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LAW AND LIFE.
Galatians, vi. 7.—“Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”
THERE is a great order of justice in all lives—an underplan of equity upon which life as a whole is built up—judgment being laid to the line and righteousness to the plummet.3434 Isaiah, xxviii. 17. The traces of this divine measurement are not always discernible. There are many confusions, and what may seem great injustice, in individual cases. There are lives which seem never to have fair-play. Accidents of birth, or of physical or mental organisation, have disordered 4hem from the first, and left them without their share of moral opportunity. I know of no greater mystery in nature than such lives, which have had no chance of good, and scarcely any 66capacity for it. But this, like all other mysteries, must be left to God. He will deal fairly in the end, we may be sure, with such lives, and not judge them above what they are able to bear. They are safe in God’s love, if any are. His pity reaches to the depth of all human frailty. But taking moral life as a whole, it is plainly dealt with on a plan of rigorous equity. Opportunity and capacity are given, and service and fruit are demanded in return. A great law of righteousness is seen working everywhere, and bringing forth results after its kind—of good unto good, and evil unto evil—notwithstanding all appearances to the contrary.
For the present, it is this element of law in life which is our subject. It is not well for the Christian mind to dwell exclusively upon the mere goodness or clemency of God, and still less to make such goodness any excuse for the poor, weak, and vacillating endeavours which we sometimes make to do what is right in His sight. The apostle never makes such allowance for himself or others; and in the text, he has laid down, in a figure indeed, but in a figure so intelligible that the plainest mind may follow it, the law of moral order—of action and reaction—which never fails in human life. 67“Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” His argument in the passage is, that every man must answer for himself and his own doings to God. The shadow of responsibility is never away from us—not even in the clearest sunshine of the Divine love. The fact that every thing we do bears its natural consequence is not at all touched by the higher evangelical fact, so often elsewhere expressed by him, that it is “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us.”3535 Titus, iii. 5. Give all force to this higher fact. If it were not for the Divine mercy, we should not only be, but remain, miserable sinners, “without God and without hope in the world.” But the other fact is not the less true—not the less universal; and for the present we will do well to follow his line of thought in this respect.
The spiritual or evangelical tone of mind is apt at times to overlook the sterner side of human life. It delights itself with the great possibilities of Divine grace, and the immense changes from evil to good which are not beyond its scope. But the Divine order is nevertheless a fact, and it is highly important that we should not deceive 68ourselves regarding it. Should we deceive ourselves, God is not mocked. His laws are not altered by our self-deception. They work out their issues with undeviating certainty. Every man is only what he is really before God, and his life is all along only what he makes it, with or without God’s grace and help in doing so—“for every man shall bear his own burden.”3636 Galatians, vi. 5. No one can share with another the moral realities of his life, whatever these are. Our cares and sorrows—such accidents of trouble as come to us from without, and at times weigh heavily upon us—others may share and help us to bear.3737 Ibid. vi. 2: “Bear ye one another’s burdens.” The apostle indicates the distinction of the two cases by a distinctive expression. His expression in verse 2 is βάρν; in the 5th verse φορτίον. But we must bear alone the results of our own conduct. We must reap the harvest which we have sown, and eat the fruit of our own doing. The issues of our free will are our own and no other’s; and we need never try to shift this burden, if it prove a burden, upon another. We must stand before God carrying the freight of our own deeds, and receive according to these deeds done in the body, whether they be good or evil.69
The language of the text plainly looks at this sterner side of human life as something which needs emphasis. We are apt to overlook or underestimate it; and therefore the apostle takes care that it shall be brought clearly into sight, and that we shall be under no mistake about it. The harvest is always after its kind. “He that soweth to his flesh, shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit, shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.”3838 Galatians, vi. 8. “Let every man prove his own work.”3939 Ibid, vi. 4. The law tells with equal force on both sides. That which is sown to the Spirit is spiritual, and the harvest thereof is everlasting life. The good seed brings forth good fruit. The lives of the good teem with an ever-accumulating wealth of goodness, and the golden grain hangs more heavily in the late autumn of their years. But this side of the divine law needs not so much to be enforced as the darker side. Men readily believe that if they do well, God will deal well with them. Or if there is a strange spirit of distrust sometimes on this score—as with the man who hid his talent in the parable—yet such a temper is less frequent than the dearth of spiritual insight altogether. It is far more common for men to think 70of God as likely to overlook sin than to fail in rewarding good. The latter state of mind may not be uncommon amongst serious people. From the very depth of devout awe there springs sometimes a strange distrust of God as a hard taskmaster, reaping where He has not sown, and gathering where He has not strawed. But even this worst type of a perverted Calvinism is better—as it is certainly less frequent—upon the whole, than spiritual deadness, or that natural Epicureanism which takes its chance of good or evil, and thinks that the Divine order is not so unbending, after all—that life is not so grave as religion would make it, or moral punishment so sure as God threatens.
