Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 56


Christian Casuistry

Preached January 4, 1852

  Frederick W. Robertson

“Is any man called being circumcised? let him not become uncircumcised. Is any called in uncircumcision? let him not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God. Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called. Art thou called being a servant? care not for it: but if thou mayest be made free, use it rather. For he that is called in the Lord, being a servant, is the Lord’s freeman: likewise also he that is called, being free, is Christ’s servant. Ye are bought with a price; be not ye the servants of men. Brethren, let every man, wherein he is called, therein abide with God.” - I Corinthians 7:18-24


The whole of these seven chapters of the First Epistle of the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians, is occupied with questions of Christian casuistry. In the application of the principles of Christianity to the varying circumstances of life innumerable difficulties had arisen, and the Corinthians upon these difficulties had put certain questions to the Apostle Paul. This seventh chapter contains the apostle’s answer to many of these questions. There are, however, two great divisions into which these answers generally fall. St. Paul makes a distinction between those things which he speaks by commandment and those which he speaks only by permission; there is a distinction between what he says as from the Lord, and what only from himself; between that which he speaks to them as being taught of God, and that which he speaks only as a servant, “called of the Lord and faithful.”

It is manifestly plain that there are many questions in which right and wrong are not variable, but indissoluble and fixed; while there are questions, on the other hand, where these terms are not fixed, but variable, fluctuating, altering, dependent upon circumstances. As, for instance, those in which the apostle teaches in the present chapter the several duties and advantages of marriage and celibacy. There may be circumstances in which it is the duty of a Christian man to be married, there are others in which it may be his duty to remain unmarried. For instance, in the case of a missionary it may be right to be married rather than unmarried; on the other hand, in the case of a pauper, not having the wherewithal to bring up and maintain a family, it may be proper to remain unmarried. You will observe, however, that no fixed law can be laid down upon this subject. We can not say marriage is a Christian duty; nor celibacy is a Christian duty; nor that it is in every case the duty of a missionary to be married, or of a pauper to be unmarried. All these things must vary according to circumstances, and the duty must be stated not universally, but with reference to those circumstances.

These, therefore, are questions of casuistry, which depend upon the particular case: from which word the term “casuistry” is derived. On these points the apostle speaks not by commandment, but by permission: not as speaking by God’s command, but as having the Spirit of God. A distinction has sometimes been drawn with reference to this chapter between that which the apostle speaks by inspiration, and what he speaks as a man uninspired. The distinction, however, is an altogether false one, and beside the question. For the real distinction is not between the inspired and uninspired, but between a decision in matters of Christian duty and advice in matters of Christian prudence. It is abundantly evident that God can not give advice; He can only issue a command. God can not say, “It is better to do this;” His perfections demand something absolute: “Thou shalt do this; thou shalt not do this.” Whensoever, therefore, we come to advice, there is introduced the human element rather than the Divine. In all such cases, therefore, as are dependent upon circumstances the apostle speaks not as inspired, but as uninspired; as one whose judgment we have no right to find fault with or to cavil at, who lays down what is a matter of Christian prudence, and not a bounden and universal duty. The matter of the present discourse will take on various verses in this chapter-from the tenth to the twenty-four-th verse-leaving part of the commencement and the conclusion for our consideration, if God permit, next Sunday.

There are three main questions on which the apostle here gives his inspired decision. The first decision is concerning the sanctity of the marriage-bond between two Christians. His verdict is given in the tenth verse: “Unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband.” He lays down this principle, that the union is an indissoluble one.

