Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 78


Salvation Out of the Visible Church

Preached April, 1849

  Frederick W. Robertson

“Now there was at Joppa a certain disciple named Tabitha, which by interpretation is called Dorcas: this woman was full of good works and alms, deeds which she did,” etc. - Acts 9:36

“There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of the band called the Italian band,” etc. - Acts 10:1


Two events are connected with St. Peter’s stay at Joppa: the miraculous restoration of Dorcas, and the vision which prepared for the reception of Cornelius into the Christian Church. The apostle was at Lydda, when he was summoned by the news of the death of Dorcas to Joppa, about twelve miles distant. Now observe here the variety of the gifts which are bestowed upon the Christian Church. Four characters, exceedingly diverse, are brought before us in this ninth chapter: Paul, a man singularly gifted, morally and intellectually, with qualities more brilliant than almost ever fell to the lot of man; Peter, full of love and daring, a champion of the truth; Ananias, one of those disciples of the inward life whose vocation is sympathy, and who, by a single word, “brother,” restore light to those that sit in darkness and loneliness; lastly, Dorcas, in a humbler, but not less true sphere of divine (goodness, clothing the poor with her own hands, practically loving and benevolent.

We err in the comparative estimate we form of great and small. Imagine a political economist computing the value of such a life as this of Dorcas. He views men in masses: considers the economic well-being of society on a large scale: calculates what is productive of the greatest good for the greatest number. To him the few coats and garments made for a few poor people would be an item in the world’s well-being scarcely worthy of being taken into the reckoning. Let the historian estimate her worth. The chart of time lies unrolled before him. The fall of dynasties and the blending together of races, the wars and revolutions of nations that have successively passed across the world’s stage-these are the things that occupy him. What are acts like hers in the midst of interests such as these and of contemplations so large? All this is beneath the dignity of history. Or again, let us summon a man of larger contemplations still To the Astronomer, lifting his clear eye to the order of the stars, this planet itself is but a speck. To come down from the universe to the thought of a tiny earth is a fell descent; but to descend to the thought of a humble female working at a few garments, were a fall indeed.

Now rise to the Mind of which all other minds are but emanations-and this conception of grand and insignificant is not found in His nature. Human intellect, as it rises to the great, neglects the small. The Eternal mind condescends to the small; or rather; with It there is neither great nor small. It has divided the rings of the earthworm with as much microscopic care as the orbits in which the planets move: It has painted the minutest feather on the wing of the butterfly as carefully as It has hung the firmament with the silver splendor of the stars. Great and small are words which have only reference to us.

Further still: judging the matter by the heart, ascending to the heart of God, there is another aspect of the subject: great belongs only to what is moral-infinitude and eternity are true of feelings rather than of’ magnitude, or space, or time. The mightiest distance that mind can conceive, calculable only by the arrow-flight of light, can yet be measured. The most vast of all the cycles that imagination ever wanted for the ages that are gone by, can yet be estimated by number. But tell us, if you can, the measure of a single feeling. Find for us. if you can. the computation by which we may estimate a single spiritual affection. They are absolutely incommeasurable-these things together, magnitude and feeling. Let the act of Dorcas be tried thus. When the world has passed away, and the lust, thereof, “he that doeth the will of God abideth forever.” The true infinite, the real eternal, is love. When all that economist, historian, philosopher can calculate, is gone, the love of Dorcas will still be fresh, and living, in the eternity of the illimitable Mind.

Observe, once more, the memorial which she left behind her. When Peter went into the upper chamber, he was surrounded by the poor widows, who showed him, weeping, the garments she had made. This was the best epitaph: the tears of the poor

There is a strange jar upon the mind in the funeral, when the world is felt to be going on as usual. Traffic and pleasure do not alter when our friend lies in the upper chamber. The great, busy world rolls on, unheeding, and our egotism suggests the thought, So will it be when I am not. This world, whose very existence seems linked with mine, and to subsist only in mine, will not be altered by my dropping out of it. Perhaps a few tears, and then all that follow me and love me now will dry them up again. I am but a bubble on the stream: here today, and then gone. This is painful to conceive. It is one of the pledges of our immortality that we long to be remembered after death; it is quite natural. Now let us inquire into its justice.