In our time there is but little fear that men will sink into a superstitious dread of God. The spirit of awe is not a prevailing spirit in our modern life and literature. Men and women alike are sufficiently alive to their rights; and the talent, instead of being hid away in a napkin, in fear of what the Lord will say, is used in the face of all, with a free audacity which plainly means that we know what we are doing, and that we are not afraid of God’s reckoning with us in the end as to the use of our gifts and opportunities. The modern spirit, if it has not 71lost the old reverence for God—for there may be a true reverence beneath much freedom—has yet ceased to be afraid of Him. It looks to Him with a sure and bright confidence that honest service of every kind will not fail of its reward. It is only too self-confident; and its dangers are all on the side of self-confidence. Is there, after all, a Divine order? it is apt to say. Is wrongdoing, after all, of so much consequence? Is it in the largest sense wrongdoing to yield free indulgence to my pleasure-loving instincts—to gratify, in such way as appears to me good, my natural desires and appetites? Why should I not do as I please and live as I will? This is the tendency of modern life; and it is against this tendency that the text, and many texts, warn us.
It is very natural for men in high, health and fulness of strength to think that they may do as they please, and give free rein to the power of natural passion or the gratification of worldly instinct. But let them not be deceived. There is a Divine order, although men may ignore it or fail to recognise it; and no misconception of theirs can alter or reverse it. Against this order all life which is not right must break and go to ruin. If we yield ourselves to fleshly indulgence, 72we shall reap in the end corruption; and nothing can save us from it. The laws of health are invariable. Let us use our bodies well—restrain and discipline and refine them—and they will be well. Let us use them ill, and make them the instruments of unlawful excess, and it will be ill with them. This may not appear all at once. The laws of temperance and purity may be broken for a time, or may seem to be broken with impunity: and the strong man may rise again and again with what looks like unbroken health from the disgrace of self-indulgence. But his heart deceives him in the moment of his strength, and the day of retribution is travelling swiftly onwards in the very morning of his pleasures. It may be said without any exaggeration that not a single sensual excess is ever practised with impunity. It leaves some weakness of body or foulness of mind behind it—probably both. The divine rules of temperance and purity bind us, body and soul, in their golden links; and let us break off any of these links, or rudely dislocate them, and the order of health is not merely disturbed, but the life for whose protection it was given is deeply injured. And let excess of any kind be continued, and the golden security becomes an iron bondage. The 73will which has ceased to restrain itself within the Divine order gradually loses all due control, and finds its only pleasure, which is at the same time its greatest misery, in self-abandonment.
The world is full of lives thus broken and flawed in a vain struggle with the Divine order which rules them and will not let them go free. From bad they have gone to worse, ever downward in the course of self-indulgence, till they can only look upward from an abyss of shame to an irrecoverable ideal. At first it seemed a little thing to yield. Why should they not taste the pleasures which so many had tasted before them, and from which apparently they had reaped no harm? But the harm never fails if the evil is really done. It works somehow—invisibly, if not visibly. And the vengeance which may tarry in one case comes swiftly in another. The temptations which some have struggled with and mastered, prove demons of power over others, and leave them no rest. And so the love of indulgence grows more irresistible, and the path of what was thought pleasure becomes the path of misery and disgrace. We say with pity, What a wreck such a man has made of his life! And there is no wreck so pathetic, if we clearly think 74of it. But the sequel is, after all, only as the beginning; and the grain as the seed which was cast into the ground. There has been a sure process of sowing, growth, and maturity; and the miserable spectacle of moral baseness is as real a development as any natural growth. The first choice of evil seemed of little moment—the excess of passion seemed only the excess of youthful strength. But excess bred lawless appetite, and appetite grew by what it fed upon, and as it grew it ate like a canker into soul and body. The tempted will Was drawn away of its own lust, and enticed. “Then, when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin; and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.”4040 James, i. 15.
