Editor’s note: The following is extracted from Sermons on Important Subjects, by the Rev. Azel Backus (published 1824).
II CORINTHIANS, X. CHAP. 4 VER.
For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God, to the pulling down of strongholds.
The Apostle Paul, and the other primitive Christians, encountered many perils in their attempts to propagate the religion of Jesus Christ. The work in which they were engaged is called a warfare, and the means which they used for the advancement and defense of the gospel are styled weapons. They did not assault the enemies of the Cross with the arms of an earthly conqueror, nor did they give the least countenance to the attempts which have at any time been made to compel discipleship by the sword. The Apostles disclaimed carnal or coercive means in the accomplishment of their designs, and besought men by the meekness and gentleness of Christ to become obedient to the faith which they preached. The measures they adopted to propagate their religion were inadequate to the effects produced, and the success which attended their exertions cannot be accounted for without granting that their cause was approved by heaven, and was enabled to triumph in the world by the power of divine grace. The means which the Apostles employed were mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds. The spirit of God rendered the appointed means efficacious in converting sinners to Christ, in opposition to the malice, subtlety, and power of earth and hell.
The first propagation of Christianity, taken and viewed in all its circumstances, has been justly considered as an argument of no small weight in support of its divine original. To this subject your attention is now respectfully solicited.
To give the present argument its greatest force, we must confine ourselves to the early periods of the Christian institution, when it existed in its purest form, and when it had no aid from the ruling powers of the world, but had to encounter bloody persecutions from their hands.
The genuineness and authenticity of the New Testament are as well established as any facts in the history of mankind. It appears that Jesus Christ had a number of followers during the short period of His public ministry, and that after His death, His followers became numerous within a few years, not only in Judea, but in lesser Asia, Greece, Rome and other places.
It is not contended that the mere success of any religion will prove its divinity, for this argument can be claimed by the followers of Mahomet and the worshipers of idols. The successful attempts in propagating any religion prove its divine original only when they contradict the maxims of human wisdom, and do not derive their energy from worldly power.
In discussing the subject before us, we are to consider the general state of the world when Christianity was first promulgated, together with the instruments and means which were employed in its propagation.
At the time when the Son of God made His appearance in the flesh, the Jews were in high expectation of a temporal prince in the person of the Messiah, who would deliver them from the Roman yoke and raise their nation to the summit of earthly glory. There was nothing in Jesus of Nazareth which agreed with their worldly views, or flattered their ambition. He did not interfere with the claims of Caesar, nor did He encourage the Jews, with even the smallest degree of hope, that they would realize the objects on which their hearts were placed. The religion of that people generally consisted in a mere repetition of rites and ceremonies. The Jewish Scribes had long been in the habit of explaining away the spirit of the law, and of endeavoring to bring it down to meet the wishes of the thoughtless and the proud. They taught for doctrines the commandments of men, and set a much higher value on human traditions than on the authority of Jehovah. From the popularity of the corrupt teachers of the Jews, at the time when the Messiah appeared, it is easy to determine the religious state of that people. The Scribes and the Pharisees were the men who sat in Moses’ seat, and guided the faith of the nation. Our Lord compared them to “whitened sepulchers, which indeed appear outwardly beautiful, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.” Next to the seat of the Pharisees, that of the Sadducees was the most numerous among the Jews when Jesus was born. The Sadducees denied a future state of rewards and punishments, and the existence of angel or spirit. Real piety had become very rare among that people, who had so long enjoyed peculiar privileges from the hand of God; and vice and immorality had risen to an awful height, at the time when the holy Savior became incarnate and dwelt among men. His pure doctrines were offensive to the several sects among the Jews, and excited the scrutiny and provoked the opposition of them all.
When we advert to the state of the Gentiles in the days of Christ and His Apostles, we find nothing to encourage the hope that the gospel would find with them a welcome reception. Among the lower classes the grossest idolatry reigned. The heathens worshiped their numerous deities with rites which either bore in them marks of stupid folly, or gratified the loose or malignant passions of the human heart.
