The Moral Power of Christianity
2 Corinthians 12:8-9
For this thing I sought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.…

A human life is a problem of forces. Powers from all worlds are met on this earth and contend for the mastery over us. Influences from all the ages flow in the veins of humanity and beat in the heart of each new-born child. It is a question of forces — physical, moral, spiritual — what shall become of every one of us. Our whole scientific conception of things is formed now in equations of force. The earth quivers to its centre to the influences of the stars. Elemental forces hold each other in firm embrace in the great mountains and in the ancient order of the heavens. It is with the primal and eternal forces that we have to do even in the quietest of things. Human history, no less than the physical processes of nature, is a ceaseless transformation and conservation of energy. Human destiny is a problem of forces. This dynamical conception of history, this view of every human life as a drama of supernal powers, presents a most fascinating study of events and characters and destinies. Not only in the few great lives, but in the passion and action of every soul, universal powers contend for the supremacy, and the issues of eternal life or death are the results of the conflict. When we think thus of each life from earliest childhood as a problem of forces, powers from everywhither contending for the mastery in it, and eternal life or death being its moral victory or defeat, nothing that touches and influences, nothing that may help or hurt the soul in this great conflict of its destiny, can seem indifferent to us. The question of its triumph or its shame, its virtue or its loss, will become a question of motive and of motive-power: in the power of what motives can the victory of spirit be gained? What motive-power is sufficient to reduce all the conflicting forces that work upon us and in us to one harmonious, happy, and everlasting life? Now, our Christian faith has a clear answer to give to this question concerning the sufficient motive-power of a life. When the Apostle Paul preached at Athens or Rome there was one question which he might have asked the philosophers, to which he would have received evasive and very unsatisfactory replies, viz., How can a bad man become a good man? How can a virtuous man overcome all evil? Some one at Athens or Rome might have quoted Aristotle to him, and answered, The good can become better by the practice of virtue; and as for the bad, the State must look after them by the exercise of force. Or some one might have quoted Plato to the apostle, and said, The way of virtue is the way of contemplation; lift your eyes to the eternal ideas, behold their beauty — an answer which might be serviceable to the few wise souls, but which would have no meaning for those born blind, without spiritual eyes clarified for the vision of supernal truths. But St. Paul carried with him in his new Christian experience an answer concerning the moral motive-power of a true life, such as all the books of the ancients did not contain. Let us consider how he had reached that answer, and what his Christian solution of life as a problem of forces was. He had reached it through two courses of experience. First, he had tried the best method which he knew of making himself a master of all virtue, and he felt that he had miserably failed. He had succeeded well enough according to the moral standards of his neighbours and friends, but in his own sober judgment of himself he had failed to reach the one object of his moral ambition, and to become a perfect master of righteousness. He had tried to live by rule, and he had found that to be a very unsatisfactory method of virtue. Then, having failed to live perfectly by rule, he had been taught by a vision of the Lord another method of life — the method of faith and love. The new Christian motive lifts him up and leads him on. And his Epistles ring with a consciousness of power. Among the most frequently-repeated words in these Epistles of the great apostle is this word "power." St. John has three characteristic words, denoting his pure, fair, Christian conception of what we shall be — the words light, life, love. St. Paul also has three words, oft-recurring, which disclose his new Christian consciousness of redemption — grace, faith, power — in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, the power of the resurrection, the power of Christ. Who is this one man to claim discovery of the secret of a supernal power for life and over death? Who is this man who claims to succeed where all our philosophies fail? What impossible motive-power of life is this of which the converted Jew boasts? St. Paul's answer, however, concerning the sufficient motive-power for life, others around him began to try, and they succeeded by it. It has been verified in men's experience thousands of times, and under most widely differing conditions of life. A modern unbeliever, who thinks that the only hope for making men better is through good breeding scientifically carried out, admits that the Christian motive has power over certain high and rare spirits, but it does not much influence, he thinks, the generality of people. But an unbeliever in the second century raised precisely the opposite objection against the new Christian faith, and complained that the Christian converts were made from the wool-dressers, and the cobblers, and the ignorant masses. If we put the two objections together, the ancient and the modern, they render this just tribute to the power of the gospel, that it appeals to the humblest and the worst, while it also has a nobler inspiration for the rarest spirits. Such being the incontestable fact, we may proceed next to consider what this moral motive-power is which St. Paul carried within him to Rome. Our text puts the whole matter in the simplest form — the strength of the Lord Jesus Christ, His power resting on the disciple. We are not, perhaps, accustomed to think of the life of Jesus as the strong life; yet it was the life of strength. We think of Him as the merciful One, who went about doing good; we think of Him as the Man of Sorrows. Gentleness, patience, self-denying, suffering, submission — these are the pre-eminent Christian virtues; and Christ-likeness means self-forgetfulness. Yet the brave, great-hearted apostle seems to have been wonderfully impressed with the strength of the Christ. The power of Jesus commanded him. The despised Nazarene, he discovers, was Lord. The Crucified One, he sees, is Emperor of all worlds. St. Paul receives the Spirit of Christ as the Spirit of power. From beginning to end Jesus' life was characterised by these three distinguishing moral marks of the highest human power — perfect self-poise, instantaneous decision, sure and unbroken purpose. Estimated by such tests of power, the life of the Son of man was the strongest life ever commissioned of the Eternal upon this earth. First, it is as the personal influence of Jesus. That is to-day the strongest thing in the world. There is no greater force under the stars than the personal influence of the Christ. The generations cannot pass from the spell of it. There is no type of virtue which has not been strengthened by it, no grace of character that has not been enhanced by it. The personal example of the Christ is the kingly and commanding power of modern history. Secondly, in this power of Jesus, of which St. Paul was profoundly conscious, is contained great material of truth for character and conduct. The truths which the gospel presents are truths which are directly convertible into character; they easily break into the pure flame of consecrated spirit. All truths have some relations, direct or indirect, to conduct; but these Christian truths are pre-eminently truths to be done; they are rich in material for motive. This is the value of the Christian doctrines; they are materials for life. The doctrines of the Epistles branch at once into the practical precepts of the Epistles: the truths of the gospel bear the fruits of righteousness. If in our trials, temptations, anxieties, responsibilities, or bereavements, we wish to find truths that shall keep our hearts always young, and impart to us an exhaustless spiritual strength, we must open our Bibles, and let these words of inspiration renew our courage, calm our spirits, set our daily duties to celestial music, impart to us in the midst of the conflicts of the world something of the strength of Jesus and the peace of the Eternal. Thirdly, the power of Jesus, which an apostle prayed might rest upon him, was not only the influence of the remembered life of the Lord, nor was it wholly the strength to be gained by assimilating the truths of the gospel; it was also the living power of the Spirit of Christ. The motive to all goodness in the lives of believers, and the power of the perseverance of the saints, is to be the influences with the soul of the ascended Lord and the working of the Holy Spirit, who uses all the Christian revelation of God as the means and channel of the redemptive power of God's love on earth. What, then, do we see? What do we find? Everywhere around us — yes, and within us — a conflict of forces, good and evil; and the eternal destinies waiting the issues of this combat of our mortality.

(Newman Smyth.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.

WEB: Concerning this thing, I begged the Lord three times that it might depart from me.

Sufficient Grace
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