My brethren, tho the kingdoms of the righteous be not of this world, they present, however, amidst their meanness, marks of dignity and power. They resemble Jesus Christ. He humbled Himself so far as to take the form of a servant, but frequently exercised the rights of a sovereign. From the abyss of humiliation to which He condescended, emanations of the Godhead were seen to proceed. Lord of nature, He commanded the winds and seas. He bade the storm and tempest subside. He restored health to the sick, and life to the dead. He imposed silence on the rabbis; He embarrassed Pilate on the throne; and disposed of Paradise at the moment He Himself was pierced with the nails, and fixt on the cross. Behold the portrait of believers! “They are dead. Their life is hid with Christ in God.” (Col. iii., 3.) “If they had hope only in this life, they were of all men most miserable.” (I Cor. xv., 19.) Nevertheless, they show I know not what superiority of birth. Their glory is not so concealed but we sometimes perceive its luster! just as the children of a king, when unknown and in a distant province, betray in their conversation and carriage indications of illustrious descent.
We might illustrate this truth by numerous instances. Let us attend to that in our text. There we shall discover that association of humility and grandeur, of reproach and glory, which constitutes the condition of the faithful while on earth. Behold St. Paul, a Christian, an apostle, a saint. See him hurried from tribunal to tribunal, from province to province; sometimes before the Romans, sometimes before the Jews, sometimes before the high-priest of the synagog, and sometimes before the procurator of Caesar. See him conducted from Jerusalem to Caesarea, and summoned to appear before Felix. In all these traits, do you not recognize the Christian walking in the narrow way, the way of tribulation, marked by his Master’s feet? But consider him nearer still. Examine his discourse, look at his countenance; there you will see a fortitude, a courage, and a dignity which constrain you to acknowledge that there was something really grand in the person of St. Paul. He preached Jesus Christ at the very moment he was persecuted for having preached Him. He preached even when in chains. He did more; he attacked his judge on the throne. He reasoned, he enforced, he thundered. He seemed already to exercise the function of judging the world, which God has reserved for His saints. He made Felix tremble. Felix felt himself borne away by a superior force. Unable to hear St. Paul any longer without appalling fears, he sent him away. “After certain days, when Felix came with his wife Drusilla, he sent for Paul, and heard him concerning the faith in Christ,” etc.
We find here three considerations which claim our attention: An enlightened preacher, who discovers a very peculiar discernment in the selection of his subject; a conscience appalled and confounded on the recollection of its crimes and of that awful judgment where they must be weighed, a sinner alarmed, but not converted; a sinner who desires to be saved, but delays his conversion: a case, alas! of but too common occurrence.
You perceive already, my brethren, the subject of this discourse: first, that St. Paul reasoned before Felix and Drusilla of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come; second, that Felix trembled; third, that he sent the apostle away; three considerations which shall divide this discourse. May it produce on your hearts, on the hearts of Christians, the same effects St. Paul produced on the soul of this heathen; but may it have a happier influence on your lives. Amen.
Paul preached before Felix and Drusilla “on righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come.” This is the first subject of discussion. Before, however, we proceed further with our remarks, we must first sketch the character of this Felix and this Drusilla, which will serve as a basis to the first proposition.
After the scepter was departed from Judah, and the Jewish nation subjugated by Pompey, the Roman emperors governed the country by procurators. Claudius filled the imperial throne while St. Paul was at Caesarea. This emperor had received a servile education from his grandmother Lucia, and from his mother Antonia; and having been brought up in obsequious meanness, evinced, on his elevation to the empire, marks of the inadequate care which had been bestowed on his infancy. He had neither courage nor dignity of mind. He who was raised to sway the Roman scepter, and consequently to govern the civilized world, abandoned his judgment to his freedmen, and gave them a complete ascendency over his mind. Felix was one of those freedmen. “He exercised in Judea the imperial functions with a mercenary soul.” Voluptuousness and avarice were the predominant vices of his heart. We have a proof of his avarice immediately after our text, where it is said he sent for Paul,–not to hear him concerning the truth of the gospel which this apostle had preached with so much power; not to inquire whether this religion, against which the Jews raised the standard, was contrary to the interest of the State; but because he hoped to have received money for his liberation. Here is the effect of avarice.
