Psalm 84:7. They go from strength to strength, every one of them in Zion appeareth before God.
2. The means by which the Christian gathers increasing strength and energy for prosecuting his course. In coming up from the remote parts of their country to worship at Jerusalem, the way of the Israelites lay through an arid, sandy desert, in which they were ready to faint for thirst and thus lack strength for their journey. But, to obviate this inconvenience, they found in the vale of Baca numerous little tanks filled with the rain of heaven which refreshed their spirits and recruited their languishing energies. Now what the vale of Baca was to the Jewish pilgrims, the Word and ordinances of God are to the heaven-bound traveller. Just as the little pits in the desert contained the rain which came from above to confirm the ancient inheritance of the Lord when it was weary, so the ordinances are the instituted receptacles of the descending influences of divine grace, which come down like showers that water the earth to revive the soul that thirsts for them.
The pools without the rain that filled them would have yielded no refreshment to the way-worn Israelite, and ordinances without the living water of the Spirit are but empty wells to him who waits upon them. All our springs of hope and comfort are in Him; from Him as their source flow the streams that make glad the city of our God; to Him they return as their consummation. In his best state the believer is weak in himself, and the toils and trials of the way are apt to oppress him and induce a weariness of the flesh and of the spirit. But the promise stands fast for ever: “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength”. “When the poor and the needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue faileth them for thirst, I the Lord will hear them, I the God of Jacob will not forsake them.”
When the Christian, amid the languors of his pilgrimage journey, repairs to the wells of salvation and drinks in these consoling assurances: “My grace is sufficient for thee, for My strength is made perfect in weakness”; “As thy days, so shall thy strength be”; “Cast thy burden upon the Lord, and He shall sustain thee” – when he appropriates these refreshing and reviving cordials – his nerveless energies regain their tone, his susceptibilities of holy feeling are quickened, his capacities for dutiful exertion are strengthened, his trembling resolution confirmed, his youth renewed as the eagle’s, and the promise is fulfilled: “When thou goest, thy steps shall not be straitened” (Prov 4:12). Thus he goes from strength to strength. And where is the Christian who has not again and again received power in his faintness, and comfort in his sorrow, and decidedness in his wavering heart by waiting upon God in His ordinances?
But the Israelites, in going up to Jerusalem, were accustomed to travel in companies. This served the double purpose of self-defence and mutual help. They were strengthened and encouraged by the society of their fellow pilgrims, who divided the toils of the journey. And their presence and converse animated them to prosecute it to the end. Union and co-operation are powerful stimulants in any pursuit. The society of those who are like-minded, and who are in quest of the same object, never fails to quicken and sustain our individual desires and endeavours to achieve it – for “as iron sharpeneth iron, so doth the countenance of a man his friend”. There is a community of interests and feelings among all the members of the household of faith. Their friendship is not like that of the world – a compact which necessity makes with selfishness. It is the union and harmony of kindred minds. The sacred chain which binds them to Christ binds them to each other in one holy brotherhood.
They are travelling the same road; they mind the same things; they breathe the same desires; they speak the same language; they are members of the same family and heirs of the same inheritance. Thus closely associated, the burdens of the weak among them are borne by those less heavily laden and their infirmities strengthened by the strong. They share each other’s sorrows and are helpers of each other’s joys. They provoke one another to love and to good works. They nourish their piety by taking sweet counsel together, “for as ointment and sweet perfume rejoice the heart, so doth the sweetness of a man’s friend by hearty counsel” (Prov 27:9).
Dear to the homesick exile is the theme which reminds him of the land where his affections dwell, and pleasant do the pilgrims of Zion find it to speak one to another of the home to which they are hastening. It beguiles the tediousness and softens the ruggedness of their path. Every creature courts the society of its kind. No sooner was Paul converted than, feeling the desires of his new nature, he tried to join himself to the disciples so that he might get light from the lamp of his brethren and warmth from their fire. And no sooner does any man feel the power of religion than he wishes to associate with serious Christians so that he may be edified by their counsel, aided by their experience and encouraged by their sympathy. His enquiry then is: “Tell me, O thou whom my soul loveth, where thou makest thy flocks to rest at noon, for why should I be as one that turneth aside by the flocks of thy companions?” (Song 1:7).
