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HE SHALL JUDGE THE WORLD IN RIGHTEOUSNESS.
GOD IS LOVE. 1 JOHN iv. 8.
HE THAT COMETH TO GOD MUST BELIEVE THAT HE IS, AND THAT HE IS A REWARDER OF THEM THAT DILIGENTLY SEEK HIM.
THERE are some truths of religion which seem to retire from view, and others take their place and become the topics of the day. And the lesser often prevail over the greater, the uncertain over the certain, the temporal and accidental over the spiritual and universal. A curious interest is aroused about some matters of controversy, and there is hardly any interest about the first principles of all religion, which seem to drop out of people’s minds as if they had nothing to do with revelation. And this neglect of all proportion in religious truth often leads to consequences quite at variance with the premises from which we started. Thus a sort of conflict appears to arise between faith and reason which is really due to an improper use of reason, drawing out inferences 154without considering the grounds of them, following not the truth but the tendencies of the human mind, turning rhetoric into logic, and building up probabilities when the limits of human knowledge have been attained, trusting to any fiction or illusion instead of looking facts boldly in the face or seeing things as they truly are.
One great instance will be enough to illustrate this curious tendency of the human race which has been the source of so much error in religion. He who reflects on the history of the Roman Catholic Church will feel quite amazed at the way in which one doctrine has been piled on another until the baseless fabric has been in a manner complete. The willingness of men to believe these doctrines, which is like the willingness of children to believe stories, has been accepted in the place of any real proof of them. And thus out of the words ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved’ has been developed the whole apparatus of Catholic theology, including the priesthood, purgatory, masses for the quick and dead, the infallibility of the Pope, the worship of the Virgin and her assumption into heaven, on to the new and strange dogma of the immaculate conception, which was first authoritatively sanctioned about twenty-nine years ago; and, once more, taking a new form, the infallibility of the Pope, not with, but without, a council, which was a short time ago affirmed by a great congress of the Catholic world. So the ball goes on rolling from age to age, like a snowball, and 155perhaps like that some day to dissolve away. And beside this, in the development of these various doctrines distinctions have been introduced, and are so minute that the must be looked at through a microscope before they can be seen. A man may almost ‘miss his salvation through an ignorance of grammar or logic.’ I do not say this from any desire to attack our Roman Catholic brethren—the time for such controversies has passed—but because I believe that lessons may be learned from them which are applicable to ourselves. For not only Roman Catholics but all men everywhere are tending to put the ceremonial in the place of the moral, the word in the place of the thing, the local and temporal in the place of what is universal and eternal.
There is a sense of repose and also of security in leaving these disputes and antagonisms of theology, about which mankind are often so greatly excited, and turning to think a little of the greater first truths of religion, such as the love of God, or the justice and truth of God. These are anchors of the soul, sure and steadfast amid the waves of time; they are also measures and standards of our knowledge to which other truths may be referred or recalled. In thinking of them there is something of the feeling which the Psalmist expresses, ‘Under the shadow of Thy wings shall be my refuge, until this tyranny be overpast’; the words and opinions and violences of men are of little consequence while we have the 156living consciousness that we are in the hands of a good and wise God. Neither is there any satisfaction in raising or ornamenting the superstructure unless we have the foundation, nor in believing in God if our conception of the divine nature is at variance with the sense of right in our own nature; nor in religion at all if religion is at war with morality.
Nor can we maintain that these greater and more simple truths are neglected because all men know them and are convinced of them. On the contrary, they seem to be the truths which are with the greatest difficulty realized in the world, by many not realized at all; and which are constantly in danger of be coming overclouded and obscured. Partly the perversity of the human intellect struggles against the simple notion of God; it is always returning to sense and seeking to veil the nature of God in figures of speech which imperceptibly lead us astray, or in figures of speech once removed, that is to say in analogies. And these veils have to be taken away if we are to see God as He truly is, and not merely as He is represented in the pictures of our minds. Or, if figures of speech are necessary (and indeed language seems to be made up of them), they should be the highest and purest that we can conceive, such as that in which God is described by the prophet ‘as having the body of heaven in His clearness, and not any chance images taken from the chaos of human sense. And when we have used such images we should also 157learn to dispense with them and to see things as they truly are.
