The saying of Tertullian, that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, has passed into a proverb.
. But why should a man’s readiness to die for the Gospel be regarded as any recommendation of it, and not be classed with the self-inflicted tortures and immolations of swinging dervishes and other heathen fanatics? In short, what is the real value of martyrdom as an evidence of the truth of Christianity? The inquiry is both interesting and important. When we recall the contempt of pain shown by a Hindu devotee, the fortitude with which men have braved death, even for a bad cause, and the constancy of Roman Catholics persecuted by Protestants as well as of Protestants persecuted by Roman Catholics, we see that some men will die for any cause to which they are attached, whether bound to it by superstition, intellectual obstinacy, patriotism, or enlightened faith. Now it is evident that if Christian martyrdoms are to be classed with acts of fanaticism, the impression they have made upon the minds of men in favour of the truth of Christianity has no more solid basis than the impression produced by fanaticism of the minds of the superstitious and wondering heathen.
It is necessary then at the outset of this inquiry to point out the peculiar character of the Christian martyrdoms. They are distinguished from the self immolations of blind enthusiasm by two important differences:
(1) They do not spring from any stoical indifference to pain or disregard of the value of life, nor
(2) are they sought after as a meritorious means of obtaining salvation.
The conduct of all the distinguished Christian martyrs exactly correspond with the course pursued by Peter and Paul, when exposed to peril for the sake of the Lord Jesus. Whenever it could be avoided, without sacrifice of principle or dereliction of duty, they yielded to the circumstances of the hour, and found safety in concealment or flight. Peter, when delivered by the angel from prison, left Jerusalem for another place, and Paul made his escape from Damascus by night, when his life was threatened by the deputy of King Aretas.
Both, however, sealed their testimony to the truth in their own blood when the cause of Christ demanded the sacrifice. The same prudence and fortitude have marked the conduct of genuine confessors in all ages of the Church. This absence of fanaticism from their conduct, and their humble trust for salvation to the same grace by which all must be saved, constitute a difference, wide as heaven, between Christian martyrdoms and pagan immolations.
What now, we may ask, is the value of such martyrdoms when considered as evidence for the truth of Christianity?
. 1. They prove the live sincerity of the confessors; and in reference to testimony this is of the greatest importance. The Christian religion is emphatically a historical religion. The great miracle upon which it rests “the resurrection of Christ” is a fact concerning which any sensible and honest man, though destitute of learning, is as competent witness as an equal number of learned doctors. Let it never be forgotten that this was the question at issue between the first disciples and the exponents of their faith,whether Jews or Gentiles, and that this is still the question at issue between Christianity and unbelief.
2. The Christian martyrdoms show the strength of the convictions and the force of the motives by which its confessors were sustained. Not only did the men who were eye-witnesses of the great facts of the history of Jesus Christ lay down their lives for the truth of their testimony,but their converts also. Yet these converts had as deep an interest in ascertaining the truth of the Apostles’ statements as we can have. Truth on a subject so vital to human happiness as religion, was as important to them as to us. Nay, they had a deeper interest, for in their case, to believe the Gospel story was to share all the perils of those who preached it.
The Apostles had nothing to offer their converts but truth, a strict law of life, and a hope of spiritual blessings. Yet these converts cheerfully followed their teachers to death, rather than resign the hopes with which their testimony had inspired them. The world would not so die for its unbelief. When, in a later age, force was used to compel men to profess Christianity, paganism supplied no martyrs. Christians,then, that would die for their faith must have had stronger reasons for that faith than the world for its unbelief, and so their dying testimony is to us a precious link in the chain, of evidence by which the truth of Christianity is confirmed.
3. The Christian martyrdoms corroborate the testimony of the gospel: That power from on High is given to them that believe it. That the fortitude with which the Christian martyrs have braved the most cruel tortures is not to be set down to a fanatical zeal, their prudence and sobriety show. Their disinterestedness and pity for their persecutors prove them to have been as little actuated by obstinacy and pride. In the absence of these motives, what known human power will account for the calm courage and hopefulness of their bearing?
In the persecution of the Church at Smyrna, to which reference has been made, the Christians displayed great tranquility and composure in the midst of the most agonizing torments. “They made it evident to us all,” says the Church, that in the midst of those sufferings the Lord stood by them, and walked in the midst of them; “and staying themselves on the grace of Christ they bid defiance to the torments of the world.” The annals of the Church are full of such instances of triumphant endurance. Its martyrs have made their prisons temples in which they offered thanksgiving and praise,have prayed for their persecutors with their latest breath, or sung psalms out of the midst of the flames in which they were being consumed. These spectacles have been more convincing than a thousand arguments.
4. The Christian martyrdoms have been of the highest value to the cause of the gospel as proofs of disinterestedness and love. Selfishness is bound up in the hearts of unrenewed men. That they should be slow, therefore, to believe in professions of disinterestedness is not to be wondered at. They naturally suspect some design to make a gain of them in men, who, owing them no favour, seem at so much pains to confer it. We know by experience how little gratitude even is to be expected from the generality of men, and why should these be so much better than others? We have found out to our cost the emptiness of professions of disinterestedness,and are not going to be fooled by them, because they wear the mask of religion. So the world has reasoned, so it reasons still.
Now the way to every man’s mind is through his heart…
Convince him that you love him, and you have gained his ear. Show him that you have nothing to gain from him, and half his prejudices are disarmed. “Skin for skin, what will not a man give for his life?” is an appeal which all men understand, and they know that there is no stronger proof of love between friends than that they should lay down their lives for each other. But the Christian martyr, like his Master, is willing to lay down his life for his enemies; he will die rather than take an unholy revenge; rather than weaken his example of disinterestedness,he will forgo the right of self-defense; he will sooner shed his last drop of blood than enfeeble, by a single word of reproach, the power of his testimony to the great example of forgiving love.
The essential spirit of martyrdom is loyalty and love to Christ shewn in consecration of body, soul, and spirit to His service. Even if never called to go to Him in such a chariot of fire as has carried many of His disciples to heaven, we are under constant obligation to pray for and exemplify that spirit of self-sacrifice which, sustained by His grace, would enable us to brave a martyr’s death.
Down through the ages…
…it has been of utmost help to those Christian martyrs in sustaining their fidelity, that the issue before them was so plain and decisive. If they could not abide the trial, they stood convicted before the tribunal of their own conscience, and in the judgment of their brethren and of the world, of having denied the faith.
There was little room for sophistry or evasion. The alternative presented to them was plain –Christ and death, or apostasy with escape from death They could not save their lives and their Christianity.
Therefore, we may safely say…
…that where love and loyalty are strong enough to lead to self-denial at the whispered promptings of the still small voice, there is a fidelity which, in times of outward trial, will not shrink from the torture chamber and the stake. Let us then cherish the spirit of self-sacrifice, that we may be one in heart with all Christ’s confessors, and be found worthy to rest with them who, through great tribulation, have entered into the joy of their Lord.
Taken from, “The Christian Witness and Congregational Magazine” Published, 1867, London.
Edited for thought and sense.