Josephus recited an instance of his voluptuousness. It is his marriage with Drusilla. She was a Jewess, as is remarked in our text. King Azizus, her former husband, was a heathen; and in order to gain her affections, he had conformed to the most rigorous ceremonies of Judaism. Felix saw her, and became enamored of her beauty. He conceived for her a violent passion; and in defiance of the sacred ties which had united her to her husband, he resolved to become master of her person. His addresses were received. Drusilla violated her former engagements, and chose rather to contract with Felix an illegitimate marriage than to adhere to the chaste ties which united her to Azizus. Felix the Roman, Felix the procurator of Judea and the favorite of Caesar appeared to her a noble acquisition. It is indeed a truth, we may here observe, that grandeur and fortune are charms which mortals find the greatest difficulty to resist, and against which the purest virtue has need to be armed with all its constancy. Recollect these two characters of Felix and Drusilla. St. Paul, before those two personages, treated concerning “The faith in Christ”; that is, concerning the Christian religion, of which Jesus Christ is the sum and substance, the author and the end: and from the numerous doctrines of Christianity, he selected “righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come.”
Here is, my brethren, an admirable text; but a text selected with discretion. Fully to comprehend it, recollect the character we have given of Felix. He was covetous, luxurious, and governor of Judea. St. Paul selected three subjects, correspondent to the characteristics. Addressing an avaricious man, he treated of righteousness. Addressing the governor of Judea, one of those persons who think themselves independent and responsible to none but themselves for their conduct, he treated of “judgment to come.”
But who can here supply the brevity of the historian, and report the whole of what the apostle said to Felix on these important points? It seems to me that I hear him enforcing those important truths he has left us in his works, and placing in the fullest luster those divine maxims interspersed in our Scriptures. “He reasoned of righteousness.” There he maintained the right of the widow and the orphan. There he demonstrated that kings and magistrates are established to maintain the rights of the people, and not to indulge their own caprice; that the design of the supreme authority is to make the whole happy by the vigilance of one, and not to gratify one at the expense of all; that it is meanness of mind to oppress the wretched, who have no defense but cries and tears; and that nothing is so unworthy of an enlightened man as that ferocity with which some are inspired by dignity, and which obstructs their respect for human nature, when undisguised by worldly pomp; that nothing is so noble as goodness and grandeur, associated in the same character; that this is the highest felicity; that in some sort it transforms the soul into the image of God; who, from the high abodes of majesty in which He dwells, surrounded with angels and cherubim, deigns to look down on this mean world which we inhabit, and “Leaves not Himself without witness, doing good to all.”
“He reasoned of temperance.” There he would paint the licentious effects of voluptuousness. There he would demonstrate how opposite is this propensity to the spirit of the gospel; which everywhere enjoins retirement, mortification, and self-denial. He would show how it degrades the finest characters who have suffered it to predominate. Intemperance renders the mind incapable of reflection. It debases the courage. It debilitates the mind. It softens the soul. He would demonstrate the meanness of a man called to preside over a great people, who exposes his foibles to public view; not having resolution to conceal, much less to vanquish them. With Drusilla, he would make human motives supply the defects of divine; with Felix, he would make divine motives supply the defects of human. He would make this shameless woman feel that nothing on earth is more odious than a woman destitute of honor, that modesty is an attribute of the sex; that an attachment, uncemented by virtue, can not long subsist; that those who receive illicit favors are the first, according to the fine remark of a sacred historian, to detest the indulgence: “The hatred wherewith ‘Ammon, the son of David,’ hated his sister, after the gratification of his brutal passion, was greater than the love wherewith he had loved her” (II Sam. xiii., 15). He would make Felix perceive that, however the depravity of the age might seem to tolerate a criminal intercourse with persons of the other sex, with God, who has called us all to equal purity, the crime was not less heinous.
