Was, then, that which is good made death unto this youth, by a Divine arrangement? Is this the original and necessary relation which law sustains to the will and affections of an accountable creature? Must the pure and holy law of God, from the very nature of things, be a weariness and a curse? God forbid. But sin that it might appear sin, working death in the sinner by that which is good,—that sin by the commandment might become, might be seen to be, exceeding sinful. The law is like a chemical test. It eats into sin enough to show what sin is, and there stops. The lunar caustic bites into the dead flesh of the mortified limb; but there is no healing virtue in the lunar caustic. The moral law makes no inward alterations in a sinner. In its own distinctive and proper action upon the heart and will of an apostate being, it is fitted only to elicit and exasperate his existing enmity. It can, therefore, no more be a source of sanctification, than it can be of justification.
Of what use, then, is the law to a fallen man?—some one will ask. Why is the commandment enunciated in the Scriptures, and why is the Christian ministry perpetually preaching it to men dead in trespasses and sins? If the law can subdue no man's obstinate will, and can renovate no man's corrupt heart,—if it can make nothing perfect in human character,—then, "wherefore serveth the law?" "It was added because of transgressions,"—says the Apostle in answer to this very question. It is preached and forced home in order to detect sin, but not to remove it; to bring men to a consciousness of the evil of their hearts, but not to change their hearts. "For," continues the Apostle, "if there had been a law given which could have given life"—which could produce a transformation of character,—"then verily righteousness should have been by the law," It is not because the stern and threatening commandment can impart spiritual vitality to the sinner, but because it can produce within him the keen vivid sense of spiritual death, that it is enunciated in the word of God, and proclaimed from the Christian pulpit. The Divine law is waved like a flashing sword before the eyes of man, not because it can make him alive but, because it can slay him, that he may then be made alive, not by the law but by the Holy Ghost,—by the Breath that cometh from the four winds and breathes on the slain.
It is easy to see, by a moment's reflection, that, from the nature of the case, the moral law cannot be a source of spiritual life and sanctification to a soul that has lost these. For law primarily supposes life, supposes an obedient inclination, and therefore does not produce it. It is not the function of any law to impart that moral force, that right disposition of the heart, by which its command is to be obeyed. The State, for example, enacts a law against murder, but this mere enactment does not, and cannot, produce a benevolent disposition in the citizens of the commonwealth, in case they are destitute of it. How often do we hear the remark, that it is impossible to legislate either morality or religion into the people. When the Supreme Governor first placed man under the obligations and sovereignty of law, He created him in His own image and likeness: endowing him with that holy heart and right inclination which obeys the law of God with ease and delight. God made man upright, and in this state he could and did keep the commands of God perfectly. If, therefore, by any subsequent action upon their part, mankind have gone out of the primary relationship in which they stood to law, and have by their apostasy lost all holy sympathy with it, and all affectionate disposition to obey it, it only remains for the law (not to change along with them, but) to continue immutably the same pure and righteous thing, and to say, "Obey perfectly, and thou shalt live; disobey in a single instance, and thou shalt die."
But the text teaches us, that although the law can make no sinful man perfect, either upon the side of justification, or of sanctification, "the bringing in of a better hope" can. This hope is the evangelic hope,—the yearning desire, and the humble trust,—to be forgiven through the atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ, and to be sanctified by the indwelling power of the Holy Ghost. A simple, but a most powerful thing! Does the law, in its abrupt and terrible operation in my conscience, start out the feeling of guiltiness until I throb with anguish, and moral fear? I hope, I trust, I ask, to be pardoned through the blood of the Eternal Son of God my Redeemer. I will answer all these accusations of law and conscience, by pleading what my Lord has done.
Again, does the law search me, and probe me, and elicit me, and reveal me, until I would shrink out of the sight of God and of myself? I hope, I trust, I ask, to be made pure as the angels, spotless as the seraphim, by the transforming grace of the Holy Spirit. This confidence in Christ's Person and Work is the anchor,—an anchor that was never yet wrenched from the clefts of the Rock of Ages, and never will be through the aeons of aeons. By this hope, which goes away from self, and goes away from the law, to Christ's oblation and the Holy Spirit's energy, we do indeed draw very nigh to God,—"heart to heart, spirit to spirit, life to life."
1. The unfolding of this text of Scripture shows, in the first place, the importance of having a distinct and discriminating conception of law, and especially of its proper function in reference to a sinful being. Very much is gained when we understand precisely what the moral law, as taught in the Scriptures, and written in our consciences, can do, and cannot do, towards our salvation. It can do nothing positively and efficiently. It cannot extinguish a particle of our guilt, and it cannot purge away a particle of our corruption. Its operation is wholly negative and preparatory. It is merely a schoolmaster to conduct us to Christ. And the more definitely this truth and fact is fixed in our minds, the more intelligently shall we proceed in our use of law and conscience.
2. In the second place, the unfolding of this text shows the importance of using the law faithfully and fearlessly within its own limits; and in accordance with its proper function. It is frequently asked what the sinner shall do in the work of salvation. The answer is nigh thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart. Be continually applying the law of God to your personal character and conduct. Keep an active and a searching conscience within your sinful soul. Use the high, broad, and strict commandment of God as an instrumentality by which all ease, and all indifference, in sin shall be banished from the breast. Employ all this apparatus of torture, as perhaps it may seem to you in some sorrowful hours, and break up that moral drowze and lethargy which is ruining so many souls. And then cease this work, the instant you have experimentally found out that the law reaches a limit beyond which it cannot go,—that it forgives none of the sins which it detects, produces no change in the heart whose vileness it reveals, and makes no lost sinner perfect again. Having used the law legitimately, for purposes of illumination and conviction merely, leave it forever as a source of justification and sanctification, and seek these in Christ's atonement, and the Holy Spirit's gracious operation in the heart. Then sin shall not have dominion over you; for you shall not be under law, but under grace. After that faith is come, ye are no longer under a schoolmaster. For ye are then the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.
How simple are the terms of salvation! But then they presuppose this work of the law,—this guilt-smitten conscience, and this wearying sense of bondage to sin. It is easy for a thirsty soul to drink down the draught of cold water. Nothing is simpler, nothing is more grateful to the sensations. But suppose that the soul is satiated, and is not a thirsty one. Then, nothing is more forced and repelling than this same draught. So is it with the provisions of the gospel. Do we feel ourselves to be guilty beings; do we hunger, and do we thirst for the expiation of our sins? Then the blood of Christ is drink indeed, and his flesh is meat with emphasis. But are we at ease and self-contented? Then nothing is more distasteful than the terms of salvation. Christ is a root out of dry ground. And so long as we remain in this unfeeling and torpid state, salvation is an utter impossibility. The seed of the gospel cannot germinate and grow upon a rock.
[Footnote 1: Rom. vii. 9-12.]
[Footnote 2: 1 Cor. xv. 56.]
[Footnote 3: SCHILLER: Der Kampf.]
[Footnote 4: Galatians iii. 19.]
[Footnote 5: Galatians iii. 25, 26.]
SELF-SCRUTINY IN GOD'S PRESENCE.
ISAIAH, i. 11.—"Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool."
These words were at first addressed to the Church of God. The prophet Isaiah begins his prophecy, by calling upon the heavens and the earth to witness the exceeding sinfulness of God's chosen people. "Hear, O heavens, and give ear O earth: for the Lord hath spoken; I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me. The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider." Such ingratitude and sin as this, he naturally supposes would shock the very heavens and earth.
Then follows a most vehement and terrible rebuke. The elect people of God are called "Sodom," and "Gomorrah." "Hear the word of the Lord ye rulers of Sodom: give ear unto the law of our God ye people of Gomorrah. Why should ye be stricken, any more? ye will revolt more and more." This outflow of holy displeasure would prepare us to expect an everlasting reprobacy of the rebellious and unfaithful Church, but it is strangely followed by the most yearning and melting entreaty ever addressed by the Most High to the creatures of His footstool: "Come now, and let us reason together, though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool."
These words have, however, a wider application; and while the unfaithful children of God ought to ponder them long and well, it is of equal importance that "the aliens from the commonwealth of Israel" should reflect upon them, and see their general application to all transgressors, so long as they are under the Gospel dispensation. Let us, then, consider two of the plain lessons taught, in these words of the prophet, to every unpardoned man.
I. The text represents God as saying to the transgressor of his law, "Come and let us reason together." The first lesson to be learned, consequently, is the duty of examining our moral character and conduct, along with God.
