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THE DEATH OF CHRIST OUR ONLY STAY.
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
IF the thought of sin, death, and judgment, be so terrible, as in truth they are to every soul of man, on what shall we stay ourselves when our time is at hand? Not upon the smallness nor the fewness of our sins, for our whole life is full of stains; nor upon the multitude or the greatness of our good deeds, God knoweth; for where shall they be found? When we come, as it were, into the range and presence of death, our whole consciousness is penetrated with a sense of sin. We see not only the evil we have done, but the good we have left undone. And the good, if so be, that we have striven to do, we seem to see for the first time revealed by some strange and searching light, in which all looks blemished, marred, and sullied. 332 The holiest soul will, perhaps, be the most overwhelmed, for a time, by this vision of humiliation; so sure is it, that they who do most works of holiness, trust least in them. They cannot but feel, that there is not an hour nor an act of their life in which, if they have not crossed the end of their creation, they have, at least, fallen short of fulfilling it.
On what, then, shall we stay ourselves in the day when the fear of death falls upon us?
1. First, upon the love of God, in giving His Son to die for us. “God so loved the world;”—that is, so almightily, so divinely, with the infinite love of the eternal Godhead;—“that, He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”193193 St. John iii. 16. “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”194194 1 St. John iv. 10. “God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”195195 Rom. v. 8. This is our first foundation, that God loves the world; that He looks upon the works of His hands with an eternal and stedfast love, with a tender, yearning compassion. Whatever be doubtful, this is sure. Light does not pour forth from the sun with a fuller and director ray, than does perfect and eternal love overflow from 333the bosom of God upon all the works that He has made. The mere fact of creation is a proof of love. “He hateth nothing that He hath made.” All being is His work, the subject of His power, the object of His love. The force of this truth is boundless. It is true that God hates sin, and, therefore, whatever in us is sinful; for, so far, we have unmade ourselves; we have undone His work; uncreated, so to speak, His creation; so far, we are not His creatures; so far, we are under the shadow of His wrath. But, as the work of His hands, we are objects of a changeless and eternal love. This is a wonderful mystery; a contradiction to the guilty consciousness of sinners. In them the sinner has absorbed, as it were, the creature of God; and all they feel is fear, and a sense of His just aversion. But the everlasting truth still stands fast, that God loves us, It is specially declared by our Lord, that “God so loved the world,” fallen as it is in sin, as to give His Son for it. St. John says, that He loved us, though we loved Him not: St. Paul, that while enemies He loved us. All this shews that the love of God is the sphere in which the world is sustained, and that every living soul is encompassed by that love as stars by the firmament of heaven.
And from this blessed truth flows all manner of consolation. Not only does God hate sin, but He 334hates death; not only does He abhor evil, but the peril and perdition of so much as one living soul,—of one, even the least of all things He has made. The Lord hath sworn by Himself saying, “I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth.”196196 Ezek. xviii. 32. It is as much, nay, far more, against His loving will that we should perish than against our own. Let us, then, sum up all our fears, terrors, and shrinking, our abhorrence of death, judgment, and eternal sorrow, and then know that, while God hates our sins, He abhors our death and misery far more than we. What words do we further need to assure us that He desires our salvation? What promises do we ask? Why do we so far tempt Him as to exact a promise, or to ask a sign? Does a child bind his father by promises to give him bread, or a mother to foster him in sickness? Do not the instincts of nature suffice, in silence, for this perfect trust? Surely the character of God is enough. “God is love.” What more do we ask? What more would we receive? “He cannot deny Himself.” And therefore when He was “willing more abundantly to shew unto the heirs of promise the immutability of His counsel,” He “confirmed it by an oath.”197197 Heb. vi. 17. And “because He could swear by no greater, He sware by Himself;” that is, His promise was confirmed 335by His oath, and His oath by Himself; and both His oath and His promise returned into His own perfection. “Surely blessing I will bless thee.”198198 Heb. vi. 14.
