Editor’s note: The following is extracted from Sermons, by Rev. William G. Neville (published 1908).
“For what is your life?” — James iv. 14.
The word life spoken of in the text is that part of a man’s existence which he spends upon earth. We commence our existence here; but it is an existence that has no end. It goes on forever, a beginning without an ending, a stream that has a fountain but no culmination, for it flows on from time into God’s ocean of eternity — it flows on forever.
The problem of life has furnished food for the ablest minds in all ages of the world’s history. This momentous question agitated the brains of the heathen philosophers from the very earliest times. But with all the learning which they possessed they were not able to solve this problem. Life was to them a profound mystery. They could not comprehend the subject, for they were not in possession of all the facts in the case. A great many of them entertained very strange notions on the subject. While the most of them believed in the immortality of the soul, yet this glorious doctrine was covered over with so many doubts and clouds that there was not much satisfaction in it. Some looked upon life as not only commencing, but also ending here. They considered death the entrance into a state of annihilation and nonentity, and after the life was ended here it was never heard of again. There were those among this class who considered life a burden, taking a very pessimistic view of every thing, and they longed for death as a welcome visitor, who should remove all the burdens and sorrows of life, from the fact that it would destroy their existence.
There were others who believed in what is called the doctrine of the transmigration of the soul, which taught that the soul upon the death of the body passed into another order of being, either higher or lower; and thus there was a continual interchanging of souls going on from one generation to another. The soul of the individual who had lived uprightly and honestly passed into a higher and nobler order of existence, and the soul of him who had lived a wicked life passed into a lower and more degraded order of existence. Thus, as the soul passed from one order of existence to another in a state of virtue and honesty it could approximate the degree of absolute perfection; and as it passed from one stage of existence to another in sin and wickedness it would descend lower and lower in the order of being till it would get so far down in the depths of degradation that it would be past recovery.
It was not till the gospel came that the true philosophy of life was brought to light. Jesus Christ has brought life and immortality to light in the gospel. Without this knowledge which Christ reveals concerning our existence here and hereafter life in the main would be a great and inexplicable mystery. But this great Leader has scattered all the clouds and darkness which naturally hang around this interesting subject and has shed abroad upon it the brightness and the glory which emanate alone from His divine and sacred person. He has revealed the importance of this great subject, showing us that what ever is noble and praiseworthy and desirable here and hereafter is inseparably connected with it. The true philosophy of life has been developed and brought to light clearly in the gospel. Life is no longer a burden; but its issues are of sufficient importance to demand the attention of the highest order of beings. It is very necessary, therefore, that we weigh impartially and earnestly consider the demands and issues of this superlatively important subject. Then what is your life?
I. It is uncertain. How constantly do we see this truth exemplified around us, and yet how difficult is it for us to profit by it! A man may be in perfect health one day and the next day he may be in the embrace of death. We cannot tell what a day may bring forth. Our existence may be prolonged for years, and, as far as we know, we may be standing upon the very threshold of the unseen world.
Why is our life uncertain as far as we are concerned? It is uncertain, first, because we do not understand our own being. We are fearfully and wonderfully made. Life in its essence is far above our comprehension. All the medical skill and scientific researches of the world have never been able to analyze life and tell us what it is. Even life in the vegetable world is to us a profound mystery. We know something about this life; we know that it will prosper under certain conditions, and under certain other conditions that it will die; but we cannot tell what life is in its simplest form. The chemist may take a grain of wheat after it has been crushed to pieces and rebuild it into a perfect grain again, as far as the judgment of man goes. This reconstructed seed may possess all the essential ingredients which go to make up a grain of wheat. But it hasn’t got the power of reproducing itself under any set of surroundings, however favorable. It has no life in it, and the power to put life there simply transcends the ability of man, for man has never yet discovered what life is. If man does not understand life in its simplest form, how much less does he know it when it exists in a higher order of being. If man knows nothing of the essence of life in a vegetable, how much less does he know it in a man. What a grand and irrefutable argument this is for the Bible doctrine of creation, and how absurd and utterly preposterous does the Darwinian theory of development appear under the light of these unmistakable facts! If man, the highest order of being on earth, both in power and intellect, yea, the only rational creature, if he hasn’t got the ability even to understand life, is it not altogether out of the range even of the possible for a weaker and unintelligent agent to produce this life? If man, with all of his power and intelligence, under whose control are the very elements of nature and before whose feet all creation bows, if he has not the power to originate life in its lowest form, how much less is it possible for a lower order of being to produce life in a higher.
“A little learning is a dangerous thing”; or perhaps it should have been a one-sided learning is a dangerous thing. The education of the intellect without that of the heart is a disastrous weapon put into the hands of vice and iniquity. It is not the little learning that is a dangerous thing; but it is the education of one part of our being to the neglect of the others. Much learning is a dangerous thing as well as a little, if it be in the wrong direction.
