The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
After these things the Lord appointed other seventy also, and sent them two and two before his face into every city and place, whither he himself would come.Inheriting Eternal Life
You will observe that the man who asked this question was a lawyer, a man of education and of good standing; a man, therefore, from whom good behaviour and reverence of spirit might reasonably have been expected. You would think that when such a man spoke, he would speak soberly, he would mean, under such circumstances, exactly what he said. You find, however, that the inquiry,—the very greatest that can possibly engage human attention,—was put in a spirit of temptation. The lawyer was not an earnest man. He asked a right question, but he asked it in a wrong spirit. See, then, the possibility of asking religious questions irreligiously. You would suppose, when a man puts a grave religious inquiry, that his spirit is concerned in the meaning of the question which he propounds. Here you see a direct contradiction of that reasonable supposition. A man may be learned and intelligent, may have good social position, and may in many respects deserve the regard and confidence of society, so far as appearances go; and yet he may put the gravest questions in the most flippant and irreverent spirit Then is it possible for a man to open the Bible without really desiring to know what it contains that can minister to the ignorance of his mind and the hunger of his soul? Truly, alas, it is so possible. Many men attend the house of God, and sit amongst those who profess themselves to be saints, and yet care nothing for the place and nothing for the service, beyond a little momentary excitement or entertainment of some kind or other. Verily so. If men are to be judged religious because they put religious questions, then shall religion become the cheapest exercise of life. Learn the possibility of asking great questions in a merely controversial spirit, without any profoundly anxious desire to know the answer that God will return to such inquiries. We, being present at a religious service, may be supposed to be in a grave mood, to be listening with all intentness for some word that shall touch the hunger and the necessity of our life. Yet it possible, and in some respects even likely, that we may be in a reverent attitude without a reverent spirit, and asking a religious question without a religious intention. If so, let no man think that he will receive anything of the Lord. God understands the irony of our attitude. The Living One knows whether we are hungering and thirsting for him; he can see through our hypocrisies and concealments, and only into the broken heart and the contrite spirit will he come with redemption and life and helpfulness and grace. We know the conditions upon which alone we receive the revelations of God: That we be quiet, self-renouncing, reverent, sober, anxious about the business; and wherever these conditions are forthcoming, some light will be flashed upon the life, and some healing word will be dropped into the sorrow of the heart.
We look up to certain men for examples. We say we cannot surely be wrong if we follow the type which such men set before us. Probably one would have looked up to the lawyer referred to in the text as a man who could give us an example; and yet here are the so-called pillars of society rotting away; the men who ought to be the trustees of decency proving traitors to their stewardship; men of education and intelligence and standing exerting a pestilent influence upon young and untrained but susceptible life.
"And Jesus said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou?" (Luke 10:26.)
Jesus himself answered one question by asking another; and so he not unfrequently disappointed men who had undertaken to ensnare him in his speech. They thought that if they did but put a case to him he would commit himself, and they would entrap him. Here is a man accustomed to put questions, and to put questions again upon the answers that are given, and so to cross-examine those with whom he came in contact. Jesus undertakes to deal with him according to the spirit which he presents; and before he lets him go he will show what the man's meaning is and his nature, and he will expose him as he never was exposed before. Thus quietly he begins, "What is written in the law? Thou art a lawyer, a man of reading, a man of many letters, and of much understanding probably,—how readest thou?" God has never left the greatest questions of the human heart unanswered. The great answer to this question about eternal life was not given first of all by Jesus Christ as he appeared in the flesh. Jesus himself referred to the oldest record; inferentially he said,—That question has been answered from the beginning; go back to the very first revelation and testimony of God, and you will find the answer there. Yet the question is put very significantly, "How readest thou?" There are two ways of reading. There is a way of reading the letter which never gets at the meaning of the spirit There is a way of reading which merely looks at the letter for a partial purpose, or that a prejudice may be sustained or defended. And there is a way of reading which means,—I want to know the truth; I want to see really how this case stands; I am determined to see it. He who reads so will find no end to his lesson, for truth expands and brightens as we study her revelations and her purposes. He who comes merely to the letter, will get but a superficial answer in all probability. It was, therefore, of the highest importance that the lawyer should tell how he had been reading the law.
But before passing from this point let us observe that Jesus Christ never treated the Old Testament lightly. I am afraid that some of us imagine that we have got beyond the Old Testament, and therefore hardly ever turn to its ancient pages. Believe me, the testaments are one: as the day is one—the twilight and the noontide, as the year is one—the vernal promise and the autumnal largess—so are the Testaments of God one. And no man can profoundly interpret the New Testament who is not profoundly conversant with the Old. A man will come upon the New Testament from a wrong point altogether, except he come upon it along the line of Moses and the minstrels of Israel and the prophets of Zion. He who comes so will find it to be a New Testament in the best sense; the Old re-pronounced; the Old set forth in a new light, and brought to bear with wider and more vital applications. Have we read the law? Are we really conversant with all the old statements about sin and duty? Do we know the history of human kind as it is written in the Old Testament? If not, we are unprepared for the deepest and truest consideration of the new covenant. Let me, therefore, in passing, urge young men in particular to read the Old Testament through carefully, seriously, minutely, and they will see how marvellously the way was prepared for the final covenant, which we know by the name of the New Testament
"And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself. And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live" (Luke 10:27-28).