Dorcas died regretted: she was worth regretting, she was worth being restored; she had not lived in vain, because she had not lived for herself The end of life is not a thought, but an action-action for others. But you, why should you be regretted? Have you discovered spiritual truth, like Paul? Have you been brave and true in defending it, like Peter? or cheered desolate hearts by sympathy, like Ananias? or visited the widows and the fatherless in their affliction, like Dorcas? If you have, your life will leave a trace behind which will not soon be effaced from earth. But if not, what is your worthless, self-absorbed existence good for, but to be swept away, and forgotten as soon as possible? You will leave no record of yourself on earth, except a date of birth, and a date of death, with an awfully significant blank between.

The second event connected with St. Peter’s stay at Joppa was the conversion of Cornelius.

A new doctrine was dawning on the Church. It was the universality of the love of God. The great controversy in the early history of Christianity was, not the atonement, not predestination, not even, except at first, the resurrection, but the admissibility of the Gentiles to the Church of Christ. It was the controversy between Christianity, the universal religion, and Judaism, the limited one. Except we bear this in mind, the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles will be alike unintelligible to us.

The germ of this truth had been planted by Stephen. St. Paul was now raised up as his successor, to develop it still further. So that now a very important crisis had arrived. For it has been well observed, that had St. Peter’s acceptance of this truth been delayed by leaving it to gradual mental growth, the effects would have been incalculably disastrous to Christianity. A new apostle had arisen, and a new church was established at Antioch; and had St. Peter and the rest been left in their reluctance to this truth, the younger apostle would have been necessarily the leader of a party to which the elder apostles were opposed, and the Church of Antioch would have been in opposition to the Church at Jerusalem: a timely miracle, worthy of God, prevented this catastrophe: at the very crisis of time St. Peter’s mind, too, was enlightened with the truth.

The vision was evidently in its form and in its direction the result of previous natural circumstances. The death of Stephen must have had its effect on the apostle’s mind. That truth for which he died, the transient character of Judaism, must have suggested strange new thoughts, to be pondered on and doubted on; add to this, the apostle was in a state of hunger. In ecstasy, or trance, or vision, things meet for food presented themselves to his mental eye. Evidently the form in which this took place was shaped by his physical cravings, the direction depended partly upon his previous thoughts concerning the opening question of the Church. But the eternal truth, the spiritual verity conveyed by the vision, was clearly of a higher source. Here are the limits of the natural and the supernatural closely bordering on each other.

And this is only analogous to all our life. The human touches on the Divine, earth borders upon heaven-the limits are not definable. “I live,” said St. Paul. Immediately after, be corrects himself: “yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” Man’s spirit prays; yet is it not “the Spirit making intercession for us with groanings which can not be uttered?” As if the mind of man were hardly to be distinguished from the mind of God. We are on the brink of the world unseen-on the very verge of the spirit-realm. Everywhere around us is God.

Now the contents of this vision were-a vessel let down from heaven, full of animals, domestic and wild, clean and unclean. This was let down from heaven, and taken up to heaven again. All had come from God, so that the truth conveyed was clear enough. These distinctions of clean and unclean were but conventional and artificial, after all-temporal arrangements, not belonging to the unalterable. God had made all and given all. The analogy was not difficult to perceive. God is the Creator of mankind. He is the universal Father. All have come from Him. Sanctified by Him, there can be no man common or unclean.

Against even the first part of this St. Peter’s mind revolted-“Not so, Lord.” It is not a little remarkable that the two first to whom this expansive truth was revealed were bigoted men: St. Paul the Jewish, St. Peter the Christian bigot. For St. Peter was a Christian, yet a bigot still. Is this wonderful and rare? or are we not all bigots in our way, the largest-minded of us all? St. Peter was willing to admit a proselyte: the admission of an entire Gentile was a stumbling-block; afterwards he could admit a Gentile, but hesitated to eat with him. There are some of us who can believe in the Christianity of those who are a little beyond our own Church pale; some who even dimly suspect that God may love the Jew; some, too, who will be ready, with qualifications, to acknowledge a benighted Roman Catholic for a brother; but how many of us are there who would not be startled at being told to love a Unitarian? how many who would not shrink from the idea as over-bold, that be who is blind to the Redeemer’s Deity, yet loving Him with all his heart, may perchance have that love accepted in place of adoration, and that it may be at our peril that we call him “common or unclean?” Oh! there was a largeness in the heart of Christ, of which we have only dreamed of as yet- a something, too, in these words, “God hath showed me that I should not call any man common or unclean,” which it will require, perhaps, ages to develop.

