The Nature, Importance, and Means of Eminent Holiness Throughout the Church
In this sermon, Beecher uses Christian eschatology to inspire moral and social reforms.
In this sermon, he expresses the view that the millennium must come about on earth before Christ returns. This is the “intervening event” he speaks of “between the first coming of the Savior to redeem, and his final advent to judge the world.” This view, referred to as post-millennialism (Christ will come after the millennium) was commonly held in antebellum America. It was a powerful force behind the “evangelical empire,” the collection of religious organizations that sought to reform and evangelize America at that time. Beecher mentions a number of the causes (temperance, missions, Sabbath observance) these organizations served. Beecher also argues that such reform movements are not enough. To bring about the millennium and hasten Christ’s return, Christians must aim at holiness. Not only must they be born again, they must recognize sin as vile and loathsome, crucify it, and aim for communion with God, sharing his views, certainty and emotions. This demand for holiness explains the fervency of the reformers, including the abolitionists, and thus is important for understanding American politics in the antebellum period. We reproduce here the complete text of the first of six sermons that Beecher published on holiness.
Beecher’s Sermon and Texts
Published in The American National Preacher 10, 1&2 (June-July 1835).
Matthew 16:3: Can ye not discern the signs of the times?
Romans 14:17: For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.
Luke 17:20-21: The kingdom of God cometh not with observation. Neither shall they say, Lo here! or lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.
Isaiah 52:1-2: Awake, awake; put on thy strength, O Zion; put on thy beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city; for henceforth there shall no more come unto thee the uncircumcised and the unclean. Shake thyself from the dust; arise, and sit down, O Jerusalem; loose thyself from the bands of thy neck, O captive daughter of Zion.
In the progress of the cause of God on earth, there are certain great crises, or turning points of destiny, full of deep interest to him and to the intelligent universe. Such was the coming of Christ, an event around which were concentrated the interests of the whole human race, and of the moral government of God in all ages.
The advent of such eras is announced beforehand, and preceded by signs. The event stands predicted on the prophetic page, throwing its light into the dark regions of futurity; and God himself, as the long-expected day draws near, so orders his providence that signs may be seen on every side. He holds up a standard to his people, and calls on them to behold it from afar.
When he does this, it is their duty to notice such signs, to be fully aware of their import, and to act accordingly; and to do this is rightly to discern the signs of the times.
To none are these great truths more applicable than to Christians of every denomination of the present age. By the sure word of prophecy a great event has been announced as near at hand. It is the regeneration of the world. An event which, like a lofty mountain summit, rises to view on the chart of prophecy, as the great intervening event between the first coming of the Savior to redeem, and his final advent to judge the world.
The advent of this day is also preceded by its appropriate signs, which may be clearly seen by all of unblinded vision, but to mention which, time will not now permit. And to a great extent these signs are seen and understood, and the people of God seem to be making preparation for correspondent action.
Beneath the inspiring influence of the Almighty, the universal church is aroused, excited, and agitated by the persuasion that a glorious advent of the kingdom of God is near at hand. The conversion of the world to God is no longer regarded as merely the glorious but distant vision of inspired prophets. As a vivid reality, and near even at the door, it rises in all its majesty and soul-exciting power before the mind, awakening intense desire, and urging to incessant effort. Under this influence the church is daily approaching nearer to a full conception of all that is involved in a deliberate, all-absorbing effort to accomplish the mighty whole.
The field is the world, and the plans of the present age are as comprehensive as the field, and the church seems determined not to rest until the gospel shall be preached to every creature. Nor is this all. A result is to be expected, and should be aimed at, unlike any thing ever seen or conceived of on earth before. Not merely to fill the earth with the knowledge of the Lord, not merely to preach the gospel to every creature, but to re-organize human society in accordance with the law of God. To abolish all corruptions in religion, and all abuses in the social system, and, so far as it has been erected on false principles, to take it down and erect it anew. Hence incessant efforts are made to extend the influence of the Christian system into all departments of life; and all institutions, usages, and principles, civil or religious, are exposed to a rigid and fiery scrutiny. Abuses are assailed, and the whole community is in a state of constant agitation. Nor is this state of things destined to cease till the heavens and the earth have been shaken at the advent of God; till the last remnant of rebellion has passed away from the earth, and the human race shall repose in peace beneath the authority of Him whose right is to reign.
