SIR ROBERT ANDERSON
Secret Service Theologian
THE SILENCE OF GOD
IN Christ's grand and simple creed, expressed in His
plainest words, eternal life was the assured inheritance of those who loved God
with all their hearts, who loved their neighbours as themselves, and who walked
purely, humbly, and beneficently while on earth. In the Christian sects and
churches of today, in their recognised formularies and elaborate creeds, all
this is repudi-ated as infantine and obsolete; the official means and
purchase-money of salvation are altogether changed; eternal life is reserved
for those, and for those only, who accept, or profess, a string of metaphysical
propositions conceived in a scholastic brain and put into scholastic
To any one who aims at having clear thoughts and well-based beliefs nothing is more helpful than adverse criticism. Hence the value of the words here quoted. They may be taken, moreover, as expression of opinions of a large and important class by whom the writer, though no longer with us, may still be claimed as a champion and representative.
A preliminary question which presents itself is, Where are we to find this "grand and simple creed" thus commended to our acceptance? If, as the agnostic tells us, the Gospels are mere human records, what can be sillier than to appeal to them for the teaching of Christ! It was a conceit of ancient writers to put long speeches into the mouths of their heroes, and the discourses attributed to the Nazarene fall at once into the category of romance. But we are told that while the evangelists are not to be trusted when they record plain events of which they were eye-witnesses, like the miracles of Christ, they are to be believed implicitly when they profess to record verbatim His prolonged discourses! If the Gospels be Divinely inspired, agnosticism is sheer folly: if they be not inspired, our faith is sheer Superstition.
The next thought which these words suggest is that if eternal life be indeed reserved for those whose character and conduct are marked by absolute perfection, the whole human race is doomed. Perfect love to God and man is a standard which excludes even the saintliest of saints, and common men may at once dismiss all hope of reaching it. And yet the author is right. It is thus and only thus that eternal life can be inherited by any child of Adam. What concerns us, then, is to inquire whether possibly some other road to blessing may be open to us. Agnosticism is Greek for ignorance; may we not hope that this particular agnostic is true to his name, and that Divine love goes far beyond what he seems ever to have realised or heard of?
The statements here challenged are important as showing how seriously the great truth of the Reformation is prejudiced by the very prominence assigned to it in our Protestant system of theology. That it should loom great in our estimation is but natural, having regard to the fierceness of the struggle to which we owe its recovery. And yet the dogma that justification is by faith is but a secondary truth, and ancillary to another of wider range and more transcendent moment. "For this cause it is the principle of faith, that it may be according to Grace." GRACE is the characteristic truth of Christianity. According to the great doctrinal treatise of the New Testament, we are "justified by grace," "justified by faith," "justified by blood "- that is, by the death of Christ in its application to us, for such is the meaning of the sacrificial figure of which the word "blood " is the expression in the New Testament. Grace is the principle on which God justifies a sinner; faith is the principle on which the benefit is received; and the death of Christ is the ground on which alone all this is possible - we are "justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus."
And they who are thus justified can urge no claim to the benefit on the ground either of merit or of promise. For if we could earn a title to it, there were no need of redemption; and if God had pledged Himself by covenant to grant it, there were no room for grace. Grace is sovereign, but it is free.
There are two alternative principles on which alone justification is now theoretically possible. The one is by man's deserving it; the other is through God's unmerited favour. Let a man, from the cradle to the grave, be everything he ought to be, and do everything he ought to do; let him, as our author puts it, love God with all his heart, and his neighbour as himself walking "purely, humbly, and beneficently while on earth," and such an one will "inherit eternal life." But all such pretensions betoken moral and spiritual ignorance and degradation. All men are sinners; and being sinners they are absolutely dependent upon grace.