The lawyer, remember, knew the answer at the time when he asked the question. He said, "What shall I do to inherit eternal life?" and all the time the answer was in his own recollection had he but known it. Alas! we do not always turn our knowledge into wisdom. We know the fact, and we hardly ever sublimate the fact into truth. We know the law, and we fail to see that under the law there is the beauty and there is the grace of the gospel. Is there any man to be found amongst us who does not know what to do to inherit eternal life? Is there one who dare say, "If I knew what to do I would do it"? Does not every man's heart say to him, "You know perfectly well what to do and how to do it"? If you ask a question, with a view of misleading your teacher, understand that you must suffer the pain of that sin. Jesus said, "Thou hast answered right." Men can give right answers to great questions, if so be they set themselves really to do so. If the lawyer had returned a blundering or imperfect answer, Jesus would—had the man's spirit been right—have sat down for days together to talk the matter over with him, simply and tenderly as he alone could talk. But the lawyer knew the answer, at the very moment he put the question; and he intended to put the question so adroitly as to escape the application of the answer to his own case. What if at the last this be our condition; if in the winding up of things we venture to say, If we had known the right path we should certainly have taken it! God will show, out of our own mouth, that at the very time we were doing the wrong we perfectly knew the right. I charge every man who hears me, who is not in Christ, with knowing perfectly well what to do; though he may cheat himself, and wrong himself by putting questions, with a view of escaping the application of the answers, or postponing a decision upon the great question.
"This do," said Jesus, "and thou shalt live." What had the lawyer to do? To love the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his strength, and with all his mind. Love is life. Only he who loves lives. Only love can get out of a man the deepest secrets of his being, and develop the latent energies of his nature, and call him up to the highest possibilities of his manhood. Criticism never can do it; theology never can do it; power of controversy never can do it. We are ourselves, in all the volume of our capacity, and in all the relations of our original creation, only when life becomes love and our whole nature burns with affection towards the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Hast thou knowledge? It will not save thee. Art thou well versed in ancient reading upon the deepest theological questions? It will not save thee. Dost thou know the truth when it is spoken? It will not save thee. What then will save a man? The turning of all his knowledge and all his power into love. And upon what object is that love to be concentrated? Upon the Lord God. Then is a man a loving creature in the true and proper sense of the term. The measure of our love is the measure of our life. In proportion as we love God do we live. In the degree of our affections towards purity and truth and holy service are we the heirs of a blessed immortality! Then the question becomes a very practical one. How is it with ourselves? Let us look less at our knowledge and our intellectual capability and our training and our circumstances, and more at the degree of our religious love. The end of the commandment is charity; the summing up of all true law is love. Do we, then, know this mystery of religious love? or is ours a religion that hangs itself upon the outward letter and the ceremonial form?
Then observe that the law goes still further than love to God; it includes love to one's neighbour. Mark the exact expression of the text, "And thy neighbour as thyself." Love of God means love of man. Religion is the divine side of philanthropy; philanthropy is the practical side of religion. We must first be right with God, or we never can be right with man. If we begin by endeavouring to get right with our neighbour, we shall fail. But if we begin by establishing right relations with God, according to the conditions which he himself has laid down, we shall find that being right with God our whole life is elevated and all social relationships are redeemed from error, and our neighbour is loved with a lofty and pure charity. Was the lawyer satisfied? Read:—
"But he, willing to justify himself said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?" (Luke 10:29.)
It was the question of a sharp man, but not the inquiry of an honest one. Such a question as this does not need to be answered in words. Every man knows in his own heart who his neighbour is; and only he who wishes to play a trick in words, to show how clever he is in verbal legerdemain, will stoop to ask such a question as this. Why did he ask the question? Because he was willing to justify himself. It is precisely there that every man has a great battle to fight, namely—at the point of self-justification. So long as there is any disposition in us to justify ourselves, are we unprepared to receive the gospel. One of the first conditions required of us at the Cross is self-renunciation. If any man shall say, "I think I can defend my behaviour; I am sure I can excuse myself before Almighty God; I know that if opportunity be given to me I can put another face upon things in my life which are regarded as transgressions and shortcomings,"—let a man talk in that tone, and the gospel has nothing to say to him; he has shut the door of his heart upon it. But let him, on the other hand, know that all power of self-redemption is gone out of him; let him know that he can do nothing towards his own recovery in the sight of God; let him be driven to this prayer—all prayers in one—"God be merciful to me a sinner!" and then Calvary is heaven, the Cross is the ladder the head of which rests against the sky!
My reader, why art thou not saved? Because of a desire to justify thyself; because of thy power of self-excuse; because thou hast it yet in thine heart to say that the conduct which is charged with blame may be defended by some species of eloquence, or by some effort of immoral, because degraded, wit. Not until we come to the point of self-renunciation, do we come to the point at which Jesus meets us with all the preciousness and infinite sufficiency of his own atonement!
Jesus was willing to answer the lawyer even here; but he answered him by putting another question. So he proceeded to relate the parable which has come to be known amongst us as the "Parable of the Good Samaritan." Let us take notice of one or two points in that parable. A certain man was wounded upon his way from Jerusalem to Jericho; he was left on the road half dead. There came down the road a certain priest; the priest saw the wounded man, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. See how possible it is for a man to have a great office and a contemptible nature. See how a great name may mean nothing in the way of great service. See even how the holy name, the name of priest, may be associated with an unholy spirit. He passed by on the other side. There are two sides in this human life of ours. There is a side upon which the wounded man lies, and there is a side that is crowded with men who are hurrying upon their various errands—some good, some bad. There is a side in life on which you may find weakness, helplessness, poverty, starvation, and death. You have it in your power to step to the other side and go about your business, on a path more or less clear of everything that can offend your senses,—and the priest chose that other path. The man with the holy name, that ought to have allowed temple or tabernacle or holy service to stand still, till he had redeemed a man who was lying on the verge of the grave,—passed by on the other side; and the Levite followed his example, looked upon the wounded man, and passed on to the opposite road. Then comes this beautiful expression: "But a certain Samaritan." Sometimes we quarrel with the word but. When we hear it we say, Yes, there is a but in every life; there is an if in every statement. Everything seems to be full of sunshine and beauty until we suddenly come to but, and then we expect to turn round the corner and see nothing but gloom and difficulty. Here is a case upon the other side. The light in this instance comes with a but. We turn from the gloom and the ugliness of the scene to look upon an unexpected light, and be charmed by beauty from an unexpected quarter. Mark the boldness of Christ in saying it was a Samaritan who did this. This is an instance of the Saviour's courage. It required a bold, true, brave man to say even this simple word under the conditions which surrounded the speaker. He was addressing the Jews; he himself was a Jew; the Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans. The Samaritans were on the gloomy side, and more or less proscribed. Yet Jesus, Son of God, talking to a Jewish lawyer, said, It was a Samaritan who did the noble deed! We cannot overpass these incidental touches without remarking upon them. We must pause here, to see how even casually there comes in the divinity which was ever present, and showed itself occasionally in great breadths of lustre, and almost constantly in those little flashes and touches which make up so much of our common daily life. Jesus was the Son of man, and therefore he spoke well of whatever good was done by any child of Adam. He was a Jew, but a Jew for a moment only. He was the Son of man and the Son of God, and therefore, whether in favoured or proscribed circles he saw aught of nobleness or moral beauty, he commended it with a generosity which came of the perfectness of his own nature.
