Such considerations as we have had before us, are of far more than theoretical interest. They are of all questions the most practical. Sin is not a curious object which we examine from an aloof and external standpoint. However we regard it, to whatever view of its nature we are led, it is, alas, a fact within and not merely outside our experience.
And so we are at length brought to this most personal and most urgent inquiry, What has been the result to me of my past acts of sin? I have sinned; what have been, what are, what will be the consequences?
The most hopelessly unintelligent answer is, that there are no results, no consequences. It behoves us to remember that we can never sin with impunity. This is true, even in the apparent absence of all punishment. Every act of sin is followed by two results, though probably a profounder analysis would show them to be in reality one.
(i) Whenever I sin I inflict a definite injury on myself, varying with the sinfulness of the sin; that is, with its nature and the degree of deliberation it involved. I am become a worse man; I have, in some degree, rejected and done to death the Divine in me, my true self. Every sin, in its own proper measure, is both a rejection of the Christ within, and also an act of spiritual suicide.
Again (ii), each sin, once more according to the degree of its guilt, involves separation from God. And, as union with God is life, it follows that sin is, and not merely brings death. That is the death of which the outward, physical death is the mere symbol. It is death of that which makes me man -- the weakening of my will, the dulling of my conscience, the loss of spiritual vision. Hereafter, it may be, all this will be recognised by me as being death indeed, when I see how much I have missed, by my own fault, of the life and happiness which might have been mine in virtue of that unbroken communion with God, for which I was made.
These two results may be regarded as the penalties of sinning; more truly, they are aspects of sin itself. We can hardly be reminded too often that the worst punishment of sin is sin itself. The external results of sin, where such occur, are not evil, but good; for the object for which they are sent is the cure of sin. "To me no harder hell was shown than sin." If hell is this separation from God, this veritable and only real death, then hell is not an external penalty inflicted upon sin, but is involved in the very nature of sin itself. Or, it would be still more accurate to say, the constitution of the universe (including ourselves) being what it is, and the nature of sin being what it is, these results necessarily follow.
Now, the universe is not something which God has created and then, as it were, flung off from Himself, standing for ever outside it, as it is for ever outside Him. The universe, at each moment of its existence, is the expression, in time and space, of the Divine Mind. What we call its "laws," whether in the physical or the spiritual sphere, are the thoughts of the Mind of God: its "forces" are the operations of the Will of God, acting in accordance with His thoughts: material "things" are His thoughts embodied, that is, Divine thoughts rendered, by an act of the Divine Will, accessible to our senses.
Now we are in a position to understand both what is meant by the Wrath of God, and the manner in which it acts.
By the expression, "the Wrath of God," we are to understand the hostility of the Divine Mind to moral evil: the eternal antagonism of the Divine righteousness to its opposite. We are not now dealing with the question of the real or substantive existence of evil. But revelation amply confirms and enforces the conviction of our moral consciousness that, with a hatred beyond all human measures of hatred, God hates sin. It is hardly necessary to add, that that eternal and immeasurable hatred and hostility of the Divine Mind towards sin is compatible with infinite love towards His children, in whose minds and lives sin is elaborated and manifested. In fact, all attempts to reconcile the Wrath of God with His love seem to be utterly beside the mark. They only serve to obscure the truth that the Divine Wrath is itself a manifestation of the Divine Love. For if sin is, as we have already seen, in its very essence, selfishness, and if Love is the very Being of God -- if He is not merely loving, but Love itself -- then the Wrath of God, His hostility to sin, is His Love viewed in one particular aspect, in its outlook on moral evil, in its relation to that which is its very opposite and antithesis. Hell and Heaven, separation from God and union with Him, are alike expressions of the Eternal Love, which, because it is love, burns with unquenchable fire against all forms of selfishness and lovelessness.
This is the true, the ultimate reason why, in a universe which is the expression of the Mind of God, we cannot sin, and never have sinned, with impunity.
From these two fundamental truths --
(a) The universe is the expression of the Mind of God;
(b) God is love,
There follow, by a natural and inevitable law, the two results which accompany every act of sin.
(a) The destruction of the true self, the Christ, the Divine Life within man.
(b) Separation from God, which is death. We separate these results in thought; but it will now be sufficiently obvious that they are, in fact, one.
Is this taking too serious a view of sin? I do not think that this can be maintained in view of our whole preceding argument.
But are we taking too serious a view of little sins, of sins which spring from ignorance, of the sins of children?