“He reasoned,” in short, “of judgment to come.” And here he would magnify his ministry. When our discourses are regarded as connected only with the present period, their force, I grant, is of no avail. We speak for a Master who has left us clothed with infirmities, which discover no illustrious marks of Him by whom we are sent. We have only our voice, only our exhortations, only our entreaties. Nature is not averted at our pleasure. The visitations of Heaven do not descend at our command to punish your indolence and revolts: that power was very limited, even to the apostle. The idea of a future state, the solemnities of a general judgment, supply our weakness, and St. Paul enforced this motive; he proved its reality, he delineated its luster, he displayed its pomp. He resounded in the ears of Felix the noise, the voices, the trumpets. He showed him the small and the great, the rich man and Lazarus, Felix the favorite of Caesar, and Paul the captive of Felix, awakened by that awful voice: “Arise, ye dead, and come to judgment.”
But not to be precipitate in commending the apostle’s preaching. Its encomiums will best appear by attending to its effects on the mind of Felix. St. Jerome wished, concerning a preacher of his time, that the tears of his audience might compose the eulogy of his sermons. We shall find in the tears of Felix occasion to applaud the eloquence of our apostle. We shall find that his discourses were thunder and lightning in the congregation, as the Greeks used to say concerning one of their orators. While St. Paul preached, Felix felt I know not what agitations in his mind. The recollection of his past life; the sight of his present sins; Drusilla, the object of his passion and subject of his crime; the courage of St. Paul–all terrified him. His heart burned while that disciple of Jesus Christ expounded the Scriptures. The word of God was quick and powerful. The apostle, armed with the two-edged sword, divided the soul, the joints, and the marrow, carried conviction to the heart. Felix trembled, adds our historian, Felix trembled! The fears of Felix are our second reflection.
What a surprizing scene, my brethren, is here presented to your view. The governor trembled, and the captive spoke without dismay. The captive made the governor tremble. The governor shuddered in the presence of the captive. It would not be surprizing, brethren, if we should make an impression on your hearts (and we shall do so, indeed, if our ministry is not, as usual, a sound of empty words); it would not be surprizing if we should make some impression on the hearts of our hearers. This sanctuary, these solemnities, these groans, this silence, these arguments, these efforts,–all aid our ministry, and unite to convince and persuade you. But here is an orator destitute of these extraneous aids: behold him without any ornament but the truth he preached. What do I say? that he was destitute of extraneous aids? See him in a situation quite the reverse,–a captive, loaded with irons, standing before his judge. Yet he made Felix tremble. Felix trembled! Whence proceeded this fear, and this confusion? Nothing is more worthy of your inquiry. Here we must stop for a moment: follow us while we trace this fear to its source. We shall consider the character of Felix under different views; as a heathen, imperfectly acquainted with a future judgment, and the life to come; as a prince, or governor, accustomed to see every one humble at his feet; as an avaricious magistrate, loaded with extortions and crimes; in short, as a voluptuous man, who has never restricted the gratification of his senses. These are so many reasons of Felix’s fears.
First, we shall consider Felix as a heathen, imperfectly acquainted with a future judgment and the life to come: I say, imperfectly acquainted, and not as wholly ignorant, the heathens having the “work of the law written in their hearts” (Rom. ii., 15). The force of habit had corrupted nature, but had not effaced its laws. They acknowledged a judgment to come, but their notions were confused concerning its nature.
Such were the principles of Felix, or rather such were the imperfections of his principles, when he heard this discourse of St. Paul. You may infer his fears from his character. Figure to yourselves a man hearing for the first time the maxims of equity and righteousness inculcated in the gospel. Figure to yourselves a man who heard corrected the immorality of pagan theology; what was doubtful, illustrated; and what was right, enforced. See a man who knew of no other God but the incestuous Jupiter, the lascivious Venus, taught that he must appear before Him, in whose presence the seraphim veil their faces, and the heavens are not clean. Behold a man, whose notions were confused concerning the state of souls after death, apprized that God shall judge the world in righteousness. See a man who saw described the smoke, the fire, the chains of darkness, the outer darkness, the lake of fire and brimstone; and who saw them delineated by one animated by the Spirit of God. What consternation must have been excited by these terrific truths!
This we are incapable adequately of comprehending. We must surmount the insensibility acquired by custom. It is but too true that our hearts–instead of being imprest by these truths, in proportion to their discussion–become more obdurate. We hear them without alarm, having so frequently heard them before. But if, like Felix, we had been brought up in the darkness of paganism, and if another Paul had come and opened our eyes, and unveiled those sacred terrors, how exceedingly should we have feared! This was the case with Felix. He perceived the bandage which conceals the sight of futurity drop in a moment. He heard St. Paul, that herald of grace and ambassador to the Gentiles, he heard him reason on temperance and a judgment to come. His soul was amazed; his heart trembled; his knees smote one against another.
