An abridged version of a challenging sermon on Acts 24: 14 (Paul’s defence before Felix)

by Rev J B Wylie, Presbyterian Minister in Belfast in the late 19th century.



In Acts 24, Paul appears before the Roman Governor Felix to answer accusations brought against him by the high priest and elders.  Our text is v14, where Paul says, This I confess unto thee, that after the way which they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers.



The chief officers of the church set themselves to stamp out individual judgment and honest conviction.  The scene is the chief court in Caesarea, a city on the coast of Palestine, built in great magnificence by Herod the Great, and long the centre and head of Judea.  It was the centre also of many interesting events in NT history. Here Philip, one of the seven deacons of the young church, lived for several years.  Here Cornelius the centurion was converted.  Here the angel of the Lord smote Herod Agrippa for his profane audacity.  Here Peter under persecution found a refuge.  From hence Paul sailed for Tarsus.  Here too he landed after his 2nd  missionary journey; and here now he is brought as a prisoner and is detained for two long years.  But these facts of history which gave the city prominence in the past, and all its boasted grandeur only serve to set out for us with greater emphasis the lesson of decay which overtakes all the works of man.  To-day this city is a wild heap of neglected ruins.  So fade and pass and perish all in which the multitudes of men have gloried, and for which they have been ready, with fervid eagerness, to sacrifice so much.



This high priest, like most of his successors, is obstinately set on having his own way.  Paul whom he has condemned must go down; and hence, to make this the more secure, a noted advocate is engaged for the prosecution.  This man knew that with such patrons his one duty was to gain a conviction at any cost, and hence with unscrupulous ingenuity he formulates a threefold charge against the apostle.  He charges him with Sedition, Heresy, and Sacrilege.  He begins with fulsome flattery of the judge, and ends by inviting the assent of the assembled Jews to his audacious charges.  Two of these charges Paul with marked emphasis repudiates.  He neither disturbed the peace nor profaned the Temple.  To the third charge, with a rare courage and the daring of a true man, he, in letter, pleads guilty.  This I confess unto thee, that after the way which they call Heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers.  From this point I shall ask you to follow two leading lines of thought:






Would to God we could say that this is an exceptional case; one never repeated in the history of the church.  We cannot, we dare not, say so.  These men have had many successors, who at various points in the church’s history have, in the name of religion, inflicted the most inhuman cruelties, and have found their chief employment in torturing some of the noblest saints of God.  Nor can these foul deeds, which cloud the history of Christianity, be declared the sole heritage of any one church.  I know of no church which has had power and has not at some time exercised it with cruel intolerance.  What is Heresy?  Judging from history one would say heresy might be defined as the faith of the minority.”  The word heretical has been loosely held to be the opposite of orthodox.  Orthodoxy has been held to mean the commonly received opinions.  But this is an abuse of words.  Orthodoxy means right opinions whether held by the few or the many.  Again, heresy is not confined in its application to opinions, but includes anything that takes from the truth; and truth is not only formulated in opinion, it is also revealed in feeling and embodied in life.  There are heresies of heart and conduct as well as of creed; and those of heart and life are the real heresies.  This the chief priests and elders did not see.  Their bitterness toward a true, earnest and God-fearing man who differed from them was the darkest heresy.  By blindness to this truth, the Church has through the ages fallen low and sinned grievously. Why have such serious inconsistencies had place in the history of the church of God?  Just because those high in office have failed, as these here failed, to see that truth embodied in spirit and life is far more potent than truth set in words, and therefore that defects in spirit are infinitely more serious than phrases.



I dare not speak lightly of heresy in doctrine.  It is of vital importance.  But doctrine is important only as it points to duty and fruits in life.  Of necessity, therefore, it holds a second place.  Heresy of creed may be the result of many subtle influences acting on the mind from childhood, and may exist along with the entire loyalty of heart to Christ and to His truth, and should therefore have our sympathy and compassion.  But the honour of our Master and the interests of His kingdom are far more seriously imperilled by that which is un-Christly in the bearing and behaviour of His followers, than by what may be defective in their doctrines.  A doctrine is a truth set in words.  But it is set in words as means to an end.  It is set there that it may be planted in men’s hearts, and may be written out a living force in their lives.  Which, then, is the more vital - the means or the end?  Why do I so earnestly press this point?  Not because I would hold the letter unimportant, but because I recognise the spirit as supreme, and because the opposite of what I contend for is and has been so common. Men constantly sacrifice the greater to the less, and do despite to the Spirit of Christ while seeking to uphold the letter of His truth.



