- Galatians 2:20 FROM CENTRE TO CIRCUMFERENCE
- Galatians 3:1 THE EVIL EYE AND THE CHARM
- Galatians 3:4 LESSONS OF EXPERIENCE
- Galatians 3:22 THE UNIVERSAL PRISON
- Galatians 4:4-5 THE SON SENT
- Galatians 5:6 WHAT MAKES A CHRISTIAN: CIRCUMCISION OR FAITH?
- Galatians 5:16 ‘WALK IN THE SPIRIT’
- Galatians 5:22-23 THE FRUIT OF THE SPIRIT
- Galatians 6:2-5 BURDEN-BEARING
- Galatians 6:10 DOING GOOD TO ALL
- Galatians 6:17 THE OWNER’S BRAND
The life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself for me.’ — Galatians 2:20.
We have a bundle of paradoxes in this verse. First, ‘I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live.’ The Christian life is a dying life. If we are in any real sense joined to Christ, the power of His death makes us dead to self and sin and the world. In that region, as in the physical, death is the gate of life; and, inasmuch as what we die to in Christ is itself only a living death, we live because we die, and in proportion as we die.
The next paradox is, ‘Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.’ The Christian life is a life in which an indwelling Christ casts out, and therefore quickens, self. We gain ourselves when we lose ourselves. His abiding in us does not destroy but heightens our individuality. We then most truly live when we can say, ‘Not I, but Christ liveth in me’; the soul of my soul and the self of myself.
And the last paradox is that of my text, ‘The life which I live in the flesh, I live in’ (not ‘by’) ‘the faith of the Son of God.’ The true Christian life moves in two spheres at once. Externally and superficially it is ‘in the flesh,’ really it is ‘in faith.’ It belongs not to the material nor is dependent upon the physical body in which we are housed. We are strangers here, and the true region and atmosphere of the Christian life is that invisible sphere of faith.
So, then, we have in these words of my text a Christian man’s frank avowal of the secret of his own life. It is like a geological cutting, it goes down from the surface, where the grass and the flowers are, through the various strata, but it goes deeper than these, to the fiery heart, the flaming nucleus and centre of all things. Therefore it may do us all good to make a section of our hearts and see whether the strata there are conformable to those that are here.
I. Let us begin with the centre, and work to the surface. We have, first, the great central fact named last, but round which all the Christian life is gathered.
‘The Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself for me.’ These two words, the ‘loving’ and the ‘giving,’ both point backwards to some one
definite historical fact, and the only fact which they can have in view is the great one of the death of Jesus Christ. That is His giving up of Himself. That is the signal and highest manifestation and proof of His love.
Notice (though I can but touch in the briefest possible manner upon the great thoughts that gather round these words) the three aspects of that transcendent fact, the centre and nucleus of the whole Christian life, which come into prominence in these words Before us. Christ’s death is a great act of self-surrender, of which the one motive is His own pure and perfect love. No doubt in other places of Scripture we have set forth the death of Christ as being the result of the Father’s purpose, and we read that in that wondrous surrender there were two givings up. The Father ‘freely gave Him up to the death for us all.’ That divine surrender, the Apostle ventures, in another passage, to find dimly suggested from afar, in the silent but submissive and unreluctant surrender with which Abraham yielded his only begotten son on the mountain top. But besides that ineffable giving up by the Father of the Son, Jesus Christ Himself, moved only by His love, willingly yields Himself. The whole doctrine of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ has been marred by one-sided insisting on the truth that God sent the Son, to the forgetting of the fact that the Son ‘came’; and that He was bound to the Cross neither by cords of man’s weaving nor by the will of the Father, but that He Himself bound Himself to that Cross with the ‘cords of love and the bands of a man,’ and died from no natural necessity nor from any imposition of the divine will upon Him unwilling, but because He would, and that He would because He loved. ‘He loved me, and gave Himself for me.’
Then note, further, that here, most distinctly, that great act of self-surrendering love which culminates on the Cross is regarded as being for man in a special and peculiar sense. I know, of course, that from the mere wording of my text we cannot argue the atoning and substitutionary character of the death of Christ, for the preposition here does not necessarily mean ‘instead of,’ but ‘for the behoof of.’ But admitting that, I have another question. If Christ’s death is for ‘the behoof of’ men, in what conceivable sense does it benefit them, unless it is in the place of men? The death ‘for me’ is only for me when I understand that it is ‘instead of’ me. And practically you will find that wherever the full-orbed faith in Christ Jesus as the death for all the sins of the whole world, bearing the penalty and bearing it away, has begun to falter and grow pale, men do not know what to do with Christ’s death at all, and stop talking about it to a very large extent.
Unless He died as a sacrifice, I, for one, fail to see in what other than a mere sentimental sense the death of Christ is a death for men.
And lastly, about this matter, observe how here we have brought into vivid prominence the great thought that Jesus Christ in His death has regard to single souls. We preach that He died for all If we believe hi that august title which is laid here as the vindication of our faith on the one hand, and as the ground of the possibility of the benefits of His death being world-wide on the other viz. the Son of God — then we shall not stumble at the thought that He died for all, because He died for each. I know that if you only regard Jesus Christ as human I am talking utter nonsense; but I know, too, that if we believe in the divinity of our Lord, there need be nothing to stumble us, but the contrary, in the thought that it was not an abstraction that He died for, that it was not a vague mass of unknown beings, clustered together, but so far away that He could not see any of their faces, for whom He gave His life on the Cross. That is the way in which, and in which alone, we can embrace the whole mass of humanity — by losing sight of the individuals. We generalise, precisely because we do not see the individual units; but that is not God’s way, and that is not Christ’s way, who is divine. For Him the all is broken up into its parts, and when we say that the divine love loves all, we mean that the divine love loves each. I believe (and I commend the thought to you) that we do not fathom the depth of Christ’s sufferings unless we recognise that the sins of each man were consciously adding pressure to the load beneath Which He sank; nor picture the wonders of His love until we believe that on the Cross it distinguished and embraced each, and, therefore, comprehended all. Every man may say,’ He loved me, and gave Himself for me.’
II. So much, then, for the first central fact that is here. Now let me say a word, in the second place, about the faith which makes that fact the foundation of my own personal life.
‘I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself for me.’ I am not going to plunge into any unnecessary dissertations about the nature of faith; but may I say that, like all other familiar conceptions, it has got worn so smooth that it glides over our mental palate without
roughening any of the papillas or giving any sense or savour at all? And I do believe that dozens of people like you, who have come to church and chapel all your lives, and fancy yourselves to be fully au fait at all the Christian truth that you will ever hear from my lips, do not grasp with any clearness of apprehension the meaning of that fundamental word ‘faith.’
It is a thousand pities that it is confined by the accidents of language to our attitude in reference to Jesus Christ. So some of you think that it is some kind of theological juggle which has nothing to do with, and never can be seen in operation in, common life. Suppose, instead of the threadbare, technical faith’ we took to a new translation for a minute, and said ‘trust,’ do you think that would freshen up the thought to you at all P It is the very same thing which makes the sweetness of your relations to wife and husband and friend and parent, which, transferred to Jesus Christ and glorified in the process, becomes the seed of immortal life and the opener of the gate of Heaven. Trust Jesus Christ. That is the living centre of the Christian life; that is the process by which we draw the general blessing of the Gospel into our own hearts, and make the world-wide truth, our truth.
I need not insist either, I suppose, on the necessity, if our Christian life is to be modelled upon the Apostolic lines, of our faith embracing the Christ in all these aspects in which I have been speaking about His work. God forbid that I should seem to despise rudimentary and incomplete feelings after Him in any heart which may be unable to say ‘Amen’ to Paul’s statement here. I want to insist very earnestly, and with special reference to the young, that the true Christian faith is not merely the grasp of the person, but it is the grasp of the Person who is ‘declared to be the Son of God,’ and whose death is the voluntary self-surrender motived by His love, for the carrying away of the sins of every single soul in the whole universe. That is the Christ, the full Christ, cleaving to whom our faith finds somewhat to grasp worthy of grasping. And I beseech you, be not contented with a partial grasp of a partial Saviour; neither shut your eyes to the divinity of His nature, nor to the efficacy of His death, but remember that the true Gospel preaches Christ and Him crucified; and that for us, saving faith is the faith that grasps the Son of God ‘Who loved me and gave Himself for me.’
Note, further, that true faith is personal faith, which appropriates, and, as it were, fences in as my very own, the purpose and benefit of Christ’s giving of Himself. It is always difficult for lazy people (and most of us are lazy) to transfer into their own personal lives, and to bring into actual contact with themselves and their own experience, wide, general truths. To assent to them, when we keep them in their generality, is very easy and very profitless. It does no man any good to say ‘All men are mortal’; but how different it is when the blunt end of that generalisation is shaped into a point, and I say ‘I have to die!’ It penetrates then, and it sticks. It is easy to say ‘All men are sinners.’ That never yet forced anybody down on his knees. But when we shut out on either side the lateral view and look straight on, on the narrow line of our own lives, up to the Throne where the Lawgiver sits, and feel ‘I am a sinful man,’ that sends us to our prayers for pardon and purity. And in like manner nobody was ever wholesomely terrified by the thought of a general judgment. But when you translate it into ‘I must stand there,’ the terror of the Lord persuades men.
In like manner that great truth which we all of us say we believe, that Christ has died for the world, is utterly useless and profitless to us until we have translated it into Paul’s world, ‘loved me and gave Himself for me.’ I do not say that the essence of faith is the conversion of the general statement into the particular application, but I do say that there is no faith which does not realise one’s personal possession of the benefits of the death of Christ, and that until you turn the wide word into a message for yourself alone, you have not yet got within sight of the blessedness of the Christian life. The whole river may flow past me, but only so much of it as I can bring into my own garden by my own sluices, and lift in my own bucket, and put to my own lips, is of any use to me. The death of Christ for the world is a commonplace of superficial Christianity, which is no Christianity; the death of Christ for myself, as if He and I were the only beings in the universe, that is the death on which faith fastens and feeds.
And, dear brother, you have the right to exercise it. The Christ loves each, and therefore He loves all; that is the process in the divine mind, The converse is the process in the revelation of that mind; the Bible says to us, Christ loves all, and therefore we have the right to draw the inference that He loves each. You have as much right to take every ‘whosoever’ of the New Testament as your very own, as if on the page of your Bible that ‘whosoever’ was struck out, and your name, John, Thomas, Mary, Elizabeth, or whatever it is, were put in there. ‘He loved me.’ Can you say that? Have you ever passed from the region of universality, which is vague and profitless, into the region of personal appropriation of the person of Jesus Christ and His death?