When the lawyer had heard the parable, a question was put to him, and he answered again rightly. So that all the time the lawyer knew the answers to the very questions he was putting. You observe he got nothing out of Jesus Christ that he himself did not before know. The Saviour simply put the case to him, and got him to answer upon it. You might have expected, when the question was put, "What shall I do to inherit eternal life?" an elaborate exposition of the moral condition of humanity, a profound and intricate statement concerning the revelation of God in the flesh, a magnificent dissertation upon redemption by sacrifice, and the necessity of the shedding of blood for the remission of sin. Instead of these expectations being satisfied, Jesus Christ asked the man certain questions which he answered rightly, and those answers were returned to him as a response to his own inquiries. This ought to have a very serious application to ourselves; because we are to be no longer self-deluded by the impression, that if more was said to us we should do more; if we had a better minister we should soon have higher knowledge of truth and keener perception of moral beauty; if revelation had been more minute and specific, we should have had the advantage of that minuteness and should have been better men. To talk so is to talk lies,—infamous and unpardonable lies! Jesus Christ showed in this case, that all the while there was in the man's heart the very answer which he professed himself eager to ascertain. So it is with ourselves. We know the right; yet oftentimes, alas! the wrong pursue. We know the truth, and we hoodwink ourselves to a degree which enables us to say, lyingly, that if we knew its meaning better we should carry out its purpose more fully. O man, the answer is in thine heart; the law of God has been before thine eyes, and thou hast known it to be true, to be simple, to be right; now say that though you know the truth you will not follow it, or say, "Knowing the truth I yield myself to its persuasion, I put myself under its discipline." Decide at once. Decide ere it be too late! Begin to live whilst you may! If you have not this life in your heart you are not living. You are alive without life; you have existence without being; a pulse without immortality! Where in all this is the evangelical element? It is possible for men, who do not distinguish between words and things, to be surprised at the answer which Jesus returned to the lawyer, because they do not see in that answer the full statement of what is known amongst us as evangelical truth. The lawyer came for eternal life, and he was referred to the law. The lawyer asked who his neighbour was, and he was told to do as the Samaritan had done and he would certainly live. Read the Sermon on the Mount, and say, Where is the evangelical truth? It is precisely here that a profound mistake is often made by men. Let any man try to carry out literally and morally the Sermon on the Mount, and he will soon find where the evangelical element is. Let a man set himself when he is smitten on the one cheek to turn the other also, patiently and nobly, and he will soon begin to inquire for the Cross of Christ! When a man is compelled to go one mile, and is able to answer he will go two—he will find that he derives his ability so to reply from his being one with Christ, in all the sympathies of his nature and all the desires of his heart. Let a man try to love his neighbour as himself, and he will soon find that all his attempts will end in ignominious failure if he have not drunk into the spirit of Jesus Christ, who made himself of no reputation, who took upon him the form of a servant, and became obedient unto death. The evangelical element is not a matter of mere statement. It goes beyond all expression; it never can be set fully forth in any words that man can employ. Yet in all our endeavours to carry out a truly noble and heavenly life, we feel that we cannot take one step in the process without knowing Christ alike in the fellowship of his sufferings and the power of his resurrection. Am I to suppose that any man is asking, What shall I do to inherit eternal life? Do not misunderstand that word "do." It may be so employed as to convey a wrong sense. The obtaining of eternal life does not come through any action or merit of our own. There is not a certain journey that is to be taken, a labour which is to be performed, a specific duty that is to be discharged. What, then, is there to be? Consciousness of sin, conviction of guilt in the sight of God, self-despair, self-torment, such a knowledge of the nature and reality of sin as will pain the heart to agony; and then a turning of the eyes of faith to the bleeding Lamb of God, the one Sacrifice, the complete Atonement; a casting of the heart, the life, the hope, upon the broken body of Jesus, Son of God! Dost thou so believe? Thou hast eternal life! This eternal life is not a possession into which we come by-and-by. We have hold of it now; for to love the Son of God is to begin eternity, is to enter upon immortality!
How is this life to be exhibited? In other words, how is it to prove its own existence and defend its own claim? By love. "But I can talk theology so well." So you may, and yet be an alien to the commonwealth of Israel. "But I can give critical distinctions between one statement and another." So you may, and be a fool. How then am I to show that I am living the eternal life? By love. God is love. And if we be in God we shall be filled with love. Say a man is narrow, censorious, unkind, cruel; and whatsoever may be his attainments, without charity, he is as a beast in the sanctuary of God! But see a man who knows but little, and yet whose heart burns with love towards God, and with a desire to know him more perfectly, and serve him more devotedly, and you see eternal life.
