Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 34



Preached April 25, 1852

  Frederick W. Robertson

“If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth forever.” - I John 2:15-17


Religion differs from morality in the value which it places on the affections. Morality requires that an act be done on principle. Religion goes deeper, and inquires into the state of the heart. The Church of Ephesus was unsuspected in her orthodoxy, and unblemished in her zeal: but to the ear of him who saw the apocalyptic vision, a voice spake, “I have somewhat against thee in that thou hast left thy first love.”

In the eye of Christianity he is a Christian who loves the Father.. He who loves the world may be in his way a good man, respecting whose eternal destiny we pronounce no opinion: but one of the children of the kingdom he is not.

Now the boundary-lines of this love of the world, or worldliness, are exceedingly difficult to define. Bigotry pronounces many things wrong which are harmless: laxity permits many which are by no means innocent: and it is a question perpetually put, a question miserably perplexing to those whose religion consists more in avoiding that which is wrong than in seeking that which is right, What is worldliness?

To that question we desire to find to-day an answer in the text; premising this, that our object is to put ourselves in possession of principles. For otherwise we shall only deal with this matter as empirics; condemning this and approving that by opinion, but on no certain and intelligible ground: we shall but float on the unstable sea of opinion.

We confine ourselves to two points.


I. The nature of the forbidden world.

II. The reason for which it is forbidden.


1. The nature of the forbidden world. The first idea suggested by “the world” is this green earth, with its days and nights, its seasons, its hills and its valleys, its clouds and brightness. This is not the world the love of which is prohibited; for to forbid the love of this would be to forbid the love of God.

There are three ways in which we learn to know Him. First, by the working of our minds: love, justice, tenderness. If we would know what they mean in God, we must gain the conception from their existence in ourselves. But inasmuch as humanity is imperfect in us, if we were to learn of God only from His image in ourselves, we should run the risk of calling the evil good, and the imperfect divine. Therefore He has given us, besides this, the representation of Himself in Christ, where is found the meeting-point of the Divine and the human, and in whose life the character of Deity is reflected as completely as the sun is seen in the depth of the still, untroubled lake.

But there is a third way in which we attain the idea of God. This world is but manifested Deity-God shown to eye, and ear, and sense. This strange phenomenon of a world, what is it? All we know of it-all we know of matter-is, that it is an assemblage of powers which produce in us certain sensations; but what those powers are in themselves we know not. The sensation of color, form, weight, we have; but what it is which gives those sensations-in the language of the schools, what is the substratum which supports the accidents or qualities of Being-we can not tell. Speculative Philosophy replies, It is but our own selves becoming conscious of themselves. We, in our own being, are the cause of all phenomena. Positive Philosophy replies, What the Being of the world is we can not tell, we only know what it seems to us. Phenomena-appearance-beyond this we can not reach. Being itself is-and forever must be, unknowable. Religion replies, That something is God. The world is but manifested Deity. That which lies beneath the surface of all appearance, the cause of all manifestation, is God. So that to forbid the love of all this world is to forbid the love of that by which God is known to us. The sounds and sights of this lovely world are but the drapery of the robe in which the Invisible has clothed Himself. Does a man ask what this world is, and why man is placed in it ? It was that the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world might be clearly seen. Have we ever stood beneath the solemn vault of heaven when the stars were looking down in their silent splendor, and not felt an overpowering sense of His eternity ? When the white lightning has quivered in the sky, has that told us nothing of power, or only something of electricity? Rocks and mountains, are they here to give us the idea of material massiveness, or to reveal the conception of the Strength of Israel? When we take up the page of past history, and read that wrong never prospered long, but that nations have drunk one after another the cup of terrible retribution, can we dismiss all that as the philosophy of history, or shall we say that through blood, and war, and desolation we trace the footsteps of a presiding God, and find evidence that there sits at the helm of this world’s affairs a strict, and rigorous, and most terrible justice? To the eye that can see, to the heart that is not paralyzed, God is here. The warnings which the Bible utters against the things of this world bring no charge against the glorious world itself. The world is the glass through which we see the Maker. But what men do is this: They put the dull quicksilver of their own selfishness behind the glass, and so it becomes not the transparent medium through which God shines, but the dead opaque which reflects back themselves. Instead of lying with open eye and heart to receive, we project ourselves upon the world and give. So it gives us back our own false feelings and nature. Therefore it brings forth thorns and thistles; therefore it grows weeds-weeds to us; therefore the lightning burns with wrath, and the thunder mutters vengeance. By all which it comes to pass that the very manifestation of God has transformed itself:-the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eye, and the pride of life; and all that is in the world is no longer of the Father, but is of the world.