At the same, or nearly the same time when this was taking place at Joppa, a manifestation, somewhat similar, was going on at Caesarea, a day’s journey distant. Remark here the coincidence. There was an affinity, it seems, between the minds of these two men, Peter and Cornelius-a singular, mysterious sympathy. Nay, more than that, very shortly before, a similar phenomenon had been felt in the mind of St. Paul, more than a hundred miles off, in a valley near Damascus; concerning all which we can say little, except that it is very plain there is a great deal more going on upon earth than our ordinary life conceives of. In the scientific world, similar coincidences perpetually take place: discoveries, apparently unconnected, without any apparent link between the minds which make them, are announced from different parts of the world almost simultaneously. No man, perhaps, has been altogether unconscious of mental sympathies, coincidences of thought, which are utterly inexplicable. All that I deduce from this is the solemn awfulness of the universe in which we live. We are surrounded by mystery. Mind is more real than matter. Our souls and God are real. Of the reality of nothing else are we sure: it floats before us, a fantastic shadow-world. Mind acts on mind. The Eternal Spirit blends mind with mind, soul with soul, and is moving over us all with His mystic inspiration every hour.

In Caesarea there was a cohort of soldiers, the body-guard of the governor who resided there. They were not, as was the case in other towns, provincial soldiers, but, being a guard of honor, were all Romans, called commonly the Italian band. One of the centurions of this guard was Cornelius-“a devout man.” A truth-loving, truth-seeking, truth-finding man; one of those who would be called in this day a restless, perhaps an unstable man; for he changed his religion twice. He had aspirations which did not leave him contented with paganism. He found in Judaism a higher truth, and became a proselyte. In Judaism he was true to the light he had: he was devout, gave alms, and even influenced some of the soldiers of the guard, as it would appear (ver. 7). The result was as might have been expected. “He that hath, to him shall be given.” Give us such a man, and we will predict his history. He will be ever moving on; not merely changing, but moving on, from higher to higher, from light to light, from love to love, till he loses himself at last in the Fountain of Light and the Sea of Love. Heathenism, Judaism, Christianity. Not mere change, but true, ever upward progress. He could not rest in Judaism, nor anywhere else ,on earth.

To this man a voice said, “Thy prayers and thine alms are come up as a memorial before God.” Prayers-that we can understand; but alms-are then works, after all, that by which men become meritorious in the sight of God? To answer this, observe: Alms may assume two forms. They may be complete or incomplete. Alms complete-works which may be enumerated, estimated-deeds done and put in as so much purchase-ten times ten thousand such-will never purchase heaven. But the way in which a holy man does his alms is quite different from this. In their very performance done as pledges of something more; done with a sense of incompleteness; longing to be more nearly perfect-they become so many aspirations rising up to God; sacrifices of thanksgiving, ever ascending like clouds of incense, that rise and rise in increasing volumes, still dissatisfied and still aspiring. Alms in this way become prayers-the highest prayers; and all existence melts and resolves itself into a prayer. “The prayers and thine alms;” or if you will, “ Thy prayers and thy prayers,” are come up to be remembered; for what were his alms but devout aspirations of his heart to God?

Thus, in the vision of the everlasting state which John saw in Patmos, the life of the redeemed presented itself as one eternal chant of grateful hallelujahs, hymned on harps whose celestial melodies float before the Throne forever. A life of prayer is a life whose litanies are ever fresh acts of self-devoting love. There was no merit in those alms of Cornelius; they were only poor imperfect aspirations, seeking the ear of God, and heard and answered there.

All this brings us to a question which must not be avoided-the salvability of the heathen world. Let us pronounce upon this, if firmly, yet with all lowliness and modesty.

There are men of whose tenderness of heart we can not doubt, who have come to the conclusion that without doubt the heathen shall perish everlastingly. A horrible conclusion: and if it were true, no smile should ever again pass across the face of him who believes it. No moment can, with any possible excuse, be given to any other enterprise than their evangelization, if it be true that eternity shall echo with the myriad groans and agonies of those who are dropping into it by thousands in all hour. Such men, however, save their character for heart at the expense of their consistency. They smile and enjoy the food and light just as gayly as others do. They are too affectionate for their creed; their system only binds their views: it can not convert their hearts to its gloomy horror.

We lay down two principles: No man is saved by merit, but only by faith. ‘No man is saved, except in Christ. “There is none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved.”