Let us then henceforward know that there is in our hearts and minds information enough upon these great questions, if so be we are minded to turn that information to account. Let no man say, he will begin a better life when he knows more. Begin with the amount of your present knowledge. Let no man delude himself by saying that, if he had a good opportunity of showing charity to a stranger, he would show it. Show chanty, show piety at home. Let no man say that if he was going down a thief-haunted road, and saw a poor man bleeding and dying there, he would certainly bind up his wounds. Do the thing that is next thee; bear the cross that is lying at thy feet; start even upon the very smallest scale to love, and thou shalt grow in grace. We do not expect men in Christ to be men in one day, fully grown, finally completed. We expect growth, process: first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear. First, a rude attempt, it may be poorly and clumsily carried out, but done with the best spirit, with the highest desire to be right. Given such a condition of affairs as that, and God will see to it that the bruised reed be not broken; that the smoking flax be not quenched; that a little strength be cultured and reared and defended until it become a gigantic power. And as for those of us who are in Christ, and who know this sweet mystery of eternal life, let us prove it by the depth, the ardour, the purity of our love.
How to Read the Bible
Nothing would seem simpler than to open the Bible and read the verses as they came. Few people read the Bible. Many people make a charm of it; others approach it along false lines. Some treat the Bible superstitiously; it is not a divine revelation to them, but something about which they have to be mystified, and they suppose that the less they understand it the better. "How readest thou?" What is the method of reading? Have you any general principles, any guiding maxims, any philosophy of reading? Do you merely pass through chapter and verse as they come, accepting everything, testing nothing, proving nothing, but simply reading so many words, and extending towards these words so much of unintelligent respect as you may care to bestow upon them? How read you your own children's letters? Are they only a jingle of words, or is there some central meaning even in the child's communication? What is the vital point? what does the writer want to be at? what is the one thing to which he addresses himself? Except we consider these questions, and reverently obey the direction in which they point, we shall read the Bible mistakenly, we shall constantly be in fear of every assault that is made upon it; we shall suppose, with criminal ignorance, that it is in the power of some man mighty in dialectics and rich in information to take the Bible from us. There is a certain kind of Bible we ought never to have had. No man can take any revelation of God from us, if our spirit be in sympathy with the revelation, and if our life be moulded and inspired by its highest meaning. Men can rearrange chapters and verses, and dispute authorships, and point out discrepancies; and when they have done all that, they have not touched the Bible. When the Churches learn this there will be greater calmness in the midst of all uproar and tumult, and a noble voice will say, We will be calm in God, for he is our refuge and strength, though the mountains be removed and be carried into the midst of the sea.
"How readest thou?" Take the first chapters in Genesis, and how many people have been hindered and injured and upset and mystery-beclouded and befogged by those chapters, when they need not have been so troubled for a moment. The people who thus suffer begin at the wrong point; they look for the wrong thing; they would not read a friend's letter as they read what they suppose to be God's Bible. All this comes from want of asking, What is the vital point? It is thus we must read a parable, and with this illustration I will begin at the difficulty I have referred to. How do you read the parable of the Prodigal Son? There is only one line in it. So many people begin with the decoration, the colouring, the poetry; they do not see that the whole thing is in one sentence—Come back! Suppose men were to say, On what day in the week is it probable that that young man went away? There are seven days in the week, and every day would have its friend in that controversy, and so we should have seven different schools of thought based on distinct and dogmatic conviction—that he went away upon every one of them. Suppose they should say, On what day is it probable the young man came back again? Would they be discussing the parable? would they be reading God's Book? would they be students of Christ's religious philosophy? They would lose everything by beginning at the wrong point, and looking for the wrong thing: the one cry of the parable is: Return! thy father waits for thee. So in the creation of the world, what troubles we have: one school setting up the idea of specific creation; another setting up the theory of evolution, development, the whole apocalypse of the universe coming out of some tuft of fire-mist by persistent force. I do not care which it was; that is not the thing the Bible wants me to believe or cares about for one moment. What is it the Bible says? "God created." That's all. I do not give up the first chapters of Genesis any more than I give up the parable of the Prodigal Son, because I do not care what day the young man went away, or on what day the young man returned home; nor do I care how the feast was spread and who served it; I know he came home, and I want to follow him as he hastens to his father's refuge. All the Bible wants me to believe is, that "God created the heavens and the earth." As for the rest, all that will come in due time; we shall have space enough for the consideration of these questions when we get higher, where the light burns more steadily, where the day is master of the night. Yet there are some people who will knock at doors that are marked Private. You cannot get rid of intruders, trespassers, and vulgar people; they rush in where angels fear to tread. He who believes that "God created the heavens and the earth" is ready for any theory that can vindicate itself by reason, fact, history, and other stable proof. How troubled some have been about the tragedy of Eden! "How readest thou?" You may have been attacking the wrong points; puzzling yourselves to dizziness over things you have nothing to do with. The serpent betrayed the woman, and she did eat. How did the serpent betray her? You have nothing to do with that. How readest thou, then? I read only one thing in all that Eden transaction, namely, that the human heart was tempted. All history confirms that reading, our own consciousness bears us witness there; let all the rest stand for scrutiny in other days and other places; far away there stands the one grand awful fact that the human heart disobeyed God, ate, and has since evermore been eating things that are bad for it. If men would confine themselves to the vital point, and not trouble themselves about things that are collateral, subsidiary, and merely meant for minor purposes, they would love the Bible. It speaks the right word, it alone has the truth, and "in the process of the suns" every theory will come to offer gold and frankincense and myrrh to the right thought in Genesis.
