by John Angell James
My dear friends, I now propose to discuss the question of different degrees of glory. The FELICITY OF HEAVEN, set forth in general terms, will consist of the absence of all evil, both natural and moral, such as sin, and all its bitter fruits—death, disease, labor, care, sorrow, and pain; and the presence of all good suited to man as a rational, moral, social, and immortal creature, such as the perfect holiness of his nature, the presence of God in Christ, the society and converse of blessed spirits, and that service and honor which God may appoint to the holy inhabitants of the place. A question arises, Will these inhabitants be equal in all respects in honor and felicity? I do not think.
All real Christians will be in heaven, and possess in substance its chief felicity—as well they who are converted on a death-bed; as they who yield themselves to God in their youth; as well the believer who lives and dies in unmolested ease, as the martyr—all will be equal as to their deliverance from every kind of evil; all will be with Christ, see God face to face, and be perfectly happy—but still there will be circumstances connected with their heavenly state, that will raise some higher in the scale of splendor and blessedness than others.
While, therefore, there will be many things in which the felicity of the redeemed will be COMMON—it will be common in its object, the blessed God and the adorable Redeemer; in its subject, all the powers of the glorified body and soul; in its duration, which will be eternal; in its security, since all will be sustained by the Divine faithfulness; and in the full satisfaction of soul, which each, according to its capacity, will possess.
Yet there will be some peculiarities and DISTINCTIONS attaching to the more eminent servants of God. We may not be, and indeed are not, able to say with precision and in all things, in what these peculiarities consist—but we know that they will exist. We can conceive of a larger capacity for happiness in some than in others, just as there is a greater capacity for enjoyment in a man than in a child, or in one man than in another; yet all will be perfectly happy, according to their powers of receptivity. Vessels may be of various measures, yet all full. Heaven may consist of a graduated scale of rank, station, and service; yes, doubtless will; and one glorified spirit may be fitted for a higher post, a more important service, than another. Hence we can conceive, how perfection in all, can accord with variety, and even different degrees.
I will now considerthe principle on which this difference will proceed, and by which it will be regulated. It will not be a capricious arrangement, a mere arbitrary appointment—nothing that God does, either in nature, providence, or grace, is of this character. Everything he does, he performs according to the counsel of his will; there is a reason for everything, a principle according to which everything is done. Now this applies to the case before us. In allotting to some a higher degree than others in glory, God proceeds on some principle, and what is it? Not worldly rank; some subjects and paupers will probably be higher in heaven than their monarchs. Not literary or scientific renown; some uneducated rustics may be elevated above scholars and philosophers. Not even success in converting souls to God, if it be unattended with a proportionate degree of pure motive and consistent piety; some obscure but eminently holy ministers, will have a brighter crown, than others whose popularity God may in a way of sovereignty employ for extensive usefulness.
Character, conduct, motives—as known to the omniscient God, will be the rule. We cannot find a better, a more intelligible representation of the subject, than the one usually employed, "Degrees of glory in heaven, will be proportioned to degrees of grace on earth."
We now see an obvious difference among God's people. There are some who are called in the morning of their existence, and who spend a long life in the service of God—while others called by grace at the last hour of life. There are some whose circumstances of ease and comfort call for little sacrifice or self-denial—while others follow Christ to beatings, imprisonment, and death. There are some, who though really regenerated, make little progress in sanctification, and evince so many imperfections, and so much worldly-mindedness, as to render their profession doubtful and suspicious—while others, who have overcome the world by faith in a most conspicuous manner, and by their eminently holy and consistent conduct, bring much glory to God. There are some who are grudging, indolent, or money-loving—while others are liberal, self-denying, and laborious. Now I contend that according to these differences on earth—there will be corresponding differences in heaven.
The PROOF of differing degrees of glory, will be found in the following arguments.
1. It is set forth in the followingscriptures. Even the Old Testament asserts the fact. "Those who are wise shall shine as the brightness of the skies, and those who turn many to righteousness as the stars forever and ever," Dan. 12:3. Our Lord, in his sermon on the Mount, encourages his persecuted followers to endure, by this consideration, "Great is your reward in heaven," Matt. 5:12. See also Matt. 10:41-42, "He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet, shall receive a prophet's reward; and he who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man, shall receive a righteous man's reward. And whoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you, he shall never lose his reward." The parable of the pounds, Luke 19:12, teaches the same fact—the good trader with ten pounds, gained rule over ten cities; and the diligent possessor of five pounds, gained five cities. In speaking of the righteous at the last day, the apostle says, as "one star differs from another star in glory, so also is the resurrection of the dead," 1 Cor. 15:41. The applicability of this passage, I know, has been disputed; and it has been considered as intended only to set forth the contrast between the earthly body, and the resurrection one; but this can I think hardly be sustained; there may be differences of magnitude between the stars—but no contrasts. Nor can the apostle mean to limit the difference to the degrees of bodily glory—but to set forth the varied distinctions of splendor of every kind, with which the righteous will appear at the last day.
