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THE SENSE IN WHICH THE GOSPEL BECOMES A REAL POWER
THE Gospel teaches us that we escape from a barren existence only when we are ready to live for others of our own free will. It is then that we are made to feel more keenly how miserable and empty is the existence of a man intent upon seeking his own. It can, however, be to us a Gospel, only if it further actually brings and proclaims to us the beginning of a life with power. It must act upon us as a renewing force. Yet if it is really to accomplish this it must mean something more than a collection of ideas, which it is our duty and desire to accept. It is, indeed, certain that if we do not dismiss these ideas, but let them in course of time become habitual to us, our resolutions may be very powerfully influenced by them, especially by the thought of a Father in Heaven, inflexibly stern yet full of infinite goodness and mercy. Still, however 146pregnant the ideas so freely bestowed upon us by the messengers of the Gospel, they can never do more than stimulate the nature that we have: they cannot transform us.
Only in so far as we are able to apprehend the truth of doctrines can we make them our own. We must understand their purport, and perceive that the idea contained is the expression of a reality, revealed to us ourselves. When we find a thought expressing something which we have been made to feel in such an experience, it becomes in a peculiar sense our own. But if, without this, we try to adopt it, we may end by quietly changing it, till it suits ourselves; and if we do not even do this, our inmost being can have nothing to do with it at all. To say that we want to appropriate it can then only mean that, in our intercourse with others, we refuse to say anything against it. It constantly happens that the ideas of the Gospel are only “appropriated” by people in this sense. Many fancy they possess them, to whom they are no more than something they refuse to attack, but are unable to utilise. And many whose earnest endeavour it is to utilise them, work at them continually till they have made them assume such a form as they can assimilate. The result 147is not that they are transformed, but that the ideas of the Gospel are altered by their own character. The power of the Gospel can never be effectual in its working, while people are so insincere as to propose “to appropriate by faith” the ideas contained therein.
The ideas are always so shaped that their truth is obvious to those alone who in their inward being experience a great transformation. The very conception of God as the Almighty Father is true only when it expresses this kind of experience. When the idea is presented as the message of the Gospel, it may indeed attract us by promising deliverance; but if of the contents of the Gospel we learn nothing more, it will soon recall to our minds many of our own experiences testifying in the opposite direction. In a world so full of suffering no Heavenly Father meets our gaze. Nor can it be in our own hearts that the idea originates of the everlasting power of good, as inexhaustible goodness towards ourselves; for here the consciousness is present that our own nature is altogether in contrast to such goodness. A Gospel, to be deserving of the name, must so operate upon us that we may embrace as very truth the above conception of God. It must have the power so to influence us that 148the divine character—the capacity freely to live for others—begins to take shape in us. Unless this happens, we can have no real understanding of the message concerning the Father in Heaven, since otherwise we cannot number ourselves among those who are ruled by His goodness.
The Gospel is a message of glad tidings only because, when it really reaches a man, it does not present him with mere ideas, but furnishes practical proof of the love of God, convincing him of God’s infinite goodness towards him. Then begins that inward transformation whereby our lives may be fashioned according to Gospel ideas. We must detach ourselves from what hitherto we have desired for ourselves, and be ready to sacrifice it for the community. Otherwise the Gospel has not yet given us a foretaste of heaven. If we have no free and God-like goodness towards others, we cannot believe in God’s goodness towards us. But the inward emancipation from accustomed habits of possession and enjoyment is possible on one condition only. We must ourselves hold the conviction that the whole meaning of our lives is different from what we had been wont to imagine. We must ourselves experience a new fact, the influence of 149which upon us is so strong as to lessen the power over our souls of all our former possessions and enjoyments. Our own advantage may be seen to consist in a fact of this kind. We may, for example, recognise clearly what a loss it is to us if vast numbers of our people do not, and possibly cannot, rejoice in the sense of nationality. It is obvious that if we do perceive this fact we may promote social activity and stir .up the will to help; for stupidity is always unsocial. Yet social efforts based upon prudence arc bound by narrow restrictions, whereas there are no limits to the readiness to serve and to help that may be produced by the Gospel. For it results in an experience so rich that it can deliver a man from all cares concerning his own life, making him so free that the commonwealth, rather than his own advantage, really becomes the object of his desires.
