Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 12

Second Advent Lecture: The Roman

Preached December 13, 1849

  Frederick W. Robertson

“I am debtor both to the Greeks, and to the Barbarians; both to the wise, and to the unwise. So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you that are at Rome also. For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” – Romans 1:14-16.

The Advent of Christ is the gulf which separates ancient from modern history. The dates B.C. and A.D. are not arbitrary but real division. His coming is the crisis of the world’s history. It was the moment from whence light streamed into the realms of darkness, and life descended into the regions of the grave. It was the new birth of worn-out Humanity.

Last Thursday we considered the effects of this Advent on Greece. We found the central principle of Grecian life to be worldliness. The Greek saw, sought, and worshipped, nothing higher than this life, but only this life itself. Hence Greek religion degenerated into mere taste, which is perception of the beautiful. The result on character was three-fold: Restlessness, which sent the Greek through this world with his great human heart unsatisfied, fickle in disposition, and ever inquiring, with insatiable curiosity, after some new thing. Licentiousness; for whosoever attaches his heart to the outward beauty, without worshipping chiefly in it that moral beauty of which all else is but the type and suggestion, necessarily, slowly, it may be, but inevitably, sinks down and down into the deepest abyss of sensual existence. Lastly, unbelief. The Greek, seeing principally this world, lost his hold upon the next. For the law of faith is that a man can only believe what is already in his spirit. He believes as he is. The Apostle Paul writes in astonishment to these Greeks (of Corinth), “How say some among you there is no resurrection of the dead?” But the thing was explicable. Paul was “dying daily.” The outward life decayed; the inner grew and lived with more vitality every day. He felt the life to come in which he believed. ‘But the Corinthians, leading an easy, luxurious life, how could it be a reality to them? How could they believe in immortality, in whom the immortal scarcely stirred, or only feebly? “To these the apostle felt bound to preach the living gospel. “I am debtor to the Greeks.”

To-day, we turn to the Roman nation, its religion, and its life. At the time of which the New Testament speaks, Greece had been nearly a century and a half a province of Rome. In the language of Daniel, the kingdom of brass had given way to the kingdom of iron. The physical might of Rome had subdued Greece, but the mind of Greece had mastered Rome. The Greeks became the teachers of their conquerors. The deities of Greece were incorporated into the national faith of Rome. Greek literature became the education of the Roman youth. Greek philosophy was almost the only philosophy the Roman knew. Rome adopted Grecian arts, and was insensibly moulded by contact with Grecian life. So that the world in name and government was Roman, but in feeling and civilization Greek.

If, therefore, we would understand Roman life, we must contemplate it at an earlier period, when it was free from Greek influence, and purely exhibited its own idiosyncrasies.

The nation which we contemplate to-day was a noble one - humanly, one of the noblest that the world has seen. Next to the Jewish, the very highest. We may judge from the fact of St. Paul’s twice claiming his Roman citizenship, And feeling the indignation of a Roman citizen at the indignity of chastisement. And this too in an age when the name had lost its brightness - when a luxurious, wealthy Greek could purchase his freedom. Claudius Lysias bought it “with a large sum of money.” And yet we may conceive what it had been once, when even the faint lustre of its earlier dignity could inspire a foreigner, and that foreigner a Jew, and that Jew a Christian, with such respect.

At the outset, then, we have a rare and high-minded people and their life, to think of They who have imbibed the spirit of its writers from their youth can neither speak nor think of it without enthusiasm. Scarcely can we forbear it even in the pulpit. Nor is this an unchristian feeling, earthly, to be checked; for in order to elevate Christianity, it is not necessary to vilify heathenism. To exalt revelation, we need not try to show that natural religion has no truths. To exhibit the blessings of the Advent, it is not needful to demonstrate that man was brutalized without it. It is a poor, cowardly system which can only rise by the degradation of all others. Whatever is true belongs to the kingdom of the truth. The purer the creed, the higher the character, the nobler the men who, without revelation, signally failed at last, the more absolute is the necessity of a Redeemer, and the more are we constrained to refer gratefully all blessings to His Advent.

We take three points: the public and private life of Rome, and its moral and inevitable decay at last.

I. The public life of Rome.

First, I notice the spirit of its religion. The very word shows what that was. Religion, a Roman word, means obligation, a binding power. Very different from the corresponding Greek expression, which implies worship by a sensuous ceremonial (threskeia).