Upon such a subject, Christian brethren, before a mixed congregation, it is manifestly evident that we can only speak in general terms. It will be sufficient to say that marriage is of all earthly unions almost the only one permitting of no change but that of death. It is that engagement in which man exerts his most awful and solemn power-the power of responsibility which belongs to him as one that shall give account-the power of abnegating the right to change-the power of parting with his freedom-the power of doing that which in this world can never be reversed. And yet it is perhaps that relationship which is spoken of most frivolously, and entered into most carelessly and most wantonly. It is not a union merely between two creatures, it is a union between two spirits; and the intention of that bond is to perfect the nature of both, by supplementing their deficiencies with the force of contrast, giving to each sex those excellencies in which it is naturally deficient; to the one strength of character and firmness of moral will, to the other sympathy, meekness, tenderness. And just so solemn, and just so glorious as these ends are for which the union was contemplated and intended, just so terrible are the consequences if it be perverted and abused. For there is no earthly relationship which has so much power to ennoble and to exalt. Very strong language does the apostle use in this chapter respecting it: “What knowest thou, oh wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? or how knowest thou, oh man,whether thou shalt save thy wife?” The very power of saving belongs to this relationship. And on the other hand, there is no earthly relationship which has so much power to wreck and ruin the soul. For there are two rocks in this world of ours on which the soul must either anchor or be wrecked. The one is God; the other is the sex opposite to itself. The one is the “Rock of Ages,” on which if the humble soul anchors it lives the blessed life of faith; against which if the soul be dashed and broken, there ensues the wreck of Atheism-the worst ruin of the soul. The other rock is of another character. Blessed is the man, blessed is the woman, whose life-experience has taught a confiding belief in the excellencies of the sex opposite to their own-a blessedness second only to the blessedness of salvation. And the ruin in the other case is second only to the ruin of everlasting perdition-the same wreck and ruin of the soul.

These, then, are the two tremendous alternatives: on the one hand the possibility of securing, in all sympathy and tenderness, the laying of that step on which man rises towards his perfection; on the other hand the blight of all sympathy, to be dragged down to earth, and forced to become frivolous and commonplace; to lose all zest and earnestness in life, to have heart and life degraded by mean and perpetually-recurring sources of disagreement; these are the two alternatives, and it is the worst of these alternatives which the young risk when they form an inconsiderate union-excusably indeed, because through inexperience; and it is the worst of these alternatives which parents risk-not excusably but inexcusably-when they bring up their children with no higher view of what that tie is, than the merely prudential one of a rich and honorable marriage.

The second decision which the apostle makes respecting another of the questions proposed to him by the Corinthians is, as to the sanctity of the marriage bond between a Christian and one who is a heathen. When Christianity first entered into our world, and was little understood, it seemed to threaten the dislocation and alteration of all existing relationships. Many difficulties arose; such, for instance, as the one here started. When of two heathen parties only one was converted to Christianity, the question arose, What in this case is the duty of the Christian? Is not the duty separation? Is not the marriage in itself null and void? as if it were a union between one dead and one living? And that perpetual contact with a heathen, and therefore an enemy of God, is not that, in a relation so close and intimate, perpetual defilement? The apostle decides this with his usual inspired wisdom. He decides that the marriage bond is sacred still. Diversities of religious opinion, even the farthest and widest diversity, can not sanction separation. And so he decides in the 13th verse, “The woman which hath a husband that believeth not, if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him.” And, “If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away” (ver. 12).

Now for us in the present day the decision on this point is not of so much importance as the reason which is adduced in support of it. The proof which the apostle gives of the sanctity of the marriage is exceedingly remarkable. Practically it amounts to this: If this were no marriage, but an unhallowed alliance, it would follow as a necessary consequence that the offspring could not be reckoned in any sense as the children of God; but, on the other hand, it is the instinctive, unwavering conviction of every Christian parent, united though he or she may be to a heathen, “My child is a child of God,” or, in the Jewish form of expression, “My child is clean,” So the apostle says, “The unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband-else were your children unclean; but now they are holy,” for it follows if the children are holy in this sense of dedicated to God, and are capable of Christian relationship, then the marriage relation was not unhallowed, but sacred and indissoluble.