By the world again is sometimes meant the men that are in the world. And thus the command would run, Love not men, but love God. It has been so read. The Pharisees read it so of old. The property which natural affection demanded for the support of parents, upon that they wrote “Corban,” a gift for God, and robbed men that they might give to God. Yet no less than this is done whenever human affection is called idolatry. As if God were jealous of our love in the human sense of jealousy; as if we could love God the more by loving man the less; as if it were not by loving our brother whom we have seen, that we approximate towards the love of God whom we have not seen. This is but the cloak for narrowness of heart. Men of withered affections excuse their lovelessness by talking largely of the affection due to God. Yet, like the Pharisees, the love on which Corban is written is never given to God, but really retained for self.

No, let a man love his neighbor as himself. Let him love his brother, sister, wife, with all the intensity of his heart’s affection. This is not St. John’s forbidden world.

By the world is often understood the worldly occupation, trade or profession which a man exercises. And accordingly, it is no uncommon thing to hear this spoken of as something which, if not actually anti-religious, is, so far as it goes, time taken away from the religious life. But when the man from whom the legion had been expelled asked Jesus for the precepts of a religious existence, the reply sent him back to home. His former worldliness had consisted in doing his worldly duties ill-his future religiousness was to consist in doing those same duties better. A man’s profession or trade is not only not incompatible with religion (provided it be a lawful one), it is his religion. ,And this is true even of those callings which at first sight appear to have in them something hard to reconcile with religiousness. For instance, the profession of a lawyer. He is a worldling in it if he use it for some personal greed, or degrade it by chicanery. But in itself it is an occupation which sifts right from wrong; which, in the entangled web of human life, unwinds the meshes of error. He is by profession enlisted on the side of the right-directly connected with God, the central point of justice and truth. A nobler occupation need no man desire than to be a fellow-worker with God. Or take the soldier’s trade-in this world generally a trade of blood, and revenge, and idle licentiousness. Rightly understood, what is it ? A soldier’s whole life, whether he will or not, is an enunciation of the greatest of religious truths, the voluntary sacrifice of one for the sake of many. In the detail of his existence, how abundant are the opportunities for the voluntary recognition of this. Opportunities such as that when the three strong men brake through the lines of the enemy to obtain the water for their sovereign’s thirst-opportunities as when that same heroic sovereign poured the untasted water on the ground, and refused to drink because it was his soldiers’ lives-he could not drink at such a price. Earnestness in a lawful calling is not worldliness. A profession is the sphere of our activity. There is something sacred in work. To work in the appointed sphere is to be religious-as religious as to pray. This is not the forbidden world.

Now to define what worldliness is. Remark, first, that it is determined by the spirit of a life, not the objects with which the life is conversant. It is not the “flesh,” nor the “eye,” nor “ life,” which are forbidden, but it is the “lust of the flesh,” and the “lust of the eye,” and the “pride of life.” It is not this earth, nor the men who inhabit it, nor the sphere of our legitimate activity, that we may not love, but the way in which the love is given which constitutes worldliness. Look into this a little closer. The lust of the flesh. Here is affection for the outward: pleasure, that which affects the senses only: the flesh, that enjoyment which comes from the emotions of an hour, be it coarse or be it refined. The pleasure of wine or the pleasure of music, so far as it is only a movement of the flesh. Again, the lust of the eye. Here is affection for the transient, for the eye can only gaze on form and color-and these are things that do not last. Once more-the pride of life. Here is affection for the unreal. Men’s opinion-the estimate which depends upon wealth, rank, circumstances.