The Roman began, like the Jew, from law. He started from the idea of duty. But there was an important difference. The Jew was taught duty or obedience to the law of a personal, holy God. The Roman obeyed, as his Etruscan ancestors taught him, a fate or will, and with very different results. But at present we only observe the lofty character of the early religion which resulted from such a starting-point.

The early history of Rome is wrapped in fable; but the fable itself is worth much, as preserving the spirit of the old life when it does not preserve the facts. Accordingly, the tradition taught that the building of Rome was done in obedience to the intimations of the will of Heaven. It was realms. built in a site selected not by human prudence, but by a voice divinely guided. Its first great legislator (Numa) is represented as giving laws, not from a human heart, but after secret communion with the superhuman. It was the belief of Roman writers that the early faith taught access to God only through the mind; that therefore no images, but only temples, were found in Rome during the first two centuries of her existence. No bloody sacrifices defiled the city. War itself was a religious act; solemnly declared by a minister of religion casting a spear into the enemy’s territory. Nay, we even find some thing in spirit resembling the Jewish sabbath; the command that during the rites of religion no traffic should go on, nor workman’s hammer break the consecrated silence, but that men should devoutly contemplate God.

Here was a high, earnest, severe religion.

Now this resulted in government, as its highest earthly expression. Duty - and therefore law on earth - as a copy of the will of Heaven. Different nations seem, consciously or unconsciously, destined by God to achieve different missions. The Jew had the highest: to reveal to the world holiness. The Oriental stands as a witness to the reality of the Invisible above the Visible. The Greek reminded the world of eternal beauty; and the destiny of the Roman seems to have been to stamp upon the minds of mankind the ideas of law, government, order.

Beauty was not the object of the Roman contemplation, nor worship; nor was harmony, The taste for them might be taught, superinduced, but it was not natural. It was not indigenous to the soil of his nature. Hence, when Greece was reduced to a Roman province, in 146 B.C., the Roman soldiers took the noblest specimens of Grecian painting and converted them into gambling tables.

You may distinguish the difference of the two characters from the relics which they have left behind them. The Greek produced a statue or a temple, the expression of a sentiment. The Roman, standing upon visible fact, dealing with the practical, and living in the actual life of men has left behind him works of public usefulness: noble roads which intersect empires, mighty aqueducts, bridges, enormous excavations for draining cities at which we stand astonished; and, above all, that system of law, the slow result of ages of experience, which has so largely entered into the modern jurisprudence of most European nations.

One of their own writers has distinctly recognized this destiny. “It is for others to work brass into breathing shape - others may be more eloquent - or describe the circling movements of the heavens, and tell the rising of the stars. Thy work, 0 Roman! is to rule the nations: these be thine acts: to impose the conditions of the world’s peace, to show mercy to the fallen, and to crush the proud.”

In accordance with this, it is a characteristic fact that we find the institutions of Rome referred to inspiration. Not a decalogue of private duties, but a code of municipal laws. And, turning to the page of Scripture, whenever the Roman comes prominently forward, we always find him the organ of law, the instrument of public rule and order. Pilate has no idea of condemning unjustly: “Why, what evil hath He done?” But he yields at the mention of the source of law, the emperor. The Apostle Paul appeals to Caesar, and even a corrupt Festus respects the appeal: “Unto Caesar shalt thou go.” Nor could even the prisoner’s innocence reverse his own appeal: “This man might have been set at liberty if he had not appealed unto Caesar.” The tumult at Ephesus is stilled by a hint of Roman interference. “We are in danger of being called in question for this day’s uproar.” When the angry crowd at Athens, and the equally angry mob of the Sanhedrim, was about to destroy Paul, again the Roman, Claudius Lysias, comes “with an army, and rescues him.”

It was always the same thing. The Roman seems almost to have existed to exhibit on earth a copy of the Divine order of the universe, the law of the heavenly hierarchies.

II. Private life.

We observe the sanctity of the domestic ties. Very touching are all the well-known anecdotes: that, for instance, of the noble Roman matron, who felt, all spotless as she was, life-dishonored, and died by her own hand. The sacredness of home was expressed strongly by the idea of two guardian deities (Lares and Penates) who watched over it. A Roman’s own fireside and hearth-stone were almost the most sacred spots on earth. There was no battle-cry that came so to his heart as that, “For the altar and the hearth.” How firmly this was rooted in the nation’s heart is plain from the tradition, that for 170 years no separation took place by law between those who had once been united in wedlock.

