Presbyterians of the Past

Sermon, William H. Green, Romans 1:15-16

The following untitled sermon was delivered by Professor William Henry Green (1825-1900) of Princeton Theological Seminary at eight in the evening of April 3, 1881 in the West Spruce Street (Tenth) Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. If I were to give his message a title it would be, “The Power of God unto Salvation.” The occasion was the twenty-fifth anniversary of both the church and its pastor, William Pratt Breed (1816-1889). Breed had been released from his church in the Presbytery of Steubenville to move to Philadelphia, but not before West Spruce persevered to obtain a dissolution of his call. Initially, the presbytery would not let Breed go. In 1893, another Philadelphia church, Tenth, sold its property and united with the West Spruce congregation in its facility at 17th and Spruce Streets. It was a case of things coming around full circle because West Spruce had been planted with a core group and financial assistance from Tenth Church. At the time that West Spruce was started, Tenth’s pastor was Henry A. Boardman, but he did not live to see the silver anniversary because he died less than a year earlier. John McArthur, Jr. was not only the architect of the West Spruce facility, which is still Tenth’s property, but he was also the original deacon of the church. The current interior of Tenth Church is the result of remodeling in the last decade of the nineteenth century. If you would like to know more about the West Spruce and Tenth Churches, read the book from which Green’s sermon has been transcribed, West Spruce Street Presbyterian Church, of Philadelphia. 1856-1881 Quarter Century Anniversary of the Organization of the Church and Pastorate of Rev. Wm. P. Breed, D.D., The First and Only Pastor, April 3 and 4, 1881, Philadelphia: Sherman & Co. Printers, 1881.



So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you that are at Rome also. For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ; for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. (Romans 1:15-16)

It required no small amount of courage in Paul to make such an avowal as this. He writes, as it would seem, from Corinth, not daunted by his encounter with the philosophers at Athens, who mocked him and his message, and whose contemptuous greeting was, “What will this babbler say?” Nor by the scorn with which Gallio, the Deputy of Achaia, drove both him and his accusers from the judgment seat, caring for none of those things, and refusing to be a judge of such trifling matters; nor by the tumultuous fury which raged against him at Ephesus in the zeal of the populace for their great goddess Diana. Paul had had abundant experience of the hostility, the ridicule, and the persecution which the doctrine of the cross encountered everywhere. And yet, well knowing what he said, he here declares his unhesitating readiness to preach the gospel alike to the Jew, the Greek, and the Roman, the three several populations which then divided between them the civilized world.

The Greek, who sought after wisdom, looked down with undisguised contempt upon the preachers of this new doctrine, coming as it did from a despised quarter, not based upon the tenets of any of the prevailing or accredited systems, not supported by the authority of great names recognized in the world of letters, nor accepted by such, not defended by eloquence or learning, not resting upon reason and argument, while controverting all accepted systems of belief. Should they turn their back upon Pythagoras and Plato, all the famous teachers of antiquity and of the present age, all the stores of wisdom gathered from sages of the East and of Egypt, and discard the religion of their fathers at the bidding of a few outlandish Jews? It was too preposterous to be thought of; the case was not even one for serious consideration.

And all the more, as it was discredited by the body of the Jews themselves, among whom this doctrine, at once so unintelligible and so incredible, originated. It not only failed to enlist those Jews who held somewhat loosely to their ancestral faith and were disposed to accommodate the teachings of Moses to the prevailing Pagan taste and philosophy; but it was even more indignantly repelled by those who were thoroughly Jewish, who were most tenacious of their national faith and institutions. How could they accept as their long-promised and expected Messiah, the son of David and the King of Israel, a crucified Galilean, ignominiously executed as a felon; abandoning thus all their national hopes and expectations; consenting to the abolition of their splendid and venerable ritual, given by God to Moses; yielding up the prerogative, in which they gloried, of being the peculiar people of God, which had sustained them through long ages of oppression and dispersion, and which had the sanction of miracle and prophecy; allowing the kingdom of God to be taken from them—the children of Abraham, the friend of God, and then given to Gentiles, whom they despised as dogs? And all for the sake of a Nazarene of no repute, whom the chief priests, rulers, and Pharisees combined to condemn, and whose ignoble sect was everywhere spoken against!