III. And now, lastly, notice the life which is built upon this faith.
The true Christian life is dual. It is a life in the flesh, and it is also a life in faith. These two, as I have said, are like two spheres, in either of which a man’s course is passed, or, rather, the one is surface and the other is central. Here is a great trailing spray of seaweed floating golden on the unquiet water, and rising and falling on each wave or ripple. Aye! but its root is away deep, deep, deep below the storms, below where there is motion, anchored upon a hidden rock that can never move. And so my life, if it be a Christian life at all, has its surface amidst the shifting mutabilities of earth, but its root in the silent eternities of the centre of all things, which is Christ in God. I live in the flesh on the outside, but if I am a Christian at all, I live in the faith in regard of my true and proper being.
This faith, which grasps the Divine Christ as the person whose love-moved death is my life, and who by my faith becomes Himself the indwelling Guest in my heart; this faith, if it Be worth anything, will mould and influence my whole being. It will give me motive, pattern, power for all noble service and all holy living. The one thing that stirs men to true obedience is that their hearts be touched with the firm assurance that Christ loved them and died for them.
We sometimes used to see men starting an engine by manual force; and what toil it was to get the great cranks to turn, and the pistons to rise! So we set ourselves to try and move our lives into holiness and Beauty and nobleness, and it is dispiriting work. There is a far better, surer way than that: let the steam in, and that will do it. That is to say — let the Christ in His dying power and the living energy of His indwelling Spirit occupy the heart, and activity Becomes Blessedness, and work is rest, and service is freedom and dominion.
The life that I live in the flesh is poor, limited, tortured with anxiety, weighed upon By sore distress, becomes dark and gray and dreary often as we travel nearer the end, and is always full of miseries and of pains. But if within that life in the flesh there be a life in faith, which is the life of Christ Himself brought to us through our faith, that life will he triumphant, quiet, patient, aspiring, noble, hopeful, gentle, strong, Godlike, being the life of Christ Himself within us.
So, dear friends, test your faith by these two tests, what it grasps and what it does. If it grasps a whole Christ, in all the glory of His nature and the blessedness of His work, it is genuine; and it proves its genuineness if, and only if, it works in you by love; animating all your action, bringing you ever into the conscious presence of that dear Lord, and making Him pattern, law, motive, goal, companion and reward. ‘To me to live is Christ.’
If so, then we live indeed; but to live in the flesh is to die; and the death that we die when we live in Christ is the gate and the beginning of the only real life of the soul.
‘Who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you!’ —Galatians 3:1.
THE Revised Version gives a shorter, and probably correct, form of this vehement question. It omits the two clauses ‘ that ye should not obey the truth’ and ‘among you.’ The omission increases the sharpness of the thrust of the interrogation, whilst it loses nothing of the meaning.
Now, a very striking metaphor runs through the whole of this question, which may easily be lost sight of by ordinary readers. You know the old superstition as to the Evil Eye, almost universal at the date of this letter and even now in the East, and lingering still amongst ourselves. Certain persons were supposed to have the power, by a look, to work mischief, and by fixing the gaze of their victims, to suck the very life out of them. So Paul asks who the malign sorcerer is who has thus fascinated the fickle Galatians, and is draining their Christian life out of their eyes.
Very appropriately, therefore, if there is this reference, which the word translated ‘bewitched’ carries with it, he goes on to speak about Jesus Christ as having been displayed before their eyes. They had seen Him. How did they come to be able to turn away to look at anything else?
But there is another observation to be made by way of introduction, and that is as to the full force of the expression ‘evidently set forth.’ The word employed, as commentators tell us, is that which is used for the display of official proclamations, or public notices, in some conspicuous place, as the Forum or the market, that the citizens might read. So, keeping up the metaphor, the word might be rendered, as has been suggested by some eminent scholars, ‘placarded’ — ‘Before whose eyes Jesus Christ has been placarded.’ The expression has acquired somewhat ignoble associations from modern advertising, but that is no reason why we should lose sight of its force. So, then, Paul says, ‘In my preaching, Christ was conspicuously set forth. It is like some inexplicable enchantment that, having seen Him, you should turn away to gaze on others.’ It is insanity which evokes wonder, as well as sin which deserves rebuke; and the fiery question of my text conveys both.
I. Keeping to the metaphor, I note first the placard which Paul had displayed.
‘Jesus Christ crucified has been conspicuously set forth before you,’ he says to these Galatians. Now, he is referring, of course, to his own work of preaching the Gospel to them at the beginning. And the vivid metaphor suggests very strikingly two things. We see in it the Apostle’s notion of what He had to do. His had been a very humble office, simply to hang up a proclamation. The one virtue of a proclamation is that it should be brief and plain. It must be authoritative, it must be urgent, it must be ‘writ large,’ it must be easily intelligible. And he that makes it public has nothing to do except to fasten it up, and make sure that it is legible. If I might venture into modern phraseology, what Paul means is that he was neither more nor less than a bill-sticker, that he went out with the placards and fastened them up.
Ah! if we ministers universally acted up to the implications of this metaphor, do you not think the pulpit would be more frequently a centre of power than it is to-day? And if, instead of presenting our own ingenuities and speculations, we were to realise the fact that we have to hide ourselves behind the broad sheet that we fasten up, there would be a new Breath over many a moribund church, and we ,should hear less of the often warrantable sarcasms about the inefficiency of the modern pulpit.
But I turn from Paul’s conception of the office to his statement of his theme. ‘Jesus was displayed amongst you.’ If I might vary the metaphor a little, the placard that Paul fastened up was like those that modern advertising ingenuity displays upon all our walls. It was a picture-placard, and on it was portrayed one sole figure — Jesus, the Person. Christianity is Christ, and Christ is Christianity; and wherever there is a pulpit or a book which deals rather with doctrines than with Him who is the Fountain and Quarry of all doctrine, there is divergence from the primitive form of the Gospel.
I know, of course, that doctrines — which are only formal and orderly statements of principles involved in the facts — must flow from the proclamation of the person, Christ. I am not such a fool as to run amuck against theology, as some people in this day do. But what I wish to insist upon is that the first form of Christianity is not a theory, but a history, and that the revelation of God is the biography of a man. We must begin with the person, Christ, and preach Him. Would that all our preachers and all professing Christians, in their own personal religious life, had grasped this — that, since Christianity is not first a philosophy but a history, and its centre not an ordered sequence of doctrines but a living person, the act that makes a man possessor of Christianity is not the intellectual process of assimilating certain truths, and accepting them, but the moral process of clinging, with trust and love, to the person, Jesus.
But, further, if any of you consult the original, you will see that the order of the sentence is such as to throw a great weight of emphasis on that last word ‘crucified.’ It is not merely a person that is portrayed on the placard, but it is that person upon the Cross. Ah! brethren, Paul himself puts his finger, in the words of my text, on what, in his conception, was the throbbing heart of all his message, the vital point from which all its power, and all the gleam of its benediction, poured out upon humanity — ‘Christ crucified.’ If the placard is a picture of Christ in other attitudes and in other aspects, without the picture of Him crucified, it is an imperfect representation of the Gospel that Paul preached and that Christ was.
II. Now, think, secondly, of the fascinators that draw away the eyes.
Paul’s question is not one of ignorance, but it is a rhetorical way of rebuking, and of expressing wonder. He knew, and the Galatians knew, well enough who it was that had bewitched them. The whole letter is a polemic worked in fire, and not in frost, as some argumentation is, against a very well-marked class of teachers — viz, those emissaries of Judaism who had crept into the Church, and took it as their special function to dog Paul’s steps amongst the heathen communities that he had gathered together through faith in Christ, and used every means to upset his work.
I cannot but pause for a moment upon this original reference of my text, because it is very relevant to the present condition of things amongst us. These men whom Paul is fighting as if he were in a sawpit with them, in this letter, what was their teaching? This: they did not deny that Jesus was the Christ; they did not deny that faith knit a man to Him, but what they said was that the observance of the external rites of Judaism was necessary in order to entrance into the Church and to salvation. They did not in their own estimation detract from Christ, but they added to Him. And Paul says that to add is to detract, to say that anything is necessary except faith in Jesus Christ’s finished work is to deny that that finished work, and faith in it, are the means of salvation; and the whole evangelical system crumbles into nothingness if once you admit that.
Now, is there anybody to-day who is saying the same things, with variations consequent upon change of external conditions? Are there no people within the limits of the Christian Church who are reiterating the old Jewish notion that external ceremonies — baptism and the Lord’s Supper — are necessary to salvation and to connection with the Christian Church? And is it not true now, as it was then, that though they do not avowedly detract, they so represent these external rites as to detract, from the sole necessity of faith in the perfected work of Jesus Christ? The centre is shifted from personal union with a personal Saviour by a personal faith to participation in external ordinances.’ And I venture to think that the lava stream which, in this Epistle to the Galatians, Paul pours on the Judaisers of his day needs but a little deflection to pour its hot current over, and to consume, the sacramentarian theories of this day. ‘O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you?’ Is it not like some malignant sorcery, that after the Evangelical revival of the last century and the earlier part of this, there should spring up again this old, old error, and darken the simplicity of the Gospel teaching, that Christ’s work, apprehended by faith, without anything else, is the means, and the only means, of salvation?
