Thomas Chalmers

Lectures on Romans
"Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved."

THE words of this text derive a special and an augmented interest from the very position which it here occupies. You will observe that it is at the close of a very elaborate argument held by our apostle on the high topic of predestination; and from which the reader is fully warranted to imagine, that those Israelites, in whose behalf he plies Heaven with such fervent importunity, had already been the objects of Heaven’s irrevocable decree. It is altogether worthy of notice, that, in this instance, the preordination of the Creator did not supersede the prayers of the creature; and that he who saw the farthest into the counsels of the Divinity above, saw nothing there which should affect either the diligence or the devotions of any humble worshipper below. We believe that there are some men with loftier reach of intellect than their fellows, who can discern the harmony between these two things; or how it is that the seat of the Eternal might be assailed with prayer, on a matter whereabout the purposes of the Eternal have been unalterably fixed from the foundations of the world. They can perceive that either the prayer, or the performance of man, is but a step in that vast progression which connects his final destiny with the first purposes of God; and that, being as indispensable a step as any single link is to the continuity of the whole chain, it must be made sure else we shall never arrive at the right or prosperous termination. In other words, if man will not address himself to the business of supplication, the blessing of salvation will not follow; and, however indelible the characters may be in which the ultimate futurities of man are written in the book of heaven, this, it would appear, should not foreclose but rather stimulate both his prayers and his efforts upon earth. There be a few who can clearly discern the adjustments of this seeming difficulty; but for these, there are many, who, should they attempt to resolve, would sink under it as a mystery of all others the most hopeless and impracticable. To these we would say that they should quit the arduous speculation, and keep by the obvious duty - taking their lesson from Paul, who, though just alighted from the daring ascents which he had made among the past ordinations of the Godhead, forthwith busies himself among the plain and the present duties of the humble Christian; and so makes it palpable to the Church throughout all ages, that, however deep or hard to be understood his article of predestination may be, there is nothing in it which should hinder performance, there is nothing in it which should hinder prayer.

Theology has its steeps and its altitudes - pinnacles far out of sight, or shooting upwardly to heaven till lost in the cloudy envelopment which surrounds them. Yet this does not hinder that there should be a most distinct and discernible path which winds around its basement, and by which the lowliest of Zion’s travellers may find an ascending way, that at length when the toils of his pilgrimage are ended, will land him in a place of purest transparency, where he shall know even as he is known. There are some whose vision can carry them more aloft among the heights of arduous speculation. Yet let none be discouraged - for there is a way of duty that may be practised and of doctrine that may be understood which is accessible to all - a way the entrance upon which requires but the union of a desirous heart with a doing hand - a union this that is often realized by the veriest babe in intellect; who, wholly unable though he be to scan the awful mysteries of a predestinating God, yet can lift the prayer both of affection and confidence, while looking to Him in the more legible as well as more lovely aspect of a God that waiteth to be gracious.

Our first remark then is that predestination should be no barrier in the way of prayer. Our second is, that unless the desire of the heart goes before it, it is no prayer at all. Prayer is the utterance of desire, and without desire is bereft of all its significancy. The virtue does not lie in the artlculation but altogether in the wish which precedes, or rather which prompts it. Prayer is an act of the soul; and the bodily organ is but the instrument and not the agent of this service. The soul which thinks and wills and places its hopes or its affections on any given object - this and this alone is the agent in prayer. Insomuch that although not one word should have been framed by the lips, or emitted in language from the mouth - the man might substantially be praying, it is thus that he might pray without ceasing. In company, or in business, or in any scene whatever whether of duty or of discipline, there might at least be a prayerful heart apart from the formalities of prayer - a supplicatory, a kneeling attitude, on the part of his inner man, and to which he is bowed down continually by an aspiring earnestness on the one hand to be and to do at all times as he ought; and by a lowly sense on the other hand of his native insufficiency and dependence on a higher power than his own, for being constantly upholden in the way of rectitude. This will be sustained as prayer by Him who weigheth the secrets of the spirit; and, on the contrary, all expression disjoined from this will be dealt with as an affronting mockery of Heaven. It is true that in the case of prayer, God has committed Himself to the amplest promises of fulfilment; and all nature and providence would be at our command, if the mere verbality of a petition upon our part were to bring upon God the literal obligation of these promises. But He is not pledged to the accomplishment of any prayer where the desire of the heart does not originate the utterance of the mouth. The want of such desire nullifies the prayer; and to imagine otherwise would be to revive the superstition of other days - when a religious service, instead of being held as a community of thought and spirit between the creature and the Creator, consisted in the mere handiwork of a certain and stated ceremonial. And be assured - that neither the counting of beads nor the conning of Pater-nosters is at all more irrational, than are those devotions, whether of the closet or the sanctuary, which the heart does not emanate, or the heart does not go along with.

