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But there arose false prophets also among the people, as among you also there shall be false teachers, who shall privily bring in destructive heresies, denying even the Master that bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.
THIS is a dark and appalling chapter. There is nothing quite like it elsewhere in the entire book. The misery and desolation of it are unrelieved. It is so like some wide and soddened moor, in a night of cold and drizzling rain, made lurid now and again by lightning-flash and weird with the growl of rolling thunder. Everywhere is the black and treacherous bog. The moral pollution is over whelming. I confess that I have stood before it for months, in the hope of seeing my way across, and even now I am by no means confident of a sure-footed exposition. The gutter conditions are ubiquitous. The descriptive language is intense, violent, terrific. There is no softening of the shade from end to end. It begins in the denunciation of “lascivious 280doings”; it continues through “pits of darkness,” “lawless deeds,” “lust of defilement,” “spots and blemishes,” “children of cursing”; and it ends in the gruesome figure of “the dog turning to his own vomit and the sow that had washed to wallowing in the mire.” It is an awful chapter, borrowing its symbolism from “springs without water,” and from “mists driven by a storm,” and recalling the ashes of “Sodom and Gomorrah “to enforce the urgency and terror of its judgment.
Is there any road across this dark and swampy moor? Has the bog a secret? To drop my figure, has this wide-spreading pollution an explanation? Amid all the cold mystery and darkness of the chapter, one thing becomes increasingly clear as we gaze upon it, that the depraved life is the creation of perverse thought, that in “destructive heresies” is to be found the explanation of this immoral conduct. I say this is one of the clear and primary emphases of the apostle’s teaching. A man’s thought determines the moral climate of his life, and will settle the question whether his conduct is to be poisonous marsh or fertile meadow, fragrant garden or barren sand. The pose of the mind determines the dispositions, and will settle whether a man shall soar with angels in the heavenlies or wallow with the sow in the 281mire. What we think about the things that are greatest will determine how we do the things that are least. “What are your primary thoughts about God? The prints of those thoughts will be found in your courtesies, in your intercourse, in the common relationships of life, in the government of commerce, in the control of the body, and in all the affairs of home and market and field. All the corruption of this chapter is traced up to unworthy conceptions of Christ, to the partial, if not entire, dethronement of “the Lord of life and glory.” The immorality has its explanation in “destructive heresy.”
“What think ye of Christ?” In what was their thought defective? What was the essence of the heresy? The secret is here, they had no adequate sense of His holiness. All true and efficient thinking about God begins in the conception of His holiness. If you begin with His love, you deoxygenate the very affection you proclaim. If you begin with His mercy, you deprive it of the very salt which makes it a minister of healing and defence. If you begin with His condescension, it is a condescension emasculated, because you have not gazed upon His lofty and sublime abode. You cannot get a glimpse of the unspeakable humility of Calvary until your eyes are filled with the glory of the 282great white throne. If you would know the depth you must begin with the height! Our thinking concerning the Lord must not take its rise in His compassions or His love. We must begin with the pure white ray. We must begin with the great white throne! When the man Isaiah was refashioned for the prophetic life, it was not some softened glimpse of a wistful family circle in glory which absorbed his gaze. It was the vision of a throne, “high and lifted up.” And those who stood about the throne were not moving in light and familiar liberty. “Each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet.” How solemn, and how reverent, and how worshipful! And the voices which he heard were not the jaunty songs and liltings which are sung at the fireside. “And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts.” It was in circumstances like these, and upon heights like these, that the prophet’s thinking began! Do not think that grave and venerable experiences of this kind make life severe and hard and rob it of its juice and freedom. There is no man who has more to say about the throne and the awful splendours that gather about it, no man who tells us more about the thunders and lightnings that proceed out of it, than just the apostle who has given 283us the most exquisitely tender letter in the New Testament Scriptures. John Calvin is a name that has become almost synonymous with hardness, unbendableness, severity, with high and austere contemplation, but you do the man a grave injustice and you miss the interpretative secret of his life if you ignore or overlook the wells of most delicate compassion in which his life and writings abound. Our softest water is the water that flows over granitic beds. If you would know what it made of Isaiah, read through his message and examine his life. The rivers of tenderness and compassion which flow in this book are not anywhere to be surpassed except by “the river of water of life” which “flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb.” When you have read the sixth chapter of Isaiah, when you have tremblingly gazed upon the throne, “high and lifted up,” when you have looked upon the veiled and stooping seraphim, and when you have listened to the solemn sound of holy voices “chanting by the crystal sea,” then turn to the fortieth chapter, and hear the sound of running waters, the rivers of compassion “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith the Lord. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. . . . He shall feed His flock like a shepherd!” 284The soft compassion of the fortieth chapter finds its explanation in the solemn severities of the sixth. I stood by a Swiss chalet, on the lower slopes of a lovely vale, and by the house there flowed a gladsome river, full and forceful, laughing and dancing in its liberty, and instinctively I prayed that my life might be as the river, full of power and full of song, clearing obstacles with a nimble leap, and hastening on to the great and eternal sea. And to my voice less prayer there came reply, “Follow up the stream to its birth!” And I tracked the buoyant river, and I reached the snow-line, and I found that in the spreading wastes of virgin-snow the singing minister had its birth. And then I knew that full and forceful Christian lives must have their source in sovereign holiness, that only above the snow-line, near the great white throne, could they find an adequate birth. “Hast thou forsaken the snows of Lebanon?” That is the “destructive heresy,” to begin one’s thinking and one’s doing otherwhere than in the holiness of God. To begin elsewhere is to be sure of impoverishment, and to have a life-river which will lose itself in unwholesome swamp and bog, and become the parent of moral corruption and contagion. “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts.”
But let me still further analyse this “destructive 285heresy.” If we do not begin with the Lord’s holiness, we can have no discernment of the Lord’s atonement. Dwell below the snowline, and you want no atonement! And for this reason. The man who does not begin his thinking in divine holiness will have no keen and poignant perception of human sin. “What you see in a thing depends very much upon its background. John Ruskin has shown us how the whitest notepaper, exposed before the tribunal of bright sunshine, reveals its inherent grey. It all depends upon the back ground. If your background be gas-light, your notepaper will appear superlatively white; but if the background be the all-revealing flame of God’s resplendent sun, the apparent white will darken into grey. I have seen a sea-gull in flight, with a black cloud for a background, and the bird seemed white as driven snow; I have seen the same bird upon the water, with a back ground of snowy foam, and the wings were grey. Yes, what is your background? If you do not begin with the holiness of God you will never see the blackness of sin. If your back ground be some indifferent human standard, some halting expediency, some easy policy, human life, and your own included, will appear passably clear. I think I am no pessimist, but I confess I look with some alarm at what I 286cannot but regard as the lessening sense of sin which seems to hold our modern thought and life. One’s fears are difficult to express because the dark symptoms themselves are so difficult to disengage and define. But I feel a certain dulness, a certain drowsiness, in the spiritual life. I feel a certain close, enervating mugginess in the moral atmosphere; a want of alertness, of sharp and sensitive response. Our modern Churches are too indolently contented, too prematurely satisfied, and are much too willing to take easy advantage of the compromises offered of the world. We must become suspicious of an indulgent terminology. A violent antagonist of the Christian faith, a man whose method of attack is of the slap-dash kind, declared, only a few days ago, “There is no such thing as sin; there is only error.” The man who begins with that diagnosis can never prescribe for me. But we must see to it that we do not take advantage of this indulgent term, and the Christian pulpit must proclaim the holiness of the Lord, and allow no web of wordy sophistry to hide the great white throne! We have frequently been told that we need to recover the word “grace”; we need first to recover the word “holiness”; holiness will recover the word sin. And if sin does not appear sin, but passes muster as imperfect virtue, wherein 287comes the need of atonement? No holiness, no sin; no sin, no Saviour! Redemption is a superfluity, and the ministry of Jesus is a wasteful toil, and His passion is a fruitless death. The man who has no vision of holiness has no perception of the Atonement, and he “denies the Lord that bought him.” It is the man who has ascended above the snow-line, who will wail in his secret soul, “Woe is me, for I am unclean,” and who will smite upon his breast, saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner!”