When a responsible being has made a wrong use of his powers, nothing is more reasonable than that he should call himself to account for this abuse. Nothing, certainly, is more necessary. There can be no amendment for the future, until the past has been cared for. But that this examination may be both thorough and profitable, it must be made in company with the Searcher of hearts.
For there are always two beings who are concerned with sin; the being who commits it, and the Being against whom it is committed. We sin, indeed, against ourselves; against our own conscience, and against our own best interest. But we sin in a yet higher, and more terrible sense, against Another than ourselves, compared with whose majesty all of our faculties and interests, both in time and eternity, are altogether nothing and vanity. It is not enough, therefore, to refer our sin to the law written on the heart, and there stop. We must ultimately pass beyond conscience itself, to God, and say, "Against Thee have I sinned." It is not the highest expression of the religious feeling, when we say, "How can I do this great wickedness, and sin against my conscience?" He alone has reached the summit of vision who looks beyond all finite limits, however wide and distant, beyond all finite faculties however noble and elevated, and says, "How can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?"
Whenever, therefore, an examination is made into the nature of moral evil as it exists in the individual heart, both parties concerned should share in the examination. The soul, as it looks within, should invite the scrutiny of God also, and as fast as it makes discoveries of its transgression and corruption should realize that the Holy One sees also. Such a joint examination as this produces a very keen and clear sense of the evil and guilt of sin. Conscience indeed makes cowards of us all, but when the eye of God is felt to be upon us, it smites us to the ground. "When Thou with rebukes,"—says the Psalmist,—"dost correct man for his iniquity, Thou makest his beauty to consume away like a moth." One great reason why the feeling which the moralist has towards sin is so tame and languid, when compared with the holy abhorrence of the regenerate mind, lies in the fact that he has not contemplated human depravity in company with a sin-hating Jehovah. At the very utmost, he has been shut up merely with a moral sense which he has insulated from its dread ground and support,—the personal character and holy emotions of God. What wonder is it, then, that this finite faculty should lose much of its temper and severity, and though still condemning sin (for it must do this, if it does anything), fails to do it with that spiritual energy which characterizes the conscience when God is felt to be co-present and co-operating. So it is, in other provinces. We feel the guilt of an evil action more sharply, when we know that a fellow-man saw us commit it, than when we know that no one but ourselves is cognizant of the deed. The flush of shame often rises into our face, upon learning accidentally that a fellow-being was looking at us, when we did the wrong action without any blush. How much more criminal, then, do we feel, when distinctly aware that the pure and holy God knows our transgression. How much clearer is our perception of the nature of moral evil, when we investigate it along with Him whose eyes are a flame of fire.
It is, consequently, a very solemn moment, when the human spirit and the Eternal Mind are reasoning together about the inward sinfulness. When the soul is shut up along with the Holy One of Israel, there are great searchings of heart. Man is honest and anxious at such a time. His usual thoughtlessness and torpidity upon the subject of religion leaves him, and he becomes a serious and deeply-interested creature. Would that the multitudes who listen so languidly to the statements of the pulpit, upon these themes of sin and guilt, might be closeted with the Everlasting Judge, in silence and in solemn reflection. You who have for years been told of sin, but are, perhaps, still as indifferent regarding it as if there were no stain, upon the conscience,—would that you might enter into an examination of yourself, alone with your Maker. Then would you become as serious, and as anxious, as you will be in that moment when you shall be informed that the last hour of your life upon earth has come.
Another effect of this "reasoning together" with God, respecting our character and conduct, is to render our views discriminating. The action of the mind is not only intense, it is also intelligent. Strange as it may sound, it is yet a fact, that a review of our past lives conducted under the eye of God, and with a recognition of His presence and oversight, serves to deliver the mind from confusion and panic, and to fill it with a calm and rational fear. This is of great value. For, when a man begins to be excited upon the subject of religion,—it may be for the first time, in his unreflecting and heedless life,—he is oftentimes terribly excited. He is now brought suddenly into the midst of the most solemn things. That sin of his, the enormity of which he had never seen before, now reveals itself in a most frightful form, and he feels as the murderer does who wakes in the morning and begins to realize that he has killed a man. That holy Being, of whose holiness he had no proper conception, now rises dim and awful before his half-opened inward eye, and he trembles like the pagan before the unknown God whom he ignorantly worships. That eternity, which he had heard spoken of with total indifference, now flashes penal flames in his face. Taken and held in this state of mind, the transgressor is confusedly as well as terribly awakened, and he needs first of all to have this experience clarified, and know precisely for what he is trembling, and why. This panic and consternation must depart, and a calm intelligent anxiety must take its place. But this cannot be, unless the mind turns towards God, and invites His searching scrutiny, and His aid in the search after sin. So long as we shrink away from our Judge, and in upon ourselves, in these hours of conviction,—so long as we deal only with the workings of our own minds, and do not look up and "reason together" with God,—we take the most direct method of producing a blind, an obscure, and a selfish agony. We work ourselves, more and more, into a mere phrenzy of excitement. Some of the most wretched and fanatical experience in the history of the Church is traceable to a solitary self-brooding, in which, after the sense of sin had been awakened, the soul did not discuss the matter with God.
For the character and attributes of God, when clearly seen, repress all fright, and produce that peculiar species of fear which is tranquil because it is deep. Though the soul, in such an hour, is conscious that God is a fearful object of sight for a transgressor, yet it continues to gaze at Him with an eager straining eye. And in so doing, the superficial tremor and panic of its first awakening to the subject of religion passes off, and gives place to an intenser moral feeling, the calmness of which is like the stillness of fascination. Nothing has a finer effect upon a company of awakened minds, than to cause the being and attributes of God, in all their majesty and purity, to rise like an orb within their horizon; and the individual can do nothing more proper, or more salutary, when once his sin begins to disquiet him, and the inward perturbation commences, than to collect and steady himself, in an act of reflection upon that very Being who abhors sin. Let no man, in the hour of conviction and moral fear, attempt to run away from the Divine holiness. On the contrary, let him rush forward and throw himself down prostrate before that Dread Presence, and plead the merits of the Son of God, before it. He that finds his life shall lose it; but he that loses his life shall find it. Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it remains a single unproductive corn of wheat; but if it die, it germinates and brings forth much fruit. He who does not avoid a contact between the sin of his soul and the holiness of his God, but on the contrary seeks to have these two things come together, that each may be understood in its own intrinsic nature and quality, takes the only safe course. He finds that, as he knows God more distinctly, he knows himself more distinctly; and though as yet he can see nothing but displeasure in that holy countenance, he is possessed of a well-defined experience. He knows that he is wrong, and his Maker is right; that he is wicked, and that God is holy. He perceives these two fundamental facts with a simplicity, and a certainty, that admits of no debate. The confusion and obscurity of his mind, and particularly the queryings whether these things are so, whether God is so very holy and man is so very sinful, begin to disappear, like a fog when disparted and scattered by sunrise. Objects are seen in their true proportions and meanings; right and wrong, the carnal mind and the spiritual mind, heaven and hell,—all the great contraries that pertain to the subject of religion,—are distinctly understood, and thus the first step is taken towards a better state of things in the soul.
Let no man, then, fear to invite the scrutiny of God, in connection with his own scrutiny of himself. He who deals only with the sense of duty, and the operations of his own mind, will find that these themselves become more dim and indistinct, so long as the process of examination is not conducted in this joint manner; so long as the mind refuses to accept the Divine proposition, "Come now, and let us reason together." He, on the other hand, who endeavors to obtain a clear view of the Being against whom he has sinned, and to feel the full power of His holy eye as well as of His holy law, will find that his sensations and experiences are gaining a wonderful distinctness and intensity that will speedily bring the entire matter to an issue.
II. For then, by the blessing of God, he learns the second lesson taught in the text: viz., that there is forgiveness with God. Though, in this process of joint examination, your sins be found to be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be discovered to be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.
If there were no forgiveness of sins, if mercy were not a manifested attribute of God, all self-examination, and especially all this conjoint divine scrutiny, would be a pure torment and a pure gratuity. It is wretchedness to know that we are guilty sinners, but it is the endless torment to know that there is no forgiveness, either here or hereafter. Convince a man that he will never be pardoned, and you shut him up with the spirits in prison. Compel him to examine himself under the eye of his God, while at the same time he has no hope of mercy,—and there would be nothing unjust in this,—and you distress him with the keenest and most living torment of which a rational spirit is capable. Well and natural was it, that the earliest creed of the Christian Church emphasized the doctrine of the Divine Pity; and in all ages the Apostolic Symbol has called upon the guilt-stricken human soul to cry, "I believe in the forgiveness of sins."
