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What mean ye, that ye use this proverb concerning the land of Israel, saying, The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge?
Sins of fathers visited on their children only in this world
“The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” The declaration of God, in the second commandment, that He would visit the sins of the fathers upon the children, for three or four generations, had been translated into this quaint proverb. Manasseh and they which were seduced by him to wickedness, greater than that of the Amorites, have been long dead; why, they still argued, why should we be punished for their sins? Surely the ways of God are unequal in this thing, that the children’s teeth should be set on edge by the sour grapes which not they, but their fathers have eaten; and that a man’s sins should be visited upon his innocent posterity. Ezekiel’s answer is two fold.
1. “What mean ye to use this proverb?” Ye, who have been at no pains to reform yourselves, and by such reformation avert the woes and the captivity denounced against your country for the sins of Manasseh, and those of his people; ye can with no reason complain, who are no better than they. What mean ye, saith the prophet, “that ye use this proverb? For have not ye, and your fathers, yes, both your fathers and ye also, have rebelled against the Lord?”
2. However, he tells them that they shall not have occasion to use this proverb any more in Israel. Concerning the meaning of this declaration there is some diversity of opinion. The most probable opinion is, that Ezekiel speaks of the times that were coming, when the doctrine of a future state should be generally entertained, and of the punishments which will be awarded in that state, to every individual, for his own sins and no other, according to their proper malignity. “The soul that sinneth, it shall die,” it only shall perish everlastingly. The prophet might also mean, that the great cause of men’s sins being visited upon their posterity, so far as that punishment was the consequence of a special providence, was shortly to cease from among his people. That sin was the sin of idolatry. Of so many of the children of the captivity as were incapable of being reclaimed by the punishments all of them now suffered, the end would be, that they should die, by the sword, the plague, or famine, or, at all events, die in captivity, while those of the better sort, who were weaned from the practice of this great offence, should see their native land again, build again the wails of their city, and, whatever their other offences might be, should offend God no more by idolatry.
3. But the declaration of the text, that there should be no more occasion to use this proverb, may mean, that the times were coming, the times of the Messiah, when the old system of laws and ordinances should be superseded, the temporal sanctions of the law of Moses be forgotten and lost, in the thought of the everlasting rewards and punishments of a future state; concerning which punishments, if Ezekiel is, as we believe, speaking of them, he declares that the son shall not bear the iniquity of the father. Each man, in that state, shall suffer only for his own sins. “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” It is not natural death that is meant. Both the bad and the good suffer that. It is what is called in Revelation, “the second death,” eternal misery after death, of which it is declared, that the carnally minded shall suffer it, and the righteous and the good never taste it.
4. Undoubtedly, there is a sense in which it will never cease to be true, that the son shall suffer for the sins of the father. The effects of every man’s sins, as regards this world, are felt by his family, both while he fives and often long after.
1. The evidence, brought daily before our eyes, how severely the misconduct of parents is wont to be felt by their children, should reconcile us to the declarations of Scripture upon the subject.
2. The knowledge of this should be an availing consideration to deter us from evil courses, and show us the exceeding sinfulness, the madness also, and folly of sin; that by giving way to it we not only become enemies to our own souls, but cruel enemies to those whom we most love.
3. If we are ourselves suffering through the misconduct of those who have gone before us, let us by no means tread in their steps; let them be a warning to us, and not an example, and let us be very careful that we do not, by imitating their bad example, lose our own souls, which can only be through our own fault. (A. Gibson, M. A.)
The entail of suffering
I. The fact is indisputable. Men are liable to an entail of suffering. The Divine law asserts it (Exodus 20:5). Compare with this the awful malediction of Christ (Matthew 23:35). The teachings of sacred Scripture harmonise entirely with those of experience on this point. Not so surely will a father’s inheritance descend to his sons as his physical characteristics. Hence hereditary diseases. How many of these were originally the result of violations of the Divine laws, natural or moral, needs not to be shown. And so mysterious are the relations which bind together succeeding generations that, in many cases, both the mental and moral characteristics are seen to be transmitted. The evil tempers we have indulged reappear in our offspring to torture them; and when they are evil, it may be said, “The fathers have eaten sour grapes,” etc.
II. The procedure may be vindicated. We may confidently assert that this procedure cannot be shown to be unjust. Man is a sinner. “We are a seed of evil-doers; children that are corrupters.” We are therefore liable to punishment. The only question which, as sinners, we have a right to entertain respects the degree of our punishment. Does our punishment, in the entailed evils of which we have spoken, surpass our guilt? If not, we have no right to complain. But this procedure may be vindicated, moreover, by a reference to its adaptation to the great end of God’s moral government of mankind. That end may be simply stated to be the repression of moral evil. To secure this end, he appeals to us in every possible form, and by every conceivable motive. What more likely to deter a man from vicious indulgence than the thought that it may taint the blood, paralyse the limbs, and cloud the skies, of those who ought to inherit the reward and perpetuate the blessing of his own virtues? And what more humiliating to a parent than to see the very faults which have disgraced and plagued himself reproduced in the children of his fondest love?
III. The use of the proverb shall cease; not that Jehovah shall ever repeal this law, but that the consistency of it with moral perfection being perceived, men shall cease to urge that which shall afford them neither excuse nor ground of complaint.
1. An acquaintance with the rules which guide the Divine judgment of transgressors shall prevent men from using this proverb.
2. The common relation which all men sustain to Him may well prevent us from attributing iniquity to Him. “Behold, all souls are Mine,” etc.
3. The true spirit of penitence which a knowledge of His equity and His love excites shall, in a similar manner, acquit Him. A deep sense of sin, and true contrition on account of it, will not suffer men to cavil against God: then they meekly “accept the punishment of their iniquity.”
4. If any darkness yet seem to hover around these truths, the dawn of the last day shall assuredly dispel it; and friends and foes shall then unite--the former joyfully, the latter inevitably--in the confession that “The ways of the Lord are equal.” (Homilist.)
Heredity and responsibility
It is a well ascertained fact that not merely are the physical features of parents reproduced often in their offspring, but likewise their moral and intellectual characteristics. Genius runs in families. The son is frequently renowned for the same accomplishment for which his father, and perhaps his grandfather, were renowned before him. The same thing is true of moral defect. The vice to which the parent was the slave is the vice for which, in a multitude of cases, the child shows the most marked propensity. This reproduction of parental characteristics in the children may, indeed, be attributed to another cause than the principle of heredity; it may be attributed, and not without reason, to the effect of example. Children are great imitators. But much as example may have to do in the way of creating a likeness between parent and child, the fact that such likeness exists where example has had no opportunity of working--as in the case of the parent dying during the child’s infancy--proves that the likeness cannot be the result of example alone. It is related in the life of the famous French philosopher and mathematician, Pascal, that his father, also a great mathematician, being desirous of educating his son for the Church, studiously kept out of his reach all books bearing upon his own favourite study, and took other precautions to prevent his son forming a taste for mathematics. But all his precautions were vain. Young Pascal engaged in the study in secret, without any of the usual aids, and as a result, reproduced and solved most of the propositions in the first book of Euclid, without, it is alleged, having ever had a copy of Euclid in his hands. The particular bent of the father’s genius here descended to the son, and found expression for itself in spite of all the efforts made to prevent such a result.
I. The reference is plainly to the sufferings which children have sometimes to endure in consequence of the evil-doings of their parents. We may not perhaps be very deeply affected, although we ought to be, by the thought that our wrong-doing causes suffering to others in whom we have comparatively little interest. But when we consider that we not only harm, by setting them an evil example, those whom we most deeply love, the children whose presence now brightens our home, but may also harm, may be preparing great suffering for children unborn, who may yet call us by the endearing name of parent, we cannot help feeling what need, what great need there is, apart altogether from the demands of morality as such, to live, for the sake of those whom we love most, and from whom we would ward off every pain, upright and pure lives--careful alike of our moral and spiritual health. Only in acting thus may we hope that, in as far as it rests with us, our children shall not enter upon the conflict of life crippled, handicapped, and thus have their prospect of victory immensely lessened. That good is perpetuated under this law of heredity as well as evil ought to be remembered, or we might otherwise think it a cruel law.
II. What bearing has the law upon our individual responsibility? Does it diminish or do away with it? The Jews, at the time Ezekiel wrote, were in a very miserable state. The nation was hastening to its doom. They were on the eve of that great catastrophe often predicted--the destruction of Jerusalem--their pride and glory, and the captivity. With this dismal prospect in view, and with present troubles pressing painfully upon them, they would not see in their own behaviour any reason for their suffering. They tried to make out that they were innocent children suffering solely for their fathers’ sins: “Our fathers have eaten the sour grapes of idolatrous pleasures, and we are suffering the consequences.” But although within certain limits it might be true they were suffering for their fathers’ sins, it was also true that their own evil doings, their sins against light and knowledge, were the main source of their sufferings. They could not divest themselves of individual responsibility. All souls are God’s; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son. The soul that sinneth, it shall die. He that hath withdrawn his hand from iniquity, he is just, he shall surely live. It is further pointed out in the context that a righteous son is not condemned for his father’s profligacy, any more than a profligate son is saved by his father’s righteousness. “The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.” The teaching here is clearly to the effect that it is our own acts, and not the acts of another, that shall either justify or condemn us. And that is the teaching also of our Lord: “By thy words shalt thou be justified, and by thy words shalt thou be condemned.” Again, in the not uncommon fact that a bad father may have a good son, and a good father a bad son, we have a conclusive proof that the law of heredity does not act in such a way that its operation cannot be resisted. It can be resisted, and on the fact that it can be resisted, and successfully resisted, rests our moral responsibility. It may be a hard struggle, in some cases it will be an exceedingly hard struggle, but with God’s help it will not be a vain one. Numberless instances are on record of men who have developed a beautiful character under the most adverse circumstances, and this should encourage everyone, however hard his lot, and however heavily handicapped he may be by tendency or circumstance, to undertake the struggle and persevere therein. Stronger is He that is for us than all they that are against us. Let us but trust Him--let us but look to Jesus--and so fight. The victory will be sure. (N. M. Macfie, B. D.)
Through the whole realm of living things there runs the great law of inheritance. All that lives tends to repeat itself in the life of its offspring. The ant, for example, begins life not only with the form and structure of its ancestry, but in full possession of all those marvellous industrial instincts which today have passed into a proverb. The marvellous sagacity of the sheep dog, which no amount of training would ever confer upon a poodle or a fox terrier, comes to it by way of inheritance as part of its birthright. In similar fashion old habits and curious antitheses tend to repeat themselves in like fashion, even where the originating circumstances no longer remain. For example, we are told, by those who know, that in menageries straw that has served as litter in the lion’s or the tiger’s cage is useless for horses; the smell of it terrifies them, although countless equine generations must have passed since their ancestors had any cause to fear attack from feline foes. You must often have noticed a dog turning itself round three or four times before it settles in front of the fire, but it is probably only doing what some savage and remote ancestry did many generations ago when it trundled down the long grass of the forest to make a lair for itself for the night. Everyone knows how the peculiar cast of features that we term Jewish tends to reappear in generation after generation. The vagabondism of the gipsy, again, is in his blood, and he cannot help it. It is said that on one occasion the Austrian Government started a regiment of gipsies, but on the first encounter they ran away, A hundred mental and physical characteristics run in families, and so we have the aquiline nose of the Bourbons, the insolent pride of the Guises, the musical genius of the Bachs, and the scientific genius of the Darwins. Along the lines of his being, physical, mental, and moral, man derives from the past. As an American writer very happily and sagaciously puts it: “This body in which we journey across the isthmus from one ocean to another is not a private carriage, but an omnibus,” and, be it said, it is our ancestors who are fellow passengers. Yesterday is at work in today; today will live again in tomorrow, and the deeds of the fathers, be they good or be they ill, are visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generation. Now, this doctrine of heredity, as it is termed, is, to use a popular phrase, at the present moment very much in the air. The novelist, the dramatist, the journalist, the educationalist, the moralist, the theologian, and the social reformer have all made it their own, and are all of them ready with this or that application of it to some aspect of our daily life. Now, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the doctrine of heredity, as it is held and taught by some today, practically robs life of all moral significance. It is not merely that it conflicts with this or that conclusion of morality; it cuts away the ground under the foot of all morality, and makes the word itself to be meaningless. It is not merely that it takes this or that doctrine of the Scriptures; it makes null and void the truths which the Scriptures, as it were, assume as the base and groundwork of all. Taking for granted the facts of heredity as I have illustrated them, how do these facts affect our ideas of moral responsibility? I think the answer may be put in three-fold form: heredity may increase, heredity may diminish, heredity can never destroy man’s responsibility. Heredity may increase a man’s responsibility, for if it be true that we inherit evil from the past, it is not less true that we inherit good; and if he is to be pitied and dealt tenderly with who, through no fault of his own, enters upon a grievous heritage of woe, is not he to be visited with stern condemnation who, reaping a rich harvest which other hands have sown, squanders his inheritance in riotous living? But it may also diminish, for there are certain hereditary vices, like drunkenness, for example, which are sometimes not only vices, but also diseases; and just in so far as they are diseases as well as vices, so far do they call for our pity rather than for our condemnation,--a fact, perhaps, that has not always had due weight given to it by some of our sterner moralists. God asks not only where does a man reach, but where does a man start. He counts not only the victories that men win, but the odds in the face of which men fight, the moral effort that is needed; and many a time when our poor blind eyes can only see the shame and disaster of seeming defeat, His eyes have marked the ceaseless, if often thwarted, struggle to cast off the yoke and bondage of evil. Heredity may increase, heredity may diminish, heredity ban never destroy man’s responsibility, and it is just there that we join issue with so much that is being said and so much more that is being implied at the present day. This idea of heredity has so completely fascinated the minds of some, that to them man is nothing more than a bundle of transmitted tendencies, the resultant of antecedent forces, a projectile shot forth from the past, whose path he could calculate with mathematical accuracy, did he but know the precise character and amount of the hereditary forces that are at work in him. The unquestioned facts of heredity are emphasised to the exclusion of all other facts as though in this, and this alone, were the key to the whole mystery of the life of man. The prophet meets the complaints of the people with two words from the mouth of God, “Behold, all souls are Mine,”--that is to say, every individual soul is related to God. We are related to the past; that is the fact upon which those to whom Ezekiel spoke laid all the emphasis, but we are also related to God. We derive from the past, but that which we derive from the past is not the whole of us,--we derive also from God. “As the soul of the father is Mine, so also the soul of the son is Mine.” Weighted as we may be with sins which are not our own, we have each of us a moral life that is our own, received direct from God. If upon the one side of me--if I may put it in that awkward fashion--I am linked to a sinful human ancestry, and so rooted in Nature; on the other side of me I stand in a Divine lineage, I am rooted in God. The second word of the prophet follows from it as a natural corollary, “All souls are Mine; therefore, the soul that sinneth, it shall die.” That is the charter of the individual soul. What does it mean? That it is never our past that condemns us, that a man’s past can be a man’s ruin only in so far as he allies himself with it, and makes it his own. I repeat, we are related to the past, therefore the facts of heredity cannot be denied, and must not be overlooked; but that which we derive from the past is not the whole of us. We are also related to God, and through that relationship the strength of the grace of God can come to us. And it is that two-fold fact concerning every man that makes man a responsible being. He can choose, he can take sides; and it is only when a man takes evil to be his good, when, barking the struggle altogether, he leaves evil in undisputed possession of the field, that he stands condemned before God. Turning aside from the prophet for one closing moment, I want you, looking beyond the prophet’s teaching, to gather confirmation of his message. Look at the Bible. There is no book to make allowance for us all like this Book; no place where earth’s failings have such kindly judgment given. “Our wills are ours, we know not how.” We cannot sound the mysteries of our frame, but “Our wills are ours to make them Thine.” The peace that follows righteousness, remorse after wrong-doings, the honour that everywhere men pay to self-sacrifice, the kindling indignation with which we listen to some story of base cunning and cruel wrong, the passionate thrill that passes through the whole nation to its very centre when a deed is done for freedom or a blow is struck for truth,--these things, which are among the most sacred and splendid of human experience, and which, as Dr. Dale used to say, are as real as the movements of the planets and as the ebb and flow of the tides--these things are only to be explained if it be true that man is free to choose betwixt truth and falsehood, for the good or evil side. So, in fact, with this. If a man is living in conscious rebellion against God, the poor and paltry plea of the father’s sins will not avail. Oh yes, we may talk as we will about sour grapes, and I know not what else besides, but when conscience has a man by the throat he follows humbly in the footsteps of the Psalmist--“The guilt is mine, the sin is mine before God.” If God’s angel has us by the hand and is drawing us away from our bad evil selves, let us hear and answer to His call, and it may be that even yet by His grace we shall be crowned. (G. Jackson, M. A.)
There is scarcely a thing in the world which is well attested which can bring forward more strong or more indisputable evidence than this truth which is incorporated in the proverb. Every land, every race, every age, has seen its truth. The fathers are always eating sour grapes, and the children’s teeth alas, are always being set on edge. Look, I would ask, at your own life and your own experience. Here are men placed in divergent circumstances in life. We often look round and see how true it is that a man is weighted in the race of life by folly, by the extravagance of his father. A man, on the other hand, toils on industriously, accumulates possessions for his children, and in doing so gives them the advantage of the position which he has established. Or, take that other thing we often speak of--that which we cannot help--the inheritance of our name. How true it is that a man inheriting a good name is often carried away to a position far in advance of what we may call his native worth, because the great flowing wave of his father’s success carries him high up the beach of life; and how true, on the other hand--painfully true it is, that, when a child inherits a disgraced name, he finds himself at once in the midst of a world that is ready to close its doors upon him. Or, take that which is a stronger illustration still--this law of hereditary descent which operates throughout the whole world. What strange power is it that makes a man vacillate? How is it he cannot hold on to the straight and true way of life? Or again, why is it this man is unable to cope with the strain of life? Watch him, and see what hesitancies there are about his nature. See how he starts; what strange apprehensions visit him that do not visit healthier organisations. There you have in that strange nervous organisation the story of that which has been the perilous fault of his ancestry: the overstrained life, the long hours, the eager toil, the care, the anxiety, the worry that has worn into the father’s frame are reproduced here. And that which is true with regard to personal history is true, also, with regard to national history. Are we not bearing the weight of our fathers’ sins? Look on the difficulties which surround our own administration. See how hard it is for men exactly to poise their legislation between leniency and justice. And understand that when we have to deal with the wild, tumultuous dispositions of those people who entirely disbelieve in our good intentions towards them we are, as it were, enduring the pain of our teeth being set on edge because of the follies and the sins of past generations. Now, what is the reason, then, that the prophet should take upon himself to denounce what is so obviously true? A little reflection will show that it is not so strange as it at first sight appears. He denounces its use because it is used in an untrue sense and for an unlawful purpose. It is certainly true that when the fathers had eaten sour grapes the children’s teeth were set on edge. All the past history of Israel showed it. These men to whom the prophet wrote were themselves illustrations of it; they were exiles, and their exile and their national disintegration was the result of their fathers’ sin. But it was quoted in a wrong sense, it was quoted in the sense of trying to make people cast a shadow upon the loving kindness of God; therefore the prophet takes up his parable against them. He argues and expostulates, he shows that the sense in which it is used is an unfair and an unjust sense; he says, “Look upon life; watch the man whose career has been good--one who has been pure, who has been just, who has been generous--observe him. He is under the care and protection of God. If his son,” he argues, “becomes a man of violence, a man of impurity, a man who is full of the debaucheries and injustices of life, then, indeed, upon that man will fall the shadow of his own sin; but if his son rises up, and gazing upon the life of his grandfather, and gazing upon the life of his father, turns aside from his own false ways, then upon such a man will dawn the brightness of God’s favour.” “The soul that sinneth shall die.” The son shall not bear in that sense the iniquity of the father. It is true he must inherit the disadvantages which are handed down to him from father to son; that the great and fatal law of life will operate, and that he cannot expect to ca, use, as it were, the shadow to go back upon the sundial of life, and to claim the position which would have been his had his father not sinned at all; but, as far as the love of God is concerned, as far as the capacity of rising up and doing some fit and noble work in life is concerned, as far as purification of his own spirit is concerned, as far as the ennobling of his own character is concerned, as far as his capacity to do something great and worthy is concerned, he is not at a disadvantage at all. “The soul that sinneth shall die.” The sons, in that sense, shall not bear the iniquity of their fathers. It was used, then, in an untrue sense, and it was used (and this is more important still) for a false and unworthy purpose. “Our fathers,” said they, “had national life; they had grand energy; they had the concentration and the spirit of a nation; they had that great spirit of unity and all the glorious associations which created patriotic hearts;, they had the everlasting hills; the snowy Lebanon was theirs; the rich and swift-flowing Jordan was theirs; the fields instinct with the memories of a thousand victories were theirs: but we are condemned to exile, condemned to dwell here by the barrier set by these waters of Babylon. There is no hope for us: no future for us; our fathers eat sour grapes, and our teeth are set on edge.” No wonder that when the prophet saw they were quoting the proverb to bolster up their own indolence, and to make it the shameful apology of their own disregard of their highest and noblest duties, that, with all the indignation and sacred fire of his spirit, he rose up to denounce such an unworthy use of a truth. “As I live, saith the Lord God, ye shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel. All souls are Mine--the soul of every individual, be he on the banks of Babylon or not, is Mine; all nations are Mine, whether they be in the plenitude of their power, or whether they be in a poverty-stricken existence.” For every soul, for every nation, there is a glorious destiny; and for men to shelter themselves from their duty by declaring that a hard fate has bound them about with its fetters of iron, and that there is no escape for them; that their whole life is shipwrecked and ruined; that they are the miserable inheritors of the fatality of their own organisation, of the tyranny of their national position, is forever to declare themselves unworthy of the name of men, that they have lost faith in the power of God--it is to take a solemn truth, and wrest it to their own destruction; it is to forge the weapons of their own imprisonment out of the very thing which should be their highest stimulus to exertion. The greatest of truths may be perverted to a false use. Truth is like a beam of light, which indeed falls straight from its parent sun, but it is possible for us to divert and alter the beauty of its hue by putting the prism of our own fancy and conceit between it and the object on which we cast it; in like manner we may misuse truths as well as use them; and if we misuse them, it is to our own detriment and shame. Oh, fatal way in which extremes meet--that the pessimist should say that he is under the fatal law of organisation, and it is useless to do anything; and that the optimist should say he is under the fatal and sweet law of organisation, and that it is needless for him to do anything. Midway between these truths which we meet in men’s lives, and which often become the fatal sources of the apology of their indulgence--midway between them lies the real truth; these are but the opposite poles of truth, the great world upon which we live revolves upon its axis between these two. It is not your part to live forever in the north pole of life, and declare that it is all bitterness and a blasted fate; it is not your duty to live in the sunny pole of the south, and to declare that your life is all sweetness and sunshine; your lot and mine is cast in these moderate poles, where we know that law rules, and love rules above our heads, sweet love beneath our feet, sweet law, both strong, both sweet, both the offspring of God, both the sweet heralds of encouragement, to lift up our energies, to exert ourselves in the toil of life, and to be men, for do you not say that it is precisely in the counterpoising truths of law which is inexorable, and love which is never inexorable, that the power of life, and heroism of life, is found? (Bp. Boyd Carpenter.)
The two-fold heredity
It seems, then, that there is nothing new under the sun, and that in the days of Ezekiel men had anticipated, in some respects at least, Darwin and Ibsen and the problem novel; they were dealing with some, at least, of the difficulties which perplex us, upon whom the ends of the world have come. Science has made plain the part played by the law of heredity, the transmission of tendencies and characteristics from parents to offspring, in the development of life upon the globe. Criminologists have carried the idea over into the moral and judicial sphere, producing specimens of “pedigree criminals,” families in which the criminal taint has descended from parents to children for generation after generation, Novelists and dramatists have found in the subject a fertile source of plots and tragedies. Social reformers find heredity a fact to be reckoned with. And now, as in Ezekiel’s day, sinning souls are often inclined to lay the blame of their own failures on those whose blood runs in their veins. The first step to be taken in approaching this theme from the Christian standpoint is to notice how frequently it is dealt with in the Bible, the book which by some gracious miracle anticipates all other books and reveals to us the antiquity of our most modern problems. Our Lord Himself said, “Can men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?” There is such a thing in the moral world as pedigree, propagation of species, lines along which certain qualities and tendencies are transmitted, and you do not expect out of one stock that which, by its moral qualities, is properly the fruit of another. Paul’s close observation of the organism of human society, as reflected specially in the Epistle to the Romans, is also a contribution to the subject; he sees that the human race is one in sin, that the taint is transmitted from generation to generation, that human history in one aspect of it gathers itself round a kind of pedigree of degeneration, so that by the disobedience of one many are made sinners. But though there is something in the knew Testament on the theme, there is more in the Old. In the New Testament it is specially the individual who comes to his rights; in the Old Testament more attention is given to the family, the nation, the generations which succeed each other and yet are part of each other--at once inheritors and transmitters of the blessing or the curse. It works for good: “the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear Him, and His righteousness unto children’s children.” It works also for evil--“visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.” And both in Jeremiah and in Ezekiel we meet this idea, which had evidently become proverbial in Israel--“The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” The people were making too much of that; the prophets were eager to show them that there was another side to the truth. But that their proverb has some truth in it, who can deny?
I. And first, the fact. Here it is as a theologian (Dr. Denney, Studies in Theology) states it: “We are born with a history in us.” Here it is as a novelist (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Elsie Venner) states it: “Each one of us is only the footing up of a double column of figures that goes back to the first pair. Every unit tells, and some of them are plus and some minus We are mainly nothing but the answer to a long sum in addition and subtraction.” If you prefer scientific witnesses, their name is legion; this doctrine is one of the cornerstones of scientific thought. One of the quaintest and most delightful studies of the subject it is hardly profound enough to be called a study, and yet it is exceedingly suggestive--is in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Memories and Portraits. You may remember the passage in which he describes his grim old minister-grandfather, and wonders what he has inherited from him: “Try as I please, I cannot join myself on with the reverend doctor; and all the while, no doubt he moves in my blood and whispers words to me, and sits efficient in the very knot and centre of my being.” And not he alone, but a broadening line of ancestors, stretching back into the cloudy past, the toilers and fighters and adventurers of earlier generations, “Picts who rallied round Macbeth,”. . . “star-gazers on Chaldean plateaus.”. . .”And furthest of all, what sleeper in green tree tops, what muncher of nuts, concludes my pedigree? Probably arboreal in his habits.” It all amounts to this, that each human being is a thousand rolled into one; the roots of our lives go deep down into history, drawing from many different strata some of the elements that make us what we are. It is the darker side of this fact that is reflected in the text. “The fathers have eaten sour grapes,”--in other words, they have sinned, perhaps they have suffered for their sins, the grapes have been sour even in the act of eating; but their children after them have suffered also, perhaps in nothing more than in this, that in them the ancestral tendencies to evil have been perpetuated and reproduced. It means this, that if a man has had ancestors who have been, say, drunkards or loose livers or men of ungovernable temper, very likely something of their besetting tendency is transmitted into his very blood, and the battle is all the harder for him because of their sin. And if he in his turn yields himself a servant to sins like these, very likely his children and his children’s children will be enslaved by the same bondage. This is a reality so tremendous that it has made some men curse the day they were born. Here is a relationship which is not in the smallest degree in a man’s own control; he was not consulted as to the family into which he should be born. Yet that relationship affects not only his physical but his moral and spiritual life; it follows him into the race of life and into the fight of faith; it may prove a continual burden and snare. Thank God if those who have gone before us have been His servants, living sweet, strong, clean lives. We do not know how much easier that has made the battle for us. It is a personal matter, a care and conscience so to live that no one in whose veins your blood may run may have reason to hate your memory for what you have been or have handed on to them. And it is a social matter, the mightiest of arguments for every form of moral and religious effort that can be brought to bear on the life of today. Today is the parent of tomorrow. And anything of health and purity and love and God that is sown like seed in the soil of the present generation does not end its fruitfulness there; it is a gift and a blessing to the future--“and the people which shall be created shall praise the Lord.”
II. I notice that, though heredity is a fact, and sometimes a terrible influence, it is an influence which has its limits. This needs to be emphasised, because when men’s hearts are in revolt against this tyranny of the dead past, they are apt to forget that the evil transmitted is not unlimited or unmixed. Even taking the bright and dark sides of hereditary influence together, it does not cover all the facts of life. Professor Drummond is right when he says that for half of life, at least, we have no “inherited storage” of habit or tendency. And if we take the darker side alone, still more is that a limited influence. It is limited in duration: those words “unto the third and fourth generation” have a meaning. So far and no further extends what Jeremy Taylor calls “the entail of curses”; there is a beneficent law which limits the time through which any evil habit in a given family can continue its self-propagating power; if it had not been for that, the world would be an infinitely worse place today. And it is limited in extent also in the individual life; it is limited by the very fact that a brighter side of hereditary influence exists; nobler instincts and finer tendencies can also be transmitted; there is a kind of entail in the blessing as surely as in the curse, and the entail of the blessing lasts the longer. These limitations imply that individuality has its own rights and possibilities. They imply that free will is not destroyed, even though hereditary influence gives a strong bias towards evil. They imply that each life may be a fresh starting point for the nobler possibilities of humanity. They imply that though a man’s ancestors may be among his most subtle and powerful tempters, not all their power can forge upon him the fetters of an absolute fate. The truth seems to be this, that there is enough reality in this fact of heredity to constitute an important element in each man’s trial and conflict, in some lives perhaps quite the most important element. But there is not enough in it to abolish the trial and the conflict, to make it an inevitable certainty that any man will fail in the trial or go under in the conflict. Over against the fact of corporate unity Ezekiel sets the equally real facts of personal responsibility; if men die, it is for their own sins, not for the sins of their fathers. They could turn; heavily weighted and sadly biassed though it is, human nature still swings upon its pivot, and all things are possible. Grant that they cannot rid themselves of sin, they have still a mighty defence against fate in this, that they can turn from sin towards God--the God who waits to be a refuge and a deliverer.
III. That brings me to the last thought, the counteractive. For it is too mild a statement of the case to say that the influence of heredity is limited: it is attacked, it is opposed, its overthrow is planned and dared from the strongholds of eternity. Mr. Rendel Harris (Union with God, the chapter on “Grace and Heredity”)
speaks the truth when he says: “If we have not a Gospel against heredity it is very doubtful whether we have any Gospel at all.” At any rate, many souls are painfully conscious that if there is no Gospel against heredity, there is no Gospel at all for them. But there is an older heredity than that which is commonly meant by the word, older, deeper, more essentially related to our true selves, reaching back even to the great deep from which we came. Listen to a fragment of a human genealogy. “Which was the son of Enos, which was the son of Seth, which was the son of Adam, which was the son of God.” The Evangelist is very daring. David the adulterer is in that genealogical tree, and Jacob the supplanter, and many others, all more or less diseased, dwarfed, defiled with sin. Can this, indeed, be allowed to stand as the ultimate origin of their being, the oldest source from which they drew their life, “which was the son of God”? That honourable lineage is allowed even to them, and indeed the genealogical tree of every one of us ends there, “which was the son of God.” Has not this God created us? Are not all our souls His, and is not His image stamped upon us all? Older than any link which binds us to the past generations, deeper than any resemblance to human ancestors which may appear in our faces or actions or characters,--so old and so deep is the relationship which connects us with the living God. Nay, it is a direct and immediate relationship; that is the chief burden of the prophet’s message here, in answer to the morbid melancholy of the people’s mood. “As I live, saith the Lord God, all souls are Mine.” Each soul has still its own link with God, its own responsibility to Him, and its own inheritance in Him. We may have done our best to break this connection, to blot out this likeness. But He does not disown the relationship. Now, this more wonderful heredity, so central and essential in man’s true nature, has been sadly overlaid and overborne by other influences, such as those I have spoken of today. And God has taken special means to restore it to its true place and influence, to create the family that should realise the Divine intention, and bring the race of man to its true and glorious destiny. Think of the wonder of that interposition! The man Christ Jesus, bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh, descendant on His human side of a stock that was no more exempt than we are from the universal disease. Yet He was without sin, without one stain or taint of sin. The law of human heredity was laid aside for once in Him, that the older, deeper, diviner heredity might fully express itself, the answer to the world’s despair! And this second Adam became the head and founder of a new family, reproducing Himself in those who believed on Him, filling them with His grace, training and enabling them to follow in His steps, “that He might be the first-born among many brethren.” Can men gather grapes of thorns or figs of thistles? Of course not; but many a sorry branch of the human tree, barren and almost ready for the burning, has begun to bear wondrous fruit when it has been grafted into the true Vine. Jesus gives power to become the sons of God; He starts them on the life in which the true end of their being is to be fulfilled. Let us believe in this. Let us pray to have it realised in us and ours. So we have a Gospel against heredity, and surely it is a Gospel indeed. (J. M. E. Ross, M. A.)
