Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 76


An Election Sermon

A Fragment

Preached July 4, 1852

  Frederick W. Robertson

“And they appointed two, Joseph called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed, and said, Thou, Lord, which knowest the hearts of all men, show whether of these two thou hast chosen, that be may take part of this ministry and apostleship, from which Judas by, transgression fell, that he might go to his own place. And they gave forth their lots; and the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.” - Acts 1:23-26


This is the account of the earliest appointment of an apostle or bishop over the Church of Christ.

It stands remarkably distinguished from the episcopal elections of after ages. Every one acquainted with Church history knows that the election of a bishop in the first centuries, and indeed for many ages, was one of the bitterest and fiercest questions which shook the Church of Christ.

[Appointment by the people-Presbyters-Various customs. Anecdote of Ambrose of Milan. Appointment by the Emperor or Bishop of Rome. Quarrel of ages between the Emperor and the Pope.]

Contradistinguished from this in spirit was the first appointment which ended in the selection of Matthias. Holy, calm, wise-presided over by an apostolic and Christian spirit.

It will be obvious at once why this subject has been selected. During the course of this week, England will be shaken to her centre with the selection of representatives who shall legislate for her hereafter, either in accordance with. or in defiance of, the principles of her constitution. In some~ places, as fiercely as the battle was formerly carried on between Guelph and Ghibelline, or between faction and faction in the choice of bishops, so fiercely will the contest rage in the choice of representatives.

Delicate and difficult as the introduction of such a subject from the pulpit must be, yet it seems to me the imperative duty of a minister of Christ-from which he can not, except in cowardice, shrink-to endeavor to make clear the great Christian landmarks which belong to such an occurrence. But let me be understood. His duty is not to introduce politics in the common sense of the word, meaning thereby the views of some particular party. The pulpit is not to be degraded into the engine of a faction. Far, far above such questions, it ought to preserve the calm dignity of a voice which speaks for eternity, and not for time. If possible, not one word should drop by which a minister’s own political leanings can be discovered.

Yet there must be broad principles of right and wrong in such a transaction, as in any other. And, in discharge of my duty, I desires to place those before you. We shall consider-


I. The object of the election spoken of in my text.

II. The mode of the election.

III. The spirit in which it was conducted.


I. The object of the election. To elect a bishop of the universal Church.

It might be that in process of time the apostle so chosen should be appointed to a particular city-as St. James was to Jerusalem. But it is plain his duty as an apostle was owed to the general assembly and Church of Christ, and not to that particular city; and if be had allowed local partialities or local interests to stand before the interests of the whole, he would have neglected the duty of his high office.

Also, that if those who appointed him considered the interest of Jerusalem in the first instance, instead of his qualifications as a bishop of the Church universal, they would have failed in their duty.

In the third century, a bishop of Carthage, Cyprian, in a celebrated sentence has clearly and beautifully stated this principle-“Episcopatus unus est, cujus,” etc. The episcopate, one and indivisible, held in its entirety by each bishop, every part standing for the whole. That is, if he were a bishop of Carthage or Antioch, he was to remember that it was not the interests of Carthage over which he had to watch, but those of the Church of Christ; Carthage being his special allotment out of the whole. And in a council he was to give his voice not for that which might be good for the men of Carthage, but for the Church of Christ.

The application is plain.

The nation is one-its life is a sacred life. The nation is the Christian people, for whom Christ shed His blood-its life is unity-its death is division. The curse of a Christian is sectarianism-the curse of a nation is faction. Each legislator legislates for the country, not for a county or town. Each elector holds his franchise as a sacred trust, to be exercised not for his town, or for a faction of his town, not for himself, or his friends, but for the general weal of the people of England.

Let me expose a common fallacy.

We are not to be biased by asking what charity does a candidate support, nor what view does he take of some local question, nor whether he subscribe to tractarian or to evangelical societies. We are, in our high responsibility, selecting, not a president for a religious society, nor a patron,of a town, nor a subscriber to a hospital, but a legislator for England.


II. The mode of the election.

It was partly human, partly Divine. The human element is plain enough in that it was popular. The choice lay not with the apostles, but with the whole Church. One hundred and twenty met in that upper chamber: all gave in their lots or votes. The Divine element lay in this, that it was over ruled by God.

Here is the main point observable. They at least took for granted that the popular element was quite separate from the Divine. The selected one might be the chosen of the people, yet not the chosen of God. Hence they prayed, “Thou, Lord, which knowest the hearts of all men, show whether of these two Thou hast chosen.”

The common notion is, vox populi vox Dei. In other words, whatever the general voice wills is right. A law is right because it is a people’s will. I do not say that we have got the full length of this idea in England. On the Continent it has long been prevalent. Possibly it is the expression of that Antichrist “who showeth himself that he is God;” self-will setting itself up paramount to the will of God.

The vox populi is sometimes vox Dei, sometimes not. The voice of the people was the voice of God when the children of Israel rescued Jonathan from his father’s unjust sentence: and when the contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal having been settled, they cried, “The Lord He is God.”