We have the amplest assurance in the whole written Revelation of God, but nowhere else, that "there is forgiveness with Him, that He may be feared." "Whoso confesseth and forsaketh his sins shall find mercy;" and only with such an assurance as this from His own lips, could we summon courage to look into our character and conduct, and invite God to do the same. But the text is an exceedingly explicit assertion of this great truth. The very same Being who invites us to reason with Him, and canvass the subject of our criminality, in the very same breath, if we may so speak, assures us that He will forgive all that is found in this examination. And upon such terms, cannot the criminal well afford to examine into his crime? He has a promise beforehand, that if he will but scrutinize and confess his sin it shall be forgiven. God would have been simply and strictly just, had He said to him: "Go down into the depths of thy transgressing spirit, see how wicked thou hast been and still art, and know that in my righteous severity I will never pardon thee, world without end." But instead of this, He says: "Go down into the depths of thy heart, see the transgression and the corruption all along the line of the examination, confess it into my ear, and I will make the scarlet and crimson guilt white in the blood of my own Son." These declarations of Holy Writ, which are a direct verbal statement from the lips of God, and which specify distinctly what He will do and will not do in the matter of sin, teach us that however deeply our souls shall be found to be stained, the Divine pity outruns and exceeds the crime. "For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his mercy towards them that fear him. He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?" Here upon earth, there is no wickedness that surpasses the pardoning love of God in Christ. The words which Shakspeare puts into the mouth of the remorseful, but impenitent, Danish king are strictly true:
"What if this cursed hand Were thicker than itself with brother's blood? Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens To wash it white as snow? Whereto serves mercy, But to confront the visage of offence?"
Anywhere this side of the other world, and at any moment this side of the grave, a sinner, if penitent (but penitence is not always at his control), may obtain forgiveness for all his sins, through Christ's blood of atonement. He must not hope for mercy in the future world, if he neglects it here. There are no acts of pardon passed in the day of judgment. The utterance of Christ in that day is not the utterance, "Thy sins are forgiven thee," but, "Come ye blessed," or "Depart ye cursed." So long, and only so long, as there is life there is hope, and however great may be the conscious criminality of a man while he is under the economy of Redemption, and before he is summoned to render up his last account, let him not despair but hope in Divine grace.
Now, he who has seriously "reasoned together" with God, respecting his own character, is far better prepared to find God in the forgiveness of sins, than he is who has merely brooded over his own unhappiness, without any reference to the qualities and claims of his Judge. It has been a plain and personal matter throughout, and having now come to a clear and settled conviction that he is a guilty sinner, he turns directly to the great and good Being who stands immediately before him, and prays to be forgiven, and is forgiven. One reason why the soul so often gropes days and months without finding a sin-pardoning God lies in the fact, that its thoughts and feelings respecting religious subjects, and particularly respecting the state of the heart, have been too vague and indistinct. They have not had an immediate and close reference to that one single Being who is most directly concerned, and who alone can minister to a mind diseased. The soul is wretched, and there may be some sense of sin, but there is no one to go to,—no one to address with an appealing cry. "Oh that I knew where I might find him," is its language. "Oh that I might come even to his seat. Behold I go forward, but he is not there; and backward, but I cannot perceive him." But this groping would cease were there a clear view of God. There might not be peace and a sense of reconciliation immediately; but there would be a distinct conception of the one thing needful in order to salvation. This would banish all other subjects and objects. The eye would be fixed upon the single fact of sin, and the simple fact that none but God can forgive it. The whole inward experience would thus be narrowed down to a focus. Simplicity and intensity would be introduced into the mental state, instead of the previous confusion and vagueness. Soliloquy would end, and prayer, importunate, agonizing prayer, would begin. That morbid and useless self-brooding would cease, and those strong cryings and wrestlings till day-break would commence, and the kingdom of heaven would suffer this violence, and the violent would take it by force. "When I kept silence; my bones waxed old, through my roaring all the day long. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me; my moisture was turned into the drought of summer. I acknowledged my sin unto thee, and mine iniquity I no longer hid. I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord; and thou forgavest the iniquity of my sin. For this,"—because this is Thy method of salvation,—"shall every one that is godly pray unto thee, in a time when thou mayest be found." (Ps. xxxii. 3-6.)
Self-examination, then, when joined with a distinct recognition of the Divine character, and a conscious sense of God's scrutiny, paradoxical as it may appear, is the surest means of producing a firm conviction in a guilty mind that God is merciful, and is the swiftest way of finding Him to be so. Opposed as the Divine nature is to sin, abhorrent as iniquity is to the pure mind of God, it is nevertheless a fact, that that sinner who goes directly into this Dread Presence with all his sins upon his head, in order to know them, to be condemned and crushed by them, and to confess them, is the one who soonest returns with peace and hope in his soul. For, he discovers that God is as cordial and sincere in His offer to forgive, as He is in His threat to punish; and having, to his sorrow, felt the reality and power of the Divine anger, he now to his joy feels the equal reality and power of the Divine love.
And this is the one great lesson which every man must learn, or perish forever. The truthfulness of God, in every respect, and in all relations,—His strict fidelity to His word, both under the law and under the gospel,—is a quality of which every one must have a vivid knowledge and certainty, in order to salvation. Men perish through unbelief. He that doubteth is damned. To illustrate. Men pass through this life doubting and denying God's abhorrence of sin, and His determination to punish it forever and ever. Under the narcotic and stupefying influence of this doubt and denial, they remain in sin, and at death go over into the immediate presence of God, only to discover that all His statements respecting His determination upon this subject are true,—awfully and hopelessly true. They then spend an eternity, in bewailing their infatuation in dreaming, while here upon earth, that the great and holy God did not mean what he said.
Unbelief, again, tends to death in the other direction, though it is far less liable to result in it. The convicted and guilt-smitten man sometimes doubts the truthfulness of the Divine promise in Christ. He spends days of darkness and nights of woe, because he is unbelieving in regard to God's compassion, and readiness to forgive a penitent; and when, at length, the light of the Divine countenance breaks upon him, he wonders that he was so foolish and slow of heart to believe all that God himself had said concerning the "multitude" of his tender mercies. Christian and Hopeful lay long and needlessly in the dungeon of Doubting Castle, until the former remembered that the key to all the locks was in his bosom, and had been all the while. They needed only to take God at his word. The anxious and fearful soul must believe the Eternal Judge implicitly, when he says: "I will justify thee through the blood of Christ." God is truthful under the gospel, and under the law; in His promise of mercy, and in His threatening of eternal woe. And "if we believe not, yet He abideth faithful; He cannot deny Himself." He hath promised, and He hath threatened; and, though heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle of that promise shall not fail in the case of those who confidingly trust it, nor shall one iota or scintilla of the threatening fail in the instance of those who have recklessly and rashly disbelieved it.
In respect, then, to both sides of the revelation of the Divine character,—in respect to the threatening and the promise,—men need to have a clear perception, and an unwavering belief. He that doubteth in either direction is damned. He who does not believe that God is truthful, when He declares that He will "punish iniquity, transgression and sin," and that those upon the left hand shall "go away into everlasting punishment," will persist in sin until he passes the line of probation and be lost. And he who does not believe that God is truthful, when He declares that He will forgive scarlet and crimson sins through the blood of Christ, will be overcome by despair and be also lost. But he who believes both Divine statements with equal certainty, and perceives both facts with distinct vision, will be saved.
From these two lessons of the text, we deduce the following practical directions:
1. First: In all states of religious anxiety, we should betake ourselves instantly and directly to God. There is no other refuge for the human soul but God in Christ, and if this fails us, we must renounce all hope here and hereafter.
"If this fail, The pillared firmament is rottenness, And earth's base built on stubble."
We are, therefore, from the nature of the case, shut up to this course. Suppose the religious anxiety arise from a sense of sin, and the fear of retribution. God is the only Being that can forgive sins. To whom, then, can such an one go but unto Him? Suppose the religious anxiety arises from a sense of the perishing nature of earthly objects, and the soul feels as if all the foundation and fabric of its hope and comfort were rocking into irretrievable ruin. God is the only Being who can help in this crisis. In either or in any case,—be it the anxiety of the unforgiven, or of the child of God,—whatever be the species of mental sorrow, the human soul is by its very circumstances driven to its Maker, or else driven to destruction.