Heredity and grace
The context also makes it clear that the captives in Chaldea used the words as a querulous reproach against the Almighty. Their forefathers had sinned; they, the descendants, were reaping the fruit. Not for their own misdeeds were they now suffering such dire calamity, They were simply involved as by the operation of a remorseless fate in the sins of their predecessors, and they were unable to shake themselves free from the crushing incubus. Now, these Jewish exiles voice very much of contemporary English thought at the beginning of the twentieth Christian century. Men do not attempt to deny the fact of moral evil. It is no longer pretended that this is the best of all possible worlds; that the advance of education, refinement, and civilisation is steadily driving sin out of the universe; and that under the evolutionary process we may confidently anticipate the speedy advent of the new heavens and the new earth. No! that shallow optimism of English Deism is scouted by modern philosophy, whose keynote is heredity. The idea that the offence of the ancestor involves the race in disability is no longer confined to the theology of the dark ages. Scientists, social reformers, journalists, and novelists have claimed it as their own. Darwin corroborates Paul. When the preachers of a century ago talked of original sin they were grievously reproached for their dark, gloomy views of human nature. It was a monstrous notion that men should be handicapped in all their after destiny by the sin of one primitive man from whom they chanced to be the descendants. That doctrine was only the invention of diseased consciences, the fiction of priests, and impossible of acceptance by any but the least enlightened of mankind. But modern philosophy has changed all that, and now proclaims in its own way every principle of the old creed. So widespread and dominant has this teaching become that in the words of a discriminating critic, “one would think that the problem of heredity constituted the sum and substance of life, and that a man is nothing but a sum of tendencies transmitted from his ancestors.” Nor can we be blind to the substantial truth of the modern doctrine. There is no theory which could marshal a greater or more appalling array of evidence in its favour than the theory incorporated in this Jewish proverb. The Bible itself assures us that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children to the third and fourth generation. We see all around us men who inherit physical capacities, physical qualities, physical aptitudes which make it not only difficult for them to enter into life with the same advantage as their fellows, but which furnish them with a terrible bias the wrong way. And let us thankfully acknowledge that science has, at least, rendered this great service to the Christian faith. It has shown that we do not stand alone. We are not isolated units. We are parts of a great social organism bound to each other by close and indissoluble ties. “No man liveth unto himself,” we are all members one of another. And yet the startling fact remains that Ezekiel only quotes this proverb, expressive of so much truth, in order to repudiate it. He declares that it is unworthy of those who bear the name of Israel. “What mean ye that ye use this proverb in the land of Israel?”--the land which acknowledges Jehovah, and which is His peculiar possession? It is only fit for heathen, and ought to be swept forever from the records of Israel. He repudiates the proverb because it was used in an untrue sense, and was bound up with absolutely false inferences. The captives said they were suffering because of their fathers’ sin. That was true. Their present misery was the result of the idolatry of their fathers. What then? Shall men make the ugly inheritance from the past a bolster for indolence today, and an apology for disregarding the duties of the hour? It was this mistake which the exiles were making. Their eyes were so fixed upon their fathers’ sin that they could see none in themselves. They were the victims of dire misfortune--men to be pitied and excused. A spirit of fatalism and despair had settled down upon them, and they moaned that a hard fate had bound them in fetters of iron, from which there was no escape. “If our transgressions and our sins be upon us, and we pine away in them, how, then, should we live?” There is a similar spirit around us today. It is felt in much of our literature. Sin is regarded as a man’s misfortune rather than his fault. The drunkard, the impure, the idler, and ne’er-do-well can no more help themselves for these evil things than they can interfere with the size of their stature or the colour of their hair. I am not exaggerating the trend of popular opinion. One of our best-known writers, in a little book which has become a household word, tells us that at the end of the twentieth century men will “look backward,” and then, for the first time, seeing things as they really are, will always speak of crime as “atavism.” This means, in plain language, that what has been bred in the bone must sooner or later come out in the flesh. The murderer is therefore what he has been made; he acts by necessity of nature, and cannot be otherwise than he is. Of course, we see at once where such teaching lands us. It means the denial of all moral responsibility, and the paralysis of all aspiration. It is the doctrine of despair. It is here that the Bible parts company with modern philosophy. It does not deny the facts of heredity. It admits that men do not start equally in the race of life. It shirks none of the hideous facts which are plain to every observer of human life. It declares that to whom little is given of him little shall be required. It speaks of One who watches above--“With larger other eyes than ours to make allowance for us all.” But it refuses to regard any man as absolutely determined by the influences he has received from the past. Our consciences tell us that the Bible is right. How otherwise can we explain our feelings of personal responsibility, our sense of shame and remorse? No man ever yet morally felt accountable because he was of diminutive height. The sense of accountability for our actions, however, is always with us. The very men who deny it cannot write a page without using language which contradicts their denial. And there is no explanation whatever for this persistency of conscience, and its lofty refusal to be gagged and silenced, when we plead our flimsy excuses at its bar, if a man is so hopelessly bound by his past that it is impossible for him to be free. You never yet succeeded in justifying yourself by shuffling the blame on to the shoulders of those who have gone before you. No! the attempt to evade responsibility is essentially dishonest. It is a futile make-believe. The man who attempts it hardly cheats himself, for in his deepest heart he knows that, however hampered he may be in his fight with sin, he is not justified in the resignation of despair. The prophet supplies the ground on which this verdict of conscience is justified. Ezekiel sets over against the proverbial half truth of the exiles another which counterbalances it. “Ye shall no more use this proverb in Israel, for all souls are Mine.” Man does not belong only to the family, the tribe, the nation. He belongs to God. He possesses not only what he has derived from a tainted ancestry, but that which he has received straight from God. The deeds of my forefathers are not the only factor in the case. God must be taken into account. God lives and works, and I belong to Him. The reply of the prophet is carried further in the Christian Gospel. It tells me of a Saviour who is able to save unto the uttermost. It opposes to these natural forces which incline to sin the power of almighty grace. Every man here stands in direct personal relations with Jesus Christ, and may come into personal saving contact with the strong Son of God. Here is our hope. Christianity is a Gospel, because it points me to a Redeemer who makes all things new. And so the work of the second Adam comes in to restore the balance of moral forces disturbed in the fall of the first. The sin of the natural head of the race is more than outweighed by the righteousness of Jesus Christ. The new pulses of life from Him are mightier than the tide of tainted life that comes to me out of the past. The transfusion of grace prevails over that of corruption.” Where sin abounded, grace has much more abounded. We are not under the tyranny of natural law. We are under grace. If, therefore, anyone says, “It is useless for me to hope to be better, greater, truer than I am. You do not know by what circumstances I am environed; you do not know what terrible physical organisation I inherit. You do not know the temper, the passion, the lust that are in me. I am the victim of this terrible law which makes it impossible for me to rise and shake off its tyranny.” I answer, “It is not so. You are not so weighted in the race that you must fall and perish. There is help for every man, the eternal and undying energy of Divine grace.” I tell you of Jesus, the servant of Jehovah who is anointed to give deliverance to the captives. “He breaks the power of cancelled sin, He sets the prisoners free.” Jesus told the man with the withered hand to stretch it forth. That is just what he had tried to do again and again without success. But faith in Jesus, who gave the command, induced him to make the effort to obey, and in the effort he received power. Jesus speaks to us all in His Gospel, and He speaks to the weak and sinful side of our nature. He calls us to a life of self-conquest, of purity, of holy service and high endeavour. And when we set forth the insuperable obstacles in our way, our surroundings in business, our inherited tendencies, our strong passions, our weak wills, and say “We cannot”; He replies: “Stretch forth thy hand.” Make this venture of faith. You see all the forces arrayed against you. You do not see the living Saviour who can make you more than conqueror. But act as if He were on your side, and you shall find new life and new power. The will to be saved is the beginning of salvation. (W. E. Bloomfield.)
The doctrine of heredity perverted
How do men pervert this doctrine of the fathers having eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth being set on edge? They seek to ride off from responsibility on the ground that they are suffering vicariously, and perhaps innocently; they cannot help doing evil: the thirsty throat was born within them, and water cannot quench it, so they must drink fire and brimstone; they say they are fated to do evil; the thief is in their muscles, and they must steal; their father was a felon, and they must keep up the family line. In a pensive tone, with a melancholy that is supposed to express a degree of resignation, philosophical, although self-reproachful, they speak now about law, heredity, development: and thus they walk down to darkness on the stilts of polysyllables. The fathers have eaten sour grapes, say they, and our innocent teeth are set on edge: this is the outworking of the mystery, the occult law of heredity. The Lord will not have that any longer; He says, This proverb shall cease; these people are being ruined by their own epigrams, they do not see the full sweep and scope and bent of things. Then He lays down the grand, all-inclusive, all-involving doctrine to which we shall presently turn. But is there not a law of succession, of heredity; is there not a mystery of paternity, following the little boy all the time? Yes, there is. Take care what use you make of that fact. Let it fall under the great all-governing law, and then it will come into right perspective. How does society, that humanity which is next to God, treat this law of heredity? Very directly, summarily, and justly. The culprit, being not only a felon but a philosopher, says to the magistrate, I was born as you find me; I am not the thief, it is my father who is guilty of felony; pity me as the victim of heredity. And his worship, being also a philosopher, without being a felon, says, The argument is good, it is based in reason; you are discharged. Is it so in society? Is it not accounted just in society that the soul that sinneth, it shall be punished? Instead, therefore, of having a theology that does not coincide with our own highest instincts and noblest practices, we had better see what adjustment can be created as between our theology and our habits, laws, and practices. In society we ignore heredity: what if in the Church it has been pushed as a doctrine to evil because of irrational uses? What is the great principle, then, that is to supersede small proverbs and local sayings and misapplied epigrams? “As I live, saith the Lord”--solemn word: when it is uttered I feel as if the gates of eternity had been thrown back, that the King might come out in person and address His people the universe--“As I live, saith the Lord God,. . .behold, all souls are Mine”; and the law of punishment is, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” The universe replies, That is just, that is good. That is not arbitrary; that is necessary, that is reason working itself out, a great stern law operating beneficently, when judged by sufficient breadth of time. The Lord is not a tyrant with a rod of iron in His hand, smiting men because they do wrong; He is the Sovereign of a universe so constituted that no man can tell a lie without loss--loss of quality, loss of standing, loss of dignity, loss of confidence. That is God’s universe--sensitive to truth, sensitive to all that is exact, honourable, noble, pure, right. It is good to live in such a universe so long as we are in harmony with its spirit, but when we lose touch with its moral music it crushes us, not tyrannically and arbitrarily, not in a spirit of petty resentment, which begets resentment, but in a spirit of justice, reason, righteousness. See how good the Lord is. The just man shall live, saith the Lord. If the just man have a son that is a robber, the robber shall not be saved because the father was a just man. If a bad man have a good son, that good son shall live, though his father be wallowing in hell. The question is, not what was your father, but what you are. Shall we say, Lord, my father was a bad man, and therefore I cannot help being bad myself? The Lord will not allow that reasoning. The Lord gives every man a chance in life, an opportunity; allots to every man a measure of faith, or grace, or reason; attaches to every man something on which he can found a Divine judgment. Shall we say, My father was so good that I have not felt the need of being good myself; I want to be saved with the family? The Lord will not admit such reasoning. We are not saved in families, we are saved one by one; so the Lord will have it that His way is equal. The great law of punishment therefore stands. (J. Parker, D. D.)
Heredity and environment
Various themes are afoot in our days, and have been in generations past, to relieve us from the pressure of personal responsibility for the character of our own life. We want to get some scientific ground to excuse ourselves whenever the ideal in our souls condemns the real in our action. The theory abroad in our day, clad in a robe of scientific weaving, and therefore counted respectable, has these two feet--one called heredity, the other environment. It is assumed by many that a man can stand firmly, and hold up his head bravely, if only he alternates these two ideas. If one gives out and will not account for things, he can put the other forward. The consequence is that many people are fatalists. I am what I am, because my father and mother and grandfather and grandmother were what they were. This fatalism is paralyzing to the higher moralities and charities of life. While on the one side it condemns, on the other side it discourages. Let us not say (it would be foolish to do it) that the influences of heredity do not descend. The Old Testament people knew they did. The idea was expressed very strongly in the words that, not in their guilt but in their natural consequences, the sins of the fathers should be visited on the children to the third and fourth generations. That is about the longest period of life (in the human family) an evil has; but goodnesses and virtues keep on to thousands of generations. In that is our hope of the final complete triumph of good over evil. “Visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation, and showing mercy unto thousands (of generations) of them that love Me and keep My commandments.” Heredity justifies itself. It is beneficent in its purpose and working. Notwithstanding that evil tendencies are started, notwithstanding that a next generation may be handicapped, yet the question whether more evil than good ever descends is one which we cannot now stay to discuss. Personally, I cannot but believe that life is always a blessing given, and that along the line of the most unfortunate heredity that thin stream of Divine life flows which can never be extinguished till God withdraws Himself. And that is, to my mind, proved by the experiences we have of the regenerating force of a purified environment. The cases are legion for numbers in which some of the most useful lives now being lived have carried in them an heredity of the very worst. People were thinking in Ezekiel’s time as we are thinking in our time. They were misrepresenting God and His providence. They were talking of one another as if each were simply the exact sum of a row of figures; as if they were animals of certain sorts or families. The lion is not responsible for being a lion, nor the leopard for his spots, nor the tiger for his bloodthirstiness, nor man for his characteristics. That was the kind of speech heard from lip to lip. Into the midst of it all the prophet came with his message from God, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity, etc. This language recognises that each of us is something more than a section in the stream of heredity, and something more than a silver-plated mirror receiving the impression of the life round about us, whether we will to receive it or not. A man is not accountable for his heredity, and only partly for his environment, but he has a self which is related to both, but which is more than both. He can say “I.” He can say “I will.” Around those two words all his responsibility gathers. What fathers and mothers have given us, that is between them and God. But there is something they have not given us. Within all the forces of life, vital and mechanical, there is a Divine movement. Out of theft Divine Spirit has come the soul which is the self, which sits at the centre of things, receiving and rejecting, approving and disapproving--the Ego--the I--the self. This is the mystery--the wonder of life. No theories, no philosophies, no systems can deny it or undo it or scatter it, or give it to someone else, or make someone else responsible for it. Individuality is as real as society itself. Evaporate it we cannot. Melt it into something else than itself we cannot. All theories about man being heredity and environment, and nothing else, are lifeless, in the presence of this persistent, unsubduable, and unconquerable “I” which presides over every man’s destiny. Not for Adam’s sin--not for your father’s sin--not for your mother’s sin--but for your own, that which is unquestionably your own, will you be called to account. The truth under Ezekiel’s words, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die,” etc.
that truth is the reassertion of God’s claim on the faithfulness of each as well as on the allegiance of all. If you examine history you will find that God has moved the race forward, and reforward by consecrated individualities. When He has punished its laziness and sloth and wickedness, it has been by the misleading force of men of strong individuality, not consecrated but desecrated,--for everything that is not used for God is desecrated. It,. Old Testament times men were gradually led from one truth to another. Not till Ezekiel’s time did the great truth of each person’s individual accountability to God ring out clear and free. It was Ezekiel’s revival note, and, indeed, is not the root distinctiveness between Romanism and Protestantism in this very truth? In Romanism individualism is so controlled that it can never arise to the place where between it and God there is nothing to intervene. In Protestantism the individual finds himself face to face with God. His first allegiance is not to the Church and not to the State, but to God. As intelligence increases he learns that he can serve the Church best and the State best by serving God. What was the impression that the early Christians produced on the society around them? “These all do contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another King--one Jesus.” Does not that passage show the simplicity of their allegiance? It was not divided. It gave them no trouble. They were not perplexed about it, because they were honest and sincere. Each man serving the same Christ, and subjecting his own will, came into a new and deeper relationship to other men than had aforetime been realised. There was no question of the collision of interests. Each man knew he could serve the interests of his own family best by individual allegiance to Christ. Each knew he could serve his Church best and his country best by serving Christ. (Rouen Thomas.)
The proverb of heredity falsely used
There is a sense in which that proverb was then, and is now, perfectly true. No generation starts fresh in the race of being. It is the offspring of a past; it is the parent of a future. It is so; and it must be so. The England of today, the Church of today, the grown man, and the little child of today, is not and cannot be what any one of these would have been if it had had no yesterday; if each or any of them had not had an ancestry as well as a history. There is a sense in which the proverb is perfectly true and applicable to almost everybody--“The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” But this was not the use made of the proverb by the contemporaries and countrymen of Ezekiel. They represented not that their outward condition alone, their national or individual circumstances, but that their spiritual state, their spiritual destiny, depended upon that for which they were not responsible. God was displeased at them for sins not their own. It was vain to approach Him with the cry of penitence or the prayer for grace. A sentence of wrath and reprobation had gone forth against them, and to struggle against it was to fight against God. This terrible view of life is combated at length in the chapter. (Dean Vaughan.)
Dr. Leonard Bacon once preached a sermon on what he called the obverse side of the Fifth Commandment, the duty of parents to be worthy of honour. The child is born into the world with this right. His pure eyes look to his elders for example. His soul waits for impulse and inspiration from them. Woe unto that parent, who by unworthy character causes one of these little ones to stumble; it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depths of the sea. (Christian Union.)
Behold, all souls are Mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is Mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die.
The gospel of the exile incarnate in Ezekiel
(with Ezekiel 36:25-26; Ezekiel 37:14):--Every living “word” must be made flesh, and dwell among us; live in a human and personal life, breathe our warm breath, grasp us with sympathetic and friendly hands, carry our sins and bear our sorrows, if it is to gain admission at “lowly doors”; stir the “spirit’s inner deeps”; compel and inspire to an ampler life the reluctant souls of men. The maximum of power is never gained by ideas till they possess and sway the “body prepared for them,” and clothe themselves with the subtle and mysterious influences of a vital and impressive personality. The notion of rescuing the waifs and strays of town and village life was in the air of the last century for a long time, and occasionally passed out of its formlessness into print and speech; but it did not grapple with evil, and become the power of God unto the salvation of young England, until it was incarnate in Robert Raikes, of Gloucester, and through him became, as the Sunday School, “the pillar of a people’s hope, the centre of a world’s desire.” The brutal hardness and ferocious cruelty of the prisons of Europe had arrested the fickle attention again and again, but no blow was struck to abate the prodigious mischiefs of criminal life, and elevate punishment into a minister of justice, till John Howard was fired and possessed with the passion of prison reform, and dedicated his will to its advancement with the glorious abandon and success-compelling energy of the prophet. The same is true of the war for personal liberty, of the battles against superstition, and so on ad infinitum. Now, our Bible is a book of ideas--ideas the most simple and sublime, central and essential to all human welfare; but these ideas do not appear as ghosts of a strange and distant world, but clothed in our own humanity, our veritable flesh and blood, speaking “our own tongue wherein we were born,” and moving in the midst of the experiences of sin and sorrow, temptation and suffering, and painful progress common to us all. The biblical evangels are all in men. Each one comes with the momentum of a human personality. The Gospel of all the Gospels, the pearl of greatest price, is in the Man Christ Jesus; and in accordance with this Divine principle, the Gospel of the Exile was incarnate in the prophets, and notably in Ezekiel. His very name was a Divine promise, “God shall strengthen”; and his life an enforcement of the beautiful saying, “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength,” etc. The signs and proofs of imperfection notwithstanding, it is palpable that Ezekiel, moved by the Holy Ghost, is a man of invincible newness of spirit, works by methods of evangelical thoroughness, and inspires and impels by motives of a decisively Christian quality.
I. Ezekiel breathes the spirit of the new evangel from the beginning to the close of his ministry, the spirit of unbending courage, iron consistency, uncompromising faithfulness, heroic self-abnegation, and living faith in God. The breath of Jehovah lifts him on to his feet. The ineffable thrill of the Divine life fills him with a manly daring, makes his “forehead as an adamant, harder than flint,” so that he faces and accepts in his inmost being the unspeakable bitterness of the communications he has to deliver, and bears without repining the pressure of an overwhelmingly sorrowful work for the disobedient and obdurate house of Israel. The conscious possession of a gospel for men is the true inspiration to fearlessness, defiance of wrong and falsehood and hypocrisy, calm and inflexible zeal in work. The real prophet of his age reckons with calumny, misrepresentation, neglect, and poverty. Livingstone carries in his New Testament the food on which martyrs are nourished. Savonarola is fortified for death by the vision of the future of Florence which grows out of the good tidings he preaches. Paul and Barnabas can readily hazard their lives as missionaries because they know they are conveying the unsearchable riches of Christ.
II. The Gospel of the exile is incarnate in Ezekiel as to its method, as well as in its new and conquering spirit. There is a penetrating thoroughness characteristic of the life of the time, and of the particular experience through which Israel is passing; a going to the root of individual and national mischief; a searching of heart, an arousal of conscience, an insistence on the doctrine of individual responsibility; a forcing of men face to face with eternal and irresistible Divine laws--all essential to the successful proclamation of a true evangel for sinning men.
1. The prophet’s first word anticipates that of John the Baptist and of our Lord, “Repent ye, repent ye. God is at hand. His rule is real, though invisible. His kingdom is coming, though you do not see it. Repent, and repent at once.” With an energy of language, and a vigour of epithet, and a vehemence of spirit, that could neither be mistaken nor resisted, he rebuked the sins of this house of disobedience, exposed its hollow sophistries and self-delusions, and bade it cast away its transgressions, and make itself a new heart and a new spirit.
2. Nor does he rest till he has dug up the very roots of their false and fatal wrong-doing, and laid bare to the glare of the light of day the real cause of all their sin. They are fatalists. Ezekiel met this fixed iron fatalism of the people with the all-encompassing and indefeasible doctrine of the personal responsibility of each man for his own sin; as distinct from the distorted notion of inherited and transmitted guilt and suffering, they were proclaiming. “God says,” he told him, “behold, all souls are Mine”; each is of equal and independent value; as the soul of the father, so is the soul of the son; the soul that sinneth, it shall die--it, and not another for it; it alone, and only for its own conscious and inward wrong. God’s ways are all equal, and righteousness is the glory of His administration. Heredity is a fact; but it neither accounts for the sum of human suffering, nor for the presence of individual sin. The grape theory may fill a proverb, but it will not explain the Exile.
III. Ezekiel could not have adopted so rigorous and searching a method unless he had been bathed and inspired by the great evangelical motive. The motive to Ezekiel’s ministry is the loving, omnipotent, and regenerating God.
1. As the idea of sin bulges more and more in the thought of the Jews, and burns with increased fierceness in their consciences, fed by the sufferings of their nation, so with unprecedented sharpness of outline appears “the wiping out” of guilt by the free, sovereign, and love-prompted grace of God.
2. It is in the inspiration of hope in the almighty power of God that Ezekiel soars to the highest ranges, and beholds his most memorable and gladdening vision. Carried in thought to his “Mount of Transfiguration,” Tel-Abib, he sees covering the vast area of the far-stretching plain the wreck as of an immense army, of dry, bleached, and withering bones. He muses, and the fire of thought burns, and the voice of God sounds in the lonely chambers of his soul. The omnipotence of God is the certain resurrection of the soul of man. He cannot be holden of death. This last enemy shall be destroyed. Power belongeth unto God, and He uses it to save prostrate, despondent, and despairing souls, convicted of guilt, oppressed with the consciousness of death! His delight is in renewal as well as in mercy!
3. Nor is this a fitful and passing access of power, standing out in life like a mountain peak in a plain, a sad memorial of a delightful past, and prophecy of an impossible future; a record of privilege never again to be enjoyed. No; for “I will,” says God, “take away the hard, insensitive, unsympathetic, and selfish heart of stone, and will give you a heart of flesh, tender, responsive to the touch of all that surrounds it, open to the Divine emotion of reverence and pity, love and aspiration; and I will put My spirit within you, and write My laws on your heart, enrich you with personal communion, and nourish you by a true obedience.” O blessed Gospel! O cheering Pentecost of the Exile! How the hearts of the lowly and penitent in Israel leapt to hail thy coming, rejoiced in the fulness of the blessing of faith, hope, and fellowship, with the Eternal! and prepared for the world-saving mission to which God had called them. Who, then, will hesitate to preach God’s last, perfect, and universal Gospel to his fellow man? Who will not seek for the strength which comes
(1) from a new and full life, a heart quick in sympathy and strong in the Spirit;
(2) from the conviction that we are living in a world of persons spiritually related to the Father, and immediately responsible to His judgment; and
(3) from the assurance that the love of God is a real gospel for each human soul--so that he may proclaim the faithful saying, that God is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe? (J. Clifford, D. D.)
All souls for God
There is a difference between the utterance of a man of science and the utterance of a prophet. When knowledge or science speaks, we demand that it shall prove its assertions; but when the prophet speaks, he speaks that which demands and needs no reason, because he speaks to that within us which can approve its utterance. Again, when the man of science speaks, what he conveys may be interesting, but it does not necessarily convey any requisite action on our part; but wherever prophecy speaks, it commands responsible action on our part; it is the obligation of obedience. Now, Ezekiel was a prophet, differing, no doubt, from other prophets; but, nevertheless, he was one of those who gave utterance to those pregnant sentences or statements which, having been once spoken, are spoken forever. You have an illustration of it in the text. “Behold,” says the prophet, and he speaks not for his own time, but for all time--“Behold,” speaking in the name of God, “all souls are Mine.” It is to the principle which underlies those words--and to the exhaustless range of its application to various departments of human life, that I ask your attention. It is indispensable to our conception of God that all souls should be His. Imagine for one moment that it could be shown that there were souls which did not belong to God; we should immediately say that the whole conception which we had formed of God, the very fundamental idea which we attach to the word, had been entirely destroyed, and He would cease to be God to us if He were not God of all! But if it is true, then, as belonging to the indispensable conception of the Divine Being that all souls should be His, the power of the principle lies in this; a principle lies behind, I venture to think, nearly all our opinions. It was so in the prophet’s day. Here strong opinions prevailed. The opinion which was strongest amongst the people of his day, was an opinion concerning what would be called in modern language, heredity--“The fathers had eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth were set on edge.” A truth! An unquestionable truth when viewed from some standpoints. But how did he deal with it? By bringing out the force of the old principle, the unquestionable principle, “All souls are Mine.” Whatever may have happened in the progress of generation after generation, whatever dark shadow may have descended from father to son, however much the father’s sin may have been visited upon the children, that is not a token that they have ceased to be God’s, rather is it a token that the surrounding and the providential hand of God is upon them still. And no act of one man can sever God from the rights which He has over another man. And as no man can redeem his brother, so no man can drag his brother out of the hand of the Almighty. For He lays down this principle of sovereignty, All souls are Mine; and as God is crowned King of heaven, so does He declare that His are inalienable rights, and no wrong and no darkness and no sin can rob Him of those rights. That is the declaration of the principle--“All souls are Mine.” It is a statement of a right to property, “It is He that hath made us and not we ourselves, and behold! our souls are His!” But are you satisfied that that shall be the only significance of it? It is the declaration of Divine right, arising out of creation if you please, but remember, it is ever true that the enunciation of Divine rights is the enunciation of Divine character. We must never for a moment imagine that we can dissociate the idea of God’s rights from the idea of a Divine character. It is the declaration not only of His claim over men by right of His creation of them, but of His nearness to them and His care for them; that they have a claim to His care arising out of His creation of them. That is what the prophet is earnestly urging. For if you look for a moment you will see it is no mere naked assertion of the right to property over men. What he is anxious for is to blot out the darkness which their false and tyrannising opinion has brought over the souls of his brethren. They are in exile, cowering down beneath the weight of circumstances Which seemed inevitable and inexorable. He stands as before these men and says, “Behold, you are liberated; God is near you. No one has a right to declare that you do not belong to Him. I speak for your souls which are now trodden down by the idea that somehow or another the dark shadow of the past has put them out of the care of God, and out of the thought of God. This never has been, and never can be, the case, for whatever a man be, with his soul falling into wickedness and evil, or rising into goodness, all, all, no matter of what sort, are under His care and keeping.” It is an attack upon the idea that anything can take a man out of the care, out of the love, out of the tenderness of God. And was he net right in his interpretation? The ages go by; I turn to another book, and behold! the message of the book is the message which runs precisely on those lines. Property, in the Divine idea, means the obligation of property. What did your Master and mine say? He said, “Here are men in the world: who are the men which show the carelessness of responsibility? The hireling flieth, because he is an hireling, but the Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep, because the sheep are His own, and the right of property gives responsibility.” Those who are His by the claim of possession have also a claim upon His care. If this be the principle, do you not see how wide it is? And yet, surely often and often this principle has been lost sight of, and opinions again have risen up to tyrannise over us and to limit “its” thought and its power. How often we are told, “Yes, they are God’s, if--” There is always an “if”--“if a certain experience has been gone through; if a certain ceremony has been performed; if a certain belief has been acknowledged; if a certain life has been lived, then they are God’s, not otherwise!” You will not suppose for a moment that I would undervalue an experience, nor an ordinance, nor a faith, nor a life. But surely we must never confuse the manifestation of a principle with the original principle itself. When the soul wakens up to the consciousness of God, it is the awakening of the soul to the thought that God had claimed it before. When the child is taken and admitted into the Christian Church, you had not baptized it unless you had believed beforehand that the redeeming hand of Christ had been stretched athwart the world. The faith that you teach the humblest of your disciples will give him the first thought that he belongs to God, for you will teach him, “I believe in God my Father.” And the life that he has to live can only be the outcome of this, that he is possessed by the power of a spirit which is declaring, to him that he is not his own, but he is bought with a price. Nay, does not the apostle round his argument precisely in that order? All the experiences, the joyous experiences of Christian life, are the outcome of the realisation of that which was true beforehand, that the soul belongs to any lesser or any lower, but simply to God. Because ye are His, God has sent forth the spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying Abba, Father. Such is the range of the principle as an expression of Divine love, which is also the charter of human rights. Yes, it stands forever written here, that the world may remember “All souls are Mine.” We know what the history of the past was--contempt for this or that race. Can there be contempt any longer, seeing that the Divine fiat has gone forth, “All souls are Mine”? It stands as the perpetual witness against the selfish contempt of race against race. It is the declaration then, so far, of rights. It is an individual one, for, believe me, no philosophy can ever take the place of religion. It is absolutely impossible that altruism can be a fitting substitute for self-sacrificing Christian love. The best intentions in the world will not secure the objects of those good intentions. As long as you and I live we shall find that the charter of human rights lies not in any declaration from earth, but in a declaration from heaven. Just as the city, the ideal city when it comes, will not spring from the earth, but will come down from heaven, so, also, that which is the declaration of the citizenship of that great city must descend from heaven, and the rights of men be conceived there and not upon earth. For, unfortunately, it is only too true that civilisation weaves within her bosom many strange passions and prejudices and opinions which become an organised cruelty against the rights and the pities of men. There are cruelties of philosophy, and cruelties of science, and cruelties of commerce, and cruelties of diplomacy. Cruelties of philosophy--one man teaches us that it is impossible to raise out of their savage and sad condition certain races of the world. Cruelties of science, when we are told that it is a pity to disturb the picturesque surroundings of some of the lower African tribes, because the scientific man loses the opportunity of a museum-like study when these races become Christianised. Cruelties of commerce, when men are ready to condone the wicked, and cruelly slaughter thousands, if they may secure a half per cent more dividend upon their capital. Your answer is, “Here is a Divine principle; have faith in this principle and behold the cruelty shall disappear.” It has been so. The answer which has been given out of the exercise of faith in this principle is an unanswerable reply to the objectors of all kinds. Everywhere where there has been energy, everywhere where there has been this faith, it has been faith in the one living principle that God’s hand is over the whole race, and that all souls belong to Him. That is the answer to those who would seek to make the charter of men less, and Jesus Christ coming to us says, “Behold, it is even truer,” for over the whole world His love goes forth, and the armies of His Cross spread East and West, and all are brought within His embrace, seeing that He tasted death for every man. And as we contemplate, behold what happens! We see immediately all these various races with their several conditions, with their degraded state, or what we are pleased to call their uncivilised state, all of them are united in one thing: they have a common origin; they have a common call; there is a common hope for them; there is a common hand of love stretched out to them, and as you contemplate this fundamental bond of union all the other idiosyncrasies and differences sink into insignificance compared with this, that they are made of the same blood as ourselves, that their souls are called by the same God as ourselves, and all these souls are His, and the less we speak of these minor differences the better is the realisation of the profound love of God which has become the charter of human rights. It is a statute, finally of obligation, of service--“All souls are Mine.” If all souls are God’s, then, humbly be it spoken, we too are His, and His claim over us is the very same as the claim which we are seeking to extend the whole wide world over, and His claim over us is the claim that we, being His, shall, in some sort, resemble Him. In the constancy of His service who works ceaselessly, in the self-sacrifice of that love which loved us and gave itself for us, the obligation which springs out of that conception “All souls are Mine “is the obligation that your whole life, your whole soul, all that you are, shall be consecrated and dedicated to His service. And that is the rationale of Christian missions. (Bp. Boyd Carpenter.)
