The Privileges and Obligations of Sonship.
"Now are we the sons of God." - l John iii. 2.
THE relation of fatherhood and sonship, if it is what I
have ventured to represent it as being, must involve in it privileges and
obligations of a definite and distinctive character. For it is in itself a
definite and distinctive relation. It is something more than the mere infusion
of a certain measure of fatherly feeling, such as prevails in the homes of
earth, into the ordinary moral administration of God; to the effect of
tempering the rigid and exact severity of strict justice, and qualifying
judgment with mercy. It is something different, also, from the kindly and
fatherly sort of feeling with which God, as ruler, may be supposed to regard
his once rebellious subjects when they are returning to their allegiance. If
either of these accounts is held to exhaust the idea of Gods fatherhood,
its practical bearing on our happiness and duty can be only very vaguely felt
and described. A general notion or impression of benignant graciousness on
Gods part, calling for gratitude on our part, is nearly all that can be
made of it, or got out of it.
It is true that, as regards its actings and manifestations, this general notion or impression of graciousness may be broken up, as it were, into details. The analogy of the human family may suggest a variety of particular instances. The subject is often treated in this way. God is represented as discharging many different offices towards his people, all of them indicative and expressive of an affection like that of a parent - such as putting upon them his name; giving them access always to his throne ; pitying, protecting, and providing for them; chastening and correcting them; keeping them safe till they reach heaven at last. But to a large extent, these may be all classed as benignant offices of government, - and of government merely.
They all, however, stand out in a new light, and become far more clear, specific, and well-defined, when they are viewed in connection with the true and proper fatherhood of God, as distinguished from what I may perhaps be allowed to call the analogical. The more the special and peculiar nature of that relation is recognised, the more will these and other similar dealings of God be seen to be special and peculiar also. And if there should turn out to be any one speciality in particular - any one peculiarity - attaching to the position of sonship in the creature, as constituted by participation in the sonship of the uncreated, - then that peculiarity may be expected to give its tone and complexion to the whole practical development and working out of the relation, both on Gods part and on ours. I cannot help thinking that there is such a guiding principle to be found, if rightly sought for, in Holy Scripture.
Here I must once more refer, in the outset of my search, to the holy angels, whom I think we ought to look upon as our brethren in our sonship.
Let us attempt to realise the position of those who stood the test, and their state of mind, when their companions sinned and fell. What a shock to them! They may almost be moved to exclaim: "If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?" (Ps. xi. 3). What a shuddering sense of insecurity, what a thrill of fear, may pass along the ranks and agitate the bosoms of the faithful, in the view of infidelity on the part of their comrades, so utterly inexcusable and unaccountable.
They are indeed themselves still standing, through grace, in their integrity. But how many who seemed as steadfast and strong as they have miserably fallen! And they have fallen, too, without a cause; there has been no temptation from without, nor any previous corrupt tendency within. And there is nothing in the order issued from the throne that should have awakened in reasonable minds and loving hearts suspicion or resentment. If it was a demand upon them for homage to the Son (Heb. i, 6), surely that was a most honourable service. But, as it would seem, they insist on having liberty, in the sense of absolute independence. In the mere relation itself of subjectship, necessarily implied in their state as creatures, they find a certain element or source of irksomeness. And when the sense of their being necessarily, simply as creatures, subjects and "servants under the yoke," is powerfully and pointedly borne in upon their consciousness, by the assertion of sovereign authority, in the form of an express, positive, and peremptory commandment, no matter how righteous and even gracious the commandment may be ; - how righteous in its ground or root of equity, how gracious in its loving tendency towards a better state ; - they cannot endure the idea of being thus ruled. In the absence alike of outward solicitation and of inward covetousness or desire, it is not easy to conceive of the trial or temptation which proved fatal to the lost angels, as having been different in its principle, working, and effect, from the line of thought and feeling which I venture hypothetically to trace.
But if so, what a discovery breaks upon the unfallen! Is it not, in fact, the discovery of an element of instability inherent in the very constitution and essential nature of the relation of subjectship itself? It is not an incidental fault or failure in the working out of that relation ; - such as might be remedied for the present by proper appliances, and prevented for the future by proper precautions. Does it not rather seem to indicate a radical vice, or source of weakness, in the relation itself?
For what guarantee, let us ask, - putting ourselves in their place, - could the obedient angels have, - after witnessing the fall of so many of their companions, - what guarantee could they feel themselves to have, - against their own fall, as at least a possible, and even not very unlikely contingency? No doubt they have stood one trial. They have obeyed, by Gods gracious help, as they freely own, in the instance of this one commandment. But who can tell? Other commandments may be issued from the throne; commandments that may be felt to be more grievous. The very necessity now imposed upon them of disowning, - perhaps judging, - so many of their race whom till now they had counted brothers, - may well be supposed to awaken apprehension. May not the sternest loyalty give way? May not the infection, if not of insubordination, yet at least of too sympathetic pity for the victims of insubordination, grow and spread? Thus these pure spirits may well, in these circumstances, begin to apprehend that it is only too natural for the creature, as such, to feel the subjection to authority and the obligation of obedience to law, implied in his being a creature, to be irksome and vexatious; that the yoke of mere subjectship is, from its very nature, apt to become galling; that, apart altogether from the character and condition of those who are under it, if that is their only standing, it has in itself a tendency to call forth in them, be their character ever so pure and their condition ever so good, a disposition to cast it off and to aspire to the liberty of independence. The holy angels have seen all this only too clearly and too terribly proved and exemplified before their eyes. How, after this, can they reckon their own footing, as subjects, to be quite safe?
