You heard these words read in the Epistle for to-day. I cannot expect that you all understood them. It is no shame to you that you did not. Some of them are long and hard Latin words. Some of them, though they are plain English enough, are hard to understand because they have to do with deep matters, which can only be understood by the help of God's Spirit. And even with the help of God's Spirit we cannot any of us expect to understand all which they mean: we cannot expect to be as wise as St. Paul; for we must be as good as St. Paul before we can be as wise about goodness as he was. I do not pretend to understand all the text myself: no, not half, nor a tenth part of what it very likely means. But I do seem to myself to understand a little about it, by the help and blessing of God; and what little of it I do understand, I will try to make you understand also.
For the words in the text belong to you as much as to me, or to St. Paul himself. What is true for one man, is true for every man. What is right for one man, is right for every man. What God promises for one man, He promises to every man. Man or woman, black or white, rich or poor, scholar or unlearned, there is no respect of persons with Him. 'In Christ Jesus,' says St. Paul, 'there is neither male nor female, slave nor freeman, Jew who fancies that God's promises belong to him alone, or Gentile who knows nothing about them, clever learned Greek, or stupid ignorant Barbarian.'
It is enough for God that we are all men and women bearing the flesh, and blood, and human nature which His Son Jesus Christ wore on earth. If we are baptized, we belong to Him: if we are not baptized, we ought to be; for we belong to Him just as much. Every man may be baptized; every man may be regenerate; God calls all to His grace and adoption and holy baptism, which is the sign and seal of His adoption; and therefore, what is right for the regenerate baptized man, is right for the unregenerate unbaptized man; for the Christian and for the heathen there is but one way, one duty, one life for both, and that is the life of God, of which St. Paul speaks in the text.
Now of this life of God I will speak hereafter; but I mention it now, because it is the thing to which I wish to bring your thoughts before the end of the sermon.
But first, let us see what St. Paul means, when he talks about the Gentiles in his day. For that also has to do with us. I said that every man, Christian or heathen, has the same duty, and is bound to do the same right; every man, Christian or heathen, if he sins, breaks his duty in the same way, and does the same wrong. There is but one righteousness, the life of God; there is but one sin, and that is being alienated from the life of God. One man may commit different sorts of sins from another; one may lie, another may steal: one may be proud, another may be covetous: but all these different sins come from the same root of sin; they are all flowers of the same plant. And St. Paul tells us what that one root of sin, what that same Devil's plant, is, which produces all sin in Christian or Heathen, in Churchman or Dissenter, in man or woman -- the one disease, from which has come all the sin which ever was done by man, woman, or child since the world was made.
Now, what is this one disease, to which every man, you and I, are all liable? Why it is that we are every one of us worse than we ought to be, worse than we know how to be, and, strangest of all, worse than we wish and like to be.
Just as far as we are like the heathen of old, we shall be worse than we know how to be. For we are all ready enough to turn heathens again, at any moment, my friends; and the best Christian in this church knows best that what I say is true; that he is beset by the very same temptations which ruined the old heathens, and that if he gave way to them a moment they would ruin him likewise. For what does St. Paul say was the matter with the old heathens?