The wealth of God and the obligation of man
I. The wealth of God. He owns souls--intelligent, free, influential, deathless souls.
1. His wealth is immense. Think of the value of one soul. Think of the inexhaustible powers, of the wonderful things that one soul is capable of producing, of the interminable influence for good or bad that one soul originates; and it may be well said, that one soul is of more value than the whole world.
2. His wealth is righteous. He has the most absolute, the most unquestionable right to them. He made them: He is the only Creator, and He has the only right. They are His, with all their faculties and powers.
3. His wealth is inalienable. They cannot become their own, nor can they become the property of another. They are his, absolutely, righteously, and forever.
4. His wealth is ever-augmenting. The mountains are old, and the sea is old, and the river is old, and even the youngest plants and animals that appear are but old materials entered into new combinations, nothing more. But souls are new in the entireness of their nature. Fresh emanations from the Eternal Father are they all. Thus His wealth of souls increases.
II. The obligation of man.
1. We should act according to His will. It is His will that we should not “live to ourselves”--not seek our own. It is His will that we should centre our affections on Him, love Him with all our hearts, etc. It is His will that we should avail ourselves of the provisions of mercy in Christ Jesus.
2. We should confide implicitly in His protection. We are His, and if we use ourselves according to His direction, He will take care of us, be our shield in the battle, and our refuge in the storm.
3. We should be jealous for His rights.
(1) We should zealously maintain His rights in ourselves. We should allow no one to extort service or homage from us that belongs to God.
(2) We should practically recognise His right in our fellow men. We should battle against priestcraft, oppression, and slavery, on the ground of loyalty to heaven. (Homilist.)
All souls are God’s
When we look at the world from any other point of view than the Christian we are led to despise or to undervalue the mass of men. The man of culture looks down on them as incapable of mental improvement; the man of righteousness sees them hopelessly immersed in vice and crime; the reformer turns away discouraged, seeing how they cling to old abuses. Everything discourages us but Christianity. That enables us to take off all these coverings, and find beneath the indestructible elements and capacities of the soul itself. We see standing before us a muffled figure: it has been long dug out of the ground, and is covered with a mass of earth. The man of taste looks at it, and finds nothing attractive: he sees only the wretched covering. The moralist looks at it, and finds it hopelessly stained with the earth and the soil in which it has so long lain. The reformer is discouraged, finding that it is in fragments,--whole limbs wanting; and considers its restoration hopeless. But another comes, inspired by a pro-founder hope; and he sees beneath the stains the Divine lineaments; in the broken fragments the wonderful proportions. Carefully he removes the coverings; tenderly he cleanses it from its stains; patiently he readjusts the broken parts, and supplies those which are wanting: and so at last it stands, in a royal museum or pontifical palace, an Apollo or a Venus, the very type of manly grace or feminine beauty,--a statue which enchants the world.
1. All souls belong to God and to goodness by creation. Compared with the capacities and powers which are common to all, how small are the differences of genius or talent between man and man! Now, suppose that we should see in the midst of our city a building just erected with care and cost. Its foundations are deeply laid; its walls are of solid stone; its various apartments are arranged with skill for domestic and social objects; but it is unoccupied and unused. We do not believe that its owner intends it to remain so: we believe that the day will come in which these rooms shall become a home; in which these vacant chambers shall resound with the glad shouts of children and the happy laughter of youth; where one room shall be devoted to earnest study, another to serious conversation, another to safe repose, and the whole be sanctified by prayer. Such a building has God erected in every human soul. One chamber of the mind is fitted for thought, another for affection, another for earnest work, another for imagination, and the whole to be the temple of God. It stands now vacant; its rooms unswept, unfurnished, wakened by no happy echoes: but shall it be so always? Will God allow this soul, which belongs to Him, so carefully provided with infinite faculties, to go wholly to waste?
2. No; God, having made the soul for goodness, is also educating it for goodness. The soul, which belongs to God by creation, will also belong to Him by education and culture. The earth is God’s school, where men are sent for seventy years, more or less, to be educated for the world beyond. All souls are sent to this school; all enjoy its opportunities. The poor, who cannot go to our schools; the wretched and the forlorn, who, we think, are without means of culture,--are perhaps better taught than we are in God’s great university. The principal teachers in this school are three,--nature, events, and labour. Nature receives the newborn child, shows him her picture book, and teaches him his alphabet with simple sights and sounds. Happy are the children who can go the most to Mother Nature, and learn the most in her dame school. The little prince was wise who threw aside his fine playthings, and wished to go out and play in the beautiful mud. The next teacher in God’s school is labour. That which men call the primal curse is, in fact, one of our greatest blessings. Those who are called the fortunate classes, because they are exempt from the necessity of toil, are, for that very reason, the most unfortunate. Work gives health of body and health of mind, and is the great means of developing character. Nature is the teacher of the intellect, but labour forms the character. Nature makes us acquainted with facts and laws; but labour teaches tenacity of purpose, perseverance in action, decision, resolution, and self-respect. Then comes the third teacher,--these events of life which come to all,--joy and sorrow, success and disappointment, happy love, disappointed affection, bereavement, poverty, sickness and recovery, youth, manhood, and old age. Through this series of events all are taken by the great teacher,--life: these diversify the most monotonous career with a wonderful interest. They are sent to deepen the nature, to educate the sensibilities. Thus nature teaches the intellect, labour strengthens the will, and the experiences of life teach the heart, For all souls God has provided this costly education. What shall we infer from it? If we see a man providing an elaborate education for his child, hardening his body by exercise and exposure, strengthening his mind by severe study, what do we infer from this? We naturally infer that he intends him for a grand career.
3. Again, all souls belong to God by redemption. The work of Christ is for all: He died for all, the just and the unjust, that He might bring them to God. The value of a single soul in the eyes of God has been illustrated by the coming of Jesus as in no other way. The recognition of this value is a feature peculiar to Christianity. To be the means of converting a single soul, to put a single soul in the right way, has been considered a sufficient reward for the labours of the most devoted genius and the ripest culture; to rescue those who have sunk the lowest in sin and shame has been the especial work of the Christian philanthropist; to preach the loftiest truths of the Gospel to the most debased and savage tribes in the far Pacific has been the chosen work of the Christian missionary. In this they have caught the spirit of the Gospel. God said, “I will send My Son.” He chose the loftiest being for the lowliest work, and thus taught us how He values the redemption of that soul which is the heritage of all. Now, if a man, apparently very humble and far gone in disease, should be picked up in the street, and sent to the almshouse to die, and then, if immediately there should arrive some eminent person--say, the governor or president--to visit him, bringing from a distance the first medical assistance, regardless of cost, we should say, “This man’s life must be very precious: something very important must depend upon it.” But now, this is what God has done, only infinitely more for all souls. He must therefore see in them something of priceless value.
4. Lastly, in the future life all souls will belong to God. The differences of life disappear at the grave, and all become equal again there. Then the outward clothing of rank, of earthly position, high or low, is laid aside, and each enters the presence of God, alone, as an immortal soul. Then we go to judgment and to retribution. But the judgments and retributions of eternity are for the same object as the education of time: they are to complete the work left unfinished here. In God’s house above are many mansions, suited to everyone’s condition. Each will find the place where he belongs; each will find the discipline which he needs. Judas went to his place, the place which he needed, where it was best for him to go; and the apostle Paul went to his place, the place best suited for him. When we pass into the other world, those who are ready, and have on the wedding garment, will go in to the supper. They will find themselves in a more exalted state of being, where the faculties of the body are exalted and spiritualised, and the powers of the soul are heightened; where a higher truth, a nobler beauty, a larger love, feed the immortal faculties with a Divine nourishment; where our imperfect knowledge will be swallowed up in larger insight; and communion with great souls, in an atmosphere of love, shall quicken us for endless progress. Then faith, hope, and love will abide--faith leading to sight, hope urging to progress, and love enabling us to work with Christ for the redemption of the race. (James Freeman Clarke.)
The Christian Church has celebrated for more than a thousand years an annual festival in honour of all its saints. It thus extended to a large number of persons a memorial that was at first confined to its distinguished champions, its confessors and historic names. There was something beautiful--may we not say generous?--in such an observance. It thus embraces the whole congregation of those who have been severed from this world’s joy, and rest from its labours. It recognises no distinction of rank or belief or fortune in those who dwell no longer in the flesh, but have passed to their account. It considers only the sympathies of a common nature and the fellowship of death. This is called the day of the dead; and with a pathetic specialty each one is expected to bear upon his heart the recollection of his own dead. Care is taken that no one of the lost shall be forgotten, though separated by distance of time and become dim to the memory, and whatever changes of relationship and transfers of affection may have come between. This anniversary suggests something better than the revival of former sorrows, however affectionate or sacred. It does not lead us in the train of any sad procession, but rather lifts up the heart to worship the universal Father of spirits. “Behold, all souls are Mine, saith the Lord God.” They are His, whether confined in the flesh or delivered from its burden; for whether one or the other, “all live unto Him.” They are His, with whatever degrees of capacity He has endowed them, small and great, weak and strong, to whatever trials of condition He has appointed them, the happy and the afflicted; in whatever degree they have acknowledged, or refused to acknowledge, that Divine ownership. It is not true, that the empire of the Omnipotent is divided, and a portion of its moral subjects cut off from its regard; whether by the power of an adversary or the change of death. He has not given away His possession, or any part of it, to another. “Behold, all souls are Mine, saith the Lord.” And it is not true that the Gospel sets itself forth for only a partial redemption; that for a few elect ones only its wonders were wrought, and its angels appeared, and its spirit was poured out, and its testimony spread everywhere abroad. It was to reconcile the world to God that its great Witness suffered and rose. While on earth, He chose the despised for His companions; He called the sinful to His offered grace. The faith that He bequeathed when He ascended shows a like condescension, carries on the same benignant design. It deals kindly with the afflicted, the humble,--with those who are most in need of such treatment, and those who are least accustomed to it. It repels none. It despairs of none. It opens one faith, one hope. It instructs the living in its truth, that knows no distinction among them, and it gathers the dead under the protection of its unfailing promises. If, therefore, we would commemorate this day of All-Souls, what has been said may serve to give those thoughts their proper direction. Let us first remember the souls of such as were once in our company, but “were not suffered to continue by reason of death”; or of such as we never personally knew, but who have yet always had a life in our revering minds. We may salute them anew in their far-off state, and be the better for doing so. We do not know what that state is, and need not know. We may trust them to the care of Him who has said, “All souls are Mine.” Let us repent ourselves afresh of any neglect or injustice that we may have committed in regard to them. Let us revive in our hearts the sense of all that endeared them to us. Let us prove more ready and less fearful for the end, as we treasure up the admonitions which their loss occasioned. Let us find that dim future not so void as it was, since they have gone before to inhabit it. And after we have performed this duty, another that is more important remains. It is as amiable as that, and has a broader practical reach than that. Let us remember the souls of those who are walking with us a similar course of probation and mortality, surrounded like ourselves with difficulties, exposures, infirmities, fears, and sorrows; equally, perhaps, though differently beset. Let us call to view our common frailties, our mutual obligations. Let us forgive if we have aught against any. (N. L. Frothingham.)
The claim of God upon the soul
I. Every living soul is, in a sense, the subject, the sharer, of the privileges, the attributes of God.
1. There is, without contradiction, the privilege of life. Life! what is life? Ah! who can answer, and yet who can fail to understand? “What am I? says a father of the Church; “what I was has vanished; what tomorrow I shall be is dark.” “We do not know ourselves; we do not understand our own nature,” echoes the scarcely Christian philosopher: the further we go by natural reason, the deeper the darkness, the greater the difficulty; and yet the corn that waves in the autumn wind, the flower that opens in the spring morning, the bird that sings in the leafy thicket, nay, in a sense, the very wave that ripples on the beach, much more the heaving swell of human multitudes that throng the city streets, all conspire to sing the song, the solemn song of life; and the pulses of the young heart vibrate to the music,--growth, movement, reality; the past is dim, the future inscrutable, but here at least is a great possession, the mystery, the thrilling mystery, of individual life. Better than silent stone, or sounding waves, or moving worlds, is one who holds the eternal spark of life. Whatever comes, we feel, we know it, it is something to have lived. This is what it means. It is to have been single, separate, self-determining. Yes; man feels his own life; he is an object of his own consciousness; he is, and he can never change in such sense as to be another self.
2. Another privilege of this lofty place in the scale of being is immortality. Man’s ordinary moods may suit a finite life. But these--this lofty aspiration, keen remorse, unsatisfied desire, these infinite unspoken yearnings, these passionate affections--whence come they? There is one answer, only one. From the depth of a conscious being, whose life, whose personality, is not bounded by the grave. Man is immortal. So dimly dreamed the ancients. Alas, too often it was but a dream. Cicero was busied in “Platonic disquisitions,” as it has been said, “on the immortality of the soul”; but when his darling Tullia died, he and his friend could only fancy that “if” she were conscious she would desire comfort for her agonised father. Still, there was the dream of immortality. Seneca spoke of it as a dream. “I was pleasantly engaged,” he wrote to his friend, “inquiring about immortality; I was surrendering myself to the great hope; I was despising the fragments of a broken life. Your letter came, the dream vanished.” Was it only a dream? At least it was “a great hope.” A dream, but destined to become a waking vision! A hope, one day to be a clear reality! Christ came--came in His sweet simplicity, came in His deep humility, came with His great revelation. Christ came; came and placed it in evidence, by His Divine teaching, by the indisputable need of a future life for the fulfilment of His lofty principles, and last by that stupendous fact of which the apostles, testing it by their senses, testing it by all varieties of available evidence, knew and affirmed the truth--the miracle, the unique, the crowning miracle, of the resurrection.
3. I instance one further privilege of the soul--The intuition of moral truth, and with this the sense of moral obligation. An image emerges in the Gospel, unique, beautiful; a picture suited for all situations, unchangingly powerful amid all changes of inner and outer life. The German rationalist is perplexed by His perfection; the French infidel is startled by His beauty; the modern Arian is constrained to admire, while he inconsistently denies the assertion of Godhead, which, if falsely made, would shatter that image of perfect beauty. Yes, the old saying--Tertullian’s saying--is true, “O soul, thou art by nature Christian”; as He only sanctions thy yearnings for immortality, so Jesus only satisfies thy sense of moral beauty. He does more. The soul, approving, desires to love; but love requires an object--what object like Thee, O uncreated beauty!
II. If the soul is so endowed by God, it follows necessarily that God has a claim upon the soul. It is on success in realising, remembering, acting upon this truth of our relationship to God, that so much of our true happiness and, I may add, our true dignity depends. Of what character is this claim?
1. God has a rightful claim upon our conscious dependence. And you must render Him this service, oh! you must carefully render it, for many reasons--Clearly, because to do so is to do that which all sensible men should strive to do, to recognise and reverence facts. You do depend on God. Never imagine that, like an intrusive caller, you can bow God politely and contemptuously out of His creation; in spite of your puny insolence He is there.
2. Such recognition is only a just outcome of gratitude. Count up your blessings; perhaps they are so familiar to you, so strongly secured to your possession by what seem, from habit, indissoluble bonds, that you have forgotten that they are blessings. Better at once awake from that dream. The keeping alive the sense of conscious dependence upon God exercises upon our character a great moral influence. We never rise to the dignity of nature but by being natural. This dependence is one of those pure facts of nature which has imbibed none of the poison of the fall. Two powers accrue to the soul from cultivating the sense of it--resignation and strength. The Christian learns that the hand that gives, and gives so lavishly, may rightly be trusted to take away. All of us,--we may settle it in our minds, with no morbid fearfulness, but with quiet certainty,--all of us most sooner or later suffer--ay, and sharply. Let us pray so to know Him who made us, so to depend upon Him now, that when it pleases Him to try our constancy, we may, with a real resignation, “suffer and be strong.” Seek your strength where alone it will be found available in a moment of crisis; cherish and stand upon the great thought of God.
III. God’s preserving and so richly endowing the soul gives Him a claim that in its plans and activities He should have the first place. “Religion is that strong passion, that powerful virtue, which gives the true colour to all else.” Give Him you first thoughts in the morning; try to act as in His presence, for His glory; let the thought of Him restrain a sinful pleasure, gladden an innocent delight; love Him through all He gives you, and all He gives love in Him. Young men, young women, remember it--“Them that honour Me I will honour.” He depends on you for a portion of His glory. Angels do their part in song, in work, in worship; yours they cannot do. One work He called you to do. You entered the world, at a fixed time, to do just that work. When death comes, will it find you working in that spirit?
IV. God makes this claim upon you, that you despise no soul. This is difficult. We live in an age when, more than ever, judgment goes by appearances--an age of rush, of competition. The lad whom the schoolmaster ignored as stupid may turn out a Newton. The little newspaper boy you pass as so much lumber in the street may prove a Faraday; even intellectually, we may be mistaken. But a soul, as a soul, demands respect. Despise no soul, however debased and grimed and soiled. These souls are God’s. The corruption of the morals of the poor pains you? It is true--lamentable how imposture dries the springs of charity and makes a cynic of the Christian. Never mind, life is full of sadness; but keep the heart fresh. In spite of all, there are beautiful souls about the world; and for all souls Jesus died. Despise no soul. At least, O Christian, pray for them.
V. Some serious lessons.
1. The first is individual responsibility. Philosophers have fancied that each movement of thought displaces some molecule of the brain, so that every airy fancy registers itself in material fact. Anyhow, this is true: every free choice of the creature between good and evil has an eternal import, and it may be, it will be if you will have it so, a splendid destiny. “What shall I do, my father?” asked the barbarian conqueror, as he stood awe-stricken before the aged Benedict. Calmly the saint replied in this fashion, “My son, thou shalt enter Rome.” “And then?” “Then thou shalt cross the sea, shalt sweep and conquer Sicily.” “And then? Then thou shalt reign nine years; and then,” said the father, “then thou shalt die, and then thou shalt be judged.” We may hope, in part at least we may believe, the lesson was not lost on Totila. My brothers, have we learnt that lesson? The grave prerogative of the soul is this: life’s struggle over, then it “shall be judged.”
2. The soul’s true beatitude is to know God. “Acquaint thyself with God, and be at peace.” Duty and communion make up life, the life that is worthy of a soul. Is it yours? Remember, O soul, thy princely rank; aspire to God by a true, a loving life. (Canon Knox Little.)
God’s ownership of souls
God’s right of property in these souls is not derived, as man’s is, but original; His, not by conveyance from another, but by right of creation. As the Creator of the soul, and the Upholder of the soul, God can do what He will with the soul. There are no codes of law to guide Him, no interlacings of other rights with His right to fetter or restrain His will. On the contrary, His will is His own law, and hence it is said, “He doeth according to His will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth.” “All souls.” What a compass does this give to His spiritual proprietorship! All human souls are His. Every being who ever lived on this earth in whom God breathed the breath of an immortal spirit belongs to God. The souls of all fallen angels are His. They are His, despite their rebellion; His despite their sin; nor can they ever flee themselves from the absolute right of God to do what He will with His own. The souls of the dwellers in heaven belong to God, Each and every order of spiritual existences, from the lowest who waits before the throne, to the tallest archangel in the hierarchy of heaven, belongs to God. What a mighty proprietorship is this! to be able to stand on this world, and say of each generation of its hundreds of millions of beings, as they pass in a procession sixty centuries long, “Behold, all these souls are Mine.” To stand like Uriel in the sun, and say of the thronging myriads which inhabit the planets of this solar system, as they sweep their swift orbits around the central light, “Behold all these souls are Mine.” Oh, surely, He who can say this must be the great and glorious God! The question now arises, For what purpose did God make these souls? Let God Himself answer. “I have created him for My glory, I have formed him; yea, I have made him”; and again, He says, “This people have I formed for Myself; they shall show forth My praise.”
1. The first inference is, That man holds his soul in trust from God for the use of God. He has, indeed, implanted in you a will; but with that will He has also given two laws,--the law of conscience, and the moral law of Sinai; and that will must guide all its volitions according to these laws, and any breach of either is known to, and punishable, by God. The terms of trusteeship inscribed on each soul are--“Occupy till I come.” Occupy the powers, the affections, the sensibilities, the will of this soul for Me. Occupy as My steward, for My glory; and whenever these souls are used for any purposes contrary to God’s will, then is there in you great breach of moral trust, and that is sin. But not only is there a breach of trust in thus misusing the soul with which you are placed in trust, there is also involved in such conduct absolute treason and rebellion. God says your soul is His, consequently He has a right to rule over it, and receive, its fealty as its governor and, king; but you cast aside His rule, and give your fealty and obedience to God’s enemy. Is not this treason, rebellion? But we have not yet done with this inference that you hold your souls in trust for God; for your conduct in withholding your souls from Him is not only a breach of trust, not only treason, not only rebellion, but it is absolute robbery of God. I speak to you who are men of probity and honour, who would eat the crust of poverty sooner than betray a human trust--feel you no sense of shame in betraying the Divine trust which God has placed in your charge? I speak to you men of patriotism, who would shed your blood sooner than join the enemies of your country or foment rebellion against the government which protects you-feel you no compunctious smiting of conscience, no goadings of remorse, at your treason in adhering to the enemy of all righteousness, in being a child and follower and servant of him who plotted rebellion in heaven, who plotted rebellion on earth, and who is ever waging war with God?
2. This brings us to the second inference, which is--that all misuse of this trust is sin. God requires us to love Him with all our soul; this, He says, is the first and great commandment. Each want of conformity to this law is sin, for the apostle distinctly states, “Sin is a transgression of (or want of conformity to) the law.” Each soul, then, which withholds itself from God does, by that act, break the first and great commandment, and consequently commits sin. And now, what does God in the text say of such sinning soul? “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” What a fearful doom is this! The two great elements of this death of the soul are--lst, The absence of all that constitutes everlasting life; 2nd, The presence of every thing that constitutes everlasting despair. There is forever present to the soul the consciousness of this its two-fold misery. (Bp. Stevens.)
Mankind the Divine possession
I. God’s claim to our service. “All souls are Mine.”
1. Being itself, notwithstanding its characteristic individuality, is of Divine origin. Need we go back to the remote ages of antiquity to search the register of creation for our pedigree? Are there not records nearer home that will answer that purpose? Look into that world of consciousness. There, in the depths of your being, you will find the record. The intellect which grasps knowledge, the moral sense which fights for the right, the affection which rises above every creature to a Divine level, and the will which arbitrarily determines our course of action, these are the entries in creation’s register which prove that God is our Father.
2. The properties of life teach us the same truth. An unseen hand makes ample provision for our wants. We are sheltered by the mantle of His power: and the presence of the Almighty is our dwelling place. That presence is a wall of fire around us, to ward off destruction and death. Although our journey is through a waste-howling wilderness, the cloud by day and fiery pillar by night lead the way. His way is in the sea; His path in the great waters; and His footsteps are not known. A thousand voices herald His coming every morning; a thousand mercies witness to His goodness during the day. Out of the fruit of the earth, the light and the darkness, the sustenance and preservation of life; out of every part of nature, and every turn of providence, the voice calls, “All souls are Mine.”
3. We will further take the more emphatic testimony of redemption. The hand of inspiration on the human mind, from the earliest ages, was a Divine claim on our thoughts. But we will pass by the long series of testimony under the patriarchal and Mosaic dispensations, in order to come to the mission of the Son of God. The substance of that mission is contained in the statement, “Our Father which art in heaven.” By discourses and actions, the declaration was made to the world with an emphasis which impressed the truth indelibly on the mind of the race.
II. This high and holy relationship imposes its own conditions.
1. Love to the being of God. Reconciliation by Jesus Christ leads to the conception that “God is love.” “Pardon him,” said the sergeant to the colonel of the regiment. The offending soldier had been punished many times, fill he hated every one of his comrades, and even virtue. He was pardoned. The effect was striking--he became a loving man. Jesus said of the sinner, “Pardon him,” and for the first time he saw that “God is love.”
2. Trustfulness in God’s dealings. We are under an administration of law and order which we do not quite understand. The inclination of the child is often opposed to the father’s wish. These two, ignorance on the one hand and perverseness on the other, must be subordinated to the will of God. This is the hard lesson of life.
3. Usefulness in God’s vineyard. Life in earnest is the highest condition of life. The life of the tree touches its highest point when it throws off fruit in abundance. In conclusion, let us take a glance at the profitable life which blossoms for immortality. Its activities are sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Of the holy thoughts which revolve in the breast, the heavenly aspirations which rise in the heart, the gracious words which are uttered by the lips, and the kind deeds which are wrought in faith, of these God says, “They are Mine.” (T. Davies, M. A.)
God’s proprietorship of souls
There are hero two great facts presupposed, both of them impugned and challenged by some of the fleeting false philosophies of the moment. The one is the existence of God. The other is the existence of the soul. We believe in the two great realities--God and the soul; and we know that the one want of humanity, and therefore the one object and one office of religion, is the bringing of these two realities together. The soul is a fugitive and runaway from Him who is its owner. God in Christ is come to seek and to save. How very magnificent is the Divine attribute thus opened! The comprehension, the very conception of one soul, is beyond the reach of the reason, or even the imagination. How unsearchable are the ways of one heart even to that one! Multiply that one being by the ten and by the hundred surrounding, all within the four walls of one church; what a word of awe and astonishment is here, “The souls here present are Mine!” What must He be who claims that proprietorship! No sovereignty of islands and continents, no dominion of stars or planets, no empire of systems and universes can compete or compare with it for a moment. No earthly potentate, no tyrant of history or of fable ever claimed the sovereignty of a soul. The chain was never forged that could bind it; the instrument was never invented that could even profess to transfer it. “One soul is mine.” No, it never entered the heart of man to say that. But now, if God speaks and makes this His attribute, “All souls are Mine,” the next thought must be, What is this thing of which it belongs to God alone to have possession? Two characteristics of it will occur at once to everyone, of which the first and most obvious is the sanctity. There is that in us which cannot be seen or handled. That invisible, intangible thing belongs to God. It would be an advance for many of us in the spiritual life if we could read the saying in the singular number, if we could recognise and remember the single ownership, “My soul is God’s,” not my own, to treat thus or thus, to use thus or thus, to manage thus or thus at my pleasure; not mine to starve or to pamper; not mine to honour or dishonour, to indulge or to defy; not mine that I should give it this colour or that colour, at the bidding of vanity, of indolence, of caprice, of lust; not mine that I should say to it, Become this, or become that, as I please to direct thy employments, thy relaxations, thy opinions, thy affections, regardless of what the Lord thy God hath spoken concerning each one of us. On the contrary, to feel the revelation “All souls are Mine,” and to draw from it this inference: If all, then each; and if each, then the one--what seriousness would it give, what dignity, and what elevation to this life of time, making each day and each night take with it the impress also of that other revelation: “And the spirit must return to God who gave it!” If all souls, then each soul, and if each soul, then, further, the soul of that other, for a moment or for a lifetime so near thine own; brother, sister, friend, kinsman, wife, or child, it too has an owner, not itself, and not thou, and nothing can befall it for joy or grief, for weal or woe, for remorse or wrong, but the eye of the Omniscient observes, and the hand of the Omnipotent writes it down. Sanctity, then, is one thought; preciousness is the other. This is an inference not to be gainsaid, seeing the proprietorship claimed in the text; and is it not, when we ponder it, the very basis and groundwork of all hope, whether for ourselves or for the world? If my soul is God’s, can there be presumption, ought there to be hesitation in the appeal to Him to keep and to save His own? Can either long neglect, or distant wandering, or obstinate sinning, have rendered the case desperate so long as there remains the possible petition: “I am Thine--oh, save me”? And as for the individual, so also for the race. It seems to me that the thought of the Divine ownership, with its obvious corollary, the preciousness of the soul, has in it a direct and a sufficient answer to all the cavillings and all the doubtings which beset our faith in the incarnation, the atonement, and the new birth. “All souls are Mine.” Then, shall He lightly abandon who has thought it worth while to possess? We could not, indeed, know without revelation what processes would be necessary or what would suffice to redeem a soul. But what we say is this, that the Divine ownership implies the preciousness of souls, and that the preciousness accounts for any processes, however intricate or however costly, by which Infinite Wisdom may have wrought out their rescue and salvation. What those methods should be, God alone could determine. He might never have told us of them. It is nowhere explained; but “all souls are Mine” prepares us for His adopting those methods, whatever they might be, and leaves nothing improbable, whatever else it may leave mysterious, in the bare fact that at any price and at any sacrifice God should have interposed to redeem. (Dean Vaughan.)
God and the soul
1. The immediate occasion of this word of the Lord by the prophet was a powerful objection made against the moral government of God. Punishment was not dealt out to the transgressor, and to him only; but his children were made to suffer too.
2. This misbelief of the people was very alarming; all the more so that an element of truth was at the base of it. Doubt is never more serious than when it questions the righteousness of God; and it is often easy to offer some show of reason for such a suggestion. Ezekiel had to do with a kind of misbelief which is not so very uncommon in our own time.
3. He met it, as such belief must always, I think, be met, not by denying the half-truth on which the objection rests; but by affirming the complementary truths of man’s individual responsibility and God’s absolute fairness. We do belong to the race, and we do inherit the consequences of other men’s actions; but, none the less, each of us is a unit, dwelling in “the awful solitude of his own personality”; each of us is responsible for his own conduct, and must give his own account to God.
4. This rests on the fundamental truth that “all souls are God’s.” Men have a relation to God as well as to one another; and this is true not only of some men, but of all. We all live in God. What we inherit from our ancestors is not more important than what we receive, and may receive, from God,--it is vastly less important. The supreme fact in every human life is, not heredity, but God.
5. “All souls are God’s.” Every man lives in God, is sustained and preserved by God, is dealt with by God in his own individual personality; and that, not only in reference to material things, but in reference to the moral and spiritual aspects of life. As the all-embracing air is around each, so is the presence of God, and that is the guarantee for the government of each with perfect fair play, in mercy and righteousness and love.
6. The truth before us, then, is that every human soul is an object of God’s care. In every man God has a personal interest. He deals with us, not in the mass, but one by one; not simply through the operation of unbending, universal law, or as a blind, impersonal force, but by a direct and vital contact.
7. I know that many among us find it almost impossible to share this belief, and it may be confessed freely that many things which we see around us are hard to reconcile with a strong faith in the truth which I am seeking to establish--the truth that God has a personal and individual care for every man--dealing with “all souls” in perfect wisdom, righteousness, and love. We find life full of glaring inequalities--surfeit and starvation side by side; Dives feasting luxuriously, and Lazarus longing for the wasted crumbs; bounding health that counts mere life a joy, and lingering sickness that prays for death as gain; happiness that scarcely knows an unsatisfied desire, and exquisite misery that hardly remembers a day’s unbroken peace. We find the same inequality extending to spiritual privileges. Here men live in the full light of the Christian revelation, in a land of churches and Bibles, where helps to holy living are abundant. Yonder men dwell in pagan darkness, ignorant of Christian truth, destitute of Christian influence, surrounded by all that tends to degrade and deprave.
8. What, then, is our proper course in the presence of these difficulties? What can it be but to follow the example of Ezekiel in strongly affirming the fact? Let the fact of God’s personal, individual, universal care be firmly grasped, and the difficulties will fall into their right place of comparative unimportance.
9. If you have any momentary difficulty in accepting this as true, reflect, I beseech you, what a horrible theory would be involved in its denial--the theory that for some of His children God has no kind thought, no tender feeling, no purpose of mercy and love; that for some men He does not care at all. He gave them life, and preserves them in being; but He does not love them. They have the same powers and capacities as ourselves, are made capable of trusting, loving, obeying, rejoicing in Him; but He has no merciful regard for them, He withholds the enlightening truth, the saving grace, the redeeming message; He shuts up His heart of compassions, and leaves them, as orphans in the wild, to perish miserably for lack of ministers of love. But this is infidelity of the very worst kind, the grossest and most mischievous.
