1. In view of this subject, as thus discussed, we remark in the first place, that no man can have his "good things," in other words, his chief pleasure, in both worlds. God and this world are in antagonism. "For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him" (1 John i. 15, 16). It is the height of folly, therefore, to suppose that a man can make earthly enjoyment his chief end while he is upon earth, and then pass to heaven when he dies. Just so far as he holds on upon the "good things" of this life, he relaxes his grasp upon the "good things" of the next. No man is capacious enough to hold both worlds in his embrace. He cannot serve God and Mammon. Look at this as a matter of fact. Do not take it as a theory of the preacher. It is as plain and certain that you cannot lay up your treasure in heaven while you are laying it up upon earth, as it is that your material bodies cannot occupy two portions of space at one and the same time. Dismiss, therefore, all expectations of being able to accomplish an impossibility. Put not your mind to sleep with the opiate, that in some inexplicable manner you will be able to live the life of a worldly man upon earth, and then the life of a spiritual man in heaven. There is no alchemy that can amalgamate substances that refuse to mix. No man has ever yet succeeded, no man ever will succeed, in securing both the pleasures of sin and the pleasures of holiness,—in living the life of Dives, and then going to the bosom of Abraham.
2. And this leads to the second remark, that every man must make his choice whether he will have his "good things" now, or hereafter. Every man is making his choice. Every man has already made it. The heart is now set either upon God, or upon the world. Search through the globe, and you cannot find a creature with double affections; a creature with two chief ends of living; a creature whose treasure is both upon earth and in heaven. All mankind are single-minded. They either mind earthly things, or heavenly things. They are inspired with one predominant purpose, which rules them, determines their character, and decides their destiny. And in all who have not been renewed by Divine grace, the purpose is a wrong one, a false and fatal one. It is the choice and the purpose of Dives, and not the choice and purpose of Lazarus.
3. Hence, we remark in the third place, that it is the duty and the wisdom of every man to let this world go, and seek his "good things" hereafter. Our Lord commands every man to sit down, like the steward in the parable, and make an estimate. He enjoins it upon every man to reckon up the advantages upon each side, and see for himself which is superior. He asks every man what it will profit him, "if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul; or, what he shall give in exchange for his soul." We urge you to make this estimate,—to compare the "good things" which Dives enjoyed, with the "torments" that followed them; and the "evil things" which Lazarus suffered, with the "comfort" that succeeded them. There can be no doubt upon which side the balance will fall. And we urge you to take the "evil things" now, and the "good things" hereafter. We entreat you to copy the example of Moses at the court of the Pharaohs, and in the midst of all regal luxury, who "chose rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; esteeming the reproach of Christ, greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompense of reward." Take the narrow way. What though it be strait and narrow; you are not to walk in it forever. A few short years of fidelity will end the toilsome pilgrimage; and then you will come put into a "wealthy place." We might tell you of the joys of the Christian life that are mingled with its trials and sorrows even here upon earth. For, this race to which we invite you, and this fight to which we call you have their own peculiar, solemn, substantial joy. And even their sorrow is tinged with glory. In a higher, truer sense than Protesilaus in the poem says it of the pagan elysium, we may say even of the Christian race, and the Christian fight,
"Calm pleasures there abide—majestic pains."
But we do not care, at this point, to influence you by a consideration of the amount of enjoyment, in this life, which you will derive from a close and humble walk with God. We prefer to put the case in its baldest form,—in the aspect in which we find it in our text. We will say nothing at all about the happiness of a Christian life, here in time. We will talk only of its tribulations. We will only say, as in the parable, that there are "evil things" to be endured here upon earth, in return for which we shall have "good things" in another life. There is to be a moderate and sober use of this world's goods; there is to be a searching sense of sin, and an humble confession of it before God; there is to be a cross-bearing every day, and a struggle with indwelling corruption. These will cost effort, watchfulness, and earnest prayer for Divine assistance. We do not invite you into the kingdom of God, without telling you frankly and plainly beforehand what must be done, and what must be suffered. But having told you this, we then tell you with the utmost confidence and assurance, that you will be infinitely repaid for your choice, if you take your "evil things" in this life, and choose your "good things" in a future. We know, and are certain, that this light affliction which endures but for a moment, in comparison with the infinite duration beyond the tomb, will work out a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory. We entreat you to look no longer at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things that are seen are temporal, but the things that are not seen are eternal.
Learn a parable from a wounded soldier. His limb must be amputated, for mortification and gangrene have begun their work. He is told that the surgical operation, which will last a half hour, will yield him twenty or forty years of healthy and active life. The endurance of an "evil thing," for a few moments, will result in the possession of a "good thing," for many long days and years. He holds out the limb, and submits to the knife. He accepts the inevitable conditions under which he finds himself. He is resolute and stern, in order to secure a great good, in the future.
It is the practice of this same principle, though not in the use of the same kind of power, that we would urge upon you. Look up to God for grace and help, and deliberately forego a present advantage, for the sake of something infinitely more valuable hereafter. Do not, for the sake of the temporary enjoyment of Dives, lose the eternal happiness of Lazarus. Rather, take the place, and accept the "evil things," of the beggar. Look up to God for grace and strength to do it, and then live a life of contrition for sin, and faith in Christ's blood. Deny yourself, and take up the cross daily. Expect your happiness hereafter. Lay up your treasure above. Then, in the deciding day, it will be said of you, as it will be of all the true children of God: "These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb."
[Footnote 1: SHEDD: History of Doctrine, II., 234 sq.]
[Footnote 2: The early religious experience of John Owen furnishes a striking illustration. "For a quarter of a year, he avoided almost all intercourse with men; could scarcely be induced to speak; and when he did say anything, it was in so disordered a manner as rendered him a wonder to many. Only those who have experienced the bitterness of a wounded spirit can form an idea of the distress he must have suffered. Compared with this anguish of soul, all the afflictions which befall a sinner [on earth] are trifles. One drop of that wrath which shall finally fill the cup of the ungodly, poured into the mind, is enough to poison all the comforts of life, and to spread mourning, lamentation, and woe over the countenance. Though the violence of Owen's convictions had subsided after the first severe conflict, they still continued to disturb his peace, and nearly five years elapsed from their commencement before he obtained solid comfort." ORME: Life of Owen, Chap. I.]
[Footnote 3: WORDSWORTH: Laodamia.]
THE EXERCISE OF MERCY OPTIONAL WITH GOD.
ROMANS ix. 15.—"For He saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion."
This is a part of the description which God himself gave to Moses, of His own nature and attributes. The Hebrew legislator had said to Jehovah: "I beseech thee show me thy glory." He desired a clear understanding of the character of that Great Being, under whose guidance he was commissioned to lead the people of Israel into the promised land. God said to him in reply: "I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the Lord before thee; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy."
By this, God revealed to Moses, and through him to all mankind, the fact that He is a merciful being, and directs attention to one particular characteristic of mercy. While informing His servant, that He is gracious and clement towards a penitent transgressor, He at the same time teaches him that He is under no obligation, or necessity, to shew mercy. Grace is not a debt. "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion."
The apostle Paul quotes this declaration, to shut the mouth of him who would set up a claim to salvation; who is too proud to beg for it, and accept it as a free and unmerited favor from God. In so doing, he endorses the sentiment. The inspiration of his Epistle corroborates that of the Pentateuch, so that we have assurance made doubly sure, that this is the correct enunciation of the nature of mercy. Let us look into this hope-inspiring attribute of God, under the guidance of this text.
The great question that presses upon the human mind, from age to age, is the inquiry: Is God a merciful Being, and will He show mercy? Living as we do under the light of Revelation, we know little of the doubts and fears that spontaneously rise in the guilty human soul, when it is left solely to the light of nature to answer it. With the Bible in our hands, and hearing the good news of Redemption from our earliest years, it seems to be a matter of course that the Deity should pardon sin. Nay, a certain class of men in Christendom seem to have come to the opinion that it is more difficult to prove that God is just, than to prove that He is merciful. But this is not the thought and feeling of man when outside of the pale of Revelation. Go into the ancient pagan world, examine the theologizing of the Greek and Roman mind, and you will discover that the fears of the justice far outnumbered the hopes of the mercy; that Plato and Plutarch and Cicero and Tacitus were far more certain that God would punish sin, than that He would, pardon it. This is the reason that there is no light, or joy, in any of the pagan religions. Except when religion was converted into the worship of Beauty, as in the instance of the later Greek, and all the solemn and truthful ideas of law and justice were eliminated from it, every one of the natural religions of the globe is filled with sombre and gloomy hues, and no others. The truest and best religions of the ancient world were always the sternest and saddest, because the unaided human mind is certain that God is just, but is not certain that He is merciful. When man is outside of Revelation, it is by no means a matter of course that God is clement, and that sin shall be forgiven. Great uncertainty overhangs the doctrine of the Divine mercy, from the position of natural religion, and it is only within the province of revealed truth that the uncertainty is removed. Apart from a distinct and direct promise from the lips of God Himself that He will forgive sin, no human creature can be sure that sin will ever be forgiven. Let us, therefore, look into the subject carefully, and see the reason why man, if left to himself and his spontaneous reflections, doubts whether there is mercy in the Holy One for a transgressor, and fears that there is none, and why a special revelation is consequently required, to dispel the doubt and the fear.