Worldliness then consists in these three things: Attachment to the outward-attachment to the transitory-attachment to the unreal: in opposition to love for the inward, the eternal, the true: and the one of these affections is necessarily expelled by the other. If a man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. But let a man once feel the power of the kingdom that is within, and then the love fades of that emotion whose life consists only in the thrill of a nerve, or the vivid sensation of a feeling: he loses his happiness, and wins his blessedness. Let a man get but one glimpse of the King in His beauty, and then the forms and shapes of things here are to him but the types of an invisible loveliness: types which he is content should break and fade. Let but a man feel truth-that goodness is greatness-that there is no other greatness-and then the degrading reverence with which the titled of this world bow before wealth, and the ostentation with which the rich of this world profess their familiarity with title: all the pride of life, what is it to him? The love of the inward-everlasting, real-the love, that is, of the Father, annihilates the love of the world.


II. We pass to the reasons for which the love of the world is forbidden.

The first reason assigned is, that the love of the world is incompatible with the love of God. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. Now what we observe in this is, that St. John takes it for granted that we must love something. If not the love of the Father, then of necessity the love of the world. Love misplaced, or love rightly placed-you have your choice between these two: you have not your choice between loving God or nothing. No man is sufficient for himself. Every man must go out of himself for enjoyment. Something in this universe besides himself there must be to bind the affections of every man. There is that within us which compels us to attach ourselves to something outward. The choice is not this: love, or be without love. You can not give the pent-up steam its choice of moving or not moving. It must move one way or the other: the right way or the wrong way. Direct it rightly, and its energy rolls the engine-wheels smoothly on their track: block up its passage, and it bounds away, a thing of madness and ruin. Stop it you can not; it will rather burst. So it is with our hearts. There is a pent-up energy of love, gigantic for good or evil. Its right way is in the direction of our Eternal Father; and then, let it boil and pant as it will, the course of the man is smooth. Expel the love of God from the bosom-what then? Will the passion that is within cease to burn? Nay. Tie the man down-let there be no outlet for his affections-let him attach himself to nothing, and become a loveless spirit in this universe, and then there is what we call a broken heart: the steam bursts the machinery that contains it. Or else let him take his course, unfettered and free, and then we have the riot of worldliness-a man with strong affections thrown off the line, tearing himself to pieces, and carrying desolation along with him. Let us comprehend our own nature, ourselves, and our destinies. God is our rest, the only one that can quench the fever of our desire. God in Christ is what we want. When men quit that, so that “the love of the Father is not in them,” then they must perforce turn aside: the nobler heart to break with disappointment-the meaner heart to love the world instead, and sate and satisfy itself, as best it may, on things that perish in the using. Herein lies the secret of our being, in this world of the affections. This explains why our noblest feelings lie so close to our basest-why the noblest so easily metamorphose themselves into the basest. The heart which was made large enough for God wastes itself upon the world.

The second reason which the apostle gives for not squandering affection on the world is its transitoriness. Now this transitoriness exists in two shapes. It is transitory in itself-the world passeth away. It is transitory in its power of exciting desire-the lust thereof passeth away.

