The Small Number of the Elect
Written by: Massillon, Jean Baptiste Posted on: 02/25/2007
Source: Worlds Greatest Sermons Book 3
Every day, my brethren, you continue to ask of us, whether the road to heaven is really so difficult, and the number of the saved really so small as we represent? To a question so often proposed, and still oftener resolved, our Savior answers you here, that there were many widows in Israel afflicted with famine; but the widow of Sarepta was alone found worthy the succor of the prophet Elias; that the number of lepers was great in Israel in the time of the prophet Eliseus; and that Naaman was only cured by the man of God.
Were I here, my brethren, for the purpose of alarming, rather than instructing you, I had only to recapitulate what in the holy writings we find dreadful with regard to this great truth; and, running over the history of the just, from age to age, show you that, in all times, the number of the saved has been very small. The family of Noah alone saved from the general flood; Abraham chosen from among men to be the sole depositary of the covenant with God; Joshua and Caleb the only two of six hundred thousand Hebrews who saw the Land of Promise; Job the only upright man in the land of Uz; Lot, in Sodom. To representations so alarming, would have succeeded the sayings of the prophets. In Isaiah you would see the elect as rare as the grapes which are found after the vintage, and have escaped the search of the gatherer; as rare as the blades which remain by chance in the field, and have escaped the scythe of the mower. The evangelist would still have added new traits to the terrors of these images. I might have spoken to you of two roads--of which one is narrow, rugged, and the path of a very small number; the other broad, open, and strewed with flowers, and almost the general path of men: that everywhere, in the holy writings, the multitude is always spoken of as forming the party of the reprobate; while the saved, compared with the rest of mankind, form only a small flock, scarcely perceptible to the sight. I would have left you in fears with regard to your salvation; always cruel to those who have not renounced faith and every hope of being among the saved. But what would it serve to limit the fruits of this instruction to the single point of setting forth how few persons will be saved? Alas! I would make the danger known, without instructing you how to avoid it; I would allow you, with the prophet, the sword of the wrath of God suspended over your heads, without assisting you to escape the threatened blow; I would alarm but not instruct the sinner.
My intention is, to-day, to search for the cause of this small number, in our morals and manner of life. As every one flatters himself he will not be excluded, it is of importance to examine if his confidence be well founded. I wish not, in marking to you the causes which render salvation so rare, to make you generally conclude that few will be saved, but to bring you to ask yourselves if, living as you live, you can hope to be saved. Who am I? What am I doing for heaven? And what can be my hopes in eternity? I propose no other order in a matter of such importance. What are the causes which render salvation so rare? I mean to point out three principal causes, which is the only arrangement of this discourse. Art, and far-sought reasonings, would be ill-timed. Oh, attend, therefore, be ye whom ye may. No subject can be more worthy your attention, since it goes to inform you what may be the hopes of your eternal destiny.
Few are saved, because in that number we can only comprehend two descriptions of persons: either those who have been so happy as to preserve their innocence pure and undefiled, or those who, after having lost, have regained it by penitence. This is the first cause. There are only these two ways of salvation: heaven is only open to the innocent or to the penitent. Now, of which party are you? Are you innocent? Are you penitent?
Nothing unclean shall enter the kingdom of God. We must consequently carry there either an innocence unsullied, or an innocence regained. Now to die innocent is a grace to which few souls can aspire; and to live penitent is a mercy which the relaxed state of our morals renders equally rare. Who, indeed, will pretend to salvation by the chain of innocence? Where are the pure souls in whom sin has never dwelt, and who have preserved to the end the sacred treasure of grace confided to them by baptism, and which our Savior will redemand at the awful day of punishment?
