Read LECTURE XXVI of The Christian Life Its Course‚ Its Hindrances‚ And Its Helps, free online book, by Thomas Arnold, on ReadCentral.com.

WHITSUNDAY.

ACTS xi.

Have you received the Holy Ghost since ye believed?

It appears, by what follows these words, that the question here related especially to those gifts of the Holy Ghost which were given, in the first age of the church, as a sign of God’s power, and a witness that the work of the gospel was from God. Yet although this be so, and therefore the words, in this particular sense, cannot to any good purpose be asked now; yet there is another sense, and that not a lower but a far higher one, in which we may ask them, and in which it concerns us in the highest degree, what sort of answer we can give to them, I say, “what sort of answer;” for I think it is true of all Christians that, in a certain measure, they have received the Holy Ghost. Not only does the doctrine of our own, and I believe every other, church, concerning baptism, show this: but it seems also necessarily to follow, from those words of St. Paul, that “No man can say that Jesus is the Lord but by the Holy Ghost.” And yet the Scripture and common experience alike show us, that a man may call Jesus Lord, and yet not be really his, nor one who will be owned by Him at the last day. So that what is of real importance to us is, the degree of fulness and force with which we could give the answer to the words of the text; not simply saying that we have received the Holy Ghost, which would be true, but might be far from sufficient; but saying that we have received Him and are receiving Him more and more, so that our hearts and lives are showing the impression of his heavenly seal daily more and more clearly and completely.

And this must really have always been the answer which it concerned every Christian to be able to make; although it has been in various instances, and by very opposite parties, tried to be evaded. It is evaded alike by those who set too highly the grace given in baptism, and by those who, setting this too low, direct our attention to another point in a man’s life, which they call his justification or conversion. For both alike would give an exaggerated importance to one particular moment of our lives, and to the grace then given. Now, the importance of particular moments in men’s lives differs exceedingly in different persons; but yet in all may be exaggerated. I suppose that if ever in any man’s life a particular point was of immense importance, it was the point of his conversion in the case of St. Paul. There were here united all that grace which according to one view accompanies baptism especially, and all which according to the other view accompanies conversion and justification. Here was a point which separated St. Paul’s later life from his earlier with a broader line of separation than can possibly be the ease in general. There can be no doubt that he, if ever man did, received at that particular time the Holy Ghost. But if, ten or twenty years afterwards, St. Paul had been asked concerning what the Holy Ghost had done for him, he would not certainly have confined himself in his answer to the grace once given him at his conversion and baptism, but would have spoken of that which he had been receiving since every hour and every day, carrying forward and completing that work of God which had been begun at the time of his journey to Damascus. And as he had received more and more grace, so was his confidence in his acceptance with God at the last day more and more assured. For he writes to the Corinthians, many years after his conversion and baptism, that he kept under his body, and was bringing it into subjection, lest that by any means, after having preached to others, he should be himself a castaway. And some years later still, though he does not use so strong an expression as that of becoming a castaway, yet he still says, even when writing to the Philippians from Rome, that he counted not himself to have apprehended, nor to have attained his object fully; but forgetting what was behind, even the grace of his conversion and baptism, he pressed on to the things which were before, even that continued and increasing grace which was required to bring him in safety to his heavenly crown. But if we go on some years yet farther, when his labours were ended, and the sure prospect of speedy death was before him; when the past grace was everything, and what he could expect yet to come was scarcely any other than that particular aid which we need in our struggle with the last enemy death; then, his language is free from all uncertainty; then, in the full sense of the words, he could say that he had received the Holy Ghost, that his spirit had been fully born again for its eternal being, and that there only remained the raising up also of his mortal body, to complete that new creation of body and soul which Christ’s Spirit works in Christ’s redeemed. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me my crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me at that day.”

It seems, then, that the great question which we should be anxious to be able to answer in the affirmative, is this, “Are we receiving the Holy Ghost since we believed?” “Since we believed,” whether we choose to carry back the date of our first belief to the very time of our baptism, when grace was given to us, we know not to what degree nor how, yet given to us, as being then received into Christ’s flock; or whether we go back only to that time when we can ourselves remember ourselves to have believed, and so can remember that God’s grace was given to us. Have we been ever since, and are we still, receiving the Holy Ghost? O blessed above all blessedness, if we can say that this is true of us! O blessed with a blessedness most complete, if we only do not too entirely abandon ourselves to enjoy it! Elect of God; holy and beloved; justified and sanctified; there is nothing in all the world that could impair or destroy such happiness, except we ourselves, in evil hour, believed it to be out of the reach of danger.