Amazing effects, my brethren, of conscience! Evident argument of the vanity of those gods whom idolatry adorns after it has given them form! Jupiter and Mercury, it is true, had their altars in the temples of the heathens; but the God of heaven and earth has His tribunal in the heart: and, while idolatry presents its incense to sacrilegious and incestuous deities, the God of heaven and earth reveals His terrors to the conscience, and there loudly condemns both incest and sacrilege.
Secondly, consider Felix as a prince; and you will find in this second office a second cause of his fear. When we perceive the great men of the earth devoid of every principle of religion, and even ridiculing those very truths which are the objects of our faith, we feel that faith to waver. They excite a certain suspicion in the mind that our sentiments are only prejudices, which have become rooted in man, brought up in the obscurity of humble life. Here is the apology of religion. The Caligulas, the Neros, those potentates of the universe, have trembled in their turn as well as the meanest of their subjects. This independence of mind, so conspicuous among libertines, is consequently an art,–not of disengaging themselves from prejudices, but of shutting their eyes against the light, and of extinguishing the purest sentiments of the heart. Felix, educated in a court fraught with the maxims of the great instantly ridicules the apostle’s preaching. St. Paul, undismayed, attacks him, and finds a conscience concealed in his bosom: the very dignity of Felix is constrained to aid our apostle by adding weight to his ministry. He demolishes the edifice of Felix’s pride. He shows that if a great nation was dependent on his pleasure, he himself was dependent on a Sovereign in whose presence the kings of the earth are as nothing. He proves that dignities are so very far from exempting men from the judgment of God that, for this very reason, their account becomes the more weighty, riches being a trust which Heaven has committed to the great: and “where much is given, much is required.” He makes him feel this awful truth, that princes are responsible, not only for their own souls, but also for those of their subjects; their good or bad example influencing, for the most part, the people committed to their care.
See then Felix in one moment deprived of his tribunal. The judge became a party. He saw himself rich and in need of nothing; and yet he was “blind, and naked, and poor.” He heard a voice from the God of the whole earth, saying unto him, “Thou profane and wicked prince, remove the diadem and take off the crown. I will overturn, overturn, overturn it, and it shall be no more” (Ezekiel xxi., 25-27). “Tho thou exalt thyself as the eagle, and tho thou set thy nest among the stars, thence will I bring thee down, saith the Lord” (Obadiah, 4). Neither the dignity of governor, nor the favor of Caesar, nor all the glory of empire shall deliver thee out of My hand.
Thirdly, I restrict myself, my brethren, as much as possible in order to execute without exceeding my limits the plan I have conceived; and proceed to consider Felix as an avaricious man: to find in this disposition a further cause of his fear. Felix was avaricious, and St. Paul instantly transported him into a world in which avarice shall receive its appropriate and most severe punishment. For you know that the grand test by which we shall be judged is charity. “I was hungry, and ye gave me meat”; and of all the constructions of charity covetousness is the most obstinate and insurmountable.
This unhappy propensity renders us insensible of our neighbor’s necessities. It magnifies the estimate of our wants; it diminishes the wants of others. It persuades us that we have need of all, that others have need of nothing. Felix began to perceive the iniquity of this passion, and to feel that he was guilty of double idolatry: idolatry, in morality, idolatry in religion; idolatry in having offered incense to gods, who were not the makers of heaven and earth; idolatry in having offered incense to Mammon. For the Scriptures teach, and experience confirms, that “covetousness is idolatry.” The covetous man is not a worshiper of the true God. Gold and silver are the divinities he adores. His heart is with his treasure. Here then is the portrait of Felix: a portrait drawn by St. Paul in the presence of Felix, and which reminded this prince of innumerable prohibitions, innumerable frauds, innumerable extortions; of the widow and the orphan he opprest. Here is the cause of Felix’s fears. According to an expression of St. James, the “rust of his gold and silver began to witness against him, and to eat his flesh as with fire” (James v., 3).