It is a twice-told tale that the world is passing away from us, and there is very little new to be said on the subject. God has written it on every page of His creation that there is nothing here which lasts. Our affections change. The friendships of the man are not the friendships of the boy. Our very selves are altering. The basis of our being may remain, but our views, tastes, feelings are no more our former self than the oak is the acorn. The very face of the visible world is altering around us: we have the gray mouldering ruins to tell of what was once. Our laborers strike their ploughshares against the foundations of buildings which once echoed to human mirth-skeletons of men, to whom life once was dear-urns and coins that remind the antiquarian of a magnificent empire. To-day the shot of the enemy defaces and blackens monuments and venerable temples which remind the Christian that into the deep silence of eternity the Roman world, which was in its vigor in the days of John, has passed away. And so things are going. It is a work of weaving and unweaving. All passes. Names that the world heard once in thunder are scarcely heard at the end of centuries: good or bad, they pass. A few years ago, and we were not. A few centuries farther, and we reach the age of beings of almost another race. Nimrod was the conqueror and scourge of his far-back age. Tubal Cain gave to the world the iron which was the foundation of every triumph of men over nature. We have their names now. But the philologist is uncertain whether the name of the first is real or mythical, and the traveller excavates the sand-mounds of Nineveh to wonder over the records which he can not decipher. Tyrant and benefactor, both are gone. And so all things are moving on to the last fire which shall wrap the world in conflagration, and make all that has been the recollection of a dream. This is the history of the world and all that is in it. It passes while we look at it. Like as when you watch the melting tints of the evening sky-purple-crimson, gorgeous gold, a few pulsations of quivering light, and it is all gone: “We are such stuff as dreams are made of.”

The other aspect of this transitoriness is, that the lust of the world passeth away. By which the apostle seems to remind us of that solemn truth that, fast as the world is fleeting from us, faster still does the taste for its enjoyments fleet; fast as the brilliancy fades from earthly things, faster still does the eye become wearied of straining itself upon them.

Now there is one way in which this takes place-by a man becoming satiated with the world. There is something in earthly rapture which cloys. And when we drink deep of pleasure, there is left behind something of that loathing which follows a repast on sweets. When a boy sets out in life, it is all fresh-freshness in feeling-zest in his enjoyment-purity in his heart. Cherish that, my young brethren, while you can; lose it, and it never comes again. It is not an easy thing to cherish it, for it demands restraint in pleasure, and no young heart loves that. Religion has only calm, sober, perhaps monotonous pleasures to offer at first. The deep rapture of enjoyment comes in after-life. And that will not satisfy the young heart. Men will know what pleasure is, and they drink deep. Keen delight-feverish enjoyment-that is what you long for: and these emotions lose their delicacy and their relish, and will only come at the bidding of gross excitements. The ecstasy which once rose to the sight of the rainbow in the sky, or the bright brook, or the fresh morning, comes languidly at last only in the crowded midnight room, or the excitement of commercial speculation, or beside the gaming-table, or amidst the fever of politics. It is a spectacle for men and angels, when a man has become old in feeling and worn-out before his time. Know we none such among our own acquaintance? Have the young never seen those aged ones who stand amongst them in their pleasures, almost as if to warn them of what they themselves must come to at last? Have they never marked the dull and sated look that they cast upon the whole scene, as upon a thing which they would fain enjoy and can not? Know you what you have been looking on? A sated worldling-one to whom pleasure was rapture once, as it is to you now. Thirty years more, that look and that place will be yours: and that is the way the world rewards its veterans; it chains them to it after the “lust of the world” has passed away.

Or this may be done by a discovery of the unsatisfactoriness of the world. That is a discovery not made by every man. But there are some at least who have learned it bitterly, and that without the aid of Christ. Some there are who would not live over this past life again even if it were possible. Some there are who would gladly have done with the whole thing at once, and exchange-oh! how joyfully the garment for the shroud. And some there are who cling to life, not because life is dear, but because the future is dark, and they tremble somewhat at the thought of entering it. Clinging to life is no proof that a man is still longing for the world. We often cling to life the more tenaciously as years go on. The deeper the tree has struck its roots into the ground, the less willing is it to be rooted up. But there is many a one who so bangs on just because he has not the desperate hardihood to quit it, nor faith enough to be “willing to depart.” The world and he have understood each other; he has seen through it; he has ceased to hope any thing from it. The love of the Father is not in him, but “the lust of the world” has passed away.

