It appeared to me that we were not supposed to get into any closer touch with you than that afforded by church parade – just to stand at ease under the watchful eye of the Sergeant Major, to look towards you with unseeing eyes, to listen with hearts already occupied with other things. We did our duty by attending a parade forced on us and, having done that, everyone seemed satisfied. That was and still is my idea of it. On your side, it did not appear that you sought an interest in us different from what we had in you. So, beyond these occasional looks at each other, we did not have many contacts, did we? Now, as I see it, your work was to look after our spiritual interests and surely these were of a kind to demand more notice than that afforded by this, the most formal of all religious formalities – a military church parade. On the authority of the Book you carried, I knew that I had a soul, that I was a sinner in God’s sight, that I was unfit to enter into the presence of God my Judge. I also learned from it that I was on the road to heaven or to hell and that death sealed my destiny for either place.
Was there a way of escape? Did you know it? Could I know it? Could you explain this blessed way to me? Could you help me to see my Saviour, my God? Somehow I thought that you came to us for the sole reason of teaching about these things. Ah, padre, if you had but shown any indication that you knew about these things, and that you were ready to teach them to me, with what joy would I have sought your company! What encouragement you might have given to me! What periods of prayer we might have had together! What communion, what happy effort in seeking to spread this the best of knowledge among our fellow soldiers! But it did not turn out just like that, did it? You never gave that long-looked-for hint that you really knew about these concerns of mine.
I was hungry and you cast me stones. I was O so thirsty, and the water you produced was always undrinkable. Am I being too bitter? Well, perhaps it is so, but the most bitter thing of your whole failure seems to have been of your own making. It was just this: although the Book you preached from showed our needs very clearly, you ignored its teaching and, although the opportunity of finding out was always open to you, you made no attempt to know what our hearts were crying after. You must have known – you could not but have known – our trials as sinful, immortal souls in danger of death. We were being tested in our bodies, in our morals and in our souls, and the ground of our testing was along the borderland of eternity. Fighting for our souls along that borderline, and with heaven and hell in full view, can you blame us if we longed for something very different from what you gave us? Can you wonder that we found your preaching worse than useless for our needs? We were patient, we were hopeful, we continued to expect: “One day the padre will understand, one day it will dawn on him, one day he will produce the real thing”. But that day never came.
O how we longed to hear of an “almighty Deliverer”, of an “all-prevailing Intercessor”, of an “all-sufficient Saviour”, of an “all-encompassing salvation”, of “perfect peace”, of the power, the light and the comfort of the Holy Spirit. To you, with no struggle against sin and the devil, these terms might have held a theological or academic interest only, but, man, man, their content! Think on what their content would have meant to empty souls. And, O, some of us were so thirsty. Thirsty for communion with our Saviour – that Saviour you were expected to tell us about. Do you wonder that I find it hard not to be bitter?
I do not forget that there were exceptions among you, men who seemed to understand what weak, sinful men needed for their souls. There were such men, and their memory will always be among the sweetest things of my life. Neither will I forget them now. I will see some of them presently. But let us come to particulars. We saw so little of each other that you must not complain if my opinions are based more on what you said than on what you were. I have nothing more to go on. Why, for most, very few men knew as much as your names.
Padre 1. The sermon of yours I remember best was from the words, “He steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem.” I can still hear you as you traced the steps of our Lord on His last visit to Jerusalem and sure death. Did He not go to die for a principle – the principle of truth? And were not all your hearers for the same reason walking the same road? Were they not soldiers? Were they not willing to lay down their lives for a principle of justice and out of love for their country? And so you went on. How much you had to say about the noble and heroic in human nature. And how you promised that all of us, treading this way of sacrifice, would in the end get the same reward as Christ. Whatever the text, this was more or less your constant theme. Yes, so continually did you refer to this aspect of a soldier’s life that I might be pardoned for thinking that you put a higher estimate on the doings of soldiers than on the doings of our Lord Himself. Heaven by the way of patriotism was your salvation. I admit that I am putting it somewhat crudely, but I do not think that you can quarrel with me, for it seems to be a fair summary of your doctrine.