The reason lies in the fact, implied in the text, that the exercise of justice is necessary, while that of mercy is optional. "I will have mercy on whom I please to have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I please to have compassion." It is a principle inlaid in the structure of the human soul, that the transgression of law must be visited with retribution. The pagan conscience, as well as the Christian, testifies that "the Soul that sinneth it shall die." There is no need of quoting from pagan philosophers to prove this. We should be compelled to cite page after page, should we enter upon the documentary evidence. Take such a tract, for example, as that of Plutarch, upon what he denominates "the slow vengeance of the Deity;" read the reasons which he assigns for the apparent delay, in this world, of the infliction of punishment upon transgressors; and you will perceive that the human mind, when left to its candid and unbiassed convictions, is certain that God is a holy Being and will visit iniquity with penalty. Throughout this entire treatise, composed by a man who probably never saw the Scriptures of either the New or the Old Dispensation, there runs a solemn and deep consciousness that the Deity is necessarily obliged, by the principles of justice, to mete out a retribution to the violator of law. Plutarch is engaged with the very same question that the apostle Peter takes up, in his second Epistle, when he answers the objection of the scoffer who asks: Where is the promise of God's coming in judgment? The apostle replies to it, by saying that for the Eternal Mind one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day, and that therefore "the Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some men count slackness;" and Plutarch answers it in a different manner, but assumes and affirms with the same positiveness and certainty that the vengeance will ultimately come. No reader of this treatise can doubt for a moment, that its author believed in the future punishment of the wicked,—and in the future endless punishment of the incorrigibly wicked, because there is not the slightest hint or expectation of any exercise of mercy on the part of this Divinity whose vengeance, though slow, is sure and inevitable. Some theorists tell us that the doctrine of endless punishment contradicts the instincts of the natural reason, and that it has no foundation in the constitution of the human soul. We invite them to read and ponder well, the speculations of one of the most thoughtful of pagans upon this subject, and tell us if they see any streaks or rays of light in it; if they see any inkling, any jot or tittle, of the doctrine of the Divine pity there. We challenge them to discover in this tract of Plutarch the slightest token, or sign, of the Divine mercy. The author believes in a hell for the wicked, and an elysium for the good; but those who go to hell go there upon principles of justice, and those who go to elysium go there upon the same principles. It is justice that must place men in Tartarus, and it is justice that must place them in Elysium. In paganism, men must earn their heaven. The idea of mercy,—of clemency towards a transgressor, of pity towards a criminal,—is entirely foreign to the thoughts of Plutarch, so far as they can be gathered from this tract. It is the clear and terrible doctrine of the pagan sage, that unless a man can make good his claim to eternal happiness upon the ground of law and justice,—unless he merits it by good works,—there is no hope for him in the other world.
The idea of a forgiving and tender mercy in the Supreme Being, exercised towards a creature whom justice would send to eternal retribution, nowhere appears in the best pagan ethics. And why should it? What evidence or proof has the human mind, apart from the revelations made to it in the Old and New Testaments, that God will ever forgive sin, or ever show mercy? In thinking upon the subject, our reason perceives, intuitively, that God must of necessity punish transgression; and it perceives with equal intuitiveness that there is no corresponding necessity that He should pardon it. We say with confidence and positiveness: "God must be just;" but we cannot say with any certainty or confidence at all: "God must be merciful." The Divine mercy is an attribute which is perfectly free and optional, in its exercises, and therefore we cannot tell beforehand whether it will or will not be shown to transgressors. We know nothing at all about it, until we hear some word from the lips of God Himself upon the point. When He opens the heavens, and speaks in a clear tone to the human race, saying, "I will forgive your iniquities," then, and not till then, do they know the fact. In reference to all those procedures which, like the punishment of transgression, are fixed and necessary, because they are founded in the eternal principles of law and justice, we can tell beforehand what the Divine method will be. We do not need any special revelation, to inform us that God is a just Being, and that His anger is kindled against wickedness, and that He will punish the transgressor. This class of truths, the Apostle informs us, are written in the human constitution, and we have already seen that they were known and dreaded in the pagan world. That which God must do, He certainly will do. He must be just, and therefore He certainly will punish sin, is the reasoning of the human mind, the-world over, and in every age.
But, when we pass from the punishment of sin to the pardon of it, when we go over to the merciful side of the Divine Nature, we can come to no certain conclusions, if we are shut up to the workings of our own minds, or to the teachings of the world of nature about us. Picture to yourself a thoughtful pagan, like Solon the legislator of Athens, living in the heart of heathenism five centuries before Christ, and knowing nothing of the promise of mercy which broke faintly through the heavens immediately after the apostasy of the first human pair, and which found its full and victorious utterance in the streaming, blood of Calvary. Suppose that the accusing and condemning law written, upon his conscience had shown its work, and made him conscious of sin. Suppose that the question had risen within him, whether that Dread Being whom he "ignorantly worshipped," and against whom he had committed the offence, would forgive it; was there anything in his own soul, was there anything in the world around him or above him, that could give him an affirmative answer? The instant he put the question: Will God punish me for my transgression? the affirming voices were instantaneous and authoritative. "The soul that sinneth it shall die" was the verdict that came forth from the recesses of his moral nature, and was echoed and re-echoed in the suffering, pain, and physical death of a miserable and groaning world all around him. But when he put the other question to himself: Will the Deity pardon me for my transgression? there was no affirmative answer from any source of knowledge accessible to him. If he sought a reply from the depths of his own conscience, all that he could hear was the terrible utterance: "The soul that sinneth it shall die." The human conscience can no more promise, or certify, the forgiveness of sin, than the ten commandments can do so. When, therefore, this pagan, convicted of sin, seeks a comforting answer to his anxious inquiry respecting the Divine clemency towards a criminal, he is met only with retributive thunders and lightnings; he hears only that accusing and condemning law which is written on the heart, and experiences that fearful looking-for of judgment and fiery indignation which St. Paul describes, in the first chapter of Romans, as working in the mind of the universal pagan world.
But we need not go to Solon, and the pagan world, for evidence upon this subject. Why is it that a convicted man under the full light of the gospel, and with the unambiguous and explicit promise of God to forgive sins ringing in his ears,—why is it, that even under these favorable circumstances a guilt-smitten man finds it so difficult to believe that there is mercy for him, and to trust in it? Nay, why is it that he finds it impossible fully to believe that Jehovah is a sin-pardoning God, unless he is enabled so to do by the Holy Ghost? It is because he knows that God is under a necessity of punishing his sin, but is under no necessity of pardoning it. The very same judicial principles are operating in his mind that operate in that of a pagan Solon, or any other transgressor outside of the revelation of mercy. That which holds back the convicted sinner from casting himself upon the Divine pity is the perception that God must be just. This fact is certain, whether anything else is certain or not. And it is not until he perceives that God can be both just and the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus; it is not until he sees that, through the substituted sufferings of Christ, God can punish sin while at the same time He pardons it,—can punish it in the Substitute while He pardons it in the sinner,—it is not until he is enabled to apprehend the doctrine of vicarious atonement, that his doubts and fears respecting the possibility and reality of the Divine mercy are removed. The instant he discovers that the exercise of pardon is rendered entirely consistent with the justice of God, by the substituted death of the Son of God, he sees the Divine mercy, and that too in the high form of self-sacrifice, and trusts in it, and is at peace.
These considerations are sufficient to show, that according to the natural and spontaneous operations of the human intellect, justice stands in the way of the exercise of mercy, and that therefore, if man is not informed by Divine Revelation respecting this latter attribute, he can never acquire the certainty that God will forgive his sin. There are two very important and significant inferences from this truth, to which we now ask serious attention.
