We know that God spake unto Moses; as for this fellow, we know not from whence he is.
The questions involved in the conversations recorded in this chapter, are of great practical importance. Not perhaps of immediate practical importance to all in this present congregation; but yet sure to be of importance to all hereafter, and of importance to many at this actual moment. Nay, they are of importance to those who, from their youth, might be thought to have little to do with them, either where the mind is already anxious and inquiring beyond its years, or where it happens to be exposed to strong party influences, or that its passions are likely to be engaged on a particular side, however little the understanding may be interested in the matter. In fact, in religious knowledge, as in other things, the omissions of youth are hard to make up in manhood; they who grow up with a very small knowledge of the Scriptures, and with no understanding of any of the questions connected with them, can with difficulty make up for this defect in after years; they become, according to the influences to which, they may happen to be subjected, either unbelieving or fanatical.
If we were to question the youngest boy about the language held in this chapter by the Pharisees, and by the man who had been born blind, we should, no doubt, be answered, that what the Pharisees said, was wrong; and what the man born blind said, was right. This would be the answer which it would be thought proper to give; because it would be perceived that the Pharisees' language expressed unbelief in Christ; and that the man born blind was expressing gratitude and faith towards him. Nor, indeed, should we expect a young boy to go much farther than this; for such general impressions are, at his age, as much many times as can be looked for. But it is strange to observe how much this want of understanding outlasts the age of boyhood; how apt men are to judge according to names, and to see no farther: to say, that the language of the Pharisees was wrong, because they find it employed against Christ; but yet to use the very same language themselves, whilst they think that they are all the while speaking for Christ.
But in this conversation between the Pharisees and the blind man, there are, indeed, as I said, points involved of very great importance; it contains the question as to the degree of weight to be attached to miracles; and the question, no less grave, with what degree of tenacity we should reject what claims to be a new truth, because it seems to be at a variance with supposed old truths to which we have been long accustomed to cling with undoubting affection.
The question as to the weight of miracles is contained in the sixteenth verse. Some of the Pharisees said, This man is not of God, because he keepeth not the Sabbath day. Others said, How can a man that is a sinner do such miracles? That is to say, the first party rejected the miracles because they seemed to be wrought in favour of a supposed false doctrine; the other accepted the doctrine, because it seemed warranted to their belief by the miracles.
The second question is contained in the words of the text, "We know that God spake to Moses; as for this fellow, we know not from whence he is." We have been taught from our childhood, and have the belief associated with every good and pious thought in us, that God spake to Moses, and gave him the law as our rule of life; but as for this fellow, we know not from whence he is. His works may be wonderful, his words may be specious; but we never heard of him before, and we cannot tear up all the holiest feelings of our nature to receive a new doctrine. We will hold to the old way in which, we were taught by our fathers to walk, and in which they walked before us.
This last question is one which, as we well know, is continually presented to our minds. No one says, that the Pharisees were right, any more than those very Pharisees thought that their fathers were right who had killed the prophets. But as our Lord told them, that they were in truth the children in spirit of those who had killed the prophets; because, although they had been taught to condemn the outward form of their fathers' action, they were repeating it themselves in its principles and spirit; so many of those who condemn the Pharisees are really their exact image, repeating now against the truths of their own days the very same arguments which the Pharisees used against the truths of theirs.
For the arguments of these Pharisees, both as regards miracles, and as regards the suspicion with which we should look on a doctrine opposed to the settled opinions of our lives, have in fact, in both cases, a great mixture of justice in them; and it is this very mixture which we may hope beguiled them; and also beguiles those, who in our own days repeat their language.
For most certain it is that the Scripture itself supposes the possibility of false miracles. The case is especially provided against in Deuteronomy. It there says, "If there arise among you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams, and giveth thee a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder come to pass whereof he spake unto thee, saying, Let us go after other gods which thou hast not known, and let us serve them: thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams, for the Lord your God proveth you, to know whether ye love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul." Observe how nearly this comes to the language of the Pharisees, "This man is not of God, because he keepeth not the Sabbath day." "Here," they might have said, "is the very case foreseen in the Scriptures: a prophet has wrought a sign and a wonder, which is at the same time a breach of God's commandments. God has told us that such signs are not to be heeded, that he does but prove us with them to see whether we love him truly: knowing that where there is a love of him, the heart will heed no sign or wonder, how great soever, which would tempt it to think lightly of his commandments." Shall we say that this is not a just interpretation of the passage in Deuteronomy? shall we say that this is the language of unbelief or of sin? or, rather, shall we not confess that it is in accordance with God's word, and holy, and faithful, and true? And yet this most just language led those who used it to reject one of Christ's greatest miracles, and to refuse the salvation of the Holy One of God. Can God's truth be contrary to itself? or can truth and goodness lead so directly to error and to evil?