To the same effect, are all those passages which speak of the rewards of the final judgment, when "every man shall receive the things done in the body, according to that he has done, whether it be good or bad," 2 Cor. 5:10; Rev. 22:12. How decisive is the language of the apostle, Gal. 6:7-9, "Be not deceived; God is not mocked—for whatever a man sows, that also shall he reap. For he who sows to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit, shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting. And let us not be weary in well doing; for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not." "This I say, He which sows sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he which sows bountifully shall reap also bountifully," 2 Cor. 9:6. How clear and how impressive are such statements, that our life is a seed-time for eternity; that all our conduct is the seed sown, and that the harvest will be according to the seed we sow—in kind, quality, and quantity.
I now subjoin other considerations to prove the fact of different degrees of glory.
2. There will be certainly different degrees of misery and disgrace in hell,as is evident from Luke 12:47, Rom. 2:6-16. And why not, then, different degrees of felicity and honor in heaven? Observe the manner in which the apostle speaks of the different rewards of the ministers of the gospel in 1 Cor. 3, "Every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labor. If any man's work shall abide which he has built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss—but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire." If this be true of ministers, it is no less so of all professors.
3.But this appears equally clear, if we consider the nature of those things of which our heavenly felicity will consist. Part of our happiness will arise from the recollection of what we have done for Christ. Memory will supply much of both the torment of hell, and the felicity of heaven—and they who have most to remember will be most happy. Our future happiness or misery will thus, in a great measure, arise out of our conduct here. Every holy action will be the seed of felicity. Did not Paul, when drawing near his end, look back with delight and gratitude, yet with humility, upon his apostolic life, when he exultingly exclaimed, "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith," 2 Tim. 4:7. And if such joy was lawful and proper then, what will be the delight of looking back from heaven upon a life of service upon earth; of retracing all the way in which Divine grace has led, sustained, and sanctified us; of reviewing our temptations, conflicts, and triumphs! And this joy will be in proportion to the cause which produces it.
Another part of our felicity will arise from the approbation of God and Christ. This is evident from his representation of the solemnities of judgment, Matt. 25. How blissful to see HIM smile upon us! To hear HIM say, "You have done it unto ME. Well done, my good and faithful servant. Well done. I saw every action of piety, every struggle with temptation, every tear of penitence, every gift of property, every expression of sympathy with a suffering brother, every labor, and every sacrifice. I know your works, and now I reward them by this public testimony." How rich a reward! And of course it must be in proportion to the conduct which will secure it.
Another source of our celestial bliss will be the proofs and the fruits of our usefulness in the cause of God, and of immortal souls. The misery of the wicked in hell will arise, in no small degree, from seeing around them, in that world of despair, those whom they had led there by their evil principles, active effort, and seductive example. By a similar law, the felicity of the saints in heaven will receive everlasting accessions from hearing the songs, and witnessing the raptures of those whom they were the honored instruments in saving from death and conducting to glory. What must be the heaven of such men as Whitefield and Wesley, and of other less distinguished servants of Christ, in beholding before the throne so many whom it was their unutterable privilege to lead there!
Not dissimilar in kind, though of course less in degree, will be the joy of all who lay out their property, spend their time, or sacrifice their ease, endeavoring to increase the number of the saints, and thus people the realms of glory with redeemed spirits. Surely, surely, there must be an honor and a bliss in reserve for the eminently zealous, devoted, and self-denying—which will not be experienced in the same degree by those who do little for Christ.
Do not all these considerations, then, sustain the fact that there are different degrees of glory in heaven? Can we conceive of heaven without it? Does it not prove itself to every man's judgment? In every community on earth, from a family to a state—there are different services, and different posts, which must be sustained by various people, according to their various degrees and kinds of fitness—and why should it be otherwise in heaven? They, surely, form an inaccurate, low, and unworthy idea of that blessed world, who consider it only as a place where all are in every respect alike—all are equal, and all pursue an unvarying sameness of occupation.
It is of vast importance to connect, at any rate the idea of state, with that of place; and to remember that repentance, faith, and holiness, are not so much a condition of heaven—as a preparation for it. Regeneration is the commencement of glorification. Sanctification is the fitness for glorification.
I come now to answer theOBJECTIONS which some who have not well considered the subject sometimes bring against it.