But I need not spend time upon that original application. Let us rather come more closely to our own individual lives and their weaknesses. It is a strange thing, so strange that if one did not know it by one’s own self, one would be scarcely disposed to believe it possible, that a man who has ‘tasted the good word of God and the powers of the world to come,’ and has known Jesus Christ as Saviour and Friend, should decline from Him, and turn to anything besides. And yet, strange and sad, and like some enchantment as it is, it is the experience at times and in a measure, of us all; and, alas! it is the experience, in a very tragical degree, of many who have walked for a little while behind the Master, and then have turned away and walked no more with Him. We may well wonder; but the root of the mischief is in no baleful glitter of a sorcerer’s eye without us, but it is in the weakness of our own wills and the waywardness of our own hearts, and the wandering of our own affections. We often court the coming of the evil influence, and are willing to be fascinated and to turn our backs upon Jesus. Mysterious it is, for why should men cast away diamonds for paste? Mysterious it is, for we do not usually drop the substance to get the shadow. Mysterious it is, for a man does not ordinarily empty his pockets of gold in order to fill them with gravel. Mysterious it is, for a thirsty man will not usually turn away from the full, bubbling, living fountain, to see if he can find any drops still remaining, green with scum, stagnant and odorous, at the bottom of some broken cistern. But all these follies are sanity as compared with the folly of which we are guilty, times without number, when, having known the sweetness of Jesus Christ, we turn away to the fascinations of the world. Custom, the familiarity that we have with Him, the attrition of daily cares — like the minute grains of sand that are cemented on to paper, and make a piece of sandpaper that is strong enough to file an inscription off iron — the seductions of worldly delights, the pressure of our daily cares — all these are as a ring of sorcerers that stand round about us, before whom we are as powerless as a bird in the presence of a serpent, and they bewitch us and draw us away.
The sad fact has been verified over and over again on a large scale in the history of the Church. After every outburst of renewed life and elevated spirituality there is sure to come a period of reaction when torpor and formality again assert themselves. What followed the Reformation in Germany? A century of death. What followed Puritanism in England? An outburst of lust and godlessness.
So it has always been, and so it is with us individually, as we too well know. Ah, brethren! the seductions are omnipresent, and our poor eyes are very weak, and we turn away from the Lord to look on these misshapen monsters that are seeking by their gaze to draw us into destruction. I wonder how many professing Christians are in this audience who once saw Jesus Christ a great deal more clearly, and contemplated Him a great deal more fixedly, and turned their hearts to Him far more lovingly, than they do today? Some of the great mountain peaks of Africa are only seen for an hour or two in the morning, and then the clouds gather around them, and hide them for the rest of the day. It is like the experience of many professing Christians, who see Him in the morning of their Christian life far more vividly than they ever do after. ‘Who hath bewitched you?’ The world; but the arch-sorcerer sits safe in our own hearts.
III. Lastly, keeping to the metaphor, let me suggest, although my text does not touch upon it, the Amulet.
One has seen fond mothers in Egypt and Palestine who hang on their babies’ necks charms, to shield them from the influence of the Evil Eye; and there is a charm that we may wear if we will, which will keep us safe. There is no fascination in the Evil Eye if you do not look at it.
The one object that the sorcerer has is to withdraw our gaze from Christ; it is not illogical to say that the way to defeat the object is to keep our gaze fixed on Christ. If you do not look at the baleful glitter of the Evil Eye it will exercise no power over you; and if you will steadfastly look at Him, then, and only then, you will not look at it. Like Ulysses in the legend, bandage the eyes and put wax in the ears, if you would neither be tempted by hearing the songs, nor by seeing the fair forms, of the sirens on their island. To look fixedly at Jesus Christ, and with the resolve never to turn away from Him, is the only safety against these tempting delights around us.
But, brethren, it is the crucified Christ, looking to whom, we are safe amidst all seductions and snares. I doubt whether a Christ who did not die for men has power enough over men’s hearts and minds to draw them to Himself. The cords which bind us to Him are the assurance of His dying love which has conquered us. If only we will, day by day, and moment by moment, as we pass through the duties and distractions, the temptations and the trials, of this present life, by an act of will and thought turn ourselves to Him, then all the glamour of false attractiveness will disappear from the temptations around us, and we shall see that the sirens, for all their fair forms, end in loathly fishes’ tails and sit amidst dead men’s bones.
Brethren, ‘looking off unto Jesus’ is the secret of triumph over the fascinations of the world. And if we will habitually so look, then the sweetness that we shall experience will destroy all the seducing power of lesser and earthly sweetness, and the blessed light of the sun will dim and all but extinguish the deceitful gleams that tempt us into the swamps where we shall be drowned. Turn away, then, from these things; cleave to Jesus Christ; and though in ourselves we may be as weak as a humming-bird before a snake, or a rabbit before a tiger, He will give us strength, and the light of His face shining down upon us will fix our eyes and make us insensible to the fascinations of the sorcerers. So we shall not need to dread the question, ‘Who hath bewitched you?’ but ourselves challenge the utmost might of the fascination with the triumphant question, ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?’
Help us, O Lord! we beseech Thee, to live near Thee. Turn away our eyes from beholding vanity, and enable us to set the Lord always before us that we be not moved.
Have ye suffered go many things in vain?’ — Galatians 3:4.
Preached on the last Sunday of the year
This vehement question is usually taken to Be a reminder to the fickle Galatians that their Christian faith had brought upon them much suffering from the hands of their unbelieving brethren, and to imply an exhortation to faithfulness to the Gospel lest they should stultify their past brave endurance. Yielding to the Judaising teachers, and thereby escaping the ‘offence of the Cross,’ they would make their past sufferings vain. But it may be suggested that the word ‘suffered’ here is rather used in what is its known sense elsewhere, namely, with the general idea of feeling, the nature of the feeling being undefined. It is a touching proof of the preponderance of pain and sorrow that by degrees the significance of the word has become inextricably intertwined with the thought of sadness; still, it is possible to take it in the text as meaning experienced or felt, and to regard the Apostle as referring to the whole of the Galatians’ past experience, and as founding his appeal for their steadfastness on all the joys as well as the sorrows, which their faith had brought them.
Tatting the words in this more general sense they become a question which it is well for us to ask ourselves at such a time as this, when the calendar naturally invites us to look backwards and ask ourselves what we have made of all our experiences in the past, or rather what, by the help of them all, we have made of ourselves.
I. The duty of retrospect.
For almost any reason it is good for us to be delivered from our prevailing absorption in the present. Whatever counterpoises the overwhelming weight of the present is, so far, a blessing and a good, and whatever softens the heart and keeps up even the lingering remembrance of early, dewy freshness and of the high aspirations which, even for a brief space, elevated our past selves is gain amidst the dusty commonplaces of to-day. We see things better and more clearly when we get a little away from them, as a face is more distinctly visible at armslength than when held close.
But our retrospects are too often almost as trivial and degrading as is our absorption in the present, and to prevent memory from becoming a minister of frivolity if not of sin, it is needful that such a question as that of our text be urgently asked by each of us. Memory must be in closest union with conscience, as all our faculties must be, or she is of little use. There is a mere sentimental luxury of memory which finds a pensive pleasure in the mere passing out from the hard present into the soft light, not without illusion in its beams, of the’ days that are no more.’ Merely to live over again our sorrows and joys without any clear discernment of what their effects on our moral character have been, is not the retrospect that becomes a man, however it might suit an animal. We have to look back as a man might do escaping from the ocean on to some frail sand-bank which ever breaks off and crumbles away at his very heels. To remember the past mainly as it affected our joy or our sorrow is as unworthy as to regard the present from the same point of view, and robs both of their highest worth. To remember is only then blessed and productive of its highest possible good in us, when the question of our text insists on being faced, and the object of retrospect is not to try to rekindle the cold coals of past emotions, but to ascertain what effect on our present characters our past experiences have had. We have not to turn back and try to gather some lingering flowers, but to look for the fruit which has followed the fallen blossoms.
II. The true test for the past.
The question of our text implies, as we have already suggested, that our whole lives, with all their various and often opposite experiences, are yet an ordered whole, having a definite end. There is some purpose beyond the moment to be served. Our joys and our sorrows, our gains and our losses, the bright hours and the dark hours, and the hours that are neither eminently bright nor supremely dark, our failures and our successes, our hopes disappointed or fulfilled, and all. the infinite variety of condition and environment through which our varying days and years have led us, co-operate for one end. It is life that makes men; the infant is a bundle of possibilities, and as the years go on, one possible avenue of development after another is blocked. The child might have been almost anything; the man has become hardened and fixed into one shape.
But all this variety of impulses and complicated experiences need the co-operation of the man himself if they are to reach their highest results in him. If he is simply recipient of these external forces acting upon him, they will shape him indeed, but he will be a poor creature. Life does not make men unless men take the command of life, and he who lets circumstances and externals guide him, as the long water weeds in a river are directed by its current, will, from the highest point of view, have experienced the variations of a lifetime in vain.
No doubt each of our experiences has its own immediate and lower purpose to serve, and these purposes are generally accomplished, but beyond these each has a further aim which is not reached without diligent carefulness and persistent effort on our parts. If we would be sure of what it is to suffer life’s experiences in vain, we have but to ask ourselves what life is given us for, and we all know that well enough to be able to judge how far we have used life to attain the highest ends of living. We may put these ends in various ways in our investigation of the results of our manifold experiences. Let us begin with the lowest — we received life that we might learn truth, then if our experience has not taught us wisdom it has been in vain. It is deplorable to have to look round and see how little the multitude of men are capable of forming anything like an independent and intelligent opinion, and how they are swayed by gusts of passion, by blind prejudice, by pretenders and quacks of all sorts. It is no less sad for us to turn our eyes within and discover, perhaps not without surprise and shame, how few of what we are self-complacent enough to call our opinions are due to our own convictions.
If we ever are honest enough with ourselves to catch a glimpse of our own unwisdom, the question our text will press heavily upon us, and may help to make us wiser by teaching us how foolish we are. An infinite source of wisdom is open to us, and all the rich variety of our lives’ experiences has been lavished on us to help us, and what have we made of it all?
But we may rise a step higher and remember we are made moral creatures. Therefore, whatever has not developed infant potentialities in us, and made them moral qualities, has been experienced in vain. ‘Not enjoyment and not sorrow is our destined end and way.’ Life is meant to make us love and do the good, and unless it has produced that effect on us, it has failed. If this be true, the world is full of failures, like the marred statues in a bad sculptor’s studio, and we ourselves have earnestly to confess that the discipline of life has too often been wasted upon us, and that of us the divine complaint from of old has been true: ‘In vain have I smitten thy children, they have received no correction.’
There is no sadder waste than the waste of sorrow, and alas! we all know how impotent our afflictions have been to make us better. But not afflictions only have failed in their appeal to us, our joys have as often been in vain as our sorrows, and memory, when it turns its lamp on the long past, sees so few points at which life has taught us to love goodness, and be good, that she may well quench her light and let the dead past bury its dead.