The Gospel not only sets ideas before us, but presents us with a mighty fact, such as, once experienced, gives to our life such height and depth as seems to enable us for the first time to perceive its immensity. This fact, which we must not merely “believe,” but ourselves see, is the Person of Jesus Christ. In the New Testament it is enclosed in a series 150of narratives, as to the authenticity of which no efforts of learning are able to tell us anything very definite. To many Christians the narratives are nevertheless a matter of absolute certainty, while to others they are not so. The decision of this question does not depend upon the moral attitude or religious earnestness of the individual Christian; nor does its determination affect his spiritual fate, or the relation in which he stands to God. On the other hand, if a man is to lay hold of the Person of Jesus, as a reality which he himself cannot choose but admit, he must needs be morally alive; and upon such contact with Jesus Himself depends that inward sense of liberty which constitutes the Christian. Those who are not struck by the sincerity, strength, and wonderful assurance of the man Christ Jesus have no suspicion of what Christianity is. The decision which prompts a Christian to forsake the ways of the world and follow Jesus, leaves them all untouched; their hearts are strangers to the joy that cannot be taken away, and to the delight in active service, which mark the essential difference between one who is, and one who is not, a Christian.
But if we are indeed to apprehend the Person of .Jesus in all its wonderful reality, we need 151a two-fold method of transmission. One of these is Holy Scripture; the other, human life, permeated and kindled by remembrance of Him—or, to use the old names, Scripture and tradition. Once we have begun to recognise as our greatest good this contact with the Person of Jesus, we shall seek the society of those whom His power has stirred, and the assemblies where He is likely to be preached. Before long we shall note further that, on any ideals we already possess, a new light is thrown continually by thronging memories of Him derived from Scriptural accounts. Thus the mystical power of His Person gives to Biblical tradition a value beyond any that dogma can confer, and, at the same time, is the warrant for complete freedom in scientific study of the Bible. For if we are convinced that this tradition reveals to us the highest gift the world can bestow, we shall also see that here, if anywhere, those laws must faithfully be observed that render possible the successful investigation of reality. Thus the Christian who knows and seeks nothing higher in all the world than the inward life—that is, the Person of Jesus in its power over the mind—is carried far above the conflict which is now agitating Protestantism; above the anxious piety that hardens into a 152legalism devoid of morality; and no less far above such investigation of truth as, sensible of no bonds of living history to bring it into touch with the traditional, is lacking in all piety.
That Jesus of whom we ourselves have laid hold as a reality, undeniable and wonderful, works in us a transformation exceeding great in power. For contact with Him means that there dawns upon us a revelation of God that can never again be obscured. The first page of a book widely read at the present day contains the statement that no man who has once learned to know Jesus Christ can ever again be quite what he was before. One who can echo Harnack in this, feels that contact with the Person of Jesus marked a turning-point in his life. He may, indeed, often have to confess that it has not been followed in his case by very much that is new, but he will surely always admit in his heart that it might have been. In the Person of Jesus we at least seem to recognise a constant cause of uneasiness—of a disquietude that prevents us from settling down too comfortably in the world. Now, so long as that is our experience with regard to Jesus, He is indeed above us; and only in proportion as He Himself stands in 153that relation towards us can His words bring us a Gospel. Above all, they can really convince us, only when they interpret and throw new light upon the realities around us. We are told how Jesus Himself endeavoured to remind men of the traces of God’s goodness revealed in their own lives. Yet after all, ultimately the one fact of our experience that lends undoubted testimony to the goodness of God towards us is the manifestation of Jesus Himself. It is when our inmost being is stirred and quickened by His Person that we are able to grasp something of the realities of which He speaks; and then, and not till then, His words become to us a gospel of power. But the fact that Jesus reveals the power and the goodness of God will soon be felt when once we realise that if we call to remembrance His will and His actions, they make demands upon us which are eternally binding. Jesus made provision for this by His death upon the Cross, and by explaining that Death in the Last Supper.154
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