This remark, obvious although it be, should be urged more especially on the coming round of every great religious anniversary. Although Popery in respect of denomination may have gone conclusively forth of our borders - yet in respect of spirit and character may it still abide in the land, and be as inveterately rooted as ever in the hearts of our population. Even long after that the creed of these realms has been purified of all that is erroneous in the dogmata of Roman Catholics, might the conscience be infected with a certain catholic imagination, which in truth forms by far the most misleading heresy of the Church of Rome. It consists in the charm which is ascribed to mere handiwork, to performance separate from principle, to that bodily exercise whereof the apostle saith that without godliness, which is a thing of soul and sentiment altogether, it profiteth little. Their delusion is that it profiteth much; and we fear it is a delusion which has left deep and enduring traces behind it, even among a people who have abjured the communion of Popery, and would treat its disciples with intolerance. Under all the disguises of our Protestantism, the inveteracy of the olden spirit breaks forth at sacraments. And when we behold of many who breathe the element of irreligion through the year, how at the proclamation of this great religious festival they come forth in families - how, although on any other Sabbath the ordinary services of the house of God should be honoured with but half a congregation or with half an attendance, yet on the Sabbath and the service extraordinary, the place should teem to an overflow with worshippers - how an importance so visible should be given to this solemnity, and by those who have not habitually in their hearts any solemn reverence for the things or obligations of sacredness. We cannot but recognise somewhat like the dregs of our ancient superstition in this great periodical homage, founded as it often is on a sort of magical or mystic spell which is ascribed to sacraments.

Be assured of this and of every other ordinance of Christianity, that, unless impregnated with life and meaning, it is but a skeleton or framework - a body without a soul - a mere service of bone and muscle - which the hand can perform, but which the heart with all its high functions of thought and sensibility has no share in. It stands in the same relation of inferiority to genuine religion, that the drudgery of an animal does to the devotion of a seraph. This is not the service which God who is a Spirit requires of His worshippers - who, to worship Him acceptably, must do it in spirit and in truth. Religion is no doubt the homage of creatures who are immeasurably beneath the Sovereign whom they address; but still it is the homage of intelligent creatures - the homage of the subordinate to the Supreme intelligence - of beings, therefore, who look with the eye of their mind towards Him who sits in presiding authority over the universe which He has made; and who at the same time are conscious, that they are looked upon with the eye of a Mind that discerns all and that judges all. In one word, if in the doing of any ordinance there be not the intercourse of mind with mind, there substantially is nothing ; and yet we fear it to be just such a nothingness as is yielded by many who are regular in prayer, and who walk with decency and order through the rounds of a sacrament. In this wretched drivelling, both superstition and hypocrisy appear to be blended - a vain confidence in the efficacy of forms, and at the same time a willing substitution of them for the purer but more arduous services of a moral and spiritual obedience. It is this last alone which availeth. Your sacrament is vain, if the dedication of the whole life to God do not come after it. Your prayer is vain, if, unlike the apostle’s in the text, the desire of the whole heart have not gone before it.
But let us now attend to the subject of the prayer - even that Israel might be saved. And here we may remark that although desire be a constituent part of prayer and therefore essential both to its reality and to its acceptance - yet it is not all desire thus lifted up from earth that will meet with acceptance in heaven. It were an attempt much too unwieldy at present, yet none more interesting, to specify what all the desires are of creatures here below which are sure of welcome and of a willing response in the sanctuary above. It is not every random desire that will meet with such a reception - for the same scripture which holds out the promise of "ask and ye shall receive," has also held out the warning that many ask and receive not "because they ask amiss, that they may consume it upon their lusts." Still, believing as we do, that Scripture does furnish the principles by which to discriminate the warrantable from the unwarrantable - and so, if I may thus speak, to classify the topics of prayer - we know not any exposition of greater practical importance, than what those things are which we may confidently seek at the hand of God even till we have obtained them; and what those other things on the seeking after which the Bible lays such discouragement, that we dare not or rather cannot though we would pray for them in faith, or pray for them in that which gives to every request its prevalence and its power.

