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the instances like St. Paul to which I have alluded. Those instances seem to prove something, though not this doctrine; what they prove, it will befit this day, which is a sort of commemoration of St. Paul, briefly to consider.
They prove then this,-that no degree of sin, however extreme (unless indeed it reaches the unpardonable sin, the sin against the Holy Ghost, which of course falls without our subject,—but no degree of sin, which can be repented of), precludes the acquisition of any degree of holiness, however high. No sinner so great, but he may, through God's grace, become a saint ever so great. Great saints may become such, either after being, or without being, great sinners. We cannot argue from what a saint is at his close what he was at his beginning Look through the lives of the Saints, and you will find that some became such after never turning from God, and others, after turning from Him; and it would be presumptuous to assert that in the catalogue there are not saints as great who have turned from Him and repented, as any of those who have been just persons from their youth up, needing no repentance.
This of course is a very different statement from saying the greater the sinner, the greater the saint. It is only saying that a man may rise as high as he once was low; that great sinners, when they turn to God, -not, in consequence will be greater saints than others, but that they are not hindered from being equal to those others in their saintliness, in spite of their sinning. But even such a statement may seem strong; so now some words shall be added by way of explanation.
1. First, what is very plain, it is less likely, far less likely, that a great sinner should turn to God and become a great saint. It is unlikely that a gross sinner will listen to the Divine Voice at all; it is much to be feared that he will quench the grace which is pleading with him. Again, even if he follows the call so far as to repent, yet it is less likely still that the habits of sin which he has formed round his soul will so relax their hold of him, as to allow him to lay aside every weight. The probability is, that he has made his will so torpid, and his heart so carnal, and his views so worldly, that, even when his repentance is sincere, he will settle down in an inferior, second-rate sort of religion; he will have no fervour, no keenness, no elevation, no splendour of soul; he will not be able to pray; he will not be able to act on heavenly motives; but corruption will mingle with all he does. Now it stands to reason that the farther a man has gone wrong, the more he has to do to bring himself right; whereas, for the very same reason, he is less disposed than he was once, and less able, to set himself in earnest to the work. The more a man sins the stronger become his soul's enemies, and the weaker he becomes himself : a weight is taken off one end of the balance, and put upon the other; his disadvantage is double.
2. And in this sense I must certainly grant he never can be so great a saint as if he had never sinned; that is, the efforts which he must now make merely to undo what he has done, would, in that case, simply have told towards his advancement in holiness, and would of course have brought him forward to a higher point than they now enable him to reach. In this sense he can never overtake himself, viewed as he would otherwise have been. He has lost time in going wrong, he has lost time and labour in retracing his way: as well might a man of thirty hope ever to overtake in years a man of forty, as a repentant sinner, whose feet are slowly bearing him out of the region of sin, to overtake what he might have been, had he always, with the same speed, moved along the narrow way. And of course it must be ever a matter of deep misery to him that he is not what he might have been, that he might have done more than he has done or now can do. But this is true of all men, even of the innocent and upright. The greatest saints might have been greater than they are. We may suppose a point of excellence, and that an attainable one, higher than the highest that has ever been actually attained by man. And again, in like manner, in the abstract, as we see by the parable of the prodigal son, doubtless those who have ever been with their Father are higher in God's favour than those who have left Him. But I am not speaking of possibilities or abstractions, but of facts. And I say, taking the points of holiness to which souls which have served God from their youth up have in fact attained, there is none so high but, as far as we are given to know or judge, has been attained by men who have sinned and repented, as St. Paul's instance shows us.
3. Again, in what I have said, it is of course at once implied that not so many attain high holiness after sinning, as after a life of innocence. Of those who have been saints, we must suppose the greater number are such as, more or less, have been preserved in holy obedience from their baptism upwards; the few are those who, after their baptism, have sinned grievously, and repented, but still those few may, if St. Paul's instance be in point, rise to be as great saints as the many who, after their baptism, needed no repentance.
4. Further, it must not be supposed, because sinners have sincerely repented, that therefore they have no punishment for their past sins; and this puts a vast difference between the state of the innocent and the penitent. In this sense they never can be on a level : the one, if God so wills, is open to punishment, and the other is not; for God does not so pardon us, as not also to punish. When His children go wrong they are, in St. Paul's words, "judged.” He does not abandon them, but He makes their sin “find them out." And, as we well know, it is His merciful pleasure that this punishment should at the same time act as a chastisement and correction, so that “when they are judged they are chastened of the Lord, that they should not be condemned with the world!." But still their visitation is of the nature of a judgment; and no sinner knows what kind, what number of judgments, he has incurred at the hands of the righteous Judge. I say that repentant sinners are in this respect different from innocent persons; that, it may be, God will bring punishment upon them for their past sins, as He very often does ; and it may be God's will to make that punishment the means of their sanctification, as He did in St. Paul's case. Pain, distress, heaviness, may overwhelm them, may be their portion, may be necessary for their attaining that holiness to which they aspire. But I am not speaking of the means by which they attain to holiness; I am not speaking of the circumstances or lot in which they are perfecting it, whether pleasant or painful; but of their holiness itself, present and to come: and I say, that the holiness to which at length they do attain, however they attain it, may be as great as that of those whose religious history has been altogether different, who have not sinned as they, nor suffered as they, nor struggled and toiled as they.
11 Cor. xi. 32.
And, I will add, that it is our duty to love repentant sinners just as if they had not sinned. Those, who have never fallen as they, are not to suffer the thought of what those others were to rest on their minds, or to treat them in any degree (God forbid !) as if their approach were a pollution to them. If they are reconciled to God, surely they may well be reconciled to their brethren ; if Christ condescends to be their meat and drink, surely the holiest of men need not scruple to wash their feet. I am now speaking of the inward feeling of our hearts towards them; for it is often a duty (at least for a time) to put an outward and ceremonial distinction between them and others. First, we cannot be certain, till after a while, that they are really repentant; thus the Apostles were “all afraid” of St. Paul at first," and believed not that he was a disciple :" and next it may be necessary for their good (particularly when a Church does not enforce the discipline of penance), necessary for their good to put them under disadvantage, and for example sake. Yet all this outward distinction need not interfere with the feeling of our hearts towards them,