But when we come to consider what is saving faith, we find it to be the broad principle of trust in God, above all misgivings, living for the invisible instead of the seen. In Hebrews xi. we are told that Noah was saved by faith. Faith in what? In the atonement? or even in Christ? Nay, but in the predicted destruction of the world by water; the truth he had, not the truth he had not. And the life he led in consequence, higher than that of the present-seeking world around him, was the life of faith, “by the which he condemned the world, and became heir of the righteousness which is by faith.” Salvation, therefore, is annexed to faith. Not necessarily faith in the Christian object, but in the truth, so far all it is given. Does God ask more?

Again: the Word revealed itself to men before it was manifested in the flesh. Before this universe was called into being, when neither star nor planet was, the Father was not alone. From all eternity He contemplated Himself in Another-Himself in Himself; else God had not been love. For another is required for love. To lose and find one’s self again in another’s being, that is love. Except this, we can not conceive love possible to Him. But thus with the other, which was His very self; in language theological, the Eternal Son in the bosom of the Father;-God thrown into objectivity by Himself There was a universe before created universe existed; there was love when as yet there was none except Himself on whom that affection could be thrown; and the expression of Himself to Himself, the everlasting Word, filled eternity with the anthem of the Divine soliloquy. Now this word expressed itself to man before it mingled itself with flesh. “Before Abraham was, I am.” Read we not in the Old Testament of revelations made to men in visions, trances, day-dreams, sometimes in voices, articulate or inarticulate, sometimes in suggestions scarcely distinguishable from their own thoughts ?

Moreover, recollect that the Bible contains only a record of the Divine, dealings with a single nation; His proceedings with the minds of other people are not recorded, That large other world-no less God’s world than Israel was, though in their bigotry the Jews thought Jehovah was their own exclusive property-scarcely is-scarcely could be named on the page of Scripture except in its external relation to Israel. But at times, figures, as it were, cross the rim of Judaism, when brought in contact with it, and passing for a moment as dim shadows, do yet tell us hints of a communication and a revelation going on unsuspected. We are told, for example, of Job-no Jew, but an Arabian emir, who beneath the tents of Uz contrived to solve the question to his heart which still perplexes us through life-the co-existence of evil with Divine benevolence; one who wrestled with God as Jacob did, and strove to know the shrouded Name, and hoped to find that it was love. We find Naaman the Syrian, and Nebuchadnezzar the Babylonian, under the providential and loving discipline of God. Rahab the Gentile is saved by faith. The Syrophenician woman by her sick daughter’s bedside, amidst the ravings of insanity, recognizes, without human assistance, the sublime and consoling truth of a universal Father’s love in the midst of apparent partiality. The “Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world” had not left them in darkness.

From all this we are constrained to the conviction that there is a Church on earth larger than the limits of the Church visible; larger than Jew, or Christian, or the Apostle Peter, dreamed; larger than our narrow hearts dare to hope even now. They whose soarings to the First Good, First Perfect, and First Fair, entranced us in our boyhood, and whose healthier aspirations are acknowledged yet as our instructors in the reverential qualities of our riper manhood-will our hearts allow us to believe that they have perished? Nay. Many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven.” The North American Indian who worshipped the great Spirit, and was thereby sustained in a life more dignified than the more animalized men amongst his countrymen; the Hindoo who believed in the rest of God, and in his imperfect way tried to “enter into rest,” not forgetting benevolence and justice-these shall come, while “the children of the kingdom”-men who, with greater light, only did as much as they-“shall be cast out.”

These, with an innumerable multitude whom no man can number, out of every kingdom, and tongue, and people, with Rahab and the Syrophenician woman, have entered into that Church which has passed through the centuries, absorbing silently into itself all that the world ever had of great, and good, and noble. They were those who fought the battle of good against evil in their day, penetrated into the invisible from the thick shadows of darkness which environed them, and saw the open Vision which is manifested to all, in every nation, who fear God and work righteousness-to all, in other words, who live devoutly towards God, and by love towards man. And they shall hereafter “walk in white, for they are worthy.” * * * * It may be that I err in this. It may be that this is all too daring. Little is revealed upon the subject, and we must not dogmatize. I may have erred; and it may be all a presumptuous dream. But if it be, God will forgive the daring of a heart whose hope has given birth to the idea; whose faith in this matter simply receives its substance and reality from things hoped for, and whose confidence in all this dark, mysterious world can find no rock to rest upon amidst the roaring billows of uncertainty, except “the length, and the breadth, and the depth, and the height, of the love which passeth knowledge,” and which has filled the universe with the fullness of His Christ.