But we must rise still higher, and think of men as being made for God, and as being the only creatures known to us who are capable of religion. ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him for ever.’ And this chief end is in fullest harmony with the lower ends to which we have just referred, and they will never be realised in their fullest completeness unless that completeness is sought in this the chief end. From of old meditative souls have known that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord, and that that fear is as certainly the beginning of goodness. It was not an irrelevant rebuke to the question, ‘What good thing shall I do?’ when Jesus set the eager young soul who asked it, to justify to himself his courteous and superficial application to Him of the abused and vulgarised title of’ Good,’ and pointed him to God as the only Being to whom that title, in its perfectness, could be given. If ‘there is none good but one, that is God,’ man’s goodness must be drawn from Him, and morality without religion will in theory be incomplete, and in practice a delusion. If, then, men are made to need God, and capable of possessing Him, and of being possessed by Him, then the great question for all of us is, has life, with all its rapid whirl of changing circumstance and varying fortunes, drawn us closer to God, and made us more fit to receive more of Him? So supreme is this chief end that a life which has not attained it can only be regarded as ‘in vain’ whatever other successes it may have attained. So unspeakably more important and necessary is it, that compared with it all else sinks into nothingness; hence many lives which are dazzling successes in the eyes of men are ghastly failures in reality.
Now, if we take these plain principles with us in our retrospect of the past year we shall be launched on a very serious inquiry, and brought face to face with a very penitent answer. Some of us may have had great sorrows, and the tears may be scarcely dry upon our cheeks: some of us may have had great gladnesses, and our hearts may still be throbbing with the thrill: some of us may have had great successes, and some of us heavy losses, but the question for us to ask is not of the quality of our past experiences, but as to their effects upon us. Has life been so used by us as to help us to become wiser, better, more devout? And the answer to that question, if we are honest in our scrutiny of ourselves, and if memory has not been a mere sentimental luxury, must be that we have too often been but unfaithful recipients alike of God’s mercies and God’s chastisements, and have received much of the discipline of life, and remained undisciplined. The question of our text, if asked by me, would be impertinent, but it is asked of each of us by the stern voice of conscience, and for some of us by the lips of dear ones whose loss has been among our chiefest sufferings. God asks us this question, and it is hard to make believe to Him.
III. The best issue of the retrospect.
The world says, ‘What I have written I have written,’ and there is a very solemn and terrible reality in the thought of the irrevocable past. Whether life has achieved the ends for which it was given or no, it has achieved some ends. It may have made us into characters the very opposite of God’s intention for us, but it has made us into certain characters which, so far as the world sees, can never be unmade or re-made. The world harshly preaches the indelibility of character, and proclaims that the Ethiopian may as soon be expected to change his skin or the leopard his spots as the man accustomed to do evil may learn to do well. That dreary fatalism which binds the effects of a dead past on a man’s shoulders, and forbids him to hope that anything will obliterate the marks of ‘what once hath been,’ is in violent contradiction to the large hope brought into the world by Jesus Christ. What we have written we have written, and we have no power to erase the lines and make the sheet clean again, but Jesus Christ has taken away the handwriting ‘that was against us,’ nailing it to His cross. Instead of our old sin-worn and sin-marked selves, He proffers to each of us a new self, not the outcome of what we have been, but the image of what He is and the prophecy of what we shall be. By the great gift of holiness for the future by the impartation of His own life and spirit, Jesus makes all things new. The Gospel recognises to the full how bad some who have received it were, but it can willingly admit their past foulness, because it contrasts with all that former filth their present cleanness, and to the most inveterately depraved who have trusted in Christ rejoices to say, ‘Ye were washed, ye were sanctified, ye were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.’
‘But the Scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe.’ — Galatians 3:22.
THE Apostle uses here a striking and solemn figure, which is much veiled for the English reader by the ambiguity attaching to the word ‘concluded.’ It literally means ‘shut up,’ and is to be taken in its literal sense of confining, and not in its secondary sense of inferring. So, then, we are to conceive of a vast prison-house in which mankind is confined. And then, very characteristically, the Apostle passes at once to another metaphor when he goes on to say ‘under sin.’ What a moment before had presented itself to his vivid imagination as a great dungeon is now represented as a heavy weight, pressing down upon those beneath; if, indeed, we are not, perhaps, rather to think of the low roof of the dark dungeon as weighing on the captives.
Further, he says that Scripture has driven men into this captivity. That, of course, cannot mean that revelation makes us sinners, but it does mean that it makes us more guilty, and that it declares the fact of human sinfulness as no other voice has ever done. And then the grimness of the picture is all relieved and explained, and the office ascribed to God’s revelation harmonised with God’s love, by the strong, steady beam of light that falls from the last words, which tell us that the prisoners have not been bound in chains for despair or death, but in order that, gathered together in a common doleful destiny, they may become recipients of a common blessed salvation, and emerge into liberty and light through faith in Jesus Christ.
So here are three things — the prison-house, its guardian, and its breaker. ‘The Scripture hath shut up all under sin, in order that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given unto all them that believe.’
I. First, then, note the universal prison-house.
Now the Apostle says two things — and we may put away the figure and look at the facts that underlie it. The one is that all sin is imprisonment, the other is that all men are in that dungeon, unless they have come out of it through faith in Jesus Christ.
All sin is imprisonment. That is the direct contrary of the notion that many people have. They say to themselves, ‘Why should I be fettered and
confined by these antiquated restrictions of a conventional morality? Why should I not break the Bonds, and ‘do as I like?’ And they laugh at Christian people who recognise the limitations under which God’s law has put them; and tell us that we are ‘cold-blooded folks who live by rule,’ and contrast their own broad ‘emancipation from narrow prejudice.’ But the reality is the other way. The man who does wrong is a slave in the measure in which he does it. If you want to find out — and mark this, you young people, who may be deceived by the false contrasts between the restraints of duty and the freedom of living a dissolute life — if you want to find out how utterly ‘he that committeth sin is the slave of sin,’ try to break it off, and you will find it out fast enough. We all know, alas! the impotence of the will when it comes to hand grips with some evil to which we have become habituated; and how we determine and determine, and try, and fail, and determine again, with no better result. We are the slaves of our own passions; and no man is free who is hindered by his lower self from doing that which his better self tells him he ought to do. The tempter comes to you, and says, ‘Come and do this thing, just for once. You can leave off when you like, you know. There is no need to do it a second time.’ And when you have done it, he changes his note, and says, ‘Ah! you are in, and you cannot get out. You have done it once; and in my vocabulary once means twice, and once and twice mean always.’
Insane people are sometimes tempted into a house of detention by being made to believe that it is a grand mansion, where they are just going to pay a flying visit, and can come away when they like. But once inside the walls, they never get past the lodge gates any more. The foolish birds do not know that there is lime on the twigs, and their little feet get fastened to the Branch, and their wings flutter in vain. ‘He that committeth sin is the slave of sin — shut up,’ dungeoned, ‘under sin.’
But do not forget, either, the other metaphor in our text, in which the Apostle, with characteristic rapidity, and to the horror of rhetorical Propriety, passes at once from the thought of a dungeon to the thought of an impending weight, and says, ‘Shut up under sin.’
What does that mean? It means that we are guilty when we have done wrong; and it means that we are under penalties which are sure to follow. No deed that we do, howsoever it may fade from the tablets of our memory, but writes in visible characters, in proportion to its magnitude, upon our characters and lives. All human acts have perpetual consequences. The kick of the rifle against the shoulder of the man that fires it is as certain as the flight of the bullet from its muzzle. The chalk cliffs that rise above the Channel entomb and perpetuate the relics of myriads of evanescent lives; and our fleeting deeds are similarly preserved in our present selves. Everything that a man wills, whether it passes into external act or not, leaves, in its measure, ineffaceable impressions on himself. And so we are not only dungeoned in, but weighed upon by, and lie under, the evil that we do.
Nor, dear friends, dare I pass in silence what is too often passed in silence in the modern pulpit, the plain fact that there is a future waiting for each of us beyond the grave, of which the most certain characteristic, certified by our own forebodings, required by the reasonableness of creation, and made plain by the revelation of Scripture, is that it is a future of retribution, where we shall have to carry our works; and as we have brewed so shall we drink; and the beds that we have made we shall have to lie upon. ‘God shut up all under sin.’
Note, again, the universality of the imprisonment. Now I am not going to exaggerate, I hope. I want to keep well within the limits of fact, and to say nothing that is not endorsed by your own consciences, if you will be honest with yourselves. And I say that the Bible does not charge men universally with gross transgressions. It does not talk about the virtues that grow in the open as if they were splendid vices; but it does say, and I ask you if our own hearts do not tell us that it says truly, that no man is, or has been, does, or has done, that which his own conscience tells him he should have been and done. We are all ready to admit faults, in a general way, and to confess that we have come short of what our own consciousness tells us we ought to be. But I want you to take the other step, and to remember that since we each stand in a personal relation to God, therefore all imperfections, faults, negligences, shortcomings, and, still more, transgressions of morality, or of the higher aspirations of our lives, are sins. Because sin — to use fine words — is the correlative of God. Or, to put it into plainer language, the deeds which in regard to law may be crimes, or those which in regard to morality may be vices, or in regard to our own convictions of duty may be shortcomings, seeing they all have some reference to Him, assume a very much graver character, and they are all sins.
Oh, brethren, if we realise how intimately and inseparably we are knit to God, and how everything that we do, and do not do, but should have done, has an aspect in reference to Him, I think we should be less unwilling to admit, and less tinged with levity and carelessness in admitting, that all our faults are transgressions Of His law, and we should find ourselves more frequently on our knees before Him, with the penitent words on our lips and in our hearts, ‘Against Thee, Thee only have I sinned, and done this evil in Thy sight’
That was the prayer of a man who had done a foul evil in other people’s sight; who had managed to accumulate about as many offences to as many people in one deed as was Possible. For, as a king he had sinned against his nation, as a friend he had sinned against his companion, as a captain he had sinned against his brave subordinate, as a husband he had sinned against his wife, and he had sinned against Bathsheba. And yet, with all that tangle of offences against all these people, he says, ‘Against Thee, Thee only.’ Yes! Because, accurately speaking, the sin had reference to God, and to God alone. And I wish for myself and for you to cultivate the habit of connecting, thus, all our actions, and especially our imperfections and our faults, with the thought of God, that we may learn how universal is the enclosure of man in this dreadful prison-house.