The learned among the pagans were more numerous at the remarkable era before us than they had been in any former period; and carried their improvements in the arts and sciences to a much greater extent than their predecessors. With whatever contempt the philosophers looked upon the reigning superstition, they did not in general presume to disturb it; but by their own example, gave countenance to the religion, which was employed as a political engine in the places where they lived. Even a Socrates, whose mind soared above all his contemporaries, and probably above all the philosophers of pagan antiquity, in moral researches, sacrificed to Aesculapius after he had drunk the poisonous bowl, to which punishment he was doomed for exposing the errors of polytheism. The heathen philosophers represented the deity in a light wholly unworthy of the supreme intelligent mind. In the age under consideration, they were as gross in their theology, and as skeptical in their belief, as in any former period. Many of them denied any state of existence beyond the present life, and encouraged sensual indulgencies as composing the highest happiness of man. Their language was, “Let us eat and drink for to-morrow we die.” Those who admitted a future state, represented it in a light which is inconsistent with man’s intelligent moral nature, and the rectoral holiness of the Supreme Ruler and Judge. Their scheme of moral virtue reprobated humility and encouraged pride, and permitted man to take away his own life when he judged his afflictions too heavy to be endured.
On a slight survey of the knowledge of the most enlightened of the heathens, it is manifest that the world by wisdom knew not God. The preaching of a crucified Savior was foolishness unto the learned Greeks, as well as a stumbling-block to the Jews.
I proceed to consider the instruments that were first employed in accomplishing the arduous work of converting mankind to the religion of Jesus Christ.
The followers of the Holy Savior, while He abode on the earth, were chiefly composed of persons who were obscure in their birth and rank, and destitute both of riches and learning. The men whom Christ chose as members of His particular family, and to preach the gospel, were all of them native Jews, of low condition, and unacquainted with human science. Soon after the ascension, on the day of Pentecost, they were miraculously endowed with the gift of tongues, which qualified them to preach the gospel in the language of each nation to which they were sent.
The Apostles were hated by their own countrymen, for departing from the common faith, and for embracing the religion of Jesus of Nazareth. To the Gentiles, they were obnoxious on account of their descent, and for inculcating doctrines which aimed at the overthrow of the worship which everywhere prevailed among idolaters. That the Gentiles would hold the Jews in contempt can be determined from the exclusive claim, which the latter asserted, of the knowledge of the only living and true God, and the acceptable manner of approaching Him. Sacred and profane history place the truth of this conclusion beyond all doubt. The Apostles were treated with scorn, by the learned and the unlearned, among the heathen, when they first preached unto them Jesus and the resurrection. Their doctrines seemed to them as idle tales, and were more odious than their lineage and descent, and there was nothing, according to human calculation, which promised success to their undertaking.
Not long after the ascension, Saul of Tarsus, afterwards known by the name of Paul, was converted to Christianity, and was the most successful instrument of its propagation that has ever appeared. He was well acquainted with both Jewish and Grecian learning. But it is to be observed that a large number had become the disciples of Jesus Christ before his conversion; and consequently, no objection can be derived from his superior human accomplishments against the general fact of the first propagation of Christianity by men of little or no education. Saul was a remarkable instance of the power of divine grace. While he was executing his commission, given him, at his particular desire, by the Jewish high priest, empowering him to cut off all who confessed Jesus of Nazareth to be the Messiah, his heart was changed, and he became a preacher of the faith which he once destroyed. This remarkable change in him was not the fruit of study, nor was it derived from any of his literary attainments: it originated in an astonishing display of divine sovereign mercy. He speaks of his embracing the religion he preached in the following terms, in the first chapter of his epistle to the church in Galatia: “But I certify to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me, is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ.” Evangelical truth was as unacceptable from his mouth as from the mouths of the other Apostles, and he used no other means than they had before employed for the advancement of the common cause. He did not go, even to the learned Greeks, with excellency of speech, or of wisdom, declaring unto them the testimony of God. He determined not to know any thing among them, save Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. His speech and his preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power.
