Great Texts of the Bible
An Expectant Creation
For the earnest expectation of the creation waiteth for the revealing of the sons of God.—Romans 8:19.
1. St. Paul realizes the coming of Christ as a power in the world. Christianity is not, with the Apostle, a saving truth, but a saving power, which Christ has brought into the world. Law and peace have come through Him, and the quickening of the mortal body through the indwelling Spirit. Sin is subdued, and men are made “children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:16-17). But it is impossible for him not to contrast this ideal of freedom with the continuing sufferings of the present time. The creation is still waiting for a redemption, of which man shall be, in a measure, the instrument. The present suffering may well be borne, through the strength of the hope that is before us. Rising to a sublimer height of diction, the Apostle exclaims that “the earnest expectation of the creation waiteth for the revealing of the sons of God.”
2. We are familiar with the thought of the expectation of Almighty God, of the patient long-suffering with which He waits, “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” We also know well the exhortation to remember the expectation of the Blessed Ones, who, having finished their own course, gather as a great cloud of witnesses, to observe and long for our success. “Shall we not,” cries an old preacher, “hasten and run that we may see our fatherland? There a great multitude of dear ones, fathers, brothers, sons, are expecting us, and, saved themselves, are anxious for our salvation.” But we are not so familiar with the thought of the expectation of creation as a motive for which we should work out our salvation, “perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” Mankind is wont to regard itself as altogether apart from and above the other creatures of this world, which are apt to assume the humble office of an ornamental fringe to our lives, or of our lowly and necessary servants. Yet this mistaken view might well have been set right by a recollection of the teachings of the Bible, which show plainly that while man was made to be the head and crown of things earthly, yet, on one side of his being at least, he is brother to all of earth’s children.
3. The text, then, might be described as St. Paul’s statement of the doctrine of Evolution. Of course it would be quite absurd to claim for the Apostle any clear expression of the modern doctrine. No doubt the universe presents a very different picture to us from any which his mind could see, and it would be foolish to force his words into our modern ways of thought. Moreover, he is in this passage primarily thinking only of his little church at Rome, and giving them rules for their duty and loyalty, or what he calls “the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus.” And yet, with the mind of a great philosopher—or, rather, with the vision of a great prophet—he is swept beyond the special case before him into the general principle which it involves, and in giving rules to Rome he is led to survey the method of the universe. The whole creation, he says, groans and travails in pain until now, as though it bore within itself the burden of the life that was to follow. It is to him what he calls an expectant creation—a prophetic anticipatory world. In the inanimate world there is, he thinks, a kind of dumb sympathy with the sin and struggle and redemption of man. Its history and process point on to the experience of man. Thus, in a large, poetic way, the universe looks to him like a connected and a growing whole, the life of man finding its prophecy and likeness in the life of things, and the life of the lower creation reaching up at last into the experience of man; and thus, it may be fairly said, there is at least a curious foreshadowing of ways of thought which have now grown familiar.
4. The expression of these truths is unique, but the truths themselves fall in with the entire scope of Scripture; and the renovation of the world forms as conspicuous a subject of the prophetic gospel as the renovation of society. It could not be otherwise; for the sympathy of Nature with man is written on the first page of the Bible and on the last. In the spiritual history of Genesis the earth is said to have been cursed for man’s sake. In the spiritual vision of the Apocalypse new heavens and a new earth are prepared for redeemed humanity. Meanwhile, the necessity of anxious toil, imposed upon us by the conditions of life in this season of our conflict, is designed by a Father’s love for salutary discipline; and on the other hand, we are encouraged to believe that “the earnest expectation of the creation waiteth for the revealing of the sons of God”; waiteth, in due season, to reflect their glory even as they will reflect the glory of their Saviour at His Coming; waiteth, and yet not in mere idle and passive expectancy, but to receive a blessing towards which it has striven through a discipline of fruitful suffering. For “the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.”
Who is the angel that cometh?
Let us arise and go forth to greet him:
Not in vain
Is the summons come for us to meet him,
He will stay
And darken our sun:
He will stay
A desolate night, a weary day;
Since in that shadow our work is done,
And in that shadow our crowns are won,
Let us say still, whilst his bitter chalice
Slowly into our hearts is poured,
Blessed is he that cometh
In the name of the Lord.
The subject is Creation in Expectation—waiting earnestly for the revealing of the sons of God. Let us consider first the waiting of creation, and then the revealing of the sons of God.
