Sermon – Ephraim’s Many Altars to Sin

A Sermon by the Rt. Rev. Stephen Elliott, First Bishop of Georgia

This sermon was published in “Sermons by The Right Reverend Stephen Elliott, D.D., Late Bishop of Georgia with a Memoir by Thomas M. Hanckel, Esq.” (New York: Pott and Amery, 1867). The introduction states that Bishop Elliott rarely repeated a sermon yet this one “was preached no less than seven times in different places during the course of a few months: ‘a striking proof of the degree to which the Bishop believed the teachings of that sermon to be needed by the people.’”

Because Ephraim hath made many altars to sin, altars shall be unto him to sin.— HOSEA Viii. II.

The book from which this memoir was takenUNBELIEF, while always the same in essence, assumes a thousand shapes to suit the times in which it may be circulating. A form of infidelity, gross and sensual as that which disgraced the court of the second Charles, could have no currency in an age like this, when at least a show of decency is necessary to give power to any thing which calls itself Truth. Nor would the ignorance and flippancy of the French infidelity find any more countenance among us; because the Scriptures, universally diffused and known as they are, could no longer suffer from the garbling and misinterpretation of shallow profanity. But while this is true, unbelief may be none the less rife, and may be all the more dangerous, because it assumes the cast of thought which is prevalent among educated men. The serpent which can put on the hue of the forest through which it is gliding, steals the more surely and inevitably upon the unwary traveller. While he sees only what appears to him to be the natural motion of the leaves and the twigs, his enemy is close upon him, and is already filling the atmosphere with the poison which is to fascinate and then destroy him. And in like manner that form of irreligion which assimilates itself most closely to the spirit of the times, is the most perilous, because the most natural and unsuspected. It approaches us in such accustomed language, and at such happy moments; it whispers in our ears in such a familiar tone, and its whisperings are so like the voices which we daily hear; it involves us, before we are startled at our danger, with such an enervating atmosphere of corrupt and poisonous sentiment : that we are in the coils of the old Serpent, that subtle Destroyer, before we even conceive that peril is nigh us. And even when we have been warned, — when the finger of experience and of love has pointed out to us the baleful eyes and beauteous skin of the approaching enemy, — those eyes are so like the glittering dew-drops, and that skin so like the colorings of Nature, that we perish gazing upon the insidious foe. Alas for roan ! —that he cannot learn that the natural stands forever linked, in this world, because of sin, with that which is sensual and corrupt.

There is, perhaps, no form of ungodliness more rife or more dangerous at this present day than that which tempts us to believe that every kind of worship, if it be only sincere, is acceptable with God. The tendency of the times is to strike at every thing positive and distinctive ; — to put all systems, all institutions, — nay, all men — upon an ignoble level. Every thing that was considered undoubted and established, is to be once again placed in the scales of judgment, and weighed anew by the present generation ; and nothing is to be considered wisdom which is not decided to be so by the charlatans of the current time. If this spirit were confined to science and literature, or even to politics and government, however we might deprecate it even in these, we should leave it to taste, and experience, and interest, to rectify the evil. But when it is unsettling and confounding morals and religion, when it is encouraging men to make experience and utility the basis of truth, it is time for the wise to look about them, and for the guardians of Revelation to strike for their Altars and their God. Woe to the world, when men learn, — and learn it too from what are called “the churches of God,” — that right and wrong are not to be settled by the Bible ; that there is nothing positive in religion ; that God has dictated no form of belief as essentially necessary to salvation ; that He looks with no more favor upon one worshipper than another, provided each is equally sincere in his creed and in his practice ! Woe to that same world, when such principles as these become the prevailing sentiments of men; for it will inevitably be hurried back, through folly and crime, to anarchy and barbarism!

When we take our first step in sin, we little conceive where that false movement will conduct us. It is only after a sad experience that we come to understand the effects which sin produces upon our own hearts, and appreciate the difficulty which there is in resisting its corrupting and downward tendencies. We imagine that the whole mischief of a sin is in the sin itself; that when it has clone its evil, of whatever kind, upon its object, its bitterness is over: and thus it happens that we leave out of view the most terrible consequences of sin, — those consequences which this text indicates, and which I desire to bring distinctly to your notice. The progressive powers of sin are its most terrible powers; and when the restraining influence of God’s hand is lifted from them, and they are permitted to come in like a flood, woe to that people or that individual upon whom they exert their overwhelming force! They are swept on, as by an irresistible fate, to utter corruption and destruction. And it is only necessary for God to issue the decree of my text, ” Because Ephraim hath made many altars to sin, altars shall be unto him to sin,” and the work is fairly begun. There is nothing thenceforward to check its career, either in the nation or the individual, until God’s punishment be exhausted, and the entail be cut off through His mercy in Christ Jesus.

When Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, raised a false worship in Bethel, and the children of Israel consented to call upon God there, instead of at Jersusalem where God had appointed that they should worship Him, he established a precedent which, in consistency, he could never oppose when it should be carried to an extent beyond his own intention. It was not the purpose of Jeroboam to lead the Israelites away from Jehovah; he only desired to lead them away from Jerusalem. His object was, not to declare war against the Jewish religion; but only to modify it, so far as was necessary to carry out the separation which he had made of the Ten Tribes from the remaining Two. But the moment that he committed himself to this line of action, he had set the example of disobedience to God’s express command that His Temple and Altar and Priesthood should be at Jerusalem; and had infused into every man’s mind the principle that a seeming necessity justified the abandonment of God’s command, and the substitution, in its place, of man’s will and interest. And when this precedent was followed by Ephraim, so that many altars were reared in Israel, these altars were permitted by God all over the land, — altars upon every hill and mountain, and under every green tree, until idolatry the foullest and the most degrading usurped the place of the worship of Jehovah. Altars to Baal and Ashtaroth, to Tammuz and Peor, defiled the land; and it required the direct interference of God, through His prophets, to bring Ephraim back to the wor- ship from which he had thus gradually but surely wandered.

And we can easily perceive, when the thing is brought to our notice, how it comes to pass naturally and inevitably. The very principle upon which it proceeds, is that by which its final destruction is ensured. Like the brood of Error in Spenser’s allegory, the moment it is born it begins to feed upon its own mother. The principle of disobedience and self-will which justified the first deviation, will justify all that follow; until no authority is left, and every one judges for himself, according to his fancy, or his interest, or his passion. If Jeroboam might modify the national worship, so might Ahab, and Jezebel, and Joram, and under cloak of the principle introduce the worst systems of Idolatry. The progress was only natural. Change is delightful to the human heart ; especially a change which enables it to cast off established authority, and substitute for what is stern and self-denying something which is exciting and pleasurable. And, growing by what it feeds upon, the appetite craves incessant gratification, and presses on from one degree of licentiousness to another, until Truth itself is abandoned, and every thing established by God is swept away from the altars of men. “Because Ephraim bath made many altars to sin, altars shall be unto him to sin.” His act rebounds upon himself; and he is forced, from the necessity of consistency, not only to justify, but to partake of, sins far more gross than any he ever contemplated.