And what was thus scorned by the Greek and rejected by the Jew met the stern resistance of the haughty Roman. What could be more ridiculous in his eyes than the pretensions of obscure adventurers from a remote and petty province, who, destitute of power, prestige, or numbers, without arms and without resources, aimed at the subjugation of the world; professed to be founding an empire mightier than that of the Caesars and destined to outlast the eternal city? Or if this frenzied sect grew into proportions to provoke attention, must they not be dealt with as disturbers of the public peace? Shall they be permitted to foment dissension; to overturn the established order; to slight or denounce the religion of the state and the recognized divinities; to come into open collision with the authorities, persuading men to worship God contrary to the law, and teaching customs which are not lawful for Romans to receive neither to observe?

Paul was thus braving universal contempt and scorn as well as positive maltreatment, the ridicule of the Greek, the hostility of the Jew, and the coercive power of the Roman State, when he stood for the defense or the proclamation of the gospel of Christ; and beneath all these varied forms of opposition, and lending vigor to them all, lay the native and inappeasable hostility of every human heart to doctrines so pure, so uncompromising, and so humbling. Yet, in the face of it all, he has the courage to say, I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ; for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth.

We admire the heroic manliness of the apostle in thus uttering his convictions without being deterred or intimidated by the mighty odds against him. But what is of much greater consequence than any personal tribute, we have in these words the testimony of a competent and impartial witness, uttered under circumstances which afford a sure guarantee of its truth. The statement of the text that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation finds an unimpeachable confirmation in the fact that Paul affirms it so to be. Paul was, or claimed to be, in possession of unquestionable supernatural evidence of the divine power of the gospel, in the miraculous facts attending his conversion, in the miraculous powers which had been granted to himself, and which he had freely exercised from that time onward, and in the miraculous endowments likewise possessed by others, who were associated with him in the preaching of the gospel. These facts were open, palpable, and subject to the test of the senses in every possible manner. He could be under no delusion or mistake. He must have known beyond the possibility of a doubt whether the gospel was or was not attended with divine and supernatural power, as he declared it to be.

He further claimed to have evidence beyond this of outward sense; to have inward personal experience of the divine power of the gospel unto salvation in the spiritual change which it had wrought upon himself, in the renewal and transformation of his nature and his whole inner life. And that this was no empty profession is apparent from his entire history. His whole course, subsequent to that bright revelation at Damascus, was the complete reversal of what it had been before. The proud, self-righteous, self-seeking Pharisee became the humble, penitent, self-denying follower of the Nazarene; and the manifold and unremitting labors of his life were given with a zeal that never flagged to build up the faith which once he destroyed.

His perfect sincerity in all this is transparent. His language and life are those of a man thoroughly honest and in earnest. This stands conspicuously out in every word he utters and every action that is recorded of him. No man can read his epistles or trace his career, however superficially, without being impressed by this. Paul was all aglow with the earnestness of his convictions, which laid every energy of his nature under contribution; He set at naught every consideration of selfish interest or ambition, of personal ease or comfort, of power, rank, wealth, or good name. He devotedly encountered opposition, obloquy, the loss of every earthly prospect and possession, and all for what, for no worldly reason that can be named; for a reward in heaven to be given him by the Searcher of hearts, to whom he made his daily appeal. Every purely temporal consideration would have determined him never to link himself with the maligned and persecuted followers of the Lord Jesus. Every worldly motive would have urged him to abandon so desperate a cause as speedily as possible. He had the strongest inducements at every step of his course to expose the delusion and break away from it, if it was one. And no man ever had a fairer opportunity to know the gospel thoroughly and without disguise than he had. That under these circumstances such a man as Paul affirms the gospel to be the power of God unto salvation, is proof which cannot be intelligently gainsaid that it is what he says.