But if the witness of memory and conscience be less favourable; if we can remember long seasons of our lives during which we were not receiving the Holy Ghost; long seasons of a cold and hard state, in which there was, as it were, neither rain nor dew, nor yet sun to ripen what had grown before; but all was so ungenial that no new thing grew; and what had grown was withering and almost dying; what shall be said, then, and how can the time be made up which was so wasted? But we remember, it may be, that this deadly season passed away: the rain fell once more, and the tender dew, and the quickening sun shone brightly: our spiritual growth began again, and is now going on healthily; we have not always been receiving the Holy Ghost since we believed, but we are receiving him now. How gracious, then, has God been to us, that he has again renewed us unto repentance; that he has shown that we have not, in the fullest sense, sinned against the Holy Ghost, seeing that the Holy Ghost still abides with us! we grieved him, and tried his long-suffering, but he has not abandoned us to our own evil hearts; we are receiving him who is the giver of life, and we still live.

But must not we speak of others? is not another case to be supposed possible? may there not be some who cannot say with truth that they are receiving the holy Ghost now? They received him once; we doubt it not; perhaps they were receiving him for some length of time; their early childhood was watched by Christian care; their youth and early manhood, when it received freshly things of this world, received also, with lively thankfulness, the grace of God; they can remember a time when they were growing in goodness; when they were being renewed after the image of God. But they can remember, also, that this time passed away; the grace of early childhood was put out by the temptations of boyhood; the grace of youth and opening manhood died away amid the hardness of this life’s maturity. It is so, I believe, often; that boyhood, which is, as it were, ripened childhood, destroys the grace of our earliest years; that again, when youth offers us a second beginning of life, we are again impressed with good; but that ripened youth, which is manhood, brings with it again the reason of hardness, and again our spiritual growth, is destroyed. We can remember, I am supposing, that this fatal change did take place; but can we date it to any particular act, or month, or day, or hour? We can do so most rarely: in this respect the seed of death can even less be traced to its beginning than the seed of life. And yet there was a beginning, only we do not remember it. And why do we not remember it? Because the real beginning was in some act which seemed of so little consequence that it made no impression; in the altering some habit which we judged to be a mere trifle; in the indulging some temper which even at the time we hardly noticed. Some such little thing, little in our view of it, made the fatal turn; we received the grace of God less and less: we heeded not the change for a season; and when it was so marked that we could not but heed it, then we had ceased to regard it; and so it was that the spring of our life was dried up: and it is of no more avail to our present and future state, that we once received grace, than the rain of last winter will be sufficient to ripen the summer’s harvest, if from this time forward we have nothing but drought and cold.

Some few, again, there may be, who, within their own recollection, could not say that they have received the Holy Ghost: persons who have lived among careless friends, to whom the way of life has never been steadily pointed out; while the way of death, with all its manifold paths, meeting at last in one, has been continually before them. Shall we say that these, because they have been baptized, are therefore guilty of having rejected grace given? that this sin is aggravated, because a mercy was offered them once of which they were unconscious? We would not say this; but we would say that it is impossible but that they must have received the Holy Ghost within their memory; it is impossible but that conscience must have sometimes spoken, and that they must have sometimes been enabled to obey it; it is impossible but that they must have had some notions of sin, and some desires to struggle against it; and so far as they ever felt that desire, it was the work of God’s Holy Spirit. Man cannot dare to say how great the amount of their guilt may be; but guilt there certainly is; they have grieved the Holy Spirit; and, though we dare not say that they have utterly blasphemed him, yet they have a long hardness to overcome, and every hour of delayed turning to God increases it: it may be possible still to overcome it, but meanwhile it is not overcome; they are not receiving the Holy Spirit; they are not being renewed into the likeness of Christ, without which no man can see God.

Here, then, are the four cases, one of which must belong to every one of us here assembled. Either we have been always and still are receiving the Holy Ghost; or we can remember when we were not, but yet are receiving him now; or we can remember when we were, but yet now are not; or we cannot remember to have received him ever, nor are we yet receiving him. I cannot say which of the last two states is the most dreadful, nor scarcely which of the first two states is the most blessed. But yet as even those happy states admit not of over-confidence, so neither do the last two most unhappy states oblige us to despair. Not to despair; but they do urge us to every degree of fear less than despair. There is far more danger of our not fearing enough than of our being driven to despair. There is far more danger of your looking on the season of youth, of our looking on to old age; you trusting to the second freshness and tenderness of the first, we to the calmness and necessary reflection of the last. There is far more danger of our thus hardening ourselves beyond recall; there is not only the danger, but there is the sin, the greatest sin, I suppose, of which the human mind is capable, that of deliberately choosing evil for the present rather than good, calculating that, by and by, we shall choose good rather than evil. I believe, that it is impossible to conceive of any state of mind more sinful than one which should so feel and so choose; and this is the state which we incur, and which we persist in whenever we put off the thought of repentance. Now, then, it only remains, that we apply this each to ourselves; I say all of us apply it, the young and the old alike; for there is not one here so young as not to have cause to apply it; there is not one of us who would not, I am sure, be a different person from what he now is, if he were to ask himself steadily every day, Have I been and am I receiving the Holy Ghost since I believed?