What more reasonable course, therefore, than to conform to the necessities of our condition. The principal part of wisdom is to take things as they are, and act accordingly. Are we, then, sinners, and in fear for the final result of our life? Though it may seem to us like running into fire, we must nevertheless betake ourselves first and immediately to that Being who hates and punishes sin. Though we see nothing but condemnation and displeasure in those holy eyes, we must nevertheless approach them just and simply as we are. We must say with king David in a similar case, when he had incurred the displeasure of God: "I am in a great strait; [yet] let me fall into the hand of the Lord, for very great are his mercies" (1 Chron. xx. 13). We must suffer the intolerable brightness to blind and blast us in our guiltiness, and let there be an actual contact between the sin of our soul and the holiness of our God. If we thus proceed, in accordance with the facts of our case and our position, we shall meet with a great and joyful surprise. Flinging ourselves helpless, and despairing of all other help,—rashly, as it will seem to us, flinging ourselves off from the position where we now are, and upon which we must inevitably perish, we shall find ourselves, to our surprise and unspeakable joy, caught in everlasting, paternal arms. He who loses his life,—he who dares to lose his life,—shall find it.
2. Secondly: In all our religious anxiety, we should make a full and plain statement of everything to God. God loves to hear the details of our sin, and our woe. The soul that pours itself out as water will find that it is not like water spilt upon the ground, which cannot be gathered up again. Even when the story is one of shame and remorse, we find it to be mental relief, patiently and without any reservation or palliation, to expose the whole not only to our own eye but to that of our Judge. For, to this very thing have we been invited. This is precisely the "reasoning together" which God proposes to us. God has not offered clemency to a sinful world, with the expectation or desire that there be on the part of those to whom it is offered, such a stinted and meagre confession, such a glozing over and diminution of sin, as to make that clemency appear a very small matter. He well knows the depth and the immensity of the sin which He proposes to pardon, and has made provision accordingly. In the phrase of Luther, it is no painted sinner who is to be forgiven, and it is no painted Saviour who is offered. The transgression is deep and real, and the atonement is deep and real. The crime cannot be exaggerated, neither can the expiation. He, therefore, who makes the plainest and most child-like statement of himself to God, acts most in accordance with the mind, and will, and gospel of God. If man only be hearty, full, and unreserved in confession, he will find God to be hearty, full, and unreserved in absolution.
Man is not straitened upon the side of the Divine mercy. The obstacle in the way of his salvation is in himself; and the particular, fatal obstacle consists in the fact that he does not feel that he needs mercy. God in Christ stands ready to pardon, but man the sinner stands up before Him like the besotted criminal in our courts of law, with no feeling upon the subject. The Judge assures him that He has a boundless grace and clemency to bestow, but the stolid hardened man is not even aware that he has committed a dreadful crime, and needs grace and clemency. There is food in infinite abundance, but no hunger upon the part of man. The water of life is flowing by in torrents, but men have no thirst. In this state of things, nothing can be done, but to pass a sentence of condemnation. God cannot forgive a being who does not even know that he needs to be forgiven. Knowledge then, self-knowledge, is the great requisite; and the want of it is the cause of perdition. This "reasoning together" with God, respecting our past and present character and conduct, is the first step to be taken by any one who would make preparation for eternity. As soon as we come to a right understanding of our lost and guilty condition, we shall cry: "Be merciful to me a sinner; create within me a clean heart, O God." Without such an understanding,—such an intelligent perception of our sin and guilt,—we never shall, and we never can.
[Footnote 1: SHAKSPEARE: Hamlet, Act iii. Sc. 4.]
[Footnote 2: MILTON: Comus, 597-599.]
SIN IS SPIRITUAL SLAVERY
John viii. 34.—"Jesus answered them, Verily, verily I say unto you, whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin."
The word [Greek: doulos] which is translated "servant," in the text, literally signifies a slave; and the thought which our Lord actually conveyed to those who heard Him is, "Whosoever committeth sin is the slave of sin." The apostle Peter, in that second Epistle of his which is so full of terse and terrible description of the effects of unbridled sensuality upon the human will, expresses the same truth. Speaking of the influence of those corrupting and licentious men who have "eyes full of adultery, and that cannot cease from sin," he remarks that while they promise their dupes "liberty, they themselves are the servants [slaves] of corruption: for of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he brought in bondage."
Such passages as these, of which there are a great number in the Bible, direct attention to the fact that sin contains an element of servitude,—that in the very act of transgressing the law of God there is a reflex action of the human will upon itself, whereby it becomes less able than before to keep that law. Sin is the suicidal action of the human will. It destroys the power to do right, which is man's true freedom. The effect of vicious habit in diminishing a man's ability to resist temptation is proverbial. But what is habit but a constant repetition of wrong decisions, every single one of which reacts upon the faculty that put them forth, and renders it less strong and less energetic, to do the contrary. Has the old debauchee, just tottering into hell, as much power of active resistance against the sin which has now ruined him, as the youth has who is just beginning to run that awful career? Can any being do a wrong act, and be as sound in his will and as spiritually strong, after it, as he was before it? Did that abuse of free agency by Adam, whereby the sin of the race was originated, leave the agent as it found him,—uninjured and undebilitated in his voluntary power?
The truth and fact is, that sin in and by its own nature and operations, tends to destroy all virtuous force, all holy energy, in any moral being. The excess of will to sin is the same as the defect of will to holiness. The degree of intensity with which any man loves and inclines to evil is the measure of the amount of power to good which he has thereby lost. And if the intensity be total, then the loss is entire. Total depravity carries with it total impotence and helplessness. The more carefully we observe the workings of our own wills, the surer will be our conviction that they can ruin themselves. We shall indeed find that they cannot be forced, or ruined from the outside. But, if we watch the influence upon the will itself, of its own wrong decisions, its own yielding to temptations, we shall discover that the voluntary faculty may be ruined from within; may be made impotent to good by its own action; may surrender itself with such an intensity and entireness to appetite, passion, and self-love, that it becomes unable to reverse itself, and overcome its own wrong disposition and direction. And yet there is no compulsion, from first to last, in the process. The man follows himself. He pursues his own inclination. He has his own way and does as he pleases. He loves what he inclines to love, and hates what he inclines to hate. Neither God, nor the world, nor Satan himself, force him to do wrong. Sin is the most spontaneous of self-motion. But self-motion has consequences as much as any other motion. Because transgression is a self-determined act, it does not follow that it has no reaction and results, but leaves the will precisely as it found it. It is strictly true that man was not necessitated to apostatize; but it is equally true that if by his own self-decision he should apostatize, he could not then and afterwards be as he was before. He would lose a knowledge of God and divine things which he could never regain of himself. And he would lose a spiritual power which he could never again recover of himself. The bondage of which Christ speaks, when He says, "Whosoever committeth sin is the slave of sin," is an effect within the soul itself of an unforced act of self-will, and therefore is as truly guilt as any other result or product of self-will,—as spiritual blindness, or spiritual hardness, or any other of the qualities of sin. Whatever springs from will, we are responsible for. The drunkard's bondage and powerlessness issues from his own inclination and self-indulgence, and therefore the bondage and impotence is no excuse for his vice. Man's inability to love God supremely results from his intense self-will and self-love; and therefore his impotence is a part and element of his sin, and not an excuse for it.
"If weakness may excuse, What murderer, what traitor, parricide, Incestuous, sacrilegious, may not plead it? All wickedness is weakness."
The doctrine, then, which is taught in the text, is the truth that sin is spiritual slavery; and it is to the proof and illustration of this position that we invite attention.
The term "spiritual" is too often taken to mean unreal, fanciful, figurative. For man is earthly in his views as well as in his feelings, and therefore regards visible and material things as the emphatic realities. Hence he employs material objects as the ultimate standard, by which he measures the reality of all other things. The natural man has more consciousness of his body, than he has of his soul; more sense of this world, than of the other. Hence we find that the carnal man expresses his conception of spiritual things, by transferring to them, in a weak and secondary signification, words which he applies in a strong and vivid way only to material objects. He speaks of the "joy" of the spirit, but it is not such a reality for him as is the "joy" of the body. He speaks of the "pain" of the spirit, but it has not such a poignancy for him as that anguish which thrills through his muscles and nerves. He knows that the "death" of the body is a terrible event, but transfers the word "death" to the spirit with a vague and feeble meaning, not realizing that the second death is more awful than the first, and is accompanied with a spiritual distress compared with which, the sharpest agony of material dissolution would be a relief. He understands what is meant by the "life" of the body, but when he hears the "eternal life" of the spirit spoken of, or when he reads of it in the Bible, it is with the feeling that it cannot be so real and lifelike as that vital principle whose currents impart vigor and warmth to his bodily frame. And yet, the life of the spirit is more intensely real than the life of the body is; for it has power to overrule and absorb it. Spiritual life, when in full play, is bliss ineffable. It translates man into the third heavens, where the fleshly life is lost sight of entirely, and the being, like St. Paul, does not know whether he is in the body or out of the body.