The Waiting of Creation
St. Paul, with the eye at once of a poet and of a prophet, discerns in the present scene of created being tokens of a state of expectation. “The creation” is here a word of large import. It includes even the irrational, perhaps even the inanimate, portions of God’s handiwork on earth. The whole earth in its present state; the world of nature; the brute creation, as well as the human creation above and the material creation below it; all indicate a condition of imperfection, of suffering, of decay, all express, unconsciously where not consciously, a sense of want, of deterioration, of distress; all are, often and in many aspects, not what they would be, not what they were as they came fresh from the organizing hand of God; all denote, to one who looks on with the sympathy of humanity, much more with the reflection and discernment of one taught of God, a position very far removed from that which once they occupied, from that which they were designed to occupy, from that which they yet must occupy, under the sway of One as infinitely merciful as He is Omnipotent, Omnipresent, and Eternal. St. Paul does not hesitate to say that this degenerate, this suffering, this sin-contaminated world, expresses by signs not to be mistaken a longing and a yearning for those times of restitution of all things, those times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord (Acts 3:19; Acts 3:21), which shall accompany the fulfilment of the mystery of God (Revelation 10:7). The creation, he says, is watching as with outstretched head for the future unveiling of the sons of God.
i. Nature and Man
1. This whole creation of which St. Paul writes is to him not a dead but a living thing. Its movement is not the movement of machinery, but the movement of life. It groans and travails with its desire to fulfil itself. It is, he says, earnestly expectant; it waits for that which is to come. It is a sympathetic, a patient world. Instead of a blind, purposeless, mechanical process, this man sees a universe with an intention and a desire of its own, bringing forth at last, through the pains which we now call the struggle for existence, the state of things we see. Instead of a world-factory, grinding out with indifference its tides and storms, its plants and animals, and the emotions and ideals of men, he sees a universe working out with expectancy and desire a divinely appointed end. Thus he simply anticipates the whole series of philosophers and poets who have seen in Nature a living and purposeful process, manifesting at each step the presence of one comprehensive will. It might have been St. Paul instead of Herbert Spencer who wrote of “the naturally-revealed end toward which the power manifested in evolution works.” It might have been St. Paul instead of Tennyson who sang of
One far-off divine event
To which the whole creation moves.
2. By a strong figure, the Apostle represents all the universe, even to the dumb brutes, even to the lifeless fields and rocks and trees, as doing what in strict fact only sentient and intelligent man could do—grieving and sorrowing over the prevalence of misery and guilt, and longing for the day when these shall go for ever—awakened to a sense of the moral and physical evil to which it is subject, groaning under the bondage of its own corruption, and sustained only by the hope of a future emancipation into liberty worthy of the creature of God, and of a purification which shall bring it back to the goodness in which it was created at the first.
3. We have missed much in Christian thought by separating man as we have done from the great living creation around him. The poet went out to meet the sunrise with his eyes wide open, and he came back with a shining face and wonder streaming out of his eyes, and he sang, and would not be denied, of a speaking heart of creation that had responded to his own. The breezes had been whispering to him, the flowers had smiled upon him, the brooks had been chattering weary legends of the past, the great sun had been laughing the sorrow out of his soul, and he had caught a great eternal message, which showed that Nature and he were one. We easily tolerated the poet and listened to his pleasant voice, though we thought his words were wild, and even detected a gleam of insanity in his gaze. But now God is forcing us out of our useless isolation to realize that we are not isolated souls living in a nameless void, but a living and integral part of this splendid creation, that we live in it and it lives in us, that in some real sense it shares our travail and shall share our glory.
Not from his fellows only man may learn
Rights to compare and duties to discern!
All creatures and all objects, in degree,
Are friends and patrons of humanity.
There are to whom the garden, grove, and field,
Perpetual lessons of forbearance yield;
Who would not lightly violate the grace
The lowliest flower possesses in its place;
Nor shorten the sweet life, too fugitive,
Which nothing less than Infinite Power can give.1 [Note: Wordsworth.]
ii. Nature sharing the Suffering and the Glory
1. Creation is represented as waiting in earnest expectation for the revelation of the sons of God, that is for their manifestation in glory, as the previous verses show, in which the Apostle speaks of their being glorified with Christ and of the glory that is to be revealed in them; in comparison with which, he says, present sufferings are of no account. The time of this revelation of the sons of God in glory is the advent of Christ, as explicitly stated in Colossians 3:4 : “When Christ, who is our life, shall be manifested, then shall ye also with him be manifested in glory.” The same is indicated also in 1 John 3:2 : “Beloved, now are we children of God, and it is not yet made manifest what we shall be. We know that, if he shall be manifested, we shall be like him; for we shall see him even as he is.” Well, for this revelation of the sons of God in glory, Creation, i.e. all nature animate and inanimate, as distinguished from mankind, waits in expectation.
Some of you may remember at the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of our College, how the students marched in a great torchlight procession, with many original transparencies and banners, and how the Freshman Class, then only a month old as students, carried at their head this motto: “The University has been waiting two hundred and fifty years for us.” That was very amusing; but to any one who could read the deeper facts of the University the motto conveyed a profound and solemn truth. All this great, historic, institutional life had been indeed slowly evolved for the sake of these newly-arrived light-hearted boys, and now on their conduct were resting the destinies of the future, and out of their wise uses of their student life were to come our later blessings.2 [Note: F. G. Peabody (Harvard).]
