Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 52


Sensual and Spiritual Excitement

Preached August 4, 1850

  Frederick W. Robertson

“Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is. And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit.” - Ephesians 5:17-18


There is evidently a connection between the different branches of this sentence-for ideas can not be properly contrasted which have not some connection-but what that connection is, is not at first sight clear. It almost appears like a profane and irreverent juxtaposition to contrast fullness of the Spirit with fullness of wine. Moreover, the structure of the whole context is antithetical. Ideas are opposed to each other in pairs of contraries; for instance, “fools” is the exact opposite to “wise;” “unwise,” as opposed to “understanding,” its proper opposite.

And here again, there must be the same true antithesis between drunkenness and spiritual fullness. The propriety of this opposition lies in the intensity of feeling produced in both cases. There is one intensity of feeling produced by stimulating the senses, another by vivifying the spiritual life within. The one commences with impulses from without, the other is guarded by forces from within. Here then is the similarity, and here the dissimilarity, which constitutes the propriety of the contrast. One is ruin, the other salvation. One degrades, the other exalts. This contrast then is our subject for to-day.


I. The effects are similar.

On the day of Pentecost, when the first influences of the Spirit descended on the early Church, the effects resembled intoxication. They were full of the Spirit, and mocking by-standers said, “These men are full of new wine;” for they found themselves elevated into the ecstasy of a life higher than their own, possessed of powers which they could not control; they spoke incoherently and irregularly; to the most part of those assembled, unintelligibly.

Now compare with this the impression produced upon savage nations-suppose those early ages in which the spectacle of intoxication was presented for the first time. They saw a man under the influence of a force different from and is some respects inferior to, their own. To them the bacchanal appeared a being half inspired; his frenzy seemed a thing for reverence and awe, rather than for horror and disgust; the spirit which possessed him must be, they thought, divine; they deified it, worshipped it under different names as a god; even to a clearer insight the effects are wonderfully similar. It is almost proverbial among soldiers that the daring produced by wine is easily mistaken for the self-devotion of a brave heart.

The play of imagination in the brain of the opium-eater is as free as that of genius itself, and the creations produced in that state by the pen or pencil are as wildly beautiful as those owed to the nobler influences. In years gone by, the oratory of the statesman in the senate has been kindled by semi-intoxication, when his noble utterances were set down by his auditors to the inspiration of patriotism.

It is this very resemblance which deceives the drunkard he is led on by his feelings as well as by his imagination. It is not the sensual pleasure of the glutton that fascinates him; it is those fine thoughts and those quickened sensibilities which were excited in that state, which he is powerless to produce out of his own being, or by his own powers, and which be expects to reproduce by the same means. The experience of our first parent is repeated in him: at the very moment when he expects to find himself as the gods, knowing good and evil, he discovers that lie is unexpectedly degraded, his health wrecked, and his heart demoralized. Hence it is almost as often the finer as the baser spirits of our race which are found the victims of such indulgence. Many will remember, while I speak, the names of the gifted of their species, the degraded men of genius who were the victims of these deceptive influences; the half-inspired painter, poet, musician, who began by soothing opiates to calm the over-excited nerves or stimulate the exhausted brain, who mistook the sensation for somewhat half divine, and became, morally and physically, wrecks of manhood, degraded even in their mental conceptions. It was therefore no mere play of words which induced the apostle to bring these two things together. That which might else seem irreverent appears to have been a deep knowledge of human nature; he contrasts, because his rule was to distinguish two things which are easily mistaken for each other.

The second point of resemblance is the necessity of in. tense feeling. We have fullness-fullness, it may be, produced by outward stimulus, or else by an outpouring of the Spirit. What we want is life, “more life, and fuller.” To escape from monotony, to get away from the life of mere routine and habits, to feel that we are alive-with more of surprise and wakefulness in our existence. To have less of the gelid, torpid, tortoise-like existence. “To feel the years before us.” To be consciously existing.

Now this desire lies at the bottom of many forms of life which are apparently as diverse as possible. It constitutes the fascination of the gambler’s life: money is not what he wants-were he possessed of thousands to-day lie would risk them all to-morrow-but it is that being perpetually on the brink of enormous wealth and utter ruin, he is compelled to realize at every moment the possibility of the extremes of life. Every moment is one of feeling. This too, constitutes the charm of all those forms of life in which the gambling feeling is predominant-where a sense of skill is blended with a mixture of chance. If you ask the statesman why it is, that possessed as he is of wealth, he quits his princely home for the dark metropolis, he would reply, “that he loves the excitement of a political existence.” It is this, too, which gives to the warrior’s and the traveller’s existence such peculiar reality; and it is this in a far lower form which stimulates the pleasure of a fashionable life-which sends the votaries of the world in a constant round from the capital to the watering-place, and from the watering-place to the capital; what they crave for is the power of feeling intensely.