This is merely one illustration. But, like all Divine laws, the law of moral order “fulfils itself in many ways.” The mean and avaricious life—the selfishness which hides itself under the guise of over-prudence—deteriorates as surely as the self-indulgent life, that seeks merely its own gratification. The operation may be more slow or more hidden in the one case than in the other. The life that lacks all generosity and “minds only its own things” may seem what is called respectable, and rise for a time in the world’s esteem; 75but it is poor and ignoble at the best, and it gets poorer with the advance of years. All finer traits—nay, all sources of moral good—are gradually worn away. The world is more and more with such a life, and more and more corrupts it. Of meanness there come narrowness and ugliness of character, habits of jealousy and discontent which consume the very core of spiritual dignity, and deaden at the root any high hope or aim of happiness. No spirit, perhaps, is so sure of its final reward of misery as the spirit which has sought to grasp everything for itself, without thought of others, or even the capacity of using what it grasps or spending what it accumulates. Its very accumulations become its torment, while the sanctities of affection and the sweetness of nature wither before its sight.
The case which seems most at times to defy the law of divine order is that of criminal ambition—when a daring and unscrupulous nature has triumphantly carried out some scheme of well-planned or of powerful craft, and seems securely to enjoy the crown of his wickedness. Then, to the commonplace observer the world seems a chance, and man the plaything of the strongest will. One has only to be bold enough in sin to gain his ends. Amidst the gaze of vulgar 76admiration the audacious criminal is mistaken for a hero, and the incense of even religious applause may rise around him. The hearts of the good may misgive them as they see “the wicked boasting of his heart’s desire, and blessing the covetous.”4141 Psalm x. 3. But here, where the operation of the Divine righteousness looks as if suspended for a time, there is working a sure retribution, often hastening on to a terrible fulfilment. Out of the very heart of pride there comes the impulse to a fall. The intoxication of strength leads to the first step of weakness; and the hero of the hour sinks amidst curses into the obscurity of the impostor or the ignominy of the felon. So long ago as the time of the Psalmist, this fate of triumphant wickedness had been sketched: “I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a green, bay tree: Yet he passed away, and, lo, he was not; yea, I sought him, but he could not be found. Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright: for the end of that man is peace. But the transgressors shall be destroyed together; the end of the wicked shall be cut off.”4242 Psalm xxxvii. 35-38.
So we must believe, if we believe in God at all. A God less than immutably righteous, 77hating the evil and punishing it, as He loves the good and rewards it, would be no God at all. The absolute justice of the Divine, so far from being, as with much popular religion it is apt to be, a thought of alarm, is the supreme thought of comfort to every rational mind, as it is the root of all rational religion. “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” Where could righteousness be found if not at the heart of all life? And obscured as its manifestations may sometimes be, and perplexing its developments, it is never at fault. Appearances may belie the eternal order. Vice may enjoy prosperity, injustice flourish, and the wicked be exalted. But beneath all this apparent disorder, Divine righteousness is working out its due ends. The moral evolution, like the natural, may be marked by many imperfections; but the “survival of the fittest” is the law of both alike. That which is right and suitable remains in the end. Through all complications and chances of evil, righteousness at last is brought forth as the light, and judgment as the noon-day.4343 Psalm xxxvii. 6.