Was the voice of the people the voice of God when, in Moses’s absence, they required Aaron to make them a golden calf for a god? Or when, led on by the demagogue Demetrius, they shouted, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians?” Or when, at the instigation of the priests, led blindfold by them they cried, “Crucify Him?”

The politicians of this world eagerly debate the question how best to secure a fair representation of the people’s voice, whether by individuals or by interests fairly balanced?-a question, doubtless, not to be put aside. But the Christian sees a question deeper far than these-not how to obtain most fairly an expression of the people’s will, but how that will shall truly represent the will of God. There is no other question at last than this.

And we shall attain this, not by nicely balancing interest against interest, much less by manoeuvring or by cunningly devised expedient, to defeat the cause which we believe the wrong one; but by each doing all that in him lies to rouse himself and others to a high sense of responsibility.

It is a noble thought, that of every elector going to vote, as these men did, for the Church, for the people, for God, and for the right, earnestly anxious that he and others should do right.

Else-to speak humanly-this was an appeal to chance and not to God; and every election, by ballot or by suffrage, is else an appeal to chance.

All, therefore, depends upon the spirit in which the election is conducted.

What constitutes the difference between an appeal to God and an appeal to chance?


III. The Spirit.

1. A religious spirit. “They prayed and said, Thou, Lord, which knowest the hearts of all men, show whether of these two Thou hast chosen.” Now, we shall be met here at once by an objection. This was a religious work-the selection of an apostle; but the choice of a representative is not a religious work, only a secular one.

Here we come, therefore, to the very pith and marrow of the whole question. The distinction between religious and secular is true in a sense, but as we make it, it is false. It is not the occupation, but the spirit which makes the difference. The election of a bishop may be a most secular thing. The election of a representative may be a religious thing St. Paul taught that nothing is profane. Sanctified by the Word of God and prayer, St. Peter learned that nothing is common or unclean.

[Many relies remain to us from our religious forefathers indicative of this truth: Grace before meals; Dei gratia on coins of the realms; “In the name of God,” at the commencement of wills, oaths in court of justice; prayers in universities before election of scholars: all proclaim that the simplest acts of’ our domestic and political life are sacred or profane according to the spirit in which they are performed; not in the question whether they are done for the State or the Church, but whether with God or without God.]

Observe: it is not the preluding such an election with public prayer that would make it a religious act. It is religious so far as each man discharges his part as a duty and solemn responsibility.

If looked on in this spirit by the higher classes, would the debauchery and the drunkenness which are fostered by rich men of all pan-ties among the poor for their own purposes, be possible? Would they, for the sake of one vote, or a hundred votes, brutalize their fellow-creatures?

2. It is implied in this, that it must be done conscientiously.

Each Christian found himself in possession of a new right -that of giving a vote or casting a lot.

Like all rights, it was a duty. He had not a right to do what he liked. His right was only the duty of doing right. And if any one had swayed him to support the cause of Barnabas or that of Matthias on any motives except this one-“You ought”-he had so far injured his conscience.

The conscience of man is a holy, sacred thing. The worst of crimes is to injure a human conscience. Better kill the body. Remember how strongly St. Paul speaks, “When ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ.” And that sin, remember, consisted in leading them to do a thing which, though right in itself, they thought wrong.

Now there is an offense against the laws of the State which all men agree in treating with a smile.

My brethren, bribery is a sin-a sin against God. Not because a particular law has been made against it, but because it lowers the sense of personal responsibility, blunts the conscience, dethrones the God within the man’s soul, and erects selfishness, and greed, and interest. in His stead. And whether you do it directly or indirectly-directly by giving indirectly by withdrawing, assistance or patronage-you sin against Christ.

3. It was not done from personal interest.

There were two candidates, Barnabas and Matthias. Now if the supporters of these two had been influenced chiefly by such considerations as blood-relationship, or the chance of favor and promotion, manifestly a high function would have been degraded.

In secular matters, however, we do not judge so. A man generally decides according to his professional or his personal interests. You know almost to a certainty beforehand which way a man will vote, if you know his profession. If a man be a farmer, or a clergyman, or a merchant, you can pretty surely guess on which side he will range himself.

Partly, no doubt, this is involuntary-the result of those prejudices which attach to us all from association. But it is partly voluntary. We know that we are thinking not of the general good, but of our own interests. And thus a farmer would think himself justified in looking at a question simply as it affected his class, and a noble as it affected his caste, and a working-man as it bore upon the working classes.

Brethren, we are Christians. Something of a principle higher than this ought to be ours. What is the law of the cross of Christ? The sacrifice of the One for the whole, the cheerful surrender of the few for the many. Else, what do we more than others?

These are fine words-patriotism, public principle, purity.

Be sure these words are but sentimental expressions, except as they spring out of the cross of Christ.


I have endeavored to keep entirely unseen my own political views. I may have failed, but not voluntarily.

Remember, in conclusion, the matter of paramount importance to be decided this week is, not whether a preponderance shall be insured for one of the great parties which divide the country or the other. That is important, but it is secondary. The important thing to be devoutly wished is, that each man shall give his vote as these men did-conscientiously, religiously, unselfishly, lovingly.

Better that he should support the wrong cause conscientiously than the right one insincerely. Better be a true man on the side of wrong, than a false man on the side of right.