Fourthly, consider Felix as a voluptuous man. Here is the final cause of his fear. Without repeating all we have said on the depravity of this passion, let one remark suffice, that, if the torments of hell are terrible at all, they must especially be so to the voluptuous. The voluptuous man never restricts his sensual gratification; his soul dies on the slightest approach of pain. What a terrific impression must not the thought of judgment make on such a character. Shall I, accustomed to indulgence and pleasure, become a prey to the worm that dieth not and fuel to the fire which is not quenched? Shall I, who avoid pain with so much caution, be condemned to eternal torments? Shall I have neither delicious meats nor voluptuous delights? This body, my idol, which I habituate to so much delicacy, shall it be “cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, whose smoke ascendeth up forever and ever?” And this effeminate habit I have of refining on pleasure, will it render me only the more sensible of my destruction and anguish?
Such are the traits of Felix’s character; such are the causes of Felix’s fear. Happy, if his fear had produced that “godly sorrow, and that repentance unto salvation not to be repented of.” Happy if the fear of hell had induced him to avoid its torments. But, ah no! he feared, and yet persisted in the causes of his fear. He trembled, yet said to St. Paul, “Go thy way for this time.” This is our last reflection.
How preposterous, my brethren, is the sinner! What absurdities does he cherish in his heart! For, in short, had the doctrines St. Paul preached to Felix been the productions of his brain:–had the thought of a future judgment been a chimera, whence proceeded the fears of Felix? Why was he so weak as to admit this panic of terror? If, on the contrary, Paul had truth and argument on his side, why did Felix send him away? Such are the contradictions of the sinner. He wishes; he revolts; he denies; he grants; he trembles; and says, “Go thy way for this time.” Speak to him concerning the truths of religion, open hell to his view, and you will see him affected, devout, and appalled: follow him in life, and you will find that these truths have no influence whatever on his conduct.
But are we not mistaken concerning Felix? Did not the speech of St. Paul make a deeper impression upon him than we seem to allow? He sent the apostle away, it is true, but it was “for this time” only. And who can censure this delay? The infirmities of human nature require relaxation and repose. Felix could afterward recall him. “Go thy way for this time; when I have a convenient season, I will send for thee.”
It pains me, I confess, my brethren, in entering on this head of my discourse, that I should exhibit to you in the person of Felix the portrait of whom? Of wicked men? Alas! of nearly the whole of this assembly; most of whom seem to us living in negligence and vice, running with the children of this world “to the same excess of riot.” One would suppose that they had already made their choice, having embraced one or the other of these notions: either that religion is a fantom, or that, all things considered, it is better to endure the torments of hell than to be restricted to the practise of virtue. Oh no! that is not their notion. Ask the worse among them. Ask whether they have renounced their salvation. You will not find an individual who will say that he has renounced it. Ask them again whether they think it attainable by following this way of life. They will answer, No. Ask them afterward how they reconcile things so opposite as their life and their hopes. They will answer that they are resolved to reform, and by and by they will enter on the work. They will say, as Felix said to St. Paul, “Go thy way for this time; when I have a convenient season, I will call for thee.” Nothing is less wise than this delay. At a future period I will reform. But who has assured me that at a future period I shall have opportunities of conversion? Who has assured me that God will continue to call me, and that another Paul shall thunder in my ears?
I will reform at a future period. But who has told me that God at a future period will accompany His word with the powerful aids of grace? While Paul may plant and Apollos may water, is it not God who gives the increase? How then can I flatter myself that the Holy Spirit will continue to knock at the door of my heart after I shall have so frequently obstructed His admission?
I will reform in future. But who has told me that I shall ever desire to be converted? Do not habits become confirmed in proportion as they are indulged? And is not an inveterate evil very difficult to cure? If I can not bear the excision of a slight gangrene, how shall I sustain the operation when the wound is deep?
I will reform in future! But who has told me that I shall live to a future period? Does not death advance every moment with gigantic strides? Does he not assail the prince in his palace and the peasant in his cottage? Does he not send before him monitors and messengers: acute pains, which wholly absorb the soul; deliriums, which render reason of no avail; deadly stupors, which benumb the brightest and most piercing geniuses? And what is still more awful, does He not daily come without either warning or messenger? Does He not snatch away this man without allowing him time to be acquainted with the essentials of religion; and that man, without the restitution of riches ill acquired; and the other, before he is reconciled to his enemy?