But for us God has done still more. He has, besides His promise, found a pledge to give us. He has given us “His only begotten Son.” Here is the very type of absolute love; higher He could not go: for if God “spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?”199199 Rom. viii. 32. Into this mystery of Divine love and sacrifice we cannot penetrate. The love of the Holy Three, the Blessed One, is a depth before which we can only fall upon our face and worship. As if His eternal character were but a small thing for our assurance, God has added this further, that He has given unto us His Son, “the Son of His love.” He gave Him up to suffer all humiliation, agony, and death; all that the Divine nature most abhors; and He gave Him to be ours in so full a right, that we might offer Him as our own in sacrifice for our sins. Here, then, is the first foundation, the basis of the spiritual world, in which the new creation of God is laid,—the love of God in the gift of His Son. When we are overtaken by the fear of death, or the consciousness of sins of which we desire to repent, let us first rest ourselves upon the infinite 336love of our Maker. It must be a strong and strange necessity that can thrust itself between Him and us; and so contradict the will of both as to turn aside His love, and to destroy our soul. “Like as a father pitieth his children, even so the Lord pitieth them that fear Him. He knoweth our frame; He remembereth that we are but dust.”200200 Ps. ciii. 13, 14. His creative love alone would be enough to still our fears, and to shew us that, if any perish, it is not because He is austere, but because they are evil. The whole will and kingdom of God is love; and to Him, in that kingdom, we may come with boldness of hope and trust. How much more now that He has revealed His love to be two-fold, in creation and in redemption, by first giving us unto Himself, and then by giving unto us His Son; now that He is “in Christ,” not waiting our overtures of peace, but “reconciling the world unto Himself.”201201 2 Cor. v. 19. It is He, the Almighty and the offended King, who sends an ambassage of love, lowering Himself to be beforehand in the tokens and effusion of His mercy.
But it is certainly true, that we are not able to stay ourselves on this alone. If we were upright as in the beginning, or perfect in our conversion, we might need no other consolation; but being, as we are, fallen, and soiled, weak, and, at the best, imperfect 337in repentance, we cannot but stretch out our hands for more and more assurances of His tender mercy,—of the mercy we need, not as creatures, but as sinners. That is to say, we are convinced of it as an object of faith, but we are full of misgivings in applying it to our own soul, and to our own hope of life. We want something to assure us with a more intimate personal conviction. And even this He has given us besides.
2. For we have, as a second foundation on which to build our trust, the love of the Son in giving Himself for us. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” When we remember who He is that gave Himself, and for whom, and to die what death, we cannot find capacity of heart to receive it. As an intellectual statement it is easy to enunciate; but as a moral fact in our affections it is hard to realise: so deep is the mystery of love. If He had saved us by a new exertion of His creative will, it would have been a miracle of lovingkindness. If He had spoken once more the first words of power, and created us again in light, it would have been a mystery of sovereign grace. If He had redeemed us by the lowliness of the Incarnation, still revealing Himself in majesty, though as a man, and lightening the earth with His glory, as Saviour, God, and 338King, it would have seemed to us a perfect exhibition of the Divine compassion to a sinful world. How much more when He came to suffer shame and sorrow, all that flesh and blood can endure, to sink, as it were, into the lowest depths of creation, that He might uplift it from its farthest fall? There was no creature of God, as a creature, beneath His estate. Nothing but sin itself can sink lower than the Son of God. Of all men, as man, He was the last; “a worm, and no man; a very scorn of men, and the outcast of the people.”202202 Ps. xxii. 6. He came to “lay down His life.” Even the mystery of the Incarnation, His words of grace, and His works of power, were all too unemphatic, too inarticulate, to express His love. There was needed something deeper and more awful still. “Being in the form of God,” He emptied Himself of His glory. His Godhead He could not lay aside for us; but He took to Himself something—the dearest and most precious to the soul of man—He took our nature, and therein a life, the most loved and priceless of all gifts of God. There is nothing to be compared with life. We cherish it as our very self; it is the centre of every care; the end of all our labours. “All that a man hath will he give for his life.”203203 Job ii. 4. Such He took unto Himself; and thereby He possessed Himself of something He might give for us. 339“Therefore doth My Father love Me, because I lay down My life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from Me; but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again.”204204 St. John x. 15, 16. It was a distinct personal act, a deliberate choice, first made in His own will, then followed out in suffering to its fulfilment. He had, by the mystery of the Incarnation, obtained a price of greatest worth, of which He could strip Himself for our sake, ascertaining to us thereby, in some measure, by the scales of a man, the love He bare to us.