The natural mind is deceived. Spirit has in it more of reality than matter has; because it is an immortal and indestructible essence, while matter is neither. Spiritual things are more real than visible things; because they are eternal, and eternity is more real than time. Statements respecting spiritual objects, therefore, are more solemnly true than any that relate to material things. Invisible and spiritual realities, therefore, are the standard by which all others should be tried; and human language when applied to them, instead of expressing too much, expresses too little. The imagery and phraseology by which the Scriptures describe the glory of God, the excellence of holiness, and the bliss of heaven, on the one side, and the sinfulness of sin with the woe of hell, on the other, come short of the sober and actual matter of fact.
We should, therefore, beware of the error to which in our unspirituality we are specially liable; and when we hear Christ assert that "whosoever committeth sin is the slave of sin," we should believe and know, that these words are not extravagant, and contain no subtrahend,—that they indicate a self-enslavement of the human will which is so real, so total, and so absolute, as to necessitate the renewing grace of God in order to deliverance from it.
This bondage to sin may be discovered by every man. It must be discovered, before one can cry, "Save me or I perish." It must be discovered, before one can feelingly assent to Christ's words, "Without me ye can do nothing." It must be discovered, before one can understand the Christian paradox, "When I am weak, then am I strong." To aid the mind, in coming to the conscious experience of the truth taught in the text, we remark:
I. Sin is spiritual slavery, if viewed in reference to man's sense of obligation to be perfectly holy.
The obligation to be holy, just, and good, as God is, rests upon every rational being. Every man knows, or may know, that he ought to be perfect as his Father in heaven is perfect, and that he is a debtor to this obligation until he has fully met it. Hence even the holiest of men are conscious of sin, because they are not completely up to the mark of this high calling of God. For, the sense of this obligation is an exceeding broad one,—like the law itself which it includes and enforces. The feeling of duty will not let us off, with the performance of only a part of our duty. Its utterance is: "Verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law till all be fulfilled." Law spreads itself over the whole surface and course of our lives, and insists imperatively that every part and particle of them be pure and holy.
Again, this sense of obligation to be perfect as God is perfect, is exceedingly deep. It is the most profound sense of which man is possessed, for it outlives all others. The feeling of duty to God's law remains in a man's mind either to bless him or to curse him, when all other feelings depart. In the hour of death, when all the varied passions and experiences which have engrossed the man his whole lifetime are dying out of the soul, and are disappearing, one after another, like signal-lights in the deepening darkness, this one particular feeling of what he owes to the Divine and the Eternal law remains behind, and grows more vivid, and painful, as all others grow dimmer and dimmer. And therefore it is, that in this solemn hour man forgets whether he has been happy or unhappy, successful or unsuccessful, in the world, and remembers only that he has been a sinner in it. And therefore it is, that a man's thoughts, when he is upon his death-bed, do not settle upon his worldly matters, but upon his sin. It is because the human conscience is the very core and centre of the human being, and its sense of obligation to be holy is deeper than all other senses and sensations, that we hear the dying man say what the living and prosperous man is not inclined to say: "I have been wicked; I have been a sinner in the earth."
Now it might seem, at first sight, that this broad, deep, and abiding sense of obligation would be sufficient to overcome man's love of sin, and bring him up to the discharge of duty,—would be powerful enough to subdue his self-will. Can it be that this strong and steady draft of conscience,—strong and steady as gravitation,—will ultimately prove ineffectual? Is not truth mighty, and must it not finally prevail, to the pulling down of the stronghold which Satan has in the human heart? So some men argue. So some men claim, in opposition to the doctrine of Divine influences and of regeneration by the Holy Ghost.
We are willing to appeal to actual experience, in order to settle the point. And we affirm in the outset, that exactly in proportion as a man hears the voice of conscience sounding its law within his breast, does he become aware, not of the strength but, of the bondage of his will, and that in proportion as this sense of obligation to be perfectly holy rises in his soul, all hope or expectation of ever becoming so by his own power sets in thick night.
In our careless unawakened state, which is our ordinary state, we sin on from day to day, just as we live on from day to day, without being distinctly aware of it. A healthy man does not go about, holding his fingers upon his wrist, and counting every pulse; and neither does a sinful man, as he walks these streets and transacts all this business, think of and sum up the multitude of his transgressions. And yet, that pulse all the while beats none the less; and yet, that will all the while transgresses none the less. So long as conscience is asleep, sin is pleasant. The sinful activity goes on without notice, we are happy in sin, and we do not feel that it is slavery of the will. Though the chains are actually about us, yet they do not gall us. In this condition, which is that of every unawakened sinner, we are not conscious of the "bondage of corruption." In the phrase of St. Paul, "we are alive without the law." We have no feeling sense of duty, and of course have no feeling sense of sin. And it is in this state of things, that arguments are framed to prove the mightiness of mere conscience, and the power of bare truth and moral obligation, over the perverse human heart and will.
But the Spirit of God awakens the conscience; that sense of obligation to be perfectly holy which has hitherto slept now starts up, and begins to form an estimate of what has been done in reference to it. The man hears the authoritative and startling law: "Thou shalt be perfect, as God is." And now, at this very instant and point, begins the consciousness of enslavement,—of being, in the expressive phrase of Scripture, "sold under sin." Now the commandment "comes," shows us first what we ought to be and then what we actually are, and we "die." All moral strength dies out of us. The muscle has been cut by the sword of truth, and the limb drops helpless by the side. For, we find that the obligation is immense. It extends to all our outward acts; and having covered the whole of this great surface, it then strikes inward and reaches to every thought of the mind, and every emotion of the heart, and every motive of the will. We discover that we are under obligation at every conceivable point in our being and in our history, but that we have not met obligation at a single point. When we see that the law of God is broad and deep, and that sin is equally broad and deep within us; when we learn that we have never thought one single holy thought, nor felt one single holy feeling, nor done one single holy deed, because self-love is the root and principle of all our work, and we have never purposed or desired to please God by any one of our actions; when we find that everything has been required, and that absolutely nothing has been done, that we are bound to be perfectly holy this very instant, and as matter of fact are totally sinful, we know in a most affecting manner that "whosoever committeth sin is the slave of sin".
But suppose that after this disheartening and weakening discovery of the depth and extent of our sinfulness, we proceed to take the second step, and attempt to extirpate it. Suppose that after coming to a consciousness of all this obligation resting upon us, we endeavor to comply with it. This renders us still more painfully sensible of the truth of our Saviour's declaration. Even the regenerated man, who in this endeavor has the aid of God, is mournfully conscious that sin is the enslavement of the human will. Though he has been freed substantially, he feels that the fragments of the chains are upon him still. Though the love of God is the predominant principle within him, yet the lusts and propensities of the old nature continually start up like devils, and tug at the spirit, to drag it down to its old bondage. But that man who attempts to overcome sin, without first crying, "Create within me a clean heart, O God," feels still more deeply that sin is spiritual slavery. When he comes to know sin in reference to the obligation to be perfectly holy, it is with vividness and hopelessness. He sees distinctly that he ought to be a perfectly good being instantaneously. This point is clear. But instead of looking up to the hills whence cometh his help, he begins, in a cold legal and loveless temper, to draw upon his own resources. The first step is to regulate his external conduct by the Divine law. He tries to put a bridle upon his tongue, and to walk carefully before his fellow-men. He fails to do even this small outside thing, and is filled with discouragement and despondency.
But the sense of duty reaches beyond the external conduct, and the law of God pierces like the two-edged sword of an executioner, and discerns the thoughts and motives of the heart. Sin begins to be seen in its relation to the inner man, and he attempts again to reform and change the feelings and affections of his soul. He strives to wring the gall of bitterness out of his own heart, with his own hands. But he fails utterly. As he resolves, and breaks his resolutions; as he finds evil thoughts and feelings continually coming up from the deep places of his heart; he discovers his spiritual impotence,—his lack of control over what is deepest, most intimate, and most fundamental in his own character,—and cries out: "I am a slave, I am a slave to myself."