How great the privilege, and how great the responsibility of living in an age like this; and to one who deeply feels the responsibility, and the shortness of life, how natural the enquiry—How can I do most to secure the end in view? My time is short, the work in great. I desire to enter into it with all my heart and soul, and to be supremely engaged in some department of action. Which shall I select?
The inquiry is appropriate. A man cannot be supremely devoted to all departments of action. He must lay out his main energies in some one. He needs and must have a ruling passion, an all-absorbing purpose of the soul, of power to draw all else into its current, and render all else subservient to itself. And the natural course is to select some one of the great enterprises of the present age, and throw into that all the energies of the soul. Nor is it difficult to find an enterprise large enough to absorb the whole soul. Any one is vast enough to give exercise to more than all the energies of the highest mind, and to him who meditates much and deeply on it, to fill the whole horizon of his vision, and to seem more intimately connected than any other with the salvation of the world. Thus to one the cause of Sabbath-schools may easily become the most important of all; to another, foreign and domestic missions; to another, the discussion and defense of doctrinal truth, and the exposure of error; to another, the cause of temperance; and to another, the circulation of tracts, or of the word of God. These and similar enterprises are, without doubt, great and glorious beyond conception. But neither one of them is or can become the leading and most important enterprise of the present age. Neither one of them can deserve to become the all-absorbing object of the soul, nor can safely so become.
This prominence belongs to one enterprise and only one. An enterprise at present not at all recognized as a great enterprise of the age, or as an enterprise at all; and on which public apathy is deep and general. Yet, on reflection, it must be seen to be the only one which deserves the first rank, and the only one to which it is safe to give supreme and all-absorbing power in the soul, so as to compel us to view all other subjects only in their relations to it. The enterprise to which I refer is this:
The immediate production of an elevated standard of personal holiness throughout the universal church—such a standard of holiness as God requires, and the present exigencies of the world demand.
That such a standard of holiness ought to exist, cannot be denied; that it will exist hereafter, is expected. But its indispensible necessity now, this very day is not felt as it ought to be, nor the possibility of producing it; and adequate efforts to secure it are not made. These things ought not so to be. The attention of the whole church should be at once aroused to the subject and fixed intently on it, and the work of producing such a standard of holiness deliberately undertaken, as the first great enterprise of the present day. That it is such is the obvious import of our text. It teaches us that the kingdom of God is a spiritual kingdom, that its advent depends on no secular power, and implies no worldly victories, no external splendor, no earthly dominions, but simply that reign of God over man which is the result of holiness in the soul. From this it is manifest that the kingdom of God can make no real progress except by an increase of holiness, and can never be fully established on earth till holiness prevails in its highest power. Of course, to secure such a prevalence of holiness ought to be the great business of the present day. Still further to illustrate this truth, I propose,
I. To consider what is implied in a standard of holiness adapted to the exigencies of the present age.
II. Show that to produce such a standard of holiness should be regarded as the most important enterprise of the age.
III. Show how this enterprise should be undertaken and conducted.
In general, we remark that the standard of holiness required by the present age should be distinguished by two great peculiarities—that it should include all parts of a holy character, and that these should be fully developed so as to exert a high degree of power. In other words, the exigencies of the age require a complete, fully developed, and well-balanced holy character. Let us now proceed to look in detail at the elementary parts of this.
1. Communion with God deserves a prominent place, as the foundation of all high attainments in holiness.
By communion with God I understand an interchange or reciprocal exercise of views and feelings between God and the soul, when, according to his promise, he draws near, and manifests himself to those who love him.
