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FORMALITY IN RELIGION,
ILLUSTRATED IN THE
HISTORY OF THE CHURCH AT SARDIS.
REVELATION iii. 1-6.
The epistle to the Church of Sardis has already afforded us opportunity of much and valuable practical enlargement, and there are few topics of more vital interest than those which have been discussed in the progress of the last three discourses. This will be perfectly apparent,
if for an instant to recur to the subjects which drew down the censures of the Most High-formality and hypocrisy and languidness in religion; and the proclamation of the few and the few only who had not defiled their garments. Our present object, my brethren, is to bend our sole attention to the delightful and animating promise with which this epistle closes ; for wretched as was the spiritual condition of the Church at Sardis, and justly as they might
have been left to eat the fruit of their own ways, without an effort to reclaim them, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is long-suffering to us, not willing that any should be destroyed, throws into the path of these cold formalists, and these dull professors, something to cheer and animate them, in case they should be willing to rouse themselves from the deep degradation of their condition, and make a vigorous effort to restore at once their spirituality and their hopes. “He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels.”
It may be useful to make a preliminary remark as to the meaning of the phrase—“he that overcometh.” These terms, though essentially meaning the same thing, are qualified in their peculiar application, by the circumstances of the Church to which they were addressed. Thus, to render the idea more easy of comprehension, in the censure passed upon the Church in Ephesus, we find the crime spiritual declension—“I have a few things against thee because thou hast left thy first love;" and the commendation bestowed was, that they had maintained, notwithstanding, a soundness in doctrine and a purity in practice, so far as they went. When, then, in relation to the Church in Ephesus, the term “he that overcometh” is applied, it means he that recovers himself from that declining state into which he had fallen. So also, in the epistle to the Church at Smyrna, a Church which is strikingly commended, and which was suffering under dreadful and protracted persecutions, the term, “he that overcometh, implies, he that shall maintain his faith and his integrity undismayed by the frown, and unhurt by the terrors of persecution and death. So also of the others. But enough has been said to illustrate my meaning. In the epistle to the Church at Sardis, when the terms, “he that overcometh,” are employed, I would have you consider it, not as extending to all the varying particulars of the Christian's varied struggle with the world, the flesh, and the devil; but as more particularly confined to the specific subject which had been noticed in the epistle, either of censure or of commendation.
You, my brethren, are already aware of the topics which are appropriately ranked as under the notice of this exhortation; for I can truly say, that as touching the important particulars of this Church of Sardis, I have not hesitated to declare unto you the whole truth as it presented itself to my mind; and I have reason to rejoice in God to be permitted to believe that some good has been done, and the mind of more than one individual set on a deep, and, I trust, lasting search after those things which make for their peace. As applied in this epistle, then, “he that overcometh,” implies, he that sees the danger of formality and flees from it to the deep spirituality of the Gospel; he that forsakes all trust in the mere outward ceremonies of religion, and learns that nothing but the heart, nothing but the heart will answer ; he that, conscious of the power of his adversary, the devil, is determined, in the strength of the Lord, and the power of his might, to live a life distinguished by its Christian vigilance; he who, conscious of the languor, the paleness, the decaying strength of his religion, has roused him to the effort to strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die;
he that has seen the number and the aggravation of his short-coming efforts, and is determined that he will perfect himself in the fear of God; he that has called to memory the blessings and privileges he has received, and the word of grace which he has heard, and is determined no longer to live a life of cold ingratitude; he that sees the prize ready to be torn from his grasp, and is determined, with a renovated effort, to hold fast; he that has neglected God, and then seen the necessity of a repentance which beginning at sorrow for sin, should grow to newness of life—this is that which is so particularly implied in the term, “he that overcometh :" and to no individual to which the epistle was originally addressed, or to which it has, in its practical aspect, been appropriated, to no individual can the title of a triumphant, conquering, overcoming disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ belong, whose heart enters not into the spirit, and whose life runs not daily parallel with the exhortation—"Be watchful.”
To those who should overcome the difficulties here implied, and who, as thus overcoming, should then be numbered with the few who had as yet kept their garments undefiled, the Lord Jesus Christ adds the animation of a prornise—“He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels.”
Three things are here particularly observable. 1. He shall be clothed in white raiment. 2. I will not blot his name from the book of life.
3. I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels.
1. This differs from a somewhat similar phrase in the preceding verse, in which it is said in relation to those who had not defiled their garments, “they shall walk with me in white.” In the present instance, it is promised to the conquering Christian that he shall be clothed in white raiment, and it entirely relates to what shall occur in the future state of happiness. In this phrase, there may be an allusion to a practice which prevailed among the Jews in relation to the priesthood, and which may be found in some of the Jewish writers. The great council of the Jews, otherwise called the Sanhedrim, sat in judgment on all matters relating to the temple and its worship. If a priest was found guilty of any crime, they stripped off his white
garment and put on a black one, in which he wrapped himself
and departed. But in case the accused was acquitted of the crime laid to his charge, it was their custom to clothe him in white, under which circumstances, and that his innocence might be clearly established and known, he was accustomed to walk up and down the temple in a kind of triumphant procession, and then, as heretofore, take his part in the ministry among the others of the house of Levi. Thus, the triumphant Christian was to be clothed in white raiment, the spotless robe of the Redeemer's righteousness, in testimony of his full acquittal through the merits of the great atonement, of all that had been laid to his charge; and it is in consequence of this that the Apostle asks in his anticipated triumph of the believer—“Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God's elect? It is God that justifieth; who is he that condemneth ? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again,