Suppose, now, we had a friend who was true and disinterested, one in whom there was no envy or jealousy or personal enmity, whose mind was always full of all noble feelings towards his friends, having a warmth of affection towards all of them alike, and ready to receive them as a father or an elder brother, willing ever to forgive them for wrongs against himself, yet also pained and grieved at them, not because they really did him any injury, but because of the ingratitude which they seemed to show; and because those who were guilty of them did harm, not to him, but to themselves. Also, I will suppose that this friend whom I am describing was the most generous of men, willing to give all that he had to others, to sacrifice himself for their good, kind even to the ungrateful and evil, and that he was the least ceremonious of men, requiring no etiquette or introduction, but freely admitting all who came to him. Such was his real character: but such was not the opinion which other men had of him; for they were cast in a meaner mould, and they could not understand his nobility and freedom of nature. Moreover, they had formed some strange misconceptions of him, and they fancied him not loving and gentle, but severe and precise, easily liable to take offence and not easily pacified when angry, conferring his favours, as some of them said, on a chosen few whom he selected without 158regard to their characters, and insisting on their complying with certain conventional rules before he would receive them into his house. Now this misconception of his nature had continued for many years, how originating could hardly be determined; only one thing was certain, that it was due to no act or word of his, but rather to the stupidity or malignity of others.
Hear another parable. In a certain city there was a judge who was also a king; he was the wisest of judges and the greatest of kings. But the men of that city would not understand his greatness or his wisdom, and they imagined that he was just such an one as themselves. Now they were fond of legal disputes and artificial rules, and sometimes they decreed that men should live or die accordingly as they observed these rules of theirs; and if any one remonstrated with them they said no one could challenge their right to make any rules which they pleased, if they gave due notice of them; and that whether the criminal was a bad man or a good man that made no difference; the point to be considered was whether he conformed to their rules, and whether the rules had been duly announced to him. Also, there were many other things that they held, such as the distinction between themselves and strangers; and they said that they were under no engagement to do justice to strangers. The good and wise judge was grieved at their perverseness and folly, and above all at their attributing 159to him their own corrupt notions of justice. For they pretended that his court, which was the great court of the realm, was governed by the same rules, although he had told them over and over again that he was no respecter of persons, and that ‘he would reward every man according to his works,’ and that ‘in every nation he that did righteousness would be accepted of him.’
Once more: the kingdom of heaven is like a wise man seeking for pearls, and especially for one great and precious pearl, the pearl of truth. But the men of that country said that this pearl was not to be sought for everywhere and at all times; there were certain places, duly pointed out by the officers of the king who kept a guard, in which pearls might be taken. The pearls which were found elsewhere were declared by them not to be true pearls, and those who discovered them were desired to return them to the king’s treasury, although this king himself had never given any such command. But his officers required that they should be issued over again under their authority—none others would pass current. And the wise man knew that he would never find the pearl of truth in this way, and accordingly he went to the king himself, and the king gave him permission freely to seek for the pearl of truth in the whole world, and whatever he found he was to show to his brethren. I venture to offer these three allegories as an introduction to the consideration of the nature of God 160under three heads—‘God is loving, God is just, God is true.’
First of all, God is loving. Human affection supplies many images of the love of God which tend to quicken and elevate our thoughts of Him. For He is our Father and we are His offspring; we look up to Him and recognize His authority; we converse and hold communion with Him in all that is best of our minds and of our lives; we may make a friend of Him, and may go to Him as a child would go to a parent to give him his confidence; even our faults are only seen by Him in the light of His love. Nor is our regard for Him any measure of His care for us: that may be observed in this world also; the love of the parent cannot be extinguished by the ingratitude of the child, but remains as a sort of pained love without any tincture of resentment to his life’s end. How easily can we imagine the father or the mother coming out to meet their spendthrift son as he returns from a distant land, putting on him the best robe and making entertainment for him and his friends. That is the image by which the Gospel represents the love of God towards His prodigal ones. Once more, you may imagine a parent treating his child with great and deserved severity; commonly sending him to a schoolmaster to receive discipline and education: and in some cases he might be willing that the sentence of the law, imprisonment or some other penalty, might take effect upon him. But you cannot suppose 161any one who has the natural feelings of a parent doing this except with a view to the good of his child, and in the hope of his improvement: the idea that he should suffer for the sake of suffering, if these words have any meaning, would be quite abhorrent to his mind. Even so (in the figurative language of Scripture) ‘whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son in whom He delighteth.’ But that He is delighted with the sufferings of any man is a doctrine that we had better give back to the heathen, or to the devil from whom it came. And the good and wise among the heathen also would have rejected such a doctrine; the evil, they would have said, of which God is the author must in some way issue in good. And when we hear of actions being attributed to God which are at variance with our conceptions of His goodness or His justice, then, even if it be in some sacred writing, the rule which has been laid down by one of the wisest of men might be usefully applied: ‘Either these things never really happened, or they were not commanded by God.’