If He so loved us as to die for us, what will He not grant or do? If He gave His whole self, will He keep back any partial gift? Will He not save us, who Himself died for us? If He loved us when we loved Him not, will He not love us, now that we desire to love Him again? If He gave Himself for us when we were in sin, will He not hear us now that by Him we are regenerate? Notwithstanding all our manifold provocations, yet if He offered Himself for those who were impenitent, He will surely listen to us now that we grieve at the wounds wherewith we have pierced Him; now that we count ourselves among His scourges, mockeries, and thorns. Well might St. Paul call it “the love of Christ which passeth knowledge;” well might 340he pray for the illumination of the Holy Ghost, that we might “comprehend with all saints what is the length, and breadth, and depth, and height” of the mystery of the Cross, its eternity, its infinite embrace, its fulness, and its perfection. When sin and conscience overwhelm us, here is our pledge of pardon. No man ever loved us as He. Neither friend nor brother, father nor mother, sister nor child, none ever loved us with such intense, changeless, discerning love. Sinners though we be, we may say, “None ever so loved me—not for what is in me—not for any love of mine—not for any mutual joy—but for my own sake, because I am a living soul, created in His own image, capable of eternal weal or woe. He loves me, not for what I am, but in spite of what I am. He has loved me always, and loves me still; and to that love I go, as to a supernatural mercy, to a miraculous pity, to a divine compassion. He will not cast me out, much less will He cut me off, if at least an almighty justice can save my soul alive.”
And this touches upon the quick of our fear. Loving, pitiful, and tender, He is also holy, pure, and just. It may be, you are saying to yourself, “Though He gave even His own life to reveal His love and desire to save us, am I such that He can save while He is also just and pure? My sins have created a necessity that, if He cannot 341shew mercy, He must be just. Guilt and soils cannot enter the kingdom of God; and I have both. I do not mistrust His love; for “greater love hath no man than this;” and He has given me His pledge, even His very life. But I fear the eternal necessities of justice, and the sinfulness which has clung to me since the first awakening of power and will.
3. Now it is specially against this deepest fear of the soul—this only fear, for none can really doubt His perfect love—that He has given us an absolute assurance. He has laid a foundation which cannot be moved—His own death for us upon the Cross. Hitherto we have looked upon it only as a revelation of Divine love to us; now let us look upon it as a Divine atonement for our sin. How it is so, we may not eagerly search to know. That by death He has destroyed “him that had the power of death,”205205 Heb. ii. 14. and taken “away the sin of the world,” is enough. In that death were united the oblation of a Divine person and the sanctity of a sinless man; the perfection of a holy will and the fulfilment of a spotless life; the willing sacrifice of the sinless for the sinful, of the shepherd for the sheep that was lost, of life for the dead. How this wrought atonement for the sin of the world, we cannot say further than is revealed. God 342“made Him to be sin for us.”206206 2 Cor. v. 21. “He bare our sins in His own body on the tree.” “By His stripes we are healed.” How the guiltless could take the place of the guilty; how the penalty due to our sin could be laid on any but ourselves, above all, on One who was sinless; and how such a translation of punishment could also translate us from the throng of the guilty to the company of the guiltless; how the eternal Righteousness has been pleased to unite this atonement to His own changeless severity; how the iron link between sin and death has been broken through, and the power of both abolished,—and all this at once, by the death of a Divine and sinless Person,—must, at least in this our wayfaring on earth, be a mystery unsearchable, and a depth past finding out. We may, perhaps, be admitted within the veil in the heavenly kingdom; we may behold this secret of eternal justice in the vision of peace. But in this life, it is enough for us to know that He hath tasted “death for every man;” that “there is now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus.”
Deeply convinced as we are of this corner-stone of truth, we are still only able to realise it in part. The consciousness of personal guilt, both original and actual, the sense of indwelling and habitual 343sinfulness, makes us to shrink even in the presence of the Cross; as if by it the sin of all the world were taken away except our own. We are wont to say, “If I had not this consciousness, I would firmly trust that my sin is also taken away. But this consciousness cries out, and clamours against my intellectual convictions. My spiritual nature contradicts this flattery, and forbids me to rest upon a truth of the abstract reason.”
