The youngest man in the present volume, born at Trappe, Pa., in 1895, Mr. Kerschner was educated at Ursinus College and Central Theological Seminary, Dayton, Ohio, followed by two years of graduate work at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University in New York. Since his graduation in 1921, he has been pastor of the First Reformed Church of Philadelphia—an old historic shrine of his Church in America—where he has recently built a new church of an institutional type.
In addition to being the Mecca for visitors of the Reformed faith while in Philadelphia, the Old First Church is also one of the “campus Churches” of the University of Pennsylvania; and for such a ministry its pastor is superbly fitted by personality and training—wholesome, forward-looking, finely poised. Large numbers of students attend his ministry to hear such sermons as the one here to be read, clear in thought, apt in illustrations which both illumine and instruct, searching in analysis, and winsome in appeal.
Few young men among us give more promise of constructive Christian leadership, alike in thought and in practical achievement; and the development of has ministry will be followed by many outside of his own communion.
Wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Romans 7:24-25.
There is no mistaking the misery of a man who could utter the words with which our text opens. They are words bordering on despair, and show a man shaken down to his very roots. His suffering is so great that he can no longer keep it to himself. He bares his soul, so that all men may look upon it; and speaks words which every generation may read, “Wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the power of this death?”
When we realize that it is the Apostle Paul who is speaking, we think that we know at once where to look for the cause of his trouble. Being fully aware of our own ability to stand only so much, our sympathy flows naturally for one who has been called upon to endure all kinds of hardship. Poor Paul! What had he not been through? From the first, he had had to relinquish position and social standing. He soon became a wanderer upon the face of the earth, cut off from old friendships, and acquainted with every known peril on land and sea. He was without honor in any country; and his keenness of mind was attributed to madness. And added to all this was a physical infirmity so irritating that he himself refers to it as a “thorn in the flesh.” It is no wonder, we say, that a man who had suffered all this should feel wretched.
But we are wrong! It was not persecution from without which had unsteadied Paul. This he had expected from the outset and was fully prepared to meet. No one could fight a good fight better than he when the odds were not too great. The difficulty was that it was not an ordinary situation, to be met with the usual strategy, for the real seat of his trouble was from within himself. He was struggling with a divided personality. His besetting problem was to guide his frail bark in safety between the contrary winds which blow upon the ocean of his life. Try as he would he could not entirely rid himself of that indwelling sin which threatened constantly to leave him shipwrecked. The experience of planning well but ending badly was an almost daily one. To use his own words: “The good which I would I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do. … Even when I would do good evil is present with me.” So unprofitable seemed all his efforts to gain the mastery over himself that he at last cries out, “Wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me?” His is the well-known cry, “What shall I do to be saved?”
One who is anxious about the moral destiny of the universe cannot but feel refreshed at hearing one man speak out honestly about the nature of his life’s battle. In our day it is not common to hear sin called by its own name. People own up to having a major moral problem, but they don’t call it sin. Just now they like to call it a complex. They have a stealing complex, a lying complex, a sex complex or an inferiority complex. The consequences, they will admit, are the same. There is a war within their members. There is a more or less vicious impulse which they have difficulty in mastering. Their personality is divided. With all their hearts they can say that the things which they would not they do; and many would give a good deal to be delivered from the body of this death. But there is this difference. In too many instances, acceptance of the new term seems also to have resulted in a loss of the old refuge in distress. Still wretched enough, they seem to have lost the incentive to cry, “Who shall deliver me?” Too much credit cannot be given that science which is helping us to analyze the nature and problems of sin; but we also need to guard against the peril of accepting the analysis and neglecting the remedy. Cold analysis alone has never saved any one. Happy indeed is the man who has entered into that relationship which has enabled thousands to face life with a triumphant spirit, and to say, “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Every man who is honest with himself knows that the problem which left Paul in a turmoil is the same one which is ever threatening to get the best of us. We may use old names or new names to describe it, but the character of it is unchanging. It narrows down to this, that there is in each of us a demon that is striving to gain the upper hand. Every man knows himself to be a house divided. In vain we cry, “Peace, peace, and there is no peace.” The most placid saints confess the consciousness of this inward warfare, and the vast majority of them tell of a battle to the death. Nothing is more clear to the morally sensitive man than that he is joined in unholy wedlock to an uncongenial, incompatible, soul-destroying mate. Respectable though we may be, we are all of us leading a double life. An English soldier, during the war, stated the case succinctly in these words:
Our Padre, ’e says I’m a sinner,
And John Bull, ’e says I’m a saint;
And they’re both of ’em bound to be liars,
For I’m neither of ’em, I ain’t.
I’m a man, and a man’s a mixture,
Right down from his very birth;
And part of ’im comes from ’eaven,
And part of ’im comes from earth.
