A Sermon by James Anderson
Psalm 84:7. They go from strength to strength, every one of them in Zion appeareth before God.
At the three great sacred feasts among the Jews, all the males went up each year to Jerusalem. It must have been an imposing spectacle to see the many thousands of Israel journeying together to mingle their devotions in one national act of worship. Loving the place where God’s honour dwelt, they loved all the ways which led to it and were glad when it was said unto them, “Go up unto the house of the Lord”. As they moved onward, every hamlet poured forth its tributary stream to swell the large and living current of rejoicing worshippers which flowed along towards the holy city. Instead of growing weary of the way, individuals felt their strength invigorated, as every successive stage brought them nearer to the object of their hopes at the end of their journey. The feeble among them became as David; they went from strength to strength till every one of them appeared before God in Zion.
Glorious things are spoken of Zion – as the city of the Great King, as the place where He recorded His name, where the visible manifestation of His propitious presence was vouchsafed, and where He received the homage of an adoring people. It was an emblem and a type of that city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God – where the Most High hath fixed His abode, where the uncreated glory is displayed in all its indescribable brightness, where the song of salvation is never silent, and where all the dispersed of Israel shall eventually be gathered into one.
Now believers journeying to this celestial temple – just like the Israelites travelling towards the earthly Jerusalem – go from strength to strength till every one of them appears before God in Zion to receive the end of his faith in the salvation of his immortal soul. What I propose therefore in further addressing you at this time is to refer to:
1. The progressive nature of the Christian’s course.
2. The means by which he gathers increasing strength and energy for prosecuting his course.
3. Its blessed and glorious end.
1. The progressive nature of the Christian’s course. He was once dwelling at ease in this world, caring for nothing beyond it, and quite content to have his heritage on this side of Jordan. But in a day of power – in an accepted time – he was awakened to a conviction of his natural distance and estrangement from God, and of the guilt and the danger and the death by which he was hourly encompassed. Under the guidance of a heavenly teacher sent from God and the spirit of light and conviction, he has been led to estimate, in some measure, the littleness of time compared with the magnitude of eternity, and the utter worthlessness of this passing world when weighed against the priceless value of the next. He has felt the attractions of the better land – the longings of a heart which feels the utter emptiness of all created enjoyments to satisfy its cravings. He has been impressed with the desire, and he has put forth the endeavour, to reach the haven which the gospel reveals to his hopes, and he asks the way to Zion with his face thitherward. He has actually entered upon the path – the narrow path which alone leads to the eternal city. It is his full purpose of heart to finish his course and to prosecute it with untiring perseverance.
But though he is full of ardour and abounding with hope, he is weak in himself for the long, perilous, toilsome journey which stretches out before him. Of the full extent of his weakness he may not be conscious; but it is not, on that account, the less calculated to retard his movements along the heavenward road. He is burdened with a load of infirmities; the enervating venom of corruption has not been completely expelled from his moral system. He has been under the hand of the Divine Physician; the deadly malady has been arrested in its progress; but his sickly hue and feeble step sufficiently indicate that his spiritual health is not thoroughly confirmed. While the path is smooth and unencumbered with difficulties, he travels onward with apparent ease; but when the steep places of self-denial are to be surmounted, or the turbid streams of adversity to be forded, or the onset of corrupting allurements to be resisted, he begins to betray his weakness. He is ready to halt in his journey and slumber like the exhausted traveller by the wayside. A consciousness of the want of that innate vigour, on which he had fondly but foolishly calculated at the outset, generates a thousand heart-depressing fears.
But if, instead of yielding to despondency or turning back unto perdition, he braces himself with fresh energy by looking to the great depository of divine grace for the needed succour, he will soon learn to tread with a firmer step, and eventually to run, in the good ways of the Lord. The raw recruit becomes reconciled to the fatigues of the march, the hardships of the lengthened campaign and the perils of the battlefield. The child who catches hold of everything for support, when first trying to walk, soon learns by repeated attempts how to balance itself and to ramble everywhere with fearless freedom. The stripling who at first recoiled from the labours of the harvest field soon becomes, by the exercise of his hidden energies, able to bear the burden and heat of the day. The man who, unaccustomed to travel, felt exhausted at the end of his first day’s journey, experiences less and less fatigue at the close of every successive stage of his progress.