The value of this argument in the present day depends on its relation to baptism. The great question we are deciding in the present day may be reduced to a very few words. This question-the baptismal question-is this:-whether we are baptized because we are the children of God, or, whether we are the children of God because we are baptized; whether, in other words, when the Catechism of the Church of England says that by baptism we are “made the children of God,” we are to understand thereby that we are made something which we were not before-magically and mysteriously changed; or, whether we are to understand that we are made the children of God by baptism in the same sense that a sovereign is made a sovereign by coronation. Here the apostle’s argument is full, decisive, and unanswerable. He does not say that these children were Christian, or clean, because they were baptized, but they were the children of God because they were the children of one Christian parent; nay, more than that, such children could scarcely ever have been baptized, because, if the rite met with opposition from one of the parents, it would be an entire and perfect veto to the possibility of baptism. You will observe that the very fundamental idea out of which infant-baptism arises is, that the impression produced upon the mind and character of the child by the Christian parent makes the child one of a Christian community; and therefore, as Peter argued that Cornelius had received the Holy Ghost, and so was to be baptized, just in the same way, as they are adopted into the Christian family and receive a Christian impression, the children of Christian parents are also to be baptized.

Observe, also, the important truth which comes out collaterally from this argument-namely, the sacredness of the impression which arises from the close connection between parent and child. Stronger far than education-going on before education can commence, possibly from the very first moments of consciousness, we begin to impress ourselves on our children. Our character, voice, features, qualities-modified, no doubt, by entering into a new human being, and into a different organization-are impressed upon our children. Not the inculcation of opinions, but much rather the formation of principles, and of the tone of character, the derivation of qualities. Physiologists tell us of the derivation of the mental qualities from the father, and of the moral from the mother. But be this as it may, there is scarcely one here who can not trace back his present religious character to some impression, in early life, from one or other of his parents-a tone, a look, a word, a habit, or even, it may be, a bitter, miserable exclamation of remorse.

The third decision which the apostle gives, the third principle which he lays down, is but the development of the last. Christianity, he says, does not interfere with existing relationships. First he lays down the principle, and then unfolds the principle in two ways, ecclesiastically and civilly. The principle he lays down in almost every variety of form. In the 17th verse, “As God hath distributed to every man, as the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk.” In the 20th verse, “Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called.” In the 24th verse, “Brethren, let every man wherein he is called therein abide with God.” This is the principle. Christianity was not to interfere with existing relationships; Christian men were to remain in those relationships in which they were, and in them to develop the inward spirituality of the Christian life. Then he applies this principle in two ways. First of all, ecclesiastically. With respect to their church, or ecclesiastical affairs, he says-“Is any man called being circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised. Is any man in uncircumcision? Let him not be circumcised.” In other words, the Jews, after their conversion, were to continue Jews, if they would. Christianity required no change in these outward things, for it was not in these that the depth and reality of the kingdom of Christ consisted. So the Apostle Paul took Timothy and circumcised him; so also he used all the Jewish customs with which he was familiar, and performed a vow, as related in the Acts of the Apostles, “having shorn his head in Cenchrea; for he had a vow.” It was not his opinion that it was the duty of a Christian to overthrow the Jewish system. He knew that the Jewish system could not last, but what he wanted was to vitalize the system-to throw into it not a Jewish, but a Christian feeling; and so doing, he might continue in it so long as it would hold together. And so it was, no doubt, with all the other apostles. We have no evidence that before the destruction of the Jewish polity there was any attempt made by them to overthrow the Jewish external religion. They kept the Jewish sabbath, and observed the Jewish ritual. One of them, James, the Christian bishop of Jerusalem, though a Christian, was even among the Jews remarkable and honorable for the regularity with which he observed all his Jewish duties. Now let us apply this to modern duties. The great desire among men now appears to be to alter institutions, to have perfect institutions, as if they would make perfect men. Mark the difference between this feeling and that of the apostle, “Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called.” We are called to be members of the Church of England-what is our duty now? What would Paul have done? Is this our duty-to put such questions to ourselves as these: “Is there any single, particular sentence in the service of my Church with which I do not entirely agree? Is there any single ceremony with which my whole soul does not go along? If so,then is it my duty to leave it at once?” No, my brethren, all that we have to do is to say, “All our existing institutions are those under which God has placed us, under which we are to mould our lives according to His will.” It is our duty to vitalize our forms, to throw into them a holier, deeper meaning. My Christian brethren, surely no man will get true rest, true release for his soul, in these days of controversy, until he has learned the wise significance of these wise words-“Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called.” He will but gain unrest, he will but disquiet himself, if he says, “I am sinning by continuing in this imperfect system,” if he considers it his duty to change his calling if his opinions do not agree in every particular and special point with the system under which God has placed him.