Mr. Greg's words are based on the incident in our Lord's ministry which called forth the parable of "The Good Samaritan." "A certain lawyer," desirous of testing the Saviour's doctrine, put to Him the question, "Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" He had heard no doubt that the great Rabbi was heretical, disparaging the law of Moses, and pointing the common folk to an easy bypath to life. How great then must have been his surprise when he got answer, "What is written in the law? How readest thou?" In response he repeated the well-known words, so familiar to every Jew, enjoining love to God and man. And surprise must have grown into astonishment when the Saviour added, "Thou hast answered right; this do and thou shalt live." The strictest legalist in the Sanhedrin could find no flaw in teaching such as that! But the question was, how a man could inherit life, and to such a question, one and only one answer was possible. To hide his confusion the lawyer at once proposed a further question, "And who is my neighbour?" thus seeking to escape upon a side issue, as is the way with lawyers of every age. And this drew from the Lord that exquisite story which has taken such hold upon the minds of men. The Greek word for "neighbour" is the one near, and the lawyer's inquiry implied that he was not bound to love every one with whom he came in contact. The high-caste Jew, if such a phrase may be allowed, would rather die than owe his rescue to a Samaritan, so the Lord brings a Samaritan into the parable, contrasts his conduct with that of the Levite and the priest, and asks which of the three acted as neighbour to the poor wretch whom the robbers had left half dead upon the roadside.
Such was the surface teaching of the parable, but in common with every other parable, it had a bidden and spiritual meaning. He had answered the inquiry how a perfect being could inherit life:
He now unfolds how a ruined sinner can be saved. The traveller upon the road from the city of blessing to the city of the curse is robbed of his all, and left wounded almost to death, and helpless. A priest and a Levite pass by. Why a priest and a Levite? Because He would thus impersonate the law and, in a word, religion. These could help a man who was able to help himself, but for the helpless sinner they can do nothing. "But a certain Samaritan came where he was." Why a Samaritan? Because He would teach that the Saviour is One whom, but for his ruin and misery, the sinner would despise and repel. "And"- let us mark the words -"when he saw him he had compassion on him, and went to him, and bound up his wounds, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him;" and at the inn he paid the reckoning, and made provision for his future.
In every detail the story has its counterpart in spiritual truth. It tells of a Saviour who saves; who comes to a sinner where he is and as he is; who binds up wounds that are deeper and more terrible than any brigand's knife can inflict; who brings him out of the place of danger to a place of security an peace, and provides for all his future needs. And all this without bargain or condition, and unconstrained by any motive save His own infinite compassion.
How one longs that honest-minded men like the author of "The Creed of Christendom" could be brought at least to hear these truths and to know that this is the gospel of Christianity! Their writings give proof that here in Christian England there are persons of enlightenment and culture whose most legitimate revolt against priestcraft and everything of mere religion has thrown them back into pagan darkness. But in the midst of this darkness light is shining. The agnostic's version of "Christ's grand and simple creed" would make Pharisees of some men - and heaven is absolutely closed to such - while it would relegate mankind in general to the position of hopeless and desperate outlawry. But Holy Scripture testifies that "Christ died for the ungodly," and that the man who believes in Him is justified.
And believing in Him has nothing in common with "accepting a string of metaphysical propositions." It means bowing to the Divine judgment upon sin, and accepting Christ as Saviour and Lord. Distrust was the turning-point in the creature's fall, for the overt act of sin was but the fruit of unbelief. How natural, then, that trust should be the turning-point in his recovery! There was a time in England when the wearing of a certain flower was the recognised avowal of loyalty or treason And this was a mere outward act which might be insincere, whereas a man's beliefs are part and parcel of himself. The tragedy of Calvary has come to be regarded as a mere incident in history, natural in the circumstances, and fitted to emphasise and enhance the dignity of man. God points to it as the world's "crisis," an event of such stupendous moment that, in view of it, indifference is impossible. He who died there does not seek either our pity or our patronage: He claims our faith. It is a question of personal loyalty to Himself.
But this chapter is a digression. Let us turn to the teaching of the Epistle to the Romans.
POSTSCRIPTS are proverbially important, and apostolic
postscripts are no exception to the rule. But the final postscript to St.