10. Moreover, we may question if the sure signs of God’s gracious care are absent from any life. They do not lie on the surface, and we may miss them at the first glance; but they are there, and larger knowledge would correct the thought that anyone has been neglected. For any right understanding of this matter we must get beyond the superficial reading of life which sees signs of Divine love in what is pleasant, and signs of anger in the unpleasant. The pruning of the tree shows the gardener’s care, just as much as the supply of its obvious wants; and we should remember that in the education of life and character, the best results are sometimes secured by the most painful processes. It is with apparently neglected lives as it is with apparently neglected races and nations: a fuller acquaintance with them proves that they also have been objects of the Divine care. When Mungo Park, travelling in Central Africa, was ready to give himself up as lost, his failing courage was revived by a bit of moss on which his eye chanced to fall; and that reminded him that God was there. And if some leaf of grass or tiny flower is a witness to the nearness and active energy of God, is not such witness to be recognised in every devout thought, every idea of right and truth and duty, every effort to attain to a knowledge of God and to render to Him acceptable service?
11. And if, look where we will, in every land and among all people, we may find some witness to God’s care of the individual life, it is only in the Gospel of Christ that we find the full measure of His care adequately set forth. As might naturally be expected, since He came to reveal the Father, there is no such witness to the care of God for His children as Jesus Christ. His doctrine, His life, and His death constitute a three-fold testimony, so clear, so ample, so emphatic that one could scarcely wish for more.
(1) He taught that God loves the world; is gracious to the wicked, merciful to the undeserving, kind to the unthankful and the evil.
(2) His life also gave emphasis to the same great truth--the truth of God’s care for the individual soul. Though a mighty Teacher, having the ear of multitudes, He devoted a large part of His time to the instruction of men and women one by one.
(3) And since there was no greater thing He could do to show the Father’s care--no greater sacrifice that He could make in His unspeakable love that imaged God’s great love--He gave Himself to die upon the Cross a ransom for our sins. He died, the Just for the unjust, to bring us to God. He suffered for you and me, for each because for all, for the whole world; therefore, for every soul that is in the world. (G. Hill, M. A.)
The value and accountability of the human soul
I. The value of the human soul.
1. “All souls are Mine” appears to imply a distinction and dignity as to their origin. Father and son may share together flesh and blood, but the soul is a direct creation from God. It has personality; for it is--each soul is--a separate creation of Almighty God.
2. Creationism appears to protect the soul’s spirituality and its solitariness in a way Traducianism certainly does not; though it accentuates the mysteriousness of the doctrine of the Fall. The soul comes from God, not as a part of His substance, which is heresy, but by a creative act of His will. This infusion of the soul puts man, “as distinguished from the brute, in a conscious relation to God” (Aubrey Moore), and this is the very root of religion.
3. Souls, too, belong to God in a way the material creation does not--they are made in His image “and likeness”; they are a created copy of the Divine life. They find in Him not only the beginning, but the end of their being. They hold communion with Him, can be conscious of His presence and touch, and can respond to His love. The soul possesses faculties and moral qualities “which are shadows of the infinite perfections of God” (Pusey).
4. The soul’s value may be further estimated by the Infinite Love of the Son of God in dying to save us.
II. The soul’s separate accountability. “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.”
1. These words are repeated in verse 20, with the addition, “The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father.” But in Lamentations 5:7 it is written, “Our fathers have sinned, and we have borne their iniquities.”
2. There are two limits to the declaration, “The son shall not bear,” etc. One is that it refers only to personal sin, and not to original sin; for we are conceived and born in sin, because of the disobedience of our first father, Adam. This is a fundamental doctrine of the Christian Faith (Romans 5:12-21). Another is that the words only refer to the temporal penalties of sin, not to the guilt (culpa); even with regard to results of sin, the tenor of the commandment, “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me,” or “to those that hate Me,” appears to imply that the children are imitators of their parents’ sins, and so become themselves accountable. They only share the iniquities of their fathers “if the children imitate the evil example of the parents” (St. Gregory, Moral., 15:41). But “external” consequences of sin, which do not affect the relation of the soul to God, do descend from father to son, entailing suffering or defect. The destruction of Jerusalem is the turning point of the Book of Ezekiel, and a great number of infants who had no responsibility perished in the siege.
3. But the prophet does not touch upon these exceptions, as he is occupied with emphasising “that aspect of the question” which the proverb ignored, “and which, though not the sole truth, is nevertheless an important part of the truth, viz., that individual responsibility never ceases” (Driver). No actual sin is ever transferred from one soul to another, nor eternal penalty incurred through the misdeeds of ancestors.
4. “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” In other words, sin is personal fault, not misfortune; sin is a free act of the soul, not a necessity: “the soul that sinneth.” Sin is “the misuse of freedom” (Luthardt). Sin, deadly sin, separates the soul from God, the Source of life, and so brings about spiritual death, as the separation of the soul from the body brings about physical death.
5. Each soul is accountable before God, and cannot attribute justly its misdeeds to some ancestral strain which makes for anything but righteousness, nor to present circumstances.
1. To be careful, amid the seeming perplexities of God’s providence, not to impugn the Divine justice or equity (verse 25).
2. To strive to realise the value of the soul, and how it belongs to God, and to make God the Beginning and End of our being; also to reflect upon the separateness of our existence, whilst outwardly so much mingled with the lives of others.
3. The heinousness of sin, the only real evil, which injures or kills the soul’s life, should lead to hatred of sin and watchfulness against it.
4. Whilst the innate responsibility of each soul before God should prevent us from making excuses for sin, and from resorting to the meanness and injustice of charging others with being the cause of our iniquities, for which we alone are personally accountable (Romans 14:12). (The Thinker.)
The universal responsibility of man
I. The universal responsibility of man.
1. Explanation of the terms of this proposition. When we speak of the responsibility of man, we mean that tie or bond or obligation or law necessarily springing from the relations in which he stands, and the circumstances in which he is placed,--by which he is not only bound to demean himself in a manner answerable thereto, and is liable to the penalties of failing therein, in respect of his own welfare and that of others with whom he is surrounded and brought into daily contact; but more especially is this the case in reference to the supreme God, to whom all his allegiance is directly due, and from whose hands he must finally receive a gracious approbation, or a most fearful and eternal condemnation. Again, when we speak of the universality of this responsibility, or obligation, we mean that it applies both to all individual persons and to all relative or social or other orderly circumstances, by which human beings are connected together, and dependent upon each other; and that in all these relations this obligation is more especially to be considered in reference to their accountability to the Lord.
(1) If you consider man as a creature, the work of God’s hand, the law of his responsibility, as such, binds him to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart,” etc.
(2) If you consider man as a sinner, a rebel against the law and the authority of God, his responsibility appears in new and vastly increased proportions.
(3) The same equally applies, although in a still stronger point of view, to the state and condition of man as a sinner, placed under a dispensation of mercy. Now, as he values the life of his soul, and the favour of God, he is bound to repent of his sins and believe the Gospel.
(4) Again, if you consider man as a happy believer in Christ, pardoned and accepted in the Beloved, you must still consider him as a responsible creature, bound in a new and higher manner to love and adore the God of his salvation; while the very mercy he has received not only lays him under the new claims of gratitude and love, but evinces the equity of his former obligations, and honours and fulfils them all.
(5) Or if you advance a step further, and consider him as a glorified saint in heaven, there the obligation rises to the highest pitch, and there it is perfectly rendered, and will be so forever. Every penalty is here paid, and every claim is here fulfilled.
(6) Or yet again once more, if you see the devil and his angels, and the wicked, and all the nations that forget God, cast into hell, and suffering together the vengeance of eternal fire, you there behold the creature’s responsibility exhibited in the most awful and tremendous manner.
2. In its expansive nature and particular detail. Consider it in reference--
(1) To our individual character. Every person throughout the whole earth, whether high or low, or rich or poor, comes within the sphere of its influence.
(2) In its relative extent. The law of responsibility enters into all the various orders and relations of society, and pervades and sways over the whole.
(3) In its aggregate amount. But who can calculate this amount, or reckon up the untold liabilities of the creature, as they congregate upon his head in the relative positions in which he stands, or in the social gradations with which he is invested?
(4) And can anything be more lovely and beautiful in itself, or more equitable, reasonable, and holy, in its obligations and claims, than the systematic proportions of such an order and constitution of things as this? Here is nothing redundant, nothing unnecessary, nothing unfit, nothing that does not conduce to the mutual benefit and advance the welfare of all!
II. Some awakening reflections necessarily arising therefrom.
1. How needful it is that every person should seek to be thoroughly grounded in the doctrine of man’s universal responsibility.
2. What a clear ground for universal conviction and condemnation! The glittering crown is no screen from this allegation, nor the royal robe any covering from this guilt. Dignity, honour, wealth, fame, talents, abilities, lordly palaces, princely incomes, can neither shield the guilty culprit nor avert the sentence to which he is exposed. Nor can any inferiority of rank or station elude its piercing eye, or escape its widely extended arm. It is the law of our being; and therefore it will find us out, wherever we are and whatever we do.
3. What a vast amount of guilt lies at every man’s door! Talents neglected; abilities abused; influence and authority averted from the cause of God and His truth, and dedicated to the service of pleasure and sin.
4. How just will be the righteous judgment of God upon all impenitent sinners at last!
5. Let all who would escape that fearful doom bethink themselves in time, and flee to the appointed refuge while mercy may be had. (R. Shittler.)
1. It would be too much to say that Ezekiel discovered the individual, for no true prophet could ever have lost him. However clear-cut a unity the State may have appeared to earlier prophets, they read life too soberly, too earnestly to imagine it had any guilt or glory that was not contributed to it by its individual members. No preacher preaches to his ideal, but to someone whom he is anxious to direct towards it. It was the dissolution of the Hebrew State that helped Ezekiel to realise and formulate his new message. At first he, like his predecessors, spoke to the people as a chosen whole. He had come to Tel-Abib, to “them of the captivity,” he had sat among them for a week “astonished,” when the Lord came to him, appointing him to be a watchman, to hear the word of warning at God’s mouth, and deliver it unrevised to the wicked and to the righteous, one by one (Ezekiel 3:16-21). Then the individual seems to disappear, and the State stands before him: “For they are a . . . house” (Ezekiel 3:26). His signs and his parables are for the “house” of Israel. So, again, his “Thus saith the Lord God unto the land of Israel” has in it a personification of the State that is peculiarly intense.
2. So the prophet seems, in sign after sign, in parable after parable, to cling to the old phrase of a sacred collectivism. But the new individualism suddenly, and more intensely, reappears (chap. 18). The people tried to make an excuse of heredity: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” In our own days, as in those of Ezekiel, no doctrine has been more inconsiderately abused than that of heredity. The prophet attempts, to undo the harm done through the proverb by a profound statement in God’s name: “All souls are Mine.” God can never be careless of His possessions. To Him their intrinsic value never changes. The prophet does not so much deny the fact of hereditary transmission as deny its relevancy to the consideration of personal guilt. He takes, for illustration, three generations: a good father, a wicked son, a good grandson. Whatever advantages the wicked son inherits, they do not save him from the consequences of his personal wrong-doing; nor does the grandson’s legacy of disadvantages rob him of the fruit of his right-doing. The just “shall surely live”; the wicked, between a just father and just son, shall “die in his iniquity” (verses 5-18). If every soul is equally related to God, that relation overrides the relation of one soul to another. We are judged, not at the circumference, but from the centre. Heredity, at most, is only one of the modes of our mutual relation as created beings; it cannot affect the Creator’s mind. To Him the father stands as distinctly apart from the son as if there were no son, and the son as distinctly apart from the father as if he were fatherless. Men may act together, and act one upon another, but each of them will have to God an individual worth. A soul is forever His soul. The accountability of a soul, its guilt or redemption, lies supremely in its relation to God. “All souls are Mine.” The prophet proceeds to declare that life’s present may be cut clear from life’s past. A tradition of righteousness cannot save a soul that has fallen into actual wickedness; a tradition of wickedness cannot undo a soul that strives after righteousness. What the world does impulsively, often blindly, God does with due regard to the moral secret of the “thousand victories” and the “once foiled.” He watches for the throb of new beginnings: He sees the “imperfect substance” of our desires and deeds. And yet we must be careful not to force the prophet’s teaching. A man may suffer for his father’s sins, or for the sins of his own past life; he may suffer, and yet not be deprived of the privileges of the new kingdom. The inviolable relation is not that of a soul to another, or to its own past, but to God. “All souls are Mine.”
3. The vision grows upon the prophet, and so he comes to make his still more ample announcement: “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked? saith the Lord God: and not rather that he should return from his way, and live?” It would seem as if the despair of man won from God His profoundest secret, His most healing revelation. The State was failing to pieces, Israel was scattered and unbrothered; but God met each individual son and daughter of Israel with this great message--repeated later on, and confirmed “with an oath,” to use the language of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 6:13; Hebrews 6:17)--“As I live, saith the Lord, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ezekiel 33:11). Though our “dim eyes” are unable, after all our endeavours, to comprehend the place of what seem to us finite emotions in the Infinite Mind, we will still cherish the tender, the brave Gospel, that God has “no pleasure” in the death of the wicked.
4. We need Ezekiel’s teaching today in many ways. The individual is always tempted to hide from himself, or hide from his brother. He is more and more tempted to rely upon the State, or upon the Church. Man belongs to himself and to God, and to no other, in the final issue. “Bear ye one another’s burdens”--in his relation to his fellow creatures, “for each man shall bear his own burden”--in his relation to God. Whatever a man may suffer from one or the other, or both, his hell is not from his parents or from his past, while he has the power, by God’s help, any moment--any brief, immeasurable moment--to cut his soul loose from the things that are behind, and set sail for the Paradise of God. “The son shall not bear the iniquity of his father,” etc. (verses 20, 27, 28). A man is master of his fate the moment he lets the mercy of God find him. It was not the discussion, for its own sake, that concerned the prophet. He wanted to come close to the soul of each individual, in order to make his fervent appeal: “Make you a new heart and a new spirit: for why will ye die, O house of Israel?” So earnest is he in emphasising man’s share in his own renewal, that he seems almost to forget God’s share; but the reverse would be true regarding the vision of the Valley of Dry Bones. It is this ineffaceable signature of the Eternal Spirit in man that makes him worthy for God to contend with in holy mercy (Ezekiel 20:35-36). No soul meets its final fate before somewhere, somehow meeting God face to face. There is no mere accident in the damnation of any soul. It is a deliberate choice, after an ultimate controversy (Isaiah 1:18-20). “As I live, saith the Lord, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked.” (H. E. Lewis.)
The death of the soul
This sentence is really the climax of an argument. It is the conclusion, for the sake of which this chapter was written. The prophet’s aim is to emphasise individual in the stead of collective responsibility for sin. It will not be the nation, it must not be some other soul or souls, for “every man must bear his own burden.” “The soul that sinneth, that shall die.” Yet this sentence can easily be misunderstood, and, in fact, often has been misunderstood. Someone will say: “Does the Bible mean that ‘to die’ in this sentence is to perish utterly and forever, or does it mean that the sinner must be punished for his sin and suffer forever?” Now we will ask Ezekiel. Suppose we had this old Israelitish prophet with us, and that we interrogated him concerning the meaning of his own words. I can assure you that he would be most astonished to hear the questions which I have just repeated. He would say: “I was not speaking of mortality or immortality; I was speaking of the quality of life, and I was thinking for the moment of the immediate future of my beloved Israel.” Let us follow him through the experiences that made him say this, and you will see very soon what he means. This prophet is a prisoner. He is in the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon. He is one of the Israelitish remnant that have been torn from their home, and by whom the plaintive song is sung, “By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down and wept, we wept when we remembered Zion.” But these captives were not all that there was of Israel. There was still an Israel at home, and a very bad Israel it was. And this Ezekiel, who was a contemporary of the Jeremiah who wrote the Lamentations over that wicked Israel, was looking from his land of captivity far away to the Jerusalem from which he had been torn, and was speaking to his fellow captives thus: “Beloved fellow prisoners, our day of deliverance is coming, but it can only come after yonder evil Jerusalem is razed to the ground. Ours it shall be to rebuild the temple, ours it shall be to worship God in a purified sanctuary in the homeland once more. Yonder Israel is preparing her own destruction. As u nation she must perish for her sins.” Beware, you selfish, unpatriotic, slave-hearted men, who are living contentedly in the abominations of the Babylonians. We shall go to the homeland, but the soul that sinneth here, unworthy of the high calling, shall die to Israel, shall be outside the covenant. By soul he simply meant man. By die he meant remain a slave, or bear the penalty of exclusion from the glorious return. Since Ezekiel wrote we have learned a great deal more as to what is meant by the word “soul.” The principle upon which he laid emphasis here is this, that the man who is doing wrong to his God does wrong to himself. He is not worthy to rebuild the Temple. He is not worthy to return to the Holy Land. And no nation will suffer for him. God’s purposes cannot be foiled. The soul that sinneth, and that alone, must perish. Now what are we to say “the soul” means? In the earliest portions of this marvellous Book of Books the word “soul” means little more than the animating principle of all organisms. “The soul” means the breath or the life that distinguishes the things which are organic from the things which are not. Trees and flowers in that sense have and are souls. “Let everything that hath breath--let everything that hath soul--praise the soul.” Then it came to mean, as we see, by a narrowing but by an intensification of its meaning, the animating principle of human consciousness. And so the word, delimitated, gradually expanded its meaning at the same time that it narrowed it, until in the New Testament and in the later prophecies of the Old Testament the word soul simply means the man. The soul is man’s consciousness of himself, as apart from all the rest of all the world, and even from God. What are we to do with it, this soul of ours, this that marks me as me apart from all mankind? Why, to fill it with God. “This is life eternal, that they may know Thee, the only true God.” Death is the absence of that fellowship with God. Now we begin to understand what Christ meant--that it were possible for a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul. In other words, he is destroying the Godlike within himself, he is failing in that for which he was created, he is perishing even where he seems to succeed. This, again, is what Paul means when he says he dies to himself that he may live to God. “Ye died, and your life is hid with Christ in God.” Nor is this false to what the prophet says: “When the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness that he hath committed, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive.” The question of questions for any of us is this, “What kind of soul are we building? Is our attitude lifeward or deathward? Are we destroying that beautiful thing that God has given into our keeping?” We will now speak about the same truth in relation to ordinary, average human experience or acquaintance with life. Do any of you know, as I too well know, what it is to have a childhood’s companion or a youth’s friend of whom much was expected, bug the promise has never been fulfilled? Do you remember that lad who sat beside you in the day school years ago of whom the masters and proud parents said thug one day the world would ring with his name? The boy was endowed with almost every gift that could be thought of for making his way in life. Well, what has come to him? We have lost sight of him for a few years maybe, and yesterday we met him. What was it that gave us a shock and a thrill, a sudden sinking of the heart, as we looked into his countenance? Why, this--something was missing that ought to have been there, and something was there we never thought to see. The thing that was missing was life, and the thing that was present was death. That man has lived to the flesh, and of the flesh has reaped corruption. In doing it he has limited, imprisoned, destroyed his own better nature, until now, all involuntarily as it were, as you look on the beast, that gazes out of his eyes, you shudderingly say: “He is utterly without soul.” “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” Amongst my circle of friends there is one whose name you may probably have heard, a man well advanced in years, and better known to an earlier generation than to yours and mine, I mean George Jacob Holyoake. This man is not a Christian, but those who have any acquaintance with his record know that he has done a good many Christian things. I have been reading lately a book in which he has put some recollections of his past. He calls it “Bygones Worth Remembering,” and in it he tells the story of some of his moral activities, and of the men with whom he shared enthusiasms in earlier days. Amongst those who called him friend were General Garibaldi and the patriot Mazzini. In this book he tells of an occasion on which Mazzini, who was a God-intoxicated man, and whose motto was “God and the People,” reasoned with him and with Garibaldi on their materialism, and gave utterance to a sentence of this kind: “No man without a sense of God can possess a sense of duty.” Garibaldi instantly retorted impetuously: “But I am not a believer in God. Have I no sense of duty?” “Ah,” said Mazzini, with a smile, “you drew in your sense of duty with your mother’s milk.” I could not read an incident like that without a feeling akin to reverence for these great souls with a great ideal, Holyoake served his generation well, so did Garibaldi, so did Mazzini. They were men of soul. Would you deny that they possessed moral and spiritual life? These men were all alive. Mazzini’s theology gave way in the presence of the splendid fact. It is the quality of the life into which we have to examine. There is no question but the life was there. I quoted this morning from the story of the life of John G. Paton, as told by himself, the veteran missionary. Will you let me read to you this man’s account of the daily habits of his father, and the influence it had on his life? “That father was a stocking weaver, a poor man in one of the poor districts of Scotland.” “But,” says J.G. Paton, “he was a man of prayer.” There was one little room in between the “but” and the “ben” of that house, as the Scots call it, into which he retired daily, and often many times a day. The experience of this old Scottish weaver, which cast such a spell on the life of his son, is as much a fact of the universe as the rain that is falling outside, and it needs to be accounted for and given its due place. It is the most precious thing in the whole range of possible human experience that a man might walk with God, that the light eternal might shine in his heart, that the soul might live. Truly this is life, to know God and Jesus Christ whom He hath sent. Contrast again in your mind for a moment this experience with that of the man you will meet tomorrow, of whom you will say, such a one is dead to right feeling, such another is dead to truth and honour, and, saddest of all, perhaps, you may say of some cynical, selfish being, he is dead to love. But what are you doing? You are either marching towards the ideal of Paton’s father or you are marching away from it. To be as full of moral passion as a Holyoake or a Garibaldi is better than to live for self or the world alone. But how few there are who know what true life is. God knew where it was to be. In my greenhouse sometimes I see a plant, from which I expected something, marring its promise. One tiny speck of rust on a white petal, and I know my plant is doomed. That speck is death; there will be another tomorrow, and yet another to follow. Presently the soul, so to speak, of my little plant will be destroyed. Every time you commit a sinful act you destroy something beautiful which God made to bloom within your nature, you have a speck of death upon your soul. And every time you lift heart and mind and will heavenward, and every time your being aspires to God and truth, and every time the noble and the heroic and the beautiful have dominion over you (for these are God) then you are entering into life. (R. J. Campbell, M. A.)
Man’s responsibility for his sin
Mr. Thomas, a Baptist missionary, was one day addressing a crowd of natives on the banks of the Ganges, when he was accosted by a Brahmin as follows: “Sir, don’t you say that the devil tempts men to sin?” “Yes,” answered Mr. Thomas. “Then,” said the Brahmin, “certainly the fault is the devil’s; the devil, therefore, and not man, ought to suffer punishment.” While the countenances of many of the natives discovered how pleased they were with what the Brahmin had said, Mr. Thomas, observing a boat with several men on board descending the river, replied, with that facility of retort with which he was gifted, “Brahmin, do you see yonder boat?” “Yes.” “Suppose I were to send some of my friends to destroy every person on board, and bring me all that is valuable in the boat--who ought to suffer punishment? I, for instructing them, or they for doing this wicked act?” “Why,” answered the Brahmin, with emotion, “you ought all to be put to death together.” “Ay, Brahmin,” replied Mr. Thomas, “and if you and the devil sin together, the devil and you will be punished together.” (Christian Herald.)
Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die?
A summons to repentance
If we spare not our sins, but slay them with the sword of the Spirit, God will spare us. The words are uttered by a figurative interrogation, in which there is more evidence and efficacy, more life and convincing force. For it is as if He had said, Know ye not that I have no such desire? or think ye that I have any desire? or dare it enter into your thoughts that I take any pleasure at all in the death of a sinner? When the interrogation is figurative the rule is, that if the question be affirmative, the answer to it must be negative; but if the question be negative, the answer must be affirmative. For example: Who is like unto the Lord? the meaning is, none is like unto the Lord. Whom have I in heaven but Thee? that is, I have none in heaven but Thee. On the other side, when the question is negative, the answer must be affirmative; as: Are not the angels ministering spirits? that is, the angels are ministering spirits; and, Shall the Son of man find faith? that is, the Son of man shall not find faith. Here, then, apply the rule, and shape a negative answer to the first member being affirmative, thus: I have no desire that a sinner should die; and an affirmative answer to the negative member, thus: I have a desire that the wicked should return and five; and ye have the true meaning and natural exposition of this verse. But here some cast a dark mist, which hath caused many to lose their way. How (say they) do we maintain that God desireth not the death of a sinner, who before all time decreed death for sin, and sin for death? This mist in part is dispelled by distinguishing of three sorts of God’s decrees--
1. There is an absolute decree and resolute purpose of God, for those things which He determineth shall be.
2. There is a decree of mandate, or at least a warrant for those things which He desireth should be.
3. There is a decree of permission for such things, as if He powerfully stop them not, will be. Of the first kind of decree or will of God, we are to understand those words of the Psalmist (Psalms 135:6), and of our Saviour (John 17:24). To the second we are to refer those words of the apostle (Romans 9:19; Ephesians 1:5; 1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9; 1 Thessalonians 4:3; Romans 12:2). If ye rightly apply these distinctions, ye may without great difficulty loosen the knots above tied: the first whereof was, whether God decreed sin original or actual. Ye may answer according to the former distinctions, that He decreed effectually all the good that is joined with it, or may come by it, or it may occasion; but He decreed permissively only the obliquity or malignity thereof: He neither doth it, nor approveth of it when it is done, but only permitteth it and taketh advantage of it for the manifestation of His justice.
To the second question, which toucheth the apple of the eye of this text, whether God decreeth the death of any? ye may answer briefly, that He doth not decree it any way for itself, as it is the destruction of His creature, or a temporal or eternal torment thereof; but as it is a manifestation of His justice.
1. Doth God take no pleasure in the death of the wicked that daily transgresseth His law, ungraciously abuse His mercy, and slightly regard His judgments? Doth He use all good means to reclaim them, and save them from wrath to come? Is the life of every man so precious in His eyes? Doth He esteem of it as a rich jewel engraven with His own image? How careful, then, and chary ought we to be, who are put in trust with it (locked up in the casket of our body), that we lose it not.
2. If judges, and all those who sit upon life and death, did enter into a serious consideration thereof, they would not so easily (as sometimes they do) cast away a thing that is so precious, much less receive the price of blood.
3. If a malefactor arraigned at the bar of justice should perceive by any speech, gesture, sign, or token, an inclination in the judge to mercy, how would he work upon this advantage?--what suit? what means would he make for his life? how would he importune all his friends to entreat for him? how would he fall down upon his knees and beseech the judge for the mercies of God to be good unto him? Ho, all ye that have guilty consciences, and are privy to yourselves of many capital crimes, though peradventure no other can appeach you! behold, the Judge of all flesh makes an overture of mercy, He bewrayeth more than a propension or inclination, He discovereth a desire to save you! Why do ye not make means unto Him? Why do ye not appeal from the bar of His justice to His throne of grace? Why do ye not fly from Him, as He is a terrible Judge? to Him, as He is a merciful Father? (D. Featly, D. D.)
God and the soul
One of the masters of Old Testament theology, a student of singular nobility of mind and penetration of judgment, Dr. A.B. Davidson, has said of this and of the kindred 33rd chapter: “Perhaps there are hardly any more important passages in the Old Testament than those two chapters of Ezekiel.” And why? Because, as he says, “there we may say that we see the birth of the individual mind taking place before our eyes.” It was the first, or one of the first, assertions of the truth that man is more than the circumstances of which he is a part; that in God’s sight he stands single and free. We can best understand the force of this particular chapter if we remember the historical circumstances out of which it came. Nebuchadnezzar, the ruthless conqueror, had laid waste Jerusalem. “He carried away all Jerusalem, and all the princes, and all the mighty men of valour, and all the craftsmen, and none remained save the poorest of the people of the land.” That band of exiles, among whom was the young Ezekiel, was carried to Babylon, and there the best of them lay astonished at the crushing blow which God had dealt to them. Jerusalem, the inviolable hill of Jehovah, spoiled and degraded, within eleven years laid waste and desolate, abandoned of God. It seemed to them that they were involved in the punishment of the sins of their fathers. There could be no escape, no penitence in the land of their exile could disentangle their souls from the ruin in which the sins of their forefathers had engulfed them. It was natural that their thoughts should run in such a channel. Hebrew religion tended to merge, the individual in the state or family. The covenant of God was made not with the individual so much as with the State. The dealings and punishments of God with His people embraced not only the person, but his whole family, to the third and fourth generation; and so it seemed to them that they could not, for all their anguish, escape the consequences of their fathers’ sins. It was the object of Ezekiel to lift the burden of despair from his fellow exiles. He discerned in the very breaking up of the national life a call to the individual to become deeper and more personal in his obedience and faith. He sought to disentangle the person from the nation and the family, to make him realise his own freedom and separate responsibility in the sight of God. God is sovereign over the dispensations of His own laws. He treats every man, at every moment, precisely as that man is by virtue of his own separate and solitary responsibility. Man is free morally, whatever the chain that may bind him to his ancestors. God is free morally, and judges every man by virtue of that freedom. But the prophet carried the truth a stage further. Among these exiles there were doubtless individual men and women who felt that the chain that bound them, bound them to an irreversible destiny, was not the chain of their fathers’ sins, but of the sins they themselves had committed. They remembered the law of Jehovah which they had despised, the worship of their fathers in the temple, which they had ignored or polluted by their idolatry. It seemed to them that their cup was full; they could not escape the punishment of the sins of the past. They were shut up to the impotence of unavailing remorse. To them the prophet’s message was like that which he gave to his community. He reminded each of them that still, in spite of their sins and shortcomings, there was within a separate life, a freedom which could arise from the past impenitence and return, and that matching that freedom there was also the sovereign grace of Almighty God. That was the prophet’s message to his own day. I wonder if any of you have discerned with what singular force it applies to our own? The place which was taken when Ezekiel wrote, by the customary habits and traditions and principles of Hebrew religion, is taken today by the characteristic teaching of modern science. The old words of the covenant of God’s punishment of men to the third and fourth generation have given place to the new words of “heredity” and “environment.” But the principle is the same. Science has been teaching us wonderfully, beautifully, terribly, with what a subtlety and closeness of tie we are bound through our brains and bodies to the ancestors from whom we sprang, the circumstances under which we live, the progeny which we leave behind us; we know that our character is the product of a thousand influences of climate, of scenery, of sights and sounds, of food, of tendencies in the blood, of faculties and perversions of the brain, and we accept the truth. It gives a very wonderful and real, as well as a very solemn, aspect to this universe of which we are part. We build upon it. It is the truth that is the main-spring of all our zeal for education, of all our efforts for social reform; to that truth we turn when we wish to measure the fulness of our social responsibility. But is it the last and only word? Is man nothing but the product of these circumstances, the creature of invisible laws? If it be so, then before long we may come to that feeling of despair which lay upon the breast of these exiles of Jerusalem. We must balance that truth with the other which Ezekiel recovered for his contemporaries--the truth that man’s nature, though it is inwoven by the influences of blood and surroundings, yet has within it a personal life higher than, and apart from, that nature. It is free--it is capable, when aroused, of moulding that nature to its own will. God Himself is something more than an union of irreversible and irresistible laws. He is, He remains, a sovereign moral Personality, caring as a Father for the children that He has made, knowing them as individuals, dealing with them man by man in the separateness of their own single freedom and responsibility. I ask you to consider the basis which Ezekiel is teaching us in its reference to our lives as members of a community and as personal beings.
1. First of all, there is a message to us as members of a community. Sometimes the Hebrew took joy from the thought that he was bound with his fathers and children in the bonds of the covenant of the will of God. And sometimes we take joy in the thought that we are bound together by those subtle and intricate ties to the nature which surrounds us, and to our fellow beings in long distances of the past and future. But when the Hebrew realised God’s punishment in the waste of Jerusalem, he was filled with the chill of despair. No doubt, for a time, the thought that man is the product of his circumstances fills us with the energy of reform. It makes us, perhaps, with even greater zest, turn to every effort to improve the condition of the environment of the people. But when we try, how long the task seems, how thick and obstinate the difficulties, how impossible it seems to compass it within the short generation in which the necessities of life permit us to labour. And meanwhile, what have we to say to the individual men, women, and children who are living under these conditions? Think for a moment of those atoms of social waste whom we call the unemployable. You see them as they pass before your eyes, the product, indeed, of circumstances--the sins of their fathers written in the marks of disease, the sins of their own youth written in the furtive glance of the eyes and the shambling gait, the sins, it may be, of the community which has failed to find a place for them, in the hopelessness and futility of every effect that they may make. And yet, what are we to say to them? Are we to say to them with the mere teaching of determinist science: “Your transgressions and your sins are upon you, and you pine away in them, why should you live?” Yet apart from some vast, at present as it seems, inconceivable change of our industrial conditions, are they not hopeless? If science says the last word, surely they are. Yet when you find yourself placed face to face with an individual man of these multitudes, can you use that language? Can you turn to them and say: “You are the doomed product of a bad environment; there is no hope for you. You must stay as you are”? Nay! rather you make it your one object to disentangle the man from the mesh in which he is placed. You seek to find out somewhere the springs of the real man within him. You desire to create some emotion, some motive, some interest, by which that self of his, that manhood of his, may be aroused, re-created, and go forth and be strong. And you can venture upon that effort because you believe, with an instinct that is stronger than a one-sided theory, that somewhere or other in that poor, broken life there remains dormant and hidden the germ of a freedom of his own that he can arouse and use, if only there is sufficient strength and motive power given to him. You try to reach and touch and find the man within him; and that instinct of yours restores the balance of the truth. Science is true. There is this product of the environment. We must work and labour with unremitting toil to change and improve it. But the one inevitable, indispensable factor of social reform is the individual freedom and responsibility of the man. Even when you change his circumstances, this alone will be powerless unless you have changed the whole man’s will so that he cooperates with the change in his circumstances; and therefore every scheme of charity which neglects this truth, which belittles this factor of the man’s own individual freedom and power and responsibility, is a real danger.
