principles are invented by this evil spirit, the father of all lies and falsehoods, to separate us from God, and prevent our return to happiness.
Now, according to the spirit and vogue of this world, whose corrupt air we have all breathed, there are many things that pass for great and honourable, and most desirable, which yet are so far from being so, that the true greatness and honour of our nature consists in the not desiring them.
To abound in wealth, to have fine houses, and rich clothes, to be attended with splendour and equipage, to be beautiful in our persons, to have titles of dignity, to be above our fellow-creatures, to command the bows and obeisance of other people, to be looked on with admiration, to overcome our enemies with power, to subdue all that oppose us, to set out ourselves in as much splendour as we can, to live highly and magnificently, to eat, and drink, and delight ourselves in the most costly manner, these are the great, the honourable, the desirable things, to which the spirit of the world turns the eyes of all people. And many a man is afraid of standing still, and not engaging in the pursuit of these things, lest the same world should take him for a fool.
The history of the Gospel is chiefly the history of Christ's conquest over the spirit of the world. And the number of true Christians is only the number of those who, following the Spirit of Christ, have lived contrary to this spirit of the world.
"If any man hath not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His." Again, "Whatsoever is born of God, overcometh the world." "Set your affection on things above, and not on things on the earth; for ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God." [Rom. viii. 9.; 1 John v. 4.; Col. iii. 2, 3] This is the language of the whole New Testament: this is the mark of Christianity: you are to be dead, that is, dead to the spirit and temper of the world, and live a new life in the Spirit of Jesus Christ.
But notwithstanding the clearness and plainness of these doctrines which thus renounce the world, yet great part of Christians live and die slaves to the customs and temper of the world.
How many people swell with pride and vanity, for such things as they would not know how to value at all, but that they are admired in the world!
Would a man take ten years more drudgery in business to add two horses more to his coach, but that he knows that the world most of all admires a coach and six? How fearful are many people of having their houses poorly furnished, or themselves meanly clothed, for this only reason, lest the world should make no account of them, and place them amongst low and mean people!
How often would a man have yielded to the haughtiness and ill-nature of others, and shown a submissive temper, but that he dares not pass for such a poorspirited man in the opinion of the world!
Many a man would often drop a resentment, and forgive an affront, but that he is afraid if he should, the world would not forgive him.
How many would practise Christian temperance and sobriety, in its utmost perfection, were it not for the censure which the world passes upon such a life!
Others have frequent intentions of living up to the rules of Christian perfection, which they are frighted from by considering what the world would say of them.
Thus do the impressions which we have received from living in the world enslave our minds, that we dare not attempt to be eminent in the sight of God and holy angels, for fear of being little in the eyes of the world.
From this quarter arises the greatest difficulty of humility, because it cannot subsist in any mind, but so far as it is dead to the world, and has parted with all desires of enjoying its greatness and honours. So that in order to be truly humble, you must unlearn all those notions which you have been all your life learning from this corrupt spirit of the world.
You can make no stand against the assaults of pride, the meek affections of humility can have no place in your soul, till you stop the power of the world over you, and resolve against a blind obedience to its laws.
And when you are once advanced thus far, as to be able to stand still in the torrent of worldly fashions and opinions, and examine the worth and value of things which are most admired and valued in the world, you have gone a great way in the gaining of your freedom, and have laid a good foundation for the amendment of your heart.
For as great as the power of the world is, it is all built upon a blind obedience; and we need only open our eyes to get quit of its power.
Ask whom you will, learned or unlearned, every one seems to know and confess, that the general temper and spirit of the world, is nothing else but humour, folly and extravagance.
Who will not own, that the wisdom of philosophy, the piety of religion, was always confined to a small number? and is not this expressly owning and confessing, that the common spirit and temper of the world is neither according to the wisdom of philosophy nor the piety of religion?
The world, therefore, seems enough condemned even by itself, to make it very easy for a thinking man to be of the same judgment.
And, therefore, I hope you will not think it a hard saying, that in order to be humble, you must withdraw your obedience from that vulgar spirit, which gives laws to fops and coquets, and form your judgments according to the wisdom of philosophy, and the piety of religion. Who would be afraid of making such a change as this?
Again: to lessen your fear and regard to the opinion of the world, think how soon the world will disregard you, and have no more thought or concern about you, than about the poorest animal that died in a ditch.
Your friends, if they can, may bury you with some distinction, and set up a monument, to let posterity see that your dust lies under such a stone; and when that is done, all is done. Your place is filled up by another, the world is just in the same state it was, you are blotted out of its sight, and as much forgotten by the world as if you had never belonged to it.