Lastly, the apostle applies this principle civilly. And you will observe he applies it to that civil relationship which of all others was the most difficult to harmonize with Christianity-slavery. “Art thou called,” he says, “being a servant? Care not for it.” Now, in considering this part of the subject we should carry along with us these two recollections. First, we should recollect that Christianity had made much way among this particular class, the class of slaves. No wonder that men cursed with slavery embraced with joy a religion which was perpetually teaching the worth and dignity of the human soul, and declaring that rich and poor, peer and peasant, master and slave, were equal in the sight of God. And yet, great as this growth was, it contained within it elements of danger. It was to be feared lest men, hearing forever of brotherhood and Christian equality, should be tempted and excited to throw off the yoke by force, and compel their masters and oppressors to do them right.

The other fact we are to keep in remembrance is this-that all this occurred in an age in which slavery had reach ed its worst and most fearful form, an age in which the emperors were accustomed, not unfrequently, to feed their fish with living slaves; when captives were led to fight in the amphitheatre with wild beasts or with each other to glut the Roman appetite for blood upon a Roman holiday. And yet, fearful as it was, the apostle says, “Care not for it.” And fearful as war was in those days, when the soldiers came to John to be baptized, he did not recommend them to join some “peace association,” to use the modern term; he simply exhorted them to be content with their wages.

And hence we understand the way in which Christianity was to work. It interferes indirectly and not directly with existing institutions. No doubt it will at length abolish war and slavery, but there is not one case where we find Christianity interfering with institutions, as such. Even when Onesimus ran away and came to Paul, the apostle sent him back to his master Philemon, not dissolving the connection between them. And then, as a consolation to the servant, he told him of a higher feeling-a feeling that would make him free, with the chain and shackle upon his arm. And so it was possible for the Christian then, as it is now, to be possessed of the highest liberty even under tyranny. It many times occurred that Christian men found themselves placed under an unjust and tyrannical government, and compelled to pay unjust taxes. The Son of Man showed his freedom not by refusing, but by paying them. His glorious liberty could do so without any feeling of degradation; obeying the laws, not because they were right, but because institutions are to be upheld with cordiality.

One thing in conclusion we have to observe. It is possible from all this to draw a most inaccurate conclusion. Some men have spoken of Christianity as if it was entirely indifferent about liberty and all public questions-as if with such things as these Christianity did not concern itself at all. This indifference is not to be found in the Apostle Paul. While he asserts that inward liberty is the only true liberty, he still goes on to say, “If thou mayest be free, use it rather.” For he well knew that although it was possible for a man to be a high and lofty Christian even though he were a slave, yet it was not probable that he would be so. Outward institutions are necessary partly to make a perfect Christian character; and thus Christianity works from what is internal to what is external. It gave to the slave the feeling of his dignity as a man, at the same time it gave to the Christian master a new view of his relation to his slave, and taught him to regard him “not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved.” And so by degrees slavery passed into freed servitude, and freed servitude, under God’s blessing, may pass into something else.

There are two mistakes which are often made upon this subject: one is, the error of supposing that outward institutions are unnecessary for the formation of character, and the other, that of supposing that they are all that is required to form the human soul. If we understand rightly the duty of a Christian man, it is this: to make his brethren free inwardly and outwardly; first inwardly, so that they may become masters of themselves, rulers of their passions, having the power of self-rule and self-control; and then outwardly, so that there may be every power and opportunity of developing the inward life; in the language of the prophet, “To break the rod of the oppressor and let the oppressed go free.”