An Homily of Good Works: And First of Fasting
The life which we live in this world, good Christian people, is of the free benefit of God lent us, yet not to use it at our pleasure after our own fleshly will, but to trade over the same in those works which are beseeming them that are become new creatures in Christ. These works the Apostle calleth good works, saying, We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesu to good works, which God hath ordained that we should walk in them. And yet his meaning is not by these words to induce us to have any affiance, or to put any confidence, in our works, as by the merit and deserving of them to purchase to ourselves and others remission of sin, and so consequently everlasting life. For that were mere blasphemy against God’s mercy, and great derogation to the bloodshedding of our Saviour Jesus Christ. For it is of the free grace and mercy of God, by the mediation of the blood of his Son Jesus Christ, without merit or deserving on our part, that our sins are forgiven us, that we are reconciled and brought again into his favour, and are made heirs of his heavenly kingdom. “Grace,” saith St. Augustine “belongeth to God, who doth call us: and then hath he good works, whosoever received grace. Good works then bring not forth grace, but are brought forth by grace. The wheel,” saith he, “turneth round, not to the end that it may be made round; but, because it is first made round, therefore it turneth round. So no man doeth good works, to receive grace by his good works; but, because he hath first received grace, therefore consequently he doeth good works.” And in another place he saith: “Good works go not before in him which shall afterward be justified; but good works do follow after, when a man is first justified.” St. Paul therefore teacheth that we must do good works for divers respects: first, to shew ourselves obedient children unto our heavenly Father, who hath ordained them, that we should walk in them; secondly, for that they are good declarations and testimonies of our justification; thirdly, that others, seeing our good works, may the rather by them be stirred up and excited to glorify our Father which is in heaven. Let us not therefore be slack to do good works, seeing it is the will of God that we should walk in them, assuring ourselves that at the last day every man shall receive of God, for his labour done in true faith, a greater reward than his works have deserved. And, because somewhat shall now be spoken of one particular good work, whose commendation is both in the Law and in the Gospel, thus much is said in the beginning generally of all good works; first, to remove out of the way of the simple and unlearned this dangerous stumblingblock, that any man should go about to purchase or buy heaven with his works; secondly, to take away (so nigh as may be) from envious minds and slanderous tongues all just occasion of slanderous speaking, as though good works were rejected.
This good work which shall now be entreated of is fasting, which is found in the Scriptures to be of two sorts; the one outward, pertaining to the body; the other inward, in the heart and mind. This outward fast is an abstinence from meat, drink, and all natural food, yea, from all delicious pleasures and delectations worldly. When this outward fast pertaineth to one particular man or to a few, and not to the whole number of the people, for causes which hereafter shall be declared, then it is called a private fast. But, when the whole multitude of men, women, and children in a township or city, yea, through a whole country, do fast, it is called a public fast. Such was that fast which the whole multitude of the children of Israel were commanded to keep the tenth day of the seventh month, because Almighty God appointed that day to be a cleansing day, a day of an atonement, a time of reconciliation, a day wherein the people were cleansed from their sins. The order and manner how it was done is written in the sixteenth and twenty-third chapters of Leviticus. That day the people did lament, mourn, weep, and bewail their former sins. And, whosoever upon that day did not humble his soul, bewailing his sins, as is said, abstaining from all bodily food until the evening, that soul, saith Almighty God, should be destroyed from among his people. We do not read that Moses ordained by order of law any days of public fast throughout the whole year, more than that one day. The Jews, notwithstanding, had more times of common fasting, which the prophet Zachary reciteth to be the fast of the fourth, the fast of the fifth, the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth month. But, for that it appeareth not in the Levitical law when they were instituted, it is to be judged that those other times of fasting, more than the fast of the seventh month, were ordained among the Jews by the appointment of their governors, rather of devotion, than by any open commandment given from God.
Upon the ordinance of this general fast good men took occasion to appoint to themselves private fasts, at such times as they did either earnestly lament and bewail their sinful lives, or did addict themselves to more fervent prayer, that it might please God to turn his wrath from them, when either they were admonished and brought to the consideration thereof by the preaching of the Prophets, or otherwise when they saw present danger to hang over their heads. This sorrowfulness of heart, joined with fasting, they uttered sometime by their outward behaviour and gesture of body, putting on sackcloth, sprinkling themselves with ashes and dust, and sitting or lying upon the earth. For, when good men feel in themselves the heavy burden of sin, see damnation to be the reward of it, and behold with the eye of their mind the horror of hell, they tremble, they quake, and are inwardly touched with sorrowfulness of heart for their offences, and cannot but accuse themselves, and open this their grief unto Almighty God, and call unto him for mercy. This being done seriously, their mind is so occupied, partly with sorrow and heaviness, partly with an earnest desire to be delivered from this danger of hell and damnation, that all lust of meat and drink is laid apart, and loathsomeness of all worldly things and pleasures cometh in place; so that nothing then liketh them more, than to weep, to lament, to mourn, and both with words and behavour of body to shew themselves weary of this life. Thus did David fast when he made intercession to Almighty God for the child’s life, begotten in adultery of Bethsabe, Ury’s wife. King Achab fasted after this sort when it repented him of murdering of Naboth, and bewailed his own sinful doings. Such was the Ninivites fast brought to repentance by Jonas’ preaching. When forty thousand of the Israelites were slain in battle against the Benjamites, the Scripture saith, all the children of Israel and the whole multitude of people went out to Bethel, and sat there weeping before the Lord, and fasted all that day until night. So did Daniel, Hester, Nehemias, and many others in the Old Testament fast.