If then, you would know from immediate consciousness that "whosoever committeth sin is the slave of sin," simply view sin in the light of that obligation to be perfectly pure and holy which necessarily, and forever, rests upon a responsible being. If you would know that spiritual slavery is no extravagant and unmeaning phrase, but denotes a most real and helpless bondage, endeavor to get entirely rid of sin, and to be perfect as the spirits of just men made perfect.
II. Sin is spiritual slavery, if viewed in reference to the aspirations of the human soul.
Theology makes a distinction between common and special grace,—between those ordinary influences of the Divine Spirit which rouse the conscience, and awaken some transient aspirations after religion, and those extraordinary influences which actually renew the heart and will. In speaking, then, of the aspirations of the human soul, reference is had to all those serious impressions, and those painful anxieties concerning salvation, which require to be followed up by a yet mightier power from God, to prevent their being entirely suppressed again, as they are in a multitude of instances, by the strong love of sin and the world. For though man has fallen into a state of death in trespasses and sins, so that if cut off from every species of Divine influence, and left entirely to himself, he would never reach out after anything but the sin which he loves, yet through the common influences of the Spirit of Grace, and the ordinary workings of a rational nature not yet reprobated, he is at times the subject of internal stirrings and aspirations that indicate the greatness and glory of the heights whence he fell. Under the power of an awakened conscience, and feeling the emptiness of the world, and the aching void within him, man wishes for something better than he has, or than he is. The minds of the more thoughtful of the ancient pagans were the subjects of these impulses, and aspirations; and they confess their utter inability to realize them. They are expressed upon every page of Plato, and it is not surprising that some of the Christian Fathers should have deemed Platonism, as well as Judaism, to be a preparation for Christianity, by its bringing man to a sense of his need of redemption. And it would stimulate Christians in their efforts to give revealed religion to the heathen, did they ponder the fact which the journals of the missionary sometimes disclose, that the Divine Spirit is brooding with His common and preparatory influence over the chaos of Paganism, and that here and there the heathen mind faintly aspires to be freed from the bondage of corruption,—that dim stirrings, impulses, and wishes for deliverance, are awake in the dark heart of Paganism, but that owing to the strength and inveteracy of sin in that heart they will prove ineffectual to salvation, unless the gospel is preached, and the Holy Spirit is specially poured out in answer to the prayers of Christians.
Now, all these phenomena in the human soul go to show the rigid bondage of sin, and to prove that sin has an element of servitude in it. For when these impulses, wishes, and aspirations are awakened, and the man discovers that he is unable to realize them in actual character and conduct, he is wretchedly and thoroughly conscious that "whosoever committeth sin is the slave of sin." The immortal, heaven-descended spirit, feeling the kindling touch of truth and of the Holy Ghost, thrills under it, and essays to soar. But sin hangs heavy upon it, and it cannot lift itself from the earth. Never is man so sensible of his enslavement and his helplessness, as when he has a wish but has no will.
Look, for illustration, at the aspirations of the drunkard to be delivered from the vice that easily besets him. In his sober moments, they come thick and fast, and during his sobriety, and while under the lashings of conscience, he wishes, nay, even longs, to be freed from drunkenness. It may be, that under the impulse of these aspirations he resolves never to drink again. It may be, that amid the buoyancy that naturally accompanies the springing of hope and longing in the human soul, he for a time seems to himself to be actually rising up from his "wallowing in the mire," and supposes that he shall soon regain his primitive condition of temperance. But the sin is strong; for the appetite that feeds it is in his blood. Temptation with its witching solicitation comes before the will,—the weak, self-enslaved will. He aspires to resist, but will not; the spirit would soar, but the flesh will creep; the spirit has the wish, but the flesh has the will; the man longs to be sober, but actually is and remains a drunkard. And never,—be it noticed,—never is he more thoroughly conscious of being a slave to himself, than when he thus ineffectually aspires and wishes to be delivered from himself.
What has been said of drunkenness, and the aspiration to be freed from it, applies with full force to all the sin and all the aspirations of the human soul. There is no independent and self-realizing power in a mere aspiration. No man overcomes even his vices, except as he is assisted by the common grace of God. The self-reliant man invariably relapses into his old habits. He who thinks he stands is sure to fall. But when, under the influence of God's common grace, a man aspires to be freed from the deepest of all sin, because it is the source of all particular acts of transgression,—when he attempts to overcome and extirpate the original and inveterate depravity of his heart,—he feels his bondage more thoroughly than ever. If it is wretchedness for the drunkard to aspire after freedom from only a single vice, and fail of reaching it, is it not the depth of woe, when a man comes to know "the plague of his heart," and his utter inability to cleanse and cure it? In this case, the bondage of self-will is found to be absolute.
At first sight, it might seem as if these wishes and aspirations of the human spirit, faint though they be, are proof that man is not totally depraved, and that his will is not helplessly enslaved. So some men argue. But they forget, that these aspirations and wishes are never realized. There is no evidence of power, except from its results. And where are the results? Who has ever realized these wishes and aspirations, in his heart and conduct? The truth is, that every unattained aspiration that ever swelled the human soul is proof positive, and loud, that the human soul is in bondage. These ineffectual stirrings and impulses, which disappear like the morning cloud and the early dew, are most affecting evidences that "whosoever committeth sin is the slave of sin." They prove that apostate man has sunk, in one respect, to a lower level than that of the irrational creation. For, high ideas and truths cannot raise him. Lofty impulses result in no alteration, or elevation. Even Divine influences leave him just where they find him, unless they are exerted in their highest grade of irresistible grace. A brute surrenders himself to his appetites and propensities, and lives the low life of nature, without being capable of aspirations for anything purer and nobler. But man does this very thing,—nay, immerses himself in flesh, and sense, and self, with an entireness and intensity of which the brute is incapable,—in the face of impulses and stirrings of mind that point him to the pure throne of God, and urge him to soar up to it! The brute is a creature of nature, because he knows no better, and can desire nothing better; but man is "as the beasts that perish," in spite of a better knowledge and a loftier aspiration!
If then, you would know that "whosoever committeth sin is the slave of sin," contemplate sin in reference to the aspirations of an apostate spirit originally made in the image of God, and which, because it is not eternally reprobated, is not entirely cut off from the common influences of the Spirit of God. Never will you feel the bondage of your will more profoundly, than when under these influences, and in your moments of seriousness and anxiety respecting your soul's salvation, you aspire and endeavor to overcome inward sin, and find that unless God grant you His special and renovating grace, your heart will be sinful through all eternity, in spite of the best impulses of your best hours. These upward impulses and aspirations cannot accompany the soul into the state of final hopelessness and despair, though Milton represents Satan as sometimes looking back with a sigh, and a mournful memory, upon what he had once been,—yet if they should go with us there, they would make the ardor of the fire more fierce, and the gnaw of the worm more fell. For they would help to reveal the strength of our sin, and the intensity of our rebellion.
III. Sin is spiritual slavery, if viewed in reference to the fears of the human soul.
The sinful spirit of man fears the death of the body, and the Scriptures assert that by reason of this particular fear we are all our lifetime in bondage. Though we know that the bodily dissolution can have no effect upon the imperishable essence of an immortal being, yet we shrink back from it, as if the sentence, "Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return," had been spoken of the spirit,—as if the worm were to "feed sweetly" upon the soul, and it were to be buried up in the dark house of the grave. Even the boldest of us is disturbed at the thought of bodily death, and we are always startled when the summons suddenly comes: "Set thy house in order, for thou must die."
Again, the spirit of man fears that "fearful something after death," that eternal judgment which must be passed upon all. We tremble at the prospect of giving an account of our own actions. We are afraid to reap the harvest, the seed of which we have sown with our own hands. The thought of going to a just judgment, and of receiving from the Judge of all the earth, who cannot possibly do injustice to any of His creatures, only that which is our desert, shocks us to the centre of our being! Man universally is afraid to be judged with a righteous judgment! Man universally is terrified by the equitable bar of God!
