Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 29


Obedience the Organ of Spiritual Knowledge

Assize Sermon

Preached March 2, 1851

  Frederick W. Robertson

“If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.” - John 7:17


Tfirst thing we have to do is to put ourselves in possession of the history of these words.

Jesus taught in the Temple during the Feast of Tabernacles. The Jews marvelled at His spiritual wisdom. The cause of wonder was the want of scholastic education: “How knoweth this man letters, never having learned?” They had no conception of any source of wisdom beyond learning.

He Himself gave a different account of the matter. “My doctrine is not mine, but His that sent me.” And how He came possessed of it, speaking humanly, He taught (chap. v. 30): “My judgment is just, because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me.”

That principle whereby He attained spiritual judgment or wisdom, He extends to all. “If any man will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God or whether I speak of myself.” Here, then, manifestly, there are two opinions respecting the origin of spiritual knowledge:

1. The popular one of the Jews, relying on a cultivated understanding.

2. The principle of Christ, which relied on trained affections, and habits of obedience.

What is truth? Study, said the Jews. Act, said Christ, and you shall know. A very precious principle to hold by in these days, and a very pregnant one of thought to us, who during the next few days must be engaged in the contemplation of crime, and to whom the question will suggest itself, how can men’s lives be made true?

Religious controversy is fast settling into a conflict between two great extreme parties-those who believe every thing, and those who believe nothing: the disciples of credulity, and the disciples of skepticism.

The first rely on authority. Foremost among these, and the only self-consistent ones, are the adherents of the Church of Rome; and into this body, by logical consistency, ought to merge all-Dissenters, Churchmen, Bible Christians; all who receive their opinions because their sect, their church, or their documents assert them, not because they are true eternally in themselves.

The second class rely solely on a cultivated understanding. This is the root principle of Rationalism. Enlighten, they say, and sin will disappear. Enlighten, and we shall know all that can be known of God. Sin is an error of the understanding, not a crime of the will. Illuminate the understanding, show man that sin is folly, and sin will disappear. Political economy will teach public virtue; knowledge of anatomy will arrest the indulgence of the passions. Show the drunkard the inflamed tissues of the brain, and be will be sobered by fear and reason.

Only enlighten fully, and spiritual truths will be tested. When the anatomist shall have hit on a right method of dissection, and appropriated sensation to this filament of the brain, and the religious sentiment to that fibre, we shall know whether there be a soul or not, and whether consciousness will survive physical dissolution. When the chemist shall have discovered the principle of life, and found cause behind cause, we shall know whether the last cause of all is a personal will or a lifeless force.

Concerning whom I only remark now, that these disciples of skepticism easily become disciples of credulity. It is instructive to see how they who sneer at Christian mysteries as old wives’ fables, bow in abject reverence before Egyptian mysteries of three thousand years’ antiquity; and bow they who have cast off a God believe in the veriest imposture, and have blind faith in the most vulgar juggling. Skepticism and credulity meet. Nor is it difficult to explain. Distrusting every thing, they doubt their own conclusions and their own mental powers; and that for which they can not account presents itself to them as supernatural and mysterious. Wonder makes them more credulous than those they sneer at.

In opposition to both these systems stands the Christianity of Christ.

1. Christ never taught on personal authority. “My doctrine is not mine.” He taught “not as the scribes.” They dogmatized: “because it was written”-stickled for maxims, and lost principles. His authority was the authority of truth, not of personality: He commanded men to believe, not because He said it, but He said it because it was true. Hence John xii. 4 7, 48, “If any man hear my words, and believe not, I judge him not: the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day.”

2. He never taught that cultivation of the understanding would do all, but exactly the reverse. And so taught His apostles. St. Paul taught, “The world by wisdom knew not God.” His Master said not that clear intellect will give you a right heart, but that a right heart and a pure life will Clarify the intellect. Not, become a man of letters and learning, and you will attain spiritual freedom: but, Do rightly, and you will judge justly: obey, and you will know. “My judgment is just, because I seek not mine own will but the will of the Father which sent me.” “If any man will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself “


I. The knowledge of the truth, or Christian knowledge.

II. The condition on which it is attainable.


I. Christian knowledge-“he shall know.” Its object “the doctrine.” Its degree-certainty-“shall know.”

Doctrine is now, in our modern times, a word of limited meaning; being simply opposed to practical. For instance, the Sermon on the Mount would be called practical: St. Paul’s Epistles doctrinal. But in Scripture, doctrine means broadly, teaching: any thing that is taught is doctrine. Christ’s doctrine embraces the whole range of His teaching-every principle and every precept. Let us; select three departments of “doctrine” in which the principle of the text will be found true-” If any man will do His will, be shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.”