2. No man will deny that there is a sense, a true and a weighty sense, in which all the lower creation is involved in the Fall of man. Who is there that does not know how much suffering man’s sin, man’s cruelty, and man’s thoughtlessness inflict day by day upon the poor dumb lower animals? For this is a case in which it is eminently true that “evil is wrought by want of thought, as well as want of heart.” Who is there that does not know that the dumb creatures suffer because man fell; that the fact that man is cruel, impatient, thoughtless—in short, sinful and fallen—is the cause of incalculable anguish and suffering to these guiltless beings? The over-driven horse, urged beyond its speed and strength; the starved and tortured dog or cat, are witnesses to us, as we walk the streets of any city, that creatures which could not sin are yet involved in that suffering which is sin’s sad result.
A man got up in a meeting to speak. It was down in Rhode Island, out a bit from Providence. He was a farmer, an old man. He had become a Christian late in life, and this evening was telling about his start. He had been a rough, bad man. He said that when he became a Christian even the cat knew that some change had taken place. That caught my ear. It had a genuine ring. It seemed prophetic of the better day coming for all the lower animal creation. So I listened.1 [Note: S. D. Gordon.]
One would almost think that Nature is obliged, by man’s sin, to do many things which she would not do if she could help it. Noble means and instruments are perverted to base and sinful ends. The atmosphere is constrained to carry from the speaker’s lip to the listener’s ear words which are false, which are impure, which are profane. Surely that beautiful, liquid ether was never made for that! Cannot you almost personify it, and think of it as rebelling against the base use to which sinful man turns it? Food is constrained to strengthen for sinful deeds. Is it not hard, so to speak, upon the innocent grain, upon the generous grape, that they should be compelled, whether they will or not, to yield their energy to the arm of the midnight murderer, as readily as to the hand that does the deed of mercy?2 [Note: A. K. H. Boyd.]
I am the voice of the voiceless;
Through me the dumb shall speak;
Till the deaf world’s ear be made to hear
The cry of the wordless weak.
From street, from cage, and from kennel,
From jungle and stall, the wail
Of my tortured kin proclaims the sin
Of the mighty against the frail.3 [Note: E. Wheeler Wilcox.]
3. Man can both sin and suffer. The inferior animals can suffer but not sin. And as for the landscape, as for the inanimate universe, it can neither sin nor suffer. How, then, you will say, can it be involved in man’s Fall? And we reply, that it is a mistake to fancy that a thing is perverted from the end contemplated by the Creator only when it knows the fact and suffers from it. This world, this inanimate creation, is involved in man’s Fall, according to its nature; it is fallen, in the way and the sense in which, by the make of things, it is possible that it should be fallen. Of course there is no guilt; it cannot sin. But there is perversion; degradation; turning of it aside from the wise, and kind, and beneficent purposes contemplated by the Creator; and in that sense Nature’s fall is real and deep.
Even that conduct in inferior animals which appears to us to contain something of a moral element, that which we call vice in an inferior animal, is always the result of some wrong conduct upon man’s part. Anything that is properly wrong in the actions of a dumb creature, anything that looks wicked, or intentionally malignant, is imported into its conduct from some previous sin or error on the part of Man 1:1 [Note: A. K. H. Boyd.]
His extraordinary sympathy with animals was one of the most singular and pleasing features in Thoreau’s character. Like St. Francis, he felt a sense of love and brotherhood towards the lower races, and regarded them, not as brute beasts without sensibility or soul, but as possessing “the character and importance of another order of men.” He protested against the conceited self-assurance with which man sets down the intelligence of animals as mere “instinct,” while overlooking their real wisdom and fitness of behaviour. They were his “townsmen and fellow-creatures,” whose individuality must be recognized as much as his own, and who must be treated with courtesy and gentleness. “There was in his face and expression,” says Mr. Conway, “a kind of intellectual furtiveness; no wild thing could escape him more than it could be harmed by him. The grey huntsman’s suit which he wore enhanced this expression. The cruellest weapons of attack, however, which this huntsman took with him were a spy-glass for birds, a microscope for the game that would hide in smallness, and an old book in which to press plants.”2 [Note: H. S. Salt, Henry David Thoreau, 132.]
iii. Nature in Expectation
Thus, then, we have seen that it is truth the Apostle tells when he says that all Nature is in some sense fallen; involved in man’s Fall. But another fact asserted in the text is that all Nature is waiting for better days. “The creature,” that is, all creation, is in a condition of “earnest expectation.” In the case of the first fact, that Nature is fallen, we can find a thousand proofs from our own experience that the Apostle’s statement is just; and this second one, of Nature’s expectancy, might be received upon the same testimony, though it is the authority of revelation which here comes in to clear the teaching of experience from the suspicion of transcendentalism or mysticism. And, indeed, all things are unconsciously looking forward. There is a vague, dumb sense that surely better things are coming. All conscious things live in an undefined hope. We can discern many indications that this is so. How ready human beings are to listen to the assurance that there is “a good time coming.” And wherefore? Not, surely, that there is any great sign as yet of its approach, but simply from the belief that evil will one day die, and the reign of good begin!
