The constitution of the human soul is indeed a wonderful one; and such a meditation as that which we have just devoted to its functions of self-examination and memory, brief though it be, is enough to convince us of it. And remember, that this constitution is not peculiar to you and to me. It belongs to every human creature on the globe. The imbruted pagan in the fiery centre of Africa, who never saw a Bible, or heard of the Redeemer; the equally imbruted man, woman, or child, who dwells in the slime of our own civilization, not a mile from where we sit, and hear the tidings of mercy; the filthy savage, and the yet filthier profligate, are both of them alike with ourselves possessed of these awful powers of self-knowledge and of memory.
Think of this, ye earnest and faithful laborers in the vineyard of the Lord. There is not a child that you allure into your Sabbath Schools, and your Mission Schools, that is not fearfully and wonderfully made; and whose marvellous powers you are doing much to render to their possessor a blessing, instead of a curse. When Sir Humphrey Davy, in answer to an inquiry that had been made of him respecting the number and series of his discoveries in chemistry, had gone through with the list, he added: "But the greatest of my discoveries is Michael Faraday." This Michael Faraday was a poor boy employed in the menial services of the laboratory where Davy made those wonderful discoveries by which he revolutionized the science of chemistry, and whose chemical genius he detected, elicited, and encouraged, until he finally took the place of his teacher and patron, and acquired a name that is now one of the influences of England. Well might he say: "My greatest discovery was when I detected the wonderful powers of Michael Faraday." And never will you make a greater and more beneficent discovery, than when, under the thick scurf of pauperism and vice, you detect the human soul that is fearfully and wonderfully made; than when you elicit its powers of self-consciousness and of memory, and, instrumentally, dedicate them to the service of Christ and the Church.
2. In the second place, we see from the subject, that thoughtlessness in sin will never excuse sin. There are degrees in sin. A deliberate, self-conscious act of sin is the most intense form of moral evil. When a man has an active conscience; when he distinctly thinks over the nature of the transgression which he is tempted to commit; when he sees clearly that it is a direct violation of a command of God which he is about to engage in; when he says, "I know that this is positively forbidden by my Maker and Judge, but I will do it,"—we have an instance of the most heaven-daring sin. This is deliberate and wilful transgression. The servant knows his lord's will and does it not, and he shall be beaten with "many stripes," says Christ.
But, such sin as this is not the usual form. Most of human transgressions are not accompanied with such a distinct apprehension, and such a deliberate determination. The sin of ignorance and thoughtlessness is the species which is most common. Men, generally, do not first think of what they are about to do, and then proceed to do it; but they first proceed to do it, and then think nothing at all about it. But, thoughtlessness will not excuse sin; though, it is a somewhat less extreme form of it, than deliberate transgression. Under the Levitical law, the sin of ignorance, as it was called, was to be expiated by a somewhat different sacrifice from that offered for the wilful and deliberate sin; but it must be expiated. A victim must be offered for it. It was guilt before God, and needed atonement. Our Lord, in His prayer for His murderers, said, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do." The act of crucifying the Lord of glory was certainly a sin, and one of an awful nature. But the authors of it were not fully aware of its import. They did not understand the dreadful significance of the crucifixion of the Son of God, as we now understand it, in the light of eighteen centuries. Our Lord alludes to this, as a species of mitigation; while yet He teaches, by the very prayer which He puts up for them, that this ignorance did not excuse His murderers. He asks that they may be forgiven. But where there is absolutely no sin there is no need of forgiveness. It is one of our Lord's assertions, that it will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah, in the day of judgment, than it will be for those inhabitants of Palestine who would not hear the words of His apostles,—because the sin of the former was less deliberate and wilful than that of the latter. But He would not have us infer from this, that Sodom and Gomorrah are not to be punished for sin. And, finally, He sums up the whole doctrine upon this point, in the declaration, that "he who knew his master's will and did it not shall be beaten with many stripes; but he who knew not his master's will and did it not shall be beaten with few stripes." The sin of thoughtlessness shall be beaten with fewer stripes than the sin of deliberation,—but it shall be beaten, and therefore it is sin.
The almost universal indifference and thoughtlessness with which men live on in a worldly and selfish life, will not excuse them in the day of accurate accounts. And the reason is, that they are capable of thinking upon the law of God; of thinking upon their duties; of thinking upon their sins. They possess the wonderful faculties of self-inspection and memory, and therefore they are capable of bringing their actions into light. It is the command of God to every man, and to every rational spirit everywhere, to walk in the light, and to be a child of the light. We ought to examine ourselves; to understand our ruling motives and abiding purposes; to scrutinize our feelings and conduct. But if we do little or nothing of this, we must not expect that in the day of judgment we can plead our thoughtless ignorance of what we were, and what we did, here upon earth, as an excuse for our disobedience. God expects, and demands, that every one of His rational creatures should be all that he is capable of being. He gave man wonderful faculties and endowments,—ten talents, five talents, two talents,—and He will require the whole original sum given, together with a faithful use and improvement of it. The very thoughtlessness then, particularly under the Gospel dispensation,—the very neglect and non-use of the power of self-inspection,—will go in to constitute a part of the sin that will be punished. Instead of being an excuse, it will be an element of the condemnation itself.
3. In the third place, even the sinner himself ought to rejoice in the fact that God is the Searcher of the heart. It is instinctive and natural, that a transgressor should attempt to conceal his character from his Maker; but next to his sin itself, it would be the greatest injury that he could do to himself, should he succeed in his attempt. Even after the commission of sin, there is every reason for desiring that God should compass our path and lying down, and be acquainted with all our ways. For, He is the only being who can forgive sin; the only one who can renew and sanctify the heart. There is the same motive for having the disease of the soul understood by God, that there is for having the disease of the body examined by a skilful physician. Nothing is gained, but every thing is lost, by ignorance.
The sinner, therefore, has the strongest of motives for rejoicing in the truth that God sees him. It ought not to be an unwelcome fact even to him. For how can his sin be pardoned, unless it is clearly understood by the pardoning power? How can his soul be purified from its inward corruption, unless it is searched by the Spirit of all holiness?
Instead, therefore, of being repelled by such a solemn truth as that which we have been discussing, even the natural man should be allured by it. For it teaches him that there is help for him in God. His own knowledge of his own heart, as we have seen, is very imperfect and very inadequate. But the Divine knowledge is thoroughly adequate. He may, therefore, devolve his case with confidence upon the unerring One. Let him take words upon his lips, and cry unto Him: "Search me, O God, and try me; and see what evil ways there are in me, and lead me in the way everlasting." Let him endeavor to come into possession of the Divine knowledge. There is no presumption in this. God desires that he should know himself as He knows him; that he should get possession of His views upon this point; that he should see himself as He sees him. One of the principal sins which God has to charge upon the sinner is, that his apprehensions respecting his own character are in conflict with the Divine. Nothing would more certainly meet the approbation of God, than a renunciation of human estimates of human nature, and the adoption of those contained in the inspired word. Endeavor, therefore, to obtain the very same knowledge of your heart which God Himself possesses. And in this endeavor, He will assist you. The influences of the Holy Spirit to enlighten are most positively promised and proffered. Therefore be not repelled by the truth; but be drawn by it to a deeper, truer knowledge of your heart. Lift up your soul in prayer, and beseech God to impart to you a profound knowledge of yourself, and then to sprinkle all your discovered guilt, and all your undiscovered guilt, with atoning blood. This is salvation; first to know yourself, and then to know Christ as your Prophet, Priest, and King.
[Footnote 1: PENSEES: Grandeur de l'homme, 6. Ed. Wetstein.]
[Footnote 2: CHAPMAN: Byron's Conspiracy.]
GOD'S EXHAUSTIVE KNOWLEDGE OF MAN. [*continued]
PSALM cxxxix. 1—6.—"O Lord, thou hast searched me, and known me. Thou knowest my down-sitting and mine uprising; thou understandest my thought afar off. Thou compassest my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways. For there is not a word in my tongue, but lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether. Thou hast beset me behind and before, and laid thy hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it."
In the preceding discourse upon this text, we directed attention to the fact that man is possessed of the power of self-knowledge, and that he cannot ultimately escape from using it. He cannot forever flee from his own presence; he cannot, through all eternity, go away from his own spirit. If he take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the earth, he must, sooner or later, know himself, and acquit or condemn himself.
Our attention was then directed to the fact, that God's knowledge of man is certainly equal to man's knowledge of himself. No man knows more of his own heart than the Searcher of hearts knows. Up to this point, certainly, the truth of the text is incontrovertible. God knows all that man knows.
II. We come now to the second position: That God accurately and exhaustively knows all that man might, but does not, know of himself.