For my part I cannot imagine any way in which the standing or position of a creature considered simply as a subject under the government of God - when God is viewed exclusively as Creator, Lawgiver, and Judge - ever can become absolutely and infallibly safe. Of course God is able to keep any one occupying that standing or position, and no other, in perfect and inviolable security for ever. He can so keep any one anywhere and always. But the standing or position itself may be precarious nevertheless. It is, as I think, a necessity of its very nature to be so. Evidently it was so originally. The fall of the untempted angels, as well as that of tempted man, proves it to have been so. Nor, as regards the unfallen, is there anything in the mere fact of their having on one occasion stood some test of their obedience, and received some gracious acknowledgment for doing so, that can of itself suffice to make it essentially different, in this respect, from what it was before.
But it is impossible to reconcile ourselves to the idea of these holy intelligences being left, - after the issue of that trial which had proved so disastrous to their fellows, and out of which they might well feel that they had made a narrow escape themselves, - on the same footing merely on which they had previously been. "God is not unrighteous to forget their work and labour of love," in that they have heard his voice, and at his command "worshipped," shall I say? "the first begotten." In the sin of their former associates they have now come, in a sense, to know evil as well as good. And this very knowledge, marring the unconscious confidence of innocent and blissful ignorance, must tend to awaken misgivings in their minds, and make them feel their footing insecure. In short, it would seem that they cannot be allowed to stand where they were. If they are to be protected from the risk and the fear of falling, they must be raised. And so, according to my view, they are. They "receive the adoption of Sons ;" and that ensures their safety. They are no longer servants only, but also sons. Having been tried, they are now trusted. Having disowned the servile spirit of insubordination, they receive the Spirit of the Son. Having refused to aspire to a lawless liberty of independence, they are - and it is a meet "recompense of reward" - put in possession "of the glorious liberty of the children of God" (Rom. viii. 21).
This, as it seems to me, is the peculiar benefit of sonship; this is its great radical, distinctive, characteristic property. It puts an end conclusively to probation, in every sense, and in every form. It secures permanence of position in the household or family of God.
But it is only when it is held to be of the same sort with that of Christ that sonship can be shown to involve this consequence. If we take the merely analogical view of the relation of fatherhood and sonship between God and his children, - conceiving of it simply according to the similitude of fatherhood and sonship among ourselves, - we cannot see in it any element of absolute and inviolable security. A sons standing in his earthly parents house is not absolutely and inviolably secure. He may go out, or he may be thrust out. It is true he is not, strictly speaking, upon trial; the right to be at home with his father is not, in the ordinary sense of the term, conditional. Still it may be forfeited, or it may be despised and practically renounced. He may be tempted and may fall, and that too even irrecoverably. If our standing as sons in the divine household is imagined to be at the very best simply like my sons standing in mine, it is not divested of the condition of precariousness. There may be more safeguards in the one case than in the other. God is able to take more care of his children than I can take of mine. That, however, is only a difference of degree. Some insecurity, be it more or less, still attaches to the relation. And if those called to be sons, in the sense now supposed to be put upon sonship, have seen others as good and strong as themselves fall, - or if they have themselves fallen and been with difficulty recovered, - I can see no reason why, even in the bosom of the holy, heavenly home, they may not be occasionally, or rather constantly, haunted by the apprehension that possibly after all they may be cast away.
I do not forget here the bearing upon the point now under consideration of the doctrine of free justification. I am quite aware that, apart from sonship altogether, Gods act of free grace in justifying those who believe is held to carry with it, as a consequence, involved in its very nature, the inviolable security of the justified. I fully allow, or rather decidedly assert, that by the purpose of God, expressed in his promises, it does so. Nay more, it must be admittted, that in the justified state itself there is that which puts the servant of God in highly favourable circumstances for maintaining his integrity. Holding justification to be perfectly unconditional, so far as we are concerned, - all of grace and not of works, - I can see how it does place us, in some respects, in a far better position than that which Adam occupied before he fell. We are not merely put again upon trial and probation; permitted as it were to have another chance, - to venture on a second experiment, - to make a new attempt to establish a righteousness of our own. We have always the righteousness of Christ on which we may stand as giving us a title, not inchoate merely, but complete, to acceptance in the sight of God. Unquestionably, therefore, we start upon our new course of obedience, as his subjects and servants, at a great advantage. We have not, like Adam, to make good for ourselves, through the test of trial, our standing as Gods righteous subjects and servants, but only to preserve it as freely and gratuitously given to us by God. We have not to work our way to that standing, but only to hold it fast.