Well, now, see the consequence of these things. I have been trying to expound the “destructive heresy “which I think is the initial cause of the pollution which is so terribly unfolded in this chapter. If these cardinal conceptions are dull or eclipsed, other precious things will be destroyed. Cast your eyes over this widespread corruption. There are some “conspicuous absences.” There are many missing treasures, whose absence accounts for the filth. I miss the instinct of reverence! They tremble not “to rail at dignities.” It is an ill thing in a life when a man has no sovereignty before which he bows in reverent awe. Take out the august, and life is reduced to flippancy, and levity is the master of the feast both day and night. A man who never reveres will find it impossible to be true. The 288man who never kneels in spirit can scarcely be upright in life. To bow to nothing is to be master of nothing. If we have no sense of the august to worship, we shall have little sense of sin to expel.
I know that in using this word “august” I am using and borrowing a characteristic expression of my great predecessor Dr. Dale, and I hope I am using it with something of his own reach and loftiness of thought. I do not know anything which is more needed in our Free Church life and worship than an awed and reverent consciousness of God. I could wish that we moved about our very sanctuaries with a softer step, and that our very demeanour was that of men who are held in a subdued wonder at the majestic presence of God. I sometimes think that our very detachment from any prescribed order of service, our boundless freedom, our familiarity with the Lord, our easy intimacy in communion, need to be guarded from besetting perils. Even when we rejoice in the Gospel of Calvary let us “give thanks at the remembrance of His holiness.”
Before Jehovah’s awful throne
Ye nations bow with sacred joy.
I do not think we are in danger of “railing at dignities,” but I do think we are in danger of 289forgetting the supreme dignity of them. In one of his letters to Matthew Mowat, Samuel Rutherford uses these words: “Ye should give [God] all His own court-styles, His high and heaven-names.” I think we are a little lacking in the court-style, in this use of the high and heaven-names. But the use of the high names will come back when our souls are humbly gazing upon the high things. “When we shall see Him as John the Evangelist saw Him, we, too, “shall fall at His feet as one dead.” Our souls will always have the stoop of reverent adoration while we keep in view the vision of the holiness of our Lord. In all this revelling, sweltering chapter I miss the sense of sin.
And amid all the movements I miss another treasure, the sense of a large and noble free dom. I know there is a talk of freedom, but freedom is not enjoyed. “Promising them liberty,” and the poor fools are deluded into the thought that they are in possession of it. I know they are “doing just as they like,” but of all forms of bondage that is the worst; for this great world, and the laws of its government, are not built upon the “likes “of men, but upon the rights and prerogatives of God. How can a man be free, even though the song of freedom be ever on 290his lips, if all the powers in grace and nature are pledged to overthrow him? I tell you every flower of the field is ranked against defilement, and all the forces of this wonderful planet are arrayed against the man whose only arbiter is his own “likes,” instead of being determined by the arbitrament of the will and purpose of God. A man who is in sin, and assumes he is in liberty, and is satisfied with his position, has not risen to the contentment and liberty which are the glory of humankind, but is sunk to the animal bondage of the sow, which gloats and wallows in the mire.
There are other missing treasures which I might name, but I will content myself in mentioning only one the absence of any perception of the drift and purpose of history. When the great things go out of life, when the sublime is exiled, when reverence dies and the days decline in triviality, men lose their sense of history, and yesterday has no voice. “And I heard a voice behind me, saying!” That is the voice of yesterday, and it is the privilege of those who are in the fellowship of God to know its interpretation. Sodom and Gomorrah shout through the centuries, and so do Nineveh and Babylon, and Greece and Rome! “If God spared not the ancient world, 291but preserved Noah with seven others, a preacher of righteousness, when He brought a flood upon the ungodly”; and if God turned “the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah into ashes. . .”—that is the voice of history, the shoutings of experience, and by the people in this chapter the voice is unheeded because unheard. All these “conspicuous absences”—the instinct of reverence, the feeling of sin, the sense of a noble freedom, and the recognition of historical witness—are accounted for by perverse thinking, by “destructive heresies,” by the degradation of the Godhead, by the eclipse of the great white throne. Having no sense of holiness, they “denied the Lord that bought them.” The lack of lofty summit explains the corrupt and stagnant plain.
