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362

XXVIII.

AN ASPECT OF ATONEMENT.

"He that hideth (מְכַסֶּה) his transgressions shall not prosper; but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall obtain mercy."—Prov. xxviii. 13.

"Happy is the man that feareth alway; but he that hardeneth his heart shall fall into mischief."—Prov. xxviii. 14.

"The fear of the Lord tendeth to life, and he that hath it shall abide satisfied. He shall not be visited with evil."—Prov. xix. 23.

"By mercy and truth iniquity is atoned for, and by the fear of the Lord men depart from evil."—Prov. xvi. 6.

The Hebrew word (כָּפַר) which is used for the idea of atonement is one which originally signifies to cover. Sin is a hideous sore, a shocking deformity, which must be hidden from the eyes of men, and much more from the holy eyes of God. Thus the Old Testament speaks about a Robe of Righteousness which is to be thrown over the ulcerated and leprous body of sin. Apart from this covering, the disease is seen working out its sure and terrible results. "A man that is laden with the blood of any person shall flee unto the pit: let no man stay him,"689689   Prov. xxviii. 17. and though blood-guiltiness appears to us the worst of sins, all sin is alike in its issue; every sinner may be seen by seeing eyes "fleeing unto the pit," and no man can stay him363 or deliver him. Or, to vary the image, the sinful man is exposed to the violence of justice, which beats like a storm upon all unprotected heads; he needs to be covered; he needs some shelter, some hiding-place, or he must be swept away.

But the objection which immediately occurs to us is this: what is the use of covering sin if the sin itself remains? The disease is not cured because a decent garment is drawn over the suffering part; indeed, it is not hard to conceive a case in which the covering might aggravate the mischief. If the idea of covering is to be of any service, it must be cleared from all misconception; there is a kind of hiding which may be ruinous, a garment which may drive the disease inward and hasten its deadly operation, a covert from the storm which may crush and stifle the person whom it professes to protect. "He that covereth his transgressions," in that way, "shall not prosper." Every attempt to conceal from God or from man or from oneself that one is diseased with sin is ineffectual: every lame excuse which seeks to palliate the guilt; every hypocritical pretence that the thing done has not been done, or that it is not what men usually suppose it to be; every ingenious argumentation which seeks to represent sin as something other than sin, as a mere defect or taint in the blood, as a hereditary and unavoidable weakness, as an aberration of the mind for which one is not responsible, or as a merely conventional and artificial offence,—all such attempts at hiding must be failures, "covering" of that kind can be no atonement. Quite the reverse; this trifling with conscience, this deluded self-righteousness, is the worst possible aggravation of the sin. Hidden in that way, though it be, as it were,364 in the bowels of the earth, sin becomes a poisonous gas, more noxious for confinement, and liable to break out in awful and devastating explosions.

The covering of sin690690   It may be necessary to point out to the reader that in approaching the subject of atonement from the standpoint of the book of Proverbs, and merely in the expository treatment of the passages before us, the so-called objective ground of atonement in the sacrifice of Christ does not come into view, but its necessity becomes manifest as each step in the exposition reveals how impossible it would be for us, apart from the work of our Lord Jesus Christ, to realize those conditions which are here laid down as indispensable to pardon and acceptance with God. which is spoken of in xvi. 6 is of a very different and of a quite particular kind. Combining this verse with the others at the head of the chapter, we may observe that every effectual "covering" of sin in God's sight involves three elements,—confession, forsaking, and a changed practice.