"How readest thou?" Let us go to Sinai. Shall we consider about the thunders and the lightnings, the personality of the legislator, and shall we ask how Moses wrote the law, or whether God wrote it with his own finger, and in what language he wrote, and how the symbols looked to the uninitiated eye? These are not questions fit for us; we are earnest men. What is the question? The question is, Has there been any distinction made between right and wrong? The answer is in the law. Whoever wrote it, there it is. It is written on stones, and stars; on flowers, on hearts; this truth lies at the basis of secured society; without this we could not live. Shall we discuss about the number of the commandments, the order in which they were given? Shall we begin to wonder how it is there were not more or there were not less? Then were we frivolous, then would we give up all that is worth holding; but who will give up this great fact, that there has been made a distribution of moralities, there has been a classification of things right, things wrong? You cannot get rid of that Sinai; it is in your houses, it is in your nurseries, it is in your schools, it is in your houses of business; it is the very life of civilisation; it is the guarantee of property, it is the sanction under whose protection human life is sacred. "How readest thou?" Thou hast been pottering about a thousand things that do not belong to the subject. Any human author, distinctively so-called and known, treated as the Bible is treated, could not stand for a moment, if there were aught in him of poetry, high thinking, far-reaching suggestion: the mechanic might live—the artist would be killed.
"How readest thou?" How many have been troubled about the wars and the destruction of the Canaanites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Amorites and Jebusites, and how they wondered how all this could take place as it did! That is not the point. You miss the author's meaning. "How readest thou?" We should so read all these mysteries as to see that there is a meaning in the ages, a shaping, directing power,—call it Fire-mist if you like, if you prefer that to Deity; have your idol; call it Chance, if in that syllable there be more poetry than in the syllable God; keep your little pet, and gorge him till he die: we call history Providence, the shaping out of God's kingdom the onward line that aims at and will terminate in righteousness; and Hivite, Perizzite, Canaanite, and all other opposing forces must go down. Nor is this an outworking of divine purpose, as if that were something arbitrary, far away, metaphysical, and impossible of human conception. God has no interests inconsistent with human welfare. That is the key of the whole position. If yours be an ivory god, I do not know what he may do, I will not be responsible for him; my God is Father, royal Father, everlasting Father; his name is Wonderful, Counsellor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace: and there poetry may take licence, and write the firmament with the choicest epithets descriptive of majesty, patience, tenderness, and love. That God has no interests inconsistent with the salvation of the child that was born an hour ago. That God is working out nothing that does not contemplate the good of the meanest vagrant that disgraces our civilisation. So there are those who are hard of mouth because hard of heart, who talk about God as if he were working out something far away in the clouds that man has nothing to do with, and man must be crushed and ground to powder that that mighty Invisible may have his way. It is a lie; God is love; God is thinking about every man, woman, and child when he is working his mighty way; yea, when he whets his glittering sword and his hand takes hold of judgment, even then God is love. We cannot tell all the mystery of the action of love; it has a side that is marked by chastening, discipline, trial, loss. Our God is a consuming fire, but at the last it will be found that he has consumed nothing that even he could save.
"How readest thou?" At the Cross, how readest thou? How many theories of the atonement we have! How many theological hairsplittings and metaphysics we have seen around the Cross by blasphemers who thought they were praying! There is but one meaning in that Calvary transaction: what is that meaning, all-inclusive, all-explaining? It is that the world is redeemed. If you add one line to that your addition is subtraction; if you begin to theorise and speculate and dogmatise you are lost We only dogmatise when we are fat and prosperous and self-conceited; when we are self-convicted, penitent, contrite, brokenhearted, blind with tears, we seize great meanings, and when language fails we express ourselves in mighty cries of love. Have nothing to do with theorists and theological mechanicians, and people who have plans and schemes of God. God is love; the meaning of the Cross is, The world is redeemed, not with corruptible things as silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Jesus Christ, as of a Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. Pilate writes in Greek and Latin and Hebrew, but above all the superscription there is written the true meaning—God so loved the world that he did this—he died for it. Do not be as a beast in the sanctuary, trampling upon things that ought to be taken up and reverently treasured in the heart. Do not seek for meanings in words; words are deceptions, words are mockeries, words are either infirmities or falsehoods. It is the heart that knows. There is no word-ladder that can reach even unto heaven, but there is a heart-power that wings its way unerringly through all the clouds, and finds the father-mother God.