It is not denied that St. Paul’s abilities and learning, previous to his conversion, qualified him, above the other Apostles, to combat subtle adversaries, both Jewish and pagan; but his talents had never been devoted to the defense of the gospel, had not divine grace touched his heart. From the case before us, we are taught neither to condemn human science as useless to Christian teachers, nor to consider it as the only qualification necessary to fit them for their work.
Having adverted to the general state of the world when Christianity was first promulgated, and to the instruments which were employed in its propagation, let us, in the next place, consider the means which the Apostles used for the conversion of those to whom they were sent.
When the Apostles preached to the Jews, they appealed to the scriptures of the Old Testament for proof, that He, whom their rulers had lately put to death as an imposture, at Jerusalem, was the promised Messiah. They stood forth as witnesses of His resurrection, and called upon their hearers to believe in Him, who had been declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead. In addressing Gentiles, who were ignorant of the true God, they urged proofs of His being and attributes from the natural world, pressed upon them their obligations to glorify the Lord of heaven and earth, reproved them for their idolatry, and called upon them to seek the favor of Him whose offspring they were, and from whose bounty their daily wants had been supplied. These preachers set before their pagan audiences the necessity of repentance, and the door of hope opened to our fallen race, and urged obedience to the gospel, by arguments drawn from the character and mission of the Son of God, and from the solemnities of the future judgment, when the incarnate Savior will call the dead from their graves, and render eternal retribution to the just and the unjust.
The Apostles, wherever they went, announced their religion as the only one which God approves. They declared that there is none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved, but that of Jesus of Nazareth. In their manner of proceeding, they encountered the prejudices of the whole world.
The idolatrous nations abounded with their local deities, but they did not deny that the gods to whom others paid homage were worthy of the same homage with their own. Hence there was no insuperable difficulty to prevent the communion of the various classes of idolaters with each other. The Romans succeeded with great ease in reconciling all the nations which they conquered, except the Jews, to their way of worship. They gave the names of their deities to those of the countries which submitted to their arms. No cause of dissension could remain between the victors and the vanquished, relative to religion, since both agreed that their theology was essentially the same. The Romans, indeed, would not suffer any change to be made in the established religion of the empire, but they were willing to grant the honors of the Pantheon to the deities that the conquered nations adored, and gave all their subjects full liberty to erect temples for the worship of their favorite gods.
The Christian religion forbids its disciples to give the least countenance to the worship of idolaters. 2, Cor. 14.17: “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers; for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? and what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God: as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them: and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore, come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing: and I will receive you.”
In the attempt to propagate the obnoxious religion of Jesus Christ, his first ministers addressed themselves to the understandings, the consciences, and the hearts of mankind. The Apostles did not, like impostors, conceal their faith, but preached the doctrines of the gospel without disguise. They exhibited the evidences of the truth and divine original of Christianity, and invited to a free examination of its nature, and of the arguments they offered in its defense. They dwelt on the motives which urge a compliance with its duties, derived from the spirit it breathes, the supernatural authority with which it is clothed, the peace it affords to the mind, its benign influence on social life, and the happiness it promises to the obedient beyond the grave. They called upon men to break off from their sins by unfeigned repentance, and to expect forgiveness, only through Jesus Christ, who died that sinners might live. The gospel promises salvation to none but the pure in heart. Those who retain the opposite character, through the present state of existence, are doomed to everlasting destruction. Apostolic preaching forbids the indulgence of unrighteousness, and in particular, that species of it which renders men turbulent in society, or restless under the restraints laid on their passions by human laws.
