So then, I too was convinced that I ought to do all I could to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth.
The old notion that, as sin is committed against an infinite God, it must itself be an infinite evil, and that, therefore, all sins are equally heinous and offensive, is held no longer. Its logic is unsound, and our moral sense contradicts the theory. The fact is that the degrees of human guilt in the multitude of actions men perform, under a vast variety of conditions, are indefinitely numerous. Only the Omniscient can possibly discriminate and compute them. But there are some simple principles on which we may safely rely for our spiritual guidance. We judge -
I. THAT DELIBERATE AND DIRECT ANTAGONISM TO CHRIST IS THE GUILTIEST OF ALL POSITIONS. "Doing things contrary to... Jesus Christ," when these things are done by an agent who knows what he does, reaches the very summit of iniquity. "This is the condemnation, that light is come," etc. When men oppose themselves to Christian truth because" their deeds are evil," because "their craft is in danger," Because they hate the light which exposes their sin and robs them of their gains or their enjoyments, then they stand in the very front rank of criminality; they deliberately take up arms against their Maker; "They take counsel together, against the Lord, and against his Anointed, saying, Let us break their bands asunder," etc.; they say, "This is the Son; come, let us kill him," etc. Surely God will trouble these "with his sore displeasure" (Psalm 2:5).
II. THAT DELIBERATE NEUTRALITY IS A MOST SERIOUS SIN, When men refrain from taking an active part against the cause of Christ and his truth, doing "nothing contrary," etc., they shun the very worst possible thing. But when they attempt to take neutral ground, and either
(1) reject the claims which Christ makes on their personal subjection (Matthew 9:9; Matthew 11:28, 29, etc.), or
(2) refuse to render the help they can bring to his cause (Matthew 21:30; Matthew 25:18, etc.), then they fall into great condemnation, and must "bear their iniquity" (see Matthew 7:26, 27; Luke 13:25-28; Judges 5:23).
III. THAT IGNORANCE CHANGES THE CHARACTER AND MATERIALLY AFFECTS THE DEGREE OF GUILT. Clearly Paul was not so guilty in his acts of persecution as he would have been, had he not "thought that he ought to do many things contrary," etc. He himself tells us that this ignorance of his was a great mitigation of the sinfulness of his act (see 1 Timothy 1:13). Our Lord also gave his own Divine sanction to this truth when suffering the pangs of crucifixion (Luke 23:34).
1. Ignorance changes the character of the sin. What Paul was guilty of in those days was not the deliberate attempt to crush the work of a Divine Redeemer; he would have recoiled from so doing, had the act presented itself thus to his mind. His mistake, his condemnation, was that he had not fairly and impartially considered the claims of Jesus of Nazareth; that he had blindly assumed that his teachers were right, guiltily neglecting all the proofs which the Savior had given that he was the Messiah "that should come into the world."
2. It also greatly reduces its turpitude, not to have inquired as we should have done - this is wrong and blameworthy. But it is not so serious an offence, in the sight of God or of man, as willfully and wantonly to conspire against the Lord, and to seek to positively hinder the coming of his kingdom. It may rightly comfort those who, like Paul, have to look hack on offences which they have committed, when they can say, with him, "I verily thought," etc.; when it can be said to them, "Brethren, I vet that through ignorance ye did it" (Acts 3:17).
IV. THAT ONLY ABSOLUTE IGNORANCE EXONERATES FROM BLAME. It is conceivable that men may be so circumstanced that their ignorance is absolute, and therefore wholly faultless. In this case there is no guilt. But how seldom is it of this kind! Usually when we do "things contrary" to truth, righteousness, God, we might have known better if we had inquired more promptly or more purely. We may not excuse ourselves if we have kept out of our mind any light we might have admitted. We may apply this to
(1) the doctrines we are accepting;
(2) the leaders we are encouraging;
(3) the business we are conducting;
(4) the family we are training. - C.
I verily thought with myself that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 1.