How readest thou, finally, in the fifteenth chapter of the first Epistle to the Corinthians respecting the resurrection? We have actually had volumes written on the resurrection! The whole doctrine is in one line, like every other doctrine of the Bible—the doctrine is, we shall not die. There is a power mightier than death; the sting of death is for a moment, and the victory of the grave is for the twinkling of an eye; the grave will not be able to felicitate itself upon its victory until it is crushed by the resurrection. But some man will say, Just so. Paul anticipated the whole of the fussy-minded ness of the theological genius, whether it be a genius of affirmation or of denial. But some man will say, How? You cannot get rid of that "some man" with his little questions and foolish peddling inquiries. As if God could always come into a "how," and live there; as if there were room enough in a human "how" or a human "why" to tabernacle the Infinite. Thus we believe in the Resurrection; we believe in Creation, we believe in Law, we believe in Providence, we believe in Redemption, we believe in Resurrection. If we could get hold of the central thought, the living, vital principle, how few infidels there would be! Infidels are made by details. Infidels are all born on some sort of theologico-colonial line away out yonder. If there are scoffers, mockers, profane persons, we have nothing to say in their defence; but if there are persons who have been puzzling themselves with externals and collaterals and subsidiaries, my purpose in this exposition is to ask such to find rest in central thought and in vital conception. Never think that words can express God. Theology, falsely so called, has done itself mortal injury by picking out a few words or many, and calling them final. There are no final words. All words are alphabetic or symbolic Do not suppose that the ripest student in God's sanctuary is able to comprehend God or tell all about God. It is his joy that he cannot find out the Almighty unto perfection. But there is room in history for prayer; there is scope in reverent distance to see many aspects of the divine movement that derive not a little of their beauty and their fascination from the very perspective into which they are thrown. Here, then, amid all tumult and controversy and conflict, is a man who holds to the Bible; and he holds to it because of its vital points, and he beats off the rude hands that would seek to take to pieces the mere decoration of the work. Your child is not its clothes, the clothes are not the child; within it, and within it still, further, further, is the real child. So the depredator comes and takes away in the night-time much that I used to think essential; but I find that it is not essential, because I can live without it, pray without it, do good without it, suffer heroically without it, and be like God without it. What has the thief taken? What he is welcome to. He cannot take away from me the doctrine that God created the heavens and the earth, though I know not how; the doctrine that man is tempted and disobedient, I cannot tell by what mystery of evil; nor can there be taken from me the distinction between right and wrong, thou shalt and thou shalt not; nor can there be taken from me the conviction that life is ruled, shaped, directed, inspired, and not the sport of chance. No man can take away from me the doctrine that the world is redeemed; and as for death I mock it, taunt it, call it grim, lean, ghastly, hungry, and ask it, O death, where is thy sting? because of a conviction regarding rising again, ultimate triumph, the final conquest of life over death. Think on these things. Comfort one another with these words.
Almighty God, we approach thee in the name of Jesus Christ, thy Son our Saviour, who was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities. We see not the Infinite, but we see Jesus. We see not thy glory, but we see thy goodness; and so far as thou hast enabled us to behold Jesus Christ in all the wondrousness of his beauty and holiness, we are constrained to exclaim, each for himself, "My Lord and my God!" We rest in Jesus Christ,—he is our peace; he has answered the demand of law; he has broken down the middle wall of partition which separated us from God, and he hath made God and man one in holiness and in love. We have come to consider his gospel. To every one of us may it be good news from heaven. May we recognise the utterance of it as the only music that should charm the heart and appeal to the love of man. Enable us to know the sinfulness of sin, that we may the more clearly understand thy love in the gift of thy Son. Help us in this hour to be sincere worshippers. May our hearts be bowed down before the Holy One, and may our souls know their hunger and be able to express it in earnest urgent prayer. Let thy Spirit be given unto each hearer, as a spirit of life, of interpretation, of comfort, of stimulus; that this hour spent in this place may enable us to go in the strength of its memories many days. Dry the tears of our sorrow; uphold us in the day of sore distress; find bread for us in the time of famine; and when we are in the desert make pools for us. Thou art able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think. We leave, therefore, in the Name that is above every name, this poor prayer at thy footstool, for surely thy grace will turn it into a great answer. Amen.
My intention is to examine some of the excuses which men make in this matter of the religious life; to ascertain some of the causes or reasons which keep men back from entireness of consecration and completeness of Christian love. If the excuses are good, verily I shall embrace them myself, and repeat them with you, and help to heighten the thunder in which you speak them, when you are called upon to avow the reason of your indifference or of your opposition. If they be bad excuses, and if they will not stand fire, I shall ask you to renounce them, to disclaim them, to be ashamed of them, and, as far as possible, to do double work in the future, to make up, in some degree, for the negligence or wastefulness of the past.
"The lawyer said—" Then comes his own particular plea or excuse, to which I intend to pay little or no attention now, it was so completely and triumphantly answered by Jesus Christ. Read his parable in reply. Next to the parable of the Prodigal Son, it is the sweetest word ever spoken even by the lips of Jesus Christ. I intend each man to fill up the sentence for himself, only having from the lawyer the preface: "He, willing to justify himself, said—" What words do you insert after the word "said"? How is it with your self-justifying and self-excusing heart? Do I hear correctly when I say you are now reasoning thus: "If I am sincere in my spirit and convictions, no matter whether I believe what is in the Bible or not, all will be well with me here and hereafter"? Is that a correct statement of what you are now thinking? It sounds well. I admit, with all candour, that it seems to sound conclusive and to admit of no refutation. Yet it surely will admit of a question or two being put, in order that we may fully understand the position. You speak of sincerity. I ask, What are you sincere in? Does anything turn upon the object of your sincerity? If you are sincerely giving to a customer over your counter what you believe to be the thing he has asked for, will you be fully justified in the day that you find you have poisoned the man? You sincerely believed that you were giving him precisely the very ingredient that he asked for, and that he had paid for, but you did not give him that ingredient, but something else, and ere the sun go down the man will be dead. What does sincerity go for there? If you indicate to a traveller, sincerely, to the best of your knowledge, the road along which he ought to go to reach a certain destination; if it be the wrong road, and if in some sudden darkness the man should fall over a precipice, will your sincerity obliterate everything like self-reproach? Were you sure it was the road? "No, but I was sincere in thinking it was." Did you explain to the man that you were speaking upon an assumption? "No, I thought there was no occasion to do so, I felt so sure." But you see that the mere element of sincerity goes a very short way in cases of that kind. We love sincerity. Without sincerity life is but a mockery, the worst of irony! But what are we sincere in? Have we ascertained that the object of our sincerity is real, true, and deserving of our confidence? We are responsible not only for the light we have, but for the light we may have. It sounds very well, I have no doubt, to some young men, when a man says, "I intend to walk according to the light I have, and to take the consequences." Believe me, the man who so speaks talks in mock heroics. There is nothing in his statement that ought to deter you from investigation, or from anxious and devout pursuit of truth. I repeat, we are responsible not only for the light we have, but for the light that is offered to us. If you go into some dark chamber, and say you can find your way about well enough, and I offer you a light before you enter the apartment and you refuse it, and trust to your own power to grope your way in the dark; if you should fall into some mischief or be tripped up or thrown down, so as to injure yourself, who will be to blame? You walked according to the light you had, but the light that was in you was darkness! Your injury will be associated with a memory of neglect on your part, which, when the injury itself is healed, will yet be a sting in your recollection and your heart. Am I speaking, then, one word against sincerity? Certainly not. God is a Spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth. I am speaking about that degree of sincerity which might be increased, and that quality of sincerity which might be enriched, by knowing more perfectly the object upon which it is terminating. Who are you, that you should be a revelation to yourself? Look at the mistakes of your lifetime and shut your self-written Bible. He ought to be a very wise man who can, gracefully and with aught of authoritativeness, close the Book of God and say, "I can do without it." He may be speaking sincerely, but he is speaking ignorantly. There is a sincerity of fanaticism, as well as a sincerity of philosophy. There is a sincerity of ignorance, as well as a sincerity of knowledge. Merely, therefore, to say, "I am sincere," is to say nothing. We must inquire, What is the object on which your sincerity fixes itself? What is the degree of its intelligence, and what is the degree of its conscience? When any man has returned clear earnest answers to these inquiries, my belief is, that he will find himself short of something, and that that something which is absent will be found to be the truth as it is in Jesus,—the Cross, the one Cross, out of which every other cross that is true and useful must be made!