First he says, 'Their understanding was darkened.' But what part of it? What was it that they had got dark about and could not understand? For in some matters they were as clever as we, and cleverer. What part of their understanding was it which was darkened? St. Paul tells us in the first chapter of the Epistle to the Romans. It was their hearts -- their reason, as we should say. It was about God, and the life of God, that they were dark. They had not been always dark about God, but they were darkened; they grew more and more dark about Him, generation after generation; they gave themselves up more and more to their corrupt and fallen nature, and so the children grew worse than their fathers, and their children again worse than them, till they had lost all notion of what God was like. For from the very first all heathens have had some notion of what God is like, and have had a notion also, which none but God could have given them, that men ought to be like God. God taught, or if I may so speak, tried to teach, the heathen, from the very first. If God had not taught them, they would not have been to blame for knowing nothing of God. For as Job says, 'Can man by searching find out God?' Surely not; God must teach us about Himself. Never forget that man cannot find God; God must show Himself to man of His own free grace and will. God must reveal and unveil Himself to us, or we shall never even fancy that there is a God. And God did so to the heathen. Even before the Flood, God's Spirit strove with man; and after the Flood we read how the Lord, Jesus Christ the Son of God, revealed Himself in many different ways to heathens. To Pharaoh, king of Egypt, in Abraham's times; and again to Abimelech, king of Gerar; and again to Pharaoh and his servants, in Joseph's time; and to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, and to Cyrus, king of Persia; and no doubt to thousands more. Indeed, no man, heathen or Christian, ever thought a single true thought, or felt a single right feeling, about God or man, or man's duty to God and his neighbour, unless God revealed it to him (whether or not He also revealed Himself to the man and showed him who it was who was putting the right thought into his mind): for every right thought and feeling about God, and goodness, and duty, are the very voice of God Himself, the word of God whereof St. John speaks, and Moses and the prophets speak, speaking to the heart of sinful man, to enlighten and to teach him. And therefore, St. Paul says, the sinful heathen were without excuse, because, he says, 'that which may be known of God is manifest, that is plain, among them, for God hath showed it to them. For the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things which are made, even His eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.' 'But these heathens,' he says, 'did not like to retain God in their knowledge; and when they knew God, did not glorify Him as God, and changed the glory of the Incorruptible God into the likeness of corruptible man, and beasts and creeping things.' And so they were alienated from the life of God; that is, they became strangers to God's life; they forgot what God's life and character was like: or if they even did awake a moment, and recollect dimly what God was like, they hated that thought. They hated to think that God was what He was, and shut their eyes, and stopped their ears as fast as possible.
And what happened to them in the meantime? What was the fruit of their wilfully forgetting what God's life was? St. Paul tells us that they fell into the most horrible sins -- sins too dreadful and shameful to be spoken of; and that their common life, even when they did not run into such fearful evils, was profligate, fierce, and miserable. And yet St. Paul tells us all the while they knew the judgment of God, that those who do such things are worthy of death.
Now we know that St. Paul speaks truth, from the writings of heathens; for God raised up from time to time, even among the heathen Greeks and Romans, witnesses for Himself, to testify of Him and of His life, and to testify against the sins of the world, such men as Socrates and Plato among the Greeks, whose writings St. Paul knew thoroughly, and whom, I have no doubt, he had in his mind when he wrote his first chapter of Romans, and told the heathen that they were without excuse. And among the Romans, also, He raised up, in the same way, witnesses for Himself, such as Juvenal and Persius, and others, whom scholars know well. And to these men, heathens though they were, God certainly did teach a great deal about Himself, and gave them courage to rebuke the sins of kings and rich men, even at the danger of their lives; and to some of them he gave courage even to suffer martyrdom for the message which God had given them, and which their neighbours hated to hear. And this was the message which God sent by them to the heathen: that God was good and righteous, and that therefore His everlasting wrath must be awaiting sinners. They rebuked their heathen neighbours for those very same horrible crimes which St. Paul mentions; and then they said, as St. Paul does, 'How you make your own sins worse by blasphemies against God! You sin yourselves, and then, to excuse yourselves, you invent fables and lies about God, and pretend that God is as wicked as you are, in order to drug your own consciences, by making God the pattern of your own wickedness.'
These men saw that man ought to be like God; and they saw that God was righteous and good; and they saw, therefore, that unrighteousness and sin must end in ruin and everlasting misery. So much God had taught them, but not much more; but to St. Paul he had taught more. Those wise and righteous heathen could show their sinful neighbours that sin was death, and that God was righteous. But they could not tell them how to rise out of the death of sin, into God's life of righteousness. They could preach the terrors of the Law, but they did not know the good news of the Gospel, and therefore they did not succeed; they did not convert their neighbours to God. Then came St. Paul and preached to the very same people, and he did convert them to God; for he had good news for them, of things which prophets and kings had desired to see, and had not seen them, and to hear, and had not heard them.
For God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spoke to the fathers by the prophets, at last spoke to all men by a Son, His only-begotten Son, the exact likeness of His Father, the brightness of His glory, and the express image of His person. He sent Him to be a man: very man of the substance of His mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the same time that He was Very God, of the substance of His Father, begotten before all worlds.