Emerson verily thought with himself that every subject was to be brought before him for his individual approval or disapproval. In nearly the last sermon he ever preached, he said, that how plainly soever such an ordinance as the Eucharist might seem, to others, to have been appointed by Christ Himself, unless it commended itself to his own judgment, he should have nothing to do with it. Paul condemned Christianity because it did not commend itself to his private judgment. He went much farther, too, than the philosopher. He not only thought, but did many things "contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth." A formidable example this of the extreme lengths to which the mind will go, when it decides against Christianity, not by testimony from without, but by the impulses of corrupt and obstinate self-will within. Then it falters not before the most terrific issues. It will try to demolish Christianity, and if it cannot accomplish quite so much in an age like this, when Christianity has become incorporate with the framework of civil society, it will, nevertheless, do its utmost in levelling its doctrines to its own equality, and pronouncing upon them as if questions of mere expediency, subject to its arbitrary and final settlement. What a parallel to Paul's "havoc of the Church" is the havoc which a man's thinking with himself is making in that time-honoured system of the Faith which the Church Catholic, in "the ages all along," has upheld and sanctioned.
2. What cured Paul of his thinking for himself, and converted him into a believing and obedient Christian? His very first exclamation, after his restoration to moral soundness, furnishes the reply. He acted now in the spirit of that pledge which our Saviour made, when He said, "If any man will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God." A pledge this so natural, that it was at once assented to by an Indian. "He that is above," said Wesley to the Creek Indians, "will not teach you, unless you avoid that which you already know is not good." One of the Indians answered, "I believe that. He will not teach us while our hearts are not white." So then we must be content to receive the faith, as prepared for us by God's own hands, and not manufactured out of our inward light, our unassisted mental resources. Then we shall make the grand discovery about which multitudes now fail, that the soul, when she surrenders at discretion, and leans on God, and on God's providences to His Church, with a child's implicit trust, has a sustenance and support before undreamed of; and which reason, fretting for certainties, and often groping in the dark, or seeing as by the light of a tallow candle never can supply.
Conscience in your fallen state is as likely to be wrong as your clocks and watches, and you cannot be sure of the time of day unless you go to some infallible standard of time, so you cannot decide upon right and wrong by simple reference to your own convictions. It is not a full justification of your conduct to say your conscience approved what you did. What, my brother, is the state of your conscience? You know that even with the sundial you might take to it an artificial light, and throw from the gnomon upon the figures and lines a shadow that would not index the true time of day. And if your conscience act under the artificial light of the habits and customs of mankind, and not under the power of the light of God's light, it is no guide as to your duty. What is it that governs your conscience? Is it the will of God, or the will of man? If God do not control it, then it is no correct index of what you ought to do, or of what you ought not to do. "I thought," said Saul of Tarsus — "I thought that I ought to do many things contrary to Jesus of Nazareth." These were the things over which, in the course of a little time, he had most bitterly to mourn.
