The Note Of Idealism

The Christian preacher is not only the accuser of men and the

ambassador of reconciliation; he is also the Prophet of a new order.

"Go, preach, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand," so runs his commission.

His message must convey more than the promise of a deliverance from the

consequences of sin. It must proclaim new possibilities for the

individual. It must point to higher altitudes for the race. The

preacher announc
s a New Jerusalem descending out of heaven. His

ministry is not to lead to the better only, but to the best.

For such preaching as this there is, deep down in the heart of man, a

great hunger and thirst. Sordid and materialistic as is the life of

the age, engrossed as the multitudes appear to be in the pursuit of

mammon, of vain glory and of pleasure, there still lingers in the human

breast a suspicion that men were fashioned for something higher than

the things that, so often, first engross and then exhaust their powers.

The millionaire is not satisfied with his millions and, of late, has

told us so. The man of pleasure is not satisfied with his pleasures,

and, when he unburdens his secret mind, confesses his disappointment

and disgust. Corn, wine and oil, houses, lands and station are all the

objects of loathing as well as of pursuit, to those who, having won

them, have found out their real quality. It is a primal instinct of

the race that "the life is more than meat and the body than raiment."

To the student of our times there is nothing more pathetic than to

observe the struggles of those upon whom materialism casts its spell to

escape from their bondage. To aid them in this endeavour they call the

painter, the sculptor, the dramatist, the man of letters, the player

skilled in the language of music, and to one and all they say,

"Idealise! Idealise!" Periods of realism in art never last long,

though, in a sense, realism is easier to the artist than idealism. The

explanation is that it is not realism that is really in demand. The

artist must give us not man as he is, but as he ought to be; not life

as we know it, but life as we would know it and live it, too; not the

human face scarred and seamed by vices inherited from a thousand

tainted years, but fresh, and sweet, and beautiful as it came from the

hands of God, new washed in the dews of His infinite affection. Even

nature must be idealised, and the painter struggles to produce the

perfect landscape, the sculptor to represent the perfect form. The

artist who mixes no imagination with his colours never holds for long

the public honour. The heart of man asks for the ideal; the actual is

not enough.

And to the preacher, also, these unsatisfied spirits bring the same

request. If it is not upon their lips, you may read it in the deep

longing of their unquiet eyes. The age is not a happy age, and its

lack of happiness does not arise, alone, from its sicknesses, its

bereavements, its shattered hopes, the cruelties of "offence's gilded

hand." Some one has said that men would be happy if it were not for

their pleasures, and the saying contains a profound truth. In this

unhappiness they turn to see if, peradventure, the preacher can show

them higher and clearer heights of joy. Sometimes, thank God! the

vision splendid is spread before them. It is a vision no poet or

painter, save such as have been to the springs of the Eternal, can

depict, and if the glory of it find its way into the seeker's soul life

for him is never the same again. But sometimes, alas! he is

disappointed. The voice in the pulpit is little more than a

sanctimonious echo of the voices of the street. Then goes the

sorrowing seeker hence, and lo, the tiny glimmer of hope with which he

came has all but been put out!