For the Divine order, we are to remember, is not merely a temporary manifestation now and here, but a continuous development. The lines 78of our higher life run onwards, and “it doth not yet appear what we shall be.” Even if the kingdom of divine righteousness were less clearly apparent now, there is a future kingdom and glory where the evil shall be redressed and the good rewarded. To many religious people the idea of retribution is mainly associated with the future. They delight to dwell on the assurance that all will come right at last, whatever wrongs may remain here. In the final reckoning there will be no mistake. The imagery of the Gospels is for them not a parable but a reality. And on that great harvest-day, when the angels shall go forth, sickle in hand, to gather in the wheat and the tares, they rejoice to think that there will be no confusion. God knoweth them that are His, and He will separate betwixt the righteous and the wicked with unfailing hand. However the wheat and the tares may have been mingled here, a clear partition will then be made; and while the wheat is brought into the garner of God, the tares shall be burned with unquenchable fire. Every man shall bear his own burden in the light of that awful judgment.
Let us be sure that this great imagination mirrors an eternal truth. The good and the evil, if not here, yet hereafter, run on to their consummation. 79All shall finally reap as they have sown, and at length stand revealed in their true character, crowned with glory or shame—“glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good;” but “tribulation and anguish upon every soul of man that doeth evil.”4444 Romans, ii. 9, 10.
This is sure; but not less sure is it that the process of moral retribution is daily working itself out before our eyes. Long before we gather into our arms the final harvest, we are receiving according to what we have done, whether it be good or evil. In the end we shall still be as we have been, only in more perfect measure. “He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still.”4545 Revelations, xxii. 11. Let us not imagine that there will be any different principles of moral order in the end than at the beginning—God is always judging us as He will judge us at the last. The end is not yet. The harvest still tarries. The cornstalk is not matured, nor the full grain shown in the ear. But we are making our future every hour, and with many of us the crop is fast ripening into the eternal day.80
Two practical reflections occur to us at the close: (1.) Let us never trifle with conscience. Conscience is the revelation of the Divine order and law of our lives. We may be mistaken or in doubt about many things. But when conscience clearly says of any temptation, No; it is not right so to think or do,—then we may be sure that our duty is plain. And misled or uninformed as we may sometimes be, the great lines of conduct are always clear. We know at all times that it is better to be good than to be bad—to think truly, to act purely and generously, “to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly.” If we yield to falsehood or impurity; if we commit injustice; if we are envious of our brother’s good, and would wrong him if we could; if we give way to sinful passion, and instead of bringing under obedience the body, pamper and indulge it,—there is a voice within us tells us we are wrong, even when we stifle it. Wrong assuredly we are whenever we trifle with duty or sink below our own sense of what is good and right; when the law in our members, warring against the law of the mind, brings us into captivity to the law of sin which is in our members.4646 Romans, vii. 23. Moral deterioration and punishment 81follow with sure foot such declension and conquest. If we would avoid the evil, then let us avoid it at the first. Let us shun its appearance, resist its approach, and when it assails us, overcome it by good.
(2.) Let us further reflect that no life is above the law of good, or can ever trample upon it with impunity. There is a not uncommon delusion that lives of exceptional greatness, either in quality or position, may allow themselves a licence which others dare not follow. A man of remarkable intellect or genius is supposed sometimes to be above ordinary rules; and his errors are spoken of with leniency, or even a sort of admiration. Still more frequently, perhaps, a man of exceptional position, born to rank and fortune, is thought to be only doing what might be expected in yielding to youthful pleasures beyond others. But truly there are no such exceptions to the great principles of moral order which govern the world. These principles never fail, and are never infringed without injurious consequences. For “he that doeth wrong shall receive for the wrong which he hath done: and there is no respect of persons.”4747 Colossians, iii. 25. If any life is exceptionally endowed, or exceptionally privileged, 82that life, above all, should show forth the excellence of the Divine order which has enriched it or placed it above others. Any other thought betrays a secret scepticism of such an order at all—and is a deception, however it may seem justified. Whatever we may think, God is not mocked.
Let us be sure, one and all, that our sin will find us out; that there is one way of excellence, as there is one way of happiness—and one alone—the way of self-denial and duty, doing whatever we do in word or deed in the name of Christ, giving thanks unto God and the Father by Him. May God lead us all in this way, strengthen, stablish, settle us, till He finally bring us to the rewards of His eternal kingdom. And to His name be all the glory. Amen.83
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