Although the Creator designed that every man should thoroughly understand his own heart, and gave him the power of self-inspection that he might use it faithfully, and apply it constantly, yet man is extremely ignorant of himself. Mankind, says an old writer, are nowhere less at home, than at home. Very few persons practise serious self-examination at all; and none employ the power of self-inspection with that carefulness and sedulity with which they ought. Hence men generally, and unrenewed men always, are unacquainted with much that goes on within their own minds and hearts. Though it is sin and self-will, though it is thought and feeling and purpose and desire, that is going on and taking place during all these years of religious indifference, yet the agent himself, so far as a sober reflection upon the moral character of the process, and a distinct perception of the dreadful issue of it, are concerned, is much of the time as destitute of self-knowledge as an irrational brute itself. For, were sinful men constantly self-examining, they would be constantly in torment. Men can be happy in sin, only so long as they can sin without thinking of it. The instant they begin to perceive and understand what they are doing, they begin to feel the fang of the worm. If the frivolous wicked world, which now takes so much pleasure in its wickedness, could be forced to do here what it will be forced to do hereafter, namely, to eye its sin while it commits it, to think of what it is doing while it does it, the billows of the lake of fire would roll in upon time, and from gay Paris and luxurious Vienna there would instantaneously ascend the wailing cry of Pandemonium.
But it is not so at present. Men here upon earth are continually thinking sinful thoughts and cherishing sinful feelings, and yet they are not continually in hell. On the contrary, "they are not in trouble as other men are, neither are they plagued like other men. Their eyes stand out with fatness; they have more than heart could wish." This proves that they are self-ignorant; that they know neither their sin nor its bitter end. They sin without the consciousness of sin, and hence are happy in it. Is it not so in our own personal experience? Have there not been in the past ten years of our own mental history long trains of thought,—sinful thought,—and vast processions of feelings and imaginings,—sinful feelings and imaginings,—that have trailed over the spaces of the soul, but which have been as unwatched and unseen by the self-inspecting eye of conscience, as the caravans of the African desert have been, during the same period, by the eye of our sense? We have not felt a pang of guilt every single time that we have thought a wrong thought; yet we should have felt one inevitably, had we scrutinized every such single thought. Our face has not flushed with crimson in every particular instance in which we have exercised a lustful emotion; yet it would have done so had we carefully noted every such emotion. A distinct self-knowledge has by no means run parallel with all our sinful activity; has by no means been co-extensive with it. We perform vastly more than we inspect. We have sinned vastly more than we have been aware of at the time.
Even the Christian, in whom this unreflecting species of life and conduct has given way, somewhat, to a thoughtful and vigilant life, knows and acknowledges that perfection is not yet come. As he casts his eye over even his regenerate and illuminated life, and sees what a small amount of sin has been distinctly detected, keenly felt, and heartily confessed, in comparison with that large amount of sin which he knows he must have committed, during this long period of incessant action of mind, heart, and limbs, he finds no repose for his misgivings with respect to the filial examination and account, except by enveloping himself yet more entirely in the ample folds of his Redeemer's righteousness; except by hiding himself yet more profoundly in the cleft of that Rock of Ages which protects the chief of sinners from the unsufferable splendors and terrors of the Divine glory and holiness as it passes by. Even the Christian knows that he must have committed many sins in thoughtless moments and hours,—many sins of which he was not deliberately thinking at the time of their commission,—and must pray with David, "Cleanse thou me from secret faults." The functions and operations of memory evince that such is the case. Are we not sometimes, in our serious hours when memory is busy, convinced of sins which, at the time of their commission, were wholly unaccompanied with a sense of their sinfulness? The act in this instance was performed blindly, without self-inspection, and therefore without self-conviction. Ten years, we will say, have intervened,—years of new activity, and immensely varied experiences. And now the magic power of recollection sets us back, once more, at that point of responsible action, and bids do what we did not do at the time,—analyze our performance and feel consciously guilty, experience the first sensation of remorse, for what we did ten years ago. Have we not, sometimes, been vividly reminded that upon such an occasion, and at such a time, we were angry, or proud, but at the time when the emotion was swelling our veins were not filled with, that clear and painful sense of its turpitude which now attends the recollection of it? The re-exhibition of an action in memory, as in a mirror, is often accompanied with a distinct apprehension of its moral character that formed no part of the experience of the agent while absorbed in the hot and hasty original action itself. And when we remember how immense are the stores of memory, and what an amount of sin has been committed in hours of thoughtlessness and moral indifference, what prayer is more natural and warm than the supplication: "Search me O God, and try me, and see what evil ways there are within me, and lead me in the way everlasting."
But the careless, unenlightened man, as we have before remarked, leads a life almost entirely destitute of self-inspection, and self-knowledge. He sins constantly. He does only evil, and that continually, as did man before the deluge. For he is constantly acting. A living self-moving soul, like his, cannot cease action if it would. And yet the current is all one way. Day after day sends up its clouds of sensual, worldly, selfish thoughts. Week after week pours onward its stream of low-born, corrupt, unspiritual feelings. Year after year accumulates that hardening mass of carnal-mindedness, and distaste for religion, which is sometimes a more insuperable obstacle to the truth, than positive faults and vices which startle and shock the conscience. And yet the man thinks nothing about all this action of his mind and heart. He does not subject it to any self-inspection. If he should, for but a single hour, be lifted up to the eminence from which all this current of self-will, and moral agency, may be seen and surveyed in its real character and significance, he would start back as if brought to the brink of hell. But he is not thus lifted up. He continues to use and abuse his mental and his moral faculties, but, for most of his probation, with all the blindness and heedlessness of a mere animal instinct.
There is, then, a vast amount of sin committed without self-inspection; and, consequently, without any distinct perception, at the time, that it is sin. The Christian will find himself feeling guilty, for the first time, for a transgression that occurred far back in the past, and will need a fresh application of atoning blood. The sinner will find, at some period or other, that remorse is fastening its tooth in his conscience for a vast amount of sinful thought, feeling, desire, and motive, that took origin in the unembarrassed days of religious thoughtlessness and worldly enjoyment.
For, think you that the insensible sinner is always to be thus insensible,—that this power of self-inspection is eternally to "rust unused?" What a tremendous revelation will one day be made to an unreflecting transgressor, simply because he is a man and not a brute, has lived a human life, and is endowed with the power of self-knowledge, whether he has used it or not! What a terrific vision it will be for him, when the limitless line of his sins which he has not yet distinctly examined, and thought of, and repented of, shall be made to pass in slow procession before that inward eye which he has wickedly kept shut so long! Tell us not of the disclosures that shall be made when the sea shall give up the dead that are in it, and the graves shall open and surrender their dead; what are these material disclosures, when compared with the revelations of self-knowledge! What is all this external display, sombre and terrible as it will be to the outward eye, when compared with all that internal revealing that will be made to a hitherto thoughtless soul, when, of a sudden, in the day of judgment, its deepest caverns shall heave in unison with the material convulsions of the day, and shall send forth to judgment their long slumbering, and hidden iniquity; when the sepulchres of its own memory shall burst open, and give up the sin that has long lain buried there, in needless and guilty forgetfulness, awaiting this second resurrection!
For (to come back to the unfolding of the subject, and the movement of the argument), God perfectly knows all that man might, but does not, know of himself. Though the transgressor is ignorant of much of his sin, because at the time of its commission he sins blindly as well as wilfully, and unreflectingly as well as freely; and though the transgressor has forgotten much of that small amount of sin of which he was conscious, and by which he was pained, at the time of its perpetration; though on the side of man the powers of self-inspection and memory have accomplished so little towards the preservation of man's sin, yet God knows it all, and remembers it all. He compasseth man's path, and his lying-down, and is acquainted with all his ways. "There is nothing covered, therefore, that shall not be revealed, neither hid that shall not be known. Whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness shall be heard in the light; and that which ye have spoken in the ear in closets shall be proclaimed upon the house-tops." The Creator of the human mind has control over its powers of self-inspection, and of memory; and when the proper time comes He will compel these endowments to perform their legitimate functions, and do their appointed work. The torturing self-survey will begin, never more to end. The awful recollection will commence, endlessly to go on.
One principal reason why the Biblical representations of human sinfulness exert so little influence over men, and, generally speaking, seem to them to be greatly exaggerated and untrue, lies in the fact that the Divine knowledge of human character is in advance of the human knowledge. God's consciousness and cognition upon this subject is exhaustive; while man's self-knowledge is superficial and shallow. The two forms of knowledge, consequently, when placed side by side, do not agree, but conflict. There would be less difficulty, and less contradiction, if mankind generally were possessed of even as much self-knowledge as the Christian is possessed of. There would be no difficulty, and no contradiction, if the knowledge of the judgment-day could be anticipated, and the self-inspection of that occasion could commence here and now. But such is not the fact. The Bible labors, therefore, under the difficulty of possessing an advanced knowledge; the difficulty of being addressed to a mind that is almost entirely unacquainted with the subject treated of. The Word of God knows man exhaustively, as God knows him; and hence all its descriptions of human character are founded upon such a knowledge. But man, in his self-ignorance, does not perceive their awful truth. He has not yet attained the internal correspondent to the Biblical statement,—that apprehension of total depravity, that knowledge of the plague of the heart, which always and ever says "yea" to the most vivid description of human sinfulness, and "amen" to God's heaviest malediction upon it. Nothing deprives the Word of its nerve and influence, more than this general lack of self-inspection and self-knowledge. For, only that which is perceived to be true exerts an influence upon the human mind. The doctrine of human sinfulness is preached to men, year after year, to whom it does not come home with the demonstration of the Spirit and with power, because the sinfulness which is really within them is as yet unknown, and because not one of a thousand of their transgressions has ever been scanned in the light of self-examination. But is the Bible untrue, because the man is ignorant? Is the sun black, because the eye is shut?