Still we have to preserve it and hold it fast. And there is nothing in it or about it, considered simply in itself, to secure infallibly that we shall preserve it and hold it fast. No doubt, as I have already said, God is able to secure this, and is graciously pledged to secure it. But for anything that appears to the contrary, his way of securing it may be just through our receiving the very adoption of sons for which I plead. For let the relation in which we stand to God as subjects and servants be taken at its very best ; let it be taken as it subsists in the case of justified believers, which is its very best ; - I still desiderate in it the element or condition of absolute inviolability.
I consider that our Lord has really settled this whole matter in one remarkable passage which, as I understand it, is the divine key to unlock the mystery of Gods fatherhood, and his peoples sonship, with reference to the present question;- "The servant abideth not in the house for ever; but the son abideth ever. If the son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed" (John viii. 35, 36).
The Lord is here arguing with "those Jews which believed on him," about liberty. He has given them the promise that "if they continue in his word," and so prove themselves to be his genuine disciples, they shall "know the truth, and the truth shall make them free" (ver. 31, 32). Then they are not now free. They feel that the Lords promise implies as much. He regards them as now in bondage; an imputation which they somewhat indignantly disclaim, They disclaim it as being inconsistent with their being "Abrahams seed" (ver. 33). For they quite well understand that Christ is not speaking of civil or political liberty, or even of what is commonly called religious liberty. The question raised, as they clearly enough perceive, respects, not their position with reference to men at all, but their standing before God, in his house or family, - which of course they counted their own church and nation to be. In our relation to God, as being members of his household, are we not already free? Is not our footing in that relation a footing not of bondage but of freedom?
Our Lord. meets their boast with an appeal to their own consciences: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever cornmitteth sin is the servant of sin" (ver. 34). You can scarcely deny that you commit sin; that you do more or less consent and yield yourselves to sin. So far, you serve sin. It has dominion over you. You said you never were in bondage; never had a master. But has not sin some mastery over you? Then you are not free; free, as you boast, to serve God only; free to dwell in his house for ever. You may be in Gods house. But if so, it is not as being free in your relation to him. For that you cannot be, while, committing sin, you are the servants of sin. Your position in the house can be only that of a servant; whose position at the very best is precarious and insecure ; - " for the servant abideth not in the house for ever." As a servant, he has no right to such a privilege; nor indeed has he any capacity for realising it. He is distracted between the claim upon him for undivided allegiance on the one hand, and his inclination towards compromise on the other. He can only be Gods servant partially; being still apt to hanker after independence and self-will, which is the service of sin. Therefore "the servant abideth not in the house for ever." He cannot be sure of thus abiding, so long as he is a servant merely. "But the son abideth ever" (ver. 35). I as the Son am free ; - so they must have understood his words, for they could not doubt that he was speaking of himself ; - I as the Son am free, and as the Son "I abide in the house for ever." Would you have true freedom? Enter into the freedom which I have as the Son abiding ever in the house. "For if the Son shall make you free ye shall be free indeed" (vet 36).
Clearly, as I apprehend his words, the Lord intends, in this divine reasoning, to represent his own sonship, and that alone, as absolutely ensuring permanence of position in the house or family of his Father. And just as clearly, to my mind, he indicates his willingness to share that sonship, and that feature or quality of it, with us.
In this view, the connection is not a little remarkable which he virtually establishes between our participation in his sonship on the one hand, and on the other hand our freedom from the risk or hazard of "committing sin," so as to forfeit the certainty of our abiding in the house for ever. For I cannot help thinking that the Lord has here in his mind that servile tendency which, as I have already said, I hold to be inherent in mere subjectship, if it be not joined to sonship such as his - the tendency, I mean, which must ever make the committing of sin, even to the extent of the subject and servant losing his place in the house, conceivable as at least a possible contingency. He seems to say first, that "committing sin" is incompatible with our being free in the house - free, in the sense of being sure of abiding in it for ever. And then he seems to say also, secondly, that if we are "servants" only in the house, and nothing more, we are not, as servants, inviolably safe from "committing sin." Accordingly he assigns this as the reason why we cannot, as servants merely, be absolutely sure of abiding in the house for ever. In order to that, we must become partakers with him in his sonship, and in the freedom which as the Son he has. "If the Son shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed."
If I am right in this last idea, it may suggest a close harmony between our Lords teaching in this passage and what, as we have seen, John says in his First Epistle about those who, "being born of God," are "called sons of God," having "his seed remaining in them," as the germ of an absolutely impeccable nature or life - a nature or life incapable of sin (1 John iii. 6-9). For now we may see how, - both in respect of its implying community of nature, and in respect of its implying community of relation, with Christ the Son, - our sonship, securing our indefectibility by excluding the very possibifity of sinning, thereby makes our abiding ever in the house absolutely certain. Of course, as regards our sense, or assurance, or apprehension of this certainty, - that can be realised only in so far as the sonship on which it depends is, in all its fulness of holiness and grace, itself realised. But in so far as it is, the assurance which it warrants is entirely trustworthy. In fact, it is the only assurance any one need desire. "The Son abideth ever."
An attentive study of those two wonderful chapters in Pauls Epistle to the Romans - the seventh and eighth - would, I am persuaded, not a little confirm the representation which I have now been giving of Johns doctrine, and of the Lords.