1. In the first place, those who deny the credibility, and Divine authority, of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments shut up the whole world to doubt and despair. For, unless God has spoken the word of mercy in this written Revelation, He has not spoken it anywhere; and we have seen, that unless He has spoken such a merciful word somewhere, no human transgressor can be certain of anything but stark unmitigated justice and retribution. Do you tell us that God is too good to punish men, and that therefore it must be that He is merciful? We tell you, in reply, that God is good when He punishes sin, and your own conscience, like that of Plutarch, re-echoes the reply. Sin is a wicked thing, and when the Holy One visits it with retribution, He is manifesting the purest moral excellence and the most immaculate perfection of character that we can conceive of. But if by goodness you mean mercy, then we say that this is the very point in dispute, and you must not beg the point but must prove it. And now, if you deny the authority and credibility of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, we ask you upon what ground you venture to affirm that God will pardon man's sin. You cannot demonstrate it upon any a priori and necessary principles. You cannot show that the Deity is obligated to remit the penalty due to transgression. You can prove the necessity of the exercise of justice, but you cannot prove the necessity of the exercise of mercy. It is purely optional with God, whether to pardon or not. If, therefore, you cannot establish the fact of the Divine clemency by a priori reasoning,—if you cannot make out a necessity for the exercise of mercy,—you must betake yourself to the only other method of proof that remains to you, the method of testimony. If you have the declaration and promise of God, that He will forgive iniquity, transgression, and sin, you may be certain of the fact,—as certain as you would be, could you prove the absolute necessity of the exercise of mercy. For God's promise cannot be broken. God's testimony is sure. But, by the supposition, you deny that this declaration has been made, and this promise has been uttered, in the written Revelation of the Christian Church. Where then do you send me for the information, and the testimony? Have you a private revelation of your own? Has the Deity spoken to you in particular, and told you that He will forgive your sin, and my sin, and that of all the generations? Unless this declaration has been made either to you or to some other one, we have seen that you cannot establish the certainty that God will forgive sin. It is a purely optional matter with Him, and whether He will or no depends entirely upon His decision, determination, and declaration. If He says that He will pardon sin, it will certainly be done. But until He says it, you and every other man must be remanded to the inexorable decisions of conscience which thunder out: "The soul that sinneth it shall die." Whoever, therefore, denies that God in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments has broken through the veil that hides eternity from time, and has testified to the human race that He will forgive sin, and has solemnly promised to do so, takes away from the human race the only ground of certainty which they possess, that there is pity in the heavens, and that it will be shown to sinful creatures like themselves. But this is to shut them up again, to the doubt and hopelessness of the pagan world,—a world without Revelation.
2. In the second place, it follows from this subject, that mankind must take the declaration and promise of God, respecting the exercise of mercy, precisely as He has given it. They must follow the record implicitly, without any criticisms or alterations. Not only does the exercise of mercy depend entirely upon the will and pleasure of God, but, the mode, the conditions, and the length of time during which the offer shall be made, are all dependent upon the same sovereignty. Let us look at these particulars one by one.
In the first place, the method by which the Divine clemency shall be manifested, and the conditions upon which the offer of forgiveness shall be made, are matters that rest solely with God. If it is entirely optional with Him whether to pardon at all, much more does it depend entirely upon Him to determine the way and means. It is here that we stop the mouth of him who objects to the doctrine of forgiveness through a vicarious atonement. We will by no means concede, that the exhibition of mercy through the vicarious satisfaction of justice is an optional matter, and that God might have dispensed with such satisfaction, had He so willed. We believe that the forgiveness of sin is possible even to the Deity, only through a substituted sacrifice that completely satisfies the demands of law and justice,—that without the shedding of expiating blood there is no remission of sin possible or conceivable, under a government of law. But, without asking the objector to come up to this high ground, we are willing, for the sake of the argument, to go down upon his low one; and we say, that even if the metaphysical necessity of an atonement could not be maintained, and that it is purely optional with God whether to employ this method or not, it would still be the duty and wisdom of man to take the record just as it reads, and to accept the method that has actually been adopted. If the Sovereign has a perfect right to say whether He will or will not pardon the criminal, has He not the same right to say how He will do it? If the transgressor, upon principles of justice, could be sentenced to endless misery, and yet the Sovereign Judge concludes to offer him forgiveness and eternal life, shall the criminal, the culprit who could not stand an instant in the judgment, presume to quarrel with the method, and dictate the terms by which his own pardon shall be secured? Even supposing, then, that there were no intrinsic necessity for the offering of an infinite sacrifice to satisfy infinite justice, the Great God might still take the lofty ground of sovereignty, and say to the criminal: "My will shall stand for my reason; I decide to offer you amnesty and eternal joy, in this mode, and upon these terms. The reasons for my method are known to myself. Take mercy in this method, or take justice. Receive the forgiveness of sin in this mode, or else receive the eternal and just punishment of sin. Can I not do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil because I am good?" God is under no necessity to offer the forgiveness of sin to any criminal upon any terms; still less is He hedged up to a method of forgiveness prescribed by the criminal himself.
Again, the same reasoning will apply to the time during which the offer of mercy shall be extended. If it is purely optional with God, whether He will pardon my sin at all, it is also purely optional with Him to fix the limits within which He will exercise the act of pardon. Should He tell me, that if I would confess and forsake my sins to-day, He would blot them out forever, but that the gracious offer should be withdrawn tomorrow, what conceivable ground of complaint could I discover? He is under no necessity of extending the pardon at this moment, and neither is He at the next, or any future one. Mercy is grace, and not debt. Now it has pleased God, to limit the period during which the work of Redemption shall go on. There is a point of time, for every sinful man, at which "there remaineth no more sacrifice for sin" (Heb. x. 26). The period of Redemption is confined to earth and time; and unless the sinner exercises repentance towards God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, before his spirit returns to God who gave it, there is no redemption for him through eternal ages. This fact we know by the declaration and testimony of God; in the same manner that we know that God will exercise mercy at all, and upon any conditions whatever. We have seen that we cannot establish the fact that the Deity will forgive sin, by any a priori reasoning, but know it only because He has spoken a word to this effect, and given the world His promise to be gracious and merciful, In like manner, we do not establish the fact that there will be no second offer of forgiveness, in the future world, by any process of reasoning from the nature of the case, or the necessity of things. We are willing to concede to the objector, that for aught that we can see the Holy Ghost is as able to take of the things of Christ, and show them to a guilty soul, in the next world, as He is in this. So far as almighty power is concerned, the Divine Spirit could convince men of sin, and righteousness, and judgment, and incline them to repentance and faith, in eternity as well as in time. And it is equally true, that the Divine Spirit could have prevented the origin of sin itself, and the fall of Adam, with the untold woes that proceed therefrom. But it is not a question of power. It is a question of intention, of determination, and of testimony upon the part of God. And He has distinctly declared in the written Revelation, that it is His intention to limit the converting and saving influences of His Spirit to time and earth. He tells the whole world unequivocally, that His spirit shall not always strive with man, and that the day of judgment which occurs at the end of this Dispensation of grace, is not a day of pardon but of doom. Christ's description of the scenes that will close up this Redemptive Economy,—the throne, the opened books, the sheep on the right hand and the goats on the left hand, the words of the Judge: "Come ye blessed, depart ye cursed,"—proves beyond controversy that "now is the accepted time, and now is the day of salvation." The utterance of our Redeeming God, by His servant David, is: "To-day if ye will hear His voice harden not your hearts." St. Paul, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, informs the world, that as God sware that those Israelites who did not believe and obey His servant Moses, during their wanderings in the desert, should not enter the earthly Canaan, so those, in any age and generation of men, who do not believe and obey His Son Jesus Christ, during their earthly pilgrimage, shall, by the same Divine oath, be shut out of the eternal rest that remaineth for the people of God (Hebrews iii. 7-19). Unbelieving men, in eternity, will be deprived of the benefits of Christ's redemption, by the oath, the solemn decision, the judicial determination of God. For, this exercise of mercy, of which we are speaking, is not a matter of course, and of necessity, and which therefore continues forever and forever. It is optional. God is entirely at liberty to pardon, or not to pardon. And He is entirely at liberty to say when, and how, and how long the offer of pardon shall be extended. He had the power to carry the whole body of the people of Israel over Jordan, into the promised land, but He sware that those who proved refractory, and disobedient, during a certain definite period of time, should never enter Canaan. And, by His apostle, He informs all the generations of men, that the same principle will govern Him in respect to the entrance into the heavenly Canaan. The limiting of the offer of salvation to this life is not founded upon any necessity in the Divine Nature, but, like the offer of salvation itself, depends upon the sovereign pleasure and determination of God. That pleasure, and that determination, have been distinctly made known in the Scriptures. We know as clearly as we know anything revealed in the Bible, that God has decided to pardon here in time, and not to pardon in eternity. He has drawn a line between the present period, during which He makes salvation possible to man, and the future period, when He will not make it possible. And He had a right to draw that line, because mercy from first to last is the optional, and not the obligated agency of the Supreme Being.