Did you really think that men liked talk of this kind? I don’t think that they did. No man worth his salt likes to be called a hero. So for a start you were going on a bad psychology. But hold, I can find condemnation of your doctrine from the very men who listened to you. And the condemnation is all the greater just because the men were drunk when they uttered it. Taffy and George came into billets after lights out and, as was often the case, both were very drunk. “Our padre tells us, Taffy, that our sufferings for our country are to be compared to the sufferings of the Lord Jesus for sin. But I will never believe that, Taffy. The sufferings of Jesus were unlike any other in that He was God’s Son. In fact, His was the only true suffering which the world has ever seen.” “I know little of these things myself, George, but I know this much: you are right there.” Dear padre, if this was what drunk men thought about your sermons, what were sober men to think?
Let us see this thing down to the bottom: patriotism of itself brings men to heaven. I have read that something like this is preached to the Japanese soldiers but, of course, they are heathens. I have also heard that the Turks teach something like this too, but they are Mohammedans. Now, padre, we were neither heathens nor Mohammedans. By profession we were Christians, and it was Christianity you professed to teach us. Will you show me from the textbook of our faith where it is written that a patriot shall have heaven as a reward of his patriotism? Does God say one word to encourage you in this extraordinary belief? I think not. Here is one word from the Bible on the matter – a very definite word too, you must admit – “There shall in no wise enter into it any thing that defileth”. There now, that is God’s guard on glory, and shall you overleap it by populating heaven with unregenerate patriots? You may give any name you like to a place, but the place where unregenerate patriots go to – men who are often drunken, profane and unclean persons – is called hell in the Bible. Such were some of us truly, but we are washed. Such were some of us truly, but we are regenerated by the Spirit of the living God. “Verily, verily, I say unto you, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Why, the whole thing is so unreasonable that I doubt very much if you believed what you yourself taught. Candidly, I don’t think that, given the chance, you would like to spend eternity yourself with men of that sort, however patriotic they might be.
Would it not have been easier, more noble and more in the line of truth and common sense to tell the men something far different? If you wanted to speak of patriotism, why not tell the truth about it. “Men, whatever you may be called on to suffer, whatever sacrifice you may be called upon to make – yes, even though you may be killed in defence of your country – your great patriotism cannot save you. Unregenerate patriots are lost just as others. But I can tell you of two things which are freely given to us by God, which if received by you will infallibly bring you to heaven. These two things are simply the new birth and your being washed in the blood of Jesus. I am sent by God to tell you the good news. God is willing and ready to bestow these blessings on every sinner of you that returns to Him by Jesus.” “Repent and believe the gospel”, surely that is the thing to preach to dying men.
Patriotism will lift a man up as high as the arms of those he dies for, but no further. To this extent the patriot has his reward. Jesus lifts every sinner who comes to Him right up to the arms of God, and that is just what every sinner needs, be he a patriot or not. And there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved, save the name of Jesus only.
Let me be cruelly straight with you, padre, just as you were cruelly crooked with us. God says, No other name but Jesus; you say, “O God, Thou hast made a mistake; there is another name – patriotism”. I think you must know that there is such a thing as God’s law and that everywhere men are guilty of breaking it. Do you honestly believe that God will overlook all a man’s guilt just because he goes to France or elsewhere to help in a war? Heaven is a place made holy by the special presence of God. Will you have it that God is ready to keep companionship with unregenerate thieves, drunkards, unbelievers or unclean persons just because they are patriots? Now do you see what you have let yourself in for?
If patriotism saves us, then we don’t need the Bible or the Church or Christ or God. And seeing we were all saved already, having come to help our country, we did not require you to preach to us. Everything goes. You will remember the tune played by the pipe band when we were breaking camp? “Bundle and go.” At least the men used to call it by that name. “Bundle up your gospel of patriotism, padre; bundle and go.” I have found a Saviour who is prophet, priest and king, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. He has washed and forgiven me. He has given me the experience of the new birth, and I have a promise from Him that He will be with me all my days here, and that He will receive me to Himself when there are no more days to come. Better still, what He has done for me He can do for others. Better even than that, He waits to do it for all that come to Him. “Come unto Me all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.”