1. It holds good in speculative truth. If any man will do God’s will, he shall know what is truth and what is error. Let us see bow willfulness and selfishness hinder impartiality. How comes it that men are almost always sure to arrive at the conclusions reached by their own party? Surely because fear, interest, vanity, or the desire of being reckoned sound and judicious, or party spirit, bias them. Personal prospects, personal antipathies, these determine most men’s creed. How will you remove this hindrance? By increased cultivation of mind? Why,the Romanist is as accomplished as the Protestant, and learning is found in the Church and out of it. You are not sure that high mental cultivation will lead a man either to Protestantism or to the Church of England. Surely, then, by removing self-will, and so only, can the hindrance to right opinions be removed. Take away the last trace of interested feeling, and the way is cleared for men to come to an approximation towards unity, even in judgment on points speculative; and so he that will do God’s will shall know of the doctrine.

2. In practical truths the principle is true. It is more true to say that our opinions depend upon our lives and habits, than to say that our lives depend upon our opinions, which is only now and then true. The fact is, men think in a certain mode on these matters because their life is of a certain character, and their opinions are only invented afterwards as a defense for their life.

For instance, St. Paul speaks of a maxim among the Corinthians, “Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die.” They excused their voluptuousness on the ground of its consistency with their skeptical creed. Life was short. Death came to-morrow. There was no hereafter. Therefore it was quite consistent to live for pleasure. But who does not see that the creed was the result, and not the cause of the life? Who does not see that I first they ate and drank, and then believed to-morrow we die? “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.” Eating and drinking, we lose sight of the life to come. When the immortal is overborne and smothered in the life of the flesh, how can men believe in life to come? Then disbelieving, they mistook the cause for the effect. Their moral habits and creed were in perfect consistency: yet it was the life that formed the creed, not the creed that formed the life. Because they were sensualists, immortality had become incredible.

Again, slavery is defended philosophically by some. The negro, on his skull and skeleton, they say, has God’s intention of his servitude written: he is the inferior animal, therefore it is right to enslave him. Did this doctrine precede the slave-trade? Did man arrive at it, and then in consequence, conscientiously proceed with human traffic? Or was it invented to defend a practice existing already-the offspring of self-interest? Did not men first make slaves, and then search about for reasons to make their conduct plausible to themselves?

So, too, a belief in predestination is sometimes alleged in excuse of crime. But a man who suffers his will to be overpowered, naturally comes to believe that he is the sport of fate: feeling powerless, be believes that God’s decree has made him so. But let him but put forth one act of loving will, and then, as the nightmare of a dream is annihilated by an effort, so the incubus of a belief in tyrannous destiny is dissipated the moment a man wills to do the will of God. Observe, how he knows the doctrine, directly he does the will.

There is another thing said respecting this knowledge of truth. It respects the degree of certainty-“He shall know,” not he shall have an opinion. There is a wide distinction between supposing and knowing-between fancy and conviction-between opinion and belief. Whatever rests on authority remains only supposition. You have an opinion when you know what others think. You know when you feel. In matters practical you know only so far as you can do. Read a work on the “Evidences of Christianity,” and it may become highly probable that Christianity, etc., are true. That is an opinion. Feel God, do His will, till the Absolute Imperative within you speaks as with a living voice, Thou shalt, and thou shalt not; and then you do not think, you know that there is a God. That is a conviction and a belief.

Have we never seen how a child, simple and near to God, cuts asunder a web of sophistry with a single direct question-how, before its steady look and simple argument, some fashionable utterer of a conventional falsehood has been abashed?-how a believing Christian scatters the forces of skepticism, as a morning ray, touching the mist on the mountain side, makes it vanish into thin air? And there are few more glorious moments of our humanity than those in which faith does battle against intellectual proof: when, for example, after reading a skeptical book, or hearing a cold-blooded materialist’s demonstration in which God, the son], and life to come, are proved impossible, up rises the heart in all the giant might of its immortality to do battle with the understanding, and with the simple argument, “I feel them in my best and highest moments to be true,” annihilates the sophistries of logic.

These moments of profound faith do not come once for all: they vary with the degree and habit of obedience. There is a plant which blossoms once in a hundred years. Like it, the soul blossoms only now and then in a space of years; but these moments are the glory and the heavenly glimpses of our purest humanity.


II. The condition on which knowledge of truth is attainable. “If any man will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.”