However ignorant man may be, and may desire and strive to be, of himself, God knows him altogether, and knows that the representations of His word, respecting the character and necessities of human nature, are the unexaggerated, sober, and actual fact. Though most of the sinner's life of alienation from God, and of disobedience, has been a blind and a reckless agency, unaccompanied with self-scrutiny, and to a great extent passed from his memory, yet it has all of it been looked at, as it welled, up from the living centres of free agency and responsibility, by the calm and dreadful eye of retributive Justice, and has all of it been indelibly written down in the book of God's sure memory, with a pen of iron, and the point of a diamond.
And here, let us for a moment look upon the bright, as well as the dark side of this subject. For if God's exhaustive knowledge of the human heart waken dread in one of its aspects, it starts infinite hope in another. If that Being has gone down into these depths of human depravity, and seen it with a more abhorring glance than could ever shoot from a finite eye, and yet has returned with a cordial offer to forgive it all, and a hearty proffer to cleanse it all away, then we can lift up the eye in adoration and in hope. There has been an infinite forbearance and condescension. The worst has been seen, and that too by the holiest of Beings, and yet eternal glory is offered to us! God knows, from personal examination, the worthlessness of human character, with a thoroughness and intensity of knowledge of which man has no conception; and yet, in the light of this knowledge, in the very flame of this intuition, He has devised a plan of mercy and redemption. Do not think, then, because of your present ignorance of your guilt and corruption, that the incarnation and death of the Son of God was unnecessary, and that that costly blood of atonement which you are treading under foot wet the rocks of Calvary for a peccadillo. Could you, but for a moment only, know yourself altogether and exhaustively, as the Author of this Redemption knows you, you would cry out, in the words of a far holier man than you are, "I am undone." If you could but see guilt as God sees it, you would also see with Him that nothing but an infinite Passion can expiate it. If you could but fathom the human heart as God fathoms it, you would know as He knows, that nothing less than regeneration can purify its fountains of uncleanness, and cleanse it from its ingrain corruption.
Thus have we seen that God knows man altogether,—that He knows all that man knows of himself, and all that man might but does not yet know of himself. The Searcher of hearts knows all the thoughts that we have thought upon, all the reflections that we have reflected upon, all the experience that we have ourselves analyzed and inspected. And He also knows that far larger part of our life which we have not yet subjected to the scrutiny of self-examination,—all those thoughts, feelings, desires, and motives, innumerable as they are, of which we took no heed at the time of their origin and existence, and which we suppose, perhaps, we shall hear no more of again. Whither then shall we go from God's spirit? or whither shall we flee from His presence and His knowledge? If we ascend up into heaven, He is there, and knows us perfectly. If we make our bed in hell, behold He is there, and reads the secret thoughts and feelings of our heart. The darkness hideth not from Him; our ignorance does not affect His knowledge; the night shineth as the day; the darkness and the light are both alike to Him.
This great truth which we have been considering obtains a yet more serious emphasis, and a yet more solemn power over the mind, when we take into view the character of the Being who thus searches our hearts, and is acquainted with all our ways. Who of us would not be filled with uneasiness, if he knew that an imperfect fellow-creature were looking constantly into his soul? Would not the flush of shame often burn upon our cheek, if we knew that a sinful man like ourselves were watching all the feelings and thoughts that are rising within us? Should we not be more circumspect than we are, if men were able mutually to search each other's hearts? How often does a man change his course of conduct, when he discovers, accidentally, that his neighbor knows what he is doing.
But it is not an imperfect fellow-man, it is not a perfect angel, who besets us behind and before, and is acquainted with, all our ways. It is the immaculate God himself. It is He before whom archangels veil their faces, and the burning seraphim cry, "Holy." It is He, in whose sight the pure cerulean heavens are not clean, and whose eyes are a flame of fire devouring all iniquity. We are beheld, in all this process of sin, be it blind or be it intelligent, by infinite Purity. We are not, therefore, to suppose that God contemplates this our life of sin with the dull indifference of an Epicurean deity; that He looks into our souls, all this while, from mere curiosity, and with no moral emotion towards us. The God who knows us altogether is the Holy One of Israel, whose wrath is both real, and revealed, against all unrighteousness.
If, therefore, we connect the holy nature and pure essence of God with all this unceasing and unerring inspection of the human soul, does not the truth which, we have been considering speak with a bolder emphasis, and acquire an additional power to impress and solemnize the mind? When we realize that the Being who is watching us at every instant, and in every act and element of our existence, is the very same Being who revealed himself amidst the lightenings of Sinai as hating sin and not clearing the thoughtless guilty, do not our prospects at the bar of justice look dark and fearful? For, who of the race of man is holy enough to stand such an inspection? Who of the sons of men will prove pure in such a furnace?
Are we not, then, brought by this truth close up to the central doctrine of Christianity, and made to see our need of the atonement and righteousness of the Redeemer? How can we endure such a scrutiny as God is instituting into our character and conduct? What can we say, in the day of reckoning, when the Searcher of hearts shall make known, to us all that He knows of us? What can we do, in that day which shall reveal the thoughts and the estimates of the Holy One respecting us?
It is perfectly plain, from the elevated central point of view where we now stand, and in the focal light in which we now see, that no man can be justified before God upon the ground of personal character; for that character, when subjected to God's exhaustive scrutiny, withers and shrinks away. A man may possibly be just before his neighbor, or his friend, or society, or human laws, but he is miserably self-deceived who supposes that his heart will appear righteous under such a scrutiny and in such a Presence as we have been considering. However it may be before other tribunals, the apostle is correct when he asserts that "every mouth, must be stopped, and the whole world plead guilty before God." Before the Searcher of hearts, all mankind must appeal to mere and sovereign mercy. Justice, in this reference, is out of the question.
Now, in this condition of things, God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him might not perish, but have everlasting life. The Divine mercy has been manifested in a mode that does not permit even the guiltiest to doubt its reality, its sufficiency, or its sincerity. The argument is this. "If when, we were yet sinners," and known to be such, in the perfect and exhaustive manner that has been described, "Christ died for us, much more, being now justified by His blood, shall we be saved from Wrath through Him." Appropriating this atonement which the Searcher of hearts has Himself provided for this very exigency, and which He knows to be thoroughly adequate, no man, however guilty, need fear the most complete disclosures which the Divine Omniscience will have to make of human character in the day of doom. If the guilt is "infinite upon infinite," so is the sacrifice of the God-man. Who is he that condemmeth? it is the Son of God that died for sin. Who shall lay anything to God's elect? it is God that justifieth. And as God shall, in the last day, summon up from the deep places of our souls all of our sins, and bring us to a strict account for everything, even to the idle words that we have spoken, we can look Him full in the eye, without a thought of fear, and with love unutterable, if we are really relying upon the atoning sacrifice of Christ for justification. Even in that awful Presence, and under that Omniscient scrutiny, "there is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus."
The great lesson, then, taught by the text and its unfolding, is the importance of attaining self-knowledge here upon earth, and while there remaineth a sacrifice for sins. The duty and wisdom of every man is, to anticipate the revelations of the judgment day; to find out the sin of his soul, while it is an accepted time and a day of salvation. For we have seen that this self-inspection cannot ultimately be escaped. Man was made to know himself, and he must sooner or later come to it. Self-knowledge is as certain, in the end, as death. The utmost that can be done, is to postpone it for a few days, or years. The article of death and the exchange of worlds will pour it all in, like a deluge, upon every man, whether he will or not. And he who does not wake up to a knowledge of his heart, until he enters eternity, wakes up not to pardon but to despair.
The simple question, then, which, meets us is: Wilt thou know thyself here and now, that thou mayest accept and feel God's pity in Christ's blood, or wilt thou keep within the screen, and not know thyself until beyond the grave, and then feel God's judicial wrath? The self-knowledge, remember, must come in the one way or the other. It is a simple question of time; a simple question whether it shall come here in this world, where the blood of Christ "freely flows," or in the future world, where "there remaineth no more sacrifice for sin." Turn the matter as we will, this is the sum and substance,—a sinful man must either come to a thorough self-knowledge, with a hearty repentance and a joyful pardon, in this life; or he must come to a thorough, self-knowledge, with a total despair and an eternal damnation, in the other. God is not mocked. God's great pity in the blood of Christ must not be trifled with. He who refuses, or neglects, to institute that self-examination which leads to the sense of sin, and the felt need of Christ's work, by this very fact proves that he does not desire to know his own heart, and that he has no wish to repent of sin. But he who will not even look at his sin,—what does not he deserve from that Being who poured out His own blood for it? He who refuses even to open his eyes upon that bleeding Lamb of God,—what must not he expect from the Lion of the tribe of Judah, in the day of judgment? He who by a life of apathy, and indifference to sin, puts himself out of all relations to the Divine pity,—what must he experience in eternity, but the operations of stark, unmitigated law?