For it is a criticism one all too often hears, that the modern

preacher, instead of asking too much, asks too little, and that, when

he does ask for much, his asking is more for great faith than for

great living from both the individual and the age. It has been

remarked that almost the whole of the difference between the Christian

preacher and the heathen moralist is expressed in the statement that

the preacher adds to his teaching a flavour of Jewish history and

sweetens with the promise of a future life. Otherwise the heathen

moralist points as far up the mountain side as he. There is such a

possibility as that of preaching along too low a level. It is an ill

thing when the preacher becomes content with the straw and forgets the


For the preacher like the rest of men may become enslaved to things and

powers material. "Where there is no vision the people perish," and of

vision, in the larger sense, the preacher may share the general

poverty. After all, even he belongs to the age into which he was born,

and it needs qualities that are none too common to resist the

influences of the times and of environment. Beside all this, are there

not personal experiences in the lives of all of us which make it hard

to keep our eyes upon the stars? We think of the local preacher

spending his week in the market or behind the counter, in office or

mine or factory or in the field wrestling with Nature for the bread

that perisheth. We think of the minister often worried, almost

distracted, by "the care of the churches," by the crabbed foolishness

and miserable jealousies of contentious men and women. We must

remember that for many a preacher life is not a May Day festival, but a

question and a struggle. Surely the wonder is not that sometimes the

man in the pulpit speaks in a minor key, but that, under all the

conditions of his life, we hear from him so much of the higher music as

we do. The memory comes to us as we write of a man who preached the

Gospel for years with the cruel disease of cancer gnawing at his

vitals. We can recall others who came to proclaim the golden year from

domestic circles blighted by the debauchery and vice of children but

too well beloved. Did these men sometimes speak falteringly, and with

hesitation, the message in which they asked and promised glorious

things? Did they, from the very darkness of the clouds lowering above

them, see only the lower slopes of the Mountains of the Lord? Who

could wonder? The preacher is but a man!

Yes, the preacher is but a man, and as a man finds out something

else:--That, after all, it is not out of his experiences of life, nor

from the influences of his time, nor from both together that the

greatest hindrance to altitude of tone in his preaching arises. As a

man is in heart and life so in some degree he preaches. The call of

the Gospel is to perfection, and the perfect man is not yet, though

many there are, even in these days, whose lives are a constant and

noble struggle to reach this far-off mark. Is it strange that

sometimes a preacher's own failure to gain the wished for heights

should cause him to put before others possibilities, not, indeed,

according to his own low level of attainment, but still far below those

he is sent to declare? Living on low levels means inevitably preaching

on low levels, though, as a man's preaching is derived from higher

sources than are found in his own soul, his call to others ought always

to be of higher things than he has, himself, attained.

Here, then, are some of the reasons why it often happens that our

preaching lacks the elevation of high idealism. This idealism is none

the less needed that there are reasons for its absence. Along these

lines lies one of the great struggles of the preacher's life, which is

so triumphantly to resist the influences of his day and the depression

of his personal experiences, so to live his own life that he shall

always be able to act as a joyful guide to the Alps of God.

And what are these higher heights to which he has to point his fellows?

We ask the question first as concerning the individual and then as

concerning the nations. We shall surely find it easy to obtain an

answer to the inquiry in both its forms.

"Easy!" Yes; for the heights designed for us to reach are so clearly

mapped out in the teaching, and especially in the life of Him whose

word the preacher comes forward to declare, and whose example it is his

glorious employment to put before the world. "The prize of the mark of

our high calling" is the utter conquest of sin in the heart, its

eradication not only in branch but in very root. Our goal is the

utterly blameless life. It is more glorious, even, than this. It is

the realisation in their perfection, not of negative virtues alone, but

of virtues positive, active, aggressive. It is in brief the "perfect

man in Christ Jesus."

And of what use is any lower understanding or interpretation of the

purpose of Christ? Indeed, is any lower interpretation possible on the

face of things? We cannot bring ourselves to believe that He would of

set purpose come to secure a partial triumph in the subjects of His

grace. We speak of the difficulties of this our doctrine, but, after

all, greater difficulties would have to be overcome in consenting to

any lower conception of the divine intent. Try to imagine the Master

effecting the saving of a soul with the design that it shall still hold

to some remains of former vices, to some of its old lusts, of its

ancient enmities. Imagine Him, again, agreeing that a man shall

continue to be the prey of evil tempers, of covetousness, of jealousy,

of pride and falseness. Imagine Him entering into a tacit compromise

with the forces of evil, that He will take so much and expect no more

in the worship and ownership and conquest of those for whom He died.

The idea is unthinkable! Jesus Christ came, suffered, bled, died, rose

again, and ascended up on high that once more the eyes of God might

look upon a perfect man.