Therefore, fear lest, a promise being left us of entering into His rest, any of you should seem to come short of it. For unto you is the gospel preached, as well as unto those Israelites; but the word, did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it. Neither will it profit you, unless it is mixed with faith. God limiteth a certain day, saying in David, "To-day, after so long a time,"—after these many years of hearing and neglecting the offer of forgiveness,—"to-day, if ye will hear His voice, harden not your hearts." Labor, therefore, now, to enter into that rest, lest any man fall, after the same example of unbelief, with those Israelites whom the oath of God shut out of both the earthly and the heavenly Canaan.
[Footnote 1: Compare, also, the very full announcement of mercy as a Divine attribute that was to be exercised, in Exodus xxxiv. 6, 7.
This is the more noteworthy, as it occurs in connection with the giving of the law.]
[Footnote 2: Their creed lives in the satire of YOUNG (Universal Passion. Satire VI.),—as full of sense, truth, and pungency now, as it was one hundred years ago.
"From atheists far, they steadfastly believe God is, and is Almighty—to forgive. His other excellence they'll not dispute; But mercy, sure, is His chief attribute. Shall pleasures of a short duration chain A lady's soul in everlasting pain? Will the great Author us poor worms destroy, For now and then a sip of transient joy? No, He's forever in a smiling mood; He's like themselves; or how could He be good? And they blaspheme, who blacker schemes suppose. Devoutly, thus, Jehovah they depose, The Pure! the Just! and set up in His stead, A deity that's perfectly well-bred."]
[Footnote 3: Plutarch supposes a form of punishment in the future world that is disciplinary. If it accomplishes its purpose, the soul goes into Elysium,—a doctrine like that of purgatory in the Papal scheme. But in case the person proves incorrigible, his suffering is endless. He represents an individual as having been restored to life, and giving an account of what he had seen. Among other things, he "informed his friend, how that Adrastia, the daughter of Jupiter and Necessity, was seated in the highest place of all, to punish all manner of crimes and enormities, and that in the whole number of the wicked and ungodly there never was any one, whether great or little, high or low, rich or poor, that could ever by force or cunning escape the severe lashes of her rigor. But as there are three sorts of punishment, so there are three several Furies, or female ministers of justice, and to every one of these belongs a peculiar office and degree of punishment. The first of these was called [Greek: Poinae] or Pain; whose executions are swift and speedy upon those that are presently to receive bodily punishment in this life, and which she manages after a more gentle manner, omitting the correction of slight offences, which need but little expiation. But if the cure of impiety require a greater labor, the Deity delivers those, after death, to [Greek: Dikae] or Vengeance. But when Vengeance has given them over as altogether incurable, then the third and most severe of all Adrastia's ministers, [Greek: 'Erinys] or Fury, takes them in hand, and after she has chased and coursed them from one place to another, flying yet not knowing where to fly for shelter and relief, plagued and tormented with a thousand miseries, she plunges them headlong into an invisible abyss, the hideousness of which no tongue can express." PLUTARCH: Morals, Vol. IV. p. 210. Ed. 1694. PLATO (Gorgias 525. c.d. Ed. Bip. IV. 169) represents Socrates as teaching that those who "have committed the most extreme wickedness, and have become incurable through such crimes, are made an example to others, and suffer forever ([Greek: paschontas ton aei chronon]) the greatest, most agonizing, and most dreadful punishment." And Socrates adds that "Homer (Odyssey xi. 575) also bears witness to this; for he represents kings and potentates, Tantalus, Sysiphus, and Tityus, as being tormented forever in Hades" ([Greek: en adon ton aei chronon timoronmenos]).-In the Aztec or Mexican theology, "the wicked, comprehending the greater part of mankind, were to expiate their sin in a place of everlasting darkness." PRESCOTT: Conquest of Mexico, Vol. I. p. 62.]
[Footnote 4: It may be objected, at this point, that mercy also is a necessary attribute in God, like justice itself,—that it necessarily belongs to the nature of a perfect Being, and therefore might be inferred a priori by the pagan, like other attributes. This is true; but the objection overlooks the distinction between the existence of an attribute and its exercise. Omnipotence necessarily belongs to the idea of the Supreme Being, but it does not follow that it must necessarily be exerted in act. Because God is able to create the universe of matter and mind, it does not follow that he must create it. The doctrine of the necessity of creation, though held in a few instances by theists who seem not to have discerned its logical consequences, is virtually pantheistic. Had God been pleased to dwell forever in the self-sufficiency of His Trinity, and never called the Finite into existence from nothing, He might have done so, and He would still have been omnipotent and "blessed forever." In like manner, the attribute of mercy might exist in God, and yet not be exerted. Had He been pleased to treat the human race as He did the fallen angels, He was perfectly at liberty to do so, and the number and quality of his immanent attributes would have been the same that they are now. But justice is an attribute which not only exists of necessity, but must be exercised of necessity; because not to exercise it would be injustice.-For a fuller exposition of the nature of justice, see SHEDD: Discourses and Essays, pp. 291-300.]
CHRISTIANITY REQUIRES THE TEMPER OF CHILDHOOD.
MARK x. 15.—"Verily I say unto you, whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein."
These words of our Lord are very positive and emphatic, and will, therefore, receive a serious attention from every one who is anxious concerning his future destiny beyond the grave. For, they mention an indispensable requisite in order to an entrance into eternal life. "Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein."
The occasion of their utterance is interesting, and brings to view a beautiful feature in the perfect character of Jesus Christ. The Redeemer was deeply interested in every age and condition of man. All classes shared in His benevolent affection, and all may equally partake of the rich blessings that flow from it. But childhood and youth seem to have had a special attraction for Him. The Evangelist is careful to inform us, that He took little children in His arms, and that beholding an amiable young man He loved him,—a gush of feeling went out towards him. It was because Christ was a perfect man, as well as the infinite God, that such a feeling dwelt in His breast. For, there has never been an uncommonly fair and excellent human character, in which tenderness and affinity for childhood has not been a quality, and a quality, too, that was no small part of the fairness and excellence. The best definition that has yet been given of genius itself is, that it is the carrying of the feelings of childhood onward into the thoughts and aspirations of manhood. He who is not attracted by the ingenuousness, and trustfulness, and simplicity, of the first period of human life, is certainly wanting in the finest and most delicate elements of nature, and character. Those who have been coarse and brutish, those who have been selfish and ambitious, those who have been the pests and scourges of the world, have had no sympathy with youth. Though once young themselves, they have been those in whom the gentle and generous emotions of the morning of life have died out. That man may become hardhearted, skeptical and sensual, a hater of his kind, a hater of all that is holy and good, he must divest himself entirely of the fresh and ingenuous feeling of early boyhood, and receive in its place that malign and soured feeling which is the growth, and sign, of a selfish and disingenuous life. It is related of Voltaire,—a man in whom evil dwelt in its purest and most defecated essence,—that he had no sympathy with the child, and that the children uniformly shrank from that sinister eye in which the eagle and the reptile were so strangely blended.
Our Saviour, as a perfect man, then, possessed this trait, and it often showed itself in His intercourse with men. As an omniscient Being, He indeed looked with profound interest, upon the dawning life of the human spirit as it manifests itself in childhood. For He knew as no finite being can, the marvellous powers that sleep in the soul of the young child; the great affections which are to be the foundation of eternal bliss, or eternal pain, that exist in embryo within; the mysterious ideas that lie in germ far down in its lowest depths,—He knew, as no finite creature is able, what is in the child, as well as in the man, and therefore was interested in its being and its well-being. But besides this, by virtue of His perfect humanity, He was attracted by those peculiar traits which are seen in the earlier years of human life. He loved the artlessness and gentleness, the sense of dependence, the implicit trust, the absence of ostentation and ambition, the unconscious modesty, in one word, the child-likeness of the child.
Knowing this characteristic of the Redeemer, certain parents brought their young children to Him, as the Evangelist informs us, "that He should touch them;" either believing that there was a healthful virtue, connected with the touch of Him who healed the sick and gave life to the dead, that would be of benefit to them; or, it may be, with more elevated conceptions of Christ's person, and more spiritual desires respecting the welfare of their offspring, believing that the blessing (which was symbolized by the touch and laying on of hands) of so exalted a Being would be of greater worth than mere health of body. The disciples, thinking that mere children were not worthy of the regards of their Master, rebuked the anxious and affectionate parents. "But,"—continues the narrative,—"when Jesus saw it he was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of God;" and then immediately explained what He meant by this last assertion, which is so often misunderstood and misapplied, by adding, in the words of the text, "Verily I say unto you, whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child" that is with a child-like spirit, "he shall not enter therein." For our Lord does not here lay down a doctrinal position, and affirm the moral innocence of childhood. He does not mark off and discriminate the children as sinless, from their parents as sinful, as if the two classes did not belong to the same race of beings, and were not involved in the same apostasy and condemnation. He merely sets childhood and manhood over-against each other as two distinct stages of human life, each possessing peculiar traits and tempers, and affirms that it is the meek spirit of childhood, and not the proud spirit of manhood, that welcomes and appropriates the Christian salvation. He is only contrasting the general attitude of a child, with the general attitude of a man. He merely affirms that the trustful and believing temper of childhood, as compared with the self-reliant and skeptical temper of manhood, is the temper by which both the child and the man are to receive the blessings of the gospel which both of them equally need.