Find out your sin, then. God will forgive all that is found. Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow. The great God delights to forgive, and is waiting to forgive. But, sin must be seen by the sinner, before it can be pardoned by the Judge. If you refuse at this point; if you hide yourself from yourself; if you preclude all feeling and conviction upon the subject of sin, by remaining ignorant of it; if you continue to live an easy, thoughtless life in sin, then you cannot be forgiven, and the measure of God's love with which He would have blessed you, had you searched yourself and repented, will be the measure of God's righteous wrath with which He will search you, and condemn you, because you have not.
[Footnote 1: "It is easy,"—says one of the keenest and most incisive of theologians,—"for any one in the cloisters of the schools to indulge himself in idle speculations on the merit of works to justify men; but when he comes into the presence of God, he must bid farewell to these amusements, for there the business is transacted with seriousness. To this point must our attention be directed, if we wish to make any useful inquiry concerning true righteousness: How we can answer the celestial Judge when He shall call us to an account? Let us place that Judge before our eyes, not according to the inadequate imaginations of our minds, but according to the descriptions given of him in the Scriptures, which represent him as one whose refulgence eclipses the stars, whose purity makes all things appear polluted, and who searches the inmost soul of his creatures,—let us so conceive of the Judge of all the earth, and every one must present himself as a criminal before Him, and voluntarily prostrate and humble himself in deep solicitude concerning; his absolution." CALVIN: Institutes, iii. 12.]
ALL MANKIND GUILTY; OR, EVERY MAN KNOWS MORE THAN HE PRACTISES.
ROMANS i. 24.—"When they knew God, they glorified him not as God."
The idea of God is the most important and comprehensive of all the ideas of which the human mind is possessed. It is the foundation of religion; of all right doctrine, and all right conduct. A correct intuition of it leads to correct religious theories and practice; while any erroneous or defective view of the Supreme Being will pervade the whole province of religion, and exert a most pernicious influence upon the entire character and conduct of men.
In proof of this, we have only to turn to the opening chapters of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans. Here we find a profound and accurate account of the process by which human nature becomes corrupt, and runs its downward career of unbelief, vice, and sensuality. The apostle traces back the horrible depravity of the heathen world, which he depicts with a pen as sharp as that of Juvenal, but with none of Juvenal's bitterness and vitriolic sarcasm, to a distorted and false conception of the being and attributes of God. He does not, for an instant, concede that this distorted and false conception is founded in the original structure and constitution of the human soul, and that this moral ignorance is necessary and inevitable. This mutilated idea of the Supreme Being was not inlaid in the rational creature on the morning of creation, when God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness." On the contrary, the apostle affirms that the Creator originally gave all mankind, in the moral constitution of a rational soul and in the works of creation and providence, the media to a correct idea of Himself, and asserts, by implication, that if they had always employed these media they would have always possessed this idea. "The wrath of God," he says, "is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who hold the truth in unrighteousness; because that which may be known of God is manifest in them, for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him, even his eternal power and Godhead, are clearly seen from the creation of the world, being understood by the things that are made, so that they are without excuse; because that when they knew God, they glorified him not as God" (Rom. i. 18-21). From this, it appears that the mind of man has not kept what was committed to its charge. It has not employed the moral instrumentalities, nor elicited the moral ideas, with which it has been furnished. And, notice that the apostle does not confine this statement to those who live within the pale of Revelation. His description is unlimited and universal. The affirmation of the text, that "when man knew God he glorified him not as God," applies to the Gentile as well as to the Jew. Nay, the primary reference of these statements was to the pagan world. It was respecting the millions of idolaters in cultivated Greece and Rome, and the millions of idolaters in barbarous India and China,—it was respecting the whole world lying in wickedness, that St. Paul remarked: "The invisible things of God, even his eternal power and Godhead, are clearly seen from the creation of the world down to the present moment, being understood by the things that are made; so that they are without excuse."
When Napoleon was returning from his campaign in Egypt and Syria, he was seated one night upon the deck of the vessel, under the open canopy of the heavens, surrounded by his captains and generals. The conversation had taken a skeptical direction, and most of the party had combated the doctrine of the Divine existence. Napoleon had sat silent and musing, apparently taking no interest in the discussion, when suddenly raising his hand, and pointing at the crystalline firmament crowded with its mildly shining planets and its keen glittering stars, he broke out, in those startling tones that so often electrified a million of men: "Gentlemen, who made all that?" The eternal power and Godhead of the Creator are impressed by the things that are made, and these words of Napoleon to his atheistic captains silenced them. And the same impression is made the world over. Go to-day into the heart of Africa, or into the centre of New Holland; select the most imbruted pagan that can be found; take him out under a clear star-lit heaven and ask him who made all that, and the idea of a Superior Being,—superior to all his fetishes and idols,—possessing eternal power and supremacy ([Greek: theotaes]) immediately emerges in his consciousness. The instant the missionary takes this lustful idolater away from the circle of his idols, and brings him face to face with the heavens and the earth, as Napoleon brought his captains, the constitutional idea dawns again, and the pagan trembles before the unseen Power.
But it will be objected that it is a very dim, and inadequate idea of the Deity that thus rises in the pagan's mind, and that therefore the apostle's affirmation that he is "without excuse" for being an idolater and a sensualist requires some qualification. This imbruted creature, says the objector, does not possess the metaphysical conception of God as a Spirit, and of all his various attributes and qualities, like the dweller in Christendom. How then can he be brought in guilty before the same eternal bar, and be condemned to the same eternal punishment, with the nominal Christian? The answer is plain, and decisive, and derivable out of the apostle's own statements. In order to establish the guiltiness of a rational creature before the bar of justice, it is not necessary to show that he has lived in the seventh heavens, and under a blaze of moral intelligence like that of the archangel Gabriel. It is only necessary to show that he has enjoyed some degree of moral light, and that he has not lived up to it. Any creature who knows more than he practises is a guilty creature. If the light in the pagan's intellect concerning God and the moral law, small though it be, is yet actually in advance of the inclination and affections of his heart and the actions of his life, he deserves to be punished, like any and every other creature, under the Divine government, of whom the same thing is true. Grades of knowledge vary indefinitely. No two men upon the planet, no two men in Christendom, possess precisely the same degree of moral intelligence. There are men walking the streets of this city to-day, under the full light of the Christian revelation, whose notions respecting God and law are exceedingly dim and inadequate; and there are others whose views are clear and correct in a high degree. But there is not a person in this city, young or old, rich or poor, ignorant or cultivated, in the purlieus of vice or the saloons of wealth, whose knowledge of God is not in advance of his own character and conduct. Every man, whatever be the grade of his intelligence, knows more than he puts in practice. Ask the young thief, in the subterranean haunts of vice and crime, if he does not know that it is wicked to steal, and if he renders an honest answer, it is in the affirmative. Ask the most besotted soul, immersed and petrified in sensuality, if his course of life upon earth has been in accordance with his own knowledge and conviction of what is right, and required by his Maker, and he will answer No, if he answers truly. The grade of knowledge in the Christian land is almost infinitely various; but in every instance the amount of knowledge is greater than the amount of virtue. Whether he knows little or much, the man knows more than he performs; and therefore his mouth must be stopped in the judgment, and he must plead guilty before God. He will not be condemned for not possessing that ethereal vision of God possessed by the seraphim; but he will be condemned because his perception of the holiness and the holy requirements of God was sufficient, at any moment, to rebuke his disregard of them; because when he knew God in some degree, he glorified him not as God up to that degree.