Instead of saying “Go thy way for this time” we should say, Stay for this time. Stay, while the Holy Spirit is knocking at the door of my heart; stay, while my conscience is alarmed; stay, while I yet live; “while it is called to-day.” The arguments confounded my conscience: no matter. “Thy hand is heavy upon me”: no matter still. Cut, strike, consume; provided it procure my salvation.
But, however criminal this delay may be, we seem desirous to excuse it. “Go thy way for this time; when I have a convenient season, I will call for thee.” It was Felix’s business then which induced him to put off the apostle. Unhappy business! Awful occupation! It seems an enviable situation, my brethren, to be placed at the head of a province; to speak in the language of majesty; to decide on the fortunes of a numerous people; and in all cases to be the ultimate judge. But those situations, so happy and so dazzling in appearance, are in the main dangerous to the conscience. Those innumerable concerns, this noise and bustle, entirely dissipate the soul. While so much engaged on earth, we can not be mindful of heaven. When we have no leisure we say to St. Paul, “Go thy way for this time; when I have a convenient season, I will call for thee.”
Happy he who, amid the tumult of the most active life, has hours consecrated to reflection, to the examination of his conscience, and to insure the “one thing needful.” Or, rather, happy he who, in the repose of the middle classes of society,–places between indigence and affluence, far from the courts of the great, having neither poverty nor riches according to Agur’s wish,–can in retirement and quietness see life sweetly glide away, and make salvation, if not the sole, yet his principal, concern.
Felix not only preferred his business to his salvation, but he mentions it with evasive disdain. “When I have a convenient season, I will call for thee.” “When I have a convenient season!” Might we not thence infer that the truths discust by St. Paul were not of serious importance? Might we not infer that the soul of Felix was created for the government of Judea; and that the grand doctrines of righteousness, temperance, and a judgment to come ought to serve at most but to pass away the time, or merely to engross one’s leisure–“when I have a convenient season?” …
Yes, Christians, this is the only moment on which we can reckon. It is, perhaps, the only acceptable time. It is, perhaps, the last day of our visitation. Let us improve a period so precious. Let us no longer say by and by–at another time; but let us say to-day–this moment–even now. Let the pastor say: I have been insipid in my sermons, and remiss in my conduct; having been more solicitous, during the exercise of my ministry, to advance my family than to build up the Lord’s house, I will preach hereafter with fervor and zeal. I will be vigilant, sober, rigorous, and disinterested. Let the miser say: I have riches ill acquired. I will purge my house of illicit wealth. I will overturn the altar of Mammon and erect another to the supreme Jehovah. Let the prodigal say: I will extinguish the unhappy fires by which I am consumed and kindle in my bosom the flame of divine love. Ah, unhappy passions, which war against my soul; sordid attachments; irregular propensities; emotions of concupiscence; law in the members,–I will know you no more. I will make with you an eternal divorce, I will from this moment open my heart to the eternal Wisdom, who condescends to ask it.
If we are in this happy disposition, if we thus become regenerate, we shall enjoy from this moment foretastes of the glory which God has prepared. From this moment the truths of religion, so far from casting discouragement and terror on the soul, shall heighten its consolation and joy; from this moment heaven shall open to this audience, paradise shall descend into your hearts, and the Holy Spirit shall come and dwell there. He will bring that peace, and those joys, which pass all understanding.
Jacques Saurin, the famous French Protestant preacher of the seventeenth century, was born at Nismes in 1677. He studied at Geneva and was appointed to the Walloon Church in London in 1701. The scene of his great life work was, however, the Hague, where he settled in 1705. He has been compared with Bossuet, tho he never attained the graceful style and subtilty which characterize the “Eagle of Meaux.” The story is told of the famous scholar Le Clerc that he long refused to hear Saurin preach, on the ground that he gave too much attention to mere art. One day he consented to hear him on the condition that he should be permitted to sit behind the pulpit where he could not see his oratorical action. At the close of the sermon he found himself in front of the pulpit, with tears in his eyes. Saurin died in 1730.