In those happy days when the whole Church was still but an assembly of saints, it was very uncommon to find an instance of a believer who, after having received the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and acknowledged Jesus Christ in the sacrament which regenerates us, fell back to his former irregularities of life. Ananias and Sapphira were the only prevaricators in the Church of Jerusalem; that of Corinth had only one incestuous sinner. Church penitence was then a remedy almost unknown; and scarcely was there found among these true Israelites one single leper whom they were obliged to drive from the holy altar, and separate from communion with his brethren. But since that time the number of the upright diminishes in proportion, as that of believers increases. It would appear that the world, pretending now to have become almost generally Christian, has; brought with it into the Church its corruptions and its maxims.
Alas! we all go astray, almost from the breast of our mothers! The first use which we make of our heart is a crime; our first desires. are passions; and our reason only expands and increases on the wrecks of our innocence. The earth, says a prophet, is infected by the corruption of those who inhabit it: all have violated the laws, changed the ordinances, and broken the alliance which should have endured forever: all commit sin, and scarcely is there one to be found who does the work of the Lord. Injustice, calumny, lying, treachery, adultery, and the blackest crimes have deluged the earth. The brother lays snares for his brother; the father is divided from his children; the husband from his wife: there is no tie which a vile interest does not sever. Good faith and probity are no longer virtues except among the simple people. Animosities are endless; reconciliations are feints, and never is a former enemy regarded as a brother: they tear, they devour each other. Assemblies are no longer but for the purpose of public and general censure. The purest virtue is no longer a protection from the malignity of tongues. Gaming is become either a trade, a fraud, or a fury. Repasts--those innocent ties of society--degenerate into excesses of which we dare not speak. Our age witnesses horrors with which our forefathers were unacquainted.
Behold, then, already one path of salvation shut to the generality of men. All have erred. Be ye whom ye may, listen to me now, the time has been when sin reigned over you. Age may perhaps have calmed your passions, but what was your youth? Long and habitual infirmities may perhaps have disgusted you with the world; but what use did you formerly make of the vigor of health? A sudden inspiration of grace may have turned your heart, but do you not most fervently entreat that every moment prior to that inspiration may be effaced from the remembrance of the Lord?
But with what am I taking up time? We are all sinners, O my God! and Thou knowest our hearts! What we know of our errors is, perhaps, in Thy sight, the most pardonable; and we all allow that by innocence we have no claim to salvation. There remains, therefore, only one resource, which is penitence. After our shipwreck, say the saints, it is the timely plank which alone can conduct us into port; there is no other means of salvation for us. Be ye whom ye may, prince or subject, high or low, penitence alone can save you. Now permit me to ask where are the penitent? You will find more, says a holy father, who have never fallen, than who, after their fall, have raised themselves by true repentance. This is a terrible saying; but do not let us carry things too far: the truth is sufficiently dreadful without adding new terrors to it by vain declamation.
Let us alone examine as to whether the majority of us have a right, through penitence, to salvation. What is a penitent? According to Tertullian, a penitent is a believer who feels every moment his former unhappiness in forsaking and losing his God; one who has his guilt incessantly before his eyes; who finds everywhere the traces and remembrance of it.
A penitent is a man instrusted by God with judgment against himself; one who refuses himself the most innocent pleasures because he had formerly indulged in those the most criminal; one who puts up with the most necessary gratification with pain; one who regards his body as an enemy whom it is necessary to conquer--as an unclean vessel which must be purified--as an unfaithful debtor of whom it is proper to exact to the last farthing. A penitent regards himself as a criminal condemned to death, because he is no longer worthy of life. In the loss of riches or health he sees only a withdrawal of favors that he had formerly abused: in the humiliations which happen to him, only the pains of his guilt: in the agonies with which he is racked, only the commencement of those punishments he has justly merited. Such is a penitent.