II. And so, I come, in the second place, to look at the guardian of the prison.
That is a strange phrase of my text attributing the shutting of men up in this prison-house to the merciful revelation of God in the Scripture. And it is made still more striking and strange by another edition of the same expression in the Epistle to the Romans, where Paul directly traces the ‘concluding all in disobedience’ to God Himself.
There may be other subtle thoughts connected with that expression which I do not need to enter upon now. But one that I would dwell upon, for a moment, is this, that one great purpose of Scripture is to convince us that we are sinful in God’s sight. I do not need to remind you, I suppose, how that was, one might almost say, the dominant intention of the whole of the ceremonial and moral law of Israel, and explains its many else inexplicable and apparently petty commandments and prohibitions. They were all meant to emphasise the difference between right and wrong, obedience and disobedience, and so to drive home to men’s hearts the consciousness that they had broken the commandments of the living God. And although the Gospel comes with a very different guise from that ancient order, and is primarily gift and not law, a Gospel of forgiveness, and not the promulgation of duty or the threatening of condemnation, yet it, too, has for one of its main purposes, which must be accomplished in us before it can reach its highest aim in us, the kindling in men’s hearts of the same consciousness that they are sinful men in God’s sight.
Ah, brethren, we all need it. There is nothing that we need more than to have driven deep into us the penetrating point of that conviction. There must be some external standard by which men may be convinced of their sinfulness, for they carry no such standard within them. Your conscience is only you judging on moral questions, and, of course, as you change, it will change too. A man’s whole state determines the voice with which conscience shall speak to him, and so the worse he is, and the more he needs it, the less he has it. The rebels cut the telegraph wires. The waves break the bell that hangs on the reef, and so the black rocks get many a wreck to gnaw with their sharp teeth. A man makes his conscience dumb by the very sins that require a conscience trumpet-tongued to reprehend them. And therefore it needs that God should speak from Heaven, and say to us, ‘Thou art the man,’ or else we pass by all these grave things that I am trying to urge upon you now, and fall back upon our complacency and our levity and our unwillingness to take stock of ourselves, and front the facts of our condition. And so we build up a barrier Between ourselves and God, and God’s grace, which nothing short of that grace and an omnipotent love and an all-powerful Redeemer can ever pull down.
I wish to urge in a few words, yet with much earnestness, this thought, that until we have laid to heart God’s message about our own personal sinfulness we have not got to the place where we can in the least understand the true meaning of His Gospel, or the true work of His Son. May I say that I, for one, am old-fashioned enough to look with great apprehension on certain tendencies of present-day presentations of Christianity which, whilst they dwell much upon the social blessings which it brings, do seem to me to be in great peril of obscuring the central characteristic of the Gospel, that it is addressed to sinful men, and that the only way by which individuals can come to the possession of any of its blessings is by coming as penitent sinners, and casting themselves on the mercy of God in Jesus Christ? The beginning of all lies here, where Paul puts it, ‘the Scripture hath herded all men,’ in droves, into the prison, that it might have mercy upon all.
Dear friend, as the old proverb has it, deceit lurks in generalities. I have no doubt you are perfectly willing to admit that all are sinful. Come a little closer to the truth, I beseech you, and say each is sinful, and I am one of the captives.
III. And so, lastly, the breaker of the prison-house.
I need not spend your time in commenting on the final words of this text. Suffice it to gather their general purport and scope. The apparently stern treatment which God by revelation applies to the whole mass of mankind is really the tenderest beneficence. He has shut them up in the prison-house in order that, thus shut up, they may the more eagerly apprehend and welcome the advent of the Deliverer. He tells us each our state, in order that we may the more long for, and the more closely grasp, the great mercy which reverses the state. And so how shallow and how unfair it is to talk about evangelical Christianity as being gloomy, stern, or misanthropical! You do not call a doctor unkind because he tells an unsuspecting patient that his disease is far advanced, and that if it is not cured it will be fatal. No more should a man turn away from Christianity, or think it harsh and sour, because it speaks plain truths. The question is, are they true? not, are they unpleasant?
If you and I, and all our fellows, are shut up in this prison house of sin, then it is quite clear that none of us can do anything to get ourselves out. And so the way is prepared for that great message with which Jesus opened His ministry, and which, whilst it has a far wider application, and reference to social as well as to individual evils, begins with the proclamation of liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.
There was once a Roman emperor who wished that all his enemies had one neck, that he might slay them all at one blow. The wish is a fact in regard to Christ and His work, for by it all our tyrants have Been smitten to death by one stroke; and the death of Jesus Christ has been the death of sin and death and hell — of sin in its power, in its guilt, and in its penalty. He has come into the prison-house, and torn the bars away, and opened the fetters, and every man may, if he will, come out into the blessed sunshine and expatiate there.
And if, brethren, it is true that the universal prison-house is opened by the death of Jesus Christ, who is the Propitiation for the sins of the whole world, and the power by which the most polluted may become clean, then there follows, as plainly, that the only thing which we have to do is, recognising and feeling our bound impotence, to stretch out chained hands and take the gift that He brings. Since all is done for each of us, and since none of us can do sufficient for himself to break the bond, then what we should do is to trust to Him who has broken every chain and let the oppressed go free.
Oh, dear friend, if you want to get to the heart of the sweetness and-the blessedness and power of the Gospel, you must begin here, with the clear and penitent consciousness that you are a sinful man in God’s sight, and can do nothing to cleanse, help, or liberate yourself. Is Jesus Christ the breaker of the bond for you? Do you learn from Him what your need is? Do you trust yourself to Him for pardon, for cleansing, for emancipation? Unless you do, you will never know His most precious preciousness, and you have little right to call yourself a Christian. If you do, oh, then a great light will shine in the prison-house, and your chains will drop from your wrists, and the iron door will open of its own accord, and you will come out into the morning sunshine of a new day, because you have confessed and abhorred the bondage into which you have cast yourselves, and accepted the liberty wherewith Christ hath made you free.
When the fulness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, that He might redeem them which were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.’ — Galatians 4:4-5
IT is generally supposed that by the ‘fulness of time’ Paul means to indicate that Christ came at the moment when the world was especially prepared to receive Him, and no doubt that is a true thought. The Jews had been trained by law to the conviction of sin: heathenism had tried its utmost, had reached the full height of its possible development, and was decaying. Rome had politically prepared the way for the spread of the Gospel. Vague expectations of coming change found utterance even from the lips of Roman courtier poets, and a feeling of unrest and anticipation pervaded society; but while no doubt all this is true and becomes more certain the more we know of the state of things into which Christ came, it is to be noted that Paul is not thinking of the fulness of time primarily in reference to the world which received Him, but to the Father who sent Him. Our text immediately follows words in which the air is described as being ‘under guardians and stewards’ until the time appointed of His Father, and the fulness of time is therefore the moment which God had ordained from the beginning for His coming.
He, from of old, had willed that at that moment this Son should be born, and it is to the punctual accomplishment of His eternal purpose that Paul here directs our thoughts. No doubt the world’s preparedness is part of the reason for the divine determination of the time, but it is that divine determination rather than the world’s preparedness to which the first words of our text must be taken to refer.
The remaining portion of our text is so full of meaning that one shrinks from attempting to deal with it in our narrow space, but though it opens up depths .beyond our fathoming, and gathers into one concentrated brightness lights on which our dim eyes can hardly look, we may venture to attempt some imperfect consideration even of these great words. Following their course of thought we may deal with
I. The mystery of love that sent.
The most frequent form under which the great fact of the incarnation is represented in Scripture is that of our text — ‘God sent His Son.’ It is familiar on the lips of Jesus, but He also says that ‘God gave His Son.’ One can feel a shade of difference in the two modes of expression. The former bringing rather to our thoughts the representative character of the Son as Messenger, and the latter going still deeper into the mystery of Godhead and bringing into view the love of the Father who spared not His Son but freely bestowed Him on men. Yet another word is used by Jesus Himself when He says, ‘I came forth from God,’ and that expression brings into view the perfect willingness with which the Son accepted the mission and gave Himself, as well as was given by God. All three phases express harmonious, though slightly differing aspects of the same fact, as the facets of a diamond might flash into different colours, and all must be held fast if we would understand the unspeakable gift of God, Jesus was sent; Jesus was given; Jesus came. The mission from the Father, the love of the Father, the glad obedience of the Son, must ever be recognised as interpenetrating, and all present in that supreme act.
There have been many men specially sent forth from God, whose personal existence began with their birth, and so far as the words are concerned, Jesus might have been one of these. There was a man sent from God whose name was John, and all through the ages he has had many companions in his mission, but there has been only one who ‘came’ as well as ‘was senti’ and He is the true light which lighteth every man. To speak in theological language of the pre-existence of the Son is cold, and may obscure the truth which it formulates in so abstract a fashion, and may rob it of power to awe and impress. But there can be no question that in our text, as is shown by the juxtaposition of ‘sent’ and ‘born,’ and in all the New Testament references to the subject, the birth of Jesus is not regarded as the beginning of the being of the Son. The one lies far back in the depths of eternity and the mystery of the divine nature, the other is a historical fact occurring in a definite place and at a dated moment. Before time was the Son was, delighting in the Father, and ‘in the beginning was the word and the word was with God,’ and He who in respect of His expression of the Father’s mind and will was the Word, was the Son in respect of the love that bound the Father and Him in one. Into the mysteries of that love and union no eyes can penetrate, but unless our faith lays hold of it, we know not the God whom Jesus has declared to us. The mysteries of that divine union and communion lie beyond our reach, but well within the grasp of
our faith and the work of the Son in the world, ever since there was a world, is not obscurely declared to all who have eyes to see and hearts to understand. For He has through all ages been the active energy of the divine power, or as the Old Testament words it, ‘The Arm of the Lord,’ the Agent of creation, the Revealer of God, the Light of the world and the Director of Providence. ‘He was in the world and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not.’
Now all this teaching that the Son was long. before Jesus was born is no mere mysterious dogma without bearing on daily needs, but stands in the closest connection with Christ’s work and our faith in it. It is the guarantee of His representative character; on it depends the reliableness of His revelation of God. Unless He is the Son in a unique sense, how could God have spoken unto us in, Him, and how could we rely on His words? Unless He was ‘the effulgence of His glory and the express image of His person’: how could we be sure that the light of His countenance was light from God and that in His person God was so presented as that he who had seen Him had seen the Father? The completeness and veracity of His revelation, the authoritative fulness of His law, the efficacy of His sacrifice and the prevalence of His intercession all depend on the fact of His divine life with God long before His human life with men. It is a plain historical fact that a Christianity which has no place for a pre-existent Son in the bosom of the Father has only a maimed Christ in reference to the needs of sinful mere If our Christ were not the eternal Son of God, He will not be the universal Saviour of men.