Lastly, a reason for unlearning the love of the world is the solitary permanence of Christian action. In contrast with the fleetingness of this world, the apostle tells us of the stability of labor. “He that doeth the will of God abideth forever.” And let us mark this. Christian life is action: not a speculating, not a debating, but a doing. One thing, and only one, in this world has eternity stamped upon it. Feelings pass; resolves and thoughts pass; opinions change. What you have done lasts-lasts in you. Through ages, through eternity, what you have done for Christ, that, and only that, you are. “They rest from their labors,” saith the Spirit, “and their works do follow them.” If the love of the Father be in us, where is the thing done which we have to show? You think justly-feel rightly-yes-but your work?-produce it. Men of wealth, men of talent, men of leisure, what are you doing in God’s world for God?

Observe, however, to distinguish between the act and the actor: It is not the thing done, but the doer who lasts. The thing done often is a failure. The cup given in the name of Christ may be given to one unworthy of it; but think ye that the love with which it was given has passed away? Has it not printed itself indelibly in the character by the very act of giving? Bless, and if the Son of peace be there, your act succeeds; but if not, your blessing shall return unto you again. In other words, the act may fail, but the doer of it abideth forever.

We close this subject with two practical truths. Let us learn from earthly changefulness a lesson of cheerful activity. The world has its way of looking at all this, but it is not the Christian’s way. There has been nothing said to-day that a worldly moralist has not already said a thousand times far better. The fact is a world-fact. The application is a Christian one. Every man can be eloquent about the nothingness of time. But the application! “Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die?” That is one application. Let us sentimentalize and be sad in this fleeting world, and talk of the instability of human greatness, and the transitoriness of human affection? Those are the only two applications the world knows. They shut out the recollection and are merry, or they dwell on it and are sad. Christian brethren, dwell on it and be happy. This world is not yours; thank God it is not. It is dropping away from you like worn-out autumn leaves; but beneath it, hidden in it, there is another world lying as the flower lies in the bud. That is your world, which must burst forth at last into eternal luxuriance. All you stand on, see, and love, is but the husk of something better. Things are passing; our friends are dropping off from us; strength is giving way ; our relish for earth is going, and the world no longer wears to our hearts the radiance that once it wore. We have the same sky above us, and the same scenes around us; but the freshness that our hearts extracted from every thing in boyhood, and the glory that seemed to rest once on earth and life have faded away forever. Sad and gloomy truths to the man who is going down to the grave with his work undone. Not sad to the Christian, but rousing, exciting, invigorating. If it be the eleventh hour, we have no time for folding of the hands: we will work the faster. Through the changefulness of life - through the solemn tolling of the bell of Time, which tells us that another, and another, and another, are gone before us- through the noiseless rush of a world which is going down with gigantic footsteps into nothingness. Let not the Christian slack his hand from work, for he that doeth the will of God may defy hell itself to quench his immortality.

Finally, the love of this world is only unlearned by the love of the Father. It were a desolate thing, indeed, to forbid the love of earth, if there were nothing to fill the vacant space in the heart. But it is just for this purpose, that a sublimer affection may find room, that the lower is to be expelled. And there is only one way in which that higher love is learned. The cross of Christ is the measure of the love of God to us, and the measure of the meaning of man’s existence.

The measure is the love of God. Through the death-knell of a passing universe God seems at least to speak to us in wrath. There is no doubt of what God means in the Cross. He means love. The measure of the meaning of man’s existence. Measure all by the Cross. Do you want success? The Cross is failure. Do you want a name? The Cross is infamy. Is it to be gay and happy that you live? The Cross is pain and sharpness. Do you live that the will of God may be done-in you and by you, in life and death? Then, and only then, the Spirit of the Cross is in you. When once a man has learned that, the power of the world is gone; and no man need bid him, in denunciation or in invitation, not to love the world. He can not love the world, for he has got an ambition above the world. He has planted his foot upon the Rock, and when all else is gone, he at least abides forever.