But he, willing to justify himself, said—"I have been looking round, and it strikes me that I am every whit as good as other people that are about me." Would it be rude to contradict you? Will it be polite to admit the truthfulness, generally, of what you say? Either on the one hand or the other it does not touch the point at all. If the question lay between you and me, it would be right for each to compare himself with the other, and to exalt his superiority at the expense of his brother's infirmities. The case is not as between one man and another. We err in circumscribing the question so. The question is between the soul and God; between the heart and the absolutely right; between man and Jesus Christ; between right and wrong. How does the case stand when viewed thus? We injure ourselves by comparing ourselves one with another; setting shoulder to shoulder, and saying, "My stature is as high as yours;" laying hand beside hand, and saying, "My fingers are as clean as the fingers of other men." We are to come to the law and to the testimony; we are to proceed to the Cross of Jesus Christ; we are to go to the standards and balances of the sanctuary; we are to shut ourselves up with God, alone! He who can then boast, must be a madman or a devil! There is a disposition, I know, amongst us all, and exercised more or less, to compare ourselves with one another. One flippant and cruel man will say, looking upon a number of professing Christians, who may not exactly have been pleasing him, "Well, if this is your Christianity, I don't think I shall have much to do with it." All the while he knows, perfectly well, that the men who have been doing anything wrong have been so doing, not because of their Christianity, but because of their want of it, or in spite of it. A man looks over a lot of copper and sees one bad penny in it, and says, "Well, if this is your currency, I do not think I shall have anything to do with it." What do you think of that man? Would you introduce him to your family? Would you make him the tutor of your boys? Would you in any way express esteem for him? A man goes into your orchard and picks up a rotten apple and says, "Well, if these are your apples, I don't think I shall have much to do with them." What do you think of him? Do you say, "He is an admirable man; a sagacious creature; a counsellor to be consulted "? You turn aside, and you say, "The man must be a fool." Not that I am going to say so about you on these solemn questions. But shall I say to you this?—When you compare yourself with another man, especially to your own advantage, you are not in the spirit which is likely to elicit the truth and lead you to sound and useful conclusions. Your disposition is wrong; your temper is wrong. You must cease such a method of comparing advantages and honours, and must go to the absolute and final standard of righteousness.
But he, willing to justify himself, said—"Though I do not believe and act as they do who call themselves Christians, yet I trust to the mercy of God." The man who makes this plea talks in some such fashion as this: "I do not care for doctrines; I do not care for churches; theologies trouble me very little indeed; if I live as wisely as I can, and do what is tolerably fair between one man and another, I shall trust to the mercy of God, and I believe all will be right at last." Do you know what you are talking about in talking so? Do you understand the value and the force of your own words? Are you aware that the word mercy is one of the words in our language which it is very difficult to understand? What is mercy? In your estimation, perhaps, it is mere physical sensibility, simple emotion—a gush of feeling. Is that mercy? No. What is mercy? The highest point of justice,—justice returning and completing itself by the return. Mercy is justice in tears. Mercy is righteousness with a sword just transforming itself into a sceptre. Is mercy a mere freak of sentimentality? Do you think God will say at last, "Well, well, come in, come in, and say nothing more about it"? I would not go into his heaven if the conditions were such. It would be no heaven. Where there is not righteousness at the centre, there is no security at the circumference. Where the throne is not founded upon justice, mercy is but a momentary impulse, to be followed by a terrible recoil. "The mercy of God," you say, "where do I find the mercy of the Living One?" I find it in Bethlehem, in Gethsemane, on Calvary. Where is the mercy of God? It is in that dying Son of his, who was delivered for our offences, and raised again for our justification. Your notion of mercy is superficial. You use the great word in one of its aspects only; you do not seem to understand that the word mercy is a composite word, that has within itself many elements. As peace is not death, mercy is not sentiment. You propose to trust to the mercy of God. So do I, but in a different sense. Is it right to trifle with his law, to despise his word, to crucify his Son afresh, and then to say, "I will trust to his mercy at last"? Is that decent, fair, honourable, sensible? We are all living, in so far as we are living truly, in the mercy and grace of God. We trust to his mercy now. The question is not one of ultimate conditions, but of present experiences. Every morning we hallow the day with this prayer, "God be merciful to me a sinner!' and every night we recover the mistakes, the infirmities, and the sins of the daytime with this cry, "God be merciful to me a sinner!" What do you mean, then, when you talk about trusting to his mercy at last? Trust to his mercy at first. Where is his mercy? It is in the life, the ministry, the death, the resurrection, and the whole mediation of Jesus Christ.
