The Fo’c’stle Bell
by G.J. Stewart
It was a hot, quiet afternoon, and we lay becalmed. We were on a voyage to Australia in a sailing ship, and most folk not actually on duty were enjoying a siesta. I sat under the awning on deck, and with nothing special to attract me, became interested in watching the half-hourly ringing of the bell on the quarter-deck, with its answer from the fo’c’stle bell.
As a rule on board ship the time is made by the captain—that is to say, it is never eight bells till the captain says, “Make it eight bells” (that is, noon)—a rule more especially adhered to on board a man-o’-war. The time is then struck on the main bell and carried to other parts of the ship by subsidiary bells, so that all may hear. When things are moving briskly, this is important for the watches and for discipline, but it was not of much moment at this time, as we were out of the course of ships and making no headway. The ringing of the quarter-deck bell was, in this case, for the time entrusted to a boy.
Some children were amusing themselves on the quarter-deck, and our boy in charge of the bell, interested in what they were doing, let the time slip occasionally; then recollecting himself, would run to strike the four, five, or six bells as the case might be. The look-out man on the fo’c’stle then rang his bell, but in no case did he ring this until the quarter-deck bell gave him the time, which was ten or even fifteen minutes out occasionally.
That fo’c’stle bell is a mimic, I thought; you cannot depend upon it at all; it only imitates what is doing here on the quarter-deck. If this is right, that is right; if this is wrong, that is wrong. It does not strike because it knows the time o’ day, but just imitates that which it thinks does know.
Now, so it is with many people who profess Christianity, and in whom it is no more than a profession. They try to imitate true Christians, and flatter themselves they are all right if they succeed, though this, alas, helps them but little. The devil was ever a mimic; he originates nothing, but follows in the wake of what God is doing, seeking to produce a spurious imitation of God’s reality. These are they who are taken captive by the devil for his will (2 Tim. 2:25-26), and unless God give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth, they will partake of his doom. There are two classes of these imitators; the one is composed of the hypocrites, and the other of the ritualists. Those of the first class head straight for destruction; those of the other are not only going themselves, but are luring others also with themselves to destruction.
The object of the hypocrite is to pass himself off as a Christian for the sake of what he may obtain here by it, and this he does, mimicking the believer, as often in that which is wrong in itself as in that which is right. Christians, alas, often do that which is wrong; but they will never contend that it is right, but own with sorrow their failure. The hypocrite, on the other hand, will argue that a thing is right because he has seen others do it; just as the look-out man might argue that he was right because the quarter-deck bell gave the time. In the latter case it would be a sound plea; not so in the former.
They may flatter themselves that as the Christian is assured of the end, so it may be well also with themselves, but in vain. Religious for what they can get—the loaves and fishes; running greedily after the error of Balaam for reward, loving the wages of unrighteousness; even in what they know naturally as brute beasts, in these they corrupt themselves, and perish in the gainsaying of Kore. The hypocrite’s hope shall perish! But the ritualist depends for salvation upon ordinances, and perishes in his ritual, as it is written of the Egyptians that they assayed to do what Israel did by faith, and perished in the attempt. Only there was enmity in the Egyptians’ hearts, but none necessarily with the ritualist. The passage of the Red Sea is a figure that there is no redemption but through death, and this is what is meant by baptism. To the man of faith this is a reality, but the ritualist has no faith, and depends simply upon the ordinance, which is useless.
Many in their company may be honestly mistaken, but a mistake here is fatal, not only to the one who makes it, but to others also, for the ritualist is like the wrecker of old who lured ships to destruction, and spite of their serious mistake, those who are deceived become wreckers themselves while in that state. May the Lord awaken such! If honest, they may eventually be delivered, but Satan is behind it all, and knows perfectly what he is doing. Such argue in this way: Are not Christians baptized? Do they not take the Lord’s Supper? Is it not right to do these things? If we do them, are we not right as well as they? A thousand such questions may salve the conscience, but an honest conscience can never be satisfied thus. None of these things can meet the demands of divine justice; none of them cleanse from sin!
On the other hand, the Christian gives the time of day to all around. He does not trust in himself, and gives a warning note as to mere good deeds. He knows, as Luther knew, that good deeds do not make good men, but good men good deeds. He tells of the utter depravity of the human race, and that Christ alone by His death and blood-shedding can deliver from judgment and its consequences. He gives no uncertain sound; imitation, ritual, prayers, tears, and almsdeeds have no value in themselves, can never cleanse from sins. He keeps a clear reckoning, and gives the right time by being in constant touch with Christ, whose joy fills his heart and makes his face continually to shine. Should he at any time, through unwatchfulness, strike a wrong bell or give the wrong time, he at once owns it, and seeks to put the matter right.
Consciously right himself, his desire is to help others, in the midst of whom he walks, to get right also. He knows the One who has said, “Come unto me, all ye that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” He takes his observations of the Sun that rules his day at every available opportunity, and reports to his Captain, The Sun is on the meridian, sir! Who replies, Make it twelve o’clock then! And, without being a second out, he warns all of the passing time and the coming eternity.
God turneth man to destruction, but says, “Return, ye children of men.” Solemn it is to think that the mere hypocrite, though he may get for the moment that which seems so desirable, is nevertheless heading straight for the rocks and shoals of this very destruction, hastening indeed his own everlasting woe, and that the mere ritualist is not only trusting his soul to a cockle shell, which can never serve him in the billows of judgment, but is positively luring others on to the same destruction into which he is himself hastening. Who would willingly be like the fo’c’stle bell? Who loves imitation and uncertainty?
Who would not rather tread the deck of this world with conscious assurance and joy, a guide to others in the voyage of life? But one may ask, How am I to get this assurance? Scripture answers that assurance is the outcome of faith; that faith gives fall assurance; and all that faith needs is competent authority, which it trusts; just as the seaman trusts the certified charts, steering clear of all shoals and rocks, and with the fullest assurance comes into port, having given by observation the right time of day all through the voyage. Thousands of vessels have made the voyage before upon the same authority, and he doubts not that he shall reach the desired haven. So the Christian trusts the Word of God, a chart by which myriads of souls have passed through the rough billows of this life with the most perfect assurance, and landed on the other side in peace.
How is it with my reader? Time flies apace, the end is near! How will you face the Judge when He calls for your peculiar book? Will you point to deeds of merit or of ritual? Alas for you, these will never cover your devoted head. Bow at once to the name of Jesus, plead His blood and death, and you may lift your head above the storm, and run clear of the lee shore of destruction into the haven of eternal rest.
The Gospel Messenger 1900, p. 228