This is both a reasonable and intelligible state of mind. Men are so made that they can exchange with each other both views and emotions, and this is essential to the highest degree of love and mutual confidence. And the same is no less true of the relations that exist between men and God. He is a holy being, and has infinite intellect and emotions, and if emotions exist in us of a corresponding kind, there is a rational basis laid for union with him, not only in views but in emotions. Hence it is said, “every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God, and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God and God in him.”1 And all Christians familiarly speak of this state of mind as involving a sense of the presence of God. It was this state of mind which David desired when he longed, and thirsted and fainted after God, and which he actually enjoyed when he said, “thy loving kindness is better than life,” and spoke of his soul as “satisfied with marrow and fatness”2 while in a state of joyful communion with God, and when he exclaimed, “whom have I in heaven but thee, and there is none on earth that I desire besides thee.”3
This is the very foundation of all high attainments in holiness. The great and fundamental principle of Christianity is, that the mind of unrenewed man is entirely corrupt and degraded. Even the mind of a renewed man has no self-restoring power. Left to itself, it would again subside into passions and purposes corrupt and only corrupt. Nor is there any way to restore it to perfect purity, but to bring it under the renovating influence of the pure and holy mind of God. In him are found the only causes adequate to produce this result—infinite power of exhibiting the truth, and infinite holy emotion to destroy the deadness and apathy of the soul. Both these influences are needed, and either without the other is ineffectual. And both reside in God alone. Hence the whole progress of the work of moral renovation depends entirely on putting the mind wholly under the influence of the illuminating intellect and holy emotions of Jehovah. He is our life. In him holy emotions glow, pure, intense, unmixed. And when his glories beam upon the soul, and the elevating and invigorating power of his holiness is felt, then sinful emotions subside and die, and the soul is filled with all the fullness of God. But let him retire, and sin revives again, and we die. On this point I speak to those who have experienced in their own hearts the influence of holy communion with God. I may fail to describe the state of mind with metaphysical exactness. But do you not know, by your own experience, that the thing itself is a reality? The Bible also speaks on the subject with the utmost fullness. What else is meant by “dwelling in God, and God dwelling in us?” or by the promise, “ye shall know that ye are in me, and I in you?”4 or by the promise, “I will love him, and manifest myself unto him?”5
But if communion with God is a reality, to increase it throughout the church is the foundation of all efforts to elevate the standard of holiness. It is by the life of God alone that the church can be made fully alive. The first great object then should be to remove all that prevents communion with God, to elevate our views and enlarge our desires on this subject and to bring the church of every denomination fully under the power of his own infinitely pure and almighty mind. Then, and then alone, may we hope that the church will truly begin to live. Then, and then only, will she be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might. Intimately connected with this, and originating from it is—
2. Faith. By this I mean such firm belief and clear and habitual views of divine and eternal things, as shall correct all false estimates of the worth of earthly joys, or the evils of earthly sufferings, and give to motives, derived from things unseen and eternal their full power upon the mind, as vivid and present realities. Man is made to shrink from present suffering and pain, and to desire present enjoyment. But he is also made to regard the future; and to gain a greater future good, or to avoid a greater future evil, he can cheerfully, if satisfied that it is necessary, sacrifice present pleasures or encounter present pain. And as the magnitude of the motive, and the firmness of his persuasion increase, so does his readiness to make sacrifices or endure sufferings. Hence, if the motives are infinite and the persuasion complete, finite pleasure or pain loses all its power to affect the soul. And such are the motives presented by the word of God: they are great beyond expression, and beyond imagination. The joy set before us is a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, and the evil to be shunned is the fierceness of the wrath of the Almighty God. When such considerations gain the ascendancy the world loses its power. Its joys and its sorrows are estimated not in theory merely, but in practice, as less than nothing, and vanity. And under the influence of such a faith, the feeblest mortal can encounter and overcome all the terrors of earth and hell. And why should it not be so? It is a conflict between infinite and finite for mastery over the mind; and if they contend on equal grounds, must not the infinite of necessity prevail? And it is faith which puts the infinite on equal grounds with the finite. It clothes motives of eternity with the vividness and reality of objects of sense, and thus exposes the mind to their full power. This has been in all ages the great source of Christian energy and self-denial. Under its influence, missionaries and martyrs, prophets and apostles, have cheerfully passed their lives in toils and sufferings, and died in triumph, by the sword or at the stake, in excruciating torments. And should the primitive energy of this principle once more be restored to the church, no obstacles could resist her power.