2. Secondly, the prophet’s message is to the personal life. There were men to whom Ezekiel spoke who felt the burthen upon them, not of the load of their fathers’ sins, but of their own. It may be that among the men to whom I speak there are some who are conscious of the same impotence of remorse. The sins of your body have immeshed your body and mind in the bondage of evil habit. You can think of some mistake that you made, irreversible now, which has spoilt your life. You are tied up in the doom of your destiny. Or, perhaps, there are others, who have not gone so far, but when there comes to them the prompting of some better impulse they meet it with such replies, expressed or unexpressed, as this: “It is no good, it is too late; my nature is made, I cannot change. These heights are for others, I cannot attain unto them. Like Sir Lancelot, the quest is not for me. I am what my life has made me, and it is too late to change.” And so when these better impulses come they are avoided, they are refused. Possibly they gradually die out, and the prison gates begin to close. Now, in this there is a truth which cannot be gainsaid. We cannot escape, not even God Himself can enable us to escape, from the actual consequences of our sins. That is true; we cannot quarrel with the teaching both of science and conscience. But it is not the whole truth. There remains that hidden self, that inner man, and it is free. It has always the power of rising from its past and going forth to a new future. You say it is impossible. With man perhaps it is impossible. But with God all things are possible. For that freedom of mine, however feeble and broken, is not alone; there is another free and sovereign power waiting for it, acknowledging it as His own image, welcoming it, coming down upon it, with His own strength and power. When I use my freedom I meet and touch the freedom of the sovereign grace of God Himself. If only we act upon that impulse which is the sign of the persistence of our better self, we find somehow that that strength comes down upon us. It may be a miracle. Our Lord asks the unanswerable question whether it is easier to say to the sick of the palsy, “Arise and walk,” or to say, “Thy sins be forgiven thee.” I know not what mystery may be behind that truth, but truth it is if only we will act upon it; if only that will, broken and feeble as it may be, will emerge from the ruins of its past, and act for itself in the spirit of return. Then it will find that the freedom of God’s grace is at its hand, and will come to it and strengthen it. We must, it is true, continue to bear our sins, but there is all the difference in the world between that and being borne by them. When we bear them, our recovered spirit is master of them. Even remorse can be a continual reminder of the long-suffering of God. The weakness, baffling and humiliating to the end, can be the occasion for the triumph of the strength of God. You have seen sometimes the coast when the tide is far out. It looks a mere barren tract of sand and stone, but somewhere far out in the deep a movement takes place. The tide turns, and soon the water covers the waste land. So my life, when I look back upon it, may be the barren tract of sand, the grave of lost opportunities, strewn with stones of stumbling and rocks of offence. But if only in the great deep, where the Spirit of God touches the spirit of man, my free self can go out to Him, then there is the turning of the tide, and sooner or later that full tide of God’s refreshing and restoring grace will cover the waste places. I am--in my own personal self; God is--in His own sovereign Personality; and on these two truths we can all base the perpetual hope of a new beginning. (Bishop Lang.)
Sin slays the sinner
Manton says: “The life of sin and the life of a sinner are like two buckets in a well--if the one goeth up, the other must come down. If sin liveth, the sinner must die.” It is only when sin dies that a man begins truly to live. Yet we cannot persuade our neighbours that it is so, for their hearts are bound up in their sins, and they think themselves most alive when they can give fullest liberty to their desires. They raise up their sins, and so sink themselves. If they could be persuaded of the truth, they would send the bucket of sin to the very bottom that their better selves might rise into eternal salvation. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
God’s solemn inquiry of Gospel hearers
I. The evidence in every Christian country of God’s having no pleasure at all in the death of sinners.
1. A true penitent is readily forgiven. Two striking illustrations suggested here: a rebellious father’s repentant son (verse 14, etc.) , and a man once rebellious who amends (verses 21, 22). In each instance his soul is saved. None can fairly meditate on the promptness of such pardons without perceiving God’s delight in mercy (Micah 7:18).
2. The reason why the righteous God can so promptly pardon (Titus 3:4-7; John 3:16; Romans 8:32).
3. God has appointed a class of men to urge on the unworthy His unspeakable gift (2 Corinthians 5:20). Did He wish the destruction of the Ninevites when He sent Jonah to them? He has as little pleasure in the death of the wicked now (Revelation 22:17).
II. The one simple duty of hearers is to return (verse 32).
1. With the turning of true repentance, which involves a thorough change of service. Note details of practical love in this chapter (verse 17), and see conduct of Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 1:9).
2. With the turning of trust (in the appointed Mediator) for all the needed mercy and grace. (See the description in 1 Peter 2:24-25.)
3. With the turning quickened by the Holy Spirit (John 16:8), which should be fostered by prayer (Psalms 80:18-19).
4. With the turning which issues in life; the life of the acquitted and holy (Romans 5:1-21 :l, 2), which is a sure earnest of life everlasting (John 6:40). (D. D. Stewart, M. A.)
And not that he should return from his ways, and live?--
The best return
St. Austin, lying on his death bed, caused divers verses of the penitential psalms to be written on the walls of his chamber, on which he still cast his eyes, and commented upon them with the fluent rhetoric of his tears. But I could wish of all texts of Scripture that this of the prophet Ezekiel were still before all their eyes who mourn for their sins in private. For nothing can raise the dejected soul but the lifting-up of God’s countenance upon her; nothing can bring peace to an affrighted and troubled conscience but a free pardon of all sins, whereby she hath incurred the sentence of death, which the prophet tendereth in the words of the text. I will endeavour to open two springs in my text--the one a higher, the other a lower; the one ariseth from God and His joy, the other from ourselves and our salvation. That the conversion of a sinner is a joy and delight to God, I need not to produce arguments to prove, or similes to illustrate; He that spake as never man spake, hath represented it unto us by many exquisite emblems (Luke 15:4; Luke 15:8; Luke 15:10; Luke 15:32). Scipio (as Livy writeth) never looked so fresh, nor seemed so beautiful in the eyes of his soldiers, as after his recovery from a dangerous sickness which he took in the camp; neither doth the soul ever seem more beautiful than when she is restored to health after some dangerous malady. The Palladium was in highest esteem both with the Trojans and Romans, not so much for the matter or workmanship, as because it was catched out of the fire when Troy was burnt. And certainly no soul is more precious in the eyes of God and His angels than that which is snatched out of the fire of hell and jaws of death. I have opened the first spring, and we have tasted the waters thereof; I am now to open the second, which is this, That as our repentance is joy unto God and His angels, so it is grace and salvation to ourselves. As repentance is called repentance from dead works, so also repentance unto life. For God pawns His life for the life of the penitent: “As I live, saith the Lord, I desire not the death of a sinner, but rather that he should return and live.” Pliny writeth of a fountain in Africa, in which torches that are blown out being dipped are kindled again: such is the fountain of tears in the eyes of a penitent sinner; if the light of his faith be extinguished to his sense and all outward appearance, yet dipped in this fountain it is kindled again, and burns more brightly than ever before. The Scripture furnisheth us not with many examples in this kind, lest any should presume; yet some we find that none might despair. To comfort those that are wounded in conscience, the good Samaritan cured him that was wounded between Jerusalem and Jericho, and left half-dead; to comfort them that are sick in soul, He recovered Peter’s wife’s mother lying sick in her bed; to comfort them that have newly, as it were, given up the ghost, He raised Jairus’s daughter; to comfort them that have been sometimes dead in sins and transgressions, He raised the widow’s son; to comfort them that have been so long dead in sins that they begin to putrify, He raised up Lazarus stinking in His grave. Therefore, if we have grievously provoked God’s justice by presumption, let us not more wrong His mercy by despair; but hope even above hope in Him whose mercy is over all His works. Against the number and weight of all our sins, let us lay the infiniteness of God’s mercy, and Christ’s merits, and the certainty of His promise confirmed by oath: “As I live, I desire not the death of a sinner; if he return, he shall live.” It is a most sovereign water which will fetch a sinner again to the life of grace, though never so far gone. It is not well water springing out of the bowels of the earth, nor rain poured out of the clouds of passion, but rather like a dew falling from heaven, which softeneth and moisteneth the heart, and is dried up by the beams of the Sun of Righteousness. “Turn and live.” Should a prisoner led to execution hear the judge or sheriff call to him, and say, Turn back, put in sureties for thy good behaviour hereafter, and live--would he not suddenly leap out of his fetters, embrace the condition, and thank the judge or sheriff upon his knees? And what think ye if God should send a prophet to preach a sermon of repentance to the devils and damned ghosts in hell, and say, Knock off your bolts, shake off your fetters, and turn to the Lord and live? Would not hell be emptied and rid before the prophet should have made an end of his exhortation? This sermon the prophet Ezekiel now maketh unto us all. (D. Featly, D. D.)
When the righteous turneth away from his righteousness.
The evil of apostasy
1. There is a righteousness which men may turn from. There is an opinionative righteousness (Luke 18:9; Matthew 23:28); many think themselves righteous, and appear so to others: there is also a duty, a moral, or legal righteousness, such as Paul had (Philippians 3:6); and from these righteousnesses men may and do turn daily. Many attain to a duty righteousness under the Gospel, but yet fall off again (Mat 13:20-22; 1 Timothy 5:15; Joh 6:66; 2 Peter 2:2; 1 Timothy 4:1). Take heed, therefore, of trusting in or to any righteousness of your own.
2. It is not sufficient to begin well unless we proceed: fair beginnings without progress come to nothing. Consider the arguments which lie here in the text, to keep you from falling off, and encourage you to persevere in God.
(1) If you do turn back you will fall into iniquity; you will commit iniquity, the frame, bent, and set of the heart will be that way; the thoughts, studies, counsels, motions, endeavours will be towards and in iniquity, you will be an evil-doer, a worker of iniquity.
(2) He lies obvious to all manner of sin; what will not the man do that turns from his holy profession?
(3) Whatever good he hath formerly done shall be all forgotten: if he have done much good to his family or friends, it shall be all laid aside, buried in the dark, and not once be mentioned unto him.
(4) He shall die, and that eternally, in his apostasy, and the guilt, not of one sin, but all his sins, shall be upon him. (W. Greenhill, M. A.)
The danger of relapse
Presumption and desperation are two dangerous maladies, not more opposite one to the other, than to the health of the soul; presumption overprizeth God’s mercy, and undervalueth our sins; and on the contrary, desperation overprizeth our sins, and undervalueth God’s mercy. Both are most injurious to God; the one derogateth from His mercy, the other from His justice, both band against hearty and speedy repentance; the one opposing it as needless, the other as bootless Presumption saith, thou mayest repent at leisure, gather the buds of sinful pleasures before they wither, repentance is not yet seasonable; desperation saith, the root of faith is withered, it is now too late to repent. The life of a Christian is not unfitly compared to a long and dangerous sea voyage; the sea is this present world, the barques are our bodies, the sailors our souls, the pilot our faith, the card God’s Word, the rudder constancy, the anchor hope, the mainmast the cross of Christ, the strong cables our violent affections, the sails our desires, and the Holy Spirit the good wind which filleth the sails and driveth the barque and mariners to the fair haven which is heaven. Now, in our way which lieth through many temptations and tribulations, there are two dangerous rocks, the one on the right hand, the other on the left; the rock on the right hand to be avoided is presumption, the rock on the left threatening shipwreck is despair; between which we are to steer our ship by fear on the one side and hope on the other. To hold us in a solicitous fear that we touch not upon presumption, let us have always in the eye of our mind--
1. The glorious and most omnipotent majesty of God.
2. His all-seeing providence.
3. His impartial justice.
4. His severe threatenings against sin.
5. The dreadful punishments He inflicteth upon sinners.
6. The heinousness of the sin of presumption, which turneth God’s grace into wantonness.
7. The difficulty of recovery after relapses.
8. The uncertainty of God’s offer of grace after the frequent refusal thereof.
To keep us in hope, that we dash not upon the rock of despair on the contrary side, let us set before our troubled and affrighted consciences these grounds of comfort--
1. The infiniteness of God’s mercy.
2. The price and value of Christ’s blood.
3. The efficacy of His intercession.
4. The virtue of the Sacraments.
5. The universality and certainty of God’s promises to the penitent.
6. The joy of God and angels for the conversion of a sinner.
7. The communion of saints, who all pray for the comfort of afflicted consciences, and the ease of all that are heavy laden with their sins.
8. The examples of mercy showed to most grievous sinners.
But to confine my meditations to the letter of my text. The words divide themselves into (first) a supposition, when, or, if the righteous forsake; secondly, an inference, his former righteousness shall not be remembered, etc. The supposition is dangerous, the inference is pernicious.
1. Of the supposition, when the righteous turneth away from his righteousness. No man ever made question but that a truly regenerate man may depart from his actual righteousness, and commit iniquity, and do according to all the abominations that the wicked doth; and that if he should die without repentance, that his former righteousness should stand him in no stead, but that he should suffer the pain of eternal death, which is all that the letter of this text enforceth our assent unto. Our motions to God-ward, and proceedings in a sanctified course of life, are like the rowing of a small boat against a strong wind and tide (the blasts of the evil spirit, and the propension of our corrupt nature), much labour and sweat is required, and very little is done with much ado; and if we slack our hands, and miss but one stroke, we are carried down with the stream, and cast farther back than we can fetch again with many strokes. What a foul and shameful thing is it with the dog to return to your vomit of luxury, and with the swine to your wallowing in the mire of sensual pleasures. As in the diseases of the body, so also much more of the soul, all relapses are dangerous, and in some diseases altogether incurable; the reason whereof alleged by some learned physicians is this, that when we first take our bed the malignity of the disease worketh upon corrupt humours in the body, which when they are purged, and we restored to health, if after by any distemper we fall into the same malady, the malignity of the disease worketh upon our vital spirits; in like manner the malignity of sin before our conversion worketh but upon our corrupt nature, but after upon the graces of God’s Spirit. We find in Scripture many desperately sick, yet cured the first time by our Saviour; but where do we read in all the Gospel of any blind man’s eyes twice enlightened? of any deaf ears twice opened? of any tied tongue twice loosened? of any possessed with devils twice dispossessed? of any dead twice raised? No doubt Christ could have done it, but we read not that ever He did it, that we should be most careful to avoid relapses into our former sins, the recovery whereof is always most difficult, and in some cases (as the Apostle teacheth us) impossible (Hebrews 6:4-8). (D. Featly, D. D.)
Yet ye say, The way of the Lord is not equal.
Hear now, O house of Israel; Is not My way equal? Are not your ways unequal?
On the unequal distribution of happiness and misery
Let us suppose an attentive observer to take a general view of the situation in which mankind is placed. The first thing that would strike him would probably be the variety of conveniences and comforts distributed around him, which are neither earned by his own merit nor produced by his own care. This would lead him to a second observation, that many, and the most essential, of these conveniences and comforts are bestowed promiscuously, and without exception, on the whole race of mankind: the sun rises on the evil and on the good, and the rain descends on the just and on the unjust. What other conclusion could he draw from these two observations than that the Power above us is friendly to mankind? From this pleasing prospect the observer might turn his attention to the evils and miseries which attend on human life. What are we to infer from hence? Is it that God is a capricious Being, or that He has pleasure in the misery, as well as in the happiness, of His creatures? To solve this question, we may observe a remarkable difference between the two cases: the benefits, which are common to all mankind, are numerous and important, and are enjoyed, without intermission, every day and every hour. On the contrary, the evils common to all mankind, if any there be, are much fewer than is usually supposed, and only occur on particular emergencies. How far even death, which is the only universal lot, is really in itself an evil, distinct from the pain which is supposed to attend it, has never yet been ascertained; and the pains of death are by no means common to the whole human race: many die instantaneously without any pain, and many in lingering diseases without a pang or a groan. It is not certain, therefore, that there is any one evil existing which affects, necessarily and inevitably, the whole race of mankind. I might add, in this place, that the evils complained of serve to answer many wise purposes of discipline and probation. Hitherto we have considered those benefits and those evils which arise from God’s own appointment, without any merit or demerit of our own. Let us next consider those which are the consequences of our own conduct. In this view the first thing that would strike an attentive observer would probably be that many vicious actions are attended with regular and constant effects, and carry a sort of punishment along with them. It would next be observed, that there are virtues also which bring their own benefits along with them: temperance and regularity lead to health and long life; industry and diligence to affluence and plenty; good faith and sincerity promote esteem and regard; and patience, equanimity, and command of temper lay the foundation for happiness, and form a constituent part of it. Yet still an observer might take notice, that the good effects of virtue are not in any degree so certain or constant as the ill effects of vice. This fact is remarkable, and deserves to be seriously considered. It seems to prove, that the distribution of good and evil, of happiness and misery, which arises from our own actions, our own virtues and vices, is regulated by a different and even opposite law, from that distribution of happiness and misery which comes immediately and gratuitously, from the hand of God. In the latter, the benefits and favours which we receive from God are more numerous, as we have seen, are more extensive, more constant, and more certain than the evils which we suffer. In the former, where our own actions, our virtues and vices are concerned, the evils and punishments of vice are more numerous, more constant, and more certain than the benefits or rewards of virtue. Shall we say, then, in this case, that God is inconsistent, or that He is less a friend to virtue than an enemy to vice? Not so, says the text.
1. In the first place, you will readily allow it to be highly conducive to our piety and devotion that the dispensations of Almighty God Himself, which are unconnected with any human virtues or vices, should be, as becomes him, everywhere distinguished by marks of kindness, beneficence, and bounty.
2. In the next place, it is highly conducive to our religious and moral improvement, that virtue should not, in this life, be attended with its distinct and immediate reward. The magnificent idea held forth by Christianity, of the value in which virtue ought to be held, would be totally done away; it would be to appreciate that which is beyond all price; to demand prematurely a momentary reward here, for that which, in the sight of God, and through faith in the merits of Christ, no earthly enjoyment and immortal happiness alone can repay.
3. In the last place, it is highly conducive to our moral improvement that vice, on the contrary, should in many cases be attended with immediate punishment. It is evident that this is not an instance of God’s severity, but rather of His clemency and mercy. It restrains the sinner, in kindness, before it is too late, from “treasuring up wrath,” etc. It tends to check no one virtue which we have, and is the school in which we are best taught the virtues which we have not. (W. Pearce, D. D.)
The inequalities of life
I. If we had to find an immediate and direct answer to this question, “Is not My way equal?” we should be disposed to say, “Decidedly not.” From the beginning to the end of life there seems to be inequality, not equality. Consider, first of all, how men are born. Birth is something so entirely removed from the region of personal responsibility that no one of us is to be held accountable for anything belonging to it. Yet how much depends on being well born! Some thinking men have said that half the battle of life is won or lost according as an individual is well or ill born. Now, when we examine into the facts of life, how very many people seem to be anything but well born! God’s ways do not seem equal in this respect. Certainly not on the surface. There are thousands of children born from vicious parents. Very little chance do these seem to have to be good men and women. Compare their heredity with that which belongs to some of our friends here present, in whose ancestry has been no known criminal of any kind, no unvirtuous man, no impious woman. When we make such comparison, it does not seem as if God’s ways are equal. Take a step forward, and again ask the question when nurture begins to tell. The word “education” covers a very much larger area of life than we ordinarily assign it. The home in which we live, the company we keep, the books we read for fun and not as tasks, all are contributory to education. The word “environment” comes in here. In regard to that, God’s ways do not seem equal. The opportunities of a pure and wise education which come to some, contrasted with the vicious ignorance and coarse immoralities by which others are surrounded, do not enable us easily to find an affirmative answer to this question, “Are not My ways equal? saith the Lord.” Once more, the child is born and schooled; educated, as we say, by all through which he has passed in these impressionable years of youth. And now the time comes for sailing out on the ocean of enterprise. One young man finds his boat ready built and ready manned and abundantly victualled, and he has only to step aboard and sail off. A second casts about hither and thither, applying to one and another to take him aboard, and let him scrub decks or do anything, and almost loses heart before he can get any kind of start in life. Things do not seem equal here, any more than in the other stages of life.
II. Yet the more carefully we look into these facts, and the longer we dwell upon them, the more copiously will they supply us with something suggestive of the necessity of caution in dealing with them. We begin to think in this way: “Let me not be too rash in lay affirmatives. This is not God’s perfect world. This is very far from an ideal condition of society. It is a society disturbed by sin. I cannot judge of the kingdom of God from what I see in society, every member of which is under condemnation as belonging to a sinful race. So I must be careful in forming my judgments. There are modifications and compensations discernible even now.” First of all, it does not do to assume that happiness and unhappiness are in the ratio of external possession or non-possession. The man who has enough for all the legitimate uses of life is not at a disadvantage. He has no real wants. The artificial wants of society have nothing to do with the physical and mental necessities of life. Health, intelligence, aspiration, all that is wholesome and good, do not depend upon anything artificial. The disposition in our day, even among Christianised people, to make too much of externals needs to be studiously guarded against when we are speaking of equality and inequality. Has it not come to be one of the commonplaces of existence that poverty is not always a curse, and wealth is not always a blessing? When a child is born into the midst of the surroundings supplied by a luxurious home, he is at a considerable disadvantage in seam ways. You say he need not trouble about his future, so far as it consists in the providing for the necessaries and the comforts of life. Now, if some of these comfortable conditions are not as favourable to the putting forth of energy or the developing of strength of character as are the other less coveted conditions, immediately the question of equality becomes a little harder to answer. I say the more we investigate the facts of life the less disposed are we to say that all inequalities are of the nature of injustice. Often and often the rich man’s son becomes indolent and ineffective, a mere lazy loafer on life’s highway, through want of that stimulus which comes naturally to the son of the poor man. It would be interesting to investigate that region more thoroughly. We must leave it for another remark bearing upon the answer we shall give to the question, “Are not My ways equal? saith the Lord.” The idea of responsibility comes in here. It becomes us ever to remember the words, “To whom much is given, of him much will be required”; and, “To whom they commit much, of him will they ask the more.” The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a gospel for all, but it is especially a gospel for the weary and heavy-laden, for the man who has been badly born, for the man who has been handicapped in the race of life, for the man whose chance has been of the poorest. There is a future, and it is not far off. There Lazarus gets his chance, and Dives learns the lesson he refused to learn here and now. (R. Thomas, D. D.)
The way of God and the ways of man
There is no foundation for an intelligent faith without the admission that God’s attributes are unchangeable and His will as inscrutable as His being; that “He is and was and is to come,” “the same yesterday and today and forever.” It is not man’s mission to vindicate the way of God to understandings which will not receive the impressions of faith and the reasoning of love. He who undertakes by what he may call wise arguments to prove to the discontented heart that God is love will lose his labour, and may perhaps be himself made captive by the unbelief he rashly attacks. The same power which is to convince the world of sin must also convince it of righteousness. The answer to every cavil is the offer of eternal life, without money and without price, to all. They complain of their lost inheritance, and a nobler inheritance is offered in exchange; they resent the imputation of their fathers’ guilt, and they are called upon to turn from their own, and then for their punishment they shall receive a double reward in the life of their soul, which he who loses shall gain nothing if he gain the whole world, and he who gains may well afford to lose home and lands and all earthly possessions and advantages if it be God’s will to deprive him of them. It is in the simplicity and universal application of this invitation of mercy that the Lord is content to risk the vindication of His goodness. His purpose has been single and its scope universal, and its means undeviatingly the same, for “there is none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved.” Away then with that delusion which holds that law has succeeded law, covenant superseded covenant, in such a sense that at one time salvation was by works, at another time by faith; once by the work of man, now by the work of Christ. He was the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. The law was and is a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ; the law and the prophets testified of Him. Men may find fault with the ways of God, because He does not by large miracles pour out the flood of His Spirit upon the heathen; but the Lord replies, What have My people done to spread the knowledge I have given them? It is of the nature of light to expand its rays, and nothing but wilful obstructions can hinder it; why has the Church hidden her light? why have Christian nations neglected their mission? why have labourers been wanting when the field was ready for harvest? How shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? how shall they hear except the Word be sent unto them? That complaint which, if not loudest heard, is most widely spread and most deeply rankles in the heart of man, arises out of the inequalities of fortune, the manifold chances and changes of this mortal life, whereby the wicked prosper while the righteous struggle, fools are set in high places while pious wisdom dies in obscurity, rich men are clothed in purple and fine linen while Lazaruses are laid at their gate full of sores; indifference has peace while sensitive hearts yearning for holiness and rest are left melancholy and disconsolate, despairing of the peace that is theirs, and making themselves labour out of their earnest search for rest. Heed not the prosperity of the unrighteous; load not your souls with the burthen of envy, and murmur not at comparisons which a moment of God’s wrath may show to be vain; though you be poor and of sad spirit, lonely and uncheerful, afflicted with the ills of life and partaker of few of its blessings; though sin and its perplexities may harass you; though happiness be to you a thing of the past, wrapt up in fruitless memories and darkened by shadows from the grave; though trouble should come or has come upon you;--let not the petulance of sorrow charge its weariness upon the caprice of a Father, the faithfulness of whose mercy and the perfection of whose judgments and the consistency of whose way are in nothing more certainly manifested than in the troubles whereby out of the curse of sin He brings the grace of everlasting life. In conclusion; remember that the way of the Lord in His dealings with man is equal, impartial, consistent. The way of His providence is equal, for all things work together for good to them who love God; the way of His grace is equal, for it is and ever has been comprised in the person of Jesus Christ; His providence waits upon His grace, and the purpose of both is the salvation of our souls. (A. J. Macleane, M. A.)
When the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness that he hath committed.
The conversion of a sinner
I. The wicked ought to reform.
1. Sin is contrary to reason.
(1) A sinful action is discreditable to any person whatsoever.
(2) It is grievous, painful, and intolerable to bear the effects of wicked and sinful actions, and to vary from right.
2. Being such, it cannot be justified. As the palsy-motion, which seems to be quicker than other; but it is not from strength but from weakness: no man can justify a sinful action; but to a bad conscience, or before an unrighteous judge; who is either ignorant or partial, or himself as bad, by undue principles, corrupt interest, or an abuse of power.
3. Every sinful action, however we may stand to it, or may be countenance here in the world, will be discountenanced sooner or later, whether we will or no.
4. If we do not repent of that which we have done sinfully, it will lie upon us as the blackest spot, as the heaviest judgment, and as the worst malady.
5. There is no expectation either of God’s pardon, or of help from Him, but in the way of repentance. For who can promise himself anything out of the terms of the covenant of grace; namely, repentance from all dead works, resolution of obedience to God, and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
6. We are all under obligation to repent, though there would no good come to us by it. For we are God’s creatures, and held of Him; from whence it follows, that we ought to serve Him, and to do His will, and to be at His command.
II. Through the grace which God doth afford, we may repent of all evil done, and make application to God; and deprecate His displeasure, and leave off to sin, and return to our duty, and so obtain His pardon. Neither let any man say, that the text signifies no more than if one should say to an impotent man, remove this mountain, and thou shalt have such or such a reward; or to bid a man to comprehend the ocean in the hollow of his hand, and it shall so or so be done unto him. These ways of speaking must not be put upon God, nor in any ease attributed unto Him. When God saith to the sinner, repent and turn from your wickedness, and you shall save your soul alive, it doth suppose that either He is able or that He will make Him so. But here some may be ready to interpose, and say: surely God is not in good earnest, because He might if He would; for who can resist the Divine will? It doth not follow, that because God doth not enforce, that therefore He doth not enable. That God should force agrees neither with the nature of God, nor with the nature of man; but that God should enable, this is natural to the relation we stand in to God, who is original to our being. Wherefore be resolved in this matter, that God is with us, and that He is ready to afford His grace and assistance. Now, that you may not lose this great argument and principle of reformation, and true and solid ground of encouragement, to leave off to sin, and to return to God, because of His gracious aid and assistance, I will give you assurance further by these six particulars.
1. It was never God’s intention, when He made man at first, to put him into a state of absolute independency, or self-sufficiency. And therefore whosoever assumes it to himself doth assume that which never did belong to a creature-state.
2. Could man allege either necessity of evil, or impossibility of doing good, it would be a plea when God calls us to an account, and admits us to reason with Him.
3. Where there is excellency of nature there is always readiness to communicate, supply, and gratify.
4. We cannot say worse of God than that His calls and monitions to His creatures are not serious and in good earnest, and out of love and good mind.
5. To assert our impotency and disability, and that God is wanting in necessary assistance, is to expose us to an invincible temptation; and that in these three particulars.
(1) To entertain hard thoughts of God, and such as are unworthy of Him.
(2) To throw off the use of all means, and to take no care at all in this great affair.
(3) To despair. And we wrong God more by desperation than by presumption.
6. God hath done so much on His part, that He hath given us all reason to believe, and think that He is well minded towards us; and that He is resolved in the matter of our recovery; upon terms that are made easy and possible.
(1) Take into consideration the length of God’s patience; for were God for our destruction, He would take us at the first advantage and opportunity, as enemies are wont to do.
(2) The checks of our own consciences.
(3) The abundant provision that God hath made for our recovery. There is expiation of sin; and the assistance of His grace and Spirit, for the recovering of us.
(4) The nature and quality of the things that God, upon account of religion, does require of us, namely, those things whereof religion doth consist; and they are internal good dispositions and acts that are suitable, and do of their own accord follow.
(5) The equal consideration that we meet with at the hands of God, in respect of our present weakness, shows that God is ready and willing to do us good.
(6) Though God begin with less, He will go on with more. So that, let no man be discouraged though that which he now hath be not sufficient for to carry him through that which he hath before him; for as his work shall increase and grow greater, God will furnish him with that assistance that shall be suitable and sufficient for what He calls him unto.
(7) God speaketh absolutely, positively, and without any reservation; that when a sinner turneth away from his wickedness he shall save his soul alive.
(8) The repentance of a sinner, and his turning to God, is a thing so acceptable and well pleasing to God that He will greatly reward those that have any hand in it. (Daniel 12:3.) (B. Whichcote, D. D.)
The conversion of a sinner
I. The time when the wicked turneth away from his wickedness. It is indefinitely spoken, and doth not exclude late time, which may be an encouragement to everyone, be his case never so desperate. But then, this is not spoken to encourage men’s delays and put-offs; for there are four great evils consequent upon that.
1. It were to ill resent the goodness of God thus to requite His grace and favour, that we continue in sin because God is gracious.
2. It were to abuse ourselves, and do ourselves more and more harm.
3. It would make the work which is necessary to our happiness much more hard and difficult. For ill use doth contract bad habits; and bad habits contracted by long use and custom are with great difficulty left off.
4. Continuance in sin doth expose us to far greater danger.
(1) Because of the great uncertainty of life, for who can promise himself another day, nay another moment?
(2) Because of the devil’s repeated and continued assaults, by which he will still get the more advantage upon us; and so it will become the more difficult to get him out of possession.
(3) In respect of the insinuations of bad company, and converse.
(4) All the while you stand out you are in a way of resistance of the Holy Spirit, and fight against the motions of God Almighty; which are necessary to bring you to good, and to qualify you for eternal life.
II. The quality of the person. Scripture doth not denominate persons wicked, or sinners, or workers of iniquity, from weaknesses, failings, or from error of judgment, or from indisposition at times, from sudden passion or surprisal; nor from the irregularity of the first motion, that is so troublesome and grievous unto us all. But they are called sinners and wicked persons who voluntarily consent to known iniquity.
III. When a man may be said to turn from his wickedness.
1. The negatives are these.
(1) A man is not said to turn away from his iniquities when his sin rather leaves him, than he leaves it; either through age and disability of body; or through weakness and infirmity; so that he cannot bear to do as he has formerly done.
(2) Such men as are not at their own liberty; but under tutors and governors, whom they dare not disobey; who are as it were shut up, and not suffered to ramble abroad.
(3) Nor when sin is made bitter to men, by suffering the had consequences that follow upon it.