Pauls Epistle to the Romans has been treated with strange neglect by
theologians. Witness the extraordinary carelessness with which it has been
translated even by the Revisers of 1881! With his own hand it was, no doubt,
that, after his secretary, Tertius, had laid down the pen, the apostle added
the pregnant words which end the Epistle: "Now to Him that is able to stablish
you according to my gospel even the preaching of Jesus Christ according to
[the] revelation of a mystery which hath been kept in silence through times
eternal, but now is manifested and by prophetic scriptures according to the
commandment of the Eternal God is made known unto all the nations unto
obedience of faith - to the only wise God through Jesus Christ be the glory for
"My Gospel." The words, three times repeated by St. Paul, are no mere conventional expression. They are explained in several of his Epistles, and with peculiar definiteness in his letter to the Galatians. He there declares in explicit and emphatic terms that the gospel which he preached among the Gentiles was the subject of a special revelation peculiar to himself. Not only was he not taught it by those who were apostles before him, but he it was who, by Divine command, communicated it to "the twelve"; and this was not until his second visit to Jerusalem, seventeen years after his conversion. It is certain, therefore, that his testimony was essentially distinct in character and scope from anything we shall find in the ministry of the other apostles, as recorded in the Acts. And this, he declares, they themselves acknowledged. "They saw," he says, "that the gospel of the uncircumcision was committed unto me, as the gospel of the circumcision was unto Peter." The latter was a promise according to the Scriptures of the prophets: the former, a proclamation according to the revealing of a mystery kept secret from eternity, but now manifested in this Christian dispensation, and by prophetic Scriptures made known to all nations What, then, were those writings? What the mystery which was thus revealed?
The rendering of the passage in our English versions is a compromise between translation and exegesis; and that the exposition thus suggested is erroneous is clear from the fact that it makes the apostles statement inconsistent to the verge of absurdity. If it be by the writings of the Hebrew prophets that the gospel is made known to all the nations, it certainly was not a mystery kept secret through all the ages! The words "by prophetic writings" refer, of course, to the Scriptures of the New Testament; and as the gospel thus made known was entrusted, not even to the other apostles, but only to "the apostle of the Gentiles," it is, again of course, to the Epistles of Paul that we must turn to seek for it. Do these Epistles, then, contain any great characteristic truth or truths which cannot be found in the earlier Scriptures?
Our English word "mystery" means something which is either incomprehensible or unknown; but this is not the significance of the Greek 'musterion. In its primary meaning in classical and Biblical Greek it is simply a secret; and a secret when once disclosed may be understood by any one. A patent lock is a "mystery." It is as easily opened as any other, provided we have the proper key, but without the key it cannot be opened at all. The mysteries of the New Testament are Divine truths which till then had been "kept in silence"; truths which had not been revealed in the earlier Scriptures, and which, until revealed, could not be known. Once and once only, the word was used by the Lord Himself, as recorded in the three first Gospels, and it occurs four times in the Apocalypse. But with these exceptions it is found only in St Pauls Epistles, where it occurs no fewer than twenty times.
In some of these passages the word is used in a secondary sense. In others, definite secrets are revealed. And notably we find the following:- The mystery of Lawlessness, culminating in the revelation of the Lawless One.
The mystery that at the coming of the Lord some of His people will pass to heaven, as Elijah did, "with death untasted and the grave unknown."
The mystery that in the present dispensation believers are united to Christ in a special relationship as members of a body of which He Himself is the head.
Here, then, we have specific "mysteries" respecting which the earlier Scriptures are silent; and it may be added that, though now revealed, they are still unknown to the majority of Christians. But these are truths essentially for the believer, whereas the "mystery" of the apostles postscript is emphatically a truth for ALL - a truth to be "made known to all the nations for the obedience of faith."
The apostles statement, moreover, assumes that his words would be understood by those to whom they were addressed. Therefore, as he had nevet personally visited Rome, we may confidently turn to the Epistle itself to find within it the truth referred to.
First, then, it is a mystery truth - a truth which till then had been "kept in silence." Secondly, it is a truth of universal scope and application. And thirdly, it is a truth to be found in the Epistle to the Romans. With these clews to guide us there can be no difficulty in fixing upon the truth which is here in question; for one, and only one, will satisfy these requirements.