1. The Greek word translated “earnest expectation” is a picture in itself. It is the expectation of a man with head erect, looking out afar towards the source from which the succour is to come. It presents to the eye the waiting of all creation for the manifestation or further work of the children of God; groaning meanwhile and travailing in pain. And so, as we read the great Apostle’s words, as we seek to picture to our minds their meaning, there rises before us, as some vast, majestic vision, the imagery of a whole world, a whole universe—fields, trees, rivers, clouds, and stars—great nations, thronged cities, endless crowds of immortal beings, numberless hosts of creatures animate yet without rational souls—all waiting, watching, looking out; standing with the head thrust forward, and silently, eagerly, gazing far away for something hoped and longed for—something that is slow, indeed, in coming, but that is sure to come at last.
I believe where the love of God is verily perfected, and the true spirit of government watchfully attended, a tenderness towards all creatures made subject to us will be experienced, and a care felt in us that we do not lessen that sweetness of life in the animal creation, which the great Creator intends for them, under our government.1 [Note: J. Woolman, Journal, chap. xi.]
2. Why is creation waiting so earnestly for the revealing of the sons of God? Because creation is subjected to vanity, that is, to instability, decay, corruption, from which it is to be delivered at the revelation in glory of the sons of God. To this vanity creation became subject not of its own will, i.e. not of its own doing or of its own fault. It was the appointment of the Divine Will. When man fell, God so ordained it that man’s sin should affect also the brute creation, and inflict a blight on even inanimate nature. It was thus that the intense evil of sin was broadly marked, and that man reaped bitter fruit of his own transgression in the deterioration of that which otherwise would have been unto him only and altogether a beauty and a joy. Subjected, however, as creation is to vanity, it is still a condition of hope, for it is to undergo a regeneration; it is to be set free from the bondage of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God. And it is represented as being so conscious of this bondage, and so longing for deliverance, that the Apostle speaks of nature as like a woman in the pangs of childbirth, “groaning and travailing in pain together until now.”
(1) Creation longs to be delivered from the bondage of its own corruption. This deliverance depends upon the redemption of man; for, as the sins and degradation of the human race have cast their shadow of pain and desolation over the fair face of the earth, and the tares of evil in the heart of man have been imaged in the thorns and thistles of the field, so has there been also a wondrous sympathy in the upward path. Man’s nature is redeemed from degradation through the mercy of God, and Nature around him shares in his elevation. “The merciful man is merciful to his beast,” and societies for preventing cruelty to animals, and hospitals for the dumb creatures, attest the reality of this relationship. One of the first signs of improvement in a squalid house or street is the appearance in the windows of pots or boxes of plants which are evidently the objects of loving care. Even here and now we may catch glimpses of an age when the manifestation of the Divine Sonship in man shall not tolerate the devastation of the face of the earth by war, or the wasting of its beauty and usefulness by folly or ignorance. And for this more perfect era, this Eden of peace and wisdom, creation waits, “groaning and travailing in pain together until now.”
(2) But the expectation of creation is also that it shall yet become a good servant to the sons of God. Man is the head and king over the lower creatures, and creation longs for her head to be worthy of his place in the world. The earth is a storehouse full of things of use and beauty, which are designed by the great Creator to supply the intelligent needs of man. But in order that creation may thus be a good and gracious servant to our race, it needs eyes to see, ears to hear, wisdom to act. For how many ages has creation lain in travail with her choicest treasures in her womb, waiting the manifestation of the God-given skill of man to enable her to deliver them to the world! Generations gazed with stupid, uncomprehending eyes upon steam rushing from boiling water, and this creature of God waited until at last a man was enlightened to understand and use this mighty power, and with it to change the face of the earth.
Nature, ever since sin came into our world, has refused to give her strength. To man, fallen man, Nature has never gone forth in her fulness,—but then, when these “sons of God” walk this earth, she will put forth again, as at the first, her power, her loveliness, and her fragrance; and there will be such a bursting in “the new heavens and the new earth” as was never seen and never conceived before.1 [Note: J. Vaughan.]
I came to lay my sorrow in the wood,
It had so heavy grown,
And on my way the little speedwells stood
And claimed it for their own.
I came to let my tears in anguish fall,
They were too great to bear,
And now the little speedwells hold them all.
I have no tears to spare.
There is no other sign, by flower or leaf,
To mark the road I came,
This tiny cup of blue bears all the grief
I had not strength to name.2 [Note: Dollie Radford.]