The world has not meanwhile stood still, and the gospel of Christ has not been hidden in a corner. It has drawn to itself alike the gaze of friends and foes. It can no longer be set aside as an ephemeral novelty not worth regarding. If despised or opposed now, it must be for some other reason than the recent obscurity of its origin or the feebleness and inconsiderable number of its adherents. The gospel has a recognized position in the world and a history which is known and read of all men. It is one of the forces in human affairs whose potency is everywhere confessed. No one now questions that the gospel of Christ is a power. The humble teacher of Nazareth has set a force in operation which has revolutionized opinion, shaped the policy of empires, impressed itself upon the laws and institutions of powerful states. It represents an authority to which millions bow with profound reverence. It has introduced new and influential ideas amongst men. It has overthrown huge systems of superstition and falsehood. It has broken the chains of the oppressed and has mitigated or removed moral and social evils. It has stimulated free thought and free inquiry. It has contributed to the increase and diffusion of intelligence. It has scattered its benefits broadcast not only over them that believe, but over all that come within the reach of its influence, so that its very opposers own their indebtedness to it by stocking their armory with weapons which it has supplied them, and make their assaults upon it from a vantage ground upon which it has placed them. If the adversaries of revealed religion were limited to such methods of attack like paganism—whether ancient or modern—suggests, they would indeed have but little that is formidable about them.

Men do homage to power, and they reverence the gospel for the power which they are compelled to acknowledge that it possesses, which they are further constrained to admit is a power for good. They confess its purity and beneficence. They laud the excellence of its moral precepts. They will go to almost any length in estimating the benefits which it has conferred upon the world. But they are no more ready now than they were in the days of Paul to acknowledge that it is the power of God in any special or supernatural sense, much less that it is the power of God unto salvation; that upon its acceptance or rejection hinges for all men the question of salvation or perdition; that it is accordingly absolutely essential and indispensable. Yet this is what it is.

And that it is so further appears from the elements which constitute it. The gospel of Christ is a scheme for effectually reconciling God and man. This naturally suggests its division into (1) its doctrine concerning man; (2) its doctrine concerning God; (3) its doctrine concerning the reconciliation of God and man. Each of these will reveal it to be the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth. The theme before us is the gospel, not in the instruction which it imparts, its capacity to enlighten, guide, and give proper direction to the mind and heart and faculties of man; nor in the vastness and variety of its motives and the unrivalled stimulus which they afford, leading to the putting forth of effort and the vigorous employment of all the powers which man possesses; but in the new and positive accession of strength which it brings and the achieving of results which man, unaided from above, never could have attained. And the first element of this power we may find in the gospel is concerning man. It teaches man what he is and what he may become, and thus lifts him into the possession of powers and faculties to which he was previously a stranger, giving him the use and mastery of forces which may be said to have had a potential existence before, but whose energy could never otherwise have been evoked. The word of the gospel is not simple instruction. It is a word of power and a formative word. It makes man what it declares him to be. It brings him to the conscious possession and active employment of powers and energies which else would have slumbered unknown and unused, and to any practical and valuable purpose non-existent. The tribes which once roamed over this continent never possessed it. They wandered through its mighty forests, trod upon its virgin soil teeming with productive power, passed and repassed over its inexhaustible stores of coal and its rich veins of precious ore, gazed at its waterfalls, skimmed the surface of its navigable waters with their bark canoes, but had no inkling of the vast resources which nature had prodigally lavished everywhere around them, but they never actually developed them. They may have handled lumps of coal, but they could not unlock the power latent there which converted into steam pressure is driving the machinery in ten thousand manufactories and propelling its swift-wheeled trains along every avenue of trade and travel. Gold and silver ore may have served them for ornaments, but it yielded none of the power of money and accumulated wealth, that mighty spring which sets all the complicated machinery of modern life in motion. It is thus that each advance in civilization, all the progress made in science and the arts, has been putting fresh power in men’s hands. It has not merely communicated knowledge to inform the mind; it has not merely set forth additional objects of desire to stimulate and waken effort; it has imparted power to achieve results which no hand or arm of untutored man with his rude implements could ever accomplish. Thus, the power which God has bountifully stored up in the world is placed at man’s disposal and is converted to his use.