Spurgeon, in his own story of his life, relates that, just before he left Cambridge to go to London, he went one day into the library of Trinity College, and noticed there a fine statue of Lord Byron. In describing the event, he wrote: “The librarian said to me, ‘Stand here, sir.’ I did as I was directed and as I looked at it I said, ‘What a fine intellectual countenance! What a grand genius he was!’ ‘Come here,’ said the librarian, ‘and look at the other side of the statue!’ I said, ‘Oh, What a demon! There stands the man who could defy the Deity!’ He seamed to have such a scowl and such a dreadful leer on his face as Milton would have painted upon Satan when he said, ‘Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.’ I turned away and asked the librarian, ‘Do you think the artist designed this?’ ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘he wished to picture the two characters—the great, the grand, the almost superhuman genius that Byron possessed, and yet the enormous mass of sin that was in his soul.’” And the statue of every man which might be fashioned, if the sculptor chose to be true to all the facts, would reveal a soul, sometimes good and sometimes bad, but always two-sided.
Not a few characters in biblical history reflected in the course of their lives the fact that two natures were striving for the supremacy. Saul in his best moments loved David with a father’s love. “Is this thy voice, my son, David?” “Saul would let him go no more home to his father’s house.” But Saul in his worst moments hated David with equal intensity and sought to slay him. The Peter who said, “Lord to whom else shall we go; thou alone hast the words of eternal life,” and “Though all should deny thee, yet will not I,” was one Peter. The Peter who followed afar off after his arrest, and broke down before the ridicule of bystanders, protesting, “I never knew him,” was another Peter. It is evident that Paul, shipwrecked, stoned, beaten and left for dead, carrying the message of the Cross to far-off isles, is a different man from the Paul who went everywhere persecuting the Church. Even the Master had to gird himself with all the spirit of God in order to overcome the evil which challenged his allegiance. What was the temptation to put himself at the head of the kingdoms of this world but an invitation to yield to his lower nature? What was Gethsemane but a temptation to run away from that which he knew was inevitable if he would be true to his high calling? Does it surprise you to be told that Jesus also had conflicts? It should not! It ought to be highly inspiring to recall that he was tempted in all points even as we are and yet was without sin. It is this that enables us to say, “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
And now, reining in our attention and turning it upon ourselves again, who has not discovered, as he has observed himself narrowly, that he also is a full bundle of contradictions? Who has not felt at some time, when he wanted to make up his mind upon some moral issue, that he was at a general meeting? Carlyle never tired of reiterating that there was something of the hero and something of the coward in every man. And does not this fact need to be reiterated? All of us delight to imagine ourselves heroes, marching at the head of the column, but it is only the grace of God which keeps us all from being cowards, skulking in the rear. The hero within us thinks in terms of courage. The coward within us thinks in terms of safety. The hero within us urges us into the very forefront of moral danger; the coward within us urges us to retire to a more sheltered spot. The hero tells a man that he ought to speak out against some iniquitous practice in business or civic life; the coward tells him to leave it alone. The hero suggests to the rich young man that he sell all that he hath and give it to the poor; the coward convinces him that he shouldn’t do anything of the sort. And so the battle goes on. The two have very little common ground and can barely understand each other’s speech. To the Greeks and Jews the heroism of the Cross is an offense. To us it is the glorious event which enables us to overcome the world and be of good cheer. It is one reason why we are able to say, “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Nowhere is the truth of the thing we have been stressing more clearly shown than in the matter of our fluctuating faith and doubt. What a curious combination of faith and doubt we are at our best! One would almost think as he checked up his experiences in this field that he was dealing with different individuals. Sometimes there is no end to one’s faith. On other occasions a man has nothing for his efforts but doubts. George Eliot, in her account of Savonarola, observes that a man must often speak in virtue of yesterday’s faith, hoping that it will come back tomorrow. Luther confessed that at times he believed, and at times he doubted. There is an interesting letter by the sturdy Protestant, Hugh Latimer, to his fellow martyr, Nicholas Ridley, in which he writes: “Pray for me, I say. For I am sometimes so fearful, that I will creep into a mouse-hole; sometimes God doth visit me again with his comfort. So He cometh and goeth.” Victor Hugo makes one of his characters ask another: “Do you believe in God, chevalier?” And the reply comes, “Yes. No. Sometimes.” Darwin, in tracing the amazing progress of the universe, confesses that “at times there came over him with irresistible force the conviction that he had seen the Father.” “Then again,” as he sadly acknowledges, “he lost the vision.” The lives of great men are constantly reminding us that few of them have been able to traverse the way of faith with a strong and steady tread.