As an example of what now I can but briefly touch upon, it is written "that if we ask any thing according to his will he heareth us." This does not confer a sanction upon every suit or solicitation that we may press at the court of heaven, but certainly upon a vast number of them. Thus surely, every petition in that prayer which He himself hath dictated, even the Lord’s prayer, may, as according most thoroughly with His own will, be preferred with utmost confidence on our part ; and so it is that while we have no warrant to pray for this world’s riches, we have a perfect warrant to pray for daily bread. The same principle of agreeableness to the will of God sustains our faith, when praying in behalf either of ourselves or others, for the riches of a glorious immortality - being expressly told that God willeth such intercessions to be made for all men, and on this ground too that He willeth all men to be saved.

Such is the large and liberal warrant that we have from God Himself for turning our desire into a request, when the object of that desire is salvation. No imagined desire on the part of God, or imagined destiny on the part of man, should lay an arrest on this plain exercise. Let there be but a desire in our heart after salvation, even as there was a desire in the heart of Paul for the salvation of his countrymen the Jews; and the patent day of arriving at our object is just to vent this desire in confident utterance before the mercy-seat of Heaven. So near does God bring salvation to us - So fully does He place it within the reach of all, and at the receiving of all. It is just as if we had it for the taking; or as if no obstacle whatever intervened between our sincere wish for it, and our secure possession of it. At least there seems, in that gracious economy under which we live, to be but one stepping-stone between them; and that is prayer. So very near and accessible to us has God made the blessedness of our eternity. He has positively committed His attribute of truth to the declaration, that if men will but ask He will bestow. He has invested, as it were, every honest petitioner with a power over his own future and everlasting destiny; and made the avenue so open between the earth we tread upon and His own upper sanctuary, that if the bent or aspiration of our soul be towards heaven, heaven with all its glory and its happiness is our own. This at least is the object of a most legitimate desire, and that prayer is a most legitimate one which proceedeth therefrom. Ask and ye shall receive, is a promise which embraces within the rightful scope of it, all that is good for the soul and for the soul’s eternity. And so let us ask till we receive - let us seek till we find - let us knock till the door of salvation is opened to us.

But thus to say that we may have salvation for the asking, certainly points out what may be called a very cheap way of obtaining it - cheaper far than we naturally or usually have any imagination of. For what may be easier it is thought than the utterance of a prayer - and even although desire should be indispensable to the success of it, we will not on that account lose our object in the present instance - for who is there that desireth not the salvation of his soul! Is there a human creature that breathes, who would not like to be assured of his exemption from the agonies of a hideous and intolerable hell, and who would not prefer to spend his eternity in the palaces of heaven! Put the question even to the most reckless and abandoned in all sorts of profligacy, would it not be his dread and his aversion to lie down amongst the everlasting burnings of the place of condemnation; and would it not be his choice rather, to be regaled throughout the unceasing ages of a glorious immortality, by those rivers of pleasure, and amid those sounds of jubilee, which cease not day nor night in the paradise of God! There is an instinctive horror of pain which belongs to all, and there is an instinctive love of enjoyment which equally belongs to all; and these, it may be thought, will guarantee a desire and an honest desire with every possessor of a sentient nature for his salvation from the one, and for his secure inheritance of the other. So that if it be enough for the salvation of any that it should be his heart’s desire and prayer to be saved - who after all wants the desire, and who is there that might not pray? This of all subjects, it may well be reckoned, should be one where the instigation of the heart is in unison with the utterance of the mouth; and thus while God wills the salvation of all, and man both wills and asks it, what obstacle can exist in the way of Heaven - or why should there be the distance -of a single hairbreadth between any soul and the certainty of its salvation!