I have been representing divine love under the likeness of human love. And some one will perhaps say that ‘His ways are not as our ways, nor His thoughts as our thoughts.’ There are two senses in which these words may be applied; the one is very false, the other quite true. First, I will suppose a person saying, ‘You use the terms loving and just and true; but how do you know that these words have any 162meaning when you transfer them to God? For what is just to you may be unjust to Him, and what is true to you may be untrue to Him, and what is love according to your notions may be favouritism and partiality in His sight. Think of the ignorance of man and the limitations of human faculties, and do not profanely attribute your notions of morality to God.’
This is what I venture to think a wrong mode of reasoning about the divine nature, a sort of argument which overleaps itself, involving what has been well termed that terrible fiction of a double morality, one for God and another for man, which throws all our notions about God into confusion. For consider: if a person says, ‘I know indeed and am assured of the existence of God and of His revelation to man; but that He is a wise God or a good God or a loving God, or indeed a moral God at all, of that I am not certain, because I do not know whether these words have any meaning in relation to God’; then he is in effect doing away with religion under the wish to be religious; he is like a person sitting on some main branch or limb of a great tree and sawing off the branch on which he is sitting. But instead of pursuing this controversy any further, I will rather proceed to show how the word ‘love,’ while retaining the same meaning in reference to God and man, may yet have a more perfect significance in reference to divine love than is possible in regard to mere earthly affection.
First, because earthly love is narrow and limited, 163arising out of certain natural relationships or friend ships formed by the accidents of time and place. But with God there are no accidents of time and place; His love is an equal love for all men in all ages and countries, a law of love which communicates with the hearts of men. Some one may say, ‘What! am I not the special object of God’s care? Am I not His favourite child? Will He not do for me what He would not do for another—save my life in an accident, or call me to repentance, when He allows another to perish?’ No; that is not the nature of the divine love. Here is a real difference between His ways and our ways. Neither can you yourself desire that He shall do for you what He would not do for another. You have only to put yourself in the place of one who is rejected to see this. Even the human image may teach you a truer notion of God; for the father who has the feelings of a father does not select one of his children to the detriment of the rest; still less can we imagine that when His children are praying to Him that He would save them from death He would deliberately spare one and leave others to perish. Here is a real confusion of His ways and our ways, or rather perhaps a sort of narrowness of vision which makes us concentrate upon ourselves the universal care of all, a feebleness of intellect which fails to understand that the special providence which watches over each one is the general providence which watches over all.164
But there is also another difference between love divine and love human, namely, that the love of God towards men is determined by the good and evil that is in them. People do not, and indeed cannot, choose their friends upon this principle; the elements of personal liking enter into friendship; and the best of men are not exempt from this, which seems to belong to the condition of our earthly state. But with God, as I was saying before in other words, there are no likes or dislikes; He is not a man that He should have a favour to one person rather than to another, or that His feelings should be confined to one rank or circle of society, or that He should take a friend and then give him up again because He found another more suitable to Him. For the love of God embraces all men everywhere and at all times, and ‘has no variableness or shadow of turning’: He can no more cease to be love than He can cease to be God. And His love extends even to the evil in one way, ‘for he maketh His sun to rise upon the evil and the good, and giveth rain upon the just and the unjust’: this is a part of His general laws which, when we speak of the divine hatred of evil, we must not forget. But, remembering this, and remembering also that His love to man is not in any case a merely personal feeling, then I say that this love is deter mined, not like the regard of one man for another, by individual attachment, but by the good and evil that is in them. Is a man doing His will in harmony 165with His laws, carrying on His work in the world, seeking ‘to regard other men as He regards them, casting away all earthly interests or pursuing them only as the means to that which is above them; then a man may indeed feel that he is living in God and God in him; he may consider that he has a Friend with him whose friendship can never fail; he may have a sort of consciousness of inspiration derived from Him in the performance of everything that is noble and true and good; he may rest in Him, and often when he is alone find himself not alone, because the Spirit of God is with him. And, as he feels the love of God diffused in the world around him, his love to man will also grow and enlarge—‘I in them and thou in Me’—and ‘whoso dwelleth in love dwelleth in God.’ Did you ever hear that strange saying of the old mystic: ‘The element of the bird is the air, the element of the fish is the sea, the element of the salamander is the fire, but the element of Jacob Behmen is the heart of God’?