Again, the apostate spirit of man has an awful dread of eternity. Though this invisible realm is the proper home of the human soul, and it was made to dwell there forever, after the threescore and ten years of its residence in the body are over, yet it shrinks back from an entrance into this untried world, and clings with the desperate force of a drowning man to this "bank and shoal of time." There are moments in the life of a guilty man when the very idea of eternal existence exerts a preternatural power, and fills him with a dread that paralyzes him. Never is the human being stirred to so great depths, and roused to such intensity of action, as when it feels what the Scripture calls "the power of an endless life." All men are urged by some ruling passion which is strong. The love of wealth, or of pleasure, or of fame, drives the mind onward with great force, and excites it to mighty exertions to compass its end. But never is a man pervaded by such an irresistible and overwhelming influence as that which descends upon him in some season of religious gloom,—some hour of sickness, or danger, or death,—when the great eternity, with all its awful realities, and all its unknown terror, opens upon his quailing gaze. There are times in man's life, when he is the subject of movements within that impel him to deeds that seem almost superhuman; but that internal ferment and convulsion which is produced when all eternity pours itself through his being turns his soul up from the centre. Man will labor convulsively, night and day, for money; he will dry up the bloom and freshness of health, for earthly power and fame; he will actually wear his body out for sensual pleasure. But what is the intensity and paroxysm of this activity of mind and body, if compared with those inward struggles and throes when the overtaken and startled sinner sees the eternal world looming into view, and with strong crying and tears prays for only a little respite, and only a little preparation! "Millions for an inch of time,"—said the dying English Queen. "O Eternity! Eternity! how shall I grapple with the misery that I must meet with in eternity,"—says the man in the iron cage of Despair. This finite world has indeed great power to stir man, but the other world has an infinitely greater power. The clouds which float in the lower regions of the sky, and the winds that sweep them along, produce great ruin and destruction upon the earth, but it is only when the "windows of heaven are opened" that "the fountains of the great deep are broken up," and "all in whose nostrils is the breath of life die," and "every living substance is destroyed which is upon the face of the ground." When fear arises in the soul of man, in view of an eternal existence for which he is utterly unprepared, it is overwhelming. It partakes of the immensity of eternity, and holds the man with an omnipotent grasp.
If, now, we view sin in relation to these great fears of death, judgment, and eternity, we see that it is spiritual slavery, or the bondage of the will. We discover that our terror is no more able to deliver us from the "bondage of corruption," than our aspiration is. We found that in spite of the serious stirrings and impulses which sometimes rise within us, we still continue immersed in sense and sin; and we shall also find that in spite of the most solemn and awful fears of which a finite being is capable, we remain bondmen to ourselves, and our sin. The dread that goes down into hell can no more ransom us, than can the aspiration that goes up into heaven. Our fear of eternal woe can no more change the heart, than our wish for eternal happiness can. We have, at some periods, faintly wished that lusts and passions had no power over us; and perhaps we have been the subject of still higher aspirings. But we are the same beings, still. We are the same self-willed and self-enslaved sinners, yet. We have all our lifetime feared death, judgment, and eternity, and under the influence of this fear we have sometimes resolved and promised to become Christians. But we are the very same beings, still; we are the same self-willed and self-enslaved sinners yet.
Oh, never is the human spirit more deeply conscious of its bondage to its darling iniquity, than when these paralyzing fears shut down upon it, like night, with "a horror of great darkness." When under their influence, the man feels most thoroughly and wretchedly that his sin is his ruin, and yet his sinful determination continues on, because "whosoever committeth sin is the slave of sin," Has it never happened that, in "the visions of the night when deep sleep falleth upon men," a spirit passed before your face, like that which stood still before the Temanite; and there was silence, and a voice saying, "Man! Man! thou must die, thou must be judged, thou must inhabit eternity?" And when the spirit had departed, and while the tones of its solemn and startling cry were still rolling through your soul, did not a temptation to sin solicit you, and did you not drink in its iniquity like water? Have you not found out, by mournful experience, that the most anxious forebodings of the human spirit, the most alarming fears of the human soul, and the most solemn warnings that come forth from eternity, have no prevailing power over your sinful nature, but that immediately after experiencing them, and while your whole being is still quivering under their agonizing touch, you fall, you rush, into sin? Have you not discovered that even that most dreadful of all fears,—the fear of the holy wrath of almighty God,—is not strong enough to save you from yourself? Do you know that your love of sin has the power to stifle and overcome the mightiest of your fears, when you are strongly tempted to self-indulgence? Have you no evidence, in your own experience, of the truth of the poet's words:
"The Sensual and the Dark rebel in vain, Slaves by their own compulsion."
If, then, you would know that "whosoever committeth sin is the slave of sin," contemplate sin in relation to the fears which of necessity rest upon a spirit capable, as yours is, of knowing that it must leave the body, that it must receive a final sentence at the bar of judgment, and that eternity is its last and fixed dwelling-place. If you would know with sadness and with profit, that sin is the enslavement of the will that originates it, consider that all the distressing fears that have ever been in your soul, from the first, have not been able to set you free in the least from innate depravity: but, that in spite of them all your will has been steadily surrendering itself, more and more, to the evil principle of self-love and enmity to God. Call to mind the great fight of anguish and terror which you have sometimes waged with sin, and see how sin has always been victorious. Remember that you have often dreaded death,—but you are unjust still. Remember that you have often trembled at the thought of eternal judgment,—but you are unregenerate still. Remember that you have often started back, when the holy and retributive eternity dawned like the day of doom upon you,—but you are impenitent still. If you view your own personal sin in reference to your own personal fears, are you not a slave to it? Will or can your fears, mighty as they sometimes are, deliver you from the bondage of corruption, and lift you above that which you love with all your heart, and strength, and might?
It is perfectly plain, then, that "whosoever committeth sin is the slave of sin," whether we have regard to the feeling of obligation to be perfectly holy which is in the human conscience; or to the ineffectual aspirations which sometimes arise in the human spirit; or to the dreadful fears which often fall upon it. Sin must have brought the human will into a real and absolute bondage, if the deep and solemn sense of indebtedness to moral law; if the "thoughts that wander through eternity;" if the aspirations that soar to the heaven of heavens, and the fears that descend to the very bottom of hell,—if all these combined forces and influences cannot free it from its power.
It was remarked in the beginning of this discourse, that the bondage of sin is the result of the reflex action of the human will upon itself. It is not a slavery imposed from without, but from within. The bondage of sin is only a particular aspect of sin itself. The element of servitude, like the element of blindness, or hardness, or rebelliousness, is part and particle of that moral evil which deserves the wrath and curse of God. It, therefore, no more excuses or palliates, than does any other self-originated quality in sin. Spiritual bondage, like spiritual enmity to God, or spiritual ignorance of Him, or spiritual apathy towards Him, is guilt and crime.
And in closing, we desire to repeat and emphasize this truth. Whoever will enter upon that process of self-wrestling and self-conflict which has been described, will come to a profound sense of the truth which our Lord taught in the words of the text. All such will find and feel that they are in slavery, and that their slavery is their condemnation. For the anxious, weary, and heavy-laden sinner, the problem is not mysterious, because it finds its solution in the depths of his own self-consciousness. He needs no one to clear it up for him, and he has neither doubts nor cavils respecting it.
But, an objection always assails that mind which has not the key of an inward moral struggle to unlock the problem for it. When Christ asserts that "whosoever committeth sin is the slave of sin," the easy and indifferent mind is swift to draw the inference that this bondage is its misfortune, and that the poor slave does not deserve to be punished, but to be set free. He says as St. Paul did in another connection: "Nay verily, but let them come themselves, and fetch us out." But this slavery is a self-enslavement. The feet of this man have not been thrust into the stocks by another. This logician must refer everything to its own proper author, and its own proper cause. Let this spiritual bondage, therefore, be charged upon the self that originated it. Let it be referred to that self-will in which it is wrapped up, and of which it is a constituent element. It is a universally received maxim, that the agent is responsible for the consequences of a voluntary act, as well as for the act itself. If, therefore, the human will has inflicted a suicidal blow upon itself, and one of the consequences of its own determination is a total enslavement of itself to its own determination, then this enslaving result of the act, as well the act itself, must all go in to constitute and swell the sum-total of human guilt. The miserable drunkard, therefore, cannot be absolved from the drunkard's condemnation, upon the plea that by a long series of voluntary acts he has, in the end, so enslaved himself that no power but God's grace can save him. The marble-hearted fiend in hell, the absolutely lost spirit in despair, cannot relieve his torturing sense of guilt, by the reflection that he has at length so hardened his own heart that he cannot repent. The unforced will of a moral being must be held responsible for both its direct, and its reflex action; for both its sin, and its bondage in sin.