Those who were immediately commissioned by Jesus Christ to spread His religion among mankind did not solicit the aid of the mighty of the earth, to give either influence or reputation to their cause. They neither sought the riches, nor wanted the honors of the world. They were not without faults, but in fulfilling their commission, they displayed a character which malice may asperse, yet will never destroy. We can never enough admire their contentment with poverty, their meekness, under reproachful and cruel treatment, their patience under trials, and their fortitude in the face of danger. They did not count their lives dear unto themselves, so that they might finish their course with joy. Their zeal was fervent, but it was directed by knowledge. There are no marks in their behavior of a disordered imagination, or an enthusiastic frenzy. They presented no worldly inducements to allure any to embrace their faith. Their converts were initiated in the school of affliction, as soon as they were brought into the family of Christ. They were exposed to the loss of estates, and their reputations, and to meet death in its most dreadful forms. The Apostle Paul declares, concerning himself and all his brethren, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.” Primitive Christians early met with persecution from the malicious influence of the Jews, and not a few were called to seal their faith with their blood. Vast numbers suffered death from the hands of pagans before the close of the first century. Heathen Rome continued to persecute the Christians at intervals, until the beginning of the fourth century. But in opposition to all the ruling powers of the day, they continued to multiply in most parts of the known world, until Christianity became the established religion of the Roman empire, three hundred years from the birth of Christ.
From the brief survey which has been taken of the general state of the world when Christianity was first promulgated, together with the instruments and means which were employed in its propagation, let us inquire whether a parallel instance occurs in the history of mankind. In pursuing this inquiry, we need look no further than the propagation of paganism and Mahometanism. The religion of the Old Testament, in its fundamental principles, is the same with the New Testament. If the Jews, in Christ’s time, had hearkened to the spirit of Moses and the prophets, they would have embraced Jesus of Nazareth as the promised Messiah. Hence He appealed to the Jewish scriptures in support of His mission, as His Apostles did after his death. John 5. 39: “Search the scriptures, for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.” All the religions which have ever been in the world have been summarily named in this discourse, unless the philosophical religion of modern infidels be an exception, but as yet it has assumed no settled form. Deism remains still the religion of individuals, rather than of collective bodies. If the patrons of infidelity will bring forward, in a formal manner, the methods they take to make disciples, it is presumed the friends of divine revelation will not be unwilling formally to compare the manner which Deists employ to propagate their religion, if it may so be called, with the manner adopted by the primitive ministers of the gospel. For the prevalence of paganism it is very easy to account. When we contemplate man as having fallen into a state of moral depravity, according to the opinion which has, in all ages, been generally adopted, we shall find that paganism, in some form or other, is congenial to the feelings of the human mind. St. Paul begins his epistle to the Romans by showing how all men are propense to it. Among the earlier impressions which the human mind receives, dependence on some power superior to itself seems to be one. Whether this proceeds from tradition, handed down from the Bible, or from some other cause, it is not material now to inquire: it is presumed that the general fact will not be denied. In forming deities, it is natural to suppose that men would attribute to them appetites and passions like their own, and that they would institute rituals, or modes of worship, corresponding with the characters of their gods, as we find they have done. They have found tutelar deities on the earth, and in the sky, and have honored them by their prayers and oblations. When pagans have extended their prospects to another world, they have fancied the happy to be in a state where their corporeal appetites are gratified with the same kind of objects they are in the present life. They have not had the least conception of the intellectual, pure enjoyments which Christianity promises to the faithful beyond the grave. For a heaven of this kind, the unholy in no part of the creation have any relish. Nor have they any love for the character or worship of the one living and true God, and therefore cannot be prompted by anything within themselves to wish for the prevalence of the Christian religion. We always find in pagan communities, large enough to assume any regular form, their religion incorporated with their polity and enjoying the patronage of wealth and power. We can therefore easily account for its growth, without looking any further than the ruling passions of the human heart. All these are against the religion of the gospel; and when it was first proclaimed among the nations, all classes and ranks of men, from the highest down to the lowest, treated it with scorn, and sought its overthrow.
Gross, or cruel, as any of the heathen rites are, they have not been offensive to the multitude trained up in the belief of them. The taste for the marvelous, inseparable from human nature, has been gratified, and the attachment to the reigning superstition has been worthy of a better cause. We have no fact better attested than the strong attachment of idolaters to their religion. What temporal inducement could influence any of the citizens of Ephesus to break off from the popular religion, and receive from a poor despised man a religion which neither flattered the pride of the heart, nor encouraged the pompous parade which composed the worship celebrated in Diana’s temple.
To complete the proposed comparison between the manner in which the gospel was propagated, and those means by which other religions have prevailed, let us briefly consider how Mahomet brought several nations to embrace his creed.