Is it not opposed to the parable of the laborers hired to go into the vineyard, all of whom received the same wages, whether hired at the third or the eleventh hour? Matt. 20. I answer, this parable had nothing to do with the subject; its design being, not to represent the distribution of rewards and punishments in a future state—but the calling of the Gentiles to become fellow-heirs with the Jews, in the same church state and gospel privileges.
Does it not set aside salvation by grace, and justification by faith without works?Certainly not. The matter may be stated thus. Nothing performed by a creature, however pure, can merit eternal life. God may freely lay himself under an obligation to reward the obedience of a holy creature with everlasting life, and his so doing may be fit and worthy of him. Man having sinned, the promised good is forfeited, and death becomes the only reward of which he is worthy. God, having designs of mercy, notwithstanding, towards rebellious creatures, sent forth his Son to obey and suffer in their place, resolving to bestow eternal life on all who believe in him, as the reward of his undertaking. God not only accepts of all who believe in his Son for his sake—but their services also. There can be no rewardable action done by us at all, until we have believed in Christ, and are justified without works; and even then the different degrees of reward that follow, are all granted for the sake of Christ. It is not the result of any worthiness in us—but of Christ's merits. It is therefore a reward wholly of grace, and not of debt, from first to last. "I am persuaded this view of the subject, while it excludes all boasting, affords the greatest possible encouragement to be constant, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord." (Fuller)
If there are different degrees of glory, will not this be a source of envy and jealousy?It would, if we carried our present imperfections to heaven; but in a world of perfect love to God, and perfect love to our fellows, these passions cannot exist. Heaven will be so full of love, as to leave no room for anything else to live there. Nor can I conceive of a higher, nor indeed, in such a state, of a lower exercise of this God-like feeling, than to rejoice in the Divine award, which elevates to a degree of glory above us, those whom we shall then perceive and acknowledge to be more fit for it.
If all are perfect, it may be said, how can there be different degrees?All are perfect according to their capacity—but all have not the same capacity. Two diamonds may be of the same purity and brilliancy, yet they may be of different sizes and value.
"I have often," says a devout writer, "represented it to my own thoughts under this comparison. Here is a race appointed; here are a thousand different prizes purchased by some prince, to be bestowed on the racers, and the prince himself gives them food and wine according to what proportion he pleases, to strengthen and animate them for the race. Each has a particular stage appointed for him, some of shorter, some of longer distance. When every racer comes to his own goal, he receives a prize in exact proportion to his speed, diligence, and the length of the race; and the grace and justice of the prince shine gloriously in such distribution. Not the foremost of the racers can pretend to merit the prize; for the prizes were all paid for by the prince himself; and it was he who appointed the race; and gave them strength and spirit to run—and yet there is a most equitable proportion observed in the reward, according to the labor of the race. Now this similitude represents the matter so agreeably to the apostle's way of speaking, when he compares the Christian's life to a race, 1 Cor. 9:24, Gal. 5:7, Phil. 3:14-16, 2 Tim. 4:7, Heb. 12:1, that I think it may be almost called a scriptural description of the present subject." This representation, though not perfectly parallel to the case before us, as none can be, serves well enough to illustrate the subject.
A question has sometimes been asked, "Whether it is proper to hold up this subject as a motive to Christian diligence?" Why should it be a question? How can it be doubted? Is it not so held up by our Lord and his apostles? We need not pretend nor attempt to be wiser than they. Had not Moses "respect to the recompense of the reward?" In the full conviction that I act scripturally, I propose it to you, my dear friends, as an inducement to zeal, diligence, and self-denial, in the service of the Lord. I do not abuse the doctrine, as some have done, in enumerating the peculiar virtues to which high rewards are assigned in the heavenly world, among which they reckon the monkish practices of celibacy and austerity. Nor do I enjoin a selfish, mercenary notion of merit; for I know salvation to be all of grace from first to last—nor would I check those sentiments of profound humility which lead you to feel, as well as say, that the lowest seat in heaven is infinitely more than you deserve. But I would remind you, because the Scripture does, that the greater proficiency we make in divine experimental knowledge, and in real holiness, according to the means and helps we enjoy; the greater fidelity and diligence we show in discharging the duties of our particular station as members of society, and of the church; the more laborious we are in the improvement of the talents, whether ten, five, or one, entrusted to our care; the more we abound in fruits of righteousness, and the more zealous we are in those good works for which we have opportunity and capacity; the more self-denying we are for Christ's and conscience' sake; the more steadfast we are in resisting temptations; the more we glorify God by the exercise of faith and patience in the sharpest trials; the more active, liberal, and ready we are to make sacrifices for the cause of God and the salvation of souls; the more we cultivate love to our brethren and charity to all; the more we excel in spirituality and heavenly-mindedness; and the more we clothe and adorn all our other graces with humility and meekness of mind—the greater will be our future reward, the higher we shall rise in glory, the more fitted shall we be to serve God in some exalted station in the heavenly world.