What science thus achieves with regard to the natural forces of the world, God’s revelation accomplishes in respect of spiritual power. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth in its disclosures respecting man, bringing out into conscious existence and exercise what was latent and inactive before. This might be insisted on in regard to the whole round of gospel teaching respecting man, his nature, condition, and relations.

Reference shall be made to but one point, the immortality of man, the eternal life which is his inheritance as has been revealed in the gospel. What new dignity and greatness, what unimagined enlargement of soul does it bring to everyone that believeth! Not that it was altogether unknown or unsuspected before that the existence of man was prolonged beyond the present life. But the philosophical disputations of Socrates, Plato, and Cicero, the shadowy future of the Greek and Roman religions, the retribution expected by the Egyptian, and the transmigration and final absorption into the infinite as believed by the Oriental, still leave the eternal life of the gospel unique and unanticipated. It even outdoes all the glimpses and intimations of the Old Testament revelation. This belonged to the prophetic teaching of Christ and the preparation for his gospel, as the morning twilight and the reddened dawn proceed from the sun below the horizon. But this twilight is greatly inferior in distinctness and power to the blaze of day. Suspended animation only then bursts into fulness of life when the sun appears.

It was a wholly new idea that the true life was the life with God; that the future was the thing to be desired and longed for and struggled after; that present afflictions and labors were light and momentary compared with the unending glory, and were even to be welcomed as enhancing it; that an unfading crown was just at hand and was the prize to be sought above all things else. A new value attached to human life when it came to be estimated, not as containing in itself the end to be aimed at, the sum and total of human possibilities, but as the starting point, the hinge of everlasting issues. This lifts man into a totally different sphere, and makes of him quite another being, not the mere child of earth with a prospect of threescore years and ten, but with an illimitable future opening before him and with capacities and activities worthy of such a destiny. That conception of man, which, confounding the outer shell with the inner life, links him with the lower animals and regards him as a mere animal of a somewhat higher type, actually degrades him into that which it represents him to be. It takes from him every object upon which his powers can be worthily employed and every opportunity for their legitimate exercise. Thus, dealt with, he is like a tree of the forest planted in a flowerpot, cramped, and hemmed in, with no room for expansion, his life hopelessly stunted, if not absolutely stifled. He is incessantly forming plans which outreach the limits to which he is doomed; his budding hopes are blasted one by one; he can send down no deep roots to sustain him when the chilling blasts of calamity sweep over him. He must have an open field to attain an expanding vigorous life. The doctrine of immortality gives men something worth living for, something that deserves the noblest exertion of all their faculties. It evokes every dormant power. It raises man immeasurably in the scale of being. The gospel which reveals it is the power of God and it is the power of God unto salvation. For eternal life is not mere continued existence. It is a pure, holy, ideal life, and it is necessarily formative of character from the conditions of attaining it, from the need of conformity to it in order to enjoy it, and from the educating effect of having it before the mind. He that hath this hope in him purifies himself.

Consider again the power that there is in the gospel doctrine concerning God, which stands in absolute contrast with the impotency of paganism on the one hand and of materialism on the other. It is not merely that the gospel instructs and enlightens the mind on this most important of all subjects. But the knowledge of God which it imparts is eternal life. It is vital, transforming, energizing. And it is not merely that there is a stimulus of incalculable power to all that is right and good from this disclosure of the holy nature of God in its innate attractiveness, in the desire which it enkindles for His approbation, in the dread of His displeasure. But there is besides the direct effect produced on the soul by devout, believing communion with God, by an intimate and personal relationship with Him. There is the quickening, lifegiving contact with Him who is infinite and infinitely perfect, and who infuses His own divine strength into them that trust in Him. He who believes the gospel is thereby privileged to walk with God; he is lifted into companionship with the Most High. What a power there is in association with the wise and good and great of the earth? How it elevates and expands the soul, enlarges its conceptions, places new possibilities within its reach, leads to attainments never dreamed of before? And what is it to have God for a friend, guiding our thoughts, instilling His sacred influence, pouring into us His own life! How mightily shall we be wrought upon by every object that surrounds us and every event that befalls us, if we really meet with God at every turn, see Him in all things, are dealing with Him every day and every hour, subject ourselves to His training and loving discipline, and from the ability which He imparts learn to do and learn to bear. What an enfeebling, deadening contrast is offered by that speculative philosophy or that practical unbelief which empties the world of Him who made it, and leaves only the contact with chance or fate, with what is lifeless and meaningless, and leaves the soul as torpid as it found it! The gospel is here again the power of God unto salvation.