This experience of intermittent faith and doubt is fully acknowledged in the Bible. A common misrepresentation of the Bible is that as one turns its pages there comes tumbling out in quick succession a series of men whose faith was flowering and uninterrupted. For one who really knows his Bible no such fair promise is ever presented. Indeed the most eminent biblical characters were men of turbulent moods and doubts. Even when they wanted to believe, doubt was present with them. Thus Moses, worn out by his unsuccessful pleadings with Pharaoh, said, “Lord, wherefore hast thou dealt ill with this people? Why is it that thou hast sent me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in thy name, he hath dealt ill with this people; neither hast thou delivered thy people at all.” Thus Gideon, perplexed by the multitude of wrongs which had been visited upon his countrymen, arraigns God, “Oh, my God, if Jehovah is with us, why then is all this befallen us? And where are all his wondrous works which our father told us of, saying, Did not Jehovah bring us up from Egypt? But now Jehovah hath cast us off, and delivered us into the hand of Midian.” Thus Job, wearied by his ineffectual entreaties, declared, “If I had called, and he had answered me; yet would I not believe that he had hearkened unto my voice.” Thus John the Baptist, sick and in prison, and discouraged because the people did not follow Jesus in greater numbers, sent a messenger to him with the query, “Art thou he that cometh, or look we for another?” When one calls the roll of the great men of faith, one immediately becomes aware that here he is dealing also with the world’s greatest doubters.
It is always an inspiration to hear a Christian congregation sing together the words of the majestic old hymn:
Unto the hills around do I lift up
My longing eyes;
O whence for me shall my salvation come
From whence arise?
From God the Lord doth come my certain aid,
From God the Lord, Who heav’n and earth hath made.
At first observation one might suppose that all those who sang maintained a solid and unbroken faith. But break the ranks and let each individual, apart from the strength which his fellows give him, probe himself and state the extent of his belief. Some will believe more, some less. Some will have perfect assurance. Most will have to content themselves with the petition: “Lord, I believe, help thou mine unbelief.” Joseph Fort Newton spoke for all his brethren when he said: “Few people suspect how much a man of the pulpit preaches to himself, and what a struggle goes on in the lonely places of his own soul in respect to the faith that makes us faithful. Life has for most of us a precipice, down to the abysses; but on the other side our feet are on the rock, the rock of experience.”
Well, when we face the dilemma at its worst, and seek deliverance, where shall we turn: There is but one place. Paul found it. “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” What did Jesus do? Why, on the cross, in the midst of all his torture, he cried, in doubt, “Why hast thou forsaken me”; but in the same breath said, in faith, “My God!” And this must be the approach of every man who would come to a living, vital faith in God. “He that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek after him.” He who comes believing will find it impossible not to believe. Just as any other truly great thing is incapable of denial when we are in its presence, so no man can draw near to God without having his faith established. No man can look upon Mt. Shasta in the moonlight without knowing that there is such a thing as a snow-capped mountain. No man can view the leap and listen to the thunderous music of Niagara without knowing that there is such a thing as a water-fall. No man can hear a great symphony without knowing that there is such a thing as music. No man can look into the face of his mother without knowing that there is such a thing as the human heart. And no man can, in any great hour of sorrow or joy, repentance or devotion, prosperity or adversity, look into the face of his Father, without knowing that there is One who is touched with the feeling of our infirmities. “I am the light of the world; he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”
The consequences of our divergent personalities are also apparent when we review our attempts to measure up to our ideals. Could anything be more evident than that a deep gap stretches between a man’s aspirations and his inclinations. Even when we would do good evil is present with us. Like Paul we do not boast that we have attained. Praised be if we still have the heart to press on toward the mark! The perils in the way of reaching up to our ideals are so many and so shattering. In the Prisoner Who Sang, we find Andreas, who all through his life had shown himself the possessor of a split personality, at one time both a pawn-broker, and a leader of the poor against those who oppressed them. During the day, he grew rich by preying upon those who were perishing with hunger, cold and lack of shelter; at night he lectured to these same people upon the evils of massed wealth. At last, he led a mob on the place of the pawn-broker, battered down the door, and extinguished the pawn-broker’s existence. When tried for the murder of the pawn-broker, he acknowledged that he was responsible for his disappearance, and, after explaining the circumstances, added: “To tell the exact truth, I believe there is a bit of the pawn-broker in each of us.” How true to life this is! Each of us is dissatisfied with the limits of his moral frontier; yet each finds himself balked, in every attempt at enlargement, by some selfish “pawn-broker” from within who tangles his feet and renders him infirm.