Now, then, where is the solution to be found? for some solution there must be, unless we will either condemn a most true principle, or defend a most false conclusion. The error lies in confounding God's moral law with his law of ordinances; precisely the same error which led the Jews to stone Stephen. The law had undoubtedly commanded that he who blasphemed God should be stoned; the Jews called Stephen's speaking against the holy place and against the law blasphemy against God, and they murdered God's faithful servant and Christ's blessed martyr. Even so the law had said, Let no miracle be so great as to tempt you to forsake God: the Jews considered the forsaking the law of the Sabbath to be a forsaking of God, and they said that Christ's miracle was a work of Satan. There is no blasphemy into which we may not fall, no crime from which we shall be safe, if we do not separate in our minds most clearly such laws as relate to moral and eternal duties, and such as relate to outward or positive ordinances, even when commanded or instituted by God himself. It is most false to say that the fact of their being commanded sets them on a level with each other. So long as they are commanded to us, it is no doubt our duty to obey them equally: but the difference between them is this, that whereas the first are commanded to us and to our children for ever, and no possible evidence can be so great as to persuade us that God has repealed them; (for the utmost conceivable amount of external testimony, such as that of miracles, could only lead to madness; -- the human mind might, conceivably, be overwhelmed by the conflict, but should never and could never be tempted to renounce its very being, and lie against its Maker;) the others, that is, the commands to observe certain forms and ordinances, are in their nature essentially temporary and changeable: we have no right to assume that they will be continued, and therefore a miracle at any time might justly require us to forsake them; and not only an outward miracle, but the changed circumstances of the times may speak God's will no less clearly than a miracle, and may absolutely make it our duty to lay aside those ordinances, which to us hitherto, and to our fathers before us, were indeed the commands of God.
Now let us take the other question, -- which may indeed be called a question as to the allowableness of resting confidently in truth already gained, without consenting to examine the claims of something asserting itself to be a new truth, yet which seems to interfere with the old. Is nothing within us to be safe from possible doubt, or is everything? Or is it here, as in the former case, that there are truths so tried and so sacred that it were blasphemy to question them; while there are others, often closely intermixed with these, which are not so sacred, because they are not eternal; which may and ought to be examined when occasion requires; and which may be laid aside, or exchanged rather, for some higher truth, if it shall reasonably appear that their work is done, and that if we retain them longer they will change their character, and become no longer true but false. "David having served his own generation by the will of God, fell asleep, and was gathered unto his fathers, and saw corruption; but He whom God raised again saw no corruption." This is the difference between positive ordinances and moral: the first serve their appointed number of generations by the will of God, and then are gathered to their fathers, and perish; the latter are by the right hand of God exalted, the same yesterday, to-day, and forever.
"We know," said the Jews, "that God spake to Moses; but for this fellow, we know not from whence he is." There was a time when their fathers had held almost the very same language to Moses: "they refused him, saying Who made thee a ruler and a judge over us?" But now they knew that God had spoken to Moses, but were refusing Him who was sent unto them after Moses. God had spoken unto Moses, it was most true: he had spoken to him and given him commandments which were to last for ever; and which Christ, so far from undoing, was sent to confirm and to perfect; he had spoken to him other things, which were not to last for ever, but yet which were not to be cast away with dishonour; but having, in the fulness of time, done their work, were then, like David, to fall asleep. All that was required of the Jews, was not to reject as blasphemy a doctrine which should distinguish between these two sorts of truths: which in no way requires to believe that God had not spoken to Moses, -- which, on the contrary, maintained that he had so spoken, -- but only contended that he has also, in these last days, spoken unto us by his Son; and that his Son, bearing the full image of Divine authority, might well be believed if he spoke of some parts of Moses's law as having now fulfilled their work, seeing that they were such parts only as, by their very nature, were not eternal: they had not been from the beginning, and therefore they would not live on to the end.
The practical conclusion is, that, whilst we hold fast, with an undoubting and unwavering faith, all truths which, by their very nature, are eternal, and to deny which is no other than to speak against the Holy Ghost, we should listen patiently to, and pass no harsh judgment on, those who question other truths not necessarily eternal, while they declare that they are, to the best of their consciences, seeking to obey God and Christ. When I say, that we should listen patiently, and not pass harsh judgments upon those who question such points, I say it without at all meaning that we should agree with them. It would be monstrous indeed, to suppose that old opinions are never combated wrongly; that old institutions are never pronounced to have lived out their appointed time, when, in fact, they are still in their full vigour. But the language of those who defend the doctrines and the ordinances of the Church may, and often does, partake of the sin of that of the Pharisees, even when those against whom they are contending, are not, like Christ, bringing in a new and higher truth, but an actual error. To point out that it is an error, to defend ourselves and the Church from it, is most right, and most highly our duty; but it is neither right, nor our duty, but the very sin of the Pharisees, to put it down merely by saying, "As for this fellow, we know not from whence he is;" to treat the whole question as an impiety, and to deny the virtues and the holiness of those who maintain it, because they are, as we call it, "speaking blasphemous things against the holy place and against the law." The mischief of this to ourselves is infinite; nay, in its extreme, it leads to language which is fearfully resembling the very blasphemy against the Holy Ghost; for, when we say, as has been said, that where men's lives are apparently good and holy, and their doctrines are against those of the Church, the holiness is an unreal holiness, and that we cannot see into their hearts, this is, in fact, denying the Holy Spirit's most infallible sign -- the fruits of righteousness; and being positive rather of the truth of the Church, than of the truth of God. There is nothing so certain as that goodness is from God; nothing so certain as that sin is not from God; nothing so certain as that sin is not from him. To deny, or doubt this, is to dispute the greatest assurance of truth that God has ever been pleased to give to us. It does not, by any means, follow, that all good men are free from error, nor that error is less error because good men hold it; but to make the error which is less certain, a reason for disputing the goodness which is more certain, is the spirit, not of God, nor of the Church of God, but of those false zealots who put an idol in God's place; of such as rejected Christ and murdered Stephen.