But I again ask you--Where, among us, are penitents of this description? Now look around you. I do not tell you to judge your brethren, but to examine what are the manners and morals of those who surround you. Nor do I speak of those open and avowed sinners who have thrown off even the appearance of virtue. I speak only of those who, like yourselves, live as most live, and whose actions present nothing to the public view particularly shameful or depraved. They are sinners and they admit it: you are not innocent, and you confess it. Now are they penitent? or are you? Age, vocation, more serious employments, may perhaps have checked the sallies of youth. Even the bitterness which the Almighty has made attendant on our passions, the deceits, the treacheries of the world, an injured fortune, with ruined constitution, may have cooled the ardor, and confined the irregular desires of your hearts. Crimes may have disgusted you even with sin itself--for passions gradually extinguish themselves. Time, and the natural inconstancy of the heart will bring these about; yet, nevertheless, tho detached from sin by incapability, you are no nearer your God. According to the world you are become more prudent, more regular, to a greater extent what it calls men of probity, more exact in fulfilling your public or private duties. But you are not penitent. You have ceased your disorders but you have not expiated them. You are not converted: this great stroke, this grand operation on the heart, which regenerates man, has not yet been felt by you. Nevertheless, this situation, so truly dangerous, does not alarm you. Sins which have never been washed away by sincere repentance, and consequently never obliterated from the book of life, appear in your eyes as no longer existing; and you will tranquilly leave this world in a state of impenitence, so much the more dangerous as you will die without being sensible of your danger.
What I say here is not merely a rash expression, or an emotion of zeal; nothing is more real, or more exactly true: it is the situation of almost all men, even the wisest and most esteemed of the world. The morality of the younger stages of life is always lax, if not licentious. Age, disgust, and establishment for life, fix the heart and withdraw it from debauchery: but where are those who are converted? Where are those who expiate their crimes by tears of sorrow and true repentance? Where are those who, having begun as sinners, end as penitents? Show me, in your manner of living, the smallest trace of penitence! Are your graspings at wealth and power, your anxieties to attain the favor of the great--and by these means an increase of employments and influence--are these proofs of it? Would you wish to reckon even your crimes as virtues?--that the sufferings of your ambition, pride, and avarice, should discharge you from an obligation which they themselves have imposed? You are penitent to the world, but are you so to Jesus Christ? The infirmities with which God afflicts you, the enemies He raised up against you, the disgraces and losses with which He tries you--do you receive them all as you ought, with humble submission to His will? Or, rather, far from finding in them occasions of penitence, do you not turn them into the objects of new crimes? It is the duty of an innocent soul to receive with submission the chastisements of the Almighty; to discharge with courage the painful duties of the station allotted to him, and to be faithful to the laws of the gospel. But do sinners owe nothing beyond this? And yet they pretend to salvation! Upon what claim? To say that you are innocent before God, your own consciences will witness against you. To endeavor to persuade yourselves that you are penitent, you dare not; and you would condemn yourselves by your own mouths. Upon what then dost thou depend, O man! who thus livest so tranquil?
These, my brethren, as I have already told you, are not merely advices and pious arts; they are the most essential of our obligations. But, alas! who fulfils them? Who even knows them? Ah! my brethren, did you know how far the title you bear, of Christian, engages you; could you comprehend the sanctity of your state, the hatred of the world, of yourself, and of everything which is not of God that it enjoys, that gospel life, that constant watching, that guard over the passions, in a word, that conformity with Jesus Christ crucified, which it exacts of you--could you comprehend it, could you remember that you ought to love God with all your heart, and all your strength, so that a single desire that has not connection with Him defiles you--you would appear a monster in your own sight. How! you would exclaim. Duties so holy, and morals so profane! A vigilance so continual, and a life so careless and dissipated! A love of God so pure, so complete, so universal, and a heart the continual prey of a thousand impulses, either foreign or criminal! If thus it is, who, O my God! will be entitled to salvation? Few indeed, I fear, my dear hearers! At least it will not be you (unless a change takes place) nor those who resemble you; it will not be the multitude!