Now the law of habit, to which all this is referable, has its natural operation in the exercises and duties of religion. Use and repetition, by slow but sure degrees, make the work and the way easy and pleasant which at first were difficult and painful. He who at first shrunk from every cross which self-denial imposed and stumbled at every difficulty and startled at every danger which opposed his progress, comes in time to feel that the yoke of Christ is easy and His burden light, and can bid defiance to all the perils and impediments which beset the path of appointed duty.
In proportion as – from close walking with God, and fervent and frequent waiting upon Him – the religious principle gathers strength within the Christian, his convictions will become deeper, his resolutions more firm and inflexible, and he will be less and less liable to be moved away from his steadfastness or to be exhausted with his work. He will have constant power for the constant calls of duty. He will have a heart for all his undertakings, and, as he advances, the way will be cleared before him. “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.”
And this will always be the case just in proportion as faith triumphs over sense and keeps its eye fastened on the source from whence his aid must come. It was sense which brought the timid disciple to Jesus by night to avoid the eye, the irony and the enmity of a hostile world. It was faith which afterwards led him so fearlessly to assist at the funeral of his Lord, while more flaming professors became feeble and fled from the scene of danger. The trembling reed had become like a cedar of Lebanon and, while the bows of the mighty were broken, the feeble was girded with strength. It was sense which made Peter quail under the accusations of a female slave; it was faith which, in his after-history, qualified him to strengthen his brethren and nerved him with courage to confess Christ so boldly before his murderers and eventually to submit to a martyr’s death.
Now, as the Christian progresses in faith, so will he grow in all the other graces and virtues and offices of the divine life, inasmuch as faith is the grand artery which conveys life to every part of his moral constitution. And just as all the parts of the body of a healthy child grow till it reaches the fullness of the stature of mature age, so does the Christian increase with the increase of God in the whole man; one part is not invigorated whilst others decay. His repentance will be characterized by a greater hatred to sin – not so much on account of its penalties as of its pollution, its opposition to the divine nature and its resistance to the infinite authority of God. And he will groan within himself more earnestly, with heartfelt longings which cannot be uttered, after an entire freedom from the body of this death.
His affections will become more spiritual in their exercise, more upward in their tendency. His earthly interests will hang more loosely about him. He will become more alive to the realities of the unseen world; these will occupy more of his attention and dictate more the resolutions of his mind. His love to God, his benevolence to his fellow creatures and his affectionate sympathy for the household of faith will perpetually improve in fervour, activity and enlargement. His obedience will increase in cheerfulness, promptitude and self-denying exertion. His motives to obedience will be higher and purer – more connected with the constraining influence of redeeming love, with gratitude for past mercies and delight in present duty. He will be more quiet, patient and uncomplaining in response to his afflictions in providence. His zeal, if less fiery, will be more enlightened, steady, vigorous and sustained in his endeavour to serve his generation according to the will of God. His self-control and Christian moderation will be still better known unto all men. His fortitude, clothed with a growing conviction of Divine truth, will be displayed in a more uncompromising adherence to what is right and in a more unbending resistance to what is wrong.
Thus will he go from strength to strength, while the beauty of holiness will be daily brightening upon him, and his affinity and relationship to heaven made thereby increasingly manifest. The tenor of his way may be more noiseless than at the outset; but it will be more even, regular and uninterrupted. His feelings may have less vividness in their outward expression, but they will have greater depth and be far more influential. There may be fewer blossoms, but there will be much more fruit. The deep flow of his piety, like an undercurrent, will manifest its hidden direction in the upper stream of his visible conduct, for his life is hid with Christ in God; but the life also of Jesus is made manifest in his mortal body.
1. The first part of a sermon reprinted from The Free Church Pulpit, vol 2. At the time it was first published, Anderson (1796-1882) was Free Church minister of St Fergus, north of Aberdeen; he later joined the English Presbyterian Church.