When contrasting heresies in doctrine with heresies in life, I would be understood as meaning by doctrine, essential elements of the Christian faith.  As to minor matters of Christian opinion, I do not care to estimate or even to say what is orthodox and what heretical.  All churches have much to put away and much to learn.  But I maintain that heresies regarding the essentials of the Christian faith are few, while heresies against the Christian life - gross, glaring and destructive - are found in every circle of society.  In what land is membership in a Christian church accepted as any guarantee of integrity?  Where is the line of demarcation in society - social, commercial, political, or literary - which separates the Christian and non-Christian?  Is it not a fact - sad as it is solemn - that even among the most prominent Christian professors there are found features of conduct which the world may call frailties, but which can only be regarded as grievous heresies of life, elements at the roots of life which outrage the root principles of our religion?



Here is heresy of the deadliest and most destructive type.  Yet how common these and other anti-Christian elements of life are among those who make up our Christian churches.  O that in all our churches we could cause to stand out, as chief in our thought and supreme in our teaching, this vital truth, that true Christianity is Christ-likeness, and therefore that church organization and administration serve their divine end only when men are elevated in heart and life.  A regenerated Christ-like manhood in her ministry and membership can alone make the reproduction of the scene before us an impossibility, and save the church of Christ from the multiplied dangers which have gathered round her through the inconsistencies and defections of her adherents.






This persecuted apostle reveals a grand manliness here.  Though in the presence of the magnates of the church, and the potentates of the state, and occupying the position of a prisoner charged with various crimes, yet does he stand boldly forward and without halt or hesitation declare, This I confess unto thee, that after the way which they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers.”  That this way was denounced as heresy by those in authority in the church neither lessened its divine beauty in Paul’s eyes nor his sense of obligation to follow it.  Why?  Because it had become the voice of God in his soul.  It had been burned into his being and become part of himself.  It was not a mere creed which he had endorsed because others held it, or because it was to his advantage to hold it, or because it fitted to his early impressions and predilections.  It had transformed him.  He held to it, not because of any outward consideration, but because it was the will and life of God to his soul; also because he recognised the universal truth that God deals with men as individuals, that not in companies but as separate units He quickens, regenerates and commissions His servants, and therefore that the servant’s one and only concern is, not the approval of authorities however exalted, or the applause of the crowd though a multitude, but simply and alone the will and command of his Master.  What wonder then that Paul did not fear to stand alone!  In his estimate to turn aside from the Divine commission through the enmity or opposition of men would be the highest treason.  To him “a single man, with God on his side, would be in a majority against the whole world.”



Now this daring the public authorities and the popular voice in obedience to conscience is seldom met with in our time.  It is the custom of our day in all matters sacred and secular to go with the crowd. The vast multitude have never made their own those truths which they profess to hold.  I fear too the churches are sadly at fault.  The first condition of discipleship in the kingdom of Truth is to rise above every companionship and consideration, and realise that you are face to face with God.  Such a one has no preferences or predilections which will hold him back for a second.  Aware of the divine grandeur of Truth, he holds himself ready to follow with gladness wherever its revelation may lead him.  He will willingly stand alone if need be in its defence.  To him the frown or favour of man never weighs for a moment as against the voice of God.  Every instinct of Christianity goes to support Paul here in his solitary stand against the crowd, and equally rebukes the present age for its want of individualism, its lack of personal search for truth, and personal conviction.



It is pleasant to human nature to have the smile of the multitude.  The social and fraternal are so prominent in most natures that to be cut off from the sympathy and friendship of one’s fetlows is among the severest of penalties.  It is only one man in a thousand therefore who cannot be drawn by the applause or driven by the sneers of the crowd.  To-day, as in Paul’s time, to stand alone in defence of conscientious convictions requires Great Courage -  for tyrants, civil and ecclesiastical, ever bear themselves rudely, and yield but rough ministry to those who dare to gainsay them; Fidelity to Conscience - for plausible grounds will certainly be urged, perhaps even by those to whom you are bound by tender ties, why you should keep in touch with the many and have the following of the multitude; and Readiness for Self-Sacrifice  - for society has heavy penalties for those who offend against her cherished sentiments.  Even good and earnest men have not always had sufficient of these three-fold virtues to withstand the multitude.  As soon as a man has shaped his testimony to the weakness, prejudices or vices of the community among which he labours, he is dishonoured.  He may retain his place, but he has lost his power.  To so modify our testimony that without uttering error we may gloss over the truth and avoid all points that would give offence - to have the needle of our compass ever pointing, not towards the eternally true that will help and heal, but towards platitudes that will please and “draw” - is deliberately to renounce Christ’s commission.



Unswerving fidelity to conscience and to Christ marked Paul with a moral grandeur as he stood before Felix, and made him unconcerned whether the multitudes were with him or against him.  It will be a bright and happy day for the church and kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, and one marked by the potency and promise of early and glorious victory for the truth, when the leading professors of Christianity manifest a spirit of fidelity to conscience such as made Paul so dauntless here, and when those who take the service of the Master make it the supreme and ruling purpose of life, as Paul here declares he did, to have “a conscience void of offence towards God and man”.