My brethren, this modern theory of life and development is the grandest humbug of the age, and its conception is altogether unworthy of a man who bears upon his being the impress of Deity. It is an invention to destroy God. “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God,” and now he has gone about to establish this assertion, What is life? While we cannot answer, this question, we can answer the one which asks, Whence cometh life? God is the source and fountain of all life. He is the very essence and perfection of life, and He alone can produce life. My friends, we can boast of a divine ancestry. God gave us our being ; He breathed within us the breath of life. And is not this life which we possess that image of God which the Bible speaks of, that spark of divinity that dwells within us? No wonder, then, we cannot comprehend this great subject. The great majority of man kind know very little about the human body. They do not know the relation one part sustains to another. There may be residing somewhere in the body a disease unknown to the person which is soon to bring on premature death. There is none of us that has the power to perpetuate the life of the body, or to extinguish it, except by means. Therefore, from this very fact, our life here, as far as we are concerned, is uncertain.
But our life is uncertain, again, because we do not understand the forces and agents that are in operation around us. Sometimes we get glimpses of the great power in nature as exhibited in the thunder storm. If we were to come under the immediate influence of this great power, we would be consumed in a moment. The mighty oak, which has survived the storms of half a century, before the sweep of this power, is torn asunder and scattered to the four winds of the earth. These forces of nature are all around us, and under certain conditions and environments they will be developed and manifest themselves. Thus we see how helpless we are when we view the great forces and agencies of destruction that are to be found all around us; and thus we see how uncertain our life is, as far as we are concerned, since we have no control, or power, over these forces directly. There are a thousand forces in our very presence, if developed and put into operation, that could destroy our lives in a moment; and there are a great many agents around us in the hands of our fellow-men that possess the power to destroy our life here. Every time we ride upon the railroad car, as far as we know, our life is in imminent danger of being brought to an immediate end. We do not examine the condition of the cars to see whether they are safe; nor do we know about the competency of the men who have control of the train. Every time we put ourselves under the treatment of a physician, as far as we know, our lives are subject to death. We put our life into the hands of these men, as it were; and the only thing that keeps us from anxiety and uneasiness in regard to the matter is our confidence in these men. If we could but see the narrow escapes, humanly speaking, we have made from death, it would make us shudder. Our life is often suspended upon a very weak and tender cord which can be broken almost with a breath. How fortunate is it that these things which dwell in us and by which we are surrounded, that subject our life to such great danger, how fortunate it is that these things are not known to us. Our life is very uncertain. We cannot see a moment in the future. We do not know what awaits us.
But there is One to whom there are no uncertainties. It is the Governor of the universe, in whom we live and move and have our being. Our life is in His hand. He knows all about it. While to us it is uncertain, it is not so to Him. There are no contingencies and uncertainties with God. He sits upon the throne of the universe and controls the destiny of all things. Although our life may be very uncertain with us, liable to be cut off any moment, there is not a hair of our head that shall perish unless He permits it. He gave us our life, and He can perpetuate this life. He is the God of nature, and as such He can control the thunder storm. How essential is it then that we be reconciled to God, in whose grasp is all the power in the universe; so that whether our death comes soon or late, it may be the door which shall admit us into a state of existence far more blessed than this. “What is your life?”
II. It is short. “It is even a vapour that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.” Job says: “My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle.” The child thinks it is a long time from one birthday to another. Months used to seem to us as long as years do now. The older we get the faster do we seem to live. Our velocity in time seems to increase in a geometrical proportion. And when we reach our three-score years and ten and look back upon our life, it seems but a very short time. The days have been swifter than a weaver’s shuttle. Old age and childhood shake hands together as friends separated only for a short time; and they are not long in renewing their acquaintance, for it is said that the old person becomes a child again. Life at its very best is an exceedingly short period. And oh! how this thought ought to take hold of us and consume us with its importance. I tell you, my friends, we haven’t got long to stay here, and what we do must be done quickly. This is but the initiatory period of our existence, and the first thing we know it will be ended. So I call upon you to prepare for the change which, is, soon, to come over you. “Prepare to meet thy God”; prepare, not according to your own notion of things, but according, to the only correct standard, the infallible Word of God. Your soul demands your immediate and “undivided attention ; and oh! whatever you do, don’t neglect the interest of this immortal soul for the trifling and the perishing things of this world. The interests of this soul rise above everything else, and ought to receive your attention, first in point of time and first in point of importance.
“A few more years shall roll,
A few more seasons come;
And we shall be with those that rest,
Asleep within the tomb.”