Now, all this sounds very old-fashioned and very much like the teaching

that we have heard, and perhaps in varying degrees disparaged, from the

lips of those whom we call, sometimes with a slight, but none the less

real, touch of sarcasm, "holiness men." How afraid we are that any one

should ask us to be too good! But the teaching of Scriptural holiness

was once one of the glories of Methodism and clear in the forefront of

her preaching. To-day, perhaps, we hear less concerning that gospel

than once we did. Is it absolutely certain that this fact always works

out to the advantage of the preacher and his people? To-day, also, we

hear less concerning the joy of the Christian life than formerly; less

concerning new triumphs in the conversion of sinners than in days it is

glorious to remember. To-day men complain, as we have already heard,

that the preachers ask too little and do not bid them look so high as

something in their bosoms tells them they ought to look. The preaching

of Scriptural holiness has been discredited, it must be confessed, by

the language into which it has often been thrown; by a disposition to

censoriousness in those who have given it a large place in their

ministry; by a disposition, too, on the part of its preachers to label

as sins many things which were capable of innocent use and enjoyment,

to cut out of life more than they sought to put in, dealing rather in

prohibitions than in inspirations. This doctrine has suffered, again,

more than most, from the inconsistencies of its apostles, as was indeed

inevitable and should have been expected, for the higher a man's

preaching the more clearly his personal imperfections are brought out

by force of contrast, which may be rather to the glory of the preaching

than to its discredit. Say, however, all that can be said in this

direction concerning the doctrine of Christian Perfection; the ideals

of the Gospel for human living are no lower than the highest word the

Perfectionist has ever uttered. These ideals, as put before us and

required of us, are part of the message of the Cross, and the preaching

which does not include and enforce them is incomplete and cannot

become, in the highest sense, effective in the accomplishment of its

divine purpose. When a man's preaching presents ideals higher than

those of the Sermon on the Mount; when he asks for a whiter purity, a

more embracing charity, a nobler style of living than are required by

Jesus Christ, then will have come the time to call a halt. Up to

this point he has behind him not only divine permission but divine

command. By his ears, if he but listen, may be heard, also, the voices

of men who are weary of the valleys and the swamps, and who long to

climb the heights and pierce the clouds that hold their vision from the

skies. We need a new Puritanism, and it must not be a Puritanism

principally of prohibitions, as was the old. It must be a Puritanism

in which all the glories possible to heart and mind and soul are set

forth in charm and beauty.

But the preacher has a message for society, as well as for the

individual, and it is essential to the highest uses of that message

that sublimer notes should be struck than are commonly heard. Jesus

Christ showed an interest in trade, and the sellers of doves and

changers of money heard from Him, one day, words of such a sort as made

their ears to tingle. The preacher must not be afraid to insist on

perfect integrity, perfect honesty, and even perfect brotherhood in

commerce. We have heard somewhere the story of a business man in

Brighton to whom, one day, a customer chanced to speak concerning F. W.

Robertson--perhaps, taking one thing with another the most influential

preacher of the Victorian era. Leading his client into a little room

behind the shop he pointed, with these words, to a portrait upon the

wall: "That is F. W. Robertson, and when, standing behind the counter,

I feel a temptation to do a dishonest thing in trade, I come in here

and look up at that face." What a tribute this to a great ministry

which had its message for the office and the shop and turned commerce

and handicraft into great religious acts. To the world of industry the

messenger of Christ must also bring the new ideals he has learned. Why

should the relationships of master and servant, of capital and labour,

be poisoned by suspicion and marred by covetousness, oppression,

evasion of mutual obligations? The problem to be solved in this

twentieth century is probably this of the relations between the man

with money to spend and the man with work to sell. Ah, if only Jesus

Christ were President of the Board of Trade! Paul was not afraid to

lift up his voice on these extremely practical subjects, and even now,

the sixth chapter of Ephesians is far from out of date: "Servants," he

says, turning to the one class, "be obedient to them that are your

masters .... not with eye-service as men-pleasers, but as the servants

of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart." To the masters also,

he has something to say: "And, ye masters, do the same things unto

them, forbearing threatening, knowing that your Master also is in

heaven; neither is there respect of persons with Him." St. James, that

great practical homilist, could not be silent here. Of all who ever

addressed the capitalist upon his responsibilities surely never one

spoke more strongly than did he. "Go to, now, ye rich men, weep and

howl for your miseries that shall come upon you..... Behold, the hire

of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept

back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are

entered into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth." Here is denunciation

hot and stirring, and the preacher may at times have to denounce, and

when the time comes, must face that duty manfully for the sake of God

and men. On this page, however, we plead not for denunciation but for

idealism,--idealism supported by the truths of the Fatherhood of God

and the Brotherhood of Man, and enforced by all the tender meanings of

the Cross.