Now what does this mean? It is, in truth, as much as to say: “I would trust in the death of Christ, if like Him I were without sin.” Or, “I would trust, if sin were first so wholly cleansed away from me, that in all my consciousness there remained no memorial of the fall.” What is this but a virtual rejection of the atonement, that is, of a sacrifice for sinners? What is it but unbelief to say: “I would trust in it, if I had no need of it; but because I am conscious of the need, 1 dare not, or I will not?” What does this mean but, “If I had no need, I would therefore trust” (having then no need to trust at all); “but because I need, I dare not,” that is, “I have no faith?” Surely this is the very crisis between the religion of nature, which teaches no fall and no atonement, and the Gospel of life, of which sin and the sacrifice of Christ are the beginning and the end. Therefore, in one word, the reason why we may,—nay must, cast ourselves upon 344 the atonement of His death, is this same consciousness of sin, which crushes us to the dust. To whom else shall we go? To what power in heaven or earth, to what purging fires, to what healing streams? “If I ascend up into heaven, Thou art there; if I go down into hell, Thou art there also.” We cannot fly from Him: we cannot fly from ourselves. The sin that is in us cleaves to our very life. Where we go, it goes; when we lie down, it broods upon us; all day long it wakes with us, all night through it moves with our sleeping thoughts; it follows us as the shadow of our being; and its blackness always lies full length upon our hearts. Such we are, and must be, till He change us; and as such, we must go up to the foot of the Cross, and fall down, and hold fast by His pierced Feet. Just such as we are we must go: though it is all the more fearful as it is the more blessed: the more we need that atonement, the more we must shrink as we draw near to it. But He will suffer us to make no terms, nor compromises; to prescribe no conditions on which we will believe ourselves to be forgiven. He will have faith, undoubting, unreasoning, simple,—childlike, hopeful, loving faith. Do we, then, know so much better than He the necessities of the eternal world, the prerogatives of His own kingdom, the harmony of His attributes, the due measure of 345His holiness, the glory of His throne; that we will not accept our pardon on such unequal terms? Do we so far better know than He what is our own state before Him, that we may put His atonement by; as self-trusting patients analyse the skill of their physician? What He would have, is not the sight of our eyes, nor the discernment of our wit, nor the measures of our intellect; but the affiance of our will, and the trust of our hearts. It is the very trial of faith, as much to contradict within its own sphere the doubts of our natural consciousness, as the impressions of our natural sense. If “we walk by faith, not by sight;”207207 2 Cor. v. 7. much more are we saved by faith, not by the sensations of a fallen nature.
But here an objection may be made,—of great weight, if well founded; and of apparent weight, ill founded as it is,—namely, that consciousness is the reflection of conscience, and that conscience is a guide given us by God. And as we cannot put two divine gifts in contradiction, we therefore cannot put faith against a conscience which convinces us of sin.
Now to this we must answer, strangely to the ears of some, that we must not, and yet that we must so contradict ourselves. And with a few words of explanation we will make an end.346
1. First, then, it is clear, that we must not putt! faith in contradiction to our consciousness of sin, if by that we mean a sentence of our heart, convicting us of any wilful sin. In this sense, conscience and consciousness are one and the same; conscience implying the judicial sentence of the soul upon itself, and consciousness, the diffused sense of its own condemnation. When we can find in ourselves sins wilfully committed, and not repented of, or sins wilfully repeated after repentance, whether they be grosser and less frequent, or more refined and of habitual commission; or if we know within ourselves, that we are living without any true relation to the presence of God; consenting in the evil and darkness of our hearts; cold and dead in our religious affections; formal and lifeless in prayer; without humiliation, self-discipline, self-knowledge; without thought of death and of God;—if this or any such state be our settled and habitual condition in His sight, then without doubt, it is mere antinomianism, or presumption, or blindness of heart, to talk of faith in the atonement of Christ. “There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked.” When the moral and spiritual nature is so estranged from God, so severed and deadened,—I may say, so opposed and hostile to the Divine holiness, love, and will,—it is worse than self-deceit to talk of resting upon 347the death of Christ. This is most certain, and can never be too often or too strongly repeated, This describes the character of wilful sinners, open or secret, worldly and unconverted souls; pharisees, hypocrites, sluggards, self-deceivers, and the like. But surely it is no discovery to find out that such as these can, in that state, put no trust in the blood of the Cross. When really sifted to the bottom then, the objection means nothing more than this: “Why call ye Me Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?” “A man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?” “What doth it profit, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works; can faith save him?” “Faith, if it have not works, is dead.”208208 St. James ii. 18, 20; 14, 17. In this sense, then, let it be said, with all words and tones of warning, that the love of God, and of Christ, and His precious death upon the Cross, are all in vain to the man who is conscious of wilful and unrepented sin.