Secondly, the equal love of God towards all men comes round to be the justice of God also. For these are not divided, as human language sometimes leads us to suppose. God is not loving with one part of His mind, and just with another, and true with another; nor loving at one time and just at another and true at another; nor loving to one person and in some of his dealings, and just to another person and in other of his dealings. But He is what He is everywhere and 166at all times, and in reference to all things and persons whatsoever. These are but the imperfections of human language. And in religion as in other things we shall sometimes do well to get rid of language, or at least of the ordinary use of words, and take their meaning; we may try to express the same conception in other words, avoiding terms of controversy: then we shall more readily see what is essential and what is accidental in our ideas of religious truth.
But the justice of God, though inseparable from the love of God, has also another aspect. Neither must we forget that He is just when we speak of Him as loving, any more than that He is loving when we speak of Him as just. There is nothing that we do which is hidden from Him, nor can we suppose that our secret actions pass unheeded by Him. Like the inscription on some tablet, they remain; and the trace of them in our lives and characters is read by Him long after they are forgotten by us. And therefore this aspect of justice is full of awe to us. For which of us can imagine that he lives up to the standard which God requires of him, and which he himself also sees dimly and at a distance? Who among us is perfectly disinterested, regarding only duty and not interest, the will of God and not the opinions of men? Who, in the language of St. Paul, is ‘dead to the world that he may live to God’? Which of us has made, or is truly making, this life a preparation for that other state, which, as we believe, is not far from 167any one of us? Which of us can show that he has made the utmost of the pounds or talents entrusted to him? Even though we fully acknowledge that God knows all our circumstances, and that His judgement is relative to the very condition of our bodily frame, to the place in the world which He has given us, and to our means of knowledge and improvement; still there is something terrible to us in this truth of the justice of God, and our ignorance of the manner in which this rule of divine justice is carried out tends to increase this terror: we may be confident that God is just, and yet ‘who may abide the day of His coming?” Had we only thought of this a little sooner, while there was time! How natural and heartfelt is that saying, even to the bad man, ‘Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his.’
But would you wish, because you are afraid of a righteous governor of the world, to be under an unrighteous one? That be far from us; no rational being would desire that. Nor would any rational being seek to avoid that state of trial or discipline which would most conduce to his improvement, even though the process of restoration to God might be a ‘piercing to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow.’ Nor would any rational being wish to continue for ever in his present imperfect state. And therefore, in thinking of another life, we rejoice with trembling. For we cannot tell how 168far we are fitted for that other state to which God is calling us; nor can we easily set any limit to the natural consequences of evil, for they are worse, if we had any true notion of them, than those physical images of burning and torture which we sometimes see in pictures. ‘Which way I fly is hell, myself am hell.’ We do not need to place before the mind’s eye those outward representations of rivers of flame, and vast chasms, and murderers calling to their victims, which we find in Plato and other Gentile writers. A truer image is supplied by that of St. Paul, the soul perpetually crying to herself, and saying, ‘O wretched—who shall deliver me from the body of this death?’
