Lee Gatiss preaches Part 1 of “How Dangerous a Thing it is to Fall from God”, from the First Book of Homilies.
The wise man said that pride was the first beginning of our falling away from God. For by it, our hearts are turned from God our maker: “For pride,” he says, “is the fountain of all sin, and the one who has it shall be full of cursing, and at the end it shall overthrow them.” And as by pride and sin we go away from God, so shall God and all goodness with him go from us. The prophet Hosea plainly affirms that those who move away from God by living in vice, and yet would try to pacify him with sacrifices and satisfy him that way — they labour in vain. For, despite all their sacrifices, he will withdraw himself from them. For, says the prophet, they do not apply their minds to return to God; although they go about with whole flocks and herds to seek the Lord, yet they shall not find him, for he has withdrawn from them (Hosea 5:4-6).
How we fall away
Now concerning our turning towards God or away from God, you must understand that it may be done in several different ways. Sometimes it is done directly by idolatry, as Israel and Judah did (Hosea 4:12, 5:5) Sometimes people fall away from God by lack of faith, and mistrusting of God. Isaiah speaks about this in this way: “Woe to those who go down to Egypt to seek for help, trusting in horses and having confidence in the number of chariots and the power of horsemen. They have no confidence in the holy God of Israel, nor do they seek for the Lord.” But what follows? “The Lord shall let his hand fall upon them, and down shall come both the helper, and the one who is helped: they shall be altogether destroyed” (Isaiah 31:1, 3).
Sometimes people move away from God by neglecting his commandments concerning their neighbours, which command them to express hearty love towards everyone, as Zechariah said to the people on God’s behalf: “‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’ But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and covered their ears. They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the Lord Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets.
So the Lord Almighty was very angry. ‘When I called, they did not listen; so when they called, I would not listen,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘I scattered them with a whirlwind among all the nations, where they were strangers. The land they left behind them was so desolate that no one traveled through it. This is how they made the pleasant land desolate’” (Zechariah 7:9-14 NIV).
In short, all those who cannot abide the word of God, but follow the persuasions and stubbornness of their own hearts, go “backwards and not forwards” (as it is said in Jeremiah 7:24). They go and turn away from God. As Origen says, “The one who with mind, with study, with deeds, with thought and care applies and gives themselves to God’s word, and thinks upon his laws day and night, and gives themselves wholly to God, and in his precepts and commandments is exercised: this is the one who is turned to God.” And on the other side he says, “Whoever is occupied with fables and tales, when the word of God is rehearsed, they are turned away from God. Whoever in times of reading God’s word is concerned in their mind with worldly business, with money or cash, they are turned away from God. Whoever is entangled by concern for possessions, filled with the covetousness of riches, and whoever works for the glory and honour of this world, they are turned away from God.”
So in his view, whoever does not have a special concern for what is commanded or taught by God — the one who does not listen to it, embrace it, and print it in their heart, so that they may duly fashion their life after it — they are plainly turned away from God, even if they do other things out of their own mind and devotion, which to them seem better and more to God’s honour.
We are taught and admonished in the holy scripture that this is true by the example of King Saul. He was commanded by God through Samuel that he should kill all the Amalekites and destroy them completely with their goods and cattle. But he, moved partly with pity, and partly (as he thought) with devotion for God, saved Agag the King, and all the best of their cattle, to make sacrifices to God with them. God was highly displeased with all this, and said to the Prophet Samuel, “I regret that I ever made Saul King, for he has forsaken me, and not followed my words.” And so he commanded Samuel to confront him.
When Samuel asked why (contrary to God’s word) Saul had saved the cattle, he excused the matter: partly, by fear, saying he dared not do otherwise because the people wanted it so; and partly, because they were large beasts, he thought God would be content, seeing as it was done with a good intention and devotion to honour God by sacrificing them. But Samuel rebuked all such intentions and devotions because however much they may have seemed to be for God’s honour, they were not in line with his word, by which we may be assured of his pleasure. So he said, “Does God want sacrifices and offerings? Or rather that his word should be obeyed? To obey him is better than offerings, and to listen to him is better than offering the fat of rams: for rebellion against his voice is as evil as the sin of divination: and not to agree to it is like abominable idolatry. And now, because you have cast away the word of the Lord, he has cast away you, and rejected you as king” (1 Samuel 15:1-24).
How God turns away
By all these examples of holy Scripture, we may know that if we forsake God, so shall he always forsake us. And a person can easily see from the terrible threatenings of God what a pitiable state consequently and necessarily follows on from this. And although someone may not grasp all that misery to its greatest extent, it being so great that it passes anyone’s capacity in this life sufficiently to consider it; yet they shall soon perceive so much of it, that if their heart is not completely made of stone and harder than diamond, they shall fear, tremble, and quake, to call this to mind.
First, the displeasure of God towards us is commonly expressed in the scripture by these two things: by showing us a fearful face, or by turning his face and hiding it from us. By “showing his fearful face” is signified his great wrath; but “turning his face” or hiding it means that he clearly forsakes us, and gives us over. These ways of speaking about God are metaphors taken from human behaviour. For people usually have a good, cheerful, and loving face towards those whom they favour, so that from their face or countenance one can usually tell how they think or feel about others.
So when God shows his dreadful countenance towards us, that is to say, he sends dreadful plagues of sword, famine, or pestilence on us, it appears that he is greatly angry with us. But when he withdraws from us his word, the right doctrine of Christ, his gracious assistance and aid (which is ever joined to his word), and leaves us to our own wit, our own will and strength: he declares then that he is beginning to forsake us.
God has shown to all those who truly believe his gospel, his face of mercy in Jesus Christ. This so lightens their hearts that they (if they see it as they ought to) are transformed into his image, are made partakers of the heavenly light and of his Holy Spirit, and are conformed to him in all the goodness necessary for the children of God. And if they afterwards neglect this, if they are ungrateful to him, if they do not order their lives according to his example and doctrine and to display his glory, he will take away from them his kingdom, his holy word, by which he should reign in them, because they do not produce the fruit of it that he looks for (Isaiah 5:1-7. Mark 12:1-11).
Nevertheless, God is so merciful, and so patient, that he does not bring upon us that great wrath suddenly. But when we begin to shrink from his word, not believing it or not expressing it in our lives, first he sends his messengers, the true preachers of his word, to admonish and warn us of our duty.
He says that he, for his part, because of the great love he has for us, delivered his own Son to suffer death, that we by his death might be delivered from death and restored to the life everlasting, evermore to dwell with him and to be partakers and inheritors with him of his everlasting glory and kingdom of heaven.
But he also says that we, for our parts, should walk in a godly life, as is appropriate for his children to do. And if this does not work, but we still remain disobedient to his word and will, not knowing him, nor loving him, not fearing him, not putting our whole trust and confidence in him; and on the other side, behaving ourselves uncharitably to our neighbours, by disdain, envy, malice, or by committing murder, robbery, adultery, gluttony, deceit, lying, swearing, or other similar detestable works and ungodly behaviour — then he warns us by terrible threatenings, swearing in his great anger that whoever does these works shall never enter into his rest, which is the kingdom of heaven (Hebrews 4:1-13. Galatians 5:21. Psalm 95:11).