But, if any man will say, It is true, so they fasted indeed: but we are not now under that yoke of the Law, we are set at liberty by the freedom of the Gospel; therefore those rites and customs of the old Law bind not us, except it can be shewed by the Scriptures of the New Testament, or by examples out of the same, that fasting now under the Gospel is a restraint of meat, drink, and all bodily food and pleasures from the body, as before: first, that we ought to fast is a truth more manifest than that it should here need to be proved; the Scriptures which teach the same are evident. The doubt therefore that is, is whether, when we fast, we ought to withhold from our bodies all meat and drink during the time of our fast, or no. That we ought so to do may be well gathered upon a question moved by the Pharisees to Christ, and by his answer again to the same. Why, say they, do John’s disciples fast often, and pray, and we likewise, but thy disciples eat and drink, and fast not at all? In this smooth question they couch up subtilly this argument or reason. Whoso fasteth not, that man is not of God. For fasting and prayer are works both commended and commanded of God in his Scriptures; and all good men from Moses till this time, as well the Prophets as others, have exercised themselves in these works. John also and his disciples at this day do fast oft, and pray much ; and so do we the Pharisees in like manner. But thy disciples fast not at all: which if thou wilt deny, we can easily prove it. For whosoever eateth and drinketh fasteth not: thy disciples eat and drink: therefore they fast not. Of this we conclude, say they, necessarily, that neither art thou, nor yet thy disciples, of God. Christ maketh answer, saying, an ye make that the children of the wedding shall fast while the bridegroom is with them? The days shall come when the bridegroom shall be taken from them: in those days shall they fast. Our Saviour Christ, like a good Master, defendeth the innocency of his disciples against the malice of the arrogant Pharisees, and proveth that his disciples are not guilty of transgressing any jot of God’s law, although as then they fasted not; and in his answer reproveth the Pharisees of superstition and ignorance. Superstition, because they put a religion in their doings, and ascribed holiness to the outward work wrought, not regarding to what end fasting is ordained. Of ignorance, for that they could not discern between time and time: they knew not that there is a time of rejoicing and mirth, and a time again of lamentation and mourning; which both he teacheth in his answer, as shall be touched more largely hereafter, when we shall shew what time is most fit to fast in. But here, beloved, let us note, that our Saviour Christ, in making his answer to their question, denied not, but confessed, that his disciples fasted not, and therefore agreeth to the Pharisees in this, as unto a manifest truth, that whoso eateth and drinketh fasteth not. Fasting then, even by Christ’s assent, is a withholding of meat, drink, and all natural food from the body for the determined time of fasting.
And that it was used in the primitive Church appeareth most evidently by the Chalcedon Council, one of the four first general Councils. The fathers assembled there, to the number of six hundred and thirty, considering with themselves how acceptable a thing fasting is to God, when it is used according to his word; again, having before their eyes also the great abuses of the same crept into the Church at those days, through the negligence of them which should have taught the people the right use thereof, and by vain gloses devised of men; to reform the said abuses, and to restore this so good and godly a work to the true use thereof, decreed in that Council, that every person, as well in his private as public fast, should continue all the day without meat and drink till after the Evening Prayer, and whosoever did eat or drink before the Evening Prayer was ended should be accounted and reputed not to consider the purity of his fast This canon teacheth so evidently how fasting was used in the primitive Church, as by words it cannot be more plainly expressed. Fasting then, by the decree of those six hundred and thirty fathers, grounding their determination in this matter upon the sacred Scriptures, and long continued usage or practice, both of the Prophets and other godly persons before the coming of Christ, and also of the Apostles and other devout men in the New Testament, is a withholding of meat, drink, and all natural food from the body for the determined time of fasting.
Thus much is spoken hitherto to make plain unto you what fasting is. Now hereafter shall be shewed the true and right use of fasting.