2. But, lastly, there is a sense most true and most blessed, in which we not only may, but must rest by faith in the death of Christ, in despite of our consciousness of sin; and that is, when that consciousness is a memory of sins, wilful indeed in 348time past, but repented now, or committed through weakness, with instant sorrow, and against our habitual will. For what is this but the state of every true penitent, or of every just man not yet made perfect? If such Christians as these may not trust themselves to the atoning death of Christ, the Cross must stand deserted and fruitless as a dry and barren tree. What are penitents but those in whom memory, imagination, thoughts, tumultuous emotions, vehement drawings of the will, and struggles of the heart against the conscience, cloud and disturb the consciousness of the soul? They are haunted by a sense of the presence of sin, and yet “who shall separate” them “from the love of Christ?” Nay, what is the condition of those who have long been converted to God but one of warfare, of frequent self-accusation, and of trembling self-mistrust? Take the most watchful and stedfast of God’s servants, and ask whether his consciousness is so clear and cloudless, that he can therefore, without a fear, apply to himself the sacrifice of the Cross. “To which of the saints wilt thou turn?” Ask of the chosen vessel, the elect apostle. “I know nothing by (that is, of, or against) myself; yet am I not hereby justified. But He that judgeth me is the Lord.”1 Cor. iv. Even he must say, “I count not myself to have apprehended;” and, “if by any 349means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead.”209209 Phil. iii. 13 and 11. It is, then, most true that no one may deceive himself by trusting in the death of Christ, so long as his conscience condemns him of wilful sin; hut it is equally and as absolutely true, that no man can rest his trust in that atonement upon the possession of a sinless consciousness. The grace of faith is a gift specially meted out to the necessity of those who are in neither of these states; but in that middle condition in which a heart, sincerely converted, clings with all its grasp to the atonement of the Cross. This is its only safety against the malignity of the devil, the power of temptation, the infirmity of our manhood, and the flexible treachery of our own will. The full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice of the Cross is the only stay of the soul, from the hour of its sincere conversion to the change which shall make us to be “pure even as He is pure.” Let us, therefore, guard with all watchfulness and prayer against every consent of the heart in any thing of evil. Let us withdraw ourselves by the whole power of our will, through the help of the Holy Spirit, from all communion with “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” What then may come upon us is from without. It is not our sin, but our scourge; permitted to try and to humble us. 350 Even though we fall, as saints have fallen, yet let us not cast away our trust. When trust is gone, hope is dead; and where there is no hope, there can be no repentance: for where there is no love, there can be no contrition; and love cannot survive the death of hope; for the loss of hope is despair, that is, the fear of certain perdition, “the fearful looking for of fiery indignation.” Therefore it is that Satan strives above all to destroy in us the power of faith, hope, and love,—the three blessed gifts of grace infused by the Holy Ghost in our regeneration. If these can be destroyed, and their spiritual antagonists implanted and matured in the soul, it matters not what we profess or practise. The revealed object and the productive source of these three virtues of the Spirit is the atonement of the Cross. Let us hold fast by this; and they will be replenished by a perpetual effluence of His Divine love, streaming into our souls, and drawing them back, as by a tide, unto Himself. He has so united us unto Himself, that when He died for all, we died together with Him; and because He liveth, we shall live also. His life and His death are inseparably ours. Death has done its worst against us already upon the Cross. And “our life is hid with Christ in God.” Let us, then, strive to say to our own heart, in the words of a saint now in His kingdom: “While 351there is life in thee, in this death alone place all thy trust; confide in nothing else besides; to this death commit thyself altogether; with this, shelter thy whole self; with this death array thyself from head to foot. And if the Lord thy God will judge thee, say, Lord, between Thy judgment and me I cast the death of our Lord Jesus Christ; no otherwise can I contend with Thee. And if He say to thee, Thou art a sinner; say, Lord, I stretch forth the death of our Lord Jesus Christ between my sins and Thee. If He say, Thou art worthy of condemnation; say, Lord, I set the death of our Lord Jesus Christ between my evil deserts and Thee, and His merits I offer for those merits which I ought to have, but have not of my own. If He say that He is wroth with thee; say, Lord, I lift up the death of our Lord Jesus Christ between Thy wrath and me.”210210 S. Anselmi Admonitio morienti, Opp. p. 194. Let this be our confidence. The love of God in Christ; the love of Christ in dying; the death of Christ upon the Cross; lifted up for us; a perpetual sacrifice; one, spotless, all-prevailing; ever fresh, ever full of life; infinite in price, virtue, and power. In life and death, in our last agony, in the day of judgment, be this our only stay, our hope, our all.352
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