(3) The highest reason why creation awaits “the manifestation of the sons of God” is that creation may praise its Maker perfectly, being itself made whole. The lower creatures, animate and inanimate, are faithful to their Maker, and dumbly praise and adore Him by their obedience to His laws; but man, the master of the garden, who should be the spokesman of all this inarticulate life, the precentor of the world’s Te Deum, is too often faithless and a blasphemer. So just as a fair strong body is ruined by the loss of its reason, so creation feels that, faithful to God as all the rest may be, man’s unfaithfulness is a piteous blot on her fair fame, man’s dumbness or discord robs of its dominant and most essential part her orchestra of praise. And so creation waits—waits for the perfected redemption of man’s nature, to restore the lost unity of her life; waits for man, as a son of God, to stand forth as her high priest, who shall interpret and offer up to Heaven her gratitude and love.
Shall only the children of Adam behold
Such glory unrolled?
Shall only the gaze of the earthborn desire
The miracle wrought with these wreathings of fire?
Not so. In the calm of the white sunrise
The Maker looks down with His holy eyes,
And the seraphs that stand
At His left and right hand
Chant the song of the season of sacrifice:
The psalm of the earth when, her harvesting done,
She lifts up her arms to the path of the sun,
And offers, with tithes of her vines and her sheaves,
The life of her leaves—
Their beauty of burning as praise
To the Ancient of Days.1 [Note: Mrs. Schuyler van Rensselaer, Poems, 67.]
3. Are there any signs that the redemption of man is to work out the redemption of creation? Two lines of conquest over the powers of darkness go on together, the one overcoming physical obstacles, and the other spiritual.
(1) The physical process moves at an increasing rate. It began far back in history, and depends on the mental energies of man. Even the Syrian desert is not mere sand and rock, but consists of excellent soil—desert only by reason of man’s neglect. The barren sides of Lebanon have once had beautiful terraces in high cultivation. The terraces remain, but the culture has ceased with man’s apathy or relapse towards barbarism. In all civilized countries the soil is useful exactly in the degree in which man’s energy defends it from returning to wildness. Modern discoveries have in two ways lengthened life—by preserving health on one side, and by crowding into a given time far more achievement. All these conquests are gifts of God to man, and obtained through man. They are poured out profusely, and at the same time they are educating into higher skill the race that discovers them; and the race which produces more Newtons, and Watts, and Nasmyths, more Harveys and Pasteurs, will become the channel of a greater flood of beneficent inventions.
Here, for instance, is the extraordinary power which we call electricity. It is a creation of God. It has had its mysterious origin and history through all the clash and movement and conflict of the universe of God. It has gone its way, flashing and dancing across the sky, and giving men vague lessons of the power of God. But it was meant for more than this. It was meant to be the minister of human ends, of social utility. And for this it waits, until at last the ingenuity of man takes hold of its higher capacity. The force was always there, expectantly waiting—eager to serve the wants of man; but God’s purposes through it could be worked out only by the skill and insight of the sons of God. Finally, after ages of a patient creation, the inventor thinks God’s thoughts after Him, the sons of God are revealed in their relation to Nature, and then the creation moves on into its higher uses, and lights us, moves us, warms us—the familiar instrument of our days and nights.
Creation waits for man. The work of God is in the hands of the sons of God. Here is a vessel eager to reach her port, and God’s winds sweep gently over the sea and invite her to move on. But not the fairest wind can bring her on her way unless man does his part. The earnest expectation of the vessel waits until the captain spreads her sails; and then, man working with God, the creation which lay dead and lonely on the sea becomes a thing of life and motion, and leaps on her way. So it is, the Apostle seems to say, with all the higher movements of God’s creation. The method of God works through the participation of man. The whole creation pauses until the spirit of life takes command of the mechanism of life, like a captain giving orders on his ship. God may create the best of circumstances, but the whole creation simply groans and labours, like a vessel labouring in a sea until man steadies her with his sails and spreads them to catch God’s favouring breeze. The patient expectation of the vessel waits for the manifestation of the captain’s will.1 [Note: F. G. Peabody.]
It was the laws of Evolution as we call them, meaning the laws of God, that gave man muscles and bones to lift and carry, but it was not till sons of God appeared who discovered that wind, and water, and steam, and electric energy were going man’s way and might fetch and carry for him, that he was delivered from his rude and animal drudgery. Natural law made man to be racked with ague in a fen, but creation had to wait till some son of God discovered the antidote under the bark of a tree. It was with many a bitter groan that the slaves waited for Wilberforce, that the prisoners of England waited for Elizabeth Fry, or the women of our city slums for Catherine Booth. Our whole complex civilization indeed, half godless though it still be, is what it is, in its care for human life, and its varied social activities, because of the sons of God who have already been manifested, the men and women who have given their brains and their hands and their hearts to the service of God and their fellows. It is on their forgotten shoulders that we stand to-day. It is through them that God’s plans have run.
’Tis God gives skill,
But not without men’s hands: He could not make
Antonio Stradivari’s violins
Without Antonio.2 [Note: Arch. Alexander.]