Now the proper and natural outlet for this feeling is the life of the Spirit. What is religion but fuller life? To live in the Spirit, what is it but to have keener feelings and mightier powers-to rise into a higher consciousness of life? What is religion’s self but feeling? The highest form of religion is charity. Love is of God, and he that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. This is an intense feeling, too intense to be excited, profound in its calmness, yet it rises at times in its higher flights into that ecstatic life which glances in a moment intuitively through ages. These are the pentecostal hours of our existence,when the Spirit comes as it mighty rushing wind, in cloven tongues of fire, filling the soul with God.


II. The dissimilarity or contrast in St. Paul’s idea.

The one fullness begins from without, the other from within. The one proceeds from the flesh and then influences the emotions. The other reverses this order. Stimulants like wine inflame the senses, and through them set the imaginations and feelings on fire; and the law of our spiritual being is that that which begins with the flesh sensualizes the spirit whereas that which commences in the region of the spirit spiritualizes the senses in which it subsequently stirs emotion. But the misfortune is that men mistake this law of their emotions; and the fatal error is, when having found spiritual feelings existing in connection, and associated with, fleshly sensations, men expect by the mere irritation of the emotions of the frame to reproduce those high and glorious feelings.

You might conceive the recipients of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost acting under this delusion; it is conceivable that having observed certain bodily phenomena-for instance, incoherent utterances and thrilled sensibilities coexist in a with those sublime spiritualities-they might have endeavored, by a repetition of those incoherencies, to obtain a fresh descent of the Spirit. In fact, this was exactly what was tried in after ages of the Church. In those events of Church history which are denominated revivals in the camp of the Methodist and the Ranter, a direct attempt was made to arouse the emotions by exciting addresses and vehement language. Convulsions, shrieks, and violent emotions were produced, and the unfortunate victims of this mistaken attempt to produce the cause by the effect, fancied themselves, and were pronounced by others, converted. Now the misfortune is, that this delusion is the more easy from the fact that the results of the two kinds of causes resemble each other. You may galvanize the nerve of a corpse till the action of a limb startles the spectator with the appearance of life. It is not life, it is only a spasmodic hideous mimicry of life. Men having seen that the spiritual is always associated with forms, endeavor by reproducing the forms to recall spirituality; you do produce thereby a something that looks like spirituality, but it is a resemblance only. The worst case of all occurs in the department of the affections. That which begins in the heart ennobles the whole animal being, but that which begins in the inferior departments of our being is the most entire degradation and sensualizing of the soul.

Now it is from this point of thought that we learn to extend the apostle’s principle. Wine is but a specimen of a class of stimulants. All that begins from without belongs to the same class. The stimulus may be afforded by almost any enjoyment of the senses. Drunkenness may come from any thing wherein is excess: from over-indulgence in society, in pleasure, in music, and in the delight of listening to oratory, pay, even from the excitement of sermons and religious meetings. The prophet tells us of those who are drunken, and not with wine.

The other point of difference is one of effect. Fullness of the Spirit calms; fullness produced by excitement satiates and exhausts. They who know the world of fashion tell us that the tone adopted there is, either to be, or to affect to be, sated with enjoyment, to be proof against surprise, to have lost all keenness of enjoyment, and to have all keenness of wonder gone. That which ought to be men’s shame becomes their boast-unsusceptibility of any fresh emotion.

Whether this be real or affected matters not; it is, in truth, the real result of the indulgence of the senses. The law is this; the “crime of sense is avenged by sense which wears with time;” for it has been well remarked that the terrific punishment attached to the habitual indulgence of the senses is, that the incitements to enjoyment increase in proportion as the power of enjoyment fades.

Experience at last forbids even the hope of enjoyment; the sin of the intoxicated soul is loathed, detested, abhorred; yet it is done. The irritated sense, like an avenging fury, goads on with a restlessness of craving, and compels a reiteration of the guilt though it has ceased to charm.