That you may apprehend aright how this matter stands, let me state to you the whole extent and import of the term salvation. We are aware of its common acceptation in the world - as if it signified but a deliverance from the penalty of sin. Whereas, additionally to this, it signifies deliverance from sin itself. He shall be called Jesus said the angel, for He shall save His people from their sins - save them from a great deal more let me assure you than the torment of sin’s penalty, even from the tyranny of sin’s power. The one salvation is spoken of when it is said of Jesus that He hath delivered us from the wrath which is to come. The other salvation is spoken of when it is said of Him, that He hath delivered us from the present evil world. The first secures for the sinner a change of place. The second secures for him a change of principle. By the one there is effected a translation of his person, from what is locally hell to what is locally heaven. By the other there is effected a translation of his heart and spirit, from that which is the reigning character of hell to that which is the reigning character of heaven. The one is but a personal emancipation from the agonies of a tremendous suffering which is physical, to the joys of an exquisite gratification which is also physical. The other is a higher for it is a moral emancipation from the thraldom of sensuality and sin to the light and the love and the liberty of a now heaven-born sacredness. This last is an inseparable constituent of the gospel salvation - or rather I would say that it is the constituting essence of it. The other is more the accompaniment than the essence.

The essential salvation surely is that which stands related to the moral economy of man, even his deliverance from sin unto holiness. The subordinate or the accessory salvation is that which stands related to his animal or sentient economy, even his deliverance from the fire and brimstone of hell to the music and the splendour and the sensible enjoyments and the everlasting security of heaven. The one takes place after death. The other takes place now. At least it has its commencement in time, though its perfect consummation is in eternity. You will now understand what the legitimate desire is which should animate the heart when the mouth utters a prayer for salvation. There is the desire it is true for a future and everlasting happiness - but there is also desire for a present holiness. There is no other salvation held out to us in promise or in prospect throughout the New Testament. It is the only salvation which man has a warrant to ask; and it is the only salvation which God is willing to bestow. Nothing more true than that if man really wills the thing which he prays for, and if the thing be agreeable to the will of God, he will certainly obtain it. Now God, on the one hand, willeth all men to be saved; and if any one of these men, on the other, will for his salvation, every barrier appears to be done away, and the sinner is on the eve of a great and glorious enlargement.
But be sure that you understand what this will for salvation means. It is not merely that the hand of vengeance shall be lifted off from you. It is also that the spirit of glory and of virtue shall rest upon you. It is not merely that you shall obtain a personal exemption from that lake of living agony into which arc thrown the outcasts of condemnation. It is also that you shall obtain a spiritual exemption from the vice and the voluptuousness and all the worldly affections which animate the passions and pursuits of the unregenerate upon earth. It is not alone for some vague and indefinite blessedness in future. It is for a renovation of taste and of character at present. The man in fact who desires aright and prays aright for the object of his salvation, is not merely on the eve of a great revolution in his prospects for eternity. He is on the eve of a great moral revolution in his heart and in his history at this moment. His prayer to be saved embraces it is true the transference of his person on the other side of death, from the torments of hell to the transports of paradise - but without a transference of character on this side of death the thing is impossible; and so there is enveloped in the prayer this cry of aspiring earnestness - "0 God create in me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me.'
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