The most established servants of God have gratefully and gladly acknowledged the sweet refreshment which they have derived from Christian fellowship. When Paul met the brethren at Appii Forum who came to condole with him in the day of his distress, he thanked God and took courage (Acts 28:15). And again, in writing to the Corinthians (2 Cor 7:6,7), he tells them how he was comforted by the coming of Titus and by the assurance which he gave him of their continued sympathy and affection. It is thus that the believer is quickened and encouraged in his course by the conviction borne in upon his mind from fellowship with his brethren that he is not a solitary pilgrim to Zion. He is also convinced that, if he faint or draw back in the way, he will lose the blessedness to which others with whom he has been associated are fast hastening and sure of obtaining. When he looks upon the Christian in his own family, in his own neighbourhood, or in his own church who, by patient continuance in well doing, is pursuing the race that is set before him, he cannot but wish that his lot may be linked with his, and he feels a fresh impulse given to his zeal to make his calling and election sure. Thus he goes from strength to strength.
Further, in going up to Jerusalem from the various parts of their country to worship the Lord in the place where he had recorded His name, the Israelites cheered their spirits and beguiled the weariness of the way by singing together at intervals certain sacred melodies as they travelled along. The Psalms entitled Songs of Degrees are generally understood to have been sung on these occasions. Now this was a fruitful source of comfort and refreshment. This made the journey delightful.
It is thus that the joy of the Lord is the strength of the Christian pilgrim. Experience sufficiently certifies that few undertakings are lasting or successful which are accompanied with no pleasure. It is only when we feel something attractive in our work that we can be expected to be constant or zealous in performing it. Now, when prompted by right motives, the duties of religion impart a satisfaction to the pious mind which may be said to give new strength for performing them, inasmuch as the performance is thereby rendered easy, agreeable and delightful. Every grace of the Spirit gives pleasure in its operation. Even repentance, from the consciousness of its being a right feeling, and from the relief which it affords to the sin-burdened breast, imparts a joy to its sorrows which makes its briny tears sweet. Every token of grateful obedience which the Christian is enabled to render to his Redeemer overspreads his heart with gladness.
And thus, while the earthly, carnal and unconverted mind feels the divine requirements to be a yoke of bondage – an oppressive imposition – the believer makes them the subject of his daily song and the source of his daily comfort. They lead him onward from pleasure to pleasure and, under the vigour of gracious communications from above suited to his day of duty and his time of trial, they make his way plain and prosperous before him. Thus he goes from strength to strength, singing in the good ways of the Lord: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.”
Once more, the Israelites were animated to prosecute their journey by the hope of reaching Zion and by the prospect of the sacred enjoyments which awaited them there. Hope deferred maketh the heart sick; but their hope, brightening daily, shed a ray of gladness over their desert path. They knew that every successive step was diminishing the distance between them and their heart’s desire. And when at length the lofty battlements of the city of the great King burst upon their delighted view, they beheld the abundant recompense of all the toils they had endured; they felt as if they were already within its hallowed palaces. With one accord, in a voice as loud as the sound of many waters, they exclaimed in the words of the beautiful melody which had cheered their march: “Our feet shall stand within thy gates, O Jerusalem”. And with redoubled speed they hastened along.
It is thus that the Christian is animated in his pilgrimage by the hope of heaven and of all the blessedness which is laid up for him there. In the patience of this hope he holds on his way. It is to his soul an helmet of defence in the day of danger, a bright guiding star in the dark night of sorrow and trial, a reviving cordial to his drooping heart when sickening under a sense of his own weakness. “I had fainted,” says the Psalmist, “unless I had believed to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” As he advances onward in his Christian course, every fresh triumph over besetting sin, every fresh act of self-denial, every new habit of goodness, every Christian virtue striking deeper root in his character, and every known duty more faithfully and fully and cheerfully discharged, bear him record that now is his salvation nearer than when he believed.