Nor is this truth less needful in its bearing on modern theories which will have nothing to say to the supernatural, and in a fatalistic fashion regard history as all the result of an orderly evolution in which the importance of personal agents is minimised. To it Jesus, like all other great men, is a product of His age, and the immediate result of the conditions under which He appeared. But when we look far beyond the manger of Bethlehem into the depths of Eternity and see God so loving the world as to give His Son, we cannot but recognise that He has intervened in the course of human history and that the mightiest force in the development of man is the eternal Son whom He sent to save the world.
II. The miracle of lowliness that came.
The Apostle goes on from describing the great fact which took place in heaven to set forth the great fact which completed it on earth. The sending
of the Son took effect in the birth of Jesus, and the Apostle puts it under two forms, both of which are plainly designed to present Christ’s manhood as His full identification of Himself with us. The Son of God became the son of a woman; from His mother He drew a true and complete humanity in body and soul. The humanity which He received was sufficiently kindred with the divinity which received it to make it possible that the one should dwell in the other and be one person. As born of a woman the Son of God took upon Himself all human experiences, became capable of sharing our pure emotions, wept our tears, partook in our joys, hoped and feared as we do, was subject to our changes, grew as we grow, and in everything but sin, was a man amongst men.
But the Son of God could not be as the sons of men.
Him the Father heard always. Even when He came down from Heaven and became the Son of Man, He continued’ to be’ The Son Of Man which is in Heaven.’ Amid all the distractions and limitations of His earthly life, the continuity and depth of His communion with the Father were unbroken and the completeness of His obedience undiminished. He was a Man, but He was also the Man, the one realised ideal of humanity that has ever walked the earth, to whom all others, even the most complete, are fragments, the fairest foul, the most gracious harsh. In Him and in Him only has been ‘given the world assurance of a man.’
The other condition which is here introduced is ‘born under the law,’ by which it may be noted that the Apostle does not mean the Jewish law, inasmuch as he does not use the definite article with the word. No doubt our Lord was born as a Jew and subject to the Jewish law, but the thought here and in the subsequent clause is extended to the general notion of law. The very heart of our Lord’s human identification is that He too had duties imperative upon. Him, and the language of one of the Messianic psalms was the voice of His filial will during all His earthly life; ‘Lo! I come, in the volume of the Book it is written of Me, I delight to do Thy will and Thy law is within My heart.’ the very secret of His human life was discovered by the heathen centurion, at whose faith He marvelled, who said, ‘I also am a man under authority’; so was Jesus. The Son had ever been obedient in the sweet communion of Heaven, but the obedience of Jesus was not less perfect, continual and unstained. It was the man Jesus who summed up His earthly life in ‘I do always the things that please Him’; it was the man Jesus who, under the olives in Gethsemane, made the great surrender and yielded up His own will to the will of the Father who sent Him.
He was under law in that the will of God dominated His life, but He Was not so under it as we are on whom its precepts often press as an unwelcome obligation, and who know the weight of guilt and condemnation-If there is any one characteristic of Jesus more conspicuous than another it is the absence in Him of any consciousness of deficiency in His obedience to law, and yet that absence does not in the smallest degree infringe on His claim to be ‘meek and lowly in heart.’ ‘Which of you convinceth Me of sin?’ would have been from any other man a defiance that would have provoked a crushing answer if it had not been taken as a proof of hopeless ignorance of self, but when Christ asks the question, the world is silent. The silence has been all but unbroken for nineteen hundred years, and of all the busy and often unfriendly eyes that have-been occupied with Him and the hostile pens that have been eager to say something new about Him, none have discovered a flaw, or dared to ‘hint a fault.’ That character has stamped its own impression of perfectness on all eyes even the most unfriendly or indifferent. In Him there is seen the perfect union and balance of opposite characteristics; the rest of us, at the best, are but broken arcs; Jesus is the completed round. He is under law as fully, continuously and joyfully obedient; but for Him it had no accusing voice, and it laid on Him no burden of broken commandments. ‘He was born of a woman, born under law, but he lived separate from sinners though identified with them.
III. The marvel of exaltation that results.
Our Lord’s lowliness is described in the two clauses which we have just been considering. They express His identification with us from a double point of view, and that double point of view is continued in the final clauses of our text which state the double purpose of God in sending His Son. He became one with us that we might become one with Him. The two elements of this double purpose are stated in the reverse order to the two elements of Christ’s lowliness. The redemption of them that were under law is presented as the reason for His being born under law, and our reception of the ‘adoption of sons’ is the purpose of the Son’s being sent and born of a woman. The order in which Paul here deals with the two parts of the divine purpose is not to be put down to mere rhetorical ornament, but corresponds to the order in which these two elements are realised by men. For there must be redemption from law before there is the adoption of sons.
We have already had occasion to point out that’ law, here must be taken in the wide sense and not restricted to the Jewish law. It is a world-wide redemption which the Father’s love had in view in sending His Son, but that all-comprehending, fatherly love could not reach its aim by the mere forth-putting of its own energy. A process was needed if the divine heart was to accomplish its desire, and the majestic stages in that process are set forth here by Paul. The world was under law in a very sad fashion, and though Jesus has come to redeem them that are under law, the crushing weight of commandments flouted, of duties neglected, of sins done, presses heavily upon many of us. And yet how many of us there are who do not know the burden that we carry and have had no personal experience like that of Bunyan’s Christian with the pack on his back all but weighing him down?
Jesus Christ has become one of us, and in His sinless life has ‘magnified the law and made it honourable’ and in His sinless death He endures the consequences of sin, not as due to Himself, but because they are man’s. But we must carefully keep in view, that as we have already pointed out, we are to think of Christ’s mission as His coming as well as the Father’s sending, and that therefore we do not grasp the full idea of our Lord’s enduring the consequences of sin unless we take it as meaning His voluntary identification of Himself in love with us sinful men. His obedience was perfect all His life long, and His last and highest act of obedience was when He became obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross.
This is the only means by which the burden of law in any of its forms can be taken away from us. For a law which is not loved will be heavy and hard however holy and just and good it may be, and a law which we have broken will become sooner or later its own avenger. Faithful in Pilgrim ’s Progress tells how ‘So soon as a man overtook me he was but a word and a blow, for down he knocked me and laid me for dead… He struck me another deadly blow on the breast and beat me down backward, so I lay at his foot as dead as before, so when I came to myself again I cried him "Mercy," but he said, "I know not how to show mercy," and with that knocked me down again; he had doubtless made an end of me but that one came by and bid him forbear … I did not know him at first, but as he went by I perceived the holes in his hands and in his sides.’ He was born under law that He might redeem them that were under law.
The slaves bought into freedom are received into the great family. The Son has become flesh that they who dwell in the flesh may rise to be sons, but the Son stands alone even in the midst of His identification with us, and of the great results which follow for us from it. He is the Son by nature; we are sons by adoption. He became man that we might share in the possession of God. When the burden of law is lifted off it is possible to bestow the further blessing of sonship, but that blessing is only possible through Him in whom, and from whom, we derive a life which is divine life. There is a profound truth in the prophetic sentence, ‘Behold I and the children which God hath given me!’ for, in one aspect, believers are the children of Christ, and in another, they are sons of God.
We have been speaking of the Son’s identification With us in His mission, and our identification with Him, but that identification depends on ourselves and is only an accomplished fact through our faith. When we trust in Him it is true that all His — His righteousness, His Sonship, His union with the Father — is ours, and that all ours — our sins, our guilt, our alienation from God and our dwelling in the far-off land of rags and vice — is His. In His voluntary identification with us, He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. It is for us to determine whether we will lay on Him our iniquities, as the Father has already laid the iniquities of us all. Are we by faith in Him who was born of a woman, born under law, making our very own the redemption from the law which He has wrought and the adoption of sons which He bestows?
‘In Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision. but faith which worketh by love.’ — Galatians 5:6.
IT is a Very singular instance of imaginative misreading of plain facts that the primitive Church should be held up as a pattern Church. The early communities had apostolic teaching; but beyond that, they seem to have been in no respect above, and in many respects below, the level of subsequent ages. If we may judge of their morality by the exhortations and dehortations which they received from the Apostle, Corinth and Thessalonica were but beginners in holiness. If we may judge of their intelligence by the errors into which they were in danger of falling, these first congregations had indeed need that one should teach them which were the first principles of the oracles of God. It could not be otherwise. They were but just rescued from heathenism, and we need not wonder if their spirits long bore the scars of their former bondage. If we wish to know what the apostolic churches were like, we have but to look at the communities gathered by modern missionaries. The same infantile simplicity, the same partial apprehensions of the truth, the same danger of being led astray by the low morality of their heathen kindred, the same openness to strange heresy, the same danger of blending the old with the new, in ,opinion and in practice, beset both.
The history of the first theological difference in the early churches is a striking confutation of the dream that they were perfect, and a striking illustration of the dangers to which they were exposed from the attempt, so natural to us all, to put new wine into old bottles. The Jewish and the Gentile elements did not coalesce. The point round which the strife was waged was not whether Gentiles might come into the Church. That was conceded by the fiercest Judaisers. But it was whether they could come in as Gentiles, without first being incorporated into the Jewish nation by circumcision, and whether they could remain in as Gentiles, without conforming to Jewish ceremonial and law.
Those who said ‘No’ were members of the Christian communities, and, being so, they still insisted that Judaism was to be eternal. They demanded that the patched and stiff leathern bottle, which had no elasticity or pliability, should still contain the quick fermenting new wine of the kingdom. And certainly, if ever man had excuse for clinging to what was old and formal, these Judaising Christians held it. They held by a law written with God’s own finger, by ordinances awful by reason of divine appointment, venerable by reason of the generations to which they had been of absolute authority, commended by the very example of Christ Himself. Every motive which can bind heart and conscience to the reverence and the practice of the traditions of the Fathers, bound them to the Law and the ordinances which had been Israel’s treasure from Abraham to Jesus.