2. But then affirmatively, in three particulars.
(1) When we leave sin out of sense and judgment of its vileness and impurity.
(2) When we leave sin out of respect to God, in obedience unto His laws, and love to Him.
(3) A man cannot be said to return from his wickedness unless he doth conceive displeasure at it, and resolve never to have to do with it again.
IV. An account of lawful and right. Here are two words for one and the same thing; and the one is explicatory of the other. Now this is that which we all ought to do; and there is no pretence of power and privilege to the contrary. And if everybody did confine himself to that which is right, just, and fit, we should have a new world; and there would be nothing of wrong or hard measure found among us: we should then be the better one for another. There is a rule of right in all cases, and it is the charge of all persons in the use of Power, to judge and determine according unto that rule.
1. I will begin with the relation that is between parents and children, and show you what is right for parents to do with their children, and children to their parents.
2. I go to the relation of husbands and wives; there is the right of the case between them.
3. Then for masters and servants. Masters, render to your servants what is right, that which is equal, fair, and reasonable. Then for servants, there is the right of the case for them also, and that is to obey their masters in all things, and to be true and faithful to them.
4. Then in our common converse, we ought to use all humanity, courtesy, and affability, giving all respect, despising nobody.
5. To descend to the creatures below us, there is a right of the case here also. We must not abuse any.
V. The happiness that follows upon renovation, repentance, and turning to God. He that doth so shall save his soul alive. From this we may understand of how great benefit the good use and improvement of our time is. How many are there that overlook the business, purpose, and intention of life! We are here to run a race, and so to run that we may obtain; and therefore we are to watch over ourselves, both as to the things of our mind and body; and so to keep under our bodies, and bring them into subjection, that we may not ruin and undo ourselves. Therefore I advise every man that is serious to ask himself these questions.
1. Will this that I have done, or am doing, be accountable when God shall call me to a reckoning?
2. That which Abigail put to David (1 Samuel 25:1-44), “This will be no grief of heart, nor offence, unto thee.”
3. What shall I think of this when I shall lie upon my death bed?
4. How remediless will the consequence of evil be, when I shall have the least relief by my reason, and be least capable of advice; and when I shall have the least assistance of God’s grace and Spirit? (B. Whichcote, D. D.)
Of the conversion of a sinner
I. The nature of repentance; to turn away from wickedness, and to do that which is lawful and right.
1. To turn from wickedness; this the negative part according to that, Let him eschew evil and do good. And that according to the very morality of the heathens, virtus est vitium fugere, etc. Not to be vicious is the rudiment of virtue, and ‘tis the beginning of wisdom to leave off playing the fool. Now this turning from wickedness being a very hard work, nothing more difficult than to throw off habits once contracted. Let us therefore by a gradual deduction show the right way of proceeding, what course a new convert, that turns from his wickedness, usually takes.
(1) To fortify the reason or understanding with all arguments against it: for conviction is supposed as the very bottom of this work of repentance. The arguments to convince a man’s self are partly moral, partly civil and external; such as are the vileness of thy lusts, which make thee live a life not suitable to the excellency of thy nature, the ill consequence of it, in provoking God and making Him thy enemy, and in exposing thy soul to eternal ruin. Again, the discredit and disparagement; the damage and loss of time, health, estate, they run thee into; the trouble and vexation they procure thee, and the little satisfaction they give thee in lieu of all those inconveniences, of all those hazards and dangers they put thee upon.
(2) To wean the affections; and this will not be very difficult, when the understanding is once convinced. But here’s the fault (Hosea 4:6). Upon this conviction will naturally follow a loathing and detestation of thy sin.
(3) Shunning all occasions. A man then will set a guard upon himself, stop all the avenues of sin, and resist the devil, who is likely most busy at men’s conversion. He that is truly convinced will do so; else he but dissembles with God, and his own soul.
(4) At least since he finds it so very hard to master his thoughts, and evil concupiscence is ever working and boiling up in unlawful desires; yet he will bridle himself from committing the gross act. For if after his conversion he come so far back, as to act the same wickedness over again, then he is to begin all his work anew, and his repentance itself is to be repented of, as having not been sound and sincere.
2. The other is positive, to do that which is lawful and right.
(1) He doth by degrees inure himself to the contrary virtues. Habits are acquired by single acts frequently repeated, and though difficult at first, yet by use and custom are made easy and familiar, till at last they become natural.
(2) As a Christian; he frequents those spiritual exercises wherein grace is promised and improved; prayer, meditation, reading, hearing, receiving, etc., whereof some are to instruct him in his rule, and to give him directions; others to fetch in help and assistance: and he that thus seeks God in His own ordinances and methods, will be sure to find Him.
(3) To be sure he keeps himself employed, that his sin may not find him at leisure; that idleness may give the Evil One no advantage against him.
II. The consequent of thus doing is, that he shall save his soul alive.
1. By turning thus from his wickedness, and doing that which is right, he shall be so accepted of God, that his sins shall never prejudice him, as to his eternal estate, whoever the person be, whatever his former life hath been.
2. His thus doing prepares and disposes him for God’s grace, whereby he may be enabled to do more, till he work out his salvation; and God’s grace will perfect that good work which has been begun in him.
3. This reformation and amendment evidences a justifying and a saving faith, and shows a man to be, to the glory of God’s grace, a truly pious man, and one who may fairly entertain very good assurances of happiness in the life to come. For though by Christ alone, as the meritorious cause, and by faith alone, as the instrumental cause, we are justified and saved; yet that faith itself will do us no good, no, nor Christ Himself stand us in any stead, unless it be accompanied with repentance from sin, and amendment of life.
I might from hence draw several inferences of vulgar mistakes about this necessary work of repentance; let me but mention two.
1. As to the first act, to turn from his wickedness that he hath committed. Some think it enough to turn from some sins, and indulge themselves in others, or at least to turn off one sin, and take up another in its stead. But such must know, that they are still in captivity; they do but alter their prison.
2. As to the second act, to do that which is lawful and right. There are those, who seem to resolve all religion into hearing; that they look on as the soul-saving ordinance; for by that comes faith. Be it so; but let not good works be thrown aside as unnecessary, as dangerous. For what says the apostle? Not the hearers, but the doers shall be justified.
III. The possibility of the duty as to its performance: for else all were to no purpose.
1. God has a kindness for all the souls of men. He is a faithful Creator; His mercy is over all His works, and He hates nothing that He hath made.
2. There’s no bar then, as on God’s part, against any soul’s happiness. We say, unfortunate persons were born under an ill planet, but whatever force the stars may have upon men’s estates and successes, they have none upon their minds and wills. Here ‘tis thy own will that writes thy destiny; there’s no fatality upon thee, but what thou bringest upon thyself. There’s no irreversible decree in our way, to exclude us, if we do not exclude ourselves. Thy destruction is of thyself, O Israel. God made no man purposely to damn him. Death was one of man’s own inventions, and will be the reward of his own evil actions.
3. God allows everyone such a sufficiency of means, as will at least render him inexcusable. In the parable of Talents, they had everyone more or less. Even where the means are denied or withdrawn, ‘tis out of mercy upon foresight of the abuse. These are certain truths, that every man may do better than he does, and may have more grace to do better, if he seek it. If the advantages of the Gospel, the assistances of grace, the influences of the Spirit, the admonitions of conscience will not prevail with men, God will be justified when He judges, even in their condemnation.
4. God having thus furnished us with helps, and being ready further to enable us, expects and requires our own serious endeavours in the working out of our own salvation, nor can we look to be saved otherwise. This passeth for current doctrine in all worldly affairs, that men’s industry and diligence are the only arguments to build their assurance of success upon. And this much more in spiritual and eternal concerns. A man is not to lie in a ditch, and think to get out only by crying, God help me. The carter in the fable, when he called for Hercules’ assistance, was bid to set his own shoulder first to the wheel. It is a proverb, that the world is made for the presumptuous; which Christ seems to have consecrated to pious encouragement, when He tells us, The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. And thus much to evince as the obligation, so the possibility of this duty of repentance and conversion, that as it ought to be in the sinner’s will, so ‘tis partly in his power.
We shall now show how far that power will lead him.
1. A man may, if he will, forbear the gross act of sin.
2. A man may, if he will, shun the occasion of his sin, and get out of the devil’s way, and keep guard at his weak place. A vessel may run foul in a dark night, and strike upon a secret, unseen rock; but if the pilot have any the least care, he will beware places of known danger.
3. A man may, if he will, by degrees draw off his affections, and estrange himself to his sin.
4. A man may, if he will, use his reason; and he doth not deserve the name of man, that will not do that. He may so fortify his understanding, and even natural conscience (for we are now within the compass of nature) that he may at length arrive at a full perfect resolution against his sin.
Then as to do that which is lawful and right.
1. He may, if he will, keep himself well employed, and so not be at leisure for his sin. Good exercise is an expedient for health of soul, as well as body.
2. He may, if he will, go to church, to his closet, read, hear, pray, meditate, and frequent those religious duties wherein God has promised to bestow grace, and pious persons are wont to improve it.
3. He may, if he will, inure himself by good acts as to the substance of them, to the contrary virtues. I still speak of moral actions performable by the strength of nature; so that yet we are not come within the sphere of grace’s activity. Hitherto a man may go of himself, if he will; and certainly he is in a very hopeful condition that goes thus far. I shall not fear to tell you, that he is gone a good part of his way to heaven, and there’s no going to heaven but this way. He has turned from his wickedness, and now does that which is lawful and right; therefore he shall save his soul alive.
And how’s that? That’s on God’s part; for though we must work out our salvation, yet by grace we are saved still: ‘tis the gift of God, when all’s done.
1. God accepts such an one, as He did the devout centurion.
2. God further enables him; so as with His grace to prevent him and assist him, as again in Cornelius his case.
3. God justifies him (his sins that he had done shall be mentioned no more), and will finally reward him; his soul shall live.
I shall conclude with two or three cautions, which may quicken us, that we do not put off this necessary work upon this presumption, that ‘tis in our power to repent when we will.
1. That the longer ‘tis deferred, the more difficult it will be. Our sins will grow stronger, our powers and resolutions weaker, and the grace and favour of God less easy to be obtained, if we neglect the time when He may be found.
2. That though true repentance be never too late, yet late repentance is seldom true. ‘Tis a shrewd sign of our insincerity, when we are unwilling to leave our lusts till they leave us.
3. That our intentions, though never so good, if we defer to put them in execution, when we have time to do it, will not find so gracious an acceptance at God’s hands.
4. That everyone has a day of grace, and ‘tis a thing of extreme danger to hazard the loss of that; to let the measure of our iniquities be filled up, and so to have the things of our peace at last hid from our eyes, and repentance itself put out of our power. (Adam Littleton, D. D.)
Practical intention of the Gospel
I. The first step to salvation is here described to be the relinquishment of former evil practices. That sin is to be forsaken by the seeker of God’s favour, requires no proof. But how is it to be effected? There are many who think that prayer and good resolutions are sufficient. That both of these are indispensable, is most certain, and nothing can be done without them; but they are not always effectual. To them must be added the turning away from the besetting sin; the keeping out of the way of temptation. Probably the virtue and goodness of the best consist more in resisting temptation than is commonly believed by the looker-on. At the close of the day, what, we may ask, excites our grateful emotions to God? That we have had grace to resist this sin and the other; not that we have been positively good, but that we have not been positively bad. One main source of the obedience, then, for instance, of the man whose besetment is love of the world, consists in his keeping out of it, in his turning away from it, as much as he possibly can. And this direction is equally applicable to all other sins. You wish to give up sin; then studiously, self-denyingly, watchfully, prayerfully, turn away from the very atmosphere of the temptation that would lead you to sin; and dream not of safety upon any other terms.
II. After this relinquishing known sin, the next step is, “to do that which is lawful and right.” We know well the difficulty of reconciling the sovereign power of God with the agency of helpless man. But let us consider, for the practical view of the question, that the same God who made the body and its powers made also the soul and its powers. Now, we feel no hesitation in speaking about the freedom of motion of the limbs of the body; yet the whole power to move arm, or leg, or hand, is derived as directly from God as is the power of the mind to think. And notwithstanding this, we feel no hesitation in attributing to man a perfect mastery over all the motions of his own limbs, though it be true that “in God he lives, and moves, and has his being.” When you tell a man to walk, in effect you only tell him to use the power of body which God has given him. He walks, not because he gave himself the power to do so, but because God gave it to him. Now we know the limits under which this can be applied to the soul. Sin has cast its chain, so to speak, about the legs and arms of the soul. If you wish to walk to a neighbouring place, we know of no impediment to your motions; but if you wish to walk to heaven, the case is different. But who gave you the unshackled limbs? God. And if He gives the like power to the soul, why may we not, in like manner, exhort you to make use of it, without being misconstrued? But what is the “lawful and right,” the Christian obedience, required of you? Repentance, faith, holiness. But these imply a thousand particulars, without understanding many of which, it is but giving dark counsel. We spoke of repentance first; but how is a man to perform this “lawful and right” act? How are you to feel sorrow for your sins? You cannot give this sorrow to yourselves; nor can any human being give it you. How then is it to be obtained? In the use, we reply, of God’s appointed means. “Do” them, for they are the “lawful and right” means. Now, we think the appointed way of obtaining repentance is by looking closely at and to Jesus Christ, in connection with what you know of yourselves relative to the past and the present, and what you justly suspect of yourselves for the future. Not that we suppose that any view you can take of Jesus Christ, in connection with His dreadful sufferings for your sins, could move you to real sorrow; but our belief is, that this is the appointed effect of this particular means: if you once look at Christ in this light, He will at the same time regard you for the most merciful of all purposes. Is not every spiritual blessing to be traced up, instrumentally, to Jesus Christ? Repentance certainly is a spiritual blessing; and therefore the proper means are, to come to Him, in the hope that He, by His Spirit, will awaken it within you. If you wait until you are a penitent before you seek for the remedy of the Gospel, you are inverting the only safe order. Come to Jesus Christ in prayer for the gift of repentance: this, we say, is the appointed means. For we are only asking you to exert the power which is given you by God to use His own means, that you may obtain His own blessing. But we pass on to the second act spoken of as “lawful and right” for the salvation of the soul--faith in Jesus Christ. And certainly if repentance is a necessary act of obedience, so is a reliance on the meritorious sacrifice of Jesus Christ. But then what can you do, you yourselves do, in the way of obedience to this injunction? You cannot give yourself faith in Christ, but you can pray for it. You can read the history of His sufferings and death for your sins, with a thoughtful mind; and in that same book in which they are recorded, you can read the only valuable and true history in the world of yourselves. If you desire to see the faithful representation of your countenance, you go to the looking glass; and if you want to see the only real picture of your soul’s condition, read God’s Word for this express purpose, for you will find it nowhere else. By thus using the plain means, so easy of access, for learning what you can of Jesus Christ, and what you can of yourself, you meet God, as it were, in the right road; you go as far as you can go. And as little do we expect that God will go out of His way to withhold His suns, and rains, and winds, for maturing the seed put into the ground with all care, in the use of His own appointed means, as we believe He will withhold the suns, and winds, and rains of His Holy Spirit to bring to ripeness the graces connected with “saving the soul alive” in those who thus do their part towards obtaining them. (J. E. Golding.)
Because he considereth, and turneth away from all his transgressions.
I. He considereth. The blind, hardened man walks about thinking, speaking, acting, without considering how the Almighty God is regarding him, what are to be the consequences of all his thoughts, words, and ways, to what end he is to come. He considers not what he owes to his God, his Maker, his Redeemer, his Sanctifier, his great Benefactor. He considers not that he shall one day “stand before the judgment seat of Christ, to receive the things done in the body,” to give account of the manner in which he has “rendered unto God the things which are God’s,” the honour, the faithful service, the adoring and grateful love which are due to Him from all His rational creatures. Oh what unspeakably great and glorious things are often poured about the ears of hardened people, without making the least impression on their hearts! Divine justice, creating, redeeming love, the death of Christ the Son of God, the coming of the Holy Ghost, the grand events of the judgment day, heaven, hell, eternity, such things as fully comprehended would fill the whole soul of man, and make him stand motionless with admiration and amazement. See an awakened man, a man “whose heart God hath touched.” The terrible voice of the most just judgment of God has reached him. It has pierced his soul. It has roused him from his deadly lethargy. It has made him think. He exercises his thoughts upon his condition and his prospects. His life is brought before him. He sees how he has lived without God in the world. His sins now begin to appear to him in an awful light. He stands amazed at his dreadful situation. He considereth. How he is to escape the wrath to come. How he is to be restored to the favour of his offended God. How he is to master his sinful nature. How he is to acquire the faith and love, the “holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.” All his heart is now engaged in those great considerations; and so vast, so overwhelming they appear, that everything else seems a trifle compared with them. He considers that God is even yet his Maker, that He may still have a regard to the work of His hands; that He has indeed given His Son, that He might be merciful to him. Then he falls down with such feelings as he never before experienced before his God, and pours out of the fulness of his heart confessions of sin, cries for mercy, hopes of pardon, repetitions of God’s promises, prayers for grace and a change of heart, and resolutions of amendment.
II. He turneth away from all his transgressions that he hath committed. He forthwith begins “in the strength of the Lord,” trusting that His grace will be with him, to leave off every kind of iniquity of language and conduct, to avoid all ungodly society, to check his bad tempers, to resist his vile passions, to devote himself to pious practices, to d course of real, earnest, heartfelt prayer, to diligent, thoughtful, and devout reading of the Scriptures, and to all the duties which he owes to his neighbour. He is not like so many, who “return, but not the Most High;” who make some confessions, offer some prayers, leave off some sins, who are “almost persuaded to be Christians,” who go a little way toward God, but will not go all the way to God, will not become His faithful, consistent, devoted servants. He that really returns to God, really devotes himself to the service of the Lord, considers that he is not his own master, to pick and choose what duty he will do, and what he will leave undone, when he will do his duty, and when he will leave it undone; he considers, that he is “not his own, for he is bought with a price, and must glorify God,” by leaving off every sinful practice, and by the faithful, regular, and consistent discharge of every duty. (R. L. Cotton, M. A.)
O house of Israel, are not My ways equal?
Scripture appealing to the reason and conscience of man
This is one among the many instances to be found in Scripture where the rational and moral nature of man is appealed to in justification of the Divine conduct. Christianity must be felt by us to be true before it can be felt by us to be binding on our consciences. And who is to be the judge of its truth or falsehood? Where and what is the tribunal before which its credentials are to be produced, examined, and decided on? What is it, or what can it be, but the reason of man,--Reason in her high seat of purity and power, lifted up above the tainted and corrupting atmosphere of worldly passions and prejudices, and calmly and serenely engaged in the consideration and contemplation of truth. This is one of the first and plainest rules to be adopted for our intellectual guidance. It is regarded as an axiom by all sober thinkers, that every proposition or statement which is found to be self-contradictory or irrational is at once to be regarded as incredible. This, of course, imposes upon man the heavy responsibility of using his reason fairly, of judging not according to the appearance, but of judging righteous judgment. With this condition it will be the surest and safest light to our feet and lamp to our path. There is another and a similar proposition to the one just mentioned, which I shall now proceed to enforce, having respect not so much to our intellectual as to our moral nature. In the Scriptures, appeal is not only made to our reason, our understanding, for the truth of their declarations, but to our moral feelings and convictions, And accordingly I would lay down this principle as akin to the one already touched upon, namely, that any representations of God, and of the character of God, which went to the subversion or destruction of those primary and essential distinctions of truth, justice and goodness, which have been established by the common consent of the wise and good of all ages,--any such representations, assuming what pretensions they may, are to be met with instant and utter rejection. When the Scriptures address our consciences, when they speak of the law written on the heart, when they ask us to judge of ourselves what is right, and when God appeals to us for the justice of His proceedings, saying, “Are not My ways equal?”--they take for granted that we have that within us which is capable of forming sound moral judgments, and of coming to right moral conclusions. So again, when the Scriptures speak to us of the goodness and the loving kindness and the mercy of God, they do not begin with defining the sense in which they use these terms. They suppose that we have already a general and sufficiently accurate knowledge of them. They take for granted the existence of these qualities among men, as arising out of the very constitution of their moral nature, wherever the faculties of that nature have been suffered in any degree to develop and expand themselves. What is goodness in man is the same that we mean by goodness in God. And so with justice, faithfulness, and mercy. These qualities, which we ascribe to God, we have first gotten a knowledge of by our own feelings and experience as human beings. If the Divine mercy and benignity mean not something like this, if they have no resemblance to kindred qualities existing in our own bosoms, what are we to understand by them? They become mere sounds and nothing else, words to which there attaches no significance, and all our conceptions of the character of God are reduced to the greatest possible vagueness and obscurity. Once overrule and bid defiance to the clearest dictates of the understanding, once set at naught and despise the deepest and most universal of our moral sentiments, and the mind is fitted and prepared for the belief of any opinion, however absurd, for the reception of any sentiment, however cruel and revolting. Demand of me anything but the surrender of my intellectual and moral guides. Require of me to give heed to the evidence you may tender in favour of a proposition, however strange, however remote from my present views and apprehensions, and it may be my duty to attend, to ponder, and at length to believe. But require me to give audience to assertions and statements in behalf of self-evident contradictions and palpable moral incongruities, and I revolt from the rashness of the attempt. I feel it to be an affront to the nature which God has given me. If we have no faith in the fundamental principles of human reason, and in the primary and essential moral feelings of the human heart, the foundations of all rational conviction are destroyed, and we are let loose to be driven about by every wind of doctrine, to be the victims of the wretchedest fanaticism, or of the most deadening and depressing scepticism. I am aware that, in answer to these remarks, we shall be reminded of our profound ignorance of the nature of God, and of the utter inadequacy of the human intellect to take unto itself the measure of the Divine. Most true it is that there is much belonging to the nature of God of which, in this dim twilight of our being, we have scarcely more than a mere glimpse. This is especially the case with what are called the natural attributes of God. We know but little, and can know but little, of what Infinity is, and Omnipotence and Eternity. Our apprehension of them may not come up to the fulness and completeness that distinguish them; but still, as far as it goes, it seems to be clear, definite, and exact. While much obscurity, perhaps, attaches to what we may term our metaphysical notions of God, we have no resting place on which the mind can repose, but the moral conceptions of God. That resting place, therefore, let us never abandon. Rather let us cleave to it, and guard and protect it as the home of our affections and the sanctuary of our consolations. But it may be asked, Do you mean, then, to exalt reason and conscience above the Word of God? Do you mean that that Word should submit itself to our erring human judgments? What we contend for is simply this, that no doctrine deduced from Scripture by human interpretation, which is at war with the intellectual and moral nature of man, which is at variance with the first and plainest directions of the understanding and the conscience, can be the Word of God, and entitled to the authority thence arising. We have no ideas of God clearer than those belonging to our moral conceptions of Him. When we say, Lo, God is good, we have a distinct understanding of what we mean by it. And so we have when we say that He is just and kind and merciful. These are properties with which reason and Scripture agree to invest Him. Fortified by these authorities, we take into our minds, and cherish as our greatest treasure, corresponding moral views of the Divine character. There they are lodged firmly and abidingly. From them our thoughts and hopes should never be separated. If, therefore, I perceive anything in the Scriptures which at first sight appears to be discordant with these views of the character of God I endeavour, by wider inquiry and deeper search, to find out a more consistent sense; but if that cannot be found, I say not that God is not the benignant and merciful Being that I took Him to be, but that from some cause or other I understand not the passage before me. In this way it is that I would meet and object to the doctrines of Calvinism. They begin with setting aside the clearest deductions of reason, and then with sweeping away every notion of justice and goodness that had fixed its habitation in my soul. Why are the most impressive appeals made to us in the Scriptures in behalf of the loving kindness and tender mercy of our God, if neither the reason nor the conscience of man can understand and feel what, as respects the Divine Being, goodness and mercy are? In that case goodness and mercy may mean anything or nothing; and to draw from them any reasons for consolation and trust must be vain and useless. Our belief will be a belief in a God unknown, and our worship will be the worship of we know not what. Fear not, then, to use your reason, your understandings, on the subject of religion; but beware of using them for purposes of display, for the gratification of your vanity, and the exercise of your skill. Consider them as talents, for the faithful employment of which you will have to render an account at the bar of Almighty Justice. Feed the immortal lamp within you by meditation and prayer, and elevate your souls to heaven; and then reason, in union with the Word of God, will guide you into the ways of wisdom, and her ways are the ways of pleasantness, and her paths are the paths of peace. (T. Madge.)
Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin.
Preservative from ruin
I. The assumption of an awful fact. Iniquity induces ruin. The term “ruin” occurs but seldom in the sacred Scriptures. It is, however, one of awful import and aspect; a word ever used in an evil sense to describe the fearful disaster which has befallen him who was the subject of it. In the text the word is employed to describe the eternal misery of the soul.
1. He who is ruined has lost something of which he was formerly in possession. When an individual meets with sudden reverses of a painful character in his circumstances, and is called to sustain an extensive deprivation of property, we are accustomed to say, that such an one is ruined. But of all the loss and forfeiture which men can sustain, none can possibly be compared with that which is experienced by him who is ruined by his iniquity.
2. We apply this term to the demolition or destruction of a fabric. In hell there is nothing witnessed but ruin. Some of the finest and most noble intelligences ever formed, are there irreparably and eternally ruined. “Morning stars” which once sang for joy around the Almighty’s throne are in a state of wretchedness and perdition. This ruin is:
(1) Indescribably great. It is the ruin of man; a dignified, exalted, and intelligent being.
(2) Incapable of reparation. Cities may be rebuilt, and the waste of ages redeemed; habitations and palaces may be renovated, and shine forth in pristine magnificence and glory; but the ruin adverted to in the text cannot be repaired. The Most High would have accomplished this for sinners while they were on “this” world, and in a state of probation; but they “set at nought all His counsel, and would none of His reproof”; therefore: Proverbs 1:25-27.
(3) Punitive and painful. The ruin of a building made with hands is the ruin of unconscious, inactive, and unfeeling matter, utterly insensible of the desolation that reigns around. When man is ruined, there are inflicted pain and destruction of the most fearful description.
II. The efficacy of a divine admonition.
1. Repentance implies the existence of that which is sinful and erroneous (Romans 3:10-12; Romans 3:23).
2. Repentance comprises a consciousness of having done wrong, a conviction of sinfulness. We are so accustomed to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think, that we need pray earnestly to God to show us what we are, and to open our eyes to “behold wondrous things out of His law” (Psalms 119:18).
3. Repentance includes also sorrow for sin; a “godly sorrow” (2 Corinthians 7:10), a sorrow wrought in the heart by the Spirit of God.
4. Repentance is attended with confession of sin. This may be performed in a two-fold sense: first to God, and secondly to man. (R. Treffry.)
Breaking the entail of sin
I. The ruin which sin brings on the sinner.
3. Awfully painful.
II. The means by which ruin may be prevented.
1. Conviction of sin.
2. Contrition for sin.
3. Confession of sin.
4. Departure from sin.
5. An earnest desire, etc. (E. R. Derby.)
God’s vindication of Himself
I. A serious exhortation.
1. The grounds on which it proceeds. Judgment shall be given according to our ways.
2. The exhortation--to repentance. Turn away from what is useless, hurtful, loathsome. There must be no reserve.
II. An earnest remonstrance. “Why will ye die?”
1. Is it because your sins are too great to be pardoned?
2. Is it because God commands you to make new hearts and you cannot do it?
3. No, the reason is, the love of sin.
III. An encouraging declaration.
1. “So iniquity shall not be your ruin.” What a God of mercy is here!
2. “I have no pleasure,” etc. Judgment is His “strange act”; He holds off from striking till vengeance can slumber no longer. (John D. Lane, M. A.)
A call to the impenitent
I. The characters that are addressed. Such as are still the subjects of an evil nature, and are still living in sin against God.
II. The danger that is indicated. Iniquity is represented as inducing and exposing to ruin. We know what it is for a man to be ruined in his property--to be reduced from affluence to poverty--what it is for a man to be ruined as regards his health and constitution, and, consequently, in those enjoyments that are dependent on health. We know what it is for a man to be ruined in his character and credit, and everything that renders him respectable in society; but all the notions we can form of ruin, as referring to these external circumstances, will give us a very inadequate idea indeed of the ruin that sin induces--the ruin of the soul. The ruin of the soul implies exquisite, positive suffering, such as no language can describe--its final condemnation under the curse and wrath of God; a condemnation that cannot be repealed; a state of banishment from God’s presence and the glory of His power; final and eternal banishment. It is worth while to turn our thoughts to this, and to consider how it is that iniquity induces ruin, at once so dreadful and so awful. In the first place, I would say it operates in this way, inasmuch as it naturally produces the effect I have noticed, in robbing the soul of all its excellence. Again, it induces ruin, inasmuch as it operates in separating the soul immediately from God, who is the source of felicity, the fountain of good.
III. The only remedy accessible to sinners is repentance. Do not confound it, I would say, with the sorrow of the world. A man may be in grief, and may be the subject of great sorrow. This may not be repentance: sorrow it is; but, you know, there is the sorrow of the world as well as a sorrow of a godly sort. I would say, do not confound repentance with the mere fear of punishment. I would say, again, it is not a mere transitory impression of grief, on account of sin. True repentance, let me say, implies a knowledge of sin. It is the Holy Spirit alone that can give us right views on such a subject as this, and can make the Law a schoolmaster, to bring us to Christ--who can reveal to us the holiness of the law, the extent of its demands, as it applies not merely towards the actions, but to the thoughts and intents of the heart. And, in addition to this, repentance also implies the conviction of sin. The charge is fixed on his conscience, and he cannot throw it off. He feels that he is in this situation, and he cries, “What must I do to be saved?” Let me say, too, that conviction will be followed, where it is genuine, by suitable impressions and emotions. (J. Hill.)
Escape from ruin
I. God will judge us, everyone according to his ways: not according to our plan of our ways, but according to His. All men will hereafter be judged according to the dispensation they have been under. Those who are under the law will be judged by the law; sin in them will be the transgression of their law. Those who are without the law--that is, without a written law--will be judged without a written law--by the law of nature written upon their hearts. But those who have been under the Gospel will be judged by the Gospel.
II. If under this dispensation we are found impenitent sinners we shall be ruined. Ah! it is a touching thing to witness what we call ruin, even in this life; to see wringing of hands, and wringing of hearts, and hopeless grief; but ruin for eternity is infinitely worse than this; for the grave will soon end earthly sorrows, but the resurrection from the grave is only the beginning of eternal ruin.
III. If we are found repentant we shall not be ruined. Repentance has a different character according to the different conditions of men; but it always implies a change of mind, issuing in change of conduct, which change of conduct must needs have respect to the dispensations of religion under which God has brought men. If the Jewish nation, in a matter that threatened national ruin, repented and turned to God, according to their law, they obtained deliverance from that ruin that otherwise was coming upon them. If Christians under the Gospel turn to the provisions under that Gospel, they turn to Christ, and they obtain eternal life through Him. Conviction of sin, and misery on account of sin, is not repentance. (T. Snow.)
Make you a new heart, and a new spirit.
A new heart
I. This is an exhortation which, in one form or another, every man needs to hear. Here is a man who has to cross a river. There is no difficulty in crossing--the bridge is there--it is plain and palpable; but he stops to speculate how the bridge could have been erected--how it could span the river--and he goes still deeper into subtleties, and speculates how it is possible that he has the power of crossing it, and all the while neglects the work before him in theories that amount to no practical value, if they ever could be decided. Now here is a simple, practical work set before a man--to make himself a new heart and a new spirit. So far as man’s own immediate action is concerned, there is little reason why he should perplex himself with controversies or questionings about human ability and total depravity. I do not say that the truth or falsehood of these theories is not an important consideration. But I say no man need trouble himself long with theories, so far as his own immediate duty is concerned, in this demand for practical action. Another question may be disposed of, when we consider how practical this appeal is, and that is the question, Who makes a new heart? Do you make it, or does God make it? Now here, as almost everywhere else, we find two poles to one truth--one referring to God, and one to man--but the moment we come to act, they are reconciled. If one warms into earnest effort upon the idea of having a new heart and a new spirit, the two conditions of God’s agency and man’s agency will melt together. If he stand still in cold, barren speculation, he freezes to death. And it is a mistake to suppose that God is not glorified when we dwell upon the point of human action. When we say you can make a new heart and a new spirit, it is a great mistake to suppose that we take the glory from God. For whence come all good desires and all right actions? They proceed from God, and from Him alone. And so do all strength and all ability. A man does not get an education, any more than a new heart, of himself. Is it not Providence that furnishes the circumstances which may incite him to the pursuit of an education, and help him to get it? Is it not Providence that touches the mysterious processes of the mind by which education becomes possible? Now suppose we should say, “This matter of getting a new heart is a process of self-education”; it would be reduced to simple terms, and yet a great many would start from it and say, “This won’t do; it is too cold and naturalistic--too much of human agency to call getting religion a process of self-education.” And yet what is self-education but the inspiration and the life of the Divine? You do not strike God out when you put human agency in. The fact is just this: God stands ready with His conditions, which are necessary to all human effort and to all success, whenever man is ready to fall in with those conditions. When we set the sail, the wind will blow; when we sow the seed, the agencies that God Himself has prepared in the atmosphere and in the earth will perform their part; and when we set ourselves to work to make a new heart, God’s Spirit will breathe upon us and help us to consummate the work. No man that knows what it is to strive to overcome evil affections within, and sore temptations without, to grow better and purer, will take anything to himself in working out that deliverance. If in any degree he shall attain that end, he will feel that he has had Divine help--that something higher than he has breathed into him and inspired him. The very process of his work will show where he touches God, and where God Almighty has helped him, and he will give all the glory to Him. So it is perfectly consistent with God’s power and glory to speak to us in the words of the text, “Make you a new heart and a new spirit.” It is a call to action. What are you waiting for? You will never be in a better condition than now to make yourself a new heart. The call is at once; it is now. The Divine agencies are ready; it is only for you to surrender yourself to the conception of the great purpose and the great aim, and God will answer, and the blessing will come flowing within.