And are we not, in this country, passing through precisely this experience ? Is not our religious history fast verging upon this decree uttered by the prophet Are we not dividing and subdividing into innumerable sects, each one setting up its own altar, and each altar further and still further removed from the doctrine and discipline of Christ ? Where is the Unity of Christ ? Where is that one Faith, one Lord, one Baptism, of which we read in the Epistles ? Has not the progress been rapidly downward, striking in turn at every thing distinctive in doctrine, and bringing in arrangements of religious worship more and more radical ? Is not God manifesting the law of His government by permitting these altars to multiply; and, as they multiply, to be more and more irregular and profane ? Are not “churches” which we once hoped still clung to the truth of doctrine, abandoning that truth article by article, and adhering only to what suits their interest or their passions ? Are not denominations of Christians which once commanded respect by their compactness and their firmness, now losing even that by their innumerable subdivisions and the reception of principles which must lead to still worse and worse ? Look at the rapid deterioration of religion in many parts of the United States, once the most rigid and devout ! Look at the doctrines which are now publicly proclaimed throughout the land, — which are gathering disciples, —which are forming sects; — doctrines of devils, fit only for execration and condemnation. See the indifference of the people to this rapid corruption of Truth, to this denial of our Saviour, to this blotting out of the Holy Ghost, to this contempt for doctrinal truth, to this irreverence for the word of God and for every thing established by it, to this abrogation of heaven and of hell ! Ephraim is making many altars to sin, crowding them over the length and breadth of the land : and, true to the principle of its action, his law is being fast made the banner under which idols of every hue and shape, — idols of imagination, of sentiment, of will, of pride, of lust, — are to take the place of Christ and His Church. And what is worse, Christians themselves seem blinded to the condition of things, and are comforting themselves with the idea that Religion is advancing through the land, when it is really fast running into the foullest corruption. Could the mighty Edwards rise from his grave, and cast his eyes over his own once fruitful field of labor, where should he find the doctrines which he preached, the discipline which he reverenced? Could the eloquent Mason be given back again to earth, how would he thunder against the degeneracy of the times, and ask in vain for the habits of devotion and the morals of life which he adorned and illustrated ! Could Whitfield and Wesley survey the masses which have congregated around the altars they erected, how would they shudder at much which calls itself by their name, and mourn, in bitterness of spirit, that they ever turned aside from the good old paths in which they had been trained! And the worst is not yet. It is only beginning: and if these things are done in the green tree, what shall we look for in the dry? Ah ! my hearers, if you would only study the aspect of the times, in its moral and religious point of view, you would tremble at what is fast coming upon you, —tremble for your Altars and your firesides ! But, instead of that, you are carried along with the current ; and conceive that Ephraim has full right to create as many altars as he pleases; and to rend the seamless garment of Christ into shreds and tatters!

But it is not only by a natural law that this deterioration will go on. After Ephraim shall have raised many altars to sin, God’s action will become judicial, and Ephraim’s sin will find him out in a still more terrible way. Up to a certain point, this erection of altars will be the product of his own will. He shall be sinning against light and conscience, against warning and the Holy Spirit; but when, in defiance of these, he shall have made many altars to sin, “altars shall be unto him to sin.” His appetite shall be glutted to its fullest extent. Means and appliances the most ample shall be furnished him for idolatry. Doctrines more false and monstrous, opinions more profane and licentious, opinions more hideous and disgusting, shall meet his eager mind, and he shall rush to their embrace with a greediness which will prove that the Holy Spirit hath left him, and that he is bound up in the wings of the wind! Alas for us ! We are nurturing our worst enemy within our own bowels; we are breeding an innumerable spawn of error that will finally consume us. God is our only refuge, and His Church the only ark of safety amid these agitated waves of self-will, of irreverence, and of ungodliness. Unless we turn to them, the sun which rose upon a people who loved and honored the Altars of the living God, will go down in blood upon altars reeking with every unclean and unwholesome sacrifice.

But this text, while its primary reference is to sins against religious worship, has also its stern application to individuals. The Church of the Israelites is often used in Scripture to represent the pilgrimage of the Christian, —to furnish instruction and reproof to the individual as he fights the battle of his soul. Every man may find in Ephraim a warning, — the dealings which God will exercise upon himself, if he turn away and make altars to sin. The like process goes on with the individual, as with the people; with the single Christian, as with the believing nation. It begins in what we consider a necessity meeting us in our path of life; and ends in a desertion of the Holy Spirit, the most hopeless which can befall a human creature.

It is an exceedingly dangerous thing for a Christian to tamper with. Truth, — to make it at all subservient to any of the interests or passions of life. Truth is one and fixed ; revealed by God through his inspired messengers, and written down for the use of man. It cannot be mistaken ; for it is united in Christ, with that Life Eternal which we profess to be seeking for. “I am the way, the truth, and the life,”[1] said Christ; and if we will walk in Christ, we cannot miss either Truth or Life. Many, and they among the poorest and plainest people, have found it through simple obedience : have listened to the voice of the Church, saying, ” This is the way, walk ye in it,”[2] and have thus drank in all Truth. God has revealed to us in the New Testament a fixed, positive doctrine : “Neither is there salvation in any other than Jesus Christ of Nazareth.”[3] ” Without shedding of blood is no remission.”[4] “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”[5] ” There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”[6] A doctrine which, when combined, teaches as settled a system as that of the Old Testament; a system having a Creed, and Sacraments, and Church institutions. What reason has any man who leaves all this solemn truth, and devises a doctrinal system for himself, to expect any other treatment than Ephraim received? Nothing, my people, excuses disobedience. It will always fetch down the denunciation of the prophet : “Because Ephraim hath made many altars to sin, altars shall be unto him to sin.”

