From “Pure Religion and Undefiled,” Sermons Preached on Different Occasions (1866)
Study this description of pure religion, on the side of its vitalizing spirit. It has a positive and a negative aspect. Its positive aspect consists in works of love, “To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction.”
Observe that the definition is so framed as to embrace all cases of such religion, whether found among rich or poor. Had it run thus: “Pure religion is to feed the hungry, and to clothe the naked;” it would have excluded those whose deep poverty is more or less a check upon their liberality. But there is no one, however poor in this world’s wealth, who may not show the kind feeling, and say the word of sympathy, involved in a friendly visit. It is the manifested intention of love, which is acceptable to God beyond thousands of gold and silver; and, let me add, which is acceptable to man also; for what suffering man… regards, in any contribution to his relief, is far more the spirit in which it is rendered, than the intrinsic value of the gift.
But pure religion has its negative aspect also, and this is, “To keep himself unspotted from the world.” Observe the completeness of the Word of God; how carefully it guards its definitions; and, brief as they are, omits nothing essential in them. There have been and are such characters as benevolent worldlings and benevolent sensualists; men whose sympathy with distress has proceeded from a natural sensibility of character, and is in fact (when analyzed) only indulgence of a fine natural feeling. They are tender-hearted and compassionate by the bent of their dispositions, from impulse and not from principle. Such benevolence may not for a moment be confounded with pure religion.
In it there is an essential element not only of love, but also of self-restraint. While it is easily moved by the sight of suffering, and eagerly springs to its relief, it has none of that moral pliancy which lays it open to the seduction of worldly maxims or of fleshly lusts. It keeps itself unspotted from the world. It detects instinctively, and excludes carefully, the three influences, usually operative with human society, “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life.”
But we should be giving a most inadequate exposition of our text, did we fail to remark that the love and purity in which it asserts vital religion to consist, were the two leading features of our Blessed Lord’s character. What was his coming down from heaven but a visit to the fatherless, to those who had alienated themselves by sin from the home of their spirits; and what was the design of it but to reveal to them a heavenly Father, who yearned over them while they were yet sinners, to reclaim them to the bosom of his love? What was his whole career but a spending and being spent in the cause of the destitute and perishing? Did he not enter the haunts of suffering humanity on the merciful mission of healing the broken-hearted, and relieving that anguish which sin had introduced into the world? Did he not soothe the bereaved widow with accents of tenderest compassion, saying, “Weep not?”
Yet intimately as he united himself with his creatures for the sake of working out his purpose of love, he stood out eminently from every one of them in their pollutions and defilements, — one single perfect flower glistening with the purest dew, and breathing the sweetest odors, amid thousands of others degenerating into rank weeds, distilling poisonous juices, and lading the breeze with noxious vapors. It was his own testimony of himself, ” The prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me.”
Edward Meyrick Goulburn (1818-1897) was an English priest and theologian, a champion of High-Church orthodoxy, who served as dean of Norwich Cathedral and wrote several noted ascetical and doctrinal works. “Pure Religion and Undefiled” was preached at a charity service in support of London’s Samaritan Free Hospital for Women and Children, and was published in a volume of Goulburn’s early sermons.