There is deep importance in this remark, for it was to this that Rome owed her greatness. The whole fabric of the Commonwealth rose out of the Family. The family was the nucleus round which all the rest agglomerated. First, the family; then the clan, made up of the family and its dependents or clients: then the tribe; lastly, the nation. And so the noble structure of the Roman Commonwealth arose, compacted and mortised together, but resting on the foundation of the hearth-stone.

Very different is it in the East. A nation there is a collection of units, held together by a government. There is a principle of cohesion in them, but only such cohesion as belongs to the column of sand, supported by the whirlwind when the blast ceases, the atoms fall asunder. When the chief is slain or murdered, the nation is in anarchy - the family does not exist. Polygamy and infanticide, the bane of domestic life, are the destruction, too, of national existence.

There is a solemn lesson in this. Moral decay in the family is the invariable prelude to public corruption. It is a false distinction which we make between public integrity and private honor. The man whom you can not admit into your family, whose morals are corrupt, can not be a pure statesman. Whoever studies history will be profoundly convinced that a nation stands or falls with the sanctity of its domestic ties. Rome mixed with Greece, and learned her morals. The Goth was at her gates; but she fell not till she was corrupted and tainted at the heart. The domes, tic corruption preceded the political. When there was no longer purity on her hearth-stones, nor integrity in her Senate, then, and not till then, her death-knell was rung.

We will bless God for our English homes. Partly the result of our religion; partly the result of the climate which God has given us, according to the law of compensation by which physical evil is repaid by moral blessing; so that, its gloom and darkness making life more necessarily spent within doors than it is among Continental nations, our life is domestic, and theirs is social. When England shall learn domestic maxims from strangers, as Rome from Greece, her ruin is accomplished. And this blessing, too, comes from Christ - who presided at the marriage-feast at Cana, who found a home in the family of Nazareth, and consecrated the hearth-stone with everlasting inviolability.

Let us break up this private life into particulars.

1. We find manly courage. This too is preserved in a word. Virtue is a Roman word - manhood, courage; for courage, manhood, virtue were one word. Words are fossil thoughts: you trace the ancient feeling in that word - you trace it, too, in the corruption of the word. Among the degenerate descendants of the Romans, virtue no longer means manhood; it is simply dilettantism. The decay of life exhibits itself in the debasement even of words.

We dwell on this courage, because it was not merely animal daring, Like every thing Roman, it was connected with religion. It was duty, obedience to will, self-surrender to the public good. The Roman legions subdued the world; but it was not their discipline alone, nor their strength, nor their brute daring. It was rather, far, their moral force - a nation whose legendary and historical heroes could thrust their hand into the flame, and see it consumed without a nerve shrinking; or come from captivity on parole, advise their countrymen against peace, and then go back to torture and certain death: or devote themselves by solemn self-sacrifice (like the Decii), who could bid sublime defiance to pain and count dishonor the only evil. The world must bow before such men; for unconsciously, here was a form of the spirit of the Cross - self-surrender, unconquerable fidelity to duty, sacrifice for others. And so far as Rome had in her that spirit, and so long as she had it, her career was the career of all those who in any form, even the lowest, take up the Cross: she went forth conquering and to conquer.

2. Deep as Roman greatness was rooted in the courage of her men, it was rooted deeper still in the honor of her women. I take one significant fact, which exhibits national feeling. There was a fire in Rome called eternal, forever replenished. It was the type and symbol of the duration of the Republic. This fire was tended by the Vestals - a beautifully significant institution. It implied that the duration of Rome was co-extensive with the preservation of her purity of morals. So long as the dignity of her matrons and her virgins remained unsullied, so long she would last. No longer. Female chastity guarded the Eternal City.

Here we observe something anticipative of Christianity. In the earlier ages after the Advent there were divine honors paid to the Queen of Heaven, and the land was covered over with houses set apart for celibacy. Of course, rude and gross minds can find plenty to sneer at in that institution, and doubtless the form of the truth was mistaken enough, as all mere forms of doctrine are. But the heart of truth which lay beneath all that superstition was a precious one. It was this. So long as purity of heart, delicacy of feeling, chastity of life, are found in a nation, so long that nation is great - no longer. Personal purity is the divinest thing in man and woman. It is the most sacred truth which the Church of Christ is commissioned to exhibit and proclaim.