And I wish to impress the sentiment very deeply upon your minds, that this will not only be the result of gracious and equitable appointment—but that it is the tendency of superior piety itself, to prepare us for such distinctions. I believe that there is a far more close and intimate connection between a state of grace and a state of glory, than many imagine. We all need a fitness for, as well as title to, heaven—and although everyone is fit who is truly regenerated, and no others—yet the more we are sanctified, the more we are fit for some of the higher services in our Father's house; where, as well as in the church on earth, there will be use and employment for vessels of gold, as well as of silver. There are many professors whose attainments in piety are so slender; whose graces are so languid; whose religion is blended with so much worldly-mindedness; who are at so little pains to grow in grace, that if they are true Christians at heart, and should gain admission to glory—they seem to be qualified for only some low place in the kingdom of heaven.
How mighty should be the INFLUENCE upon our mind and conduct of such a subject as this!How should it check our sloth, and rouse and quicken us to all diligence and perseverance! What an impression should it give us of the importance of our present situation and our present conduct! We are fearfully made, and still more fearfully placed. Everything we do, is a seed of futurity, and must bear eternal fruit. All our actions, words, and thoughts—are ripening into heaven—or hell. Can we be insensible to the solemnity of our situation? Shall we be anxious only to grow rich for time—and neglect to grow rich for eternity? Shall we be intent only upon amassing wealth upon earth—and forget to "lay up treasure in heaven?" Shall we be eager to enlarge and improve the inheritance which is seen and temporal—and be careless about enlarging that which is incorruptible, undefiled, and which does not fade away?
Men are ambitious enough, and we perhaps are like them, to rise in the world, and to attain to secular pre-eminence—let us copy this propensity; but by faith transfer the solicitude to eternal objects, and strive to be great in the kingdom of heaven. If there be prizes of various degrees of value, why should you not contend for one of the nobler ones? Why should you not covet earnestly the best gifts? While you acknowledge, with the truest lowliness of mind, that you are unworthy to sit down on the threshold of heaven—still press forward to a seat far nearer to the Savior's throne and feet. Seek to glow and shine like the seraphim in glory, and at the same time emulate them in deep prostration of soul, under a sense of your utter unworthiness before God.
How loudly and impressively does this subject speak to you who are young professors, and who are just setting out in the Divine life. Blessed is your privilege, in being called so early into a state of grace, and thus being invited, by the sovereign mercy of God, to add to the weight and the jewels of that crown which, if you are faithful unto death, is forever to sparkle on your brow. Estimate duly your opportunity. Your future life, as regards any earthly object which you can contemplate—is but a shadow; yet as connected with the eternal world—is of unutterable importance. I will not ask, if you will spend your days in folly and sin—you have renounced these things; but I ask, will you spend your life for worldly wealth and comfort—to the neglect of growth in grace? How rich may you grow in grace here—and glory hereafter! What treasures may you lay up in heaven! Let no ordinary degree of holiness satisfy you—no small measures of piety content you. In signal devotedness and usefulness in the church militant, prepare for such service in the church triumphant, as shall display the immensity of Divine grace, and the riches of Divine power. Seek eminent holiness first, for its own sake, and the sake of God who requires it—and then you will find in the end, that eminence in grace conducts to eminence of glory!
I am decidedly of opinion that a conviction of the truth of this subject, and a habitual meditation upon it—would do much to elevate the tone of piety among Christians, and keep up, yes, greatly quicken the spirit of zeal and liberality. It is not only a depressing—but a dangerous notion to hold, that weak faith, being still true faith; and little grace, which is still real grace—that those who have but small measures of either will reach heaven as certainly, and rise as high in heaven, as those who make greater attainments. This may seem to savor of a disposition to exalt the mercy of God—but its tendency is to abuse it; and under the appearance of deep humility, to promote indolence, lukewarmness, and worldly-mindedness.
It is a ruinous and fatal experiment to try, with how little religion we can reach heaven. If it be the language of humility as it oftentimes is, with some that use it, to say, "They shall be content with the lowest seat in glory," it is, at other times, the utterance of indolence and indifference. The question, however, is not what we deserve—but what we are invited to possess. We deserve nothing but hell! But we may have not only heaven—but an abundant entrance into it. God is inviting us to seek "more grace" here, that he may lavish upon us more glory hereafter—and all he gives, will, in one sense, flow back to himself again. Those who receive most from him, will render most to him. Higher degrees of glory, while, as regards ourselves, they will enlarge our capacity for happiness, will, as regards him, prepare us in a more eminent manner to enjoy, serve, and honor him. For his sake then, as well as your own, grow in grace, that you may rise in glory!