And this principle will be applied to the pagan world. It is so applied by the apostle Paul. He himself concedes that the Gentile has not enjoyed all the advantages of the Jew, and argues that the ungodly Jew will be visited with a more severe punishment than the ungodly Gentile. But he expressly affirms that the pagan is under law, and knows that he is; that he shows the work of the law that is written on the heart, in the operations of an accusing and condemning conscience. But the knowledge of law involves the knowledge of God in an equal degree. Who can feel himself amenable to a moral law, without at the same time thinking of its Author? The law and the Lawgiver are inseparable. The one is the mirror and index of the other. If the eye opens dimly upon the commandment, it opens dimly upon the Sovereign; if it perceives eternal right and law with clear and celestial vision, it then looks directly into the face of God. Law and God are correlative to each other; and just so far, consequently, as the heathen understands the law that is written on the heart does he apprehend the Being who sitteth upon the circle of the heavens, and who impinges Himself upon the consciousness of men. This being so, it is plain that we can confront the ungodly pagan with the same statements with which we confront the ungodly nominal Christian. We can tell him with positiveness, wherever we find him, be it upon the burning sands of Africa or in the frozen home of the Esquimaux, that he knows more than he puts in practice. We will concede to him that the quantum of his moral knowledge is very stinted and meagre; but in the same breath we will remind him that small as it is, he has not lived up to it; that he too has "come short"; that he too, knowing God in the dimmest, faintest degree, has yet not glorified him as God in the slightest, faintest manner. The Bible sends the ungodly and licentious pagan to hell, upon the same principle that it sends the ungodly and licentious nominal Christian. It is the principle enunciated by our Lord Christ, the judge of quick and dead, when he says, "He who knew his master's will [clearly], and did it not, shall be beaten with many stripes; and he who knew not his master's will [clearly, but knew it dimly,] and did it not, shall be beaten with few stripes." It is the just principle enunciated by St. Paul, that "as many as have sinned without [written] law shall also perish without [written] law." And this is right and righteous; and let all the universe say, Amen.
The doctrine taught in the text, that no human creature, in any country or grade of civilization, has ever glorified God to the extent of his knowledge of God, is very fertile in solemn and startling inferences, to some of which we now invite attention.
1. In the first place, it follows from this affirmation of the apostle Paul, that the entire heathen world is in a state of condemnation and perdition. He himself draws this inference, in saying that in the judgment "every mouth must be stopped, and the whole world become guilty before God."
The present and future condition of the heathen world is a subject that has always enlisted the interest of two very different classes of men. The Church of God has pondered, and labored, and prayed over this subject, and will continue to do so until the millennium. And the disbeliever in Revelation has also turned his mind to the consideration of this black mass of ignorance and misery, which welters upon the globe like a chaotic ocean; these teeming millions of barbarians and savages who render the aspect of the world so sad and so dark. The Church, we need not say, have accepted the Biblical theory, and have traced the lost condition of the pagan world, as the apostle Paul does, to their sin and transgression. They have held that every pagan is a rational being, and by virtue of this fact has known something of the moral law; and that to the extent of the knowledge he has had, he is as guilty for the transgression of law, and as really under its condemnation, as the dweller under the light of revelation and civilization. They have maintained that every human creature has enjoyed sufficient light, in the workings of natural reason and conscience, and in the impressions that are made by the glory and the terror of the natural world above and around him, to render him guilty before the Everlasting Judge. For this reason, the Church has denied that the pagan is an innocent creature, or that he can stand in the judgment before the Searcher of hearts. For this reason, the Church has believed the declaration of the apostle John, that "the whole world lieth in wickedness" (1 John v. 19), and has endeavored to obey the command of Him who came to redeem pagans as much as nominal Christians, to go and preach the gospel to every creature, because every creature is a lost creature.
But the disbeliever in Revelation adopts the theory of human innocency, and looks upon all the wretchedness and ignorance of paganism, as he looks upon suffering, decay, and death, in the vegetable and animal worlds. Temporary evil is the necessary condition, he asserts, of all finite existence; and as decay and death in the vegetable and animal worlds only result in a more luxuriant vegetation, and an increased multiplication of living creatures, so the evil and woe of the hundreds of generations, and the millions of individuals, during the sixty centuries that have elapsed since the origin of man, will all of it minister to the ultimate and everlasting weal of the entire race. There is no need therefore, he affirms, of endeavoring to save such feeble and ignorant beings from judicial condemnation and eternal penalty. Such finiteness and helplessness cannot be put into relations to such an awful attribute as the eternal nemesis of God. Can it be,—he asks,—that the millions upon millions that have been born, lived their brief hour, enjoyed their little joys and suffered their sharp sorrows, and then dropped into "the dark backward and abysm of time," have really been guilty creatures, and have gone down to an endless hell?
But what does all this reasoning and querying imply? Will the objector really take the position and stand to it, that the pagan man is not a rational and responsible creature? that he does not possess sufficient knowledge of moral truth, to justify his being brought to the bar of judgment? Will he say that the population that knew enough to build the pyramids did not know enough to break the law of God? Will he affirm that the civilization of Babylon and Nineveh, of Greece and Rome, did not contain within it enough of moral intelligence to constitute a foundation for rewards and punishments? Will he tell us that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah stood upon the same plane with the brutes that perish, and the trees of the field that rot and die, having no idea of God, knowing nothing of the distinction between right and wrong, and never feeling the pains of an accusing conscience? Will he maintain that the populations of India, in the midst of whom one of the most subtile and ingenious systems of pantheism has sprung up with the luxuriance and involutions of one of their own jungles, and has enervated the whole religious sentiment of the Hindoo race as opium has enervated their physical frame,—will he maintain that such an untiring and persistent mental activity as this is incapable of apprehending the first principles of ethics and natural religion, which, in comparison with the complicated and obscure ratiocinations of Boodhism, are clear as water, and lucid as atmospheric air? In other connections, this theorist does not speak in this style. In other connections, and for the purpose of exaggerating natural religion and disparaging revealed, he enlarges upon the dignity of man, of every man, and eulogizes the power of reason which so exalts him in the scale of being. With Hamlet, he dilates in proud and swelling phrase: "What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!" It is from that very class of theorizers who deny that the heathen are in danger of eternal perdition, and who represent the whole missionary enterprise as a work of supererogation, that we receive the most extravagant accounts of the natural powers and gifts of man. Now if these powers and gifts do belong to human nature by its constitution, they certainly lay a foundation for responsibility; and all such theorists must either be able to show that the pagan man has made a right use of them, and has walked according to this large amount of truth and reason with which, according to their own statement, he is endowed, or else they consign him, as St. Paul does, to "the wrath of God which is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness, and unrighteousness of men who hold the truth in unrighteousness." If you assert that the pagan man has had no talents at all committed to him, and can prove your assertion, and will stand by it, you are consistent in denying that he can be summoned to the bar of God, and be tried for eternal life or death. But if you concede that he has had one talent, or two talents, committed to his charge; and still more, if you exaggerate his gifts and endow him with five or ten talents, then it is impossible for you to save him from the judgment to come, except you can prove a perfect administration and use of the trust.
2. In the second place, it follows from the doctrine of the text, that the degraded and brutalized population of large cities is in a state of condemnation and perdition.
There are heathen near our own doors whose religious condition is as sad, and hopeless, as that of the heathen of Patagonia or New Zealand. The vice and crime that nestles and riots in the large cities of Christendom has become a common theme, and has lost much of its interest for the worldly mind by losing its novelty. The manners and way of life of the outcast population of London and Paris have been depicted by the novelist, and wakened a momentary emotion in the readers of fiction. But the reality is stern and dreadful, beyond imagination or conception. There is in the cess-pools of the great capitals of Christendom a mass of human creatures who are born, who live, and who die, in moral putrefaction. Their existence is a continued career of sin and woe. Body and soul, mind and heart, are given up to earth, to sense, to corruption. They emerge for a brief season into the light of day, run their swift and fiery career of sin, and then disappear. Dante, in that wonderful Vision which embodies so much of true ethics and theology, represents the wrathful and gloomy class as sinking down under the miry waters and continuing to breathe in a convulsive, suffocating manner, sending up bubbles to the surface, that mark the place where they are drawing out their lingering existence. Something like this, is the wretched life of a vicious population. As we look in upon the fermenting mass, the only signs of life that meet our view indicate that the life is feverish, spasmodic, and suffocating. The bubbles rising to the dark and turbid surface reveal that it is a life in death.
But this, too, is the result of sin. Take the atoms one by one that constitute this mass of pollution and misery, and you will find that each one of them is a self-moving and an unforced will. Not one of these millions of individuals has been necessitated by Almighty God, or by any of God's arrangements, to do wrong. Each one of them is a moral agent, equally with you and me. Each one of them is self-willed and self-determined in sin. He does not like to retain religious truth in his mind, or to obey it in his heart. Go into the lowest haunt of vice and select out the most imbruted person there; bring to his remembrance that class of truths with which he is already acquainted by virtue of his rational nature, and add to them that other class of truths taught in Revelation, and you will find that he is predetermined against them. He takes sides, with all the depth and intensity of his being, with that sinfulness which is common to man, and which it is the aim of both ethics and the gospel to remove. This vicious and imbruted man loves the sin which is forbidden, more than he loves the holiness that is commanded. He inclines to the sin which so easily besets him, precisely as you and I incline to the bosom-sin which so easily besets us. We grant that the temptations that assail him are very powerful; but are not some of the temptations that beset you and me very powerful? We grant that this wretched slave of vice and pollution cannot break off his sins by righteousness, without the renewing and assisting grace of God; but neither can you or I. It is the action of his own will that has made him a slave. He loves his chains and his bondage, even as you and I naturally love ours; and this proves that his moral corruption, though assuming an outwardly more repulsive form than ours, is yet the same thing in principle. It is the rooted aversion of the human heart, the utter disinclination of the human will, towards the purity and holiness of God; it is "the carnal mind which is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be" (Rom. viii. 7).