See once more the power that is in the gospel doctrine of the reconciliation of God and man. This implies that they were at variance; hopelessly so, so far as man himself is concerned, and that they can be brought into harmonious union in this way alone. This ruin of man and alienation from God, the gospel discloses but does not produce. It exists independently of the gospel wherever man is found, but without the gospel there is no cure for it. It is not removed by denying or refusing to confess its reality. The stubborn fact is not set aside because men shrink from looking it in the face. No form of false religion can heal our disordered nature; no human training or culture; no good resolutions or efforts; no penances or self-inflictions, and no rites of expiation or ablution. The only effectual remedy is the gospel of Christ. In Christ’s atoning work he has provided ample satisfaction to the broken law and the offended justice of God. The infinite merit of this divine substitute secures pardon and peace with God, deliverance from guilt and from the everlasting consequences of sin and gives a solid title to the favor of God and eternal life. And the renewing and sanctifying energy of the Holy Ghost transforms the soul into the very image and likeness of God, confers inward holiness, and makes the man meet for the inheritance of the saints in light.

This gospel doctrine is not mere instruction as to a method by which men can attain salvation. It does not merely enlighten their darkness; it is life from the dead. It actually imparts what it reveals. It is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth.

But may this not be only a splendid illusion after all? It has the power over the mind and heart of grand ideas, of a magnificent conception. It holds out the most enchanting prospects; it is precisely adapted to human wants; it meets every craving of the soul; it solves that pressing, but, as it would seem, insoluble problem. How can the sinner be saved from sin and from wrath? It is a scheme at once most ample and minute, which offers a supply for every individual need, and which surpasses imagination itself in the largeness of its bountiful provision, which proposes to do exceeding abundantly above all that we can ask or think. But is it real? Is it solid fact? Can we commit ourselves to it in the unshaken confidence that it can accomplish all that it proposes? Is it the veritable power of God, or is the only power that it possesses that which it exerts upon the imagination and the soul of man? Every instinct of our moral nature cries out that what is so good and true, so worthy of God, so suited to the necessities of man must surely be true. Still the ultimate and decisive proof that the gospel is the power of God is to be drawn, not from the mere inspection of the gospel itself, but from seeing it in operation. Power produces effects, and the reality and amount of the power is shown by exhibiting these effects. It is all very well to study the construction of an engine, to observe the adjustment of its parts and learn the theory of its working, but the conclusive test is the practical one. What does it actually do? Is the gospel not merely a system of fine ideas, but is it mighty through God to accomplish results? Is it the power of God unto salvation? This is the question which speculative opposers force upon us and which the practical unbeliever needs to feel to rouse him to embrace its blessed provisions.

It will not be sufficient for us here to make our appeal exclusively to the past, to the supernatural evidence which attended the original communication of the gospel, those miraculous works which gave divine attestation to the truth that Jesus was indeed the Son of God, the Savior of the world. Nor will it be sufficient to make our appeal to the future, to the vindication at the bar of God and the endless glory there adjudged, that blessed hope of the gospel, armed with which the believer triumphs over death and can calmly meet the last of foes confident of victory.