Think upon the rich, the great, and the learned persons, that have made great figures, and been high in the esteem of the world; many of them died in your time, and yet they are sunk, and lost, and gone, and as much disregarded by the world, as if they had been only so many bubbles of water.
Think, again, how many poor souls see heaven lost, and lie now expecting a miserable eternity, for their service and homage to a world that thinks itself every whit as well without them, and is just as merry as it was when they were in it.
Is it therefore worth your while to lose the smallest degree of virtue, for the sake of pleasing so bad a master, and so false a friend, as the world is?
Is it worth your while to bow the knee to such an idol as this, that so soon will have neither eyes, nor ears, nor a heart, to regard you, instead of serving that great, and holy, and mighty God, that will make all His servants partakers of His own eternity?
Will you let the fear of a false world, that has no love for you, keep you from the fear of that God, who has only created you that He may love and bless you to all eternity?
Lastly, You must consider what behaviour the profession of Christianity requireth of you with regard to the world.
Now this is plainly delivered in these words: "Who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil world." [Gal. i. 4] Christianity therefore implieth a deliverance from this world, and he that professeth it, professeth to live contrary to everything, and every temper, that is peculiar to this evil world.
St. John declareth this opposition to the world in this manner: "They are of the world: therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them. We are of God." [1 John iv. 5, 6] This is the description of the followers of Christ; and it is proof enough, that no people are to be reckoned Christians in reality, who in their hearts and tempers belong to this world. "We know," saith the same Apostle, "that we are of God, and the whole world lieth in wickedness." [1 John v. 19] Christians, therefore, can no farther know that they are of God, than so far as they know they are not of the world; that is, that they do not live according to the ways, and the spirit of the world. For all the ways, and maxims, and politics, and tempers of the world, lie in wickedness. And he is only of God, or born of God in Christ Jesus, who has overcome this world, that is, who has chosen to live by faith, and govern his actions by the principles of a wisdom revealed from God by Christ Jesus.
St. Paul takes it for a certainty, so well known to Christians, that they are no longer to be considered as living in this world, that he thus argues from it as from an undeniable principle, concerning the abolishing the rites of the Jewish law: "Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances?" [Col ii. 20]. Here could be no argument in this but in the Apostle's taking it for undeniable, that Christians knew that their profession required them to have done with all the tempers and passions of the world, to live as citizens of the new Jerusalem, and to have their conversation in Heaven.
Our Blessed Lord Himself has fully determined this point in these words: "They are not of this world, as I am not of this world." [John xvii. 16] This is the state of Christianity with regard to this world. If you are not thus out of, and contrary to the world, you want the distinguishing mark of Christianity; you do not belong to Christ, but by being out of the world as He was out of it.
We may deceive ourselves, if we please, with vain and softening comments upon these words; but they are, and will be, understood in their first simplicity and plainness by every one that reads them in the same spirit that our Blessed Lord spoke them. And to understand them in any lower, less significant meaning, is to let carnal wisdom explain away that doctrine by which itself was to be destroyed.
The Christian's great conquest over the world is all contained in the mystery of Christ upon the Cross. It was there, and from thence, that He taught all Christians how they were to come out of, and conquer the world, and what they were to do in order to be His disciples. And all the doctrines, Sacraments, and institutions of the Gospel are only so many explications of the meaning, and applications of the benefit, of this great mystery.
And the state of Christianity implieth nothing else, but an entire, absolute conformity to that spirit which Christ showed in the mysterious Sacrifice of Himself upon the Cross.
Every man therefore is only so far a Christian, as he partakes of this Spirit of Christ. It was this that made St. Paul so passionately express himself, "God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ": but why does he glory? Is it because Christ had suffered in his stead, and had excused him from suffering? No, by no means. But it was because his Christian profession had called him to the honour of suffering with Christ, and of dying to the world under reproach and contempt, as He had done upon the Cross. For he immediately adds, "by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world." [Gal. vi. 14] This, you see, was the reason of his glory in the Cross of Christ, because it had called him to a like state of death and crucifixion to the world.
Thus was the Cross of Christ, in St. Paul's days, the glory of Christians; not as it signified their not being ashamed to own a Master that was crucified, but as it signified their glorying in a religion which was nothing else but a doctrine of the Cross, that called them to the same suffering spirit, the same sacrifice of themselves, the same renunciation of the world, the same humility and meekness, the same patient bearing of injuries, reproaches, and contempts, and the same dying to all the greatness, honours, and happiness of this world, which Christ showed upon the Cross.