Padre 2. My most marked recollection of both you and your sermon is taken from a church parade somewhere down on the battle-swept Somme. It was an ordinary church parade, but two things make it specially memorable. It was a bitterly cold day, with snow on the ground, and you read your sermon. Of course it snowed at other times and in other places in France, and of course other ministers as well as you read their sermons. But something impressed both these circumstances on my mind. Well do I recall how miserable we were. Snow on the ground well over our boots, a biting wind, and an unsheltered spot were things not very conducive to comfort, were they? Added to these discomforts we had to listen to your reading, or rather mumbling, over numerous pages. Our patience flowed out as our misery filled in, and for once we wished that we were padres. We could then keep our feet and hands warm by movement.
I wanted to omit the telling of what was for me an extra misery but I cannot do so. I feel that I must tell you the truth. The men were miserable beyond endurance, and do you know what they were doing? Silently, yet forcibly and audibly, they were cursing. Yes, sir, they cursed the padre, the sermon, your papers, the Sergeant Major, the weather, church parades in general, and this one in particular. And your text? A grand text truly: “I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision”. Paul said that on one occasion; I wondered then and I wonder now what Paul would have said about your interpretation of it. According to you, all men who had joined up had a heavenly vision. Every soldier received as clear and as real a vision to come to France and to fight for his country as Paul had to go and preach the gospel. You tried to make angels of the men, but you failed. They – well, I have told you what they were doing. Then you began to speak of another vision: the vision of the homeland after the War.
As a politician’s vision, it was not very bad. No slums, higher wages, a better chance for all, and so on. You preached a “social gospel” and the returning Tommies were to be the preachers of it. I am sure that you thought you had something to interest the men that day and that you were paying them well for their long, motionless attention in the cold. Well, so far as I could judge, your imposing sheaf of papers fell as flat as a dud “whizz-bang” (2). I heard no one discuss whether you were a saint or a preacher, but I did hear, however, one man say to another, “I wonder what that bloke is in politics”. But that was as far as any interest went.
Well, what do you think some of us would have rejoiced to hear that day? Yes, cold or no cold, actually we would have rejoiced. Seeing that you had to speak about houses, why did you not begin to tell us about the “house of many mansions”? You knew quite well that you were addressing soldiers and that some of them would never occupy any house whatever under any new political scheme, that in fact the only house many of us were sure of getting was one smaller than the proverbial “six feet by two”. Seeing that some of us were shortly to die and all of us were in circumstances full of death, do you not think that your sermon, to say the least, was most unsuitable? What we needed was, not to be told about dream houses to be secured in some dreamy future, but of that “city whose builder and maker is God”, that city “eternal in the heavens”.
If you had only addressed the men firmly but graciously something after this fashion: “Well, men, I speak to you as one sinner to another. It seems to me that our most urgent necessity at the present is to be prepared for death. We are living very near to eternity, so near in fact that it is hardly worth our while building on anything here below. It is no use our speaking of what we are to do after the war, for ‘after the war’ comes to us daily. Death finishes our concerns with the war and this life. How thankful we ought to be that there is another world, a city in which there is no war!” Then, in reliance on the Spirit of God, why did you not bring this wonderful city near to us? Why did you not press it on our attention? Why did you not take fire with its glory and certainty? Why did you not speak so as to make it most desirable to the men? War conditions were for the moment your best ally. You would have got a hearing.