Let it not, however, be supposed that such faith can originate from the independent and unaided reflection of the human mind. It is the gift of God, and is the result of intimate and habitual communion with him. To his mind, the realities of eternity have an absolute certainty, and he fully appreciates and feels their worth. Hence, as we have communion with him, he transfers his own views, and his own certainty, and his own emotions, to our minds. Eternity rises before us in all its grandeur and glory. The joys of heaven and the woes of hell become real, and the mind surrenders itself to the full and overpowering impression of the scene.
Such are the habits of faith needed in the present age. Such as imply a power to enter into the emotions of God, and walk daily in the light of heaven, and to mold the character, views, and habits, in accordance with the feelings and public sentiment of that blessed world. The natural result of such a state of mind would be,
3. Supreme devotedness to God and his cause. And in this respect also, the standard of holiness in the present age needs to be greatly raised. By the preceding states of mind, the great objects of choice are brought before us, presented in their true light, and contrasted with all else. In this, is implied the decision of the soul to employ all its energies for God, and in his cause. A decision first made when the sinner ceases to rebel, and submits to his Savior. The worth of his cause is infinite, and the obligations of a redeemed soul beyond all utterance or conception; and when, in the light of eternity, and under the full influence of divine love, these things are fully seen, what can longer divide the choice of the soul, or prevent a full consecration of all its powers and faculties to God? Such is the appropriate and natural result of a true view of things, and when it takes place, all our wishes and interests will be entirely identified with those of God, so that we shall have no plans, no purposes, no ends of our own. And such will be our love to him, that the promotion of his glory and the advancement of his cause will become “entirely essential to our happiness.” This is an important point—it is the great point to be urged in the present age. That Christians should no longer cherish a mere general determination to serve God on the whole, resulting in feebleness of heart, low degrees of liberality, and irregular and inefficient action, but give themselves and all they have away wholly to the Lord, and so identify all their interests with those of God. Are you in such a state of mind that you can be happy while God is dishonored and his cause declining on earth? Can you sleep at ease and enjoy the pleasures of life, whilst your fellow-men are sinking to woe eternal? Does wealth increase, or honors multiply, or worldly prosperity attend you, and do such things fill you with joy and satisfy all the cravings of your soul? Is there in you no aching void which such things can never fill? Where then is your love of God, and entire devotedness to his cause? He is still dishonored, and his cause languishes on earth; but you can be happy! Where, I ask again, is your supreme love to God, and devotedness to his cause? No: we shall never love God as we ought, until his glory and the progress of his cause, are “entirely and absolutely essential to our happiness,” so that we can enjoy nothing on earth whilst these are neglected—so that ease and influence, and riches and honor, shall lose all their power to charm, so long as the main desire of the soul remains unsatisfied. This is a practical test; all can see its force; and all ought to be made to feel its power. It ought to be made the standard—and the only standard—of the degree of our devotedness to God. It ought to meet every eye as if written in letters of fire on the heavens above, and resound in every ear as if spoken from on high by the voice of the Almighty. In short, the church must be constantly tried by this test till it feels its full power, and is in truth, entirely, supremely, and universally devoted to God.
4. Moral sensibility to the evils of sin, is another point in which the standard of holiness needs to be greatly elevated.