The Rt. Rev. Stephen Elliott

And what can sound more fearful, my hearers, than such a declaration as this? You are not Christians; because you are trusting in altars of your own, and upon which you are burning your various sacrifices. One builds an altar, and calls it “Integrity,” and offers upon it justice, and honesty, and fair dealing between man and man. Another follows his example, but calls his altar “Benevolence,” and trusts that the sacrifices which he makes thereon to the poor and the widow and the orphan may enter into the presence of God, and atone for his sins. Yet another designates his altar by the name of ” Good works,” and feels assured that the zeal and devotion and bodily exercise which are spent thereon must be sufficient to win the favor of God. Still another altar is seen to rise before us and upon it is inscribed, ” God is a spirit, and they that worship him, must worship him in spirit and in truth;” and its worshippers imagine that a service of the heart, without outward profession, without forms or sacraments, must find favor with a spiritual God. How sad that these altars, with their noble inscriptions, with their fragments of the truth, must all fall under the category of the prophet’s denunciation ; that these blessed truths, which have been snatched from the consecrated Altar of the sanctuary of God, should, by that violence, have been turned into falsehood; that these sightly altars, which rise so proudly from the surface of society, should be altars unto sin ! Where is then your hope ? You worship not as God has commanded you to worship, because you are trusting in this miserably delusive principle, — that one altar is as good as another in the sight of God ; that “His can’t be wrong, whose life is in the right”; that the sacrifice of good deeds, of zeal, of devotion, of sincerity, of benevolence, is as potent as the Sacrifice of the Death of Christ.” Alas for your fatal error! You will find, at the last, that Christianity is a positive thing; that salvation is by one narrow road, through one straight gate; and that all altars save that One which has been stained with the Blood of the Lamb, are altars unto sin!

You may ask, What is my remedy when I find myself in this condition ? If by any means you have placed yourself in a wrong position in this matter, retrace your steps. It may cost you some humiliation; some sacrifice of feeling, or of interest: but any thing is better than to plunge through life in error, and then perhaps to lose your soul. And you will lose it, just as certainly as you rest in the delusion of being saved because you are “honest” and “sincere.” How can you be sincere when you refuse to obey the plain written commands of your God and Saviour : unless you place yourself in the category of infidelity, and say that you do not believe them to be His commands ? How can you be sincere when, ranking yourself as a Christian and hoping for a Christian’s future condition, you are yet not fulfilling a Christian’s duty ? But you may answer “I am trying to live as a Christian, and to perform all my obligations to my fellow-beings, my obligations of integrity, of benevolence, of good works ; and I am worshipping God in spirit and in truth.” Running back to those old altars, which I proved to you were altars to sin ! But have you obeyed Christ’s commands? Have you been confirmed? Do you partake of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, which Christ commanded you to do in remembrance of Him? If you were a Christian, or wanted to be a Christian, you would do as Christ commands you : — you would worship God where and as He instructs you; you would connect yourself with the visible Church ; you would live upon His Spirit. You may be sincere when you say you cannot believe; but that sincerity will not avail you, because it is a positive command: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved ; “[7] and equally as positive on the other hand: “He that believeth not shall be damned.”[8] You may be sincere when you say that you cannot repent; but that sincerity will not avail you, because the declaration is positive : “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.”[9] No man can be sincere when, with the Bible in his hands, he counts himself a Christian, and yet obeys not the positive commandments of Christ. You are trifling with words and with your conscience. You are laying up for yourself the heaviest of all punishments, —the finding out, at the last, that although you have made many altars and sacrificed diligently upon them, they are only altars to sin. Your remedy is to do with your altars as Elijah did with the altars to Baal, —sweep them from your heart: and turn in faith and humility and obedience to that only Altar which has streamed from everlasting with the blood of the Lamb “that taketh away the sins of the world.”



[1] S. John xiv. 6.
[2] Isaiah xxx. 21.
[3] Acts iv. 10, 12.
[4] Heb. ix, 22.
[5] S. John iii. 5.
[6] Eph. iv. 4-6.
[7] Acts xvi.
[8] S. Mark xvi. 16.
[9] S. Luke xiii. 3.