Those who said ‘Yes’ were mostly Gentiles, headed and inspired by a Hebrew of the Hebrews. They believed that Judaism was preparatory, and that its work was done. For those among themselves who were Jews, they were willing that its laws should still be obligatory; but they fought against the attempt to compel all Gentile converts to enter Christ’s kingdom through the gate of circumcision.
The fight was stubborn and bitter. I suppose it is harder to abolish forms than to change opinions. Ceremonies stand long after the thought which they express has fled, as a dead king may sit on his throne stiff and stark in his golden mantle, and no one come near enough to see that the light is gone out of his eyes, and the will departed from the hand that still clutches the sceptre. All through Paul’s life he was dogged and tormented by this controversy. There was a deep gulf between the churches he planted and this reactionary section of the Christian community. Its emissaries were continually following in his footsteps. ‘As he bitterly reproaches them, they entered upon another man’s line of things made ready to their hand, not caring to plant churches of circumcised Gentiles themselves, but starting up behind him as soon as his back was turned, and spoiling his work.
This Epistle is the memorial of that foot-to-foot feud. It is of perennial use, as the tendencies against which it is directed are constant in human nature. Men are ever apt to confound form and substance, to crave material embodiments of spiritual realities, to elevate outward means into the place of the inward and real, to which all the outward is but subsidiary. In every period of strife between the two great opponents, this letter has been the stronghold of those who fight for the spiritual conception of religion. With it Luther waged his warfare, and in this day, too, its words are precious.
My text contains Paul’s condensed statement of his whole position in the controversy. It tells us what he fought for, and why he fought, against the attempt to suspend union to Christ on an outward rite.
I. The first grand principle contained in ,these words is that faith working by love makes a Christian.
The antithesis of our text appears in somewhat varied forms in two other places in the Apostle’s writings. To the Corinthians he says, ‘Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God.’ His last word to the Galatians — the gathering up into one strong sentence of his whole letter — is, ‘In Christ Jesus, neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature.’
Now, all these assertions embody substantially the same opposition between the conception of Christianity as depending upon a ceremonial rite, and as being a spiritual change. And the variations in the second member of the contrast throw light on each other. In one, the essential thing is regarded from the divine side as being not a rite performed on the body, but a new nature, the result of a supernatural regeneration. In another, the essential thing is set forth as being not an outward act, but an inward principle, which produces appropriate effects on the whole being. In yet another the essential thing is conceived as being not a mere ceremonial, but practical obedience, the consequence of the active principle of faith, and the sign of the new life. There is an evident sequence in the three sayings. They begin with the deepest, the divine act of a new creation — and end with the outermost, the last result and object of both the others — deeds of conformity to God’s law.
This one process in its triple aspects, says Paul, constitutes a man a Christian. What correspondence is there between it, in any of its parts, and a carnal ordinance? They belong to Wholly different categories, and it is the most preposterous confusion to try to mix them up together. Are we to tack on to the solemn powers and qualities, which unite the soul to Christ, this beggarly addition that the Judaisers desire, and to say, the essentials of Christianity are a new creature, faith, obedience — and circumcision? That is, indeed, sewing old cloth on a new garment, and huddling together in grotesque chaos things which are utterly diverse. It is as absurd bathos as to say the essentials of a judge are integrity, learning, patience — and an ermine robe!
There would be less danger of being entangled in false notions of the sort which devastated Galatia and have afflicted the Church ever since, if people would put a little more distinctly before their own minds what they mean by ‘religion’; what sort of man they intend when they talk about ‘a Christian.’ A clear notion of the thing to be produced would thin away a wonderful deal of mist as to the way of producing it. So then, beginning at the surface, in order to work inward, my first remark is that religion is the harmony of the soul with God, and the conformity of the life to His law.
The loftiest purpose of God, in all His dealings, is to make us like Himself; and the end of all religion is the complete accomplishment of that purpose. There is no religion without these elements — consciousness of kindred with God, recognition of Him as the sum of all excellence and beauty, and of His will as unconditionally binding upon us, aspiration and effort after a full accord of heart and soul with Him and with His law. and humble confidence that that sovereign beauty will be ours. ‘Be ye imitators of God as dear children’ is the pure and comprehensive dictate which expresses the aim of all devout men. ‘To keep His commandments’ goes deeper than the mere external deeds. Were it not so, Paul’s grand words would shrink to a very poor conception of religion, which would then have its shrine and sphere removed from the sacred recesses of the inmost spirit to the dusty Babel of the market-place and the streets. But with that due and necessary extension of the words which results from the very nature of the case, that obedience must be the obedience of a man, and not of his deeds only, and must include the submission of the will and the prostration of the whole nature before Him; they teach a truth which, fully received and carried out, clears away whole mountains of theoretical confusion and practical error. Religion is no dry morality; no slavish, punctilious conforming of actions to a hard law. Religion is not right thinking alone, nor right emotion alone, nor right action alone. Religion is still less the semblance of these in formal profession, or simulated feeling, or apparent rectitude. Religion is not nominal connection with the Christian community, nor participation in its ordinances and its worship. But to be godly is to be godlike. The full accord of all the soul with His character, in whom, as their native home, dwell ‘whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely,’ and the full glad conformity of the will to His sovereign will, who is the life of our lives — this, and nothing shallower, nothing narrower, is religion in its perfection; and the measure in which we have attained to this harmony with God, is the measure in which we are Christians.
As two stringed instruments may be so tuned to one keynote that, if you strike the one, a faint ethereal echo is heard from the other, which Mends undistinguishably with its parent sound; so, drawing near to God, and brought into unison with His mind and will our responsive spirits vibrate in accord with His, and give forth tones, low and thin indeed, but still repeating the mighty music of heaven. ‘Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God.’
But our text tells us, further, that if we look backwards from character and deed to motive, this harmony with God results from love becoming the ruling power of our lives. The imitation of the object of worship has always been felt to be the highest form of worship. Many an ancient teacher, besides the Stoic philosopher, has said, ‘He who copies the gods worships them adequately.’ One of the prophets lays it down as a standing rule,’ The people will walk every one in the name of his God.’ But it is only in the Christian attitude towards God that the motive power is found which makes such imitation more than an impossible duty, even as it is only in the revealed character of God that a pattern is found, to imitate which is to be perfect. Everywhere besides, harmony with the gods meant discord with conscience and flagrant outrages of the commonest moralities. Everywhere else, the task of copying them was one lightened by no clear confidence in their love, and by no happy consciousness of our own. But for us, the love revealed is the perfect law, and the love evoked is the fulfilling of the law.
And this is the might and nobleness of the Christian love to God; that it is no idle emotion or lazy rapture, no vague sentiment, but the root of all practical goodness, of all strenuous effort, of all virtue, and of all praise. That strong tide is meant to drive the busy wheels of life and to bear precious freightage on its bosom; not to flow away in profitless foam. Love is the fruitful mother of bright children, as our great moralist-poet learned when he painted her in the House of Holiness:
‘A multitude of babes about her hung,
Playing their sport that joyed her to behold.’
Her sons are Strength and Justice, and Self-control and Firmness, and Courage and Patience, and many more besides; and her daughters are Pity with her sad eyes, and Gentleness with her silvery voice, and Mercy whose sweet face makes sunshine in the shade of death, and Humility all unconscious of her loveliness; and linked hand in hand with these, all the radiant band of sisters that men call Virtues and Graces. These will dwell in
our hearts, if Love their mighty mother be there. If we are without her, we shall be without them.
There is discord between man and God which can only be removed by the sweet commerce of love, established between earth and heaven. God’s love has come to us. When ours springs responsive to Him, then the schism is ended, and the wandering child forgets his rebellion, as he lays his aching head on the father’s bosom, and feels the beating of the father’s heart. Our souls by reason of sin are ‘like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh.’ Love’s master hand laid upon them restores to them their part in ‘the fair music that all creatures make to their great Lord,’ and brings us into such accord with God that
‘We on earth with undiscording voice
May rightly answer.’
avert the awful harmonies of His lips. The essential of religion is concord with God, and the power which makes that concord is love to God. But this text leads to a still further consideration, namely, the dominion of love to God in our hearts arises from faith.
We thus reach the last link, or rather the staple, of the chain from which all hangs. Religion is harmony with God; that harmony is produced by love; and that love is produced by faith. Therefore the fundamental of all Christianity in the soul is faith. Would this sound any fresher and more obvious if we varied the language, and said that to he religious we must be like God, that to be like Him we must love Him, and that to love Him we must be sure that He loves us? Surely that is too plain to need enlarging on.
And is it not true that faith must precede our love to God, and affords the only possible basis on which that can be built? How can we love Him so long as we are in doubt of His heart, or misconceive His character, as if it were only power and wisdom, or awful severity? Men cannot love an unseen person at all, without some very special token of his personal affection for them. The history of all religions shows that where the gods have been thought of as unloving, the worshippers have been heartless too. It is only when we know and believe the love that God hath to us, that we come to cherish any corresponding emotion to Him. Our love is secondary, His is primary; ours is reflection, His the original beam; ours is echo, His the mother-tone. Heaven must bend to earth before earth can rise to heaven. The skies must open and drop down love, ere love can spring in the fruitful fields. And it is only when we look with true trust to that great unveiling of the heart of God which is in Jesus Christ, only when we can say, ‘Herein is love — -that He gave His Son to be the propitiation for our sins,’ that our hearts are melted, and all their snows are dissolved into sweet waters, which, freed from their icy chains, can flow with music in their ripple and fruitfulness along their course, through our otherwise silent and barren lives. Faith in Christ is the only possible basis for active love to God.
And this thought presents the point of contact between the teaching of Paul and John. The one dwells on faith, the other on love, but he who insists most on the former declares that it produces its effects on character by the latter; and he who insists most on the latter is forward to proclaim that it owes its very existence to the former.