We have already seen that knowledge and freedom are both necessary to constitute an act of sin. If ignorance is complete, then complete also is the absence of sin. For sin lies not in any material act, but in consciousness and will. The will alone can be sinful, as the will alone can be good. And it is entirely consistent with our standpoint, to admit the existence of an almost infinite number of degrees of sinfulness.
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Now we reach this immensely important result. We having sinned, our supreme need is forgiveness. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a Gospel for this precise reason, that it meets, as it claimed from the beginning to meet, this uttermost need of men. Its offer is, always and everywhere, the forgiveness, the remission of sins.
But what are we to understand by forgiveness? The forgiveness which is offered to us in the name of Jesus Christ is not, and our own moral sense ought to assure us that it could not be, the being let off punishment. "Thou shalt call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins," not from any external pains or penalties of their sins. To be saved from sin, is to have sin brought to an end, abolished within us. It is the recovery of the true self, the restoration of that union with God which is, here and now, eternal life. In other words, understanding the Divine Wrath as we have seen reason to understand it, forgiveness must mean to cease to be, or to cease to identify ourselves with, that in us which is the object of the Divine Wrath. In short, forgiveness is, in the great phrase of St. Paul, reconciliation with God.
How, then, is forgiveness or reconciliation to be obtained? The answer which the apostle gives is this: "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself." Let us try to see what this means.
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There can only be one way of ceasing to be the object of the Divine Wrath, and that is by identifying oneself with it; if we may use the catch-phrase, by becoming its subject instead of its object. This means that, so far as is in our power, we must enter into the Divine Mind in regard to sin, and our own sins in particular. Up to the limit of our power, we must make that Mind our own mind, we must hate sin, and our sins, as God hates them.
There is one word in the New Testament which expresses all this, and that is the word only partially and inadequately translated "repentance." The word thus represented is [Greek text], and [Greek text] is exactly "a change of mind." It really means the coming over to God's side, the entire revolution of our mental attitude and outlook with regard to sin. The word stands for self-identification with the Wrath of God, with the Divine Mind in its outlook upon sin. That change of mind is itself reconciliation, forgiveness, remission of sins. And that which alone makes [Greek text] and, therefore, forgiveness, possible, is the Death of Jesus Christ upon the Cross.
For that Death is the perfect revelation, in the only way in which it could be interpreted to us, that is, in terms of our common human life, of the Wrath of God, the Divine hostility to, and repudiation of sin. For the Death of Christ was the complete repudiation of sin, by God Himself, in our manhood. The Incarnate Son laid down His life in the perfect fulfilment of the mission received from the Father. "He became obedient unto death." He died, rather than, by the slightest concession to that which was opposed to the Divine Will, be unfaithful or disobedient to that mission. "He died to sin once for all." His Death was His final, complete repudiation of sin. And thus it was the absolutely perfect revelation of the Divine Mind in regard to sin.
This is the truth which underlies all the utterly misleading language about Christ's Death as a penalty, or about Christ Himself as the Ideal Penitent. Both penalty and penitence imply personal guilt and the personal consciousness of guilt. Both conceptions destroy the significance of the Cross. Only the Sinless One could die to sin, could perfectly repudiate sin, could perfectly disclose the Mind of God in relation to sin.
The Death of Christ was indeed, as we have seen, the result of His perfect obedience in a world of sin, of disobedience. The historical conditions under which He fulfilled His Mission, necessitated that His repudiation of sin should take the form which it did actually take. We may be sure, too, that He felt, as only the Sinless Son of God could feel, the injury, the affront, the malignity, the degradation of sin. It is the sense of this which has given rise to the modern idea of Christ as the Penitent for the world's sin. But if we are to understand the word in this sense, then we are entirely changing its meaning and connotation. And we cannot do this, in regard to words like penitent and penitence, without producing confusion of thought. It is time, surely, that this misleading and mischievous fallacy of the penitence of Christ should be finally abandoned by writers on the Atonement.
But, so far, we have only seen that the Death of Christ to sin, His repudiation of sin to the point of death, is the complete revelation of the Divine Wrath, the Divine Mind in regard to sin. If we could only make all this our own, then we should have actually attained to the changed mind, the [Greek text], which is reconciliation with God.