(2) The other road of progress is the spiritual. On that road the pace is slower, the results more unequal, and there are intervals of heart-breaking failure and retrogression. The spiritual progress has never preserved in past centuries a steady and equal pace. No period of twenty years has ever equalled the grand outpouring of life of the first twenty years after the Resurrection. But the law has always been the same. Churches have prospered when peopled by faithful men; they have languished or died when faith has languished and sin has paralysed the will. “The river of grace,” says Fénelon, “never runs dry, it is true; but it often changes its course to water new districts, and leaves in its old channel nothing but arid sands. Faith will never be extinct; but it is not tied to any of the places which it enlightens, it leaves behind it a frightful night to those who have despised the day, and it carries its rays to purer eyes.”
’Tis weary watching wave by wave,
And yet the tide heaves onward;
We climb, like corals, grave by grave,
That pave a pathway sunward.
We’re driven back, for our next fray
A newer strength to borrow;
And where the vanguard camps to-day,
The rear shall rest to-morrow.
Though hearts brood o’er the past, our eyes
With smiling features glisten;
For, lo! our day bursts up the skies!
Lean out your souls, and listen!
The world is following freedom’s way,
And ripening with her sorrow.
Take heart! Who bears the cross to-day
Shall wear the crown to-morrow.1 [Note: Gerald Massey.]
The Revealing of the Sons of God
1. Who are the sons of God? The Apostle has just told us: “As many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.” The sons of God, then, are simply the people led by God’s Spirit—people lifted by God, that is to say, into the higher capacities of their own spiritual life; and for such people, he announces, the whole creation waits. Without them the universal evolution pauses in its course. So runs his extraordinary statement of the method of creation. When we translate it into our ways of speech, the point seems to be this: the movement of the universe goes on its way from the beginning to a certain point under mechanical laws, fit for material things. Causes and effects, attractions and repulsions, heat and light and the rest—these have their way in moulding the world. But at a certain point the elements of evolution become changed; they become human, spiritual, personal. The problem of the universe is no longer to mould and harden a world—it is to unfold and quicken the higher faculties of man; and for this new work of God a new necessity appears—the help of man. Not God Himself can develop the possibilities of human institutions and human characters except through the instrument of human beings themselves. It is through them that God, in the higher ranges of His method, works. His ends are not reached by such laws as could create or maintain the world; they are reached through His sons.
Of all luggage man is the hardest to move. He won’t move unless he will.1 [Note: S. D. Gordon.]
Our natural Will is to have God, and the Good Will of God is to have us; and we may never cease from willing nor from longing till we have Him in fulness of joy; and then we may no more desire.2 [Note: Julian, the Anchoress.]
2. And what does St. Paul mean by the revealing or manifestation of the sons of God? He explains this in the 23rd verse. It is their adoption, or rather the perfecting of their adoption, their being clearly proved the sons of God by the redemption of their whole nature. The inner Divine Life must grow within, and transfuse and shine through their earthly life by the sanctifying grace of the Holy Ghost, as the flame shines through the slides of the lantern. “Add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; and to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; … and to brotherly kindness charity” (2 Peter 1:5 ff.). Christlike graces are to be cultivated, a Christlike character is by obedience and by Divine help to be formed, until the sonship to God is clearly manifested, the transfiguration of human nature from glory to glory completed. This, then, is the end for which creation waits, earnestly expecting man’s growth in holiness, or, in other words, his being shown forth in fact as a true son of the Heavenly Father.
I saw thee once, and nought discern’d
For stranger to admire;
A serious aspect, but it burn’d
With no unearthly fire.
Again I saw, and I confess’d
Thy speech was rare and high;
And yet it vex’d my burden’d breast,
And scared, I knew not why.
I saw once more, and awe-struck gazed
On face, and form, and air;
God’s living glory round thee blazed—
A Saint—a Saint was there!1 [Note: J. H. Newman.]
3. But it is at the advent of Christ that, in the Apostle’s thought, the sons of God will be manifested. Then shall come to pass the full realization of their adoption, in their attainment to the full privileges of their sonship. Then, when Christ their life is manifested, shall they also with Him be manifested in glory. But this manifestation in glory is here contemplated in relation to a particular feature of it—freedom, the liberty of the glory of the children of God. The advent of Christ will be a glorious emancipation to the children of God. But from what?
(1) From that bondage to corruption, that subjection to vanity, under which they, in common with all creation, groan. Man is a dying creature. All flesh is as grass and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. Instability and decay cleave to him and to all that appertains to him. Vanity is written upon his person and his possessions, upon his plans and his projects, upon his pomp and his power. We all know this and feel it. From this, then, the children of God are to be set free. But not from this only. It is not simply in reference to mortality that they shall be manifested in glory.