It presents also the point of contact between Paul and James. The one speaks of the essential of Christianity as faith, the other as works. They are only striking the stream at different points, one at the fountain-head, one far down its course among the haunts of men. They both preach that faith must be ‘faith that worketh,’ not a barren assent to a dogma, but a living trust that brings forth fruits in the life. Paul believes as much as James that faith without works is dead, and demands the keeping of the commandments as indispensable to all true Christianity. James believes as much as Paul that works without faith are of none effect. So all three of these great teachers of the Church are represented in this text, to which each of them might seem to have contributed a word embodying his characteristic type of doctrine. The threefold rays into which the prism parts the white light blend again here, where faith, love, and work are all united in the comprehensive saying,’ In Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, but faith which worketh by love:
The sum of the whole matter is this — He who is one in will and heart with God is a Christian. He who loves God is one in will and heart with Him. He who trusts Christ loves God. That is Christianity in its ultimate purpose and result. That is Christianity in its means and working forces. That is Christianity in its starting-point and foundation.
II. But we have to consider also the negative side of the Apostle’s words.
They affirm that in comparison with the essential — faith, all externals are infinitely unimportant.
Paul’s habit was always to settle questions by the widest principles he could bring to bear upon them — which one may notice in passing is the very opposite to the method that has been in favour with many Church teachers and guides since, who have preferred to live from hand to mouth, and to dispose of difficulties by the narrowest considerations that would avail to quiet them. In our text the question in hand is settled on a ground which covers a great deal more than the existing dispute. Circumcision is regarded as one of a whole class — namely, the class of outward rites and observances; and the contrast drawn between it and faith extends to all the class to which it belongs. It is not said to be powerless because it is an Old Testament rite, but because it is a rite. Its impotence lies in the very nature which it has in common with all external institutions, whether they be of the Old Testament or of the New, whether they be enjoined of God or invented by men. To them all the same characteristic cleaves. Compared with faith they are of no avail. Not that they are absolutely useless. They have their place, but ‘in Christ Jesus’ they are nothing. Union to Him depends on quite another order of facts, which may or may not exist along with circumcision, or with baptism, or with the Lord’s Supper. However important these may be, they have no place among the things which bind a soul to its Saviour. They may be helps to these things, but nothing more. The rite does not ensure the faith, else the antithesis of our text were unmeaning. The rite does not stand in the place of faith, or the contrast implied were absurd. But the two belong to totally different orders of things, which may co-exist indeed, but may also be found separately; the one is the indispensable spiritual experience which makes us Christians, the other belongs to a class of material institutions which are much as helps to, but nothing as substitutes or equivalents for, faith.
Keep firm hold of the positive principle with which we have been dealing in the former part of this sermon, and all forms and externals fall as a matter of course into their proper place. If religion be the loving devotion of the soul to God, resting upon reasonable faith, then all besides is, at the most, a means which may further it. If loving trust which apprehends the truth, and cleaves to the Person, revealed to us in the Gospel, be the link which binds men to God, then the only way by which these externals can be ‘means of grace’ is by their aiding us to understand better and to feel more the truth as it is in Jesus, and to cleave closer to Him who is the truth. Do they enlighten the understanding? Do they engrave deeper the loved face carven on the tablets of memory, which the attrition of worldly cares is ever obliterating, and the lichens of worldly thoughts ever filling up? Do they clear out the rubbish from the channels of the heart, that the cleansing stream may flow through them? Do they, through the senses, minister to the soul its own proper food of clear thought, vivid impressions, loving affections, trustful obedience? Do they bring Christ to us, and us to Him, in the only way in which approach is possible — through the occupation of mind and heart and will with His great perfectness? Then they are means of grace, precious and helpful, the gifts of His love, the tokens of His wise knowledge of our weakness, the signs of His condescension, in that He stoops to trust some portion of our remembrance of Him to the ministry of sense. But in comparison with that faith which they cannot plant, though they may strengthen it, they are nothing; and in the matter of uniting the soul to God and making men ,religious, they are of no avail at all.
And such thoughts as these have a, very wide sweep, as well as a very deep influence. Religion is the devotion of the soul to God. Then everything besides is not religion, but at most a means to it. That is true about all Christian ordinances. Baptism is spoken about by Paul in terms which plainly show that he regarded it as ‘nothing’ in the same sense, and under the same limitations, as he thought that circumcision was nothing. ‘I baptized some of you,’ says he to the Corinthians; ‘I scarcely remember whom, or how many. I have far more important work to do — to preach the Gospel.’ It is true about all acts and forms of Christian worship. These are not religion, but means to it. Their only value and their only test is — Do they help men to know and feel Christ and His truth? It is true about laws of life, and many points of conventional morality. Remember the grand freedom with which the same Apostle dealt with questions about meats offered to idols, and the observance of days and seasons. The same principle guided him there too, and he relegated the whole question back to its proper place with, ‘Meat commendeth us not to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, neither if we eat not are we the worse.’ ‘He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it.’ It is true, though less obviously and simply, about subordinate doctrines. It is true about the mere intellectual grasp of the fundamental truths of God’s revelation. These, and the belief of these, are not Christianity, they are helps towards it.
The separation is broad and deep. On one side are all externals, rites, ceremonies, polities, Church arrangements, forms of worship, modes of life, practices of morality, doctrines, and creeds — all which are externals to the soul: on the other is faith working through love, the inmost attitude and deepest emotion of the soul The great heap is fuel. The flame is loving faith. The only worth of the fuel is to feed the flame. Otherwise it is of no avail, but lies dead and cold, a mass of blackness. We are joined to God by faith. Whatever strengthens that faith is precious as a help, but is worthless as a substitute.
III. There is a constant tendency to exalt these unimportant externals into the place of faith.
The whole purpose of the Gospel may be described to be our deliverance from the dominion of sense, and the transference of the centre of our life to the unseen world. This end is no doubt partly accomplished by the help of sense. So long as men have bodily organisations, there will be need for outward helps. Men ’s indolence, and men’s sense-ridden natures, will take symbols for realities, bank-notes far wealth, The eye will be tempted to stay on the rich colours of the glowing glass, instead of passing through them to heaven’s light beyond. To make the senses a ladder for the soul to climb to haven by, will be perilously likely to end in the soul going-down the ladder instead of up. Forms are sure to encroach, to overlay the truth that lies at their root, to become dimly intelligible, or quite unmeaning, and to constitute at last the end instead of the means. Is it not then wise to minimise these potent and dangerous allies? Is it not needful to use them with the remembrance that a minute quantity may strengthen, but an overdose will kill — ay, and that the minute quantity may kill too? Christ instituted two outward rites. There could not have been fewer if there was to be an outward community at all, and they could not have been simpler; but look at the portentous outgrowth of superstition, and the unnumbered evils, religious, moral, social, and even political, which have come from the invincible tendency of human nature to corrupt forms, even when the forms are the sweet and simple ones of Christ’s own appointment. What a lesson the history of the Lord’s Supper, and its gradual change from the domestic memorial of the dying love of our Lord to the ‘tremendous sacrifice,’ reads us as to the dangerous ally which spiritual religion and there is no other religion than spiritual — enlists when it seeks the help of external rites!
But remember that this danger of converting religion into outward actions has its root in us all, and is not annihilated by our rejection of an elaborate ceremonial, There is much significance in the double negation of my text,
‘Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision.’ If the Judaisers were tempted to insist on the former
as indispensable, their antagonists were as much tempted to insist on the latter. The one were saying, ‘A man cannot be a Christian unless he be circumcised.’ The other would be in danger of replying, ‘He cannot be a Christian if he is.’ There may he as much formalism in protesting against forms as in using them. Extremes meet; and an unspiritual Quaker, ‘for instance, is at bottom of the same way of thinking as an unspiritual Roman Catholic. They agree in their belief that certain outward acts are essential to worship, and even to religion. They only differ as to what these acts are. The Judaiser who says, ‘You must be circumcised,’ and his antagonist who says, ‘You must be uncircumcised,’ are really in the same boat.
And this is especially needful to be kept in mind by those who, like the most of us, hold fast by the free and spiritual conception of Christianity. That freedom we may turn into a bondage, and that spirituality into a form, if we confound it with the essentials of Christianity, and deny the possibility of the life being developed except in conjunction with it. My text has a double edge. Let us use it against all this Judaising which is going on round about us, and against all the tendency to it in our own hearts. The one edge smites the former, the other edge the latter. Circumcision is nothing, as most of us are forward to proclaim. But, also, remember, when we are tempted to trust in our freedom, and to fancy that in itself it is good, uncircumcision is nothing. You are no more a Christian for your rejection of forms than another man is for his holding them. Your negation no more unites you to Christ than does his affirmation. One thing alone does that, — faith which worketh by love, against which sense ever wars, both by tempting some of us to place religion in outward acts and ceremonies, and by tempting others of us to place it in rejecting the forms which our brethren abuse.
IV. When an indifferent thing is made into an essential, it ceases to be indifferent, and must be fought against.
Paul proclaimed that circumcision and uncircumcision were alike unavailing. A man might be a good Christian either way. They were not unimportant in all respects, but in regard to being united to Christ, it did not matter which side one took. And, in accordance with this noble freedom, he for himself practised Jewish rites; and, when he thought it might conciliate prejudice without betraying principle, had Timothy circumcised. But when it came to be maintained as a principle that Gentiles must be circumcised, the time for conciliation was past. The other side had made further concession impossible. The Apostle had no objection to circumcision. What he objected to was its being forced upon all as a necessary preliminary to entering the Church. And as soon as the opposite party took that ground, then there was nothing for it but to fight against them to the last. They had turned an indifferent thing into an essential, and he could no longer treat it as indifferent.
So whenever parties or Churches insist on external rites as essential, or elevate any of the subordinate means of grace into the place of the one bond which fastens our souls to Jesus, and is the channel of grace as well as the bond of union, then it is time to arm for the defence of the spirituality of Christ’s kingdom, and to resist the attempt to bind on free shoulders the iron yoke. Let men and parties do as they like, so long as they do not turn their forms into essentials.
In broad freedom of speech and spirit, which holds by the one central principle too firmly to be much troubled about subordinate matters — in tolerance of diversities, which does not spring from indifference, but from the very clearness of our perception of, and from the very fervour of our adherence to, the one essential of the Christian life — let us take for our guide the large, calm, lofty thoughts which this text sets forth before us. Let us thankfully believe that men may love Jesus, and be fed from His fulness, whether they he on one side of this undying controversy or on the other. Let us watch jealously the tendencies in our own hearts to trust in our forms or in our freedom. And whensoever or wheresoever these subordinates are made into things essential, and the ordinances of Christ’s Church are elevated into the place which belongs to loving trust in Christ’s love, then let our voices at least be heard on the side of that mighty truth that ‘in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, but faith which worketh by love.’