To this danger our own age is peculiarly exposed. In the earlier and simpler ages, the need of keen feeling finds a natural and safe outlet in compulsory exertions. For instance, in the excitement of real warfare, and in the necessity of providing the sustenance of life, warlike habits and healthy labor stimulate without exhausting life. But in proportion as civilization advances, a large class of the community are exempted from the necessity of these, and thrown upon a life of leisure. Then it is that artificial life begins, and artificial expedients become necessary to sharpen the feelings amongst the monotony of existence; every amusement and all literature become more pungent in their character; life is no longer a thing proceeding from powers within, but sustained by new impulses from without.

There is one peculiar form of this danger to which I would specially direct your attention. There is one nation in Europe which, more than any other, has been subjected to these influences. In ages of revolution, nations live fast; centuries of life are passed in fifty years of time. In such a state, individuals become subjected more or less to the influences which are working around them. Scarcely an enjoyment or a book can be met with which does not bear the impress of this intensity. Now, the particular danger to which I allude is French novels. French romances, and French plays. The overflowings of that cup of excitement have reached our shores. I do not say that these works contain any thing coarse or gross-better if it were so: evil which comes in a form of grossness is not nearly so dangerous as that which comes veiled in gracefulness and sentiment. Subjects which are better not touched upon at all are discussed, examined, and exhibited in all the most seductive forms of imagery. You would be shocked at seeing your son in a fit of intoxication; yet, I say it solemnly, better that your son should reel through the streets in a fit of drunkeness, than that the delicacy of your daughter’s mind should be injured, and her imagination inflamed with false fire. Twenty-four hours will terminate the evil in the one case. Twenty-four hours will not exhaust the effects of the other; you must seek the consequences at the end of many, many years.

I speak that which I do know; and if the earnest warning of one who has seen the dangers of which he speaks realized, can reach the heart of one Christian parent, he will put a ban on all such works, and not suffer his children’s hearts to be excited by a drunkenness which is worse than that of wine. For the worst of it is, that the men of our time are not yet alive to this growing evil; they are elsewhere-in their studies, counting-houses, professions-not knowing the food, or rather poison, on which their wives’ and daughters’ intellectual life is sustained. It is precisely those who are most unfitted to sustain the danger, whose feelings need restraint instead of spur, and whose imaginations are most inflammable, that are specially exposed to it.

On the other hand, spiritual life calms while it fills. True it is that there are pentecostal moments when such life reaches the stage of ecstasy. But these were given to the Church to prepare her for suffering, to give her martyrs a glimpse of blessedness, which might sustain them afterwards in the terrible struggles of death. True it is that there are pentecostal hours when the soul is surrounded by a kind of glory, and we are tempted to make tabernacles upon the mount, as if life were meant for rest; but out of that very cloud there comes a voice telling of the cross, and bidding us descend into the common world again, to simple duties and humble life. This very principle seems to be contained in the text. The apostle’s remedy for this artificial feeling is-“Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns, and spiritual songs.”

Strange remedy! Occupation fit for children-too simple far for men: as astonishing as the remedy prescribed by the prophet to Naaman-to wash in simple water, and be clean; yet therein lies a very important truth. In ancient medical phraseology, herbs possessed of healing natures were called simples; in God’s laboratory, all things that heal are simple-all natural enjoyments, all the deepest, are simple too. At night, man fills his banquet-hall with the glare of splendor which fevers as well as fires the heart; and at the very same hour, as if they intended contrast, the quiet stars of God steal forth, shedding, together with the deepest feeling, the profoundest sense of calm. One from whose knowledge of the sources of natural feeling there lies almost no appeal, has said that to him,


“The meanest flower that blows can give

Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”


This is exceedingly remarkable in the life of Christ. No contrast is more striking than that presented by the thought, that that deep and beautiful life was spent in the midst of mad Jerusalem. Remember the Son of Man standing quietly in the porches of Bethesda, when the streets all around were filled with the revelry of innumerable multitudes, who had come to be present at the annual feast. Remember Him pausing to weep over his country’s doomed metropolis, unexcited, while the giddy crowd around Him were shouting “Hosannah to the Son of David!” Remember Him in Pilate’s judgment-hall, meek, self-possessed, standing in the serenity of truth, while all around Him was agitation-hesitation in the breast of Pilate, hatred in the bosom of the Pharisees, and consternation in the heart of the disciples.

And this, in truth, is what we want: we want the vision of a calmer and simpler beauty, to tranquillize us in the midst of artificial tastes-we want the draught of a purer spring to cool the flame of our excited life; we want, in other words, the Spirit of the life of Christ, simple, natural, with power to calm and soothe the feelings which it rouses: the fullness of the Spirit which can never intoxicate!