To have a true idea of Christianity, we must not consider our Blessed Lord as suffering in our stead, but as our Representative, acting in our name, and with such particular merit, as to make our joining with Him acceptable unto God.
He suffered, and was a Sacrifice, to make our sufferings and sacrifice of ourselves fit to be received by God. And we are to suffer, to be crucified, to die, and rise with Christ; or else His Crucifixion, Death, and Resurrection, will profit us nothing.
The necessity of this conformity to all that Christ did and suffered upon our account is very plain from the whole tenor of Scripture.
First, As to His sufferings: this is the only condition of our being saved by them, "if we suffer" with Him, "we shall also reign with Him." [2 Tim. ii. 12]
Secondly, As to His Crucifixion; "knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him," [Rom. vi. 6. etc] Here you see Christ is not crucified in our stead; but unless our old man be really crucified with Him, the Cross of Christ will profit us nothing.
Thirdly, As to the death of Christ, the condition is this: "If we be dead with Christ," we believe that "we shall also live with him." [2 Tim. ii. 11] If therefore Christ be dead alone, if we are not dead with Him, we are as sure, from this Scripture, that we shall not live with Him.
Lastly, As to the Resurrection of Christ, the Scripture showeth us how we are to partake of the benefit of it: "If ye be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God." [Col. iii. 1]
Thus you see how plainly the Scripture sets forth our Blessed Lord as our Representative, acting and suffering in our name, binding and obliging us to conform to all that he did and suffered for us.
It was for this reason that the Holy Jesus said of His disciples, and in them of all true believers, "They are not of this world, as I am not of this world. [John xvii. 14] Because all true believers, conforming to the sufferings, Crucifixion, Death and Resurrection of Christ, live no longer after the spirit and temper of this world, but their life is hid with Christ in God.
This is the state of separation from the world, to which all orders of Christians are called. They must so far renounce all worldly tempers, be so far governed by the things of another life, as to show that they are truly and really crucified, dead, and risen, with Christ. And it is as necessary for all Christians to conform to this great change of spirit, to be thus in Christ new creatures, as it was necessary that Christ should suffer, die, and rise again, for our salvation.
How high the Christian life is placed above the ways of this world, is wonderfully described by St. Paul, in these words: "Wherefore henceforth know we no man after the flesh: yea, though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet henceforth know we Him no more. Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new." [2 Cor. v. 16, 17]
He that feels the force and spirit of these words, can hardly bear any human interpretation of them. Henceforth, says he, that is, since the Death and Resurrection of Christ, the state of Christianity is become so glorious a state, that we do not even consider Christ Himself as in the flesh upon earth, but as a God of glory in Heaven; we know and consider ourselves not as men in the flesh, but as fellow-members of a new society, that are to have all our hearts, our tempers, and conversation, in Heaven.
Thus is it that Christianity has placed us out of and above the world; and we fall from our calling, as soon as we fall into the tempers of the world.
Now as it was the spirit of the world that nailed our Blessed Lord to the Cross; so every man that has the Spirit of Christ, that opposes the world as He did, will certainly be crucified by the world, some way or other.
For Christianity still lives in the same world that Christ did; and these two will be utter enemies, till the kingdom of darkness is entirely at an end.
Had you lived with our Saviour as His true disciple, you had then been hated as He was; and if you now live in His Spirit, the world will be the same enemy to you now, that it was to Him then.
" If ye were of the world," saith our Blessed Lord, "the world would love its own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you." [John xv. 19]
We are apt to lose the true meaning of these words, by considering them only as an historical description of something that was the state of our Saviour and His disciples at that time. But this is reading the Scripture as a dead letter; for they as exactly describe the state of true Christians at this, and at all other times, to the end of the world.
For as true Christianity is nothing else but the Spirit of Christ, so whether that Spirit appear in the person of Christ Himself, or His Apostles, or followers in any age, it is the same thing; whoever hath His Spirit will be hated, despised, and condemned by the world, as He was.
For the world will always love its own, and none but its own: this is as certain and unchangeable, as the contrariety betwixt light and darkness.
When the Holy Jesus saith, "If the world hate you," He does not add by way of consolation, that it may some time or other cease its hatred, or that it will not always hate them; but He only gives this as a reason for their bearing it, "you know that it hated me, before it hated you"; [John xv. 18] signifying, that it was He, that is, His Spirit, that, by reason of its contrariety to the world, was then, and always would be, hated by it.