But there is no more convincing proof of the position, that the degraded creature of whom we are speaking is a self-deciding and unforced sinner, than the fact that he resists efforts to reclaim him. Ask these faithful and benevolent missionaries who go down into these dens of vice and pollution, to pour more light into the mind, and to induce these outcasts to leave their drunkenness and their debauchery,—ask them if they find that human nature is any different there from what it is elsewhere, so far as yielding to the claims of God and law is concerned. Do they tell you that they are uniformly successful in inducing these sinners to leave their sins? that they never find any self-will, any determined opposition to the holy law of purity, any preference of a life of licence with its woes here upon earth and hereafter in hell, to a life of self-denial with its joys eternal? On the contrary, they testify that the old maxim upon which so many millions of the human family have acted: "Enjoy the present and jump the life to come," is the rule for this mass of population, of whom so very few can be persuaded to leave their cups and their orgies. Like the people of Israel, when expostulated with by the prophet Jeremiah for their idolatry and pollution, the majority of the degraded population of whom we are speaking, when endeavors have been made to reclaim them, have said to the philanthropist and the missionary: "There is no hope: no; for I have loved strangers, and after them I will go" (Jer. ii. 25). There is not a single individual of them all who does not love the sin that is destroying him, more than he loves the holiness that would save him. Notwithstanding all the horrible accompaniments of sin—the filth, the disease, the poverty, the sickness, the pain of both body and mind,—the wretched creature prefers to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season, rather than come out and separate himself from the unclean thing, and begin that holy warfare and obedience to which his God and his Saviour invite him. This, we repeat, proves that the sin is not forced upon this creature. For if he hated his sin, nay if he felt weary and heavy laden in the least degree because of it, he might leave it. There is a free grace, and a proffered assistance of the Holy Ghost, of which he might avail himself at any moment. Had he the feeling of the weary and penitent prodigal, the same father's house is ever open for his return; and the same father seeing him on his return, though still a great way off, would run and fall upon his neck and kiss him. But the heart is hard, and the spirit is utterly selfish, and the will is perverse and determined, and therefore the natural knowledge of God and his law which this sinner possesses by his very constitution, and the added knowledge which his birth in a Christian land and the efforts of benevolent Christians have imparted to him, are not strong enough to overcome his inclination, and his preference, and induce him to break off his sins by righteousness. To him, also, as well as to every sin-loving man, these solemn words will be spoken in the day of final adjudication: "The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness, and unrighteousness, of men who hold down ([Greek: katechein]) the truth in unrighteousness; because that which may be known of God is manifest within them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him, even his eternal power and Godhead, are clearly seen from the creation of the world, being understood by the things that are made; so that they are without excuse, because that when they knew God. they glorified him not as God."
3. In the third and last place, it follows from this doctrine of the apostle Paul, as thus unfolded, that that portion of the enlightened and cultivated population of Christian lands who have not believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, and repented of sin, are in the deepest state of condemnation and perdition.
"Behold thou art called a Jew, and restest in the law, and makest thy boast of God, and knowest his will, and approvest the things that are more excellent, being instructed out of the law, and art confident that thou thyself art a guide of the blind, a light of them which are in darkness: an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes: which hast the form of knowledge, and of the truth, in the law: thou therefore that teachest another teachest thou not thyself? thou that makest thy boast of the law, through breaking the law dishonored thou God?"
If it be true that the pagan knows more of God and the moral law than he has ever put in practice; if it be true that the imbruted child of vice and pollution knows more of God and the moral law than he has ever put in practice; how much more fearfully true is it that the dweller in a Christian home, the visitant of the house of God, the possessor of the written Word, the listener to prayer and oftentimes the subject of it, possesses an amount of knowledge respecting his origin, his duty, and his destiny, that infinitely outruns his character and his conduct. If eternal punishment will come down upon those classes of mankind who know but comparatively little, because they have been unfaithful in that which is least, surely eternal punishment will come down upon that more favored class who know comparatively much, because they have been unfaithful in that which is much. "If these things are done in the green tree, what shall be done in the dry?"
The great charge that will rest against the creature when he stands before the final bar will be, that "when he knew God, he glorified Him not as God." And this will rest heaviest against those whose knowledge was the clearest. It is a great prerogative to be able to know the infinite and glorious Creator; but it brings with it a most solemn responsibility. That blessed Being, of right, challenges the homage and obedience of His creature. What he asks of the angel, that he asks of man; that he should glorify God in his body and spirit which are His, and should thereby enjoy God forever and forever. This is the condemnation, under which man, and especially enlightened and cultivated man, rests, that while he knows God he neither glorifies Him nor enjoys Him. Our Redeemer saw this with all the clearness of the Divine Mind; and to deliver the creature from the dreadful guilt, of his self-idolatry, of his disposition to worship and love the creature more than the Creator, He became incarnate, suffered and died. It cannot be a small crime, that necessitated, such an apparatus of atonement and Divine influences as that of Christ and His redemption. Estimate the guilt of coming short of the glory of God, which is the same as the guilt of idolatry and creature-worship, by the nature of the provision that has been made to cancel it. If you do not actually feel that this crime is great, then argue yourself towards a juster view, by the consideration that it cost the blood of Christ to expiate it. If you do not actually feel that the guilt is great, then argue yourself towards a juster view, by the reflection that you have known God to be supremely great, supremely good, and supremely excellent, and yet you have never, in a single feeling of your heart, or a single thought of your mind, or a single purpose of your will, honored Him. It is honor, reverence, worship, and love that He requires. These you have never rendered; and there is an infinity of guilt in the fact. That guilt will be forgiven for Christ's sake, if you ask for forgiveness. But if you do not ask, then it will stand recorded against you for eternal ages: "When he, a rational and immortal creature, knew God, he glorified Him not as God."
[Footnote 1: The early Fathers, in their defence of the Christian doctrine of one God, against the objections of the pagan advocate of the popular mythologies, contend that the better pagan writers themselves agree with the new religion, in teaching that there is one Supreme Being. LACTANTIUS (Institutiones i. 5), after quoting the Orphic poets, Hesiod, Virgil, and Ovid, in proof that the heathen poets taught the unity of the Supreme Deity, proceeds to show that the better pagan philosophers, also, agree with them in this. "Aristotle," he says, "although he disagrees with himself, and says many things that are self-contradictory, yet testifies that one Supreme Mind rules over the world. Plato, who is regarded as the wisest philosopher of them all, plainly and openly defends the doctrine of a divine monarchy, and denominates the Supreme Being; not ether, nor reason, nor nature, but, as he is, God; and asserts that by him this perfect and admirable world was made. And Cicero follows Plato, frequently confessing the Deity, and calls him the Supreme Being, in his treatise on the Laws." TERTULLIAN (De Test. An. c. 1; Adv. Marc. i. 10; Ad. Scap. c. 2; Apol. c. 17), than whom no one of the Christian Fathers was more vehemently opposed to the philosophizing of the schools, earnestly contends that the doctrine of the unity of God is constitutional to the human mind. "God," he says, "proves himself to be God, and the one only God, by the very fact that He is known to all nations; for the existence of any other deity than He would first have to be demonstrated. The God of the Jews is the one whom the souls of men call their God. We worship one God, the one whom ye all naturally know, at whose lightnings and thunders ye tremble, at whose benefits ye rejoice. Will ye that we prove the Divine existence by the witness of the soul itself, which, although confined by the prison of the body, although circumscribed by bad training, although enervated by lusts and passions, although made the servant of false gods, yet when it recovers itself as from a surfeit, as from a slumber, as from some infirmity, and is in its proper condition of soundness, calls God by this name only, because it is the proper name of the true God. 'Great God,' 'good God,' and 'God grant' [deus, not dii], are words in every mouth. The soul also witnesses that He is its judge, when it says, 'God sees,' 'I commend to God,' 'God shall recompense me.' O testimony of a soul naturally Christian [i.e., monotheistic]! Finally, in pronouncing these words, it looks not to the Roman capitol, but to heaven; for it knows the dwelling-place of the true God: from Him and from thence it descended." CALVIN (Inst. i. 10) seems to have had these statements in his eye, in the following remarks: "In almost all ages, religion has been generally corrupted. It is true, indeed, that the name of one Supreme God has been universally known and celebrated. For those who used to worship a multitude of deities, whenever they spake according to the genuine sense of nature, used simply the name of God in the singular number, as though they were contented with one God. And this was wisely remarked by Justin Martyr, who for this purpose wrote a book 'On the Monarchy of God,' in which he demonstrates, from numerous testimonies, that the unity of God is a principle universally impressed on the hearts of men. Tertullian (De Idololatria) also proves the same point, from the common phraseology. But since all men, without exception, have become vain in their understandings, all their natural perception of the Divine Unity has only served to render them inexcusable." In consonance with these views, the Presbyterian CONFESSION OF FAITH (ch. i.) affirms that "the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence, do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable."]