The point before us is not that the gospel was the power of God many centuries ago; nor that it will be the power of God in the unseen hereafter. Skeptical misgiving might plead in regard to the former the dim obscurity which overhangs remote ages; in regard to the latter that the future is beyond the reach of human sense. But the declaration of the text remains unchanged. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation. It is so now, as truly as it was when these words were originally penned. And the experience of its power to save in your own case is the only thing that can give you salvation through persuasion of the truth of the gospel, that firm adherence to it in the face of all opposition and that intense earnestness in its defense and propagation, which so characterized the apostle Paul.

This inward personal experience of the salvation of the gospel is the only thing which can make you a partaker of its present and everlasting benefits. Great as the temporal advantages are that possession of the gospel has brought you, you fail to secure what is most essential to yourself, and what is the real end for which it was given unless you gain a practical acquaintance with its saving power. Believing it, you shall find it the power of God unto salvation to yourself.

And if you have in truth embraced the gospel and experienced its healing efficacy, you still have need to apply it afresh. You are still compassed with infirmities; you have your daily sins, and temptations, and tasks, and difficulties, and doubts, and fears. Here is precisely the help that you require. Dip yourself not once but like Naaman seven times in the Jordan. You have not yet learned all that the gospel can accomplish on your behalf, nor experienced its full power to save. There is more efficacy in it and more adaptation to your ever-pressing necessities than you have ever felt or imagined.

And as it is by faith in the gospel and in that blessed Savior who is himself the sum and substance of it that you come into the experience of its divine power to save, so again this experience of its saving power will lend new confirmation to your faith. This practical acquaintance with the power of the gospel upon your own heart is the surest defense against the assaults of skepticism and infidelity. The most unanswerable of all arguments is that of the blind man, whom Jesus had restored to sight, “Why herein is a marvelous thing, that ye know not from whence he is, and yet he hath opened mine eyes!” He is most surely entrenched against all subtleties of opposition who has found Jesus to be in his own case a divine Savior.

Today this church celebrates the completion of a quarter of a century, during which time the gospel has been faithfully preached among you. You have seen what it has accomplished here. You are witnesses of its power to elevate, to purify, and bless. The record of these years adds its testimony to that of all the ages that have passed since the first proclamation of this word of heavenly truth. It has reclaimed transgressors. It has planted the seeds of holiness in the uncongenial soil of human hearts and has warmed them into a vigorous growth. It has refined and ennobled character. It has fed the life of many a humble child of God. It has shed its fragrance over many homes, which it has made happy. It has stimulated to generous deeds of beneficence, to unselfish labors for the good of others, from whom no return is sought or expected. It has given cheerfulness in adversity, resignation under affliction, triumph in the hour of death.

Encouraged by these tokens of the manifest power of the gospel amongst you in the past, you uplift your banner today saying thankfully, “Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.” And you enter upon a new period in the life of this church, which now opens before you, confiding in the gospel in which you have trusted hitherto. This gospel you are to hold up before men in its purity, preciousness, and power, not merely affirming that it is the power of God, but showing it to be so by being yourselves living epistles of the Holy Ghost that may be known and read of all; making that conviction of the saving energy of the gospel, which it has produced in you, appear to others for their conviction and salvation; manifesting it to be in its effect upon you what it truly is, and proving by its practical working in your own case its adaptation to every human need. Thus shall you be preaching the gospel to all around you in the most effective manner, convinced that it is for all men, as it has been for you—life and salvation; and that even they who are now indifferent and care for none of these things, and they who deride and oppose the gospel and in their blind unbelief reason, as they suppose, conclusively against it, are nevertheless in the deepest need of this very gospel which they despise and reject; a need of which they may now be unconscious, but which, nevertheless, exists and is patent to you, and may by God’s grace, and the demonstration of his Spirit accompanying the faithful exhibition of his truth, be shown to them and awakened in them, so that they shall be brought to crave just what you bring and to be sensible of wants which this can satisfy and this alone; and thus they, too, shall be brought to believe and be saved. And in this way you will learn never to distrust the power of the gospel, but to possess the readiness, which the apostle expresses in the text, as much as in you is, to make the gospel known to men of every race and of every grade, and never abandon hope in regard to any living man, however hopeless his case may be to human view, for the gospel is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth.

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