Even when old age comes upon him, when vigour of earlier years decays, and the outward man is wasting away into the feebleness of a second childhood, his inward man is renewed day by day, for the strength of grace declines not with the strength of nature. While he measures not his pace by his own strength, but leans upon the faithfulness of Omnipotence with all the confidence that one reposes on the arm of an old and well-tried companion, the oil of gladness is poured into his heart, and his soul becomes like the chariots of Aminadab, for he can run and not be weary, he can walk and not be faint. And even when at last the eventful hour draws nigh when the transition is to be made from time to eternity, when the soul is quivering on the eve of its departure, the full assurance of hope throws its radiance around his dying bed. He seems to see heaven opening to receive its own, and to hear the voice of the great Intercessor within the veil: “Father, I will that those whom Thou hast given Me, be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory”. He feels, after a long and fatiguing journey, as if in sight of home; his spirit becomes more elastic; he girds up the loins of his mind, strengthens the things that remain, and hastens onward to mingle with the blessed and to dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
3. The blessed and glorious end of the Christian’s course. The blessed consummation of all the sweet and sustaining hopes which the Israelites had cherished in the course of their long, tedious and toilsome travels was realized in their being privileged, every one of them, to appear before God in Zion. The final issue of the Christian’s course rests not upon a peradventure, but upon the omnipotent power and faithfulness of God. Thus they may have strong consolation who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before them. The same hand which gave the new bias to direct the soul toward heaven will continue to secure its progress. For, says the apostle, “he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6). “I give unto” My sheep, says Jesus, “eternal life, and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of My hand. My Father, which gave them Me, is greater than all, and no man is able to pluck them out of My Father’s hand” (John 10:28,29). Not one sheep on which He had set his mark will be missing from the great Redeemer’s fold; not one child born again of the Spirit will be missing from the Father’s table; not one gem will drop from Immanuel’s crown.
All Scripture accords its testimony to this great and delightful truth: that none whom God has effectually called – and in whom He has begun a good work – shall be ultimately lost or cast away. It cannot be denied that while this precious truth has been a spring of peace to the weary spirit, it has often been abused by the mere professor, who has wickedly and unwarrantably made it the apology for his carelessness, or the plea for his presumption. But the doctrine of Christian perseverance, so amply and emphatically propounded in the Scriptures, affords not a shadow of encouragement to indolence or remissness in the work and ways of the Lord. The privilege of perseverance is inseparably connected with the duty of perseverance. And it is only in the act of obedient perseverance that the believer can have the grace of perseverance, or entertain the assurance that he shall be kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.
But while he continues to hold on his way and to wax stronger and stronger in every Christian grace and virtue, he may be confident of this very thing, that he shall close his pilgrimage in heaven and appear before God in Zion. There, in the open daylight of eternity, His servants shall serve Him, and they shall see His face. In that temple which is reared upon the everlasting hills, and which no power shall ever overthrow, the divine majesty shall be unveiled, in all its uncreated brightness, to the eyes of unnumbered adoring worshippers. For the glory of God doth lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof. There the redeemed shall be made kings and priests unto God and they shall go no more out. They shall see the object of their worship, and of their love, face to face. They shall talk with Him as a man talks with his friend. Present with the Lord, they shall need no emblem of His presence. Faith will be turned into vision. While they behold the beauty of the Lord and inquire in His temple, the beatific vision of God and of the Lamb will disclose fresh glories to their enraptured gaze throughout eternity.
But, more than this, as it is of the very nature of vision to produce assimilation, their purified souls will reflect the divine likeness and drink in unmixed and undying delight from beholding the divine beauty mirrored forth in themselves. “I shall behold Thy face in righteousness. I shall be satisfied when I awake with Thy likeness.” Such is the blessed and glorious termination of the believer’s journey Zionward. His path through time may have been rugged and obscure, but the beam that shines from Zion hill lighted him onward and upward. And having reached the mount of God and seen the King in His beauty and heard His voice welcoming him home, the toils and the trials of his pilgrimage are forgotten, or remembered only to swell the song in which his gratitude will seek its utterance for ever.
And now, in drawing towards a conclusion, there is surely no one among us so recklessly indifferent to his soul’s well-being but would wish to go to heaven when he dies. But there is only one way to that blessed world – the highway of faith and holiness, of active and persevering exertion, worn by the footsteps of the flock who have travelled it in all generations. Wishing and hoping for heaven will never carry us there. We must enter on the path that leads to it by receiving and resting upon Christ alone for salvation, for light and guidance and support. “I am the way,” said Jesus, “he that followeth Me shall not abide in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” It is not entering upon a right road that will bring a man to the end of his journey, but active and continued travelling along it. The first step is only of importance when it is followed up by successive steps. “Onward” is the watchword of the Christian from the outset to the end of his pilgrimage. He must go from strength to strength, from virtue to virtue, from one elevation of Christian attainment to another, until he come and appear perfect before God in Zion.