And so God, and the life of God, was manifested in the flesh and reasonable soul of a man; and from that time there is no doubt what the life of God is; for the life of God is the life of Jesus Christ. There is no doubt now what God is like, for God is like Jesus Christ. No one can now say, 'I cannot see God, how then can you expect me to be like God?' for He who has seen Jesus Christ, as His character stands in the Gospels, has seen God the Father. No one can say now, 'How can a man be like God, and live a life like God's life?' for if any one of you say that, I can answer him: 'A man can be like God; you can be like God; for there was once a man on earth, Jesus, the son of the Blessed Virgin, who was perfectly like God.' And if you answer, 'But He was like God, because He was God,' I can say, 'And that is the very reason why you can be like God also.' If Jesus Christ had been only a man, you could no more become like Him than you can become clever because another man is clever, or strong because another man is strong: but because He was God The Son of God, He can give you, to make you like God, the same Holy Spirit which made Him like God; for that Holy Spirit proceeds from Him, the Son, as well as from the Father, and the Father has committed all power to the Son; and therefore that same Man Christ Jesus has power to change your heart, and renew it, and shape it to be like Him, and like His Father, by the power of His Spirit, that you may be like God as He was like God, and live the life of God which He lived; so that the Lord Jesus Christ, because He was a man like God, showed that all men can become like God; and because He was God, Very God of Very God, He is able to make all who come to Him men like Himself, men like God, and raise them up body and soul to the everlasting life of God, that He may be the firstborn among many brethren.
Now what is this everlasting life of God, which the Lord Jesus Christ lived perfectly, and which He can and will make every one of us live, in proportion as we give up our hearts and wills to Him, and ask Him to take charge of us, and shape us, and teach us? When we read that blessed story of Him who was born in a stable, and laid in a manger, who went about doing good, because God was with Him, who condescended of His own freewill to be mocked, and scourged, and spit upon, and crucified, that He might take away the sins of the whole world, who prayed for His murderers, and blest those who cursed Him -- what sort of life does this life of God, which He lived, seem to us? Is it not a life of love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, patience, meekness? Surely it is; then that is the likeness of God. God is love. And the Lord Jesus' life was a life of love -- utter, perfect, untiring love. He did His Father's will perfectly, because He loved men perfectly, and to the death. He died for those who hated Him, and so He showed forth to man the name and glory of God; for God is love. The name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is love; for love is justice and righteousness, as it is written, 'Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.' And God is perfect love, because He is perfect righteousness; and perfect righteousness, because He is perfect love; for His love and His justice are not two different things, two different parts of God, as some say, who fancy that God's justice had to be satisfied in one way, and His love in another, and talk of God as if His justice fought against His love, and desired the death of a sinner, and then His love fought against His justice, and desired to save a sinner. No wonder that those who hold such doctrines go further still, and talk as if God the Father desired to destroy mankind, and would have done it if God the Son had not interposed, and suffered Himself instead; till they can fancy that they are Christians, and know God, while they use the hideous words of a certain hymn, which speaks of
'The streaming drops of Jesu's blood
May God deliver and preserve us and our children from all such blasphemous fables, which, like the fables of the old heathen, change the glory of the Incorruptible God into the likeness of a corruptible man, which deny the true faith, that God has neither parts nor passions, by talking of His love and His justice as two different things; which confound His persons by saying that the Son alone does what the Father and the Holy Spirit do also, while they divide His substance by making the will of the Son different from the will of the Father, and deny that such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost, all three one perfect Love, and one perfect Justice, because they are all three one God, and God is love, and love is righteousness.
Believe me, my friends, this is no mere question of words, which only has to do with scholars in their libraries; it is a question, the question of life and death for you, and me, and every living soul in this church, -- Do we know what the life of God is? are we living it? or are we alienated from it, careless about it, disliking it?