Who shall be saved? Those who work out their salvation with fear and trembling; who live in the world without indulging in its vices. Who shall be saved? That Christian woman who, shut up in the circle of her domestic duties, rears up her children in faith and in piety; divides her heart only between her Savior and her husband; is adorned with delicacy and modesty; sits not down in the assemblies of vanity; makes not a law of the ridiculous customs of the world, but regulates those customs by the law of God; and makes virtue appear more amiable by her rank and her example. Who shall be saved? That believer who, in the relaxation of modern times, imitates the manners of the first Christian--whose hands are clean and his heart pure--who is watchful--who hath not lifted up his soul to vanity, but who, in the midst of the dangers of the great world, continually applies himself to purify it; just--who swears not deceitfully against his neighbor, nor is indebted to fraudulent ways for the aggrandizement of his fortune; generous--who with benefits repays the enemy who sought his ruin; sincere--who sacrifices not the truth to a vile interest, and knows not the part of rendering himself agreeable by betraying his conscience; charitable--who makes his house and interest the refuge of his fellow creatures, and himself the consolation of the afflicted; regards his wealth as the property of the poor; humble in affliction--a Christian under injuries, and penitent even in prosperity. Who will merit salvation? You, my dear hearer, if you will follow these examples; for such are the souls to be saved. Now these assuredly do not form the greatest number. While you continue, therefore, to live like the multitude, it is a striking proof that you disregard your salvation.
These, my brethren, are truths which should make us tremble! nor are they those vague ones which are told to all men, and which none apply to themselves. Perhaps there is not in this assembly an individual who may not say of himself, "I live like the great number; like those of my rank, age, and situation; I am lost, should I die in this path." Now, can anything be more capable of alarming a soul, in whom some remains of care for his salvation shall exist? It is the multitude, nevertheless, who tremble not. There is only a small number of the just who work out severally their salvation with fear and trembling. All the rest are tranquil. After having lived with the multitude, they flatter themselves they shall be particularized at death. Every one augurs favorably for himself, and vainly imagines that he shall be an exception.
On this account it is, my brethren, that I confine myself to you who are now here assembled. I include not the rest of men; but consider you as alone existing on the earth. The idea which fills and terrifies me is this--I figure to myself the present as your last hour, and the end of the world! the heavens opening above your heads--the Savior, in all His glory, about to appear in the midst of His temple--you only assembled here as trembling criminals, to wait His coming, and hear the sentence, either of life eternal, or everlasting death! for it is vain to flatter yourselves that you shall die more innocent than you are at this hour. All those desires of change with which you are amused, will continue to amuse you till death arrives. The experience of all ages proves it. The only difference you have to expect will most likely be only a larger balance against you than what you would have to answer for now; and from what would be your destiny, were you to be judged in this moment, you may almost decide upon what it will be at death. Now, I ask you--and, connecting my own lot with yours, I ask it with dread--were Jesus Christ to appear in this temple, in the midst of this assembly, to judge us, to make the awful separation between the sheep and the goats, do you believe that the most of us would be placed at His right hand? Do you believe that the number would at least be equal? Do you believe that there would even be found ten upright and faithful servants of the Lord, when formerly five cities could not furnish that number? I ask you! You know not! I know it not! Thou alone, O my God, knowest who belong to Thee.
But if we know not who belong to Him, at least we know that sinners do not. Now, who are the just and faithful assembled here at present? Titles and dignities avail nothing; you are stript of all these in the presence of your Savior! Who are they? Many sinners who wish not to be converted; many more who wish, but always put it off; many others who are only converted in appearance, and again fall back to their former course; in a word, a great number, who flatter themselves they have no occasion for conversion. This is the party of the reprobate! Ah! my brethren, cut off from this assembly these four classes of sinners, for they will be cut off at the great day! And now stand forth ye righteous:--where are ye? O God, where are Thine elect! What remains as Thy portion!
My brethren, our ruin is almost certain! Yet we think not of it! If in this terrible separation, which will one day take place; there should be but one sinner in the assembly on the side of the reprobate, and a voice from heaven should assure us of it, without particularizing him, who of us would not tremble, lest he be the unfortunate and devoted wretch? Who of us would not immediately apply to his conscience, to examine if its crimes merited not this punishment? Who of us, seized with dread, would not demand of our Savior, as did the apostles, crying out, "Lord, is it I?" And should a small respite be allowed to our prayers, who of us would not use every effort, by tears, supplication, and sincere repentance, to avert the misfortune?