Upon these virtues I observe: The Roman was conspicuous for the virtues of this earth - honor, fidelity, courage, chastity, all manliness; yet the apostle felt that he had a Gospel to preach to them that were in Rome also. Moral virtues are not religious graces. There are two classes of excellence. There are men whose lives are full of moral principle, and there are others whose feelings are strong1y devotional. And, strange to say, each of these is found at times disjoined from the other. Men of almost spotless earthly honor, who scarcely seem to know what reverence for things heavenly and devout aspirations towards God mean; men who have the religious instinct, pray with fervor, kindle with spiritual raptures, and yet are impure in their feelings, and fail in matters of common truth and honesty. Each of these is but a half man, dwarfed and stunted in his spiritual growth The “perfect man in Christ Jesus,” who has grown to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,” is he who has united these two things: who, to the high Roman virtues which adorn this earth, has added the sublimer feelings which are the investiture of Heaven: in whom “justice, mercy, truth” are but the body of which the soul is faith and love.

Yet observe, these are moral virtues, and morality is not religion. Still, beware of depreciating them. Beware of talking contemptuously of “mere morality.” If we must choose between two things which ought never to be divided, moral principle and religious sentiment, there is no question which most constitutes the character “ which is not far from the kingdom of heaven.” Devout feelings are common h in childhood, religious emotions, religious warmth, instances of which are retailed by the happy parent; common enough, too, in grown men and women - but listen - those devout feelings, separate from high principle, do not save from immorality: nay, I do believe, are the very stepping-stone towards it. When the sensual is confounded with and mistaken for the spiritual; and merely devout warmth is the rich, rank soil of heart in which moral evil most surely and most rankly grows - you will not easily build Roman virtues upon that. But high principle, which is, in other words, the baptism of John, is the very basis on which is most naturally raised the superstructure of religious faith. Happy, thrice happy he who begins with the law and ends with the gospel.

III. The decline of Roman life.

1. First came corruption of the moral character. The Roman worldliness was of a kind far higher than the Grecian. In his way the Roman really had the world’s good at heart. There was a something invisible at which he aimed invisible justice, invisible order, invisible right. Still it was only the law on earth - the well-being of this existence. And whatever is only of this earth is destined to decay. The soul of the Roman, bent on this world’s affairs, became secularized, then animalized, and so at last, when there was little left to do, pleasure became his aim, as it had been the Grecian’s. Then came ruin swiftly. When the emperors lived for their elaborately contrived life of luxury, when the Roman soldier left his country’s battles to be fought by mercenaries, the doom of Rome was sealed. Yet, because ii was a nobler worldliness, less sensual and less selfish, the struggle with decay was more protracted than in Greece. Lofty spirits rose to stem the tide of corruption, and the death-throes of Rome were long and terrible. She ran a mighty career of a thousand years.

2. Skepticism and superstition went band in band. An example of the former we have in Pilate’s question,” What is truth?” An example of the latter in the superstitious belief of the inhabitants of Lystra that Paul and Barnabas were “gods come to them in the likeness of men.” And this probably was a tolerably accurate picture of the state of Roman feeling. The lower classes sunk in a debased superstition - the educated classes, too intellectual to believe in it, and yet having, nothing better to put in its stead. Or perhaps there was also a superstition which is only another name for skepticism: infidelity trembling at itself, shrinking from its own shadow. There is a fearful question for which the soul must find an answer - the mystery of its own being and destinies. Men looked into their own souls, and, listening, heard only an awful silence there. No response came from the world without. Philosophy had none to give. And then men, terrified at the progress of infidelity, more than half distrusting their own tendencies, took refuge in adding superstition to superstition. They brought in the gods of Greece, and Egypt, and the East: as if multiplying the objects of reverence strengthened the spirit of reverence in the soul; as if every new sacredness was a barrier between them and the dreadful abyss of uncertainty into which they did not dare to look.

This is as true now as then. Superstition is the refuge of a skeptical spirit, which has a heart too devout to dare to be skeptical. Men tremble at new theories, new views, the spread of infidelity, and they think to fortify themselves against these by multiplying the sanctities which they reverence. But all this will not do. Superstition can not do the work of faith, and give repose or peace. It is not by multiplying ceremonies - it is not by speaking of holy things with raw, bated breath - it is not by entrenching the soul behind the infallibility of a church, or the infallibility of the words and sentences of a book - it is not by shutting out inquiry, and resenting every investigation as profane, that you can arrest the progress of infidelity. Faith, not superstition, is the remedy.