First, there is confession. This appears on the face of it to be a paradox: the only way of covering sin is to uncover it. But it is strictly true. We must make a clean breast of it; we must acknowledge its full extent and enormity; we must spare the patient ear of God no detail of our guilt. The foul, explosive gases must be let out into the open, since every attempt to confine them increases their destructive power. The running sore must be exposed to the Physician's eye, since every rag put over it to hide it becomes steeped in its defiling tides. It is true, confession is a painful and a weary task: it is like removing a heap of dust and refuse by spadefuls,—each bit as it is disturbed fills the atmosphere with choking particles and noisome smells; worse and worse is revealed the farther we go. We came to confess a single fault, and we found that365 it was but a broken sherd lying on the foul and pestilential heap. Confession leads to confession, discovery to discovery. It is terribly humiliating. "Am I then so bad as this?" is the horrified cry as each candid admission shows only more and worse that must be admitted. True confession can never be made into a priest's ear,—to men we can only confess the wrongs which we have done to men; but true confession is the awful tale of what we have done to God, against whom only we have sinned and done evil in His sight. It is sometimes urged that confession to a priest gives the penitent relief: possibly, but it is a false relief; since the eye of the priest is not omniscient, the sinner confesses only what he chooses, brings the broken sherd, and receives absolution for that in lieu of removing the whole heap of abominations that underlie. When we have gone as far as we can in laying ourselves bare to man, there remain vast untraversed tracts of our life and our mind which are reserved; "Private road" is written on all the approaches, and trespassers are invariably prosecuted. It is only to God that a real confession can be made, because we know that to Him all is necessarily evident; with Him no subterfuges avail; He traverses those untraversed tracts; there are no private roads from which He is excluded; He knoweth our thoughts afar off.

The first step in the "covering" of sin is to realize this. If our sins are to be really covered they must first be laid bare; we must frankly own that all things are open to Him with whom we have to do; we must get away from the priests and into the hands of the High Priest; we must abjure the confessional and bring God Himself into the secret places of our hearts366 to search us and try us and see if there be any evil way in us. The reserve, and the veilings, which every individual cannot but maintain between himself and all other individuals, must be torn away, in full and absolute confession to God Himself.

Secondly. There is a confession, especially that fostered by the habit of confessing to priests, which is unaccompanied by any forsaking of the evil, or any departing from iniquity in general. Many times have men gone to their priests to receive absolution beforehand for the sin which they intended to commit; or they have postponed their confession to their deathbeds, when there will be, as they suppose, no further sins to turn from. Confession of that kind is devoid of all significance; it covers no sins, it really only aggravates them. No confession is of the least avail—and indeed no real confession can be made to God at all—unless the heart turns away from the evil which is confessed, and actually departs at once, so far as it knows and is able, from all iniquity.

The glib language of confession has been and is a deadly snare to multitudes. How easy it is to say, or even to musically chant, "We have done that we ought not to have done; we have left undone that which we ought to have done." There is no pain in such a confession if we once distinctly admit that it is a normal and natural state of mind for us to be in, and that as we say it to-day, so we shall say it to-morrow, and again the next day to the end. But real confession is so painful, and even heart-rending, because it is only of value when we begin from that moment onwards "to do what we ought to do, and to leave undone what we ought not to do." It is well for us, perhaps, to confess367 not so much sin in the abstract as our own particular transgressions. Sin is too shadowy a monster for us to definitely avoid and forsake; like death, its kinsman,—Death of whom Milton says:—

"What seemed his head

The likeness of a kingly crown had on,"—

Sin is formless, vague, impalpable. But our own individual transgressions can be fixed and defined; bringing ourselves to the test of the Law, we can say particularly, "This practice of mine is condemned, this habit of mine is sinful, this point of my character is evil, this reticence, this indolence, this reluctance, in confessing Christ and in serving His cause, is all wrong;" and then we can definitely turn our back on the practice or the habit, we can distinctly get rid of the blot in our character, we can fly this guilty silence, rouse ourselves from our selfish indolence. "We live to grow less like what we have been;" and it is this act of the will, this resolute purpose, this loathing what once you loved, and turning towards that which once you ignored,—it is, in a word, the twin process of repentance and conversion, that constitutes the second act in this "covering" of sin. Not, of course, that in a moment the tyranny of old habits can be broken, or the virtue of new activities acquired; but "the forsaking" and "the departing from" are instantaneous exertions of the will. Zaccheus, directly the Lord speaks to him, stands forth, and breaks with his sins, renounces his extortions, resolving to make amends for the past, and enters on a new line of conduct, promising to give the half of his goods to the poor. That is the essential seal of every true368 confession: "Whoso confesseth and forsaketh" his transgressions.