The kingdom of God is represented in the New Testament, sometimes as subjective, and sometimes as objective; sometimes as within the soul of man, and sometimes as up in the skies. Our text combines both representations; for, it speaks of a man's "receiving" the kingdom of God, and of a man's "entering" the kingdom of God; of the coming of heaven into a soul, and of the going of a soul into heaven. In other passages, one or the other representation appears alone. "The kingdom of God,"—says our Lord to the Pharisees,—"cometh not with observation. Neither shall they say, Lo here, or lo there: for behold the kingdom of God is within you." The apostle Paul, upon arriving at Rome, invited the resident Jews to discuss the subject of Christianity with him. "And when they had appointed him a day, there came many to him into his lodging, to whom he expounded and testified the kingdom of God,"—to whom he explained the nature of the Christian religion,—"persuading them concerning Jesus, both out of the law of Moses, and out of the prophets, from, morning till evening." The same apostle teaches the Romans, that "the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost;" and tells the Corinthians, that "the kingdom of God is not in word, but in power." In all these instances, the subjective signification prevails, and the kingdom of God is simply a system of truth, or a state of the heart. And all are familiar with the sentiment, that heaven is a state, as well as a place. All understand that one half of heaven is in the human heart itself; and, that if this half be wanting, the other half is useless,—as the half of a thing generally is. Isaac Walton remarks of the devout Sibbs:
"Of this blest man, let this just praise be given, Heaven was in him, before he was in heaven."
It is only because that in the eternal world the imperfect righteousness of the renewed man is perfected, and the peace of the anxious soul becomes total, and the joy that is so rare and faint in the Christian experience here upon earth becomes the very element of life and action,—it is only because eternity completes the excellence of the Christian (but does not begin it), that heaven, as a place of perfect holiness and happiness, is said to be in the future life, and we are commanded to seek a better country even a heavenly. But, because this is so, let no one lose sight of the other side of the great truth, and forget that man must "receive" the kingdom as well as "enter" it. Without the right state of heart, without the mental correspondent to heaven, that beautiful and happy region on high will, like any and every other place, be a hell, instead of a paradise. A distinguished writer represents one of his characters as leaving the Old World, and seeking happiness in the New, supposing that change of place and outward circumstances could cure a restless mind. He found no rest by the change; and in view of his disappointment says: "I will return, and in my ancestral home, amid my paternal fields, among my own people, I will say, Here, or nowhere, is America." In like manner, must the Christian seek happiness in present peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, and must here in this life strive after the righteousness that brings tranquillity. Though he may look forward with aspiration to the new heavens and the new earth wherein dwelleth a perfected righteousness, yet he must remember that his holiness and happiness there is merely an expansion of his holiness and happiness here. He must seek to "receive" the kingdom of God, as well as to "enter" it; and when tempted to relax his efforts, and to let down his watch, because the future life will not oppose so many obstacles to spirituality as this, and will bring a more perfect enjoyment with it, he should say to himself: "Be holy now, be happy here. Here, or nowhere, is heaven."
Such being the nature of the kingdom of God, we are now brought up to the discussion of the subject of the text, and are prepared to consider: In what respects, the kingdom of God requires the temper of a child as distinguished from the temper of a man, in order to receive it, and in order to enter it.
The kingdom of God, considered as a kingdom that is within the soul, is tantamount to religion. To receive this kingdom, then, is equivalent to receiving religion into the heart, so that the character shall be formed by it, and the future destiny be decided by it. What, then, is the religion that is to be received? We answer that it is the religion that is needed. But, the religion that is needed by a sinful man is very different from the religion that is adapted to a holy angel. He who has never sinned is already in direct and blessed relations with God, and needs only to drink in the overflowing and everflowing stream of purity and pleasure. Such a spirit requires a religion of only two doctrines: First, that there is a God; and, secondly, that He ought to be loved supremely and obeyed perfectly. This is the entire theology of the angels, and it is enough for them. They know nothing of sin in their personal experience, and consequently they require in their religion, none of those doctrines, and none of those provisions, which are adapted to the needs of sinners.
But, man is in an altogether different condition from this. He too knows that there is a God, and that He ought to be loved supremely, and obeyed perfectly. Thus far, he goes along with the angel, and with every other rational being made under the law and government of God. But, at this point, his path diverges from that of the pure and obedient inhabitant of heaven, and leads in an opposite direction. For he does not, like the angels, act up to his knowledge. He is not conformed to these two doctrines. He does not love God supremely, and he does not obey Him perfectly. This fact puts him into a very different position, in reference to these two doctrines, from that occupied by the obedient and unfallen spirit. These two doctrines, in relation to him as one who has contravened them, have become a power of condemnation; and whenever he thinks of them he feels guilty. It is no longer sufficient to tell him. that religion consists in loving God, and enjoying His presence,—consists in holiness and happiness. "This is very true,"—he says,—"but I am neither holy nor happy." It is no longer enough to remind him that all is well with any creature who loves God with all his heart, and keeps His commandments without a single slip or failure. "This is very true,"—he says again,—"but I do not love in this style, neither have I obeyed in this manner." It is too late to preach mere natural religion, the religion of the angels, to one who has failed to stand fully and firmly upon the principles of natural religion. It is too late to tell a creature who has lost his virtue, that if he is only virtuous he is safe enough.
The religion, then, that a sinner needs, cannot be limited to the two doctrines of the holiness of God, and the creature's obligation to love and serve Him,—cannot be pared down to the precept: Fear God and practise virtue. It must be greatly enlarged, and augmented, by the introduction of that other class of truths which relate to the Divine mercy towards those who have not feared God, and the Divine method of salvation for those who are sinful. In other words, the religion for a transgressor is revealed religion, or the religion of Atonement and Redemption.
What, now, is there in this species of religion that necessitates the meek and docile temper of a child, as distinguished from the proud and self-reliant spirit of a man, in order to its reception into the heart?
I. In the first place, the New Testament religion offers the forgiveness of sins, and provides for it. No one can ponder this fact an instant, without perceiving that the pride and self-reliance of manhood are excluded, and that the meekness and implicit trust of childhood are demanded. Pardon and justification before God must, from the nature of the case, be a gift, and a gift cannot be obtained unless it is accepted as such. To demand or claim mercy, is self-contradictory. For, a claim implies a personal ground for it; and this implies self-reliance, and this is "manhood" in distinction from "childhood." In coming, therefore, as the religion of the Cross does, before man with a gratuity, with an offer to pardon his sins, it supposes that he take a correspondent attitude. Were he sinless, the religion suited to him would be the mere utterance of law, and he might stand up before it with the serene brow of an obedient subject of the Divine government; though even then, not with a proud and boastful temper. It would be out of place for him, to plead guilty when he was innocent; or to cast himself upon mercy, when he could appeal to justice. If the creature's acceptance be of works, then it is no more of grace, otherwise work is no more work. But if it be by grace, then it is no more of works (Rom. xi. 6). If the very first feature of the Christian religion is the exhibition of clemency, then the proper and necessary attitude of one who receives it is that of humility.
But, leaving this argument drawn from the characteristics, of Christianity as a religion of Redemption, let us pass into the soul of man, and see what we are taught there, respecting the temper which he must possess in order to receive this new, revealed kingdom of God. The soul of man is guilty. Now, there is something in the very nature of guilt that excludes the proud, self-conscious, self-reliant spirit of manhood, and necessitates the lowly, and dependent spirit of childhood. When conscience is full of remorse, and the holy eye of law is searching us, and fears of eternal banishment and punishment are rakeing the spirit, there is no remedy but simple confession, and childlike reliance upon absolute mercy. The sinner must be a softened child and not a hard man, he must beg a boon and not put in a claim, if he would receive this kingdom of God, this New Testament religion, into his soul. The slightest inclination to self-righteousness, the least degree of resistance to the just pressure of law, is a vitiating element in repentance. The muscles of the stout man must give way, the knees must bend, the hands must be uplifted deprecatingly, the eyes must gaze with a straining gaze upon the expiating Cross,—in other words, the least and last remains of a stout and self-asserting spirit must vanish, and the whole being must be pliant, bruised, broken, helpless in its state and condition, in order to a pure sense of guilt, a godly sorrow for sin, and a cordial appropriation of the atonement. The attempt to mix the two tempers, to mingle the child with the man, to confess sin and assert self-righteousness, must be an entire failure, and totally prevent the reception of the religion of Redemption. In relation to the Redeemer, the sinful soul should be a vacuum, a hollow void, destitute of everything holy and good, conscious that it is, and aching to be filled with the fulness of His peace and purity.
