"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to His abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead." (1 Peter 1:3)
Many of you, I have no doubt, are often at your wits' end to decide whether you are real Christians, true believers or not. In this you are very different from the pharisee in the parable. He had no question at all about his salvation; he was all right, and could afford to pity and despise a poor contrite sinner like the publican. But it is not so with many of you, dear brethren in the Lord! No, you have too mean an opinion of yourselves ever to presume in the presence of the Lord, or ever to regard with contempt any poor broken-hearted sinner. The reason is, you know something of your own vile hearts, and you know something of unbelief.
There are few or no Christians, truly converted persons who are privileged to see to see their title clear at all times to their mansions in the skies. I know I have never met with one, and I know that I myself am not one of them. No, the real Christian oftener lives between hope and fear, than upon the mount of joy and confidence. Here is what your experience is. One day you believe you shall go to heaven, another day you fear you delude yourselves; one day you believe you have grace, another day you fear you have none; one day you rejoice in the light of the Gospel, another day you have to grope in darkness; one day you can shout out with David, "The Lord is my portion!" another day you take up the words of Jonah, "We are cast out from the presence of the Lord!" Oh, is it not so? Yes, I am sure it is! Well, now, come and let us reason together, and see if we cannot discover the existence of true grace in our hearts. The question to be discussed is, Have we a lively hope? First, I would help you to discuss this question, and, secondly, give you some good counsel.
I. To be religious is one thing, to have a living hope is another thing; to walk by sight is one thing, to walk by faith and hope is another thing. Many people who have no more grace in their hearts than the heathen and forced to make a profession of religion, and this satisfies them, till they are truly awakened by God. But this profession of piety and zeal has no more connection with true grace or a living hope than galvanic effort has to do with true life; the one is forced, the other is the result of God-given power. An individual is told by some blind guide that the way to be religious, and consequently the way to get to heaven, is to visit the sick, the poor, and the afflicted, and by abstaining from the amusements of the world. Well, the individual adopts this course. It is pleasing to the flesh, but there is the grossest delusion beneath all this, for all this might be done, and often is done, by those who have not a particle of grace or living hope. It is thus the poor Paptists deceive themselves and their dupes; it is thus that thousands in our own Church deceive themselves; it is thus that thousands of nonconformists deceive themselves. They do good works, as they suppose; they use self-denial; they abstain from worldly amusements; but, having no grace, no faith (without which, it is impossible to please God: (Heb. 11:6) faith in God reconciled in Christ Jesus, faith in the atonement, faith in Christ as Mediator, they can have no hope whatever of a scriptural character. It may be said, "But does not James say, 'True religion and undefiled is to visit the fatherless and the widow, and to keep one's self unspotted from the world?'" (James 1:27) Yes, I answer; but we are to remember that these are intended by James as evidences from those already begotten by God of His good will. It is the greatest mistake in the world for an unconverted person to take a precept of the Gospel, and working it out in the letter, to conclude that he or she is truly a Christian, or one with a good hope through grace. There must be conversion first, otherwise all the practice in the world is delusion; all works before grace are rubbish. It is from want of a knowledge of this fact that we are so inundated with hypocrites and pretenders of all kinds. But now, poor anxious souls, let us see if we cannot trace out some evidences of "a lively hope" in you.
1. Tell me, are not some of you longing for Christ to be revealed in your hearts the hope of glory? Can you not say, "We believe all that is revealed about Christ and God and the Holy Spirit, but we are not satisfied that we have an interest in Christ?" Are you not often saying to yourselves "What is health to us, or comfort to us, or honor to us, so long as we go mourning for Christ and do not see our interest in Christ?" Oh, poor souls, if this be your experience, believe the work of vitality is begun in you. Nature could not produce this!
2. Again, can you not say, "Oh, that we knew more of God! Oh, that we were filled with Christ! Oh, that we had His grace to pardon us; His power to support us; His wisdom to counsel us; His lovingkindness to refresh us!" Believe me, if this be your longing you are in Christ, and Christ is in you, and you have "a lively hope," for your experience is little short of Paul's own as recorded in Phil. 3.
3. Again. Can you not say, "We want many things; we want health, we want temporal comforts, we want success in business, yet we want Christ's presence more?" Poor souls! Be assured that signs like these were never in a soul that had no "lively hope." Nothing short of God's power could have produced them.
4. Again. Can you not say, "Sin grieves us greatly; we would give anything to be rid of it; we mourn in secret over it, whether in ourselves or in others, because we know it is what God hates." Precious evidence of the existence of "a lively hope!" Paul himself could have hardly had a clearer. His exclamations, "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" (Rom. 7:24) and, "I thank God for Jesus Christ," tell us where he was, and what he felt. Beloved, though you are tossed with the tempests of doubt and fear, believe me, you have "a living hope."
5. Again. Can you not say, "When the Lord gives us any power against sin, any strength to serve Him, we feel a greater joy in our hearts than we can express;" or, "When He does not deal with us according to our iniquities, but breaks our hearts with a sense of His love, do not our souls go forth towards Him with thanksgiving?" Be assured you have "a living hope," for these are marks of heavenly calling and fellowship with God and our Lord Jesus Christ.
6. Once more. Can you not say, "Though our interest in Christ be not as clear as we would desire, we would not change places with those who care for none of these things; and, though Christ may not choose to grant us all we want, yet we still linger about His cross, and, if we are to perish, "we will perish there?" I ask, Can you say these things, having felt them? Then, depend upon it, you have "a lively hope;" yea, though you can trace out but one of all six evidences within you, believe me you have every reason to be thankful, for the Spirit of God is in you of a truth. Ah, beloved, I know something of the ups and downs of spiritual life, and I can sympathize with you and all the dear children of God whose longings are after more manifest union with the Lord Jesus Christ. But I feel assured that I speak God's truth to you, when I tell you that the evidences just laid before you are evidences of "having been begotten unto a lively hope."
II. Remember that your salvation does not depend upon the clearness of your evidences, but upon the existence of any one true evidence. Yea, that though the true evidence may be in existence, it may be so obscured by many things, that it be all but impossible for the moment to bring it to light. The children of God are often constrained for want of better to fall back upon their former evidence of a lively hope.
2. Remember that there are many children of God with smaller, weaker, less distinct, evidences of a lively hope than you. So highly prize your privileges. There are thousand of God's beloved ones this moment who are fainting for the small blessings that you possess. Oh, how many souls would give all in their possession if they could but hear one Gospel sermon in a month, yea, in six months; and here are you blessed with the truth two or three times a week. I say not this in egotism, God knoweth, for "I am less than the least of all saints;" but to cheer you up, and incite you to praise Him from whom all blessings flow.
3. Remember that when God comes to judgment He will not bring scales to weigh the grace or the hope that is in you; He will not ask how great is it, or how deep is it, or how high is it, but, "Is it true? is it real? is it genuine? is it of my giving?" Ay, that will be the question. And, if it be never so feeble, or never so small, if it have God's image and superscription upon it, then your hope will be exchanged for reality, your longing for fruition.
Lastly, Remember the great importance of the use of the means of grace. Oh, use those means whilst you have opportunity. Believe me, you can never hear too much, or hear the same truths too often. It is by listening and pondering and comparing, by reading and meditating and continual exercise of your renewed wills and understandings, that you may expect to grow in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord, and by no other way. The more constantly you wait at wisdom's door, the more you may hope to profit; the more regularly you frequent the Lord's house, the more clearly you may expect to trace out "a lively hope."