In common with some other great truths of the Christian faith, 'reconciliation' has received but scant notice from theologians. Many a page might be filled with quotations from standard books which either misrepresent or deny it. But all attempts to oust it from our creeds rest, as Archbishop Trench declares, "on a foregone determination to get rid of the reality of Gods anger against sin." Sin not merely alienated man from God, it alienated God from man. A just and holy God could not but regard him as an enemy. But "while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son." And "through our Lord Jesus Christ" they who believe "have now received the reconci1iation."- "All things are of God who reconciled us to Himself through Christ, and gave unto us the ministry of the reconciliation, to wit, that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself not reckoning unto them their trespasses, and having committed unto us the word of the reconciliation. We are ambassadors, therefore, on behalf of Christ," the apostle adds, "as though God were entreating by us, we beseech men on behalf of Christ, be ye reconciled to God " - an appeal to the sinner, not, as too commonly represented, to forgive his God, but to come within the unsought benefit which God in His infinite grace has accomplished. For (the apostle further adds) "Him who knew no sin He made to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him."
Words could not be simpler, and yet, as already noticed, the truth so plainly taught is in many quarters perverted or denied. Just as in our day there are doctrinaire philanthropists who talk of crime as though it were nothing but a natural eccentricity of weak natures, so there are theologians who delight in such representations of sin that if provision had not been made for it in the Divine economy, the omission would be entirely to the discredit of the Deity. Others, again, so fritter away the great truths of Divine love to the world and the reconciliation of the world to God through Christ, that the sovereignty of God degenerates into mere favouritism, and the death of Christ is no more than a means by which the favoured few can attain to blessing.
This great truth of Reconciliation will be sought in vain in the Old Testament Scriptures. The revelation of it, indeed, was impossible so long as the Jew held the position which he forfeited by rejecting the Messiah. Reading the Gospel of John in the light of the Epistles we can discern it in the teaching of our Lord; but without that light no one would dare to formulate it. To the Jew, indeed, the doctrine must have been astounding, and even among Christians it is received with hesitation and reserve. But the difficulties which beset the exposition of the fifth chapter of Romans relate only to the argument. The doctrine it teaches is unequivocally clear. "As through one trespass [the result was] unto all men to condemnation; even so through one act of righteousness [the result was] unto all men to justification of life." If words have any meaning this declares that the death of Christ has efficacy as complete and universal as the sin of Adam. If that sin "brought death into the world, and all our woe," so the great dikaiöma brought justification of life to all men in so far as the Eden trespass brought condemnation to them.
But the work of Christ goes infinitely further than this. The Eden trespass ushered in the reign of sin. "Sin reigned unto death." "The wages of sin is death," and sin claimed the very throne of God as an agency for enforcing its just demands. But Calvary has dethroned sin, and grace now reigns supreme. And this~ not at the expense of righteousness, but through righteousness. And as sin reigned unto death, so grace now reigns unto eternal life. Or, getting behind the magnificent imagery of the Epistle, we grasp the amazing truth that the Divine attitude toward men is one of universal beneficence. It is not that the Gentile has attained to the special position of privilege from which the Jew has fallen, for apart from "the household of faith" there is no favoured people now. - There is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord is Lord of all, and is rich unto all that call upon Him; for whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved." Eternal life is thus brought within reach of every human being to whom this testimony comes. How, then, is it possible that so few receive the benefit? The answer to this question claims a chapter to itself.
Such a statement will be resented by that school of religious thought which boasts as its founder one of the greatest of the Churchs teachers. But let us appeal from the disciples to their master. Here is Calvins commentary upon the verse above quoted (Rom. v. i8). He makes this favour common to all because it is propounded to all, and not because it is in reality extended to all; for though Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world, and is offered through Gods benignity indiscriminately to all, yet all do not receive Him."
And the following extract from his commentary on the third chapter of the Gospel of St. John is no less apposite. Referring to the sixteenth verse he says: Christ employed the universal term whosoever both to invite indiscriminately all to partake of life, and to cut off every excuse from unbelievers. Such is the import of the term work!. Though there is nothing in the world that is worthy of Gods favour, yet He shows Himself to be reconciled to the whole world when He invites all men without exception to the faith of Christ, which is nothing else than an entrance into life."
And if any one ask, How, then, is Judgment possible? the answer is that Judgment is based upon this very truth.
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