And with reference to God, the Being whose function it is to pardon, we see the same necessity for this child-like spirit in the transgressor. How can God administer forgiveness, unless there is a correlated temper to receive it? His particular declarative act in blotting out sin depends upon the existence of penitence for sin. Where there is absolute hardness of heart, there can be no pardon, from the very nature of the case, and the very terms of the statement. Can God say to the hardened Judas: Son be of good cheer, thy sin is forgiven thee? Can He speak to the traitor as He speaks to the Magdalen? The difficulty is not upon the side of God. The Divine pity never lags behind any genuine human sorrow. No man was ever more eager to be forgiven than his Redeemer is to forgive him. No contrition for sin, upon the part of man, ever yet outran the readiness and delight of God to recognize it, and meet it with a free pardon. For, that very contrition itself is always the product of Divine grace, and proves that God is in advance of the soul. The father in the parable saw the son while he was a great way off, before the son saw him, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. But while this is so, and is an encouragement to the penitent, it must ever be remembered that unless there is some genuine sorrow in the human soul, there can be no manifestation of the Divine forgiveness within it. Man cannot beat the air, and God cannot forgive impenitency.
II. In the second place, the New Testament religion proposes to create within man a clean heart, and to renew within him a right spirit. Christianity not only pardons but sanctifies the human soul. And in accomplishing this latter work, it requires the same humble and docile temper that was demanded in the former instance.
Holiness, even in an unfallen angel, is not an absolutely self-originated thing. If it were, the angel would be worthy of adoration and worship. He who is inwardly and totally excellent, and can also say: I am what I am by my own ultimate authorship, can claim for himself the glory that is due to righteousness. Any self-originated and self-subsistent virtue is entitled to the hallelujahs. But, no created spirit, though he be the highest of the archangels, can make such an assertion, or put in such a claim. The merit of the unfallen angel, therefore, is a relative one; because his holiness is of a created and derived species. It is not increate and self-subsistent. This being so, it is plain that the proper attitude of all creatures in respect to moral excellence is a recipient and dependent one. But this is a meek and lowly attitude; and this is, in one sense, a child-like attitude. Our Lord knew no sin; and yet He himself tells us that He was meek and lowly of heart, and we well know that He was. He does not say that He was penitent. He does not propose himself as our exemplar in that respect. But, in respect to the primal, normal attitude which a finite being must ever take in reference to the infinite and adorable God, and the absolute underived Holiness; in reference to the true temper which a holy man or a holy angel must possess; our Lord Jesus Christ, in His human capacity, sets an example to be followed by the spirits of just men made perfect, and by all the holy inhabitants of heaven. In other words, He teaches the whole universe that holiness in a creature, even though it be complete, does not permit its possessor to be self-reliant, does not allow the proud spirit of manhood, does not remove the obligation to be child-like, meek, and lowly of heart.
But if this is true of holiness among those who have never fallen, how much more true is it of those who have, and who need to be lifted up out of the abyss. If an angel, in reference to God, must be meek and lowly of heart; if the holy Redeemer must in His human capacity be meek and lowly of heart; if the child-like temper, in reference to the infinite and everlasting Father and the absolutely Good, is the proper one in such exalted instances as these; how much more is it in the instance of the vile and apostate children of Adam! Besides the original and primitive reason growing out of creaturely relationships, there is the superadded one growing out of the fact, that now the whole head is sick and the whole heart is faint, and from the sole of the foot even unto the head there is no soundness in human nature.
Hence, our Lord began His Sermon on the Mount in these words: "Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn; for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek; for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness; for they shall be filled." The very opening of this discourse, which He intended should go down through the ages as a manifesto declaring the real nature of His kingdom, and the spirit which His followers must possess, asserts the necessity of a needy, recipient, asking mind, upon the part of a sinner. All this phraseology implies destitution; and a destitution that cannot be self-supplied. He who hungers and thirsts after righteousness is conscious of an inward void, in respect to righteousness, that must be filled from abroad. He who is meek is sensible that he is dependent for his moral excellence. He who is poor in spirit is, not pusillanimous as Thomas Paine charged upon Christianity but, as John of Damascus said of himself, a man of spiritual cravings, vir desideriorum.
Now, all this delineation of the general attitude requisite in order to the reception of the Christian religion is summed up again, in the declaration of our text: "Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein." Is a man, then, sensible that his understanding is darkened by sin, and that he is destitute of clear and just apprehensions of divine things? Does his consciousness of inward poverty assume this form? If he would be delivered from his mental blindness, and be made rich in spiritual knowledge, he must adopt a teachable and recipient attitude. He must not assume that his own mind is the great fountain of wisdom, and seek to clear up his doubts and darkness by the rationalistic method of self-illumination. On the contrary, he must go beyond his mind and open a book, even the Book of Revelation, and search for the wisdom it contains and proffers. And yet more than this. As this volume is the product of the Eternal Spirit himself, and this Spirit conspires with the doctrines which He has revealed, and exerts a positive illuminating influence, he must seek communion therewith. From first to last, therefore, the darkened human spirit must take a waiting posture, in order to enlightenment. That part of "the clean heart and the right spirit" which consists in the knowledge of divine things can be obtained only through a child-like bearing and temper. This is what our Lord means, when He pronounces a blessing upon the poor in spirit, the hungry and the thirsting soul. Men, in their pride and self-reliance, in their sense of manhood, may seek to enter the kingdom of heaven by a different method; they may attempt to speculate their way through all the mystery that overhangs human life, and the doubts that confuse and baffle the human understanding; but when they find that the unaided intellect only "spots a thicker gloom" instead of pouring a serener ray, wearied and worn they return, as it were, to the sweet days of childhood, and in the gentleness, and tenderness, and docility of an altered mood, learn, as Bacon did in respect to the kingdom of nature, that the kingdom of heaven is open only to the little child.
Again, is a man conscious of the corruption of his heart? Has he discovered his alienation from the life and love of God, and is he now aware that a total change must pass upon him, or that alienation must be everlasting? Has he found out that his inclinations, and feelings, and tastes, and sympathies are so worldly, so averse from spiritual objects, as to be beyond his sovereignty? Does he feel vividly that the attempt to expel this carnal mind, and to induce in the place thereof the heavenly spontaneous glow of piety towards God and man, is precisely like the attempt of the Ethiopian to change his skin, and the leopard his spots?
If this experience has been forced upon him, shall he meet it with the port and bearing of a strong man? Shall he take the attitude of the old Roman stoic, and attempt to meet the exigencies of his moral condition, by the steady strain and hard tug of his own force? He cannot long do this, under the clear searching ethics of the Sermon on the Mount, without an inexpressible weariness and a profound despair. Were he within the sphere of paganism, it might, perhaps, be otherwise. A Marcus Aurelius could maintain this legal and self-righteous position to the end of life, because his ideal of virtue was a very low one. Had that high-minded pagan felt the influences of Christian ethics, had the Sermon on the Mount searched his soul, telling him that the least emotion of pride, anger, or lust, was a breach of that everlasting law which stood grand and venerable before his philosophic eye, and that his virtue was all gone, and his soul was exposed to the inflictions of justice, if even a single thought of his heart was unconformed to the perfect rule of right,—if, instead of the mere twilight of natural religion, there had flared into his mind the fierce and consuming splendor of the noonday sun of revealed truth, and New Testament ethics, it would have been impossible for that serious-minded emperor to say, as in his utter self-delusion he did, to the Deity: "Give me my dues,"—instead of breathing the prayer: "Forgive me my debts." Christianity elevates the standard and raises the ideal of moral excellence, and thereby disturbs the self-complacent feeling of the stoic, and the moralist. If the law and rule of right is merely an outward one, it is possible for a man sincerely to suppose that he has kept the law, and his sincerity will be his ruin. For, in this case, he can maintain a self-reliant and a self-satisfied spirit, the spirit of manhood, to the very end of his earthly career, and go with his righteousness which is as filthy rags, into the presence of Him in whose sight the heavens are not clean. But, if the law and rule of right is seen to be an inward and spiritual statute, piercing to the dividing asunder of the soul and spirit, and becoming a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart, it is not possible for a candid man to delude himself into the belief that he has perfectly obeyed it; and in this instance, that self-dissatisfied spirit, that consciousness of internal schism and bondage, that war between the flesh and the spirit so vividly portrayed in the seventh chapter of Romans, begins, and instead of the utterance of the moralist: "I have kept the everlasting law, give me my dues," there bursts forth the self-despairing cry of the penitent and the child: "O wretched man that I am.! who shall deliver me? Father I have sinned against heaven and before thee."