But he, willing to justify himself, said,—"There is so much mystery about religion that I cannot really attempt to understand it." I answer, There is mystery about religion, but there is ten thousand times more mystery without it. There is mystery with the Bible, but there is nothing but mystery without it. There is a mystery of grace; yes, and there is a mystery of sin. Life is a mystery. All that is great touches the mysterious. In proportion as a thing rises from vulgarity and commonplace, it rises into wondrousness,—and wondrousness is but the first round in the ladder whose head rests upon the infinite mysteries. Understand it! Who asked you to understand it? You make a mistake if you suppose that religion is to be understood in the sense that you apparently attach to the word understand. It is to be understood by the heart, to be felt as the answer to the sorrow of the soul, to be understood through the medium of love and sympathy, and not through the medium of dry intellect. Do I understand the method of salvation? No. Can I explain it intellectually, so as to chase away every lingering shadow of mystery? No. What then? I feel it to be right. My heart says, "Though you have often brought me bread I could not eat; you have now brought me this bread,—and it is life!" I cannot give the lie lo my own heart. Would I part with the mystery? Nay, verily. Are not the clouds God's as well as the blue sky? Are not the mists around the mountain tops his, as well as the bases of the mountains and the foundations of the earth? Is not he, himself, the living God, the culmination of all mysteries, the sum of all wonder—the Alpha and the Omega—not to be understood, but loved and served? There is a point in my religious inquiries where I must close my eyes, look no more, but rest myself in the grand transaction which is known as faith in the Son of God.
But he, willing to justify himself, came at last to this: "There are so many denominations of Christians that it is impossible to tell which is right and which is wrong." Think of a man going off on that line! Think of a man saying, that he has been looking round and sees that there are so many denominations, that really he has made up his mind to give up the whole thing! Does he know what he is talking about? Is he really serious when he speaks so? Shall I follow his example? If I do it will be to show how great is his folly. "I have been looking round, and see so many different regiments in the country that really it is impossible to tell which is right and which is wrong, and I do not think I shall have anything to do with the country." Yes, there are many regiments, but one army; many denominations, but one church; many creeds, but one faith; many aspects, but one life; many ways up the hill, but one Cross on the top of it. Do not lose yourself among the diversities, when you might save yourself by looking at the unities. "There are so many mountains about, that I really do not know that there can be any truth in geography." Many mountains—one globe! There are a great many denominations, and I do not regret it. I believe that denominationalism, wisely managed, may be used for mutual provocation to love and to good works. It may be better that we should be broken up externally, that each may do his own work in his own way, than that we should be bound together by merely nominal uniformity. When an enemy arises to make an attack upon the Christian citadel, when he writes a book against Christ, or against the Bible, or against any aspect of Christian truth—who answers him? Not one denomination in particular. No. When a hand is lifted up against the Cross, who seizes it? Not one section of Christendom. No. When an assault is made upon Calvary, the whole Church, in all colours, all attitudes, rushes to protect—what indeed requires no defence except as a sign of love—the Cross of Christ, which sets itself above the storms and outlives the puny assaults of puny men!
I have looked into all the excuses that I could find, and verily I now pronounce them, so far as my intelligence will enable me to judge—rubbish! Is that word understood? It is my business, as well as the business of every man, to understand really what excuses are made of; what the value of self-justification is. Because I am as anxious to be right, I trust, as most other men; and having examined all these grounds of self-justification, I say I would not risk so much as a day's health upon them, not to speak of an immortal condition. There is not one of them will hold good in the market-place if it were commercialised. Shall any one of them stand good as between us and God? If, then, there is not to be self-justification, what is there to be? Self-renunciation. A man must empty himself of himself before he is in the right condition to understand lovingly and gratefully the offer which Jesus Christ makes men. So long as there is, in the remotest chambers of his mind, anything like the shade of a shadow of a supposed reason to imagine himself in any degree right, he is not in a position to consider the offers of mercy. Who receives the Eternal One as guest and friend? Name him. Hast thou heard his name? Tell it. His name is a brokenhearted man! God guests with the contrite and companies with the self-renouncing soul. I will go to my Father, then, and will say unto him, not, "Father, I was tempted; somebody lured me away; I did not intend to leave thee, but I was beguiled;" but I will say unto him, "Father, I have sinned!"
This, then, is the ground of coming to God; the ground of self-denial, self-renunciation, self-distrust, self-hatred on account of sin. "O Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself, but in me is thy help." "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." "Jesus cried and said, If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink." "I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly." Who accepts the invitation? Some have accepted it. Pray that this word may not be in vain. Some require just one more appeal, and they will decide. Take this, then, as the appeal you want. Now is the accepted time; now is the day of salvation. I want to see men decide for Christ. I want to know that men who have been thinking so long, have at last been enabled by the Spirit of God to say, "I will cast myself on Jesus, the one Saviour of a sinful race." Our fathers used to plead for decisions. The men who made the pulpit of England the grandest of its powers—pleaded with sinners that they would decide. If aught of their mantle has fallen upon me, even but for the occasion, I would speak with all their voices, now dead; I would stand upon their dead bones and turn their graves into a pulpit, and cry, "Ho! every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters; and he that hath no money, come ye, buy wine and milk without money and without price." "How long halt ye between two opinions?" I am not the one speaker; all the holy dead speak in my voice; the general assembly and church of the first-born written in heaven; your dead pastors, your sainted fathers and mothers, all the companions of your life who have passed away into the other world, all prophets and apostles, make me their mouthpiece when I say, Now is the accepted time; now is the day of salvation!