In one sense, there is nothing that will hold a man more snugly prisoner than his own thought will. We weave the silken threads of the cocoon that we call our theology, and when we get through we are on the inside of it, as neat a prisoner as ever slept in a gaol. Some men are small simply because their ideas are small, and have been on so long, and have been put on so tight that they have not been able to burst them. Ideas are dangerous things. The possibilities of the direst bondage are in them. Probably we cannot get along in our religious life without having some system of doctrine, but I wish we could. But the next thing to it is to hold our formulae of doctrinal opinion purely as a provisional arrangement. When! say hold them as a provisional arrangement, I mean hold them just as we do the rounds of a ladder, clinging to each succeeding round only as something that will help to brace us for a new pull upward. What we want to say frankly and appreciate intensely, is that we have reached no finality in these things. And there will be no finality before eternity's sundown. But it is retorted upon me that this is to deny the tenability, and even the respectability, of any doctrinal position that any man under any circumstances can hold. Not a bit of it. A man trusts his sincere convictions, and he is bound to do so, but he is bound to trust them just exactly as in mountain climbing I put confidence in the rock that I plant my foot upon, trusting to it, trusting my whole weight to it, as something that will hold me steady till I have time to get my ice axe thrust so securely into a crevice in the overhanging cliff that I shall be able to draw myself up another length, and then plant my foot on some more rock. Now that is constructive. There is no suggestion of the negative about it. It is the only constructive theology there is. It is the only live theology. All other is either wired skeleton or stuffed skin; at any rate, a curiosity for the museum, rather than living ingredient in a live Church. That is not saying that, as expansive Christian thinkers, we are obliged to abrogate every old form and phraseology of doctrine. That would be neither sense nor Scripture. In order to be a live man you do not have to put on a new body every time you get up. But you live and enlarge, because, although your body may be old, it is the theatre of an expansive life that wins a new increment of fulness from the very morning that you wake up under. In order to have a live tree, you are not obliged to put in a new trunk every time it blossoms or unpacks a fresh leaf. The old trunk may be good enough, but the old trunk with fresh life poured into it till it rungs over and the drippings crystallise into verdure and flowers. The point in that illustration is that the life uses the trunk instead of the trunk being so rigid and gritty as to mew up the life, so that as soon as the life can get a little new influx and a little deepening of its current it is bound to break its way out into liberty and leaves. In this second sense, then, Christ is our Emancipator. The entrance of His Spirit into us enlarges us to the rending of the old shackles of indurated opinion that we have either put upon ourselves or had put on us, and so lets us out into a wider reach of truth and into a broader sweep of prospect. That is all perfectly illustrated in the case of Saul on his way to becoming Paul. Saul was a tough old fossilised Jew. His theological views, that at one time we may suppose to have been young and tender and plastic, had chilled and dried and hardened into so much doctrinal petrifaction. Anything like new, enlarged, and progressive thought we may suppose to have been arrested. The convictions he had already acquired lay in the way of more acquisitions of the same kind. His mind bounded back as from a wall, from the casing of opinion in which during all those years he had been slowly immuring himself. He was in that particular like a river which will sometimes dam its own flow by the very material which it has itself deposited. Worm and cocoon! And yet when once the power of Christ had come upon him, and the Spirit of Christ, who is the Truth, had become a swelling reservoir within him, the embankment gave way, and the new accumulation from out the sky broke forth over wide areas of new theological fertility; the inward Divine replenishment, like the deepened currents of vegetable sap in the spring, punctured the bark and let itself out all over Paul in fresh theological buds. And wherever there is a fresh increment of the Christ-Spirit made over to a Christian thinker, that is to be counted on as a certain issue.
It is often said it is no matter what a man believes if he is only sincere. This is true of all minor truths, and false of all truths whose nature it is to fashion a man's life. It will make no difference in a man's harvest whether he think turnips have more saccharine matter than potatoes, whether corn is better than wheat. But let the man sincerely believe that seed planted without ploughing is as good as with, that January is as favourable for seed sowing as April, and that cockle seed will produce as good a harvest as wheat, and will it make no difference? A child might as well think he could reverse that ponderous marine engine which night and day, in calm and storm, ploughs its way across the deep, by sincerely taking hold of the paddle wheel, as a man might think he could reverse the action of the elements of God's moral government through a misguided sincerity. They will roll over such a one, and whelm him in endless ruin.
Compelled them to blaspheme.
You, perhaps, know what that means — compel them to blaspheme. The Roman way of doing it was to say, "Curse Christ." Often and often did the Roman Emperor command the martyrs to curse Christ, and you remember s answer — "How can I curse Him? Sixty years have I known Him; He never did me a displeasure, and I cannot and I will not curse Him." Then the whip was applied, or the hand was held over burning coals, or the flesh was pinched with hot irons, and then the question was put again — "Will you curse Christ now?" Paul says that he, though probably using milder means, compelled the professor of Christ's faith to blaspheme. And there may be some such here — the husband who persecutes his wife for Christ's sake; the father who charges his child, upon his obedience, never to go to the sanctuary of the Lord again; the master who plagues his servant, mocks and jeers, and can never be content, except when he is saying hard things against him.
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