Thirdly. This has led us to see that the confession of sins and the conversion from them must issue in a positive practice of mercy and truth, in order to make the process of which we are speaking complete: "By mercy and truth iniquity is atoned for."

It is this part of the "covering" which is so easily, so frequently, and so fatally overlooked. It is supposed that sins can be hidden without being removed, and that the covering of what is called imputed righteousness will serve instead of the covering of actual righteousness. To argue against this view theoretically is at the present day happily quite superfluous; but it is still necessary to contend against its subtle practical effects. There is no verity more wholesome and more needed than the one contained in this proverb. Sin may be summed up in two clauses: it is the Want of Mercy and it is the Want of Truth. All our illconduct to our fellow-men comes from the cruelty and hardness of our selfish nature. Lust and greed and ambition are the outcome of pitilessness; we injure the weak and ruin the helpless, and trample on our competitors, and stamp out the poor; our eye does not pity. Again, all our offence against God is insincerity or wilful lying. We are false to ourselves, we are false to one another, and so we become false to the unseen verities, and false to God. When a human spirit denies the spiritual world and the spiritual Cause which can alone account for it, is it not what Plato used to call "a lie in the soul"? It is the deep inward and vital contradiction of consciousness; it is equivalent to saying, "I am not I," or, "That which is, is not."

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Now when we have lived in sin, without mercy or without truth, or without both; when our life up to a certain point has been a flagrant selfishness of absolute indifference to our fellows, or a flagrant lie denying Him in whom we live and move and have our being; or when, as is so often the fact, the selfishness and the falseness have gone together, an inextricable and mutually dependent pair of evils, there can be no real covering of the sin, unless selfishness gives place to mercy and falsehood to truth. No verbal confession can possibly avail, no turning from the past iniquities, however genuine for the time, can have any permanent significance, unless the change is a reality, an obvious, living, and working fact. If a man supposes that he has become religious, but remains cruel and selfish, pitiless, unmerciful to his fellow-men, depend upon it that man's religion is vain; the atonement in which he trusts is a fiction, and avails no more than the hecatombs which Carthage offered to Melcarth availed to gain a victory over Rome. If a man counts himself saved, but remains radically untrue, false in his speech, insincere in his professions, careless in his thought about God, unjust in his opinions about men and the world, he is certainly under a lamentable delusion. Though he has, as he thinks, believed, he has not believed to the saving of his soul; though he has undergone a change, he has changed from one lie to another, and is in no way better off. It is by mercy and truth that iniquity can be covered.

Now it will be generally admitted that we do not take the course which has just been described unless we have the fear of God before our eyes. Nothing but the thought of His holiness and the awe which it370 inspires, and in some cases even, nothing but the absolute terror of Him who can by no means clear the guilty, moves the heart of man to confession, turns him away from his sins, or inclines him to mercy and truth. When the fear of God is removed from men's eyes they not only continue in sin, but they quickly come to believe that they have no sins to confess; for indeed when God is put out of the question that is in a certain sense true. It is a mere fact of observation, confirmed now by many changing experiences of humanity, that it is "by the fear of the Lord men depart from iniquity;" and it is very significant to notice how many of those who have entirely put away the fear of the Lord from their own eyes have strongly advocated keeping it before the eyes of others as the most convenient and economical police resource.691691   Voltaire rose once from the table at Ferney, where some atheists were discussing their views. He said he could not let his servants hear this talk, for they would rob and murder him if that was true. Many fervent free-thinkers are thankful that their opinions are only held by a minority, and have no wish to see the whole of society committed to the cult which they would have us believe is all that their own religious nature requires.

But supposing that any one of us is led into the position of confession and conversion and amendment which is described in these Proverbs: what follows? That person, says the text, "shall obtain mercy." The gracious Father immediately, unconditionally, and absolutely pardons. This is the burden of the Old Testament, and it is certainly not repealed by the New. "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us371 our sins." "Repent, and be converted," said St. Peter to the crowd at Pentecost, "that your sins may be blotted out." The New Testament is indeed on this point the louder and the clearer echo of the Old. The New Testament explains that saying which sounds so strange in the mouth of a perfectly just and Holy God, "I, even I, am He that blotteth out thy transgressions for Mine own sake."692692   Isa. xliii. 25. Human theologies have imagined obstacles in the way, but God never admitted them for a moment. Clear as the truth that the soul which sins should die, was the promise that the soul which turned from its sin, and did that which is righteous in the eyes of the Lord, should live. No earthly father, frankly and unconditionally forgiving his penitent, sobbing child, could be so prompt, so eager as God. While the prodigal is yet a great way off the Father runs to meet him, and hides all his broken confessions in the rush of His embrace.