(2) The liberty of the glory of the sons of God will not be merely freedom from dissolution and decay. It is not the liability to this under which they chiefly groan, but the infirmities of their nature, the moral corruption that attaches to them, the impotence for good, the tendency to evil, to which, by reason of the body, they are subject. The children of God are, indeed, regenerate, but the infection of the old nature still remains. They have crucified the flesh with its affections and lusts, but it is not dead; it still writhes and struggles. Though not dominant, sin still indwells. The reptile has received its death-blow, but it has still power to turn and sting. And thus from the lips of the saints proceed such plaintive confessions as these, “My soul cleaveth unto the dust”; “In me, that is, in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing”; “The good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.… O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”
At His first coming Christ became a partaker of flesh and blood, that through death He might destroy death, and bring life and immortality to light. To this, the gracious purpose of His first coming, He will give full effect when He shall appear the second time without sin unto salvation. Then death shall be swallowed up in victory. Then, at His call, they that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, and they that are alive and remain shall be caught up to meet the Lord in the air. Then will He change their body of humiliation that it may be fashioned like unto the body of His glory, and so corruption shall put on incorruption. Then, arrayed in a spiritual body, the children of God shall no longer be subject to pain, infirmity, decay, or bondage of any kind; they shall be as the angels of God, and, like them, able to serve God, day without night, for ever and ever.1 [Note: A. R. Symonds.]
4. Thus in the time of St. Paul the creation stood in expectation with head erect, with far-off look, waiting for the dawn of that day which should make her deliverance through Christ complete. St. Paul knew not what would follow—that after eighteen centuries the expectant creation would still so stand, waiting for deliverance. Still the world is full of misery; still it waits for redemption; it is as far off from peace as ever. Strife and struggle, pain and death, are inscribed upon the world’s foundation stones. They are older than the fall of man. Long before man lived to be tempted and to fall we find their history in the stone book of creation. The creation was made subject to vanity; that is, to constant change. But He who so made it knew the issue. He subjected the same in hope. Only in the way of hope can we yet understand the great story of the creation.
We have waited nearly two thousand years, and the language used by those who have lost faith is that they can wait no longer; that the power of Christ is no more seen. “When the Hebrews,” says one of these hopeless writers, “were on their way to the Promised Land they perceived that God was with them. God had spoken and said, ‘It lies before you’; and by night a cloud of fire kindled and marched in their van. Now the celestial light is extinct. We are not quite sure that we have God over our heads. We possess no other light but our understanding, and with this glimmering guidance we must direct ourselves through the night. Oh that we could still be sure that there is a promised land; that others besides us would reach it; that this desert would end in something. This certainty is taken from us, and yet we advance continually, pushed forward by an indefatigable hope.”1 [Note: Guyau, L’Irréligion de l’avenir, 337.] Beyond doubt, if the power of the Lord is gone, all is gone. He is not a doctrine, but a power. Surrounded by the sick and maimed, He heals them. When He speaks of the Divine law He does not fear to complete and enlarge it. What is the power that enables men to live no longer to themselves? “The love of Christ constraineth us,” replies St. Paul; and the word “constraineth” denotes a real compelling.
Thou with strong prayer and very much entreating
Willest be asked, and thou shalt answer then,
Show the hid heart beneath creation beating,
Smile with kind eyes and be a man with men.
Were it not thus, O King of my salvation,
Many would curse to thee and I for one,
Fling thee thy bliss and snatch at thy damnation,
Scorn and abhor the shining of the sun,
Ring with a reckless shivering of laughter
Wroth at the woe which thou hast seen so long,
Question if any recompense hereafter
Waits to atone the intolerable wrong:
Is there not wrong too bitter for atoning?
What are these desperate and hideous years?
Hast thou not heard thy whole creation groaning,
Sighs of the bondsmen, and a woman’s tears?
Yes, and to her, the beautiful and lowly,
Mary a maiden, separate from men,
Camest thou nigh and didst possess her wholly,
Close to thy saints, but thou wast closer then.
Once and for ever didst thou show thy chosen,
Once and for ever magnify thy choice;—
Scorched in love’s fire or with his freezing frozen,
Lift up your hearts, ye humble, and rejoice!
Not to the rich he came or to the ruling
(Men full of meat, whom wholly he abhors),
Not to the fools grown insolent in fooling
Most, when the lost are dying at the doors;
Nay but to her who with a sweet thanksgiving
Took in tranquillity what God might bring,
Blessed him and waited, and within her living
Felt the arousal of a Holy Thing.
Ay for her infinite and endless honour
Found the Almighty in this flesh a tomb,
Pouring with power the Holy Ghost upon her,
Nothing disdainful of the Virgin’s womb.1 [Note: F. W. H. Myers, St. Paul.]
5. The work of God moves on through the revealing of the sons of God. Now, suppose any soul fails of its higher capacities and remains stunted and unrevealed; is that merely a personal loss of happiness or of salvation? On the contrary, it is a loss so vast as to make every personal motive shrink into insignificance. It is simply retarding to that extent the perfect and universal work of God. There are purposes which God Himself cannot fulfil on earth except through us, and every sin of ours is a barrier set in God’s way. When a man says that to himself, he has a motive worth having. To be sinning, not against one’s self, but against the universe; in the petty yielding to our own indolence or neglect, to be a hinderer of God’s great ends in the world—that is what gives awfulness to every thought of sin. To injure, blot, ruin one’s self—that may be a small matter; but to hold back the vast mechanism of creation—that gives our little life significance. It is as some great factory where the looms go weaving with their leaping shuttles the millions of yards of cloth, and then of a sudden one thread breaks, and the loom stops short in its progress, lest the whole intricate work be marred.