Good works are not all of one sort. For some are of themselves, and of their own proper nature, always good; as, to love God above all things, to love my neighbour as myself, to honour father and mother, to honour the higher powers, to give to every man that which is his due, and such like. Other works there be, which, considered in themselves without further respect, are of their own nature mere indifferent, that is, neither good nor evil, but take their denomination of the use or end whereunto they serve. Which works, having a good end, are called good works, and are so indeed; but yet that cometh not of themselves, but of the good end whereunto they are referred. On the other side, if the end that they serve unto be evil, it cannot then otherwise be but that they must needs be evil also. Of this sort of works is fasting, which of itself is a thing merely indifferent, but is made better or worse by the end that it serveth unto. For, when it respecteth a good end, it is a good work; but, the end being evil, the work itself is also evil. To fast then with this persuasion of mind, that our fasting and other good works can make us good, perfect, and just men, and finally bring us to heaven, this is a devilish persuasion, and that fast afar off from pleasing God, that it refuseth his mercy, and is altogether derogatory to the merits of Christ’s death and his precious bloodshedding. This doth the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican teach. Two men, saith Christ, went up together to the temple to pray, the one a Pharisee, the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus within himself: I thank thee O God, that I am not as the other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, and as this publican is: I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. The publican stood afar off, and would not lift up his eyes to heaven; but smote his breast, and said, God, be merciful to me a sinner. In the person of this Pharisee our Saviour Christ setteth out to the eye and to the judgment of the world a perfect, just, and righteous man, such one as is not spotted with those vices that men commonly are infected with, extortion, bribery, polling and pilling their neighbours, robbers and spoilers of commonweals, crafty and subtile in chopping and changing, using false weights and detestable perjury in their buying and selling, fornicators, adulterers, and vicious livers. This Pharisee was no such man, neither faulty in any such like notorious crime; but, where other transgressed by leaving things undone which yet the law required, this man did more than was requisite by law, for he is fasted ‘twice’ in the week and gave tithes of all that he had. What could the world then justly blame in this man? yea, what outward thing more could be desired to be in him, to make him a more perfect and a more just man? Truly, nothing by man’s judgment: and yet our Saviour Christ preferreth the poor Publican without fasting before him with his fast. The cause why he doth so is manifest. For the Publican, having no good works at all to trust unto, yielded up himself unto God, confessing his sins, and hoped certainly to be saved by God’s free mercy only. The Pharisee gloried and trusted so much to his works, that he thought himself sure enough without mercy, and that he should come to heaven by his fasting and other deeds. To this end serveth that parable; for it is spoken to them that trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised the other. Now, because the Pharisee directed his works to an evil end, seeking by them justification, which indeed is the proper work of God without our merits, his fasting twice in the week and all his other works, though they were never so many and seemed to the world never so good and holy, yet in very deed before God they are altogether evil and abominable.
The mark also that the hypocrites shoot at with their fast is to appear holy in the eye of the world, and so to win commendation and praise of men. But our Saviour Christ saith of them They have their reward, that is, they have praise and commendation of men, but of God they have none at all. For whatsoever tendeth to an evil end is itself by that evil end made evil also.
Again, so long long as we keep ungodliness in our hearts, and suffer wicked thoughts to tarry there, though we fast as oft as did either St. Paul or John Baptist, and keep it as straitly as did the Ninivites, yet shall it be not only unprofitable to us, but also a thing that greatly displeaseth Almighty God. For he saith that his soul abbhorreth and hateth such fastings, yea, they are a burden unto him, and he is wearing of bearing them. And therefore he inveigheth most sharply against them saying by the mouth of the Prophet Esay, Behold when ye fast your lust remaineth still, for ye do no less violence to your debtors. Lo, ye fast to strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness. Now ye shall not fast thus, that you may make your voice to be heard above. Think ye this fast pleaseth me, that a man should chasten himself for a day? Should that be called a fasting, or a day that pleaseth the Lord?
Now, dearly beloved, seeing that Almighty God alloweth not our fast for the work sake, but chiefly respecteth our heart, how it is affected, and then esteemeth our fast either good or evil by the end that it serveth for, it is our part to rent our hearts, and not our garments, as we are advertised by the Prophet Joel; that is, our sorrow and mourning must be inward in the hearts, and not in outward shew only; yea, it is requisite that first, before all things, we cleanse our hearts from sin, and then to direct our fast to such an end as God will allow to be good. There be three ends, whereunto if our fast be directed, it is then a work profitable to us and accepted of God. The first is, to chastise the flesh, that it be not too wanton, but tamed and brought in subjection to the spirit. This respect had St. Paul in his fast when he said, I chastise my body, and bring it into subjection, lest by any means it cometh to pass that when I have preached to other, I myself be found a castaway. The second, that the spirit may be more fervent and earnest in prayer. To this end fasted the prophets and teachers that were at Antioch, before they sent forth Paul and Barnabas to preach the Gospel. The same two Apostles fasted for the like purpose, when they commended to God by their earnest prayers the congregation that were at Antioch, Pisidia, Iconium, and Lystra; as we read in the Acts of the Apostles. The third, that our fast be a testimony and witness with us before God of our humble submission to his high Majesty, when we confess and acknowledge our sins unto him, and are inwardly touched with sorrowfulness of heart, bewailing the same in the affliction of our bodies. These are the three ends or right uses of fasting. The first belongeth most properly to private fast; the other two are common as well to public fast as to private. And thus much for the use of fasting.
Lord, have mercy upon us, and give us grace, that, while we live in this miserable world, we may through thy help bring forth this and such other fruits of the Spirit, commended and commanded in thy holy word, to the glory of thy Name and to our comforts, that after the race of this wretched life we may live everlastingly with thee in thy heavenly kingdom; not for the merits and worthiness of our works, but for thy mercies’ sake, and the merits of thy dear Son Jesus Christ: to whom with thee and the Holy Ghost be all laud, honour, and glory for ever and ever. Amen.