But we hesitate to admit and rejoice in this grand truth because of an uneasy fear that it is ignoring what is called the Atonement of Christ. It is a very proper hesitation, so long as we settle it within ourselves that these sweet and beautiful utterances of the Old Testament cannot possibly be limited or reversed by that Gospel which came to give effect and fulfilment to them. Is not the solution of any difficulty that has occurred to us to be found here? The sacrifice and the work of Christ create in the human soul those conditions which we have been considering. He came to give repentance unto Israel. It is His patient love in bearing all our infirmities and sins, His mysterious372 self-offering on the Cross, that can effectually bring us to confession, conversion, and amendment. Our hearts may have been hard as the nether millstone, but at the Cross they are broken and melted. No stern denunciation of sin has ever moved our stubbornness; but as we realize what sin did to Him, when He became sin for us, the fear of the Lord falls upon us, we tremble, and cry, What shall we do to be saved? Then again, it is His perfect holiness, the beauty of those "stainless years He passed beneath the Syrian blue," which wakes in us the hankering desire for purity and goodness, and makes us turn with a genuine disgust from the sins which must seem so loathsome in His sight. His "neither do I condemn thee; go, and sin no more," gives us a more burning hatred of sin than all the self-righteous censures and condemnations of the Pharisees. It is in the pages of the Gospels that we have first understood what concrete goodness is; it has risen upon our night like a clear, liquid star, and the passion of it has entered into our souls. And then, finally, it is the Risen Lord, unto whom all power is given in heaven and in earth, that can really transform our nature, flood our heart with love, and fill our mind with truth, so that, in the language of the proverb, mercy and truth may atone for iniquity.

Is it not because Christ by His coming, by His living, by His dying, by His risen power, produces in the believer repentance and confession of sins, conversion and departing from sin, regeneration and actual holiness, that we say He has covered our sins? What meaning can be attached to Atonement apart from its effects? And in what other way, we may ask, could373 He really give us such a covering or atonement, than by creating in us a clean heart and renewing a right spirit within us? Sometimes, by a not unnatural confusion of language, we speak of the sacrificial death of our Lord as if it, apart from the effects produced in the believing heart, were in itself the Atonement. But that is not the language of the New Testament, which employs the idea of reconciliation693693   See Rom. v. 11. This is the only place in the New Testament where even in the Authorised Version the word "atonement" occurs. But the contention of the text is not one of words, but of facts. Whatever terms are used, the Gospels and the Epistles all agree in identifying the salvation of God with an actual and practical righteousness wrought out by the Holy Spirit in the lives of those who believe in Christ as their Saviour. where the Old Testament would employ the idea of atoning; and clearly there can be no reconciliation accomplished between man and God until, not only God is reconciled to man, but man also is reconciled to God. And it is when we come to observe more accurately the language of the New Testament that this statement of the Proverbs is seen to be no contradiction, but an anticipation, of it. Only the regenerate soul, that in which the graces of the Christ-life, mercy and truth, have been implanted by Christ, is really reconciled with God, i.e., effectually atoned. And though the framer of the proverb had but a dim conception of the way in which the Son of God would come to regenerate human hearts and make them in harmony with the Father, yet he saw clearly what Christians have too often overlooked, and expressed tersely what theology has too often obscured, that every effectual Atonement must include in itself the actual, moral regeneration of the sinner.374 And further, whoever wrote the verse which stands at the head of our chapter understood what many preachers of the Gospel have left in perplexing obscurity, that God would necessarily, from His very nature, provide the offering and the sacrifice on the ground of which every repentant soul that turns to Him could be immediately and freely forgiven.


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