There is a grand fearlessness in faith. He who in big heart of hearts reverences the good, the true, the holy - that is, reverences God - does not tremble at the apparent success of attacks upon the outworks of his faith. They may shake those who rested on those outworks - they do not move him whose soul reposes on the truth itself He needs no props or crutches to support his faith. He does not need to multiply the objects of his awe in order to keep dreadful doubt away. Founded on a Rock, Faith can afford to gaze undismayed at the approaches of Infidelity.

3. In Rome religion degenerated into allegiance to the State. In Greece, as it has been truly said, it ended in taste. In Rome it closed with the worship of the emperor. Nothing shows the contrast between Greek and Roman feeling more strongly than this. In Greece the poet became the prophet, and the artist was the man divinely inspired. In Rome the deification of the emperor, as the symbol of government, was the point towards which, unsuspected, but ho a sure and inevitable consecutiveness, the national feeling for ages had been tending.

And the distinction between the Christian and the Roman tone of feeling, is no less strikingly contrasted in the very same allegiance. Sacrament, perhaps, is the highest word of symbolical life in both. It is a Roman word. In Rome it meant an oath of allegiance to the Senate and Roman people. Nothing higher the Roman knew. In the Christian Church it is also the oath of highest fidelity; but its import there is this: “ Here we offer and present unto thee, 0 Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a living sacrifice.”

In this contrast of the sacramental vows, as I have remarked before, were perceptible the different tendencies of the two starting-points of revealed religion and Roman. Judaism began from law or obligation to a holy person. Roman religion began from obedience to a mere will. Judaism ended in Christianity, whose central principle is joyful surrender to One whose name is Love. The religion of Rome ended, among the nobler, as Cato and the Antonines, in the fatalism of a sublime but loveless stoicism, whose essential spirit is submission to a destiny; among the ordinary men, in mere zeal for the state, more or less earthly. It stiffened into stoicism, or degenerated in public spirit.

4. The last step we notice is the decline of religion into expediency It is a startling thing to see men protecting popular superstitions which they despise; taking part with solemn gravity in mummeries which in their heart they laugh at. Yet such, we are told, was the state of things in Rome. It is a trite and often quoted observation of a great Roman, that one minister of religion could scarcely meet another without a smile upon his countenance, indicating consciousness of a solemn mockery. And an instance of this, I believe, we have in the Acts of the Apostles. The town-clerk or magistrate of Ephesus stilled the populace by a kind of accommodation to their prejudices much in the same way in which a nurse would soothe a passionate child. Apparently, as we are told, he belonged to the friends of Paul; and we can scarcely forbear a smile at the solemn gravity with which he assures the people that there could be no doubt that the image fell down from Jupiter: no question throughout all Asia and the world about the greatness of the “great goddess Diana.”

For there were cultivated minds which had apprehended some of the truths of Christianity - philosophers who were enlightened far beyond their age. But a line of martyred philosophers had made them cautious. They made a compromise. They enjoyed their own light, kept silence, and left the rest in darkness. The result was destruction of their own moral being; for the law of truth is that it can not be shut up without becoming a dead thing, and mortifying the whole nature. Not the truth which a man knows, but that which he says and lives, becomes the soul’s life. Truth cannot bless except when it is lived for, proclaimed and suffered for.

This was the plan of the enlightened when the Saviour came. And this is the lowest step of a nation’s fall, when the few who know the truth refuse to publish it; when governments patronize superstition as a mere engine for governing; when the ministers of religion only half believe the dogmas which they teach, dare not even say to one another what they feel and what they doubt; when they dare not be true to their convictions for fear of an Ephesian mob.

Therefore it was necessary that One should come into the world who should be true - the truest of all that are woman born; whose life was truth; who from everlasting had been the truth. It was necessary that He should come to preach the Gospel to the poor, to dare to say to the people some truths, Which the philosophers dared not say, and other truths of which no philosopher had ever dreamed. The penalty of that true life was the sacrifice which is the world’s Atonement. Men saw the Mortal die. But others saw the Immortal rise to take His place at the right hand of Power: and the Spirit which has been streaming out ever since from that life and death is the world’s present Light, and shall be its everlasting Life.