Mahomet was born at Mecca, in Arabia, in the latter part of the 6th century. He descended from the most honorable tribe, and family, in that country. He was graceful in his person, engaging in his manners, commanding in his elocution, and was endowed with a rare genius both for discernment and enterprise. He was born poor, but became rich by marriage. He was employed in commerce in early life, and repaired the defects of his education by traveling into Egypt, Palestine and other countries. Wherever he went, he was busily employed in scrutinizing the characters and opinions of men. The weakness of the Roman provinces at the time of his travels, and the internal divisions which convulsed the kingdom of Persia, presented an encouraging prospect to a man who felt himself born to command. As an engine to accomplish the purposes of his ambition, he invented a new religion, calculated to allure and ensnare degenerate Jews, lukewarm temporizing Christians, and his semi-pagan countrymen, the Ishmaelites. To the Jews, the Christians, and his idolatrous kindred, he asserted that his religion was fundamentally the same with theirs. In the Koran, he acknowledges the divine mission both of Moses, and of Jesus Christ, and represents himself as a prophet, raised up to recall the attention of mankind to the faith which they had forsaken, and to carry them to a higher pitch of piety and virtue than former prophets had done. In drawing up his creed, he borrowed some things from the Bible, and framed a paradise for his followers in the eternal world, which in many things corresponds with the Elysian fields of the pagans: and super-added such gross sensual gratifications for his followers as are highly pleasing to the voluptuous passions of men. Small scraps of the Koran were gradually dealt out during a period of more than twenty years, and in its progressive revelations it promised the highest seat in Paradise to those who fought with the sword for the religion of the Prophet.
After spending fifteen years in a lonely cave, in Mount Hara, in digesting his plan, he began the work of proselyting in a private way: first attaching to his creed his family connections, and afterwards some of the most influential inhabitants of Mecca. It is declared by an able historian that three years were silently employed by Mahomet in the conversion of fourteen proselytes, and that for ten years his religion advanced with a slow and painful progress within the walls of his own city. He then appeared as a public preacher, and proclaimed his mission to the world. While he used art and persuasion his success was small. Not long after his flight to Medina, he appeared at the head of an army, and impiously assumed to himself a divine commission to enforce his faith on men by the sword. For war there is an eager aptitude in the vicious and depraved. It was easy to enkindle the native ferocity of the Arabs into a flame, and to lead them forth to battle, under a leader who promised them an ample reward in the spoils of the conquered, and the highest enjoyments of a paradise where animal appetites are feasted, and where unbridled lusts in their fullest extent are gratified. He was successful. He went on from victory, to victory, until he bore down all opposition. By such means, his faith was in a short time spread over Arabia, Syria, Egypt, and Persia. A domination which, to this day, holds in bondage no small part of the human race.
How unlike was Mahomet to the Founder of our holy religion, in life, in design, and in the manner of propagating his faith. Jesus Christ had nothing of earthly parentage to recommend Him to the world. He was reproached with being the carpenter’s son. He was born poor, and remained poor to His death. It does not appear that He received any education above those found in the lower grades of life. As He was teaching in the temple, the Jews marveled, saying, how knoweth this man letters, having never learned? At the age of thirty years He emerged from obscurity, and commenced a public preacher. As soon as He began to preach, He plainly communicated the leading traits of His doctrine before all characters, and inculcated that no one could be His true disciple without being fixed in the purpose of literally relinquishing his all, for the sake of His kingdom, when its interest should require such abandonment. His religion has not a single charm in the eyes of the sensualist, the proud, or the ambitious. Christianity requires purity of heart and morals. The life of its Author was without a spot. Jesus Christ not only appealed to the testimony of the ancient Jewish prophets, but wrought many public incontestable miracles in support of His mission. He did not select His first followers from among the wise, the rich, or the mighty of the earth; but from among the illiterate, the poor, and the despised. The Jews with all readiness would have put themselves under His government, had He opened to them a prospect of deliverance from their subjection to the Roman yoke. But He was so far from taking advantage of their high hopes of an earthly monarch, in the person of the Messiah, to appear for their redemption at that time, that through all His life, He wholly disdained the remotest design of this nature. He retired to a solitary mountain to avoid notice, when He perceived that the multitude who had witnessed one of His miracles were about to come and take him by force, to make him a king. How different this conduct from that of Mahomet, who raised himself to greatness by gratifying the common thirst for empire, and by giving energy to the passions of a lawless race, who have always lived on the spoils of mankind.