When, therefore, the truth and Spirit of God, working in and with the natural conscience, have brought a man to that point where he sees that all his own righteousness is as filthy rags, and that the pure and stainless righteousness of Jehovah must become the possession and the characteristic of his soul, he is prepared to believe the declaration of our text: "Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein." The new heart, and the right spirit,—the change, not in the mere external behavior but, in the very disposition and inclination of the soul,—excludes every jot and tittle of self-assertion, every particle of proud and stoical manhood.
Such a text as this which we have been considering is well adapted to put us upon the true method of attaining everlasting life. These few and simple words actually dropped, eighteen hundred years ago, from the lips of that august Being who is now seated upon the throne of heaven, and who knows this very instant the effect which they are producing in the heart of every one who either reads or hears them. Let us remember that these few and simple words do verily contain the key to everlasting life and glory. In knowing what they mean, we know, infallibly, the way to heaven. "I tell you, that many prophets and kings have desired to see those things which we see, and have not seen them: and to hear those things which we hear, and have not heard them." How many a thoughtful pagan, in the centuries that have passed and gone, would in all probability have turned a most attentive ear, had he heard, as we do, from the lips of an unerring Teacher, that a child-like reception of a certain particular truth,—and that not recondite and metaphysical, but simple as childhood itself, and to be received by a little child's act,—would infallibly conduct to the elysium that haunted and tantalized him.
That which hinders us is our pride, our "manhood." The act of faith is a child's act; and a child's act, though intrinsically the easiest of any, is relatively the most difficult of all. It implies the surrender of our self-will, our self-love, our proud manhood; and never was a truer remark made than that of Ullmann, that "in no one thing is the strength of a man's will so manifested, as in his having no will of his own." "Christianity,"—says Jeremy Taylor,—"is the easiest and the hardest thing in the world. It is like a secret in arithmetic; infinitely hard till it be found out by a right operation, and then it is so plain we wonder we did not understand it earlier." How hard, how impossible without that Divine grace which makes all such central and revolutionary acts easy and genial to the soul,—how hard it is to cease from our own works, and really become docile and recipient children, believing on the Lord Jesus Christ, and trusting in Him, simply and solely, for salvation.
[Footnote 1: "Concerning the object of felicity in heaven, we are agreed that it can be no other than the blessed God himself, the all-comprehending good, fully adequate to the highest and most enlarged reasonable desires. But the contemperation of our faculties to the holy, blissful object, is so necessary to our satisfying fruition, that without this we are no more capable thereof, than a brute of the festivities of a quaint oration, or a stone of the relishes of the most pleasant meats and drinks." HOWE: Heaven a State of Perfection.]
[Footnote 2: GOETHE: Wilhelm Meister, Book VII., ch. iii.]
[Footnote 3: Compare Isaiah lxi. 1.]
[Footnote 4: ULLMANN: Sinlessness of Jesus, Pt. I., Ch. iii., Sec. 2.]
FAITH THE SOLE SAVING ACT.
JOHN vi. 28, 29.—"Then said they unto him, What shall we do, that we might work the works of God? Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent."
In asking their question, the Jews intended to inquire of Christ what particular things they must do, before all others, in order to please God. The "works of God," as they denominate them, were not any and every duty, but those more special and important acts, by which the creature might secure the Divine approval and favor. Our Lord understood their question in this sense, and in His reply tells them, that the great and only work for them to do was to exercise faith in Him. They had employed the plural number in their question; but in His answer He employs the singular. They had asked, What shall we do that we might work the works of God,—as if there were several of them. His reply is, "This is the work of God, that ye believe on Him whom He hath sent." He narrows down the terms of salvation to a single one; and makes the destiny of the soul to depend upon the performance of a particular individual act. In this, as in many other incidental ways, our Lord teaches His own divinity. If He were a mere creature; if He were only an inspired teacher like David or Paul; how would He dare, when asked to give in a single word the condition and means of human salvation, to say that they consist in resting the soul upon Him? Would David have dared to say: "This is the work of God,—this is the saving act,—that ye believe in me?" Would Paul have presumed to say to the anxious inquirer: "Your soul is safe, if you trust in me?" But Christ makes this declaration, without any qualification. Yet He was meek and lowly of heart, and never assumed an honor or a prerogative that did not belong to Him. It is only upon the supposition that He was "very God of very God," the Divine Redeemer of the children of men, that we can justify such an answer to such a question.
The belief is spontaneous and natural to man, that something must be done in order to salvation. No man expects to reach heaven by inaction. Even the indifferent and supine soul expects to rouse itself up at some future time, and work out its salvation. The most thoughtless and inactive man, in religious respects, will acknowledge that thoughtlessness and inactivity if continued will end in perdition. But he intends at a future day to think, and act, and be saved. So natural is it, to every man, to believe in salvation by works; so ready is every one to concede that heaven is reached, and hell is escaped, only by an earnest effort of some kind; so natural is it to every man to ask with these Jews, "What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?"
But mankind generally, like the Jews in the days of our Lord, are under a delusion respecting the nature of the work which must be performed in order to salvation. And in order to understand this delusion, we must first examine the common notion upon the subject.
When a man begins to think of God, and of his own relations to Him, he finds that he owes Him service and obedience. He has a work to perform, as a subject of the Divine government; and this work is to obey the Divine law. He finds himself obligated to love God with all his heart, and his neighbor as himself, and to discharge all the duties that spring out of his relations to God and man. He perceives that this is the "work" given him to do by creation, and that if he does it he will attain the true end of his existence, and be happy in time and eternity. When therefore he begins to think of a religious life, his first spontaneous impulse is to begin the performance of this work which he has hitherto neglected, and to reinstate himself in the Divine favor by the ordinary method of keeping the law of God. He perceives that this is the mode in which the angels preserve themselves holy and happy; that this is the original mode appointed by God, when He established the covenant of works; and he does not see why it is not the method for him. The law expressly affirms that the man that doeth these things shall live by them; he proposes to take the law just as it reads, and just as it stands,—to do the deeds of the law, to perform the works which it enjoins, and to live by the service. This we say, is the common notion, natural to man, of the species of work which must be performed in order to eternal life. This was the idea which filled the mind of the Jews when they put the question of the text, and received for answer from Christ, "This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent." Our Lord does not draw out the whole truth, in detail. He gives only the positive part of the answer, leaving His hearers to infer the negative part of it. For the whole doctrine of Christ, fully stated, would run thus: "No work of the kind of which you are thinking can save you; no obedience of the law, ceremonial or moral, can reinstate you in right relations to God. I do not summon you to the performance of any such service as that which you have in mind, in order to your justification and acceptance before the Divine tribunal. This is the work of God,—this is the sole and single act which you are to perform,—namely, that you believe on Him whom He hath sent as a propitiation for sin. I do not summon you to works of the law, but to faith in Me the Redeemer. Your first duty is not to attempt to acquire a righteousness in the old method, by doing something of yourselves, but to receive a righteousness in the new method, by trusting in what another has done for you."
I. What is the ground and reason of such an answer as this? Why is man invited to the method of faith in another, instead of the method of faith in himself? Why is not his first spontaneous thought the true one? Why should he not obtain eternal life by resolutely proceeding to do his duty, and keeping the law of God? Why can he not be saved by the law of works? Why is he so summarily shut up to the law of faith?
We answer: Because it is too late for him to adopt the method of salvation by works. The law is indeed explicit in its assertion, that the man that doeth these things shall live by them; but then it supposes that the man begin at the beginning. A subject of government cannot disobey a civil statute for five or ten years, and then put himself in right relations to it again, by obeying it for the remainder of his life. Can a man who has been a thief or an adulterer for twenty years, and then practises honesty and purity for the following thirty years, stand up before the seventh and eighth commandments and be acquitted by them? It is too late for any being who has violated a law even in a single instance, to attempt to be justified by that law. For, the law demands and supposes that obedience begin at the very beginning of existence, and continue down uninterruptedly to the end of it. No man can come in at the middle of a process of obedience, any more than he can come in at the last end of it, if he proposes to be accepted upon the ground of obedience. "I testify," says St. Paul, "to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law" (Gal. v. 3). The whole, or none, is the just and inexorable rule which law lays down in the matter of justification. If any subject of the Divine government can show a clean record, from the beginning to the end of his existence, the statute says to him, "Well done," and gives him the reward which he has earned. And it gives it to him not as a matter of grace, but of debt. The law never makes a present of wages. It never pays out wages, until they are earned,—-fairly and fully earned. But when a perfect obedience from first to last is rendered to its claims, the compensation follows as matter of debt. The law, in this instance, is itself brought under obligation. It owes a reward to the perfectly obedient subject of law, and it considers itself his debtor until it is paid. "Now to him that worketh, is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. If it be of works, then it is no more grace: otherwise work is no more work" (Rom. iv. 4; xi. 6).