There is one aspect of life of which I feel sure we take too little notice, and which is constantly hindering and paralysing many a sincere desire to do right. It is the sense of insignificance. A man looks at his life, and it is a poor, feeble, insignificant thing. He says to himself: “Here am I, with my infinitely unimportant life, influencing nobody. Of what earthly importance is it that I should struggle thus against the stream of my tendency and taste? Why not let my turbulent passions sweep me down their stream and bury my insignificant life in their unhindered current?” That is the unconscious defence of many a ruined life. For one man who errs by thinking too much of himself, ten, I believe, fail by not, in the true sense of the phrase, thinking enough of themselves. But now comes the Apostle into the midst of this sluggish, half-hearted, spurious modesty, and says to your soul: “Yes taken by itself your life is certainly a very insignificant affair; but placed as you happen to be placed, in the kind of a universe which God has happened to make, your life becomes of infinite importance. For God has chosen to work out His designs, not in spite of you, but through you; and where you fail, He halts. Almighty God needs you. You are not your own, either to be insignificant or to be great, but you are in the service of that which is greater than yourself, and that service touches your life with its own greatness.” It is as though you were a lighthouse-keeper set to do your duty on your bare rock. Can any life be more unpraised or insignificant? Why sit through weary nights to keep your flame alive? Why not sleep on, all unobserved, and let your little light go out? Because it is not your light—that is the point. You are not its owner; you are its keeper. That is your name. You are a light-keeper. You are set there with this as your trust. The great design of the Power you serve takes you thus out of your insignificance, and while you sit there in the shadow of your lonely tower, ship after ship is looking to you across the sea, and many a man thanks God that, while lights which burn for themselves go out, your light will be surely burning. The earnest expectation of many a storm-tossed sailor waits for the revealing of your friendly gleam. The safety of many a life that passes by you in the dark is trusted from night to night to you.1 [Note: F. G. Peabody.]
There are some who quite sincerely advertise their limitations as the majority advertise their skill, who cannot suppose themselves—and dread lest others should suppose them—capable of any achievement away from the commonplace line, and who almost placard themselves with an announcement that they are less than nothing and vanity. In fact, it sometimes appears as if people found in their low self-estimates an actual source of pride. “Extremes meet,” said Emerson, “and there is no better example than the haughtiness of humility.” And the mood of self-depreciation is, moreover, one into which men and women of sensitive consciences and clear vision of spiritual ideals are perhaps particularly likely to fall, and a mood which they are particularly likely to carry too far. Precisely because of its near kinship with the virtue of real humility do we require to be on our guard against it. If self-depreciation be a less prevalent disease with us than conceit and egotism, it is at least prevalent enough to call for remembrance and mention when we are drawing up any catalogue of moral ills to which our human nature may be heir. One of the lessons very needful to be learnt is this—that, as Mr. Spurgeon put it, “it is no humility for a man to think less of himself than he ought.”1 [Note: H. W. Clark, Studies in Character, 120.]
An Expectant Creation
Boyd (A. K. H.), The Graver Thoughts of a Country Parson, 2nd Ser., 218.
Drummond (J.), Spiritual Religion, 216.
Holland (H. S.), Christ or Ecclesiastes, 85.
Lilley (A. L.), Nature and Supernature, 77.
Maclaren (A.), Expositions: Romans, 173.
Manning (H. E.), Sermons, iii. 114.
Martineau (J.), Hours of Thought, i. 191.
Newbolt (W. C. E.), Counsels of Faith and Practice, 144.
Paget (E. C), Silence, 162.
Roberts (R.), My Jewels, 226.
Smyth (N.), Reality of Faith, 266.
Symonds (A. R.), Sermons, 12.
Vaughan (C. J.), Epiphany, Lent, and Easter, 325.
Vaughan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit), No. 500.
Wilberforce (B.), Following on to know the Lord, 199.
Wilberforce (B.), Westminster Abbey Sermons, 1.
Cambridge Review, xiii. (1891), No. 315 (Wilson).
Christian World Pulpit, xviii. 364 (Beecher); xxxix. 113 (Peabody); xliii. 197 (Durward); xlvi. 6 (Abbott), 104 (Wilberforce); xlvii. 216 (Medley); l. 4. (Thomas); lxi. 204 (Rawnsley); lxviii. 358 (Story); lxxiv. 346 (Marshall); lxxvi. 248 (Houghton).
Churchman’s Pulpit: Fourth Sunday after Trinity, x. 205 (Story), 207 (Hall), 209 (Vaughan).
Contemporary Pulpit, 1st Ser., x. 129 (Thomson).