If there is one resolve that I imagine each of us is making as he is seated here in this house of worship this morning, it is that from henceforth he will, by the grace of God, lead a more devoted and useful life. It is well that he says, by the grace of God, for alone he can do nothing. He is yet fettered by his lower self. He will find the way hard and, before he knows it, discover that he has been whipped. Is there anything this morning that seems to you meaner than a lie? You detest everything that is untruthful. And yet you will tell lies—deliberate falsehoods or only half-truths—before next Sunday, and regret it, and wish you hadn’t, and swear that you will never do it again, and then do it. There is not a man here who wants to be known as a cheat. He has a sense of what is honorable and wants to abide in that way. But before many days are passed, he will find himself jostled by anger, fear, rivalry or avarice; the vision fades and winks out; he enters into a vulgar bargain with his neighbor, by which he gains and his neighbor loses—and, if the grace of God is with him, he is ashamed of it all the days of his life. Or, knowing the strain of life, a man decides that he cannot get along without prayer, and he determines from henceforth to practice it daily. He starts well; but by and by it is the time for prayer and he cannot control his thoughts. Perhaps some one knocks at the door, a baby begins to cry, or a man plays a hand-organ under his window. How can he meditate! Everything seems against him. Outside matters conspire to disturb the spirit of the inner, and pretty soon the ideal is gone. With Paul we lament, “Wretched man that I am; who shall deliver me?”
Well, if we are as wretched about it as Paul was, we have it within us also to find the way out. If we are beset with myriads of the imps of darkness, we also know that we are children of God, and that it doth not yet appear what we may become. The great lesson of experience which we cannot ponder too long is that men have attained unto spiritual heights of which they never supposed themselves capable. How did they do it? There is but one way. Paul found it. “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” What did Jesus do? Why, he scaled the heights of character. He never lowered his ideal. He conquered sin. Until the very end, he remained “steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord.”
Many a time we have looked at the ideal of Jesus and said, “It is too high; who can attain unto it?” His teachings seem so far out of our reach: “Whosoever he be of you that renounceth not all that he hath cannot be my disciple;” “Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye also unto them;” “Love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you.” To be meek, peace-loving, forbearing and forgiving he held to be the fulfillment of the law. What principles these are right from the heart of God! How difficult and remote they seem! Our evil consort reminds us that they are impossible, too remote—that they are not for man. They are not, indeed! They are for man plus the God within. That is why Jesus could live up to them; and why we can say, “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Well has George Tyrrell written: “Again and again I have been tempted to give up the struggle, but always the figure of that strange man hanging on the Cross sends me back to my task again.”
And what people say about the teachings of Jesus, they also say about the Ten Commandments of Moses. We are assured that it is impossible to take them literally or to keep them today. The idealist who holds out for them as they are is always being reminded that human nature has its limits. Who, men ask, in such a world, can keep from dishonoring God? Who can keep from envying, from stealing, or from lying? All that man can possibly do, we are told, is to keep the commandments before us as the ideal of heaven, and to strive, as best we can, to measure up to them. In this way do we ever dilute the ideal, and make the commands of God of none effect. But such a disposition of the case is not inevitable. It is not impossible to keep the commandments. Jesus kept them. No evil could be found in him. When reviled he reviled not again. He went about doing good. The commandments not made for man? Of course not! They are made for man plus the God within. Jesus was able to keep them because he never forgot the ancient words with which they were introduced: “I am the Lord, thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” And it is not too much to imagine him saying to us today, “Wherefore, seeing that ye have a God who can do that, thou canst also, by his grace, keep the commandments.”
Brethren, a house divided against itself cannot stand. No man can serve two natures. It is our urgent business, therefore, to mend the fracture in our characters. You have tried and failed! Well, keep on trying! Ordinarily, success holds out its hands only to those who take the long way ’round. The uninitiate cannot at first call forth sweet harmonies from the piano, but he keeps on trying. The young medical graduate is not acclaimed a specialist over night, but he keeps on trying. Men did not at their first attempt build bridges, fly aeroplanes, or tunnel rivers, but they kept on trying. Occasionally there is found a young genius who can write sonatas at an early age, and occasionally there is found a spiritual genius who seems to be goodness itself all at once, but as a general thing only those prevail who do not weary in well-doing. The crown of life is reserved for those who fight a good fight and keep the faith. Difficult as he knew it to be, Browning glorified the struggle in these words:
No, when the fight begins within himself
A man’s worth something: God stoops o’er his head;
Satan looks up between his feet—both tug—
He’s left himself, i’ the middle; the soul
Wakes and grows. Prolong that battle through life.
Thus the heroic man struggles on. He knows that if sin abounds, grace does much more abound. He perceives that all things are possible to him that believeth. When Calvin was a student at Paris, and was just beginning to break with the traditional Roman interpretation of Christianity, he discovered, much to his annoyance, that his fellow students and other inquiring folk were turning to him for guidance. And there is a tradition that this shy and hesitant scholar, apprehensive of the conflict, and scarcely knowing whither his thoughts were taking him, used to conclude all his early addresses on religious themes with these words, “If God be for us, who can be against us?” This is the Christian’s program. “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”