But, on the other hand, law is equally exact and inflexible, in case the work has not been performed. It will not give eternal life to a soul that has sinned ten years, and then perfectly obeyed ten years,—supposing that there is any such soul. The obedience, as we have remarked, must run parallel with the entire existence, in order to be a ground, of justification. Infancy, childhood, youth, manhood, old age, and then the whole immortality that succeeds, must all be unintermittently sinless and holy, in order to make eternal life a matter of debt. Justice is as exact and punctilious upon this side, as it is upon the other. We have seen, that when a perfect obedience has been rendered, justice will not palm off the wages that are due as if they were some gracious gift; and on the other hand, when a perfect obedience has not been rendered, it will not be cajoled into the bestowment of wages as if they had been earned. There is no principle that is so intelligent, so upright, and so exact, as justice; and no creature can expect either to warp it, or to circumvent it.
In the light of these remarks, it is evident that it is too late for a sinner to avail himself of the method of salvation by works. For, that method requires that sinless obedience begin at the beginning of his existence, and never be interrupted. But no man thus begins, and no man thus continues. "The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies" (Ps. lviii. 3). Man comes into the world a sinful and alienated creature. He is by nature a child of wrath (Eph. ii. 3). Instead of beginning life with holiness, he begins it with sin. His heart at birth is apostate and corrupt; and his conduct from the very first is contrary to law. Such is the teaching of Scripture, such is the statement of the Creeds, and such is the testimony of consciousness, respecting the character which man brings into the world with him. The very dawn of human life is clouded with depravity; is marked by the carnal mind which is at enmity with the law of God, and is not subject to that law, neither indeed can be. How is it possible, then, for man to attain eternal life by a method that supposes, and requires, that the very dawn of his being be holy like that of Christ's, and that every thought, feeling, purpose, and act be conformed to law through the entire existence? Is it not too late for such a creature as man now is to adopt the method of salvation by the works of the law?
But we will not crowd you, with the doctrine of native depravity and the sin in Adam. We have no doubt that it is the scriptural and true doctrine concerning human nature; and have no fears that it will be contradicted by either a profound self-knowledge, or a profound metaphysics. But perhaps you are one who doubts it; and therefore, for the sake of argument, we will let you set the commencement of sin where you please. If you tell us that it begins in the second, or the fourth, or the tenth year of life, it still remains true that it is too late to employ the method of justification by works. If you concede any sin at all, at any point whatsoever, in the history of a human soul, you preclude it from salvation by the deeds of the law, and shut it up to salvation by grace. Go back as far as you can in your memory, and you must acknowledge that you find sin as far as you go; and even if, in the face of Scripture and the symbols of the Church, you should deny that the sin runs back to birth and apostasy in Adam, it still remains true that the first years of your conscious existence were not years of holiness, nor the first acts which you remember, acts of obedience. Even upon your own theory, you begin with sin, and therefore you cannot be justified by the law.
This, then, is a conclusive reason and ground for the declaration of our Lord, that the one great work which every fallen man has to perform, and must perform, in order to salvation, is faith in another's work, and confidence in another's righteousness. If man is to be saved by his own righteousness, that righteousness must begin at the very beginning of his existence, and go on without interruption. If he is to be saved by his own good works, there never must be a single instant in his life when he is not working such works. But beyond all controversy such is not the fact. It is, therefore, impossible for him to be justified by trusting in himself; and the only possible mode that now remains, is to trust in another.
II. And this brings us to the second part of our subject. "This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom He hath sent." It will be observed that faith is here denominated a "work." And it is so indeed. It is a mental act; and an act of the most comprehensive and energetic species. Faith is an active principle that carries the whole man with it, and in it,—head and heart, will and affections, body soul and spirit. There is no act so all-embracing in its reach, and so total in its momentum, as the act of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. In this sense, it is a "work." It is no supine and torpid thing; but the most vital and vigorous activity that can be conceived of. When a sinner, moved by the Holy Ghost the very source of spiritual life and energy, casts himself in utter helplessness, and with all his weight, upon his Redeemer for salvation, never is he more active, and never does he do a greater work.
And yet, faith is not a work in the common signification of the word. In the Pauline Epistles, it is generally opposed to works, in such a way as to exclude them. For example: "Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay, but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the law. Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified, by the faith of Christ and not by the works of the law. Received ye the Spirit, by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?" In these and other passages, faith and works are directly contrary to each other; so that in this connection, faith is not a "work." Let us examine this point, a little in detail, for it will throw light upon the subject under discussion.
In the opening of the discourse, we alluded to the fact that when a man's attention is directed to the subject of his soul's salvation, his first spontaneous thought is, that he must of himself render something to God, as an offset for his sins; that he must perform his duty by his own power and effort, and thereby acquire a personal merit before his Maker and Judge. The thought of appropriating another person's work, of making use of what another being has done in his stead, does not occur to him; or if it does, it is repulsive to him. His thought is, that it is his own soul that is to be saved, and it is his own work that must save it. Hence, he begins to perform religious duties in the ordinary use of his own faculties, and in his own strength, for the purpose, and with the expectation, of settling the account which he knows is unsettled, between himself and his Judge. As yet, there is no faith in another Being. He is not trusting and resting in another person; but he is trusting and resting in himself. He is not making use of the work or services which another has wrought in his behalf, but he is employing his own powers and faculties, in performing these his own works, which he owes, and which, if paid in this style, he thinks will save his soul. This is the spontaneous, and it is the correct, idea of a "work,"—of what St. Paul so often calls a "work of the law." And it is the exact contrary of faith.
For, faith never does anything in this independent and self-reliant manner. It does not perform a service in its own strength, and then hold it out to God as something for Him to receive, and for which He must pay back wages in the form of remitting sin and bestowing happiness. Faith is wholly occupied with another's work, and another's merit. The believing soul deserts all its own doings, and betakes itself to what a third person has wrought for it, and in its stead. When, for illustration, a sinner discovers that he owes a satisfaction to Eternal Justice for the sins that are past, if he adopts the method of works, he will offer up his endeavors to obey the law, as an offset, and a reason why he should be forgiven. He will say in his heart, if he does not in his prayer: "I am striving to atone for the past, by doing my duty in the future; my resolutions, my prayers and alms-giving, all this hard struggle to be better and to do better, ought certainly to avail for my pardon." Or, if he has been educated in a superstitious Church, he will offer up his penances, and mortifications, and pilgrimages, as a satisfaction to justice, and a reason why he should be forgiven and made blessed forever in heaven. That is a very instructive anecdote which St. Simon relates respecting the last hours of the profligate Louis XIV. "One day,"—he says,—"the king recovering from loss of consciousness asked his confessor, Pere Tellier, to give him absolution for all his sins. Pere Tellier asked him if he suffered much. 'No,' replied the king, 'that's what troubles me. I should like to suffer more, for the expiation of my sins.'" Here was a poor mortal who had spent his days in carnality and transgression of the pure law of God. He is conscious of guilt, and feels the need of its atonement. And now, upon the very edge of eternity and brink of doom, he proposes to make his own atonement, to be his own redeemer and save his own soul, by offering up to the eternal nemesis that was racking his conscience a few hours of finite suffering, instead of betaking himself to the infinite passion and agony of Calvary. This is a work; and, alas, a "dead work," as St. Paul so often denominates it. This is the method of justification by works. But when a man adopts the method of justification by faith, his course is exactly opposite to all this. Upon discovering that he owes a satisfaction to Eternal Justice for the sins that are past, instead of holding up his prayers, or alms-giving, or penances, or moral efforts, or any work of his own, he holds up the sacrificial work of Christ. In his prayer to God, he interposes the agony and death of the Great Substitute between his guilty soul, and the arrows of justice. He knows that the very best of his own works, that even the most perfect obedience that a creature could render, would be pierced through and through by the glittering shafts of violated law. And therefore he takes the "shield of faith." He places the oblation of the God-man,—not his own work and not his own suffering, but another's work and another's suffering,—between himself and the judicial vengeance of the Most High. And in so doing, he works no work of his own, and no dead work; but he works the "work of God;" he believes on Him whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation for his sins, and not for his only but for the sins of the whole world.