The denial of guilt, then, is not the way out. He who takes this road "kicks against the goads." And he will find their stabs thickening, the farther he travels, and the nearer he draws to the face and eyes of God. But there is a way out. It is the way of self-knowledge and confession. This is the point upon which all the antecedents of salvation hinge. He who has come to know, with a clear discrimination, that he is in a guilty bondage to his own inclination and lust, has taken the very first step towards freedom. For, the Redeemer, the Almighty Deliverer, is near the captive, so soon as the captive feels his bondage and confesses it. The mighty God walking upon the waves of this sinful, troubled life, stretches out His arm, the very instant any sinking soul cries, "Lord save me." And unless that appeal and confession of helplessness is made, He, the Merciful and the Compassionate, will let the soul go down before His own eyes to the unfathomed abyss. If the sinking Peter had not uttered that cry, the mighty hand of Christ would not have been stretched forth. All the difficulties disappear, so soon as a man understands the truth of the Divine affirmation: "O Israel thou hast destroyed thyself,"—it is a real destruction, and it is thy own work,—"but in ME is thy help."
[Footnote 1: MILTON: Samson Agonistes, 832-834.—One key to the solution of the problem, how there can be bondage in the very seat of freedom,—how man can be responsible for sin, yet helpless in it,—is to be found in this fact of a reflex action of the will upon itself, or, a reaction of self-action. Philosophical speculation upon the nature of the human will has not, hitherto, taken this fact sufficiently into account. The following extracts corroborate the view presented above. "My will the enemy held, and thence had made a chain for me, and bound me. For, of a perverse will comes lust; and a lust yielded to becomes custom; and custom not resisted becomes necessity. By which links, as it were, joined together as in a chain, a hard bondage held me enthralled." AUGUSTINE: Confessions, VIII. v. 10. "Every degree of inclination contrary to duty, which is and must be sinful, implies and involves an equal degree of difficulty and inability to obey. For, indeed, such inclination of the heart to disobey, and the difficulty or inability to obey, are precisely one and the same. This kind of difficulty or inability, therefore, always is great according to the strength and fixedness of the inclination to disobey; and it becomes total and absolute [inability], when the heart is totally corrupt and wholly opposed to obedience.... No man can act contrary to his present inclination or choice. But who ever imagined that this rendered his inclination and choice innocent and blameless, however wrong and unreasonable it might be." SAMUEL HOPKINS: Works, I. 233-235. "Moral inability" is the being "unable to be willing." EDWARDS: Freedom of the Will, Part I, sect. iv. "Propensities,"—says a writer very different from those above quoted,—"that are easily surmounted lead us unresistingly on; we yield to temptations so trivial that we despise their danger. And so we fall into perilous situations from which we might easily have preserved ourselves, but from which we now find it impossible to extricate ourselves without efforts so superhuman as to terrify us, and we finally fall into the abyss, saying to the Almighty, 'Why hast Thou made me so weak?' But notwithstanding our vain pretext, He addresses our conscience, saying, 'I have made thee too weak to rise from the pit, because I made thee strong enough not to fall therein." ROUSSEAU: Confessions, Book II.]
[Footnote 2: Romans vii. 9-11.]
[Footnote 3: Some of the Schoolmen distinguished carefully between the two things, and denominated the former, velleitas, and the latter, voluntas.]
[Footnote 4: MILTON: Paradise Lost, IV. 23-25; 35-61.]
THE ORIGINAL AND THE ACTUAL RELATION OF MAN TO LAW.
ROMANS vii. 10.—"The commandment which, was ordained to life, I found to be unto death."
The reader of St. Paul's Epistles is struck with the seemingly disparaging manner in which he speaks of the moral law. In one place, he tells his reader that "the law entered that the offence might abound;" in another, that "the law worketh wrath;" in another, that "sin shall not have dominion" over the believer because he is "not under the law;" in another, that Christians "are become dead to the law;" in another, that "they are delivered from the law;" and in another, that "the strength of sin is the law." This phraseology sounds strangely, respecting that great commandment upon which the whole moral government of God is founded. We are in the habit of supposing that nothing that springs from the Divine law, or is in any way connected with it, can be evil or the occasion of evil. If the law of holiness is the strength of sin; if it worketh wrath; if good men are to be delivered from it; what then shall be said of the law of sin? Why is it, that St. Paul in a certain class of his representations appears to be inimical to the ten commandments, and to warn Christians against them? "Is the law sin?" is a question that very naturally arises, while reading some of his statements; and it is a question which he himself asks, because he is aware that it will be likely to start in the mind of some of his readers. And it is a question to which he replies: "God forbid. Nay I had not known sin, but by the law."
The difficulty is only seeming, and not real. These apparently disparaging representations of the moral law are perfectly reconcilable with that profound reverence for its authority which St. Paul felt and exhibited, and with that solemn and cogent preaching of the law for which he was so distinguished. The text explains and resolves the difficulty. "The commandment which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death." The moral law, in its own nature, and by the Divine ordination, is suited to produce holiness and happiness in the soul of any and every man. It was ordained to life. So far as the purpose of God, and the original nature and character of man, are concerned, the ten commandments are perfectly adapted to fill the soul with peace and purity. In the unfallen creature, they work no wrath, neither are they the strength of sin. If everything in man had remained as it was created, there would have been no need of urging him to "become dead to the law," to be "delivered from the law," and not be "under the law." Had man kept his original righteousness, it could never be said of him that "the strength of sin is the law." On the contrary, there was such a mutual agreement between the unfallen nature of man and the holy law of God, that the latter was the very joy and strength of the former. The commandment was ordained to life, and it was the life and peace of holy Adam.
The original relation between man's nature and the moral law was precisely like that between material nature and the material laws. There has been no apostasy in the system of matter, and all things remain there as they were in the beginning of creation. The law of gravitation, this very instant, rules as peacefully and supremely in every atom of matter, as it did on the morning of creation. Should material nature be "delivered" from the law of gravitation, chaos would come again. No portion of this fair and beautiful natural world needs to become "dead" to the laws of nature. Such phraseology as this is inapplicable to the relation that exists between the world of matter, and the system of material laws, because, in this material sphere, there has been no revolution, no rebellion, no great catastrophe analogous to the fall of Adam. The law here was ordained to life, and the ordinance still stands. And it shall stand until, by the will of the Creator, these elements shall melt with fervent heat, and these heavens shall pass away with a great noise; until a new system of nature, and a new legislation for it, are introduced.
But the case is different with man. He is not standing where he was, when created. He is out of his original relations to the law and government of God, and therefore that which was ordained to him for life, he now finds to be unto death. The food which in its own nature is suited to minister to the health and strength of the well man, becomes poison and death itself to the sick man.
With this brief notice of the fact, that the law of God was ordained to life, and that therefore this disparaging phraseology of St. Paul does not refer to the intrinsic nature of law, which he expressly informs us "is holy just and good," nor to the original relation which man sustained to it before he became a sinner, let us now proceed to consider some particulars in which the commandment is found to be unto death, to every sinful man.
The law of God shows itself in the human soul, in the form of a sense of duty. Every man, as he walks these streets, and engages in the business or pleasures of life, hears occasionally the words: "Thou shalt; them shalt not." Every man, as he passes along in this earthly pilgrimage, finds himself saying to himself: "I ought, I ought not." This is the voice of law sounding in the conscience; and every man may know, whenever he hears these words, that he is listening to the same authority that cut the ten commandments into the stones of Sinai, and sounded that awful trumpet, and will one day come in power and great glory to judge the quick and dead. Law, we say, expresses itself for man, while here upon earth, through the sense of duty. "A sense of duty pursues us ever," said Webster, in that impressive allusion to the workings of conscience, in the trial of the Salem murderers. This is the accusing and condemning sensation, in and by which the written statute of God becomes a living energy, and a startling voice in the soul. Cut into the rock of Sinai, it is a dead letter; written and printed in our Bibles, it is still a dead letter; but wrought in this manner into the fabric of our own constitution, waylaying us in our hours of weakness, and irresolution, and secrecy, and speaking to our inward being in tones that are as startling as any that could be addressed to the physical ear,—undergoing this transmutation, and becoming a continual consciousness of duty and obligation, the law of God is more than a letter. It is a possessing spirit, and according as we obey or disobey, it is a guardian angel, or a tormenting fiend. We have disobeyed, and therefore the sense of duty is a tormenting sensation; the commandment which was ordained to life, is found to be unto death.