II. The peculiarity which this power and privilege of making a new heart exhibits in man. It is a wonderful thing that a man can make himself a new heart. How all little, shallow scepticisms go down before one grand moral fact! Superficial science affects to see in man nothing but a superior animal--a highly-developed ape; and judged solely by its standard, man is but little superior, and in some respects appears inferior, to the higher order of brutes. But when we seek to find the true standard of excellence, how distinct he stands from all the creatures around him! All sealed things he unloosens; all secrets he lays open; and as he marches on from point to point of civilisation, of glory, of intellectual attainment, of scientific achievement, by the inward power within him, the outward world is changed and assumes aspects that reflect his genius and thought. But there is more than this in man. There is the power of going into himself, and quarrying in the deep places of his own soul. There is a power of changing the tendency and plane of his own life. You never heard of that in the brutes. They all run in the same round, move forward in the same direction, revolve in the same orbit from age to age. But man has the power of stopping short, changing his direction, lifting up the level of his life, and becoming a new being. So it is the inward change that makes him the new being. It is the new spirit that comes into a man that produces the great and vital change. This is the new birth of which Christ spoke to Nicodemus. “Make you a new heart and a new spirit,” and then you have the new man--then you have new life. Oh, how wonderfully religion adjusts itself to the great facts and needs of human nature! for is there anything that could be stated of such immediate and vital importance as this simple appeal, “Make yourself a new heart”? Out of this change come all other changes. No movement for the regeneration of society, no measure for the improvement of the world, can be radically effective but as it comes out of the reservoirs of individual hearts. It is a good world or a bad world, as men’s hearts are good or bad. How vital, how radical, then, is the appeal made in the text! In all conditions of life, in all trims, in all misfortunes, this is what we want--a new heart--and then the aspect of things will be changed. Because we cannot always change things themselves. The man that is borne down by calamity cannot alter his calamity. But make yourself a new heart; fall into harmony with God’s law in the matter; see your misfortune in a providential point of view, far up in the light of some higher and grander purpose which God has in store for you, and look if the thing will be changed. It will stand there as a calamity if you look at it in your old way; but if you look at it in the light of God’s providence, it will be a new thing to you. “Make you a new heart.” How vital this is! It goes below all things else. It goes to the centre of a man’s personality, and out of it springs all real life. Not make yourself new brains. We do not want them so much as hearts. Not new conditions. We see men well endowed with conditions, but not with the will to use them. We want new hearts; not new intellectual powers. We cannot make new brains, but we can, every one of us, make a new heart. The great consideration is, Do we desire a new heart? What is the life within? Are we selfish? Are we gravitating simply to this world, living within our aims, vain cares, and uses? “Make you a new heart and a new spirit.” (E. H. Chapin, D. D.)
The sinner’s duty to make himself a new heart
This will appear--
I. From the nature of a new heart. It is a heart that loves, and fears, and serves God. It is called “new,” as being entirely another and a different heart from that of the sinner. The sinful heart is a selfish heart--a heart fixed in its supreme affections on the world, and opposed to God. A new heart is a heart of benevolence or love. The sinful heart rejects the Saviour; a new heart believes in Him. A sinful heart loves sin; the new heart hates it. The sinful heart leads its possessor into sinful practices; the new heart prompts to a course of holy obedience to the will of God.
II. From the nature of man. Man is an intelligent voluntary being. He is capable of knowing his duty, and of performing it. He has understanding; the power of knowing what is right and what is wrong. He has the capacity of feeling the motives to right and wrong action. He has a will or heart; the power of choosing and refusing, or of loving and hating. He not only possesses these powers and capacities, but he uses them. And the only question is, how ought he to use them? Ought he to use them right or wrong? With ample powers to love God or to love the world, he is required to love the one, and forbidden to love the other. Ought he not to comply? Ought not such a being to put away his old heart of enmity, and to make himself a new heart of love?
III. God commands sinners to make themselves a new heart. The text is explicit. The command is, Amend, reform; make you a new heart. The same thing is implied in every other command of God given to sinners. There is not one which does not require a right heart--the exercise of those affections in which a new heart consists. Does God require sinners to love Him? It is with all the heart. Does He require them to believe? It is with the heart. Does He require them to pray? It is to seek Him with all the heart. And so of every other command.
IV. The same thing is evident from facts. It has often been done; and this in two forms. Thus Adam was once holy--his heart was right with God. Now, in turning from holiness to sin, he changed his own heart--he made himself a new heart. And surely, if a man can turn from right to wrong, from holiness to sin, he can turn, and ought to turn, from sin to holiness, from wrong to right. But this is not all. Every Christian has, in fact, through grace, made himself a new heart. “Ye have purified your souls in obeying the truth, through the Spirit”; “Ye have put off the old man, and put on the new man.” True, when the sinner does this, he does it through the Spirit. Still he does it. He purifies his soul. It is his act. It is an act of obedience. He obeys the truth. And what does God do, when by His Spirit He brings the sinner thus to act? He causes the sinner to love, to repent, to believe--to give his heart to God in the exercise of these affections. It is not God who repents, believes, and loves, but the sinner.
V. If sinners are not bound to make themselves a new heart, then the law of God is not binding on men. There can be no sin in violating a law when there is no obligation to obey it. On the same principle, man has never broken the Divine law. Or, rather, there is no law of God; for a law which imposes no obligation is no law. If, therefore, the sinner has not always been, and is not now, under obligation to make himself a new heart, or, what is the same thing, to love God, he never has sinned at all--he commits no sin now. Can any believe this?
VI. The same is evident from the nature of the Gospel. The Gospel is a system of grace from beginning to end. Its great atonement by blood--the awakening, renewing, and sanctifying influences of the Divine Spirit--is all grace. But, as we have seen, if man is not bound to make himself a new heart, he is not a sinner. Christ, then, has not died for sinners. He did not come to seek and save those who were lost--those who deserved eternal death; but those who were innocent. Again: if the sinner is not bound to make himself a new heart, there is no grace in the influences of the Holy Spirit. Grace is favour shown to sinners--to the ill-deserving. If, then, man is not bound to make himself a new heart, without the aids of the Divine Spirit, then he is not to blame, is not ill-deserving for not having such a heart, and of course there is no grace in giving him such a heart.
VII. The character of God decides the truth of our doctrine. Here I present the simple question of reason and of equity. Ought the sinner to love the all-perfect God? God, his Maker, his Preserver, Benefactor, Saviour--God, the best friend he has in the universe--God, whose character is infinite excellence, combining all that is comprehensive in wisdom, vast in power, enrapturing in goodness and mercy--claims the sinner’s heart--claims it of right--claims it under His own promise and oath to give all He can give to bless. In opposition is arrayed the world, which deceives, ensnares, corrupts, and destroys the soul forever. And can reason, can conscience, hesitate as to the reasonableness and the equity of these opposing claims? Remarks.
1. They who deny the sinner’s power as a moral agent to make himself a new heart, deny the scriptural doctrine of the Divine influence, or the work of the Holy Spirit.
2. This subject shows us that ministers are bound to exhort sinners to make themselves new hearts, and to do nothing, which implies that they are not to do this.
3. We see the absurdity of the sinner’s plea, that he cannot change his own heart.
4. We see why the influences of the Holy Spirit are necessary to change the hearts of sinners.
5. The duty of the sinner to make himself a new heart is to be regarded by him as a practicable duty. (N. W. Taylor.)
Duty of sinners to make a new heart
I. What a new heart is. There is no ground to suppose that it means any new natural power or faculty of the soul, which is necessary to render sinners capable of understanding and doing their duty. They are as completely moral agents as saints, and as completely capable, in point of natural ability, of understanding and obeying the will of God. Nor can a new heart mean any new natural appetite, instinct, or passion. Whatever belongs to our mere animal nature, belongs to sinners as well as to saints. Nor can a new heart mean any dormant, inactive principle in the mind, which is often supposed to be the foundation of all virtuous or holy exercises. We may as easily conceive that all holy affections should spring from that piece of flesh which is literally called the heart, as to conceive that they should spring from any principle devoid of activity. This leads me to say positively, that a new heart consists in gracious exercises themselves; which are called new, because they never existed in the sinner before he became a new creature, or turned from sin to holiness. This will appear from various considerations. In the first place, the new heart must be something which is morally good, and directly opposite to the old heart, which is morally evil. But there is nothing belonging to the mind that is either morally good or morally evil which does not consist in free, voluntary exercises. This will further appear, if we consider, next, that the Divine law requires nothing but love, which is a free, voluntary exercise. And this, I would further observe, is agreeable to the experience of all who repent, and turn from their transgressions, and make them a new heart and a new spirit. The change which they experience is merely a moral change.
II. What it is to make a new heart. When God says, Be sober--Be vigilant--Be humble--Be obedient--Be holy--Be perfect--He means that men should put forth truly pious and holy affections. And so far as these and other Divine precepts respect sinners, they require the exercise of the same affections, only with this peculiar circumstance, that they are “new” or such as they never exercised before.
III. It is the duty of sinners to make them a new heart.
1. The mere light of nature teaches that every person ought to exercise universal benevolence. This duty results from the nature of things. And surely sinners under the Gospel are no less obliged, by the nature of things, to put away all their selfish affections.
2. God, who perfectly knows the state and characters of sinners, repeatedly commands them to make them a new heart. When God commands them to love Him with all their hearts, and their neighbour as themselves; or when He commands them to repent, to believe, to submit, to pray, to rejoice, or to do anything else; He implicitly commands them to make them a new heart, or to exercise holy instead of unholy affections.
And for sinners to exercise holy affections, is to exercise the new affections in which a new heart consists.
1. If the making of a new heart consists in the exercising of holy instead of unholy affections, then sinners are not passive, but active in regeneration.
2. If sinners are free and voluntary in making them a new heart, then regeneration is not a miraculous or supernatural work.
3. If it be a duty which God enjoins upon sinners, and which they are able to perform, to make them a new heart, then there is no more difficulty in preaching the Gospel to sinners than to saints. (N. Emmons, D. D.)
Man’s duty to remake himself
I. Man morally has made himself what he is. The dominant disposition of some is love for sensual indulgence, of others love for money, of others love for show, of others love for power and fame. To suppose that Almighty Love and Holiness created intelligent beings to be inspired and ruled by such dispositions as these is to the last degree derogatory to the Divine character, and repugnant to all our moral intuition and a priori reasonings. The moral heart that God put within man at first had a disposition to love and serve Him supremely.
II. Man morally is bound to remake himself,
1. This is not an impossible work.
(1) Reason would suggest its possibility.
(2) The Bible implies its possibility.
(3) The means appointed indicate its possibility.
There are moral means supplied by God in the Gospel for the very purpose. What are they? In one word, demonstrations of His infinite love for sinners. The one grand demonstration is the delivering up of “His only begotten Son” for the restoration of a guilty world.
2. This is an urgently important work. “Make you a new heart.” To make fame, power, money, these are childish trifles compared with the work of making a new heart. Your well-being here and yonder, now and forever, is involved in this work. (Homilist.)
I. Soul reformation is an imperative work.
1. It is practicable.
2. It is essential.
(1) Man’s present heart is his guilt and ruin. He has given himself the “stony heart,” the heart that stands hard as granite against the Divine influences of love and truth.
(2) All other reformations are worthless unless the heart be renewed.
II. Soul reformation is self-work. No one can do this work for you. You may build houses, plant farms, educate your children by proxy, but this is work that you yourself must do, and no one else. But how is it to be done? What is the way? Concentrated thought upon the infinite loving tenderness of that God against whom we have sinned, as demonstrated in the biography of Christ.
1. Such thought is adapted to the end. Ah! millions of stony hearts have been transformed into flesh as they have mused on Calvary.
2. Men have the power of giving this concentrated thought. All men are thinkers, and all men are thinking upon some subjects with more interest than on others. (Homilist.)
The existence and renewal of a moral heart in man
(with Ezekiel 36:26):--
I. The existence of a moral heart in man. Every man is under the all-controlling power of some one disposition, and this disposition, like the physical heart, beats its influence in every vein and fibre of the spiritual nature. All the activities of man are streams from this fountain, branches from this root, pulsations from this organ.
II. The renewal of the moral heart in man.
1. As a personal duty.
(1) Man can alter his moral heart. Our moral dispositions are under the control of our thoughts, and our thoughts we can employ as we please.
(2) Man has altered his moral heart. History abounds with instances of the churl becoming generous, the carnal spiritual, the profane reverent, the godless godly. Is it the duty of a dishonest man to become honest, of a false man to become true, a vicious man to become virtuous? Then it is the duty of a godless man to become godly. “Make you a new heart.” This work done, all work is successful; this work neglected, all work is disastrous.
2. As a Divine gift. “A new heart also will I give you.” There are two ways in which God bestows gifts on men. One way is irrespective of his choice and effort. Life itself and the necessary conditions of life are blessings that come to us without any effort on our part. But there are other blessings which He gives only on condition of human effort. He gives crops only to those who cultivate the fields and sow the grain, knowledge only to those who observe, investigate, and study. So He gives this new heart only to those who “consider their ways,” repent, and believe the Gospel. (Homilist.)
The harmony between Divine sovereignty and human agency
(with Ezekiel 36:26 and Psalms 51:10):--That these texts are closely related to each other must be obvious even on the most cursory examination. The same expressions occur in each of them, and they all clearly point to one and the same subject of momentous interest. A further attention, however, will show, that while the subject is the same in all, it is presented in a different light in each. In all, the one unvaried topic of regeneration is placed before us; but in passing from one to another, the point of view from which we look upon it is changed. The first comes from God the Lawgiver; the second comes from God the Redeemer; the third comes from man the suppliant. The first is the loud and authoritative voice of Majesty; the second is the still small voice of Mercy; the third is the humble, earnest voice of Entreaty.
I. The precept. What place does it hold in this arrangement? What is its office? What good practical purposes does it serve?
1. This command has evidently made you conscious of your helplessness, and I call that a practical movement, a very practical movement--an invaluable result--and the indispensable prerequisite to all others. Would you ever have known how completely your senses are all sealed in spiritual sleep but for the authoritative voice of God? and even that, as you can testify, only like a dying echo, through your dream, crying, “Awake, awake, thou that sleepest.”
2. It will not only lead you to think of your weakness and helplessness, but it will tend to show you how complete and thorough your impotency is, and to deepen the sense of this upon your soul. Go and try to make yourself a new heart. Labour to regenerate your own soul. “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.” And then tell your success. Break off every old habit, if you can. Give up every outward act of sin. Mortify the deeds of the body. But have you changed your heart? Have you given it new dispositions, new desires, new delights?
3. Besides evoking the testimony of experience and consciousness, the precept has power to touch the springs of conscience; and without this it would indeed be utterly inefficient. You may have been “alive without the precept once, but when the precept comes in spiritual power, sin revives, and you die” (Romans 7:9). You die to all pride, and peace, and hope. You learn two solemn truths, which, when taken together, gave you no rest till they mercifully shut you up to the only remedy. You know your helplessness; but you cannot sit down contented, for you know also your obligation and responsibility. You know your obligation but you do not become legalists, for you know also your helplessness. You feel that you cannot obey; but this does not set all at rest, because you feel that you must obey. You feel that you must obey; but neither does this settle all, for you also feel that you cannot.
II. The promise.
1. It is obvious that the wisdom of God is wonderfully exhibited in bringing in the promise at this precise point. If it had come sooner, the soul would not have been prepared to receive it. If it had come later, the soul would have been already given over to hopeless despair.
2. How is the grace of God adored by the fainting soul, when, after the conflict with the precept, the promise comes brightly into view. Like the same law given to Moses a second time, not amidst thunderings and lightnings, and darkness and tempest, but amidst light, and peace, and favour, all God’s goodness passing by before His servant, sheltered now in the cleft of the rock; so here, the preceptive form, which caused the tempest and the terror in the soul, being all done away, the very same substance, in all its integrity, is restored, but now beaming in the light and lustre of a free and a gracious promise, “A new heart will I give unto you, a new spirit will I put within you.”
3. But the grace of God is still more wonderfully glorified by the consideration, that, while this is the very thing which we need, and which God offers to bestow upon us, it is also the very thing which we are bound to render unto Him. Grace abounded when, sympathisingly, He gave me that new heart which I was unable to make; but grace much more abounded when, forgivingly, He gave me that new heart which I was bound to make, and guilty in my inability to make it.
4. And now the sovereignty of Divine grace can be obscured or concealed no longer. This also the believer is taught to feel and to acknowledge by reason of his previous discipline under the precept. In learning his obligation and responsibility, he at the same time necessarily learned the majesty and kingly authority of God.
III. The prayer. It appropriately comes last, because it is grounded on, and takes its warrant from the promise, pleading the fulfilment of the promise that thereby the object of the precept may be gained. The prayer, when offered, grows out of the promise; the prayer, when answered, satisfies the precept. The precept teaches man that he is helpless; the promise tells him there is help; the prayer secures the help. The precept teaches man that he is responsible and guilty; the promise tells him there is forgiveness; the prayer obtains the pardon. The precept teaches man God’s authority; the promise tells of God’s grace; the prayer tries and tests God’s sufficiency. The precept teaches man his dependence; the promise declares dependence in God well placed; the prayer puts dependence on God accordingly. The precept teaches man humility; the promise gives man hope; the prayer shows man’s trust. The precept gives, scope for God’s righteous justice; the promise gives scope for God’s faithfulness; the prayer gives scope for man’s faith. In all cases, the prayer is necessary to complete the cycle; and if the precept and the promise do but graciously exercise the soul, the prayer will and cannot but follow. To the prayerless, therefore, there is here very clear and simple ground for self-examination and self-condemnation. You have only to plead with God to do all the work to your hands. Will you cast away eternal joy and court eternal agony by refusing that? (H. Martin.)
Precept, promise, and prayer
The text connects itself closely with a topic much debated among theologians, namely, what man can do, or cannot do, in regard to overcoming the bias of a corrupt nature, and making himself meet for the kingdom of God. This meetness consists in a changed heart, a renewed mind and spirit; and I shall try to show you that, in this Book of Ezekiel, we have this great mystery brought down to the level of our human intelligence in a way which, whatever its aspects towards God, puts the fact of human duty and human accountableness on a foundation which nothing can disturb. There are three principal passages in Ezekiel bearing upon this subject, which must always be read and considered together. The first is in the text, where this inward change is made the subject of a precept: “Make you a new heart and a new spirit.” The second is in the eleventh chapter, where the change spoken of is made the object of a promise: “And I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh.” The third is in the thirty-sixth chapter, where, in relation to this promise of a new heart and a new spirit, it is intimated that the subject is one for earnest prayer: “Yet for this will I be inquired of by the house of Israel to do it for them.”
I. The precept, “Make you a new heart and a new spirit.” Now what place, in the Divine arrangements for our conversion, are precepts of this kind supposed to occupy? What do they mean? What do they assume? What practical effect have they, or ought they to have, upon our moral conduct and convictions? They are to awaken us to a conviction of our helplessness, they are to reveal to us our souls’ danger, they are to show to us the deep seatedness of our depravity, they are to break in upon the slumbers of the natural conscience--in a word, they are to set us upon making an effort. The effort may be feeble and imperfect and unpromising, but still an effort it is, and an effort such as, in the case of any worldly interest being endangered, we should assuredly make, however slight the chances of success. What man on seeing a huge crag just loosening over his head, or seeing flames issue from his neighbour’s dwelling house, would omit to use such means as were within his reach, on the plea, “What good would it do?” However apparently impracticable therefore, precepts of the kind contained in the text are useful, if only as showing that, as far as regards ourselves, they are impracticable. They naturally set us upon thinking how the need they have discovered may be supplied, and the disorders of our moral condition may be corrected, and the ruin and the death and the helplessness and the condemnation may be turned from us or taken away. When our Lord ordered the paralytic man to take up his bed and walk, or the blind man to look and say if he saw aright, He seemed to be telling them to do that which was impossible. And if they had thought so, and had made no effort, the evils they were suffering from would have remained untaken away. But, concurrently with the command went forth an impulse upon the souls of the men that the command was of God, and that anything enjoined by Him must be possible. And it is precisely under this aspect that we are to view the command, “Make you a new heart and a new spirit.” You say you cannot make it. I say there is a sense in which you can make it, just as much as at the bidding of Christ a man was able to stretch forth a withered hand. A command from God, we must always remember, is, in its own nature, an appeal to human accountableness. It forecloses all excuses. It disallows any possible ground of exemption. It assumes that there is in every one of us a certain power of compliance, and therefore convicts of obstinacy and disobedience the man who does not turn that power to account. And the like principle applies to the text, and all others of kindred import.
II. The precept viewed in the light of the promise. This same Ezekiel who is instructed to call to the house of Israel, “Make you a new heart and a new spirit,” also has it in charge to deliver as God’s kind assurance to the people, “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you.” Everything God does, whether in the material or moral world, is characterised by harmony, proportion, order, law. “As our day, so our strength”; as the command to run, so the grace to draw; as the exhortation “Make you a new heart and a new spirit,” so the provision of all needful agencies by means of which this new creation is to be made. Here then we see how much of light is shed upon the Divine dealings with us, when we join the promise on to the precept; when we are brought to see that God never exhorts us to do a thing without putting the means of compliance within our own reach and power. This viewing the two things in juxtaposition will be found to rid us at once of a whole host of speculative difficulties and objections, which might have attached to the precept if it had stood alone. “Make you a new heart”--change the hue of AEthiop’s skin--turn back the whole current of your likes and dislikes, and bid the tide set with equal vehemence the contrary way--this is a hard saying, some will say, hard, and even something more--impossible. Admitted. “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.” That which is impossible to the precept is possible to the promise. We are never allowed to view these two great facts of the moral world apart. There are two great truths--their authority alike over the human conscience, and their claims alike to a rational belief. And these are: first, that the origin, as well as the effective agency, in the work of our salvation is to be traced to God only; and the other that, in connection with that work, and as morally furthering that work, much has to be done by the sinner himself.
III. The precept and promise together considered in their relation to prayer. Ezekiel had been commissioned to give the injunction, “Make you a new heart”; and a little after he is told to add that word of consolation, “A new heart also will I give you”: yet lest the promise should inspire presumption, or the precept should lead to despair, he adds, “I will yet for this be inquired of by the house of Israel to do it for them, said the Lord God.” The precept speaks of death; the promise points to life; the prayer is the permitted signal for the resurrection when challenging the power of the Eternal Spirit to “breathe upon dead souls that they may live.” The precept shows us that we have work to do; the promise evidences that we have not the power to do it; the prayer suggests the use of certain instituted means, in order that God may do it for us. The precept is the will of God commanding; the promise is the goodness of God encouraging; the prayer is helplessness pleading at His footstool with eyes fastened on the mercy seat, because afraid to look upon the throne. In a word, they form, in combination, a holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity. For the precept is the Sovereign Father of the universe enjoining obedience. The promise is the Son of His love entreating that the offender may be spared. The prayer is the indwelling Spirit within us waking up the heart to devotion, and showing us both how to wrestle and prevail with God. Wherefore, that ye may be able to keep the precept, pray; that ye may have part in the promise, pray; that ye may have the spirit of effectual fervent prayer, pray. Keep the end of all in view--“A new heart and a new spirit,” a changed judgment and restored affections, a submitted will and a heavenly mind. (D. Moore, M. A.)
The formation of a new heart
I. it what is to be understood by the heart and spirit. We are conscious of the power of perception, reason, memory, and volition. These are essential properties of the soul. We are likewise sensible of the affections, or those free, voluntary, moral exercises, which are the powers, or properties, of the heart. When the Scriptures speak of the heart as being changed, or made new, they always mean the affections, or volitions, or free, moral exercises. To these they uniformly attach praise, or blame, because they are free and voluntary.
II. What is to be understood by the new heart and new spirit. These are new and right exercises, or new and right affections. They are those free, moral exercises, which are in conformity to the revealed will of God, and sanctified by His Spirit. As the heart consists in voluntary exercises and affections, these in the impenitent sinner are wrong, and must be changed in order to be right. They must be withdrawn from improper objects, and directed in a right channel. They must be withheld from all undue attachment to this vain world, and placed on God, and heavenly things, as the supreme good. The general tenor of the life must likewise be in obedience to the Divine commands. When any sinner by true repentance returns to these good exercises, he has a new heart and a new spirit, and is become a new creature. His old, wrong affections are changed into new, right affections, and his good exercises in the obedience of his life prove him to be a new man.
III. How sinners can make to themselves this new heart. The first steps are to cast away all transgression, to repent of every sin, to forsake every evil and false way, and then enter upon a life of new obedience. Sinners must first cease to do evil, and then learn to do well. Neither must they be content with external obedience. They must withdraw their love, or undue attachment, from this vain world and set their affections on things above. As the new heart consists in new, right affections, and in those free, moral exercises which are agreeable to the will of God; therefore to form this, every sinner must abandon those desires and voluntary exercises of the mind, heart, and life which are wrong and forbidden, and enter upon those that are right and commanded by God. If anyone do this with a sincere desire after new and constant obedience, he will by the blessing of God have a new heart and a right spirit, and enjoy the evidence of it in his own breast. Lessons--
1. We infer the greatness, the urgency, and reasonableness of the work.
(1) The greatness and urgency of it appear from God’s requiring it at the hand of sinners on penalty of losing eternal life.
(2) God requires it also as a reasonable service. For it is every way reasonable in itself, that rational beings should turn the free, moral exercises of their minds and hearts toward their heavenly Father and Benefactor,--set their affections on those objects most worthy of their love, and walk in obedience to those commands which were designed for their greatest good.
2. If the making of a new heart consist principally in casting away all transgressions by sincere repentance, and entering upon a new life, then resolutions this way are the first steps to become really good, and ought to be constant exercises in order to continue so.
3. If the heart consist in free, moral exercises, as the Scriptures view it, then every man must be active in his own conversion, or regeneration, or in obtaining a meetness for the enjoyment of God.
4. We see on this view of the subject a constant call for active exertion, watchfulness, and circumspection, and also a foundation for that spiritual warfare represented by Paul.
5. No one has more moral goodness, or holiness, than he has good, or holy, exercises.
6. The work of becoming and continuing good both in heart and life lies with every one of you to perform for yourselves under the assistance and grace of God. (Pitt Clarke.)
Conversion a radical and entire change
Manton says: “A wolf may be scared from his prey, but yet he keepeth his preying and devouring nature.” He has not lost his taste for lambs, though he was obliged to drop the one which he had seized. So a sinner may forego his beloved lust, and yet remain as truly a sinner as before. He gives up the drink for fear of losing his situation, or dying of disease, but he would be at his liquor again if he dared. The fear of hell whips him off some favourite vice, and yet his heart pines for it, and in imagination he gloats over it. While this is the case, the man in the sight of God is as his heart is: the muzzled wolf is still a wolf, the silenced swearer is still profane in heart, the lewd thinker is still an adulterer. Something is done when a wolf is scared or a transgressor driven out of his evil ways, yet nothing is done which will effectually change the wolf or renew the ungodly heart. A frightened sinner is a sinner still. Like the frightened dog, he will return to his vomit; and like the sow that was washed, he will wallow in the mire again as soon as opportunity offers. “Ye must be born again”:--this is the only effectual cure for sin. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Why will ye die, O house of Israel?--
Expostulation with the impenitent
I. Several important truths are here taken for granted.
1. That all unrepenting sinners will assuredly die.
2. That God is extremely reluctant to execute the fatal sentence.
3. That sinners may yet, if they will, escape eternal death.
II. Why will ye die?
1. Is it because you seriously believe that the pleasures of sin, with death at the end of them, are better than holiness, with heaven for its reward?
2. Is it because you have satisfied yourself that the warnings of the Bible are without foundation? that there is, in reality, no death of the soul hereafter, no hell for the ungodly, no heaven for the righteous?
3. Is it because, while you profess to believe the Bible, you still inconsistently doubt whether sin will end in everlasting death?
4. Is it because there are in the world multitudes as careless, or as wicked, as yourself; and you think it impossible that so many should all be in the way to destruction? In answer to this reason, let us ask ourselves, What is all the world to us in this matter? God speaks to us individually.
5. Is it because death and judgment seem to be far off; and therefore, although you do not wish to perish, yet you suppose it is time enough yet to turn and repent? If so, I must plainly tell you that you are, to all intents and purposes, choosing eternal death. You have no real intention to turn to God at a future day: you do but deceive your own soul. (J. Jowett, M. A.)
Why will ye die
I. We are not settled in our religious faith. We do not know whether the Bible is true or not. We do not know whether Christ is God or not. Are you, in the passage of the years, getting any nearer a decision? Why do you not go into this subject, and go through it? If your child be sick, and you do not know whether it is just a common cold or the diphtheria, you pursue the doctor until you find out. Now, I do not blame you for not becoming Christians, but I do blame you for taking neither the one side nor the other. Through all these years you have been in a fog. You know the steamship Atlantic went on the rocks in a fog; you know that the Arctic and the Vesta struck in a fog; you know that only a little while ago the steamship Schiller went down with nearly all on board in a fog; and it is amid the same kind of circumstances that some of you are going to shipwreck. Did Darwin, or Tyndall, or Herbert Spencer ever help a man to die? When the surges of death rise mountain high, would you rather be in this staunch frigate of the Gospel--a frigate of ten thousand tons--or in the leaky yawl of scepticism?
II. Another reason why men do not come into the kingdom of Christ is because they are of the opinion that the present is of more importance than the future. I have noticed that everything depends upon the standpoint you take when you look at everything. We stand so deep down in the “now” that we cannot see into the great “hereafter.” If we could stand between the two worlds, and look that way and this way, then we might make a more intelligent comparison as to the value of these two worlds--this and the next. In other words: the farthest on we can get in this life--yea, the very last point of our earthly existence--will be the best point in which to estimate the value of these two worlds. And so I call upon all the dying population of Christendom, I call upon all the thousands who are now departing this life and I ask them to give testimony in this matter. They say: “My head on this wet pillow, I look one way and I look the other way. I see Time: I see Eternity. How brief the one: how long the other. I never saw it so before. Hand-breadths against leagues. Seconds against cycles. I put my wasted and trembling hand--my left hand--on the world that I am leaving, and I put my wasted and trembling hand--my right hand--on the world that I am entering, and for the first time I see how small is the one and how vast is the other.”
III. Another reason why men do not accept the Lord Jesus Christ and become Christian, is because they are of the opinion that the matters of the soul are not urgent, pressing, and imminent. They have their reception day. They say: “Let Business enter.” Business enters, is interviewed, passes out. They say: “Let Pleasure enter.” Pleasure enters, is interviewed, passes out. They say: “Let Worldly Knowledge enter.” Worldly Knowledge enters, is interviewed, passes out. After thirty or forty years, they say: “Let Religion enter” And they look; but religion has got tired of waiting, and is gone. That queen of heaven, standing in the ante-chamber of the heart, ought to have been received first. Her first tap on the door ought to have brought the response, “Come in--come in.” (T. De Witt Talmage.)
The needlessness of man’s ruin
The question implies:
1. That man is made to act from reason.
2. That man is amenable to his Maker for the reasons that influence him.
3. That notwithstanding man’s rational and responsible nature, he is pursuing a course of self-destruction.
I. The decrees of God do not render your ruin necessary. But does not Paul teach that God makes vessels for dishonour as well as vessels for honour? No. All that he avers is, that He could do so. And it is to the glory of God’s benevolence to assert, that whilst He could make and organise creatures for misery, He has never done so. Let the naturalist search through all the endless species of animal life, let him take the microscope, and let him find one single creature amongst the smallest, and say, This little creature was evidently made to suffer, was organised for misery--is a vessel built for dishonour. No, God could, but He does not.