Time is the period in which to prepare for the judgment and eternity. Then don’t pervert the end of your being, and don’t blast the prospects of an unending career of usefulness and happiness by neglecting to care for that soul which God has planted in your bosom. You can much better afford to see your merchandise, your farming interests — all of your worldly possessions — sink into bankruptcy and ruin than to neglect a single interest of the soul. You haven’t got long to consider this matter. You cannot afford to defer it a single moment. This is the way a great many people are lost, by putting off the subject from time to time, and before they are aware of it, it is too late. There are some who act as if they were too busy to attend to this transcendently important subject. Yes, they are too busy to look after the interests of their souls; they are too busy to listen to the voice of their God calling them to duty. What are you going to do when you come to die? Are you going to be too busy to die? You may think so, but I tell you death is not going to consult you to see whether you are too busy or not. When death comes you must go, whether you be busy or idle. There are some who expect to attend to their souls upon their death-beds. If there are any such here today, let me warn you against this delusion. There is very little confidence to be put in death-bed repentances. When your body is racked with pain and disease, and your mind clouded and weakened because in sympathy with the body, and your heart hardened in sin, and your life full of wicked works and rebellion against God — under these adverse circumstances you propose to be reconciled with God. Beware, beware, of this delusive hope! To say the least of it, it is a very weak and uncertain foundation upon which to rest the salvation of your soul. I do not say it is impossible to be saved on the death-bed; but are the probabilities not very strong against such a thing? Let me, then, urge you again to look after the interests of your soul while it is called to-day, for the night soon cometh, when no man can work. “What is your life?”
III. It is valuable. The life here is valuable, because it is connected with eternity. The life here is valuable be cause it determines our condition in eternity. We lay the foundation here; in eternity we build the superstructure. The character of the foundation determines the character of the superstructure. To know the real worth and value of our life here we must raise the veil which hides the other world from this. When we look into the future world and behold the possibilities that are in reach of a human being, this life spoken of in the text rises up be fore our vision as the grandest and the noblest thing that comes within the range of our observation.
The life of every individual is valuable in itself. There is within the history of every human being a world of happiness or a world of sorrow. When we take this view of the subject we see how wonderful God has made us and with what capacities He has endowed us. Who can tell the worth and the happiness and the possibilities that are wrapped up in a single life? Perhaps you can think of a man that is so poor that he has to beg for a living; he is so uncouth that he is rejected by decent society; but within the being of that man there is a gem worth more than the whole world and which is capable of shining forever in the firmament of God’s redeemed. The life of a man here may be very limited and circumscribed, and it may be fraught with events which appear to be of very little importance; but whatever a man is worth to himself hereafter; whatever attainments he shall make in his boundless sweep through the eternal ages; whatever he shall be and whatever he shall accomplish will be determined by his life in this world. There is a jewel in the life of every individual whose intrinsic value is simply beyond computation.
What, then, is your life? Simply viewed in time, disconnected from eternity, it amounts to very little, for the things which are seen and temporal shall soon pass away; but when we consider the fact that the life here is linked on to eternity and destined to continue forever, either in beatific blessedness or inexpressible sorrow, then this life is worth everything to us. We are going through a moulding process in this life; this is the formative period of our existence; and when death comes, this preparation will have been completed; then the moulds will be taken from us, and we shall be introduced into our eternal and irreversible existence. As death finds us, so shall eternity receive us. Who is there now that can look upon life as a burden, or consider its issues of little importance?
But every individual’s life is not only valuable in itself, but also as related to the lives of other individuals. We are not only carving out our own destiny, but we are assisting to carve the destiny of others. There is no one but that has some influence over someone else. Who can tell the influence for good exerted over mankind by a consecrated and godly life? And, on the other hand, who can tell the influence for evil exerted over mankind by a wicked and vicious life? The day of judgment alone will reveal these things. Oh! how these things increase the solemnity of living! My friend, you are your fellow-man’s keeper, and you owe it to him to live right. You owe it to him to be an honest man, truthful, sober. All mankind is but one great net-work, one great scheme; and every time one individual moves he influences and causes to move some other individual or individuals. A man can’t pass through this life isolated and disconnected from every other man. It may be that every man strikes a chord in the life of some other man which shall vibrate forever. You are preparing your children, and your friends, and your acquaintances for the future world. Be sure that you do not exert an influence over them that will contribute to their everlasting punishment.
In conclusion, let me ask you again, “What is your life?” And I would say that, out of Christ, it is all wrong. Oh! what a dark future there is before such a life as this. No hope for the future world; no Saviour to bring a deliverance; no relief from pain and suffering; no peace and happiness to cheer and to comfort. Such a life is a complete failure. The only life that is worth possessing is the life that is hid in God with Christ. What, then, my friend, is your life? Is it wrapped up in Christ? Is His gospel embodied in this life? If so, your life is a complete success, and you have before you the grandest and most glorious career that can be conceived by the human mind. Men talk about success; but there is no real and lasting success out of Christ. All the achievements and victories and possessions which really belong to this world will soon crumble to dust and perish. But that which we receive from Christ shall endure forever, and shall always be to us an increasing source of happiness and enjoyment. This is everlasting life. Oh! my friends, lay hold of this life as it is found in the Lord Jesus Christ. Then you will be prepared for His second coming; and He shall receive you into the everlasting habitations, where you shall enjoy the fruits of this everlasting life to all eternity. “Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh.”