Christ forbade calling down fire from heaven upon the Samaritans when they refused Him hospitality, and rebuked the ignorant zeal which some of His disciples expressed on that occasion, saying, “Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of, for the Son of Man is not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.”
When He was apprehended the night before His crucifixion, He gave a reprimand to Peter for cutting off the ear of the high priest’s servant. He miraculously healed the wound, and said to the rash disciple who inflicted it, “put up thy sword into the sheath; for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” The Apostles represented the religion of Jesus Christ in the same light, and disclaimed the use of carnal weapons to spread and support it. In two years they did more than Mahomet with all his auxiliaries and corrupt arts of persuasion did in twelve. When the Arabian impostor fled from Mecca, he had not as many followers as the Lord Jesus had disciples made by the preaching of Peter on the day of Pentecost. The early and extensive spread of Christianity is, indeed, a solitary instance in the history of mankind. When it was first published, everything in the state both of the Jews and the Gentiles forbade its success. It had to encounter violent opposition from the superstitious prejudices, the learning, and the power of the whole world. It bears no affinity to the religions which are the offspring of superstition or philosophy, and refuses the least communion with them. The instruments and the means which were employed in its propagation, according to human conjecture, were the most unlikely to prevail. Though miracles were wrought in the infancy of the Christian institution for its support, yet these had no internal efficacy to convert a single person. Unbelief is not to be overcome by any degree of external light. The reigning passions of the depraved human heart are wholly opposed to the gospel as it reveals a holy religion; and these passions have, in various ways, been exerted for its overthrow, from the beginning to this day. Since Christianity disdains calling to its aid either fraudulent or coercive measures, and since such were not employed while it was professed in its purest form, we cannot account for its progress or continuance in the world without granting that it is the only real religion. Its success compels the conclusion that it did not prevail by human wisdom or might, but by the Spirit of the Lord. If it had not been under the special guardianship of heaven, if it had not been loved by infinite purity, it would not have triumphed, by such simple means, over the bigotry of the Jews, the idolatry of the Gentiles, the scorn of the philosophers, the fury of the multitude, and the power of the great. Christians acknowledge and lament that not a few attempts have been made to enlarge the bounds of the church by measures as repugnant to the divine law as they are to the dictates of humanity. Heresies have risen up according to divine prediction, and misguided zealots, under the garb of Christianity, have made successful efforts to draw away disciples after them. But the means they have used bear no affinity to those which were employed by the Apostles, nor does the success of the former deserve any comparison with that of the latter. No Christian need be ashamed of the gospel of Christ; its fruits and moral tendencies are so far superior to all the inventions of man, that no devout and honest heart can withhold the confession, This is the Lord’s doing! It is marvelous in our eyes!
Leaving it to the minds and consciences of my audience to draw the many inferences which this discussion suggests, my Christian brethren will suffer a word of exhortation. Brethren: let us frequently return thanks to the God of all grace, for the unspeakable blessings and comforts of the soul. It is, indeed, the truth. Let us return daily thanks for the continuance of the Redeemer’s kingdom on earth, and trust in the promise, “that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Let us, in all our exertions to extend the knowledge of the gospel among mankind, place it before them in its purity, and show that we are more anxious to make real Christians than sectarians. Be it our holy ambition to preach, to pray and live better than others. Let us be abundant in prayer to Him, who hath the residue of the spirit, that He would render the means of his appointment, which are, or may be used, effectual for the opening of the eyes of the nations, that sit in darkness and the shadow of death. However impotent means may be, in themselves, they become mighty through God, to the pulling down of strongholds – casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ. To Him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.
 Objectionable and offensive to the pagan mind.