And here arises a thought which kindles a fire within us, which at least makes us speak out and ask the question: Is the justice of God reconcilable with the everlasting damnation of a portion of His creatures? Are the lost to suffer never-ending torments as the penalty of carelessness or worldliness, or even of greater and deeper sins of which they have been guilty during their short space of three score years and ten? And is the fixing of their eternal destiny to depend in some cases on the hazard of an accident, the overturning of a railway carriage, the process of a mortal disease, the expression of some few words on a deathbed? Tell me how all this is to be reconciled with the notion of a just and perfect God. My brethren, I am not concerned to answer 169these sort of objections. There is nothing wrong in such feelings, so far as they express not any laxity about sin and evil, but a jealous desire to vindicate above all things the justice of God. I think, however, that another way of stating this subject might perhaps satisfy these natural feelings. Let us not speak of an infinite punishment for a finite sin. Neither, on the other hand, let us assume that a time will come in the course of ages when every man will be restored to the grace and favour of God. For, although God may have provided ways of which we are ignorant ‘that His banished ones be not expelled from Him,’ yet this lies beyond the horizon of our vision, and may give rise to a great misconception. But let us rather say that God ‘will reward every man according to his works,’ and that the punishment of mankind in another world will be perfectly just because inflicted by God; the least evil that we do shall not be without consequences, the least good not wholly unrewarded. That may lead us to feel comfort, and also terror and awe. For if, on the one hand, we feel that none can abide the severity of God’s judgement, we feel also that it is good for us to fall into the hands of God: when we consider how little we know of another world, there would be no truth in attempting altogether to banish fear. Neither need any one apprehend that the strong sense of the justice of God will tend to any laxity of morals. It is a maxim of human law that the most effectual punishment is that which 170is most duly proportioned to the crime. This is illustrated by the difficulty of obtaining a conviction or executing a penalty when the punishment is too great for the offence. Human nature revolts at it. Neither is the divine penalty really more terrible because supposed to be infinite. For this is only vague and unreal, a penalty which no one applies to himself, and to which the heart and conscience bear no witness. But still there is a comfort in feeling that we are in the hands of God; we do not seek to avoid just punishment, and He will not suffer us to be punished above what we deserve. For ‘shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ will His judgement fall short of the simple rules of human justice? Nay, surely, He will not fall short of this; He will exceed it. Neither will His justice depend upon accidents; neither will He ‘take me at a catch,’ as has been roughly but truly said; nor will He divide men into two classes only where there are many classes, or rather infinite degrees of them. Nor will He judge them by any narrow or technical rules, but by the broad principles of right and wrong. Slowly in the course of ages mankind have shaken off superstitions about God, and learned the simple truth that God is just, which seems to be the beginning of religion, and yet is hardly understood even now in all its fullness. There is probably no one in this church, father, mother, or any one else, who could for a moment tolerate the idea that an unbaptized infant would suffer 171everlasting torments. Remember that this was once the faith of nearly the whole Christian world, and ask yourself whether, in these latter days, which are some times supposed to be rife with unbelief, Christians have not made some progress towards a truer conception of the ways of God to man.
Thirdly, as God is just He is also true; His justice is inseparable from His truth, just as His love is in separable from His justice. ‘Yea, let God be true, but every man a liar,’ is the exclamation of the Apostle. ‘Will ye speak wickedly for God and talk deceitfully for Him?’ is the reproach of Job against the professors of religion. And everywhere, both in the Old and New Testament, the spirit of prophecy declares to us that God is true. Yet mankind in general, and especially perhaps religious men, have not recognized truth as an attribute of God in the same way that they recognize the justice of God or the love of God. They show this whenever they imply a distrust of the truth, or pervert the truth, or make oppositions of one truth and another, or set up their own opinions against facts. For if God is a God of truth, the truth is alone pleasing to Him; and truth of every kind, the truth of science as well as the truth of revelation, truths which were for ages unknown, truths which are at variance with the received opinions of men as much as those which are in accordance with them. For truth and knowledge are one even as He is one. Nor can He be pleased 172at forced explanations or pious frauds, or any other shifts or evasions which are designed for His glory, nor at any oppositions of nature and revelation or of His laws and Himself. These are the ways in which men sometimes fancy they can do Him a ser vice, not considering that He has no need of their falsehoods to support His truth, not considering, again, that there is no greater unfaithfulness than want of faith in the truth. Let them rather think that all truth and all inquiry is innocent to him who pursues them with an exact and humble mind, and that the Christian has a higher reason than other men for the conscientious pursuit of truth, for he knows that the God of truth is watching over his inquiries.
Lastly, my brethren, he who would understand the love or justice or truth of God must himself be loving and just and true. He who embraces his fellow creatures in an ever-widening circle of love will begin to comprehend in a new way the infinite love of God to man, which embraces at once both him and them: in thinking of them he will think of God, in thinking of God he will think of them. He, again, who has a living sense of justice in his own actions will know of a certainty that God is just; not in any merely conventional way—that which is the first principle of his own life he will realize in the divine nature; trusting in God because He is just, as throughout his life, so also at the last hour. He will never fall into the faithlessness of supposing that God will do anything 173to him or any other of His creatures at which human justice would revolt. Once more, he who has the love of truth in him will have a deeper knowledge of God and His laws, having God present with him in all his inquiries, and submitting to Him and acknowledging Him; rejoicing in all truth as of God, and learning to know Him, not according to the fancies of men, but as He is actually seen governing the world in a fixed order, and punishing His creatures for their good as the consequence of their actions, as He is revealed in history and science; and yet also recognizing Him as the light of the human heart, which is beyond history and science, which lights those who are ignorant of the very meaning of their words, and which can never be put out or extinguished either in this world or in another.174
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