For, as I said at the beginning of my sermon, we are all ready enough to turn heathens again; and if we grow to forget or dislike the life of God, we shall be heathen at heart. We may talk about Him with our lips, we may quarrel and curse each other about religious differences; but let us make as great a profession as we may, if we do not love the life of God we shall be heathen at heart, and we shall, sooner or later, fall into sin. The heathens fell into sin just in proportion as their hearts were turned away from the life of God, and so shall we. And how shall we know whether our hearts are turned away, or whether they are right with God? Thus: What are the fruits of God's Spirit? what sort of life does the Spirit of God make man live? For the Spirit of God is God, and therefore the life of God is the life which God's Spirit makes men live; and what is that? a life of love and righteousness.
The old heathens did not like such a life, therefore they did not like to retain God in their knowledge. They knew that man ought to be like God: and St. Paul says, they ought to have known what God was like; that He was Love; for St. Paul told them He left not Himself without witness, in that He sent them rain and fruitful seasons, filling their hearts with food and gladness. That was, in St. Paul's eyes, God's plainest witness of Himself -- the sign that God was Love, making His sun shine on the just and on the unjust, and good to the unthankful and the evil -- in one word, perfect, because He is perfect Love. But they preferred to be selfish, covetous, envious, revengeful, delighting to indulge themselves in filthy pleasures, to oppress and defraud each other. Do you?
For you can, I can, every baptized man can take his choice between the selfish life of the heathens and the loving life of God: we may either keep to the old pattern of man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; or we may put on the new pattern of man, which is after God's likeness, and founded upon righteousness and truthful holiness.
Every baptized man may choose. For he is not only bound to live the life of God: every man, as the old heathen philosophers knew, is bound to live it: but more. The baptized man can live it: that is the good news of his baptism. You can live the life of God, for you know what the life of God is -- it is the life of Jesus Christ. You can live the life of God, for the Spirit of God is with you, to cleanse your soul and life, day by day, till they are like the soul and life of Christ.
Then you will be, as the apostle says, 'a partaker of a divine nature.' Then -- and it is an awful thing to say -- a thing past hope, past belief, but I must say it -- for it is in the Bible, it is the word of the Blessed Lord Himself, and of His beloved apostle, St. John: 'If a man love Me, he will keep my commandments, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our abode with him.' 'And this is His commandment,' says St. John, 'That we should love one another.' 'God is Love, and he who dwelleth in Love dwelleth in God, and God in him.'
God is Love. As I told you just now, the heathens of old might have known that, if they had chosen to open their eyes and see. But they would not see. They were dark, cruel, and unloving, and therefore they fancied that God was dark, cruel, and unloving also. They did not love Love, and therefore they did not love God, for God is Love. And therefore they did not love loving: they did not enjoy loving; and so they lost the Spirit of God, which is the Spirit of Love. And therefore they did not love each other, but lived in hatred and suspicion, and selfishness, and darkness. They were but heathen. But if even they ought to have known that God was Love, how much more we? For we know of a deed of God's love, such as those poor heathen never dreamed of. God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son to die for it. Then God showed what His eternal life was -- a life of love: then God showed what our eternal life is -- to know Him who is Love, and Jesus Christ, whom He sent to show forth His love: then God showed that it is the duty and in the power of every man to live the life of God, the life of Love; for He sent forth into the world His Spirit, the Spirit of Love, to fill with love the heart of every man and woman who sees that Love is the image of God, and longs to be loving, and therefore longs to be like God; as it is written, 'Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled:' for righteousness is keeping Christ's commandment, and Christ's commandment is, that we love one another. And to those who long to do that, God's Spirit will come to fill them with love; and where the Spirit of God is, there is also the Father, and there is also the Son; for God's substance cannot be divided, as the Athanasian creed tells us (and blessed and cheering words they are); and he who hath the Holy Spirit of Love with him hath both the Father and the Son; as it is written: 'If a man love Me, my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.'
And then, if we have God abiding with us, and filling us with His Eternal Life, what more do we need for life, or death, or eternity, or eternities of eternities? For we shall live in and with and by God, who can never die or change, an everlasting life of love, whereof St. Paul says, that though prophecies shall fail, and tongues shall cease, and knowledge shall vanish away, because all that we know now is but in part, and all that we see now is through a glass darkly, yet Love shall never fail, but abide for ever and ever.