Now, it is a most significant fact that, in the New Testament, repentance is ever closely coupled with faith. Faith, in its highest, its most Christian application, is not faith in Christ, in the sense of believing that the revelation made by Christ is true, but in the strange and pregnant phrase of St. Paul and St. John, faith into Christ. And by this is meant entire self-abandonment, the utter giving up of ourselves to Christ. To have faith into Christ is the perfect expression of discipleship. It is the supreme act of self-surrender by which a man takes Christ henceforth to be the Lord and Master of his life. It implies, no doubt, the existence of certain intellectual convictions; but the faith which rests there is, as St. James tells us, the faith of the demons "who also tremble." In the full sense, faith is an act of the whole personal being. And as the will is our personality in action, we may say that faith into Christ is, above all, an affair of the will.
But thus to surrender oneself to Christ, to make Him, and not self, the centre and governing principle of our life is, in other words, to make His Will our will, His Mind our mind. St. Paul is exactly describing the full fruition and final issue of faith when he says of himself, "I live, yet no longer I, but Christ liveth in me."
Faith is self-identification with the Mind of Christ. And that Mind is the Mind of Him Who died to sin, Who by dying repudiated sin, and revealed His implacable hatred of and hostility to it, which is the hatred and hostility of God, in our manhood, to the moral evil which destroys it.
Thus the man, who, by the supreme act of faith into Christ, has made Christ's Mind his own mind, has thereby gained the changed mind, the [Greek text], in regard to sin, which is the ceasing to be the object of God's wrath, because it is the being identified with it. He is, henceforth, reconciled to God. The state of alienation and death is over. In Christ he, too, has died to sin. The false self, in him, has been put to death. With Christ he has been crucified. With Christ he lives henceforth to God, in that union and fellowship with Him, which is the life eternal, the life which is life indeed. His true self, the Christ in him, is alive for evermore in the power of the Resurrection.
That is the final issue, the glorious consummation, of faith. But so far as faith is in us at all, so far as daily with more complete surrender we give ourselves to Christ, and take Him for our Lord and Master, the process, of which the fulfilment, the perfect end, is reconciliation, union, resurrection, eternal life, has begun in us. And He Who has, visibly and manifestly, "begun in us" that "good work," will assuredly "accomplish it until the day of Jesus Christ."
But something more yet remains to be said. Every theory of the Atonement in the end must come to grief, which is based upon the assumption that Christ is separate from the race which He came to redeem, or the Church, which is the part of humanity in actual process of redemption. Professor Inge, in his work on Mysticism and Personal Idealism, has justly denounced the miserable theory which regards human personalities as so many impervious atoms, as self-contained and isolated units. This popular view is theologically disastrous when the Atonement is interpreted in the light, or rather the darkness of it.
As the Son of man He is the Head of the human race, "the last Adam" in the language of St. Paul. No mere sovereignty over mankind is denoted by that title. He is that living, personal Thought of God which each man, as man, embodies and, with more or less distortion, represents. He Who became Incarnate is, as He ever was, the Light which lighteneth every man coming into the world.
It was because of this, His vital and organic connexion with the race, and with every member of it, that He could become Incarnate, and that His sufferings and triumph could have more than a pictorial, or representative, or vicarious efficacy. His work of redemption was rendered possible by His relation, as the Word, to the whole universe, and to mankind.
It was because of this, that He could become "the Head of the Body, the Church." Former ages interpreted the Atonement in the terms of Roman law. It is the mission of our age to learn to interpret it in terms of biology. We are only just beginning, by the aid of modern thought, to discover the true, profound meaning of the biological language of the New Testament. "As the body is one, and has many members, so also is the Christ." Not, let us mark, the Head only, but the Body. The Church is "the fulness of Him Who at all points, in all men, is being fulfilled." The words tell us of an organic growth. "I am the vine, ye are the branches." Can any terms express organic connexion more clearly than these?
It is our Head, to Whom we are bound by vital ties, in the mysterious unity of a common life, Who has repudiated sin by dying to it. By personal surrender to Christ we make His Mind our own; but we are enabled to do so, because, in so doing, we are attaining to our own true mind, we are entering into the possession of our own true selves, we are "winning our souls," realising the Christ-nature within us. By faith and sacraments, that which is potentially ours becomes our own in actual fact.
In simpler language, and in more familiar but not less true words, we who are members of Christ's Body, in all our weak attempts after repentance and faith, are not left to our own unaided resources, but are at every point aided and enabled to advance to final, complete reconciliation and union by the Spirit of the Christ working in us.
He is no merely external reconciler. He reconciles us from within, working along with our own wills, to create that changed mind which is His own Mind revealed upon the Cross for no other reason than that it might become our mind, the most real and fundamental thing in us, that "new man, which is being renewed after the image of Him Who created him."