[Footnote 2: The word [Greek: apolountai], in Rom. ii. 12, is opposed to the [Greek: sotaeria] spoken of in Rom. i. 16, and therefore signifies eternal perdition, as that signifies eternal salvation.-Those theorists who reject revealed religion, and remand man back to the first principles of ethics and morality as the only religion that he needs, send him to a tribunal that damns him. "Tell me," says St. Paul, "ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law? The law is not of faith, but the man that doeth them shall live by them. Circumcision verily profiteth if thou keep the law; but if thou be a breaker of the law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision." If man had been true to all the principles and precepts of natural religion, it would indeed be religion enough for him. But he has not been thus true. The entire list of vices and sins recited by St. Paul, in the first chapter of Romans, is as contrary to natural religion, as it is to revealed. And it is precisely because the pagan world has not obeyed the principles of natural religion, and is under a curse and a bondage therefor, that it is in perishing need of the truths of revealed religion. Little do those know what they are saying, when they propose to find a salvation for the pagan in the mere light of natural reason and conscience. What pagan has ever realized the truths of natural conscience, in his inward character and his outward life? What pagan is there in all the generations that will not be found guilty before the bar of natural religion? What heathen will not need an atonement, for his failure to live up even to the light of nature? Nay, what is the entire sacrificial cultus of heathenism, but a confession that the whole heathen world finds and feels itself to be guilty at the bar of natural reason and conscience? The accusing voice within them wakes their forebodings and fearful looking-for of Divine judgment, and they endeavor to propitiate the offended Power by their offerings and sacrifices.]
[Footnote 3: Infidelity is constantly changing its ground. In the 18th century, the skeptic very generally took the position of Lord Herbert of Cherbury, and maintained that the light of reason is very clear, and is adequate to all the religious needs of the soul. In the 19th century, he is now passing to the other extreme, and contending that man is kindred to the ape, and within the sphere of paganism does not possess sufficient moral intelligence to constitute him responsible. Like Luther's drunken beggar on horseback, the opponent of Revelation sways from the position that man is a god, to the position that he is a chimpanzee.]
[Footnote 4: DANTE: Inferno, vii. 100-130.]
SIN IN THE HEART THE SOURCE OF ERROR IN THE HEAD
ROMANS i. 28.—"As they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind."
In the opening of the most logical and systematic treatise in the New Testament, the Epistle to the Romans, the apostle Paul enters upon a line of argument to demonstrate the ill-desert of every human creature without exception. In order to this, he shows that no excuse can be urged upon the ground of moral ignorance. He explicitly teaches that the pagan knows that there is one Supreme God (Rom. i. 20); that He is a spirit (Rom. i. 23); that He is holy and sin-hating (Rom. i. 18); that He is worthy to be worshipped (Rom. i. 21, 25); and that men ought to be thankful for His benefits (Rom. i. 21). He affirms that the heathen knows that an idol is a lie (Rom. i. 25); that licentiousness is a sin (Rom. i. 26, 32); that envy, malice, and deceit are wicked (Rom. i. 29, 32); and that those who practise such sins deserve eternal punishment (Rom. i. 32).
In these teachings and assertions, the apostle has attributed no small amount and degree of moral knowledge to man as man,—to man outside of Revelation, as well as under its shining light. The question very naturally arises: How comes it to pass that this knowledge which Divine inspiration postulates, and affirms to be innate and constitutional to the human mind, should become so vitiated? The majority of mankind are idolaters and polytheists, and have been for thousands of years. Can it be that the truth that there is only one God is native to the human spirit, and that the pagan "knows" this God? The majority of men are earthly and sensual, and have been for thousands of years. Can it be that there is a moral law written upon their hearts forbidding such carnality, and enjoining purity and holiness?
Some theorizers argue that because the pagan man has not obeyed the law, therefore he does not know the law; and that because he has not revered and worshipped the one Supreme Deity, therefore he does not possess the idea of any such Being. They look out upon the heathen populations and see them bowing down to stocks and stones, and witness their immersion in the abominations of heathenism, and conclude that these millions of human beings really know no better, and that therefore it is unjust to hold them responsible for their polytheism and their moral corruption. But why do they confine this species of reasoning to the pagan world? Why do they not bring it into nominal Christendom, and apply it there? Why does not this theorist go into the midst of European civilization, into the heart of London or Paris, and gauge the moral knowledge of the sensualist by the moral character of the sensualist? Why does he not tell us that because this civilized man acts no better, therefore he knows no better? Why does he not maintain that because this voluptuary breaks all the commandments in the decalogue, therefore he must be ignorant of all the commandments in the decalogue? that because he neither fears nor loves the one only God, therefore he does not know that there is any such Being?
It will never do to estimate man's moral knowledge by man's moral character. He knows more than he practises. And there is not so much difference in this particular between some men in nominal Christendom, and some men in Heathendom, as is sometimes imagined. The moral knowledge of those who lie in the lower strata of Christian civilization, and those who lie in the higher strata of Paganism, is probably not so very far apart. Place the imbruted outcasts of our metropolitan population beside the Indian hunter, with his belief in the Great Spirit, and his worship without images or pictorial representations; beside the stalwart Mandingo of the high table-lands of Central Africa, with his active and enterprising spirit, carrying on manufactures and trade with all the keenness of any civilized worldling; beside the native merchants and lawyers of Calcutta, who still cling to their ancestral Boodhism, or else substitute French infidelity in its place; place the lowest of the highest beside the highest of the lowest, and tell us if the difference is so very marked. Sin, like holiness, is a mighty leveler. The "dislike to retain God" in the consciousness, the aversion of the heart towards the purity of the moral law, vitiates the native perceptions alike in Christendom and Paganism.
The theory that the pagan is possessed of such an amount and degree of moral knowledge as has been specified has awakened some apprehension in the minds of some Christian theologians, and has led them, unintentionally to foster the opposite theory, which, if strictly adhered, to, would lift off all responsibility from the pagan world, would bring them in innocent at the bar of God, and would render the whole enterprise of Christian missions a superfluity and an absurdity. Their motive has been good. They have feared to attribute any degree of accurate knowledge of God and the moral law, to the pagan world, lest they should thereby conflict with the doctrine of total depravity. They have mistakenly supposed, that if they should concede to every man, by virtue of his moral constitution, some correct apprehensions of ethics and natural religion, it would follow that there is some native goodness in him. But light in the intellect is very different from life in the heart. It is one thing to know the law of God, and quite another thing to be conformed to it. Even if we should concede to the degraded pagan, or the degraded dweller in the haunts of vice in Christian lands, all the intellectual knowledge of God and the moral law that is possessed by the ruined archangel himself, we should not be adding a particle to his moral character or his moral excellence. There is nothing of a holy quality in the mere intellectual perception that there is one Supreme Deity, and that He has issued a pure and holy law for the guidance of all rational beings. The mere doctrine of the Divine Unity will save no man. "Thou believest," says St. James, "that there is one God; thou doest well, the devils also believe and tremble." Satan himself is a monotheist, and knows very clearly all the commandments of God; but his heart and will are in demoniacal antagonism with them. And so it is, only in a lower degree, in the instance of the pagan, and of the natural man, in every age, and in every clime. He knows more than he practises. This intellectual perception therefore, this inborn constitutional apprehension, instead of lifting up man into a higher and more favorable position before the eternal bar, casts him down to perdition. If he knew nothing at all of his Maker and his duty, he could not be held responsible, and could, not be summoned to judgment. As St. Paul affirms: "Where there is no law there is no transgression." But if, when he knew God in some degree, he glorified him not as God to that degree; and if, when the moral law was written upon the heart he went counter to its requirements, and heard the accusing voice of his own conscience; then his mouth must be stopped, and he must become guilty before his Judge, like any and every other disobedient creature.
It is this serious and damning fact in the history of man upon the globe, that St. Paul brings to view, in the passage which we have selected as the foundation of this discourse. He accounts for all the idolatry and sensuality, all the darkness and vain imaginations of paganism, by referring to the aversion of the natural heart towards the one only holy God. "Men," he says,—these pagan men—"did not like to retain God in their knowledge." The primary difficulty was in their affections, and not in their understandings. They knew too much for their own comfort in sin. The contrast between the Divine purity that was mirrored in their conscience, and the sinfulness that was wrought into their heart and will, rendered this inborn constitutional idea of God a very painful one. It was a fire in the bones. If the Psalmist, a renewed man, yet not entirely free from human corruption, could say: "I thought of God and was troubled," much more must the totally depraved man of paganism be filled with terror when, in the thoughts of his heart, in the hour when the accusing conscience was at work, he brought to mind the one great God of gods whom he did not glorify, and whom he had offended. It was no wonder, therefore, that he did not like to retain the idea of such a Being in his consciousness, and that he adopted all possible expedients to get rid of it. The apostle informs us that the pagan actually called in his imagination to his aid, in order to extirpate, if possible, all his native and rational ideas and convictions upon religious subjects. He became vain in his imaginations, and his foolish heart as a consequence was darkened, and he changed the glory of the incorruptible God, the spiritual unity of the Deity, into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things (Rom. i. 21-23). He invented idolatry, and all those "gay religions full of pomp and gold," in order to blunt the edge of that sharp spiritual conception of God which was continually cutting and lacerating his wicked and sensual heart. Hiding himself amidst the columns of his idolatrous temples, and under the smoke of his idolatrous incense, he thought like Adam to escape from the view and inspection of that Infinite One who, from the creation of the world downward, makes known to all men his eternal power and godhead; who, as St. Paul taught the philosophers of Athens, is not far from anyone of his rational creatures (Acts xvii. 27); and who, as the same apostle taught the pagan Lycaonians, though in times past he suffered all nations to walk in their own ways, yet left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave them rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling their hearts with food and gladness. (Acts xiv. 16, 17).