You will perhaps say, that the world has now become Christian, at least that part of it where we live; and therefore the world is not now to be considered in that state of opposition to Christianity, as when it was heathen.
It is granted, the world now professeth Christianity. But will any one say that this Christian world is of the Spirit of Christ? Are its general tempers the tempers of Christ? Are the passions of sensuality, self-love, pride, covetousness, ambition, and vain-glory, less contrary to the spirit of the Gospel now they are amongst Christians, than when they were amongst heathens? Or will you say that the tempers and passions of the heathen world are lost and gone?
Consider, secondly, what you are to mean by the world. Now this is fully described to our hands by St. John. "All that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life," [1 John ii. 16] This is an exact and full description of the world. Now will you say that this world is become Christian? But if all this still subsists, then the same world is now in being, and the same enemy to Christianity, that it was in St. John's days.
It was this world that St. John condemned, as being not of the Father: whether therefore it outwardly professeth, or openly persecuteth Christianity, it is still in the same state of contrariety to the true spirit and holiness of the Gospel.
And indeed the world, by professing Christianity, is so far from being a less dangerous enemy than it was before, that it has by its favours destroyed more Christians than ever it did by the most violent persecution.
We must, therefore, be so far from considering the world as in a state of less enmity and opposition to Christianity than it was in the first times of the Gospel, that we must guard against it as a greater and more dangerous enemy now, than it was in those times.
It is a greater enemy, because it has greater power over Christians by its favours, riches, honours, rewards, and protection, than it had by the fire and fury of its persecutions.
It is a more dangerous enemy, by having lost its appearance of enmity. Its outward profession of Christianity makes it no longer considered as an enemy, and therefore the generality of people are easily persuaded to resign themselves up to be governed and directed by it.
How many consciences are kept at quiet, upon no other foundation, but because they sin under the authority of the Christian world!
How many directions of the Gospel lie by unregarded, and how unconcernedly do particular persons read them, for no other reason but because they seem unregarded by the Christian world!
How many compliances do people make to the Christian world, without any hesitation or remorse; which, if they had been required of them only by heathens, would have been refused, as contrary to the holiness of Christianity!
Who could be content with seeing how contrary his life is to the Gospel, but because he sees that he lives as the Christian world doth?
Who, that reads the Gospel, would want to be persuaded of the necessity of great self-denial, humility, and poverty of spirit, but that the authority of the world has banished this doctrine of the Cross?
There is nothing, therefore, that a good Christian ought to be more suspicious of, or more constantly guard against, than the authority of the Christian world.
And all the passages of Scripture which represent the world as contrary to Christianity, which require our separation from it, as from a Mammon of unrighteousness, a monster of iniquity, are all to be taken in the same strict sense, in relation to the present world.
For the change that the world has undergone has only altered its methods, but not lessened its power, of destroying religion.
Christians had nothing to fear from the heathen world but the loss of their lives; but the world become a friend, makes it difficult for them to save their religion.
Whilst pride, sensuality, covetousness, and ambition, had only the authority of the heathen world, Christians were thereby made more intent upon the contrary virtues. But when pride, sensuality, covetousness, and ambition, have the authority of the Christian world, then private Christians are in the utmost danger, not only of being ashamed out of the practice, but of losing the very notion, of the piety of the Gospel.
There is, therefore, hardly any possibility of saving yourself from the present world, but by considering it as the same wicked enemy to all true holiness, as it is represented in the Scriptures; and by assuring yourself, that it is as dangerous to conform to its tempers and passions now it is Christian, as when it was heathen.
For only ask yourself, Is the piety, the humility, the sobriety of the Christian world, the piety, the humility, and sobriety of the Christian spirit? If not, how can you be more undone by any world, than by conforming to that which is Christian?
Need a man do more to make his soul unfit for the mercy of God, than by being greedy and ambitious of honour? Yet how can a man renounce this temper, without renouncing the spirit and temper of the world, in which you now live?
How can a man be made more incapable of the Spirit of Christ, than by a wrong value for money? and yet, how can he be more wrong in his value of it, than by following the authority of the Christian world?
Nay, in every order and station of life, whether of learning or business, either in Church or State, you cannot act up to the spirit of religion, without renouncing the most general temper and behaviour of those who are of the same order and business as yourself.
And though human prudence seems to talk mighty wisely about the necessity of avoiding particularities, yet he that dares not be so weak as to be particular, will be often obliged to avoid the most substantial duties of Christian piety.
These reflections will, I hope, help you to break through those difficulties, and resist those temptations, which the authority and fashion of the world hath raised against the practice of Christian humility.
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