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THE ADVANTAGES OF A LONG STANDING IN
2 COR. XII. 2,
I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago.
This is part of a very remarkable story. It is, indeed, one of the principal incidents in the life of the apostle. But, before I proceed any further, let me congratulate you, my fellow travellers, on our meeting again, on the commencement of another year of our transitory lives. Methinks we are like persons that have climbed some steep and slippery precipice, which exposed their lives to the most imminent danger. Since we have, almost miraculously, gained the summit, let us pause a little to look round us, and drop a tear to the memory of the friends who are missing. Some of them, indeed, were old and infirm ; they were tired almost as soon as they set out upon this year's journey, and were glad to lie down where the weary are at rest. Others, with all the sprightliness and vigour of youth, pushed on above half the way; but they suddenly disappeared, to the grief and amazement of all their acquaintance. We, that are alive, must acknowledge, that we owe not our lives to our prudence in avoiding distempers, nor to the skill of the physician in curing them, nor
to the soundness and strength of our constitution: It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed.
Various reflections occur at the beginning of a year. Some will be considering how many years old they now are; others will be inquiring how many years they have been in trade; others, again, how many years they have lived in such a town, or in such a particular house. But I now call you to an inquiry infinitely more important than either of these or any other can be. How many years have you been in Christ? More important indeed.--- For it matters not how long you have lived in the world; if you have not been born again, and do not live by faith on the Son of God, it had been better if you had never been born. It signifies nothing how long, or how successfully, you have carried on your business ; if you have not found the Pearl of Price, you are only miserable bankrupts and beggars. It matters not where you have spent your time; if you be not in Christ, wherever you have lived, you have only cumbered the ground. As many of you have, perhaps, never made the inquiry, I sincerely pray that you may now be convinced of its importance. I shall rejoice if you should begin to think of it in earnest; and lay such a foundation this day, that if you should live so many years from this time, you may adopt the words of the Apostle, and say, “ I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago.”
These words might afford matter of nice and curious speculation. But as my object is not to amuse, but to instruct and improve you, I shall refrain as much as possible from what is abstruse and fanciful, to make room for what is more plain and profitable,
No man was more remote than the Apostle from boasting. Yet, he found it necessary in order to vindicate his apostleship, to declare publicly, the honour which God had put upon him, beyond what any mere man had before, or has since attained. "I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago ; whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell; God knoweth. Such an one was caught up to the third heaven, and heard unspeakable words; which it is not lawful for a man to utter."
From this extraordinary story, many useful and important observations arise. It shows us, for example, that the soul is distinct from the body, and capable of a separate existence; otherwise there could have been no ground for the Apostle's uncertainty. We hence also learn, that we may know the certainty of a matter, when we cannot account for the manner and circumstances of it. Paul was sure of his being in the third heaven, though he could not tell how he went thither; nor whether he was in the body, or out of the body. There are mysteries in nature which perplex the understanding; and it should not surprise us, that there are such in religion.
We might also infer, from this account, that though God discovers not all things to us which might gratify our curiosity, he is willing that we should know what is necessary for our improvement and comfort. Paulknew that he was in Christ, though he was doubtful as to matters of inferior consequence, And if we know that, though we should be kept in ignorance of many other things, we may well be contented and thankful.
But what I have more immediately in view, is the term of years which the Apostle here mentions. “I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago." Though with great humility he speaks of himself as of another person, it is evident that he took great delight in recounting the time that he had been in Christ; and considered it as his honour and advantage, that he was no raw, inexperienced Christian, or minister. I shall hence take occasion, first to inquire, what it is to be in Christ; and then to show, how comfortable it must be, for Christians of some standing, to consider how many years they have been thus-united to him.
1. What is it to be in Christ?
Those who never read their Bibles, or who are strangers to experimental religion, may, perhaps, be offended at the very expression. “Whoever heard,” say they, “ of servants being in their master, of disciples being in their Lord, of creatures being in God?" If the Apostle had not positively asserted, that he knew a man in Christ, they would hardly acquit me of rashness and profaneness for using such language. But those who are conversant with the sacred writings, know that it is a phrase frequently used, and that it has two common and very obvious significations.
First, there is a being in Christ by outward profession :
I mean, when persons are called by his name, and have visibly entered into his service, though their hearts be not really devoted to him, or were never renewed and sanctified by him. This belongs to all who receive Christian baptism, and do not openly
contradict or renounce it. So we read of whole churches being in Christ. We are not to suppose that every one in them was vitally united to Christ; but that they all took upon them the Christian profession. So we read of branches in Christ that were barren ; as some boughs of a tree have sap enough only to bring forth leaves, and sometimes blossoms, but never produce any fruit. Some call themselves Christians, and profess themselves disciples; but while they have a name to live, they are dead. As Christ is a governing head to the whole Christian community, in this sense we are all of us in Christ. But what is there in this to give us any satisfaction ? Try it: “So many years ago I was baptised. So many years ago I first partook of the Lord's Supper. So many years I have been acquainted with Christians, and have passed upon the world for a Christian myself. But all this while I have never known any thing of real religion.” Alas! we may be in Christ after this manner twice fourteen years, and yet be no more Christians, than a man who all his life personates a king upon the stage, is really a monarch. .
Secondly, there is a being in Christ by spiritual implantation, when persons are joined to the Lord by faith, and partaking of his sanctifying Spirit, are made alive by a new and heavenly principle. As the union of the soul to the body implies a natural, so does union with Christ a spiritual life. “ He that hath the Son, hath life. I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” Great, indeed, is this mystery of godliness, that such a pure and glorious head as Christ, should admit of union with creatures so mean and impure; but it is an experienced and indisputable truth.