The first step in the process of mutilating the original idea of God, as a unity and an unseen Spirit, is seen in those pantheistic religions which lie behind all the mythologies of the ancient world, like a nebulous vapor out of which the more distinct idols and images of paganism are struggling. Here the notion of the Divine unity is still preserved; but the Divine personality and holiness are lost. God becomes a vague impersonal Power, with no moral qualities, and no religious attributes; and it is difficult to say which is worst in its moral influence, this pantheism which while retaining the doctrine of the Divine unity yet denudes the Deity of all that renders him an object of either love or reverence, or the grosser idolatries that succeeded it. For man cannot love, with all his mind and heart and soul and strength, a vast impersonal force working blindly through infinite space and everlasting time.
And the second and last stage in this process of vitiating the true idea of God appears in that polytheism in the midst of which St. Paul lived, and labored, and preached, and died; in that seductive and beautiful paganism, that classical idolatry, which still addresses the human taste in such a fascinating manner, in the Venus de Medici, and the Apollo Belvidere. The idea of the unity of God is now mangled and cut up into the "gods many" and the "lords many," into the thirty thousand divinities of the pagan pantheon. This completes the process. God now gives his guilty creature over to these vain imaginations of naturalism, materialism, and idolatry, and to an increasingly darkening mind, until in the lowest forms of heathenism he so distorts and suppresses the concreated idea of the Deity that some speculatists assert that it does not belong to his constitution, and that his Maker never endowed him with it. How is the gold become dim! How is the most fine gold changed!
But it will be objected that all this lies in the past. This is the account of a process that has required centuries, yea millenniums, to bring about. A hundred generations have been engaged in transmuting the monotheism with which the human race started, into the pantheism and polytheism in which the great majority of it is now involved. How do you establish the guilt of those at the end of the line? How can you charge upon the present generation of pagans the same culpability that Paul imputed to their ancestors eighteen centuries ago, and that Noah the preacher of righteousness denounced, upon the antediluvian pagan? As the deteriorating process advances, does not the guilt diminish? and now, in these ends of the ages, and in these dark habitations of cruelty, has not the culpability run down to a minimum, which God in the day of judgment will "wink at?"
We answer No: Because the structure of the human mind is precisely the same that it was when the Sodomites held down the truth in unrighteousness, and the Roman populace turned up their thumbs that they might see the last drops of blood ebb slowly from the red gash in the dying gladiator's side. Man, in his deepest degradation, in his most hardened depravity, is still a rational intelligence; and though he should continue to sin on indefinitely, through cycles of time as long as those of geology, he cannot unmake himself; he cannot unmould his immortal essence, and absolutely eradicate all his moral ideas. Paganism itself has its fluctuations of moral knowledge. The early Roman, in the days of Numa, was highly ethical in his views of the Deity, and his conceptions of moral law. Varro informs us that for a period of one hundred and seventy years the Romans worshipped their gods without any images; and Sallust denominates these pristine Romans "religiosissimi mortales." And how often does the missionary discover a tribe or a race, whose moral intelligence is higher than that of the average of paganism. Nay, the same race, or tribe, passes from one phase of polytheism to another; in one instance exhibiting many of the elements and truths of natural religion, and in another almost entirely suppressing them. These facts prove that the pagan man is under supervision; that he is under the righteous despotism of moral ideas and convictions; that God is not far from him; that he lives and moves and has his being in his Maker; and that God does not leave himself without witness in his constitutional structure. Therefore it is, that this sea of rational intelligence thus surges and sways in the masses of paganism; sometimes dashing the creature up the heights, and sometimes sending him down into the depths.
But while this subject has this general application to mankind outside of Revelation; while it throws so much light upon the question of the heathens' responsibility and guilt; while it tends to deepen our interest in the work of Christian missions, and to stimulate us to obey our Redeemer's command to go and preach the gospel to them, in order to save them from the wrath of God which abideth upon them as it does upon ourselves; while this subject has these profound and far-reaching applications, it also presses with sharpness and energy upon the case, and the position, of millions of men in Christendom. And to this more particular aspect of the theme, we ask attention for a moment.
This same process of corruption, and vitiation of a correct knowledge of God, which we have seen to go on upon a large scale in the instance of the heathen world, also often goes on in the instance of a single individual under the light of Revelation itself. Have you never known a person to have been well educated in childhood and youth respecting the character and government of God, and yet in middle life and old age to have altered and corrupted all his early and accurate apprehensions, by the gradual adoption of contrary views and sentiments? In his childhood, and youth, he believed that God distinguishes between the righteous and the wicked, that he rewards the one and punishes the other, and hence he cherished a salutary fear of his Maker that agreed well with the dictates of his unsophisticated reason, and the teachings of nature and revelation. But when, he became a man, he put away these childish things, in a far different sense from that of the Apostle. As the years rolled, along, he succeeded, by a career of worldliness and of sensuality, in expelling this stock of religious knowledge, this right way of conceiving of God, from his mind, and now at the close of life and upon the very brink of eternity and of doom, this very same person is as unbelieving respecting the moral attributes of Jehovah, and as unfearing with regard to them, as if the entire experience and creed of his childhood and youth were a delusion and a lie. This rational and immortal creature in the morning of his existence looked up into the clear sky with reverence, being impressed by the eternal power and godhead that are there, and when he had committed a sin he felt remorseful and guilty; but the very same person now sins recklessly and with flinty hardness of heart, casts sullen or scowling glances upward, and says: "There is no God." Compare the Edward Gibbon whose childhood expanded under the teachings of a beloved Christian matron trained in the school of the devout William Law, and whose youth exhibited unwonted religions sensibility,—compare this Edward Gibbon with the Edward Gibbon whose manhood was saturated with utter unbelief, and whose departure into the dread hereafter was, in his own phrase, "a leap in the dark." Compare the Aaron Burr whose blood was deduced from one of the most saintly lineages in the history of the American church, and all of whose early life was embosomed in ancestral piety,—compare this Aaron Burr with the Aaron Burr whose middle life and prolonged old age was unimpressible as marble to all religious ideas and influences. In both of these instances, it was the aversion of the heart that for a season (not for eternity, be it remembered) quenched out the light in the head. These men, like the pagan of whom St. Paul speaks, did not like to retain a holy God in their knowledge, and He gave them over to a reprobate mind.
These fluctuations and changes in doctrinal belief, both in the general and the individual mind, furnish materials for deep reflection by both the philosopher and the Christian; and such an one will often be led to notice the exact parallel and similarity there is between religious deterioration in races, and religious deterioration in individuals. The dislike to retain a knowledge already furnished, because it is painful, because it rebukes worldliness and sin, is that which ruins both mankind in general, and the man in particular. Were the heart only conformed to the truth, the truth never would be corrupted, never would be even temporarily darkened in the human soul. Should the pagan, himself, actually obey the dictates of his own reason and conscience, he would find the light that was in him growing still clearer and brighter. God himself, the author of his rational mind, and the Light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world, would reward him for his obedience by granting him yet more knowledge. We cannot say in what particular mode the Divine providence would bring it about, but it is as certain as that God lives, that if the pagan world should act up to the degree of light which they enjoy, they would be conducted ultimately to the truth as it is in Jesus, and would be saved by the Redeemer of the world. The instance of the Roman centurion Cornelius is a case in point. This was a thoughtful and serious pagan. It is indeed very probable that his military residence in Palestine had cleared up, to some degree, his natural intuitions of moral truth; but we know that he was ignorant of the way of salvation through Christ, from the fact that the apostle Peter was instructed in a vision to go and preach it unto him. The sincere endeavor of this Gentile, this then pagan in reference to Christianity, to improve the little knowledge which he had, met with the Divine approbation, and was crowned with a saving acquaintance with the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Peter himself testified to this, when, after hearing from the lips of Cornelius the account of his previous life, and of the way in which God had led him, "he opened his mouth and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation, he that feareth him and worketh righteousness is accepted with him" (Acts x. 34, 35).