For the world of statesmanship, again, the preacher has a teaching of

idealism, which is a very different thing from the preaching of party

politics, which has done more harm a thousand times than any good it

has ever effected. In the nation as Christ would have it there should

be no jealousy between class and class; no oppression of the poor by

the rich; no reproach for either honest poverty or honest wealth. In

such a state there would be a chance for every man. Government would

not mean tyranny; liberty would not mean licence. There would be

purity of administration. There would be consecration of national

resources to the good of all. War, by such a state, would be as

impossible as it is now imminent. In such a state, again, sermons on

the text, "Our country right or wrong," would neither find preachers to

deliver them nor audiences to listen to them. When the New Jerusalem

is built in England, the slum, the gin palace, the workhouse, and the

gaol will be things of the past. "Thus saith the Lord of Hosts; there

shall yet old men and old women dwell in the streets of Jerusalem, and

every man with his staff in his hand for very age. And the streets of

the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in the streets

thereof." Oh, the dream is overpowering in its glory; and it is not a

dream, but a prophecy from Calvary to the sorrowing nations of a sinful


So the errand of the preacher is to declare the Golden Age for which

men have longed with, oh, such longing! amid the sins, and crimes, and

miseries which have made up so much of human history. Of this so

greatly desired time have they dreamed. To bring it in they have

schemed and laboured, bled and died. They have thought to hasten its

dawn by the founding of "Utopias," of "Merrie Englands," by many a

promising, but disappointing device. There is but one man who can tell

them how it must come--how indeed it will come--and he is the man who

has sat at the feet of Jesus Christ; who has seen His arms extended

wide upon the Cross and learned those politics in which eternity is

set. The Golden Age will come when the world shall listen to him, and

give itself to the practice of that old doctrine which is to be the

creation not only of a new Heaven, but, also, of a new Earth.

But the preacher must do more than formulate the divine command; more

than paint glowing pictures of glorious possibilities. It is required

that his idealism shall be shown to be practicable. It is of no use to

tell a drunkard that Christ wants sobriety, or a liar that the Lord

wants truth in the inward parts; it is of no use preaching about the

conquest of temper and of passion; about the crucifixion of

covetousness and envy and jealousy; about patience, gentleness,

kindness, love, unless, along with the demands of this new scheme of

living, the great evangelical watchwords and promises ring strong and

true. The glory of the preacher is that he, alone of those who bring

forth programmes for the lives of men, can tell us how his programme

may be carried out. He has a wonderful authority given unto him in his

dealings with the weak and erring. He can make to every man who gives

himself to Christ, and to the living of the life He asks, the promise

that Christ will give to him nothing less than His own very self. To

any man who tremblingly, tearfully "makes up his mind to try," the

preacher may pledge his Lord in guarantees which will be honoured to

the very uttermost. Power! There is God's for his promising.

Grace! There is Christ's for his disposal. He is the almoner of an

infinite bounty. Then to the preacher there comes from his own vision

a courage which he can communicate to others. No other man sees such

possibilities in human nature as he, for he looks on man in Jesus

Christ, and discerns better things in him than man had hoped for in

himself. He beholds, also, the Spirit of God at work in the world;

hears His footsteps as He goes to and fro in the land. Hence he can

cry to the nations to lift up their head, knowing that "the Lord

Omnipotent reigneth." He is the idealist whose ideals--more

"impossible" than all the dreams of moralists and poets--are the true

practical politics of individual and national life. The time is ripe

for a new preaching of the possibilities of humanity, for a new setting

forth of what life and character, personal and national, may be, and

must be, to please Him and realise the blessing the Creator had it in

His heart to give to man when first He sent him forth in the glory of

His image. For such preaching, we have already said, men are waiting,

listening, longing. They wait, too, for a new declaration of the high

provisions of help available for human endeavour. Men instinctively

anticipate that the ideals of God concerning them will be high, but

they anticipate, also instinctively, that the provision for the

realisation of these ideals will be sufficient. They do not ask that,

for the sake of human weakness, God shall make honesty less than

honest; truth less than true; purity less than pure, but they do ask

that for all these things He shall give grace and guidance. Does our

preaching answer these instinctive expectations, these deep longings,

these inborn hopes in those to whom we are sent? Do we truly put

before them that high life their spirits yearn to live? Do we show

them the path "o'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent," to the

heights that kiss the stars?

If we do, well; but if not:--Then, perhaps, we should not wonder, nor

be astonished, if pews are empty, if church membership declines, if men

say that there is little profit in coming to hear thoughts no higher

than their own. They look for the preacher to ask for better, higher,

harder things than all their other leaders. If he fail in this his

church has but little to draw them within its doors. Practical

idealism is essential to effective and successful preaching.