A high degree of moral repulsion from sin is always a striking characteristic of a holy mind. Among the holy in heaven, we shall find not only right purposes and holy emotions, but the highest loathing of sin. Indeed, this is an essential characteristic of a holy mind, and no mind that has it not, can be in a healthy moral state. Sin is truly odious, loathsome, and repulsive. No natural pollution can for a moment be compared to it in this respect. And if our minds were in a proper moral state, we should shrink from it in all its forms, with loathing and horror unutterable. It is in this respect that the evil consequences of the fall are peculiarly manifest. In this respect it is, that men are dead in trespasses and sins. They have not ceased to be free agents, but all holy sensibility to the evil of sin is gone. They see that they are guilty of sin, but do not feel its moral pollution, and they have no spiritual energy to loathe and to renounce it. This is produced by the Spirit of God. The energy of his holy mind removes the torpor and apathy of our own, and gives to us some of his own moral sensibility to the evil of sin, and energy to renounce it. And it is only as this state of mind increases, that we can make any progress in eradicating the corrupt passions and propensities of our nature. But of this work a vast amount must be done, before we can make any progress toward eminent holiness: for in the attainment of such holiness, is implied, not only the formation of right principles, feelings, and purposes, but also the extinction of wrong ones, previously existing. We are commanded not only to put on the new man, but to put off the old man: not only to walk after the Spirit, but to crucify the flesh with the affections and lusts thereof:6 and in the latter work lies no small part of the duty of a Christian. It is not enough that the main purpose of the soul be changed, and that a Christian be on the whole, for God and not against him, and that he organize his life on this general hypothesis. All this may be done, and yet unfathomable depths of wickedness remain unexplored, and unutterable energies of sin remain within, unsubdued. A change of heart is but the first blow which the old man receives, and though in its ultimate results it is a mortal wound, he is yet far from dead. The work of entirely crucifying and eradicating all remains of sin is yet to be performed. And it is an arduous work. No one who has not fully and deeply engaged in it, can tell the efforts and conflicts it requires. All men are inclined with unutterable strength of feeling to the indulgence of self-complacency in some form. But to come to the point of utter self-renunciation, self-loathing, and self-abhorrence, is diametrically opposed to all the strongest feelings of the soul. To do it is to die a moral death; and the proud heart recoils with agony from the point. It desires leave, at least, to glory in its humility; but to renounce all merit, to be fully sensible of one’s utter vileness, guilt, and degradation, to believe, to own, acknowledge, and deeply feel it, and to be habitually humble and broken hearted, is the most arduous and difficult attainment of a Christian. But arduous and difficult as it is, it may be carried to an extent far beyond our highest conceptions, if we constantly aim at the standard of entire perfection: and no one should aim at anything lower. No one should aim at anything less than an entire and radical crucifixion of the old man, in all his members and parts, and to put on entire, and in full proportion, the Lord Jesus Christ, and to make no provision for the flesh to serve the lusts thereof.
But how can this be done without an exquisite moral sensibility to the evil of all sin? To see our sins, and acknowledge that they are sins, is one thing; but to have moral energy to loathe, abhor, and renounce them, is quite another. But all victory over sin depends entirely on this. The whole process is one of self-loathing and abhorrence of sin, and determined, agonizing efforts to subdue it. And why should it not be? How can a soul so polluted and degraded as that of man, so full of apathy and moral death, be restored to holiness and life, in any other way?
It ought, then, to be a leading object of the present age, to produce a more exquisite moral sensibility to the evils of all sin. No sin should be deemed trivial or venial. All should be abhorred. There should be the feelings of heaven on this subject. The evils of moral pollution should be felt, and mourned over as they would be in heaven, before the throne of God, where every robe is pure and spotless. And if the church will commune with God as she ought, she can gain this also. His feelings are pure and unmixed, and can impart a healthy energy to our own. He can teach us to loathe all our sins, even as he does, to crucify them with unsparing severity, and to long after perfect purity with the intensity of his own desires.
What is holiness, according to Beecher? How is the holiness movement connected to the “regeneration of the world”? What does Beecher mean when he speaks of the regeneration of the world? What is the view of man, God and nature in the holiness and reform movements?
Compare Beecher’s views on God’s relationship to man with those expressed by Mather, Edwards, and Moody. In what ways do they differ? How are they similar? How might their views affect attitudes towards politics?