Then with what joy you might have told us of God’s readiness to bestow all things needful for entry into His city. Who wants to hear about increase of wages when everything within him cries aloud for the forgiveness of his sins? Slum clearance! Stop it, padre! Why, man, our eyes were straining to see the walls of the heavenly Jerusalem. Some of us were at the very gates of that city, others would fain have known the way thither, while others had their earthly plans and prospects so shattered that they were beginning to turn wistful eyes towards a better world. As this world was not clear to them, they did not know what they wanted, but God put a glorious opportunity into your hands. You were given the work of making heaven and the way to it a real and practical thing in their thinking. But you failed them, you failed in your calling, you failed before your God. Why were you so indefinite about these solemn matters? Is a “whizz-bang” indefinite, or a six-inch shell, or a machine-gun bullet? Are the commands, “Advance”, “Forward”, indefinite? I think not. If this was the best your pen and paper could produce, I think you might well have saved yourself the trouble of crossing the Channel for all the good they did.
Am I being ungrateful? I have no wish to be so. But on that cold morning on the Somme I went through agony. I wanted to call out. A voice so forcible, so urgent, so tremendous, struggled to make itself heard. I felt the force of it, I felt as if it would break my breast in pieces and, striking the heavens above, rend them in twain. “O padre,” it said, “padre, padre, stop your talk about wages and houses. We want you to tell us about the mansions above. By the Bible before you, by the God above you, by your profession, by your commission to preach the gospel, by your love for our souls, do tell us in a few but very exact words how we can get to heaven. This time next week, some of us will be beyond knowing it. Tell us it now, tell us it quickly, tell us it so clearly that it will be impossible for us to miss our way.” But to this, the agonising and final appeal of lost souls already struggling amidst the shadows of death, you were silent. You set yourself up as a leader to life. You turned out to be a guide to death. I ask you, How can I be grateful to you?
Padre 3. I saw you only once, but I hope to see you again. The place we met in was most suitable indeed. It was in a little church in Germany, while we were in the army of occupation shortly before I was demobbed. A little Lutheran church, so plain and unostentatious, yet so clean and serviceable, so full of light and good air, not a dark nook anywhere and not a whiff of mustiness. The twelve Apostles and other saints were at their best and most congenial task – effacing themselves in the house of God. They did not stand in the windows obscuring God’s full light from the worshippers. Nor was there an organ to divert the praises of the congregation back on itself. A change indeed after the many formal parades in the open.
I found myself wondering if the preaching would be in the line of Luther since everything else seemed to suggest it. Then you stepped into the pulpit: serious but friendly and warm in expression. I cannot soon forget you.
Your text was, “Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world”. You spoke of sin of nature and sin of practice; of sin of civilian life and sin of army life; of sin in its guilt and sin in its power; of the results and the wages of sin. Yes, you had a lot to say about the sin of the world, but then it was always with a right hearty invitation to behold God’s Lamb, God’s provision for taking it away. How I drank it in. No beholding of the Lamb meant no taking away of sin, but to every beholder was given the assurance that the beholder’s sin had been taken away. That was your theme, and O it was a good day for needy souls!
The thing rang true to the Bible, it rang true to human life and need. It rang true to the glorious gospel with which you were entrusted. It was in the line of the Apostles and it was in the line of Luther. I have just looked up a sermon on this text by Spurgeon and I have found this: “If as a poor guilty sinner, I leave my sin upon Christ the Lamb of God, I leave it where God has bidden me cast it – namely, on the appointed scapegoat. I rest on a sacrifice which God has ordained of old to be a sacrifice for sin. God’s appointment is the guarantee of the acceptance of everyone that believes in Christ”. This was the point you insisted on most. Yes, padre, you gave such a sermon that day that a man could hopefully ask a blessing upon.
My only regret was that we had heard so little from men like you throughout the war. I tried hard to see you again, walking quite a distance, but it was not to be. I never met you. But I am sure that we shall meet. Unknown drawer at the well, a thirsty soul in passing salutes you and gives you this as a token until we meet again: “I thank God on every remembrance of you.”
1. This article was originally printed in the Free Presbyterian Magazine, vol 46, nos 8 and 9 (December 1941 and January 1942). The writer refers to his experiences during the First World War, but was only identified as “a Fourth Seaforth”, referring to his regiment. At a time when Britain seems to be again on the verge of war, the appropriateness of what padres say to present-day soldiers as they face possible death in battle is of great concern.
2. A high-velocity shell from a small calibre gun.