This universe is governed by laws. At the bottom of every thing here there is a law. Things are in this way and not that: we call that a law or condition. All departments have their own laws. By submission to them, you make them your own. Obey the laws of the body-such laws as say, Be temperate and chaste: or of the mind-such laws as say, Fix the attention, strengthen by exercise; and then their prizes are yours-health, strength, pliability of muscle, tenaciousness of memory, nimbleness of imagination, etc. Obey the laws of your spiritual being, and it has its prizes too. For instance, the condition or law of a peaceful life is submission to the law of meekness: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” The condition of the Beatific vision is a pure heart and life: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” To the impure, God is simply invisible. The condition annexed to a sense of God’s presence-in other words, that without which a sense of God’s presence can not be-is obedience to the laws of love: “If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and His love is perfected in us.” The condition of spiritual wisdom and certainty in truth is obedience to the will of God, surrender of private will: “If any man will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself”

In every department of knowledge, therefore, there is an appointed “organ,” or instrument for discovery of its specific truth, and for appropriating its specific blessings. In the world of sense, the empirical intellect: in that world the Baconian philosopher is supreme. His Novum Organon if; ,experience: he knows by experiment of touch, sight, sound, etc. The religious man may not contravene his assertions: he is lord in his own province. But in the spiritual world, the “organ” of the scientific man-sensible experience-is powerless. If the chemist, geologist, physiologist come back from their spheres and say, we find in the laws of affinity, in the deposits of past ages, in the structure of the human frame, no trace nor token of a God, I simply reply, I never expected you would. Obedience and self-surrender is the sole organ by which we gain a knowledge of that which can) not be seen nor felt. “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” And just as by copying perpetually a master- painter’s works we get at last an instinctive and infallible power of recognizing his touch, so by copying and doing God’s will we recognize what is His: we know of the teaching whether it be of God, or whether it be an arbitrary invention of a human self.

2. Observe the universality of the law. “If any man will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.” The law was true of the man Christ Jesus Himself: He tells us it is true of all other men.

In God’s universe there are no favorites of heaven who may transgress the laws of the universe with impunity-none who can take fire in the hand and not be burnt-no enemies of heaven who, if they sow corn, will reap nothing but fares. The law is just and true to all: “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”

In God’s spiritual universe there are no favorites of heaven who can attain knowledge and spiritual wisdom apart front obedience. There are none reprobate by an eternal decree, who can surrender self, and in all things submit to God, and yet fail of spiritual convictions. It is not therefore a rare, partial condescension of God, arbitrary and causeless, which gives knowledge of the truth to some, and shuts it out from others, but a vast, universal, glorious law. The light lighteth every man that cometh into the world. “If any man will do His will, he shall know.”

See the beauty of this Divine arrangement. If the certainty of truth depended upon the proof of miracles, prophecy, or the discoveries of science, then truth would be in the reach chiefly of those who can weigh evidence, investigate history, and languages,study by experiment; whereas as it is, “The meek will He guide in judgment, and the meek will He teach His way.” “Thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit.” The humblest and the weakest may know more of God, of moral evil and of good, by a single act of charity, or a prayer of self-surrender, than all the sages can teach: ay, or all the theologians can dogmatize upon.

They know nothing, perhaps, these humble ones, of the evidences, but they are sure that Christ is their Redeemer. They call not tell what “matter” is, but they know that they are spirits. They know nothing of the “argument from design,” but they feel God. The truths of God are spiritually discerned by them. They have never learned letters, but they have reached the Truth of Life.

3. Annexed to this condition, or a part of it, is earnestness. “If any man will do His will.” Now that word “will “ is not the will of the future tense, but will meaning volition: if any man wills, resolves, has the mind to do the will of God. So then it is not a chance fitful obedience that leads us to the truth, nor an obedience paid while happiness lasts and no longer, but an obedience rendered in entireness and in earnest. It is not written, “If any man does His will,” but if any man has the spirit and desire. If we are in earnest, we shall persevere like the Syrophenician woman, even though the car of the universe seem deaf, and Christ Himself appear to bid us back. If we are not in earnest, difficulties will discourage us. Because will is wanting, we shall be asking still in ignorance and doubt, What is truth?

All this will seem to many people time misspent. They go to church because it is the custom, and all Christians believe it is the established religion. But there are hours, and they come to us all at some period of life or other, when the hand of Mystery seems to lie heavy on the soul-when some life shock scatters existence, leaves it a blank and dreary waste henceforth forever, and there appears nothing of hope in all the expanse which stretches out, except that merciful gate of death which opens at the end-hours when the sense of misplaced or ill-requited affection, the feeling of personal worthlessness, the uncertainty and meanness of all human aims, and the doubt of all human goodness, unfix the soul from all its old moorings, and leave it drifting, drifting over the vast infinitude, with an awful sense of solitariness. Then the man whose faith rested on outward authority and not on inward life, will find it give way: the authority of the priest, the authority of the Church, or merely the authority of a document proved by miracles and backed by prophecy, the soul-conscious life hereafter-God-will be an awful desolate Perhaps. Well in such moments you doubt all-whether Christianity be true: whether Christ was man, or God, or a beautiful fable. You ask bitterly, like Pontius Pilate, What is truth? In such an hour what remains? I reply, obedience. Leave those thoughts for the present. Act-be merciful and gentle-honest; force yourself to abound in little services; try to do good to others; be true to the duty that you know. That must be right, whatever else is uncertain. And by all the laws of the human heart, by the word of God, you shall not be left to doubt. Do that much of the will of God which is plain to you, and “You shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God.”