II. Your sinful condition does not render your ruin necessary. Why is this? Because the Gospel makes provision for you in your present state. There lies a man on the bed of suffering. A malignant and painful disease has done its work on his constitution; in a few hours, unless some remedy come, he must breathe his last. A skilful physician enters the room; he has in his hand a little medicine, which if taken will inevitably restore him. It is offered to him, pressed on him, and he has yet power to take it. Need that man die? If he refuse the remedy he must die, but since the remedy is offered, and he has the power to take it, his death is needless. It is thus with the sinner, he is infected with the malady of sin, he is on the margin of death; but here is the remedy, the Great Physician of Souls is at his side, offering an infallible antidote.
III. The external circumstances in which you are placed do not render your ruin necessary. Bad thoughts may be conveyed to your mind, bad impressions made on your hearts, but they need not harm you; you have a power to transmute them into spiritual nourishment. Remember that some of the most eminent saints that ever lived have been amongst most trying and tempting circumstances. Remember that the more trying your circumstances may be, the more corrupt the society in which you live, the more need there is for you to carry out noble principles.
IV. The condition on which salvation is offered does not render your ruin necessary. “He that believeth shall be saved,”--“He that believeth hath everlasting life.” Now, belief as an act is one of the most simple. It is as natural to believe an evident truth as it is to see. Moreover, man has a strong propensity to believe. His credulity is his curse. It is this that has given to the world those monstrous systems of error under which it has been groaning for ages. But what must we believe in order to be saved? If it be responded, The facts of the Gospel, I ask, Are there any facts attested by clearer or more potent evidence? Or, if it be said, The principles of the Gospel, then we declare that those principles are moral axioms, and recommend themselves to the intuitions and felt necessities of the human soul. Or, should it be replied, It is faith in the Author of the Gospel--the living, loving, personal Christ--then we ask, What character is so adapted to enlist your faith and inspire your confidence? (Homilist.)
Voluntary sin and self-destruction
I. What death is here intended?
1. It is not the dissolution of the body; that is not the death here referred to, for how manifest it is that it is not subject to the will of man!
2. It is the ruin of the soul, or the inheritance of everlasting woe.
II. Impenitent men die this death.
1. The Scriptures in the strongest manner assert that “except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
2. The Scriptures go further, and represent impenitent men as determined upon this death. When the voice of Calvary speaks out in tenderness and love, when that voice comes forth from every wound and is heard in every groan of our dying Lord, calling on them, “Turn ye, turn ye, why will ye die?”--if the sinner still travels onward, and turns not at the voice of mercy, is there no wilfulness in it?
3. They form a character for perdition, knowing that none other than a holy character can possibly fit them for heaven.
III. Upon what principle do they act in thus conducting themselves?
1. It is not because God delights in the death of a sinner. Do you think the father has any pleasure in the act by which he discards his incorrigible son; the son with whom he has reasoned, and wept, and prayed; the son before whom he has spread all the evils of his conduct, and the inevitable ruin to which it must bring him?
2. It is not because of any difficulty on the part of God. There was a difficulty, and there is a controversy now between you and God; but then that controversy may be settled; and through the blood of Jesus Christ the difficulty is removed out of the way to enable you to return.
3. It is not because there is any difficulty in the revelation of the salvation of God, or in the atonement for sin. The Bible is represented as a lamp to our feet; like the sun, it shines on our path, so that the guilty sinner may, from the Word of God, from the fulness and completeness of the revelation, see with perfect distinctness the way in which a sinner may again be brought from his wanderings and received into the favour of God. Nor is there any deficiency in the atonement.
4. It is not because sufficient pains have not been taken with man. Were there no pains taken on the part of God to save men from going down to perdition when He gave up His own Son to die for them? Again, has not the Son of God taken pains, in leaving the glory which He had with the Father, and coming down, down into the degradation of taking our nature upon Him? Did Jesus Christ take no pains for your salvation?--He who, when on earth, was a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Then has the Holy Ghost taken no pains in inspiring holy men to write this wonderful Book, in striving with you, in following you up year after year, in meeting you in the house of God, in meeting you in the way that you go and in your business, in striking solemn thoughts upon your mind, and arresting your attention, and causing you to think of death, and of judgment, and of eternity?
5. If you die this death it will not be because God’s commands are unreasonable. They are, Repent, believe in His Son, and live a holy life. Is it unreasonable that God should call on the sinner to stop in a single moment; that he should not take another step in the wrong way?
6. It is not because the will of the sinner is forced or constrained that he therefore dies. Did you ever do anything in your life against your will? Is it possible for you to do anything contrary to your own will? I do not ask you whether you have done anything contrary to your feelings, anything different from what you liked; but whether you have done what was contrary to your own will? If the sinner then is not constrained, if we act according to our own wishes, and make up our own minds, then how true is the position I have taken, that men die this death, because they will die it! What would you say of a man who should set out from London, saying he intended to go to Birmingham, and with a distinct knowledge of the geography of the country, should take his seat on a coach that was going to Dover? And what, if when he was told by the coachman again and again, “This road leads to Dover, and every mile brings us nearer and nearer to Dover”--what would you think of him if he said, “Well, I hope before I arrive there, somehow or other, to be brought to Birmingham”? You would say that the man was not acting according to good sense, and you would say right. Well, what is the condition of the sinner? What is his conduct? He is travelling wilfully along a road which he knows will not lead him to heaven. And this is the language which God addresses to him, “Why will ye die?” Why do you go the wrong road?
(1) Is it brave? It may be foolhardy, but it is not brave.
(2) Is it right to do so? You know in your conscience it is not.
(3) Is it good to act thus? Is it good to throw away the soul that can live beyond the stars? Is it good to turn your back on all the means of grace and to throw heaven away? (J. Patten.)
Why will ye die
Imagine yourselves amidst Alpine scenery. Yonder is a broad road which leads to the edge of a precipice--the precipice overhangs a deep dark gulf. Out of the broad road there is a path--a narrow path winding about among the rocks--difficult of ascent, but terminating in a region of Eden-like beauty. A band of travellers, thoughtless and light-hearted, are pressing along the highway, and nearing the edge of the abyss. There are barriers set up--there are beacons raised--there are warnings given--there are guides close by earnestly advising them to turn aside, and climb up the narrow footpath. But while a few are persuaded to do so, the multitude, in spite of all which is done to prevent it, press onwards and reach the edge, and fall over, one by one, into the yawning depth--and even their ruin does not suffice to warn their followers. The rest rush to the awful margin, and sink into that enormous grave! You say this is unparalleled folly. No, not unparalleled. Folly equal--nay, greater--is commonly displayed by the children of men.
I. The nature of your ruin.
1. It is the death of pleasure--the end of all delight--the putting out of the last taper of enjoyment, so that nothing is left but deep, dense darkness--the quenching of all those vain joys (the only joys the ungodly can ever know of) which are likened in Scripture to the crackling of thorns under the pot.
2. It is the death of hope. Everlasting punishment! It cannot mean that after a while the soul, cleansed by penal fires, shall recover its purity. It cannot mean that out of the depths of hell it shall mount up to heaven.
3. It is the death of love. “Hateful and hating one another,” are words which will apply more emphatically to the future than the present state of sinners--that is the most tremendous condition to which creatures can be reduced. To that depth of wretchedness unsaved sinners will be hereafter reduced.
4. It involves exclusion from heaven, from that world of which Scripture gives us such bright and attractive visions: from “our Father’s house”; from “the city of habitation”; from “the temple of God and the Lamb”; from “paradise”; from “the tree, and from the fountain of life”; from those regions where “there is no curse--neither shall there be any more pain.”
5. It involves exclusion from the society of the really great and good, God’s true nobility, “the innumerable company of angels”; the great cloud of witnesses; “the church of the first-born whose names are written in heaven”; “the spirits of the just made perfect”; “the glorious company, of the apostles, the goodly fellowship of the prophets, the noble army of martyrs.”
6. It involves exclusion from the Father of an infinite Majesty”; “from His holy, true, and everlasting Son”; “the King of glory”; “also the Holy Ghost the Comforter”; “Depart from Me.”
II. The author of your ruin. The fact of the sinner’s self-destruction is apparent from--
1. The character of God. He is a God of truth and justice. Would this be true if the final destruction of the sinner depended not on himself, but was the result of an arbitrary and irresistible decree? if immortal souls were the helpless and hapless victims of an iron-handed destiny? But God is merciful as well as just. To suppose after this that any man’s eternal destruction does not lie at his own door--but is the consequence of the Divine will arbitrarily exercised is monstrous.
2. The character of the Gospel. Look at the Babe of Bethlehem, and the Man of Sorrows--at Him who wept over Jerusalem--at the agonised Sufferer in the Garden--at the Crucified One.
3. The character of man. There is a conscience in man. Conscience would have no meaning if man were not free, if his actions were not free, his determinations free, his thoughts free.
4. The character of his future condition. That condition will be a condition of punishment. What does punishment imply? Guilt. The righteous may be oppressed, afflicted, persecuted, but they cannot be punished; only the guilty can be punished. That which God calls punishment, which the Bible calls punishment, must come as the fruit of sin, the offspring of guilt. Therefore, the sinner must incur it himself.
III. The reason of your ruin. Most of you, in reply to the question of the text--Why will ye die?--would have to say, Because we love the pleasures of the world more than the joys of eternal life; because we desire the approbation of men more than the honour that cometh from God; because we covet the possession of earth more than the inheritance of heaven; because we are addicted to the ways of sin, and are not disposed to break off our evil habits; because we have been living in impenitence and unbelief, and have no mind to change our course. Thus you destroy yourselves for the sake of the world, for the sake of sin. The guilt, folly, shame, and ignominy of the suicide belong to you. To destroy oneself is considered so monstrous an act that the man who commits it is generally pronounced insane. When not insane, when the case is brought in felo de se, the miserable mortal is treated even in death as an outlaw, and his remains are cast forth with every circumstance of dishonour and disgrace, as no longer within the pale of humanity. In the great inquest of the Last Day, the finally impenitent will come under a verdict of wilful insanity; will be regarded as having acted the part of the madman, with all the culpability of the voluntary self-assassin, and will therefore be cast beyond the bounds of the holy city, flung into the pit of Gehenna, to mingle with the refuse of the universe. (John Stoughton.)
I. The nature of eternal death.
1. A state of conscious existence.
2. A state of deprivation.
3. A state of hideousness.
II. The question proposed.
1. There is no necessity for it in the nature of God.
2. There is no necessity in the will of man.
3. There is no necessity on account of our circumstances. (W. W. Whythe.)
Why will ye die
I. What is this word with which my text ends? for upon that the whole stress of the matter evidently depends: “Why will ye die?” You have bent over the dying, or over the dead; you have watched that face, which used to speak to you with such meaning, gathering blankness and darkness; you have seen those eyes, which once sparkled upon you with intelligence, become glazed, and dead, and fixed. That is death. We all know what it is; but whose death is that? What are the first words they speak when it is all over--when the blankness and nothingness have succeeded to anxiety? “He is gone!” Those are the words: “He is gone!” Then it was not he that died! It was something belonging to him which underwent a change; but it was not the man that died. That affected the body; but it did not affect the person. We do not say that when a brute dies beneath our eyes; we do not attribute to a brute that sort of doubleness--that he should be in one place, and the carcass in another; and therefore, when this text says, “Why will ye die?” it does not allude to the death of the body--it does not allude to that of which I have just been speaking; but I have been speaking of that that I might take it for an example--that I might take it for a guide to that more mysterious and less well-known thing to which the text does allude. We have already spoken of this person, this personality, this he, this I, this you, which does not die upon the bed of death, which is not crushed by the power of the accident, which remains and exists on. Now what is this? We never consider the brute creature, the poor dumb animal, as we express it, responsible; we do not consider that he, or it, rather, can give an account; we do not consider, in any proper sense of the word, that it can do right, or can do wrong. But the moment you get to a human body, whether that human body is man, woman, or child, if that human body is only in possession of reason and of sense, you cannot divest yourself of that idea of responsibility If he does right--I am not saying now whether he is right or wrong in this which follows, but--there is a certain sort of self-congratulation follows upon it, and he knows he has done right. If he does wrong, supposing him to be an ordinary man, and not absolutely, blinded by the power of habitual sin--if he does wrong in the common and broad acceptation of the word, his conscience in some measure accuses him.
II. Now, this may lead us to know and to feel, as indeed all mankind of sound mind have known and have felt, that this personality of which we speak is a lasting and enduring thing, which shaft give an account. You cannot deny it. Well, then, let us go back, if you please, to this bed of death, of which we spoke just now. Let us carry onward that scene a little further. Let us pass--it is a remarkable sentence of the greatest, of English preachers--“from the freshness and the fulness of the cheeks of childhood to the horror and loathsomeness of a three days burial.” And what do we see there? The body is broken up; it is become a seething mass of foul and degraded and loathsome life--a life not its own--a life which did not belong to its beautiful and harmonious construction. Its parts are gone, or are going, each to their way; the solid to the dust of the earth, the liquid to the mighty ocean. It is dispersed; it is passed away. “It is sown a corruptible body.” It is sown in shame and in contempt. Though it was, perhaps, the dearest of things on earth to us a few days ago, we have put it out of our way; we have buried our dead out of our sight. And that is the death of the body. Now, is there not something very analogous to that--I mean very like it, something which follows the same rules--in the death of man’s immortal spirit? But what is the death of the spirit? Can you not easily conceive it? Is it not obvious to the simplest of our thoughts, that the spirit of man may, and, alas! does, fall into disharmony with all these its powers, just like the beautiful organs of the body may fall out with one another; that the spirit may present, in its way and in its condition, something like the terrible and loathsome scene which we just now witnessed with regard to the body after death? But then, notice all this remarkable difference. The body, as I have said, falls asunder; God shall build it up again. For the present it perishes; but there can be no cessation, there can be no syncope, in the life of the spirit; the spirit must live on, in the midst of this death--must exist on, perhaps I should rather say, and for this night keep the word “living” and the word “life” to their glorious and more proper meaning. The spirit exists on, then, divided against itself; miserable, and in discord; all its powers wasted, all its energies spent in self-remorse.
III. Now comes another most important point to our present consideration, and it is this--how came about this death? What has it to do with man’s will? Now, these at first sight are very difficult questions, and they are questions with which it would have been utterly impossible for us to deal had not the Holy Spirit been given to us to enable us to deal with them. “God created man upright.” He created him to follow out the intention of his spirit gifted with judgment and the body; of both of which we have been now speaking. But God did not bind him to his liberty in this way, and to his joy, and to his ultimate end, of reaching after and getting to glory hereafter. He left him free; and this is one of the greatest dignities with which our nature was gifted of God--that it was not made like any tribe of the brute creation, always to run in the same channel, to be incapable of advance or improvement; but it was made free to stand and free to fall. What lay before it was an object of adoration, reverence, and obedience; and with temptation before it, and God’s grace ready to help, man was then put into a state of trial, and man fell. Death came into the world by sin. Sin shifted the centre of man’s soul. Before, he could have gone on revolving round that centre in beautiful obedience; after sin, he has become, in the technical sense of the word, eccentric. He now revolves no longer round God, his proper centre, but he has sought an orbit of his own, and this leads him into disarrangement and disagreement, and all those things of which we have been speaking, as ending and issuing in the death of the soul. Well, then, you will say to me, if this is the case, what has the will of God to do with it? How can this be said to us, and how can God plead with us in the text, “Why will ye die?” If death came into the world by sin, if the death of the body is the result of sin--a result which neither you nor I nor anyone can avoid--how can it be said of the death of the soul, “Why will ye die?” Is not that a necessary result of sin too? Now we are come to the point, you see, of these words having been necessarily spoken, and the whole truth of this chapter necessarily written to a people in covenant with God. God has provided a way out of this death. It has pleased Him not to provide any way out of natural, corporeal, bodily death. “If Christ be in you,” says the apostle, “the body is dead because of sin, but the spirit is life, because of righteousness.” There is just the distinction. God has bound upon us all death according to the flesh; but He has not bound upon us all death according to the spirit, although it is our own state by nature, out of which we must be helped, if we are to get out of it at all, and that help He has graciously given us. Christ died that we might live; He lives that we might live forever. He has become the head of our nature; He has become to us the source of grace and of help, the help of the Holy Spirit of God, to overcome our evil dispositions, to help us to regulate our tempers, to glorify and adorn Him in our station in life, to be better men, better fathers, better husbands, better brothers and sisters, better citizens, better in everything than we were before.
IV. What is the life of the spirit? Wherever you live in this world, and about whatever you are employed in this world, there is a life put in the power of the spirit of this kind; there is no situation in life that excludes from it. You must seek it, in fact, in your ordinary occupations. There is the first thing. God will be found of each one of us in the path of life that He marks out for us. He gives us, it is most true--and blessed be His name for it!--He gives us such days as this, when we can assemble together to hear of these things; but He does not give us the invitation to come, and draw near, and live on this day only. He gives us, again, times of sorrow, times of solemn thought, times of bereavement; and I believe that when we get to the other side of the water, and look back upon the map of our present course, we shall see that these were our green places, and these were our still waters of comfort, and these were our recallings to Him. But these are not the only times when He calls us. Every day, and all day long, He is calling us. The mechanic who lifts his arm to do his ordinary work--in every lifting of that arm is God pleading, “Why wilt thou die?” The man who goes forth to his daily labour by the light of His glorious sun - every beam that is shed upon him pleads with him, Why wilt thou die?” The man who lies down to sleep at night, wherever he be--his preservation in those hours of slumber--the sweet rest that he obtains--is but another pleading with him, “Why wilt thou die?” And so we might go on through all the common pathways of ordinary life, grimed as they are with labour, looked down upon as mean, and considered by some as having nothing to do with this matter, and we might show you that they are all means of grace. Now, it needs very little reminding of mine to go on with such considerations as these, and to say that this life of your spirit consists, in the very first place, in the continual recognition of God by you. God must be the centre round whom your spirits are to revolve in the ordinary orbit of life. You must look at His will; that will must be a guide to you. You must look at His word; that word must be a lamp to your feet, and a light to your paths. (Dean Alford.)
The Divine compassion for sinners
The text is brief but comprehensive, and most affecting; and the question which it contains is strikingly illustrative of the tenderness and compassion of Him who condescends in mercy to ask it. Surely there is in it something which ought to excite our admiration of Divine condescension, and to call forth from our hearts songs of grateful and adoring praise.
I. “Why will ye die?” Is it because you have concluded that God the Father is unwilling to save you? Who is this lying in Gethsemane’s garden prostrate on the ground, whose sweat is, as it were, great drops of blood? It is the Son of God. And who is that crucified on the heights of Calvary, “whose long reiterated cry bespeaks His soul’s deep agony”? Who can the Sufferer be, when the sun refuses to behold His dying torment, and the rocks are rent, and the graves give up their dead, and earth is convulsed to its inmost centre? It is the Son of God! What stronger or more affecting pledge could He have given of His love to sinners, and of His desire to rescue them from death and hell, than when, in order to deliver them, He poured the vials of His wrath on the head of His only, His beloved, His eternal Son? Can you steel your hearts against such tenderness? Can you still live without God, without hope, without prayer, without concern about your souls, though they must very soon enter the world of spirits and eternity--share either the bliss of that house with many mansions, or the unutterable woe of the damned in hell? Can you any longer resist the Father’s merciful inquiry, “Why will ye die?”
II. Is not Jesus an almighty Saviour, the very Saviour whom you need? You have nothing to bring to God as the procuring price of your forgiveness. If this were the case, we would pronounce your condition hopeless. But the ground of pardon and acceptance is the active and passive obedience, the doing and dying of the Son of God. He is revealed to you as the very Saviour who can meet all the exigencies of your case, who has a fulness of merit to justify and of grace to sanctify. Why, then, will ye die? The burden of your guilt may be very heavy, but it is not too heavy for the hand of an Almighty Saviour to take it off, for He has an arm that is full of strength. Your stains may be very dark and very deep, but not too deep for the blood of the Lamb to remove them, and to make you whiter than the snow. Your fetters may be very strong and very tightly bound, but not too tightly to prevent Emmanuel from executing the very purpose of His mission and death, in setting the lawful captive free. Your disease may be deeply seated, it may be very inveterate, but not too inveterate to yield to the healing virtue of the Balm in Gilead, and the restoring skill of the Physician there.
III. Are ye not most cordially invited to come to Christ and live? Is degrading vassalage a feature of your natural state--are you naturally led captive of Satan at his will? Then are you invited to take the remedy and live, for it is written, “Turn to the stronghold, ye prisoners of hope, for even today do I declare that I will render to you double.” Is pollution and depravity a feature in your case? Then are you invited to take the remedy and live, for it is written, “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean; from all your filthiness and from all your idols will I cleanse you.” Is it a feature in your case that you are burdened with a load of guilt, and ready to sink beneath its pressure down to the lowest hell? Then are ye invited to take the remedy and live, for it is written, “Come unto Me all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Are poverty, and nakedness, and blindness features in your case? Then are ye invited to take the remedy and live, for again it is written, “I counsel thee to buy of Me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eye-salve, that thou mayest see.” Poor sinners! Is it a feature in your case that through grace you are willing to be saved? Then are ye invited to take the remedy and live, for it is written, “Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.” Why then will ye die?
IV. Does not the Spirit, by His common operations, strive with you to induce you to close with the offered Saviour and live? Have you never had momentary convictions at least that all was not right with you; that your religion was but a cold, heartless, dead profession, and that your hopes (if hopes you at all entertained), instead of being based on the immovable foundation laid in Zion, were like the spider’s web, at the mercy of every wind that blows? The Spirit was then striving with you, although you grieved and quenched Him. Perhaps He is striving with you at this moment. We implore you, resist not His operations--stifle not the convictions He imparts--grieve Him not away, for each time that you quench the Spirit is just a step in advance towards the commission of that sin which is never forgiven.
V. Are ye, after mature deliberation, finally and firmly resolved to reject all that can make you happy and to court all that can make you miserable? Eternal Spirit! draw nigh in preventing grace, touch and soften every heart, that all may listen to the affecting question, Why will ye die? (A. Leslie.)
A Divine appeal
I. Why will ye die?
1. For death is so awful; not the extinction of thought, feeling, memory. Rich man in hell (Luke 16:1-31). Loss of all happiness; hope. Exclusion from God and all that is pure and holy; dwelling in the place prepared for the devil and his angels.
2. How life is provided (Joh 3:16; 1 John 5:11; John 10:10). Deliverance from condemnation; freedom from the power of sin; holiness now, blessedness forever.
II. Why will ye die?
1. For you are surrounded by Gospel privileges.
2. For your punishment will be the more severe (Matthew 11:21; Luke 12:47-48; Matthew 23:14).
III. Why will ye die Whoever is lost wills it. If otherwise, God’s character is tarnished. The Gospel is a delusion. Man is incapable of guilt--remorse (John 5:40; Ezekiel 18:32; Deuteronomy 30:19).
IV. Why will ye die?
1. Because they love their sins better than their souls.
2. Because they will not give time to the serious consideration of these things.
3. Because they refuse to believe in any danger. (Homilist.)
I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth.
The mercy of God
I. The benevolence of God’s own character. He who is love, and who delights therefore only in happiness, being at the same time a holy and just Governor, must no doubt punish sin, and punish it severely; but never can He punish for the sake merely of giving pain, nor can He ever find any pleasure in the death of him that dieth, viewed in itself and apart from the reasons why it takes place.
II. The arrangements He made with man in his original state of innocence. The native immortality of man’s first constitution, the high capacity of enjoyment with which he was endued, the inexhaustible sources of entertainment presented to him in a world every part of which was very good; and then the beautiful garden itself, still more rich and highly decorated than the smiling world around it, and placed under man’s care, that in keeping and dressing it he might be the more happy; these, and other such arrangements, surely indicated anything but a disposition to take pleasure in the death of him that dieth. Or, look at the subsequent arrangements made with Adam, and in him with ourselves, who shall say that the agreement was a hard one?
III. The utter detestation in which Jehovah holds sin, the cause of death. Properly, this is the one thing which He detests. Hence, it is described in His word as that abominable thing which He hates. And among the reasons why He so abhors sin, this is one of the first--that it is the enemy of all happiness, the source of all misery.
IV. The method of recovering us from sin which God has adopted. You here find Him doing everything to preserve men from death. But what is still more remarkable, after they had disregarded all these precautions of Divine love, and fallen by their iniquity, you next find Jehovah making arrangements for their recovery from death. And then such arrangements!
V. The various and suitable means employed to bring us to the acceptance of the Saviour thus provided for us. First of all, He puts the Gospel on record, by the instrumentality of men guided in doing so by His own Spirit. There we read of our degradation and ruin by sin, that we may know our disease; and of the eminent skill and qualifications of the Physician, that we may be induced to make application to Him for the remedy of His blood and grace. And then, lest all this should fail of taking our attention and impressing our conscience, we are warned, in the most impressive manner of our approaching destruction; and we are argued with--we are encouraged--we are invited--we are entreated--to flee for refuge, to lay hold on the hope set before us.
VI. The work of rendering all these means effectual He puts into the hands of His own Spirit. Jehovah knew too well the obstinacy of the hearts He would have to deal with, to hope for the repentance of a single sinner without providing in this way for the regeneration of his soul by a Divine operation. Such a change manifestly requires an exertion of Divine power as truly as resurrection or creation can do in their more common signification. Great, however, as this work is, its accomplishment is every way secured by the appointment of the Holy Ghost to the office. (P. Hannay.)
Divine sorrow over the impenitent
I. It is painful to see such noble affections misplaced. The spirit that is in man was created capable of loving its Creator, with all the subjects of His kingdom, His law, His Gospel, and His service. Now, can any suppose that the blessed God has pleasure in seeing such noble affections misplaced? Is it not more in accordance with all we know of the Father of the Spirits to infer that He would rather fill capacities like these with His own immensity? and that He would delight in making happy souls so originally great and holy?
II. Such great expectations disappointed. The sinner on whom we have fixed our eye was born, perhaps, a child of promise. Over his very cradle his parents planned his future course, and indulged the fondest hopes of his future distinction, usefulness, and piety. He was, it may be supposed, the child of many prayers and of high expectations. Oh, how dreadful to see such hopes withered, such reasonable expectations nipped and destroyed by the frost of the second death! How can there be in such an object anything that can fill the heart of God with pleasure? Were it the seat of malevolence instead of mercy, it could hardly fail to weep over such costly ruins.
III. The fact will more clearly appear, when we see in the lost sinner such useful talents wasted and ruined. The theme is painful--and let us touch it tenderly. Think, then, of some great man now in torment. While on earth he could exhibit amazing enterprise. He could count the stars and measure the diameter and distance of every planet. He could conceive noble schemes, and trace, by the force of his intellect, every project to its final close. But like the infidels, Hume, Voltaire, Bolingbroke, Hobbes, and many others, he hated the Son of God. Ah! if these men had been as good as they were great, how useful they might have been. But their gigantic minds were their bane and curse. The greatness that might have made them happy has made them miserable. What a loss to all heaven! If any government should be under the necessity of imprisoning for life its loftiest geniuses, would not the loss be an injury to the nation? Would it not be felt and deplored by every loyal subject and true patriot? How then can we for a moment suppose that the God of love and mercy can have any pleasure in the death of him that dieth? Inferences--
1. God will not consign any to perdition who do not oblige Him to do so. Judgment is His strange work.
2. We see hence why the blessed God bears so long with the disobedient and wicked. He abhors the work of destruction, and would not that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.
3. There must be something very odious in sin, since even the Father of mercies will not spare from death the guilty, though He is loath to destroy. (D. A. Clark.)
The death of sinners not pleasing to God
I. What is here to be understood by men’s dying. Scripture mentions three kinds of death: temporal death, spiritual death, and eternal death. Temporal death is the dissolution of the connection between the soul and body. Spiritual death is the total corruption or depravity of the heart. Eternal death is complete and endless misery in a future state. Temporal death is a common calamity, which none can escape. “By one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.” Spiritual death is as universal as temporal. By nature all men are dead in trespasses and sins, and under the entire dominion of an evil heart. But eternal death is peculiar to the finally impenitent. Neither temporal nor spiritual death is an adequate punishment for sin; but eternal death, or everlasting misery, is a just and proper reward for final impenitence and unbelief. And this is what God threatens.
II. God is really unwilling that any of mankind should suffer eternal death. This appears--
1. From the plain and positive declarations concerning the final state of impenitent sinners, which are everywhere to be found in His word.
2. By the pure, disinterested, and universal benevolence of His nature.
III. God sincerely desires that all should be saved.
1. If God be unwilling that any should die, then He must desire that all may live. He cannot be altogether indifferent about the happiness or misery of His rational add immortal creatures.
2. That God desires that all may escape misery and enjoy happiness in a future state, clearly appears from His providing a Saviour for all.
3. It appears from the invitations which God makes to sinners in the Gospel, that He desires all should be saved. These invitations are universal, and extend to all sinners of every age, character, and condition, who are capable of understanding them.
4. It further appears that God sincerely desires the salvation of all men, from His commanding all to embrace the Gospel and live. He never commands anything but what is agreeable to Him in its own nature.
5. The patience and forbearance of God towards sinners is a very clear and convincing evidence that He greatly desires that they should be saved rather than destroyed.
1. If God be so far from being willing that any of mankind should be lost that He sincerely desires that all should be saved, then He always did and always will feel as much benevolence towards those who are lost as towards those who are saved.
2. If God is so far from being willing that any of mankind should be lost that He sincerely desires that all should be saved, then it is easy to see how His love of benevolence towards them should be entirely consistent with His hatred of them. The more holy He is, the more He must hate sin. The more benevolent He is, the more He must hate selfishness. The more He loves the happiness of sinners, the more He must hate them for destroying it. The more He loves the good of their fellow men, the more He must hate them for opposing it. And the more He loves His own great and amiable character, the more He must hate His malignant and mortal enemies.
3. If God’s benevolence to sinners is consistent with His hating them, then it is consistent with His punishing them forever.
4. If God is so far from being willing that any of mankind should be lost that He sincerely desires that all should be saved, then He will do as much to save all as He can do, consistently with His benevolence. And with respect to those whose future and eternal happiness the good of the universe does not require, but forbids, they themselves will be fully convinced that God did as much for them as He could consistently do, and that their own negligence and obstinacy were the only faulty causes of their own ruin. They will have to blame themselves, that when God put a price into their hands to get wisdom and obtain life, they had no heart to do it, but chose death rather than life.
5. If God acts from the same benevolent motives in loving and in punishing finally impenitent sinners, then saints will forever love and praise Him for all His conduct towards those guilty and miserable objects.
6. It appears from what has been said about God’s willingness and desire that sinners might be saved, that they are extremely unwilling to be saved. They had rather die than live; they choose eternal death rather than eternal life.
7. We learn the astonishing grace of God in making any sinners willing to be saved. Renewing grace is, in the strictest sense, special, irresistible grace. It demonstrates that God is infinitely more willing to save sinners than they are to be saved. It is subduing their unwillingness, and making them willing in the day of His power to be saved. (N. Emmons, D. D.)
Wherefore turn yourselves, and live ye.
What must and can persons do towards their own conversion
“Turn yourselves!” We may ask, Is this the Christian doctrine of conversion? are we not taught to depend on a converting grace? Is not our helplessness in default of grace a commonplace of theologians and preachers? Well, is not that truth indicated by the Psalmist’s language about “the law of the Lord,” or the Lord Himself as “restoring the soul,” or by Elijah’s prayer on Carmel, “Hear me, that this people may know that Thou hast turned their heart back again,” and yet more touchingly, perhaps, by the prayer which Jeremiah puts into Ephraim’s mouth, “Turn Thou me, and I shall be turned”? When, in the light of such words, we read Ezekiel’s exhortation, we understand that when a penitent turns himself to God, he is in fact responding to a movement from God, and using a power which that movement has supplied. So it is that two elements concur in conversion: a Saul replies duteously to the remonstrance, “Why persecutest thou Me?” an Augustine, having “taken up and read” the Pauline summary of a Christian’s moral obligations, surrenders his will absolutely to the practical requirements of the creed which his mind had become ready to accept. We all of us may hear, if we do not wilfully shut our ears, the voice which would draw us to the Christ of apostles and all saints; if we listen, we shall receive strength to obey. (Canon Bright.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Ezekiel 18". The Biblical Illustrator. https://studylight.org/
the Fourth Week after Epiphany