Brethren, is this descriptive of your course? Is your Christianity of an advancing character, like the onward and increasing career of the racer who speeds towards the appointed goal? Or is it only like the forward and backward movement of the door upon its hinges, which is marked by no progress? Some of you, many years ago, set your faces Zionward, but what have you been doing since? Slumbering by the wayside? Where are the waymarks to which you can point as proofs of your progress? On that bright morning of your new existence, you shook off the slumber which weighed down the energies of the inner man in the night of your foolish ignorance. You started like a strong man rejoicing to run his race; you did run well for a season. But have you been hindered? Are you holier now than you were then? Are your hearts more in heaven? Are your affections more spiritual? Is your devotedness to God, to His service, to His cause and to the interests of His kingdom really increased? Do you feel more confident of your final salvation than you did then? Is it more certain now than it was then – more evident to yourselves and more manifest to others – that you will be saved? Or are you still loitering at the outset and only beginning to begin?
It may not be possible for the believer to ascertain his advancement in the very act of progress. But by contrasting the present with the past, he may easily determine the reality, if not the degree, of his improvement. That Christianity is of little value which exhibits no evidences of the transforming and elevating influences of divine grace, which is warmed by no heartfelt aspirations after perfection and quickened by no earnest and strenuous endeavours to attain it, which rests satisfied with present acquirements. Brethren, look well to the state of your personal Christianity, and doubt its reality altogether if, when you cast your eye backward on the path of your pilgrimage, you cannot trace the marks of a manifest advancement. The soul which the Spirit of God has quickened is always carried forward; and to suppose that an individual in whom He has been operating is not being strengthened in holy dispositions, and is not making progress heavenward, is to accuse this divine agent of inactivity. Try yourselves by this test. A stationary religion will never reach heaven.
But there is really no such thing as standing still in religion. He who is not gradually climbing the steep ascent to Zion is assuredly descending its heights. He may not be aware of his declension. He may be doing what he has been doing for years, yielding an outward homage to the forms of religion, waiting with regularity upon its ordinances and maintaining the character of an upright, decent and harmless member of society. But a deteriorating process has been going on, hardening his conscience, chilling his affections and leaving him less susceptible of impression from the realities of eternity. He has the hoary symptoms of decay here and there upon him, though he knoweth it not. And when the testing season comes – the time of affliction or the day of death – his religion leaves him comfortless. Is yours a Christianity that will stand the winter blast of trial? Is it becoming strong through the Word of God abiding in you?
Yet what shall be said of those who are dwelling at ease in their tents, who are strangers to the duties of vital and practical godliness, who feel no desire and make no endeavour to become wiser and better, who from childhood to youth, and from youth to manhood – and it may be from manhood to old age – have never made any conscious progress in the work of sanctification, but are taking comfort to themselves from the thought that they are not worse than the average of those around them? Assuredly all such have not a shadow of ground to hope that they shall spend eternity with God. The way which they are travelling may seem right in their own eyes for a season, but the end thereof is death. It is high time for them to think whither they are journeying. They are all going to the grave, but the grave is not the final end of their journey. It is only a narrow pass out of time into eternity. There is a world of bliss, and a world of misery beyond it, and they who are not going from strength to strength on the way to heaven must be rapidly travelling towards hell. And what a dreadful issue to a brief and chequered transit through a weary land! Who can dwell with devouring fire? Who can endure everlasting burnings?
But the path to Zion is set open before us all. And if any among us are desirous to walk in it so that they may find rest unto their souls, let them enter it through the wide door of Christ’s mediation and give themselves up to the guidance of His Spirit and the counsels of His Word. But let them not procrastinate. Delay is fraught with danger, fraught with ruin. “Now is the accepted time” and “now is the day of salvation”.
1. The second and final part of a sermon reprinted from The Free Church Pulpit, vol 2. At the time it was delivered, Anderson (1796-1882) was Free Church minister of St Fergus, north of Aberdeen; he later joined the English Presbyterian Church. The first head of this sermon was: “The progressive nature of the Christian’s course”.