Are we in our senses, my dear hearers? Perhaps among all who listen to me now, ten righteous ones would not be found. It may be fewer still. What do I perceive, O my God! I dare not, with a fixt eye, regard the depths of Thy judgments and justice! Not more than one, perhaps, would be found among us all! And this danger affects you not, my dear hearer! You persuade yourself that in this great number who shall perish, you will be the happy individual! You, you have less reason, perhaps, than any other to believe it! You, upon whom alone the sentence of death should fall, were only one of all who hear me to suffer! Great God! how little are the terrors of Thy law known to the world? In all ages the just have shuddered with dread in reflecting on the severity and extent of Thy judgments, touching the destinies of men! Alas! what are they laying up in store for the sons of men!
But what are we to conclude from these awful truths? That all must despair of salvation? God forbid! The impious alone, to quiet his own feelings in his debaucheries, endeavors to persuade himself that all men shall perish as well as he. This idea ought not to be the fruit of the present discourse. It is intended to undeceive you with regard to the general error, that any one may do whatever is done by others. To convince you that, in order to merit salvation, you must distinguish yourself from the rest; that in the midst of the world you are to live for God's glory, and not follow after the multitude.
When the Jews were led in captivity from Judea to Babylon, a little before they quitted their own country, the prophet Jeremiah, whom the Lord had forbidden to leave Jerusalem, spoke thus to them: "Children of Israel, when you shall arrive at Babylon, you will behold the inhabitants of that country, who carry upon their shoulders gods of silver and gold. All the people will prostrate themselves and adore them. But you, far from allowing yourselves, by these examples, to be led to impiety, say to yourselves in secret, It is Thou, O Lord! whom we ought to adore."
Let me now finish by addressing to you the same words.
At your departure from this temple, you go to enter into another Babylon. You go to see the idols of gold and silver, before which all men prostrate themselves. You go to regain the vain objects of human passions, wealth, glory, and pleasure, which are the gods of this world and which almost all men adore. You will see those abuses which all the world permits, those errors which custom authorizes, and those debaucheries, which an infamous fashion has almost constituted as laws. Then, my dear hearer, if you wish to be of the small number of true Israelites, say, in the secrecy of your heart, "It is Thou alone, O my God! whom we ought to adore. I wish not to have connection with a people which know Thee not; I will have no other law than Thy holy law; the gods which this foolish multitude adore are not gods; they are the work of the hands of men; they will perish with them; Thou alone, O my God! art immortal; and Thou alone deservest to be adored. The customs of Babylon have no connection with the holy laws of Jerusalem. I will continue to worship Thee, with that small number of the children of Abraham which still, in the midst of an infidel nation, composes Thy people; with them I will turn all my desires toward the holy Zion. The singularity of my manners will be regarded as a weakness; but blest weakness, O my God! which will give me strength to resist the torrent of customs, and the seduction of example. Thou wilt be my God in the midst of Babylon, as Thou wilt one day be in Jerusalem above!"
Ah! the time of the captivity will at last expire. Thou wilt call to Thy remembrance Abraham and David. Thou wilt deliver Thy people. Thou wilt transport us to the holy city. Then wilt Thou alone reign over Israel, and over the nations which at present know Thee not. All being destroyed, all the empires of the earth, all the monuments of human pride annihilated, and Thou alone remaining eternal, we then shall know that Thou art the Lord of hosts, and the only God to be adored.
Behold the fruit which you ought to reap from this discourse! Live apart. Think, without ceasing, that the great number work their own destruction. Regard as nothing all customs of the earth, unless authorized by the law of God, and remember that holy men in all ages have been looked upon as a peculiar people.
It is thus that, after distinguishing yourselves from the sinful on earth, you will be gloriously distinguished from them in eternity!
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