Now this particular species of heresy may not be prevalent to-day. I do not know that we could find its precise lineaments in our own time. But we may give the teaching wide dominion. Our primary conception of the Lord will determine the trend and quality of our own life, and the depth or shallowness of its ministry. Whatever dethrones or disparages Christ will impair and impoverish man. Anything that cheapens the Saviour will make us worthless. Any teaching which puts Him out of account, which removes Him from the 292front place, which relegates Him to the rear, which in any way “denies” Him, is a “destructive heresy,” and is fraught with peril and destruction. Is there any modern peril?
There is a prevalent teaching to-day which is usually known as the “New Thought.” I do not speak as its antagonist, but as one who wishes to preserve it from becoming a minister of weakness and destruction. I welcome much of its teaching. I believe that in discovering and clarifying psychological laws it may render unspeakable help to the living of a Christian life. I believe that we are now standing upon the borderland of a marvellous country, and that mystic forces are to be revealed to us of which hitherto we have only dimly dreamed. I believe that the marvellous phenomena of telepathy and hypnotism, and all the discoveries we are making in this dim and impalpable world, may mightily help us in the fortification of pure and resolute habit. But I see a danger, an ominous danger, a danger real and immediate. I know the literature of this new teaching, the literature both of this country and of the United States; I speak from first hand knowledge, and I say that the teaching gives no adequate place and sovereignty to Jesus Christ our Lord. He is of little or no account; lie is occasionally mentioned, but only 293as one of a crowd, and He is not accorded that unique and solitary pre-eminence which He claims. In one of the latest, and in some respects the ablest, of these books I have looked in vain from end to end for even the bare mention of the Saviour’s name. He does not count! He is a negligible and therefore neglected factor, and is left entirely out of the reckoning. And because He is absent, other things are missing. I find no mention of guilt. Rarely do I stumble upon the fact of sin. In the “New Thought” there is no confession of sin, no sob of penitence, no plea for forgiveness, no leaning upon mercy. The atonement is an obsolete device, the pardonable expedient of a primitive day. “A man must acquire the art,” says one of the best of these teachers, “the art of allowing the past, with whatever errors, sins, faults, follies, or ignorances entangled, to slip out of sight.” How easy the suggestion, how tremendous the achievement! For the most of us that burden slips away only where the pilgrim’s burden rolled away, at the foot of the Saviour’s cross, where it rolls into the Saviour’s grave. I care not what veins of helpful ministry these men and women may strike, if they ignore the Saviour and the ministry of redeeming grace, they are dealing with essentially surface forces as compared 294with the mighty powers born of personal communion with Him. It is a teaching which practically “denies the Lord that bought us,” and so far it is a “destructive heresy” which offers no adequate ministry for the liberation of sinful men, and for the attainment of a full and matured life. All thinking is initially wrong which does not begin with the unique holiness of the Lord, and which does not reserve for Him a supreme and sovereign place in man’s redemption. And that, too, is the severest indictment of spiritualism. It has little or nothing to do with the Lord. It concerns itself with meaner folk, with smaller themes, and with trivial communion. Who ever heard of a spiritualistic campaign for the reclamation of the lost? That’s where its sense is dull. “Saviour!” That’s where the vision is dim. We must bring all teachings, and all ministries to the touchstone of our exalted Lord and Saviour. What do they do with Him? What think they of Christ? We must suspect any thing and everything which lays Him under eclipse. Do they deny the Lord that bought us? Do they dim His glory, and rank Him in the indiscriminate crowd? Then we must label them as “destructive heresies,” whose forces can never achieve the redemption of human kind.295
What, then, shall we pray for ourselves and for others? First of all we will pray that we may never lose sight of the heights of the Divine holiness! We are told that they, who dwell beneath great domes, acquire a certain loftiness and stateliness of bearing which distinguishes them from their fellows. Let us pray that about our brethren and ourselves there may be a mystic significance, a breadth and height of character, a nobility of life, telling of the sublime abode in which we dwell. May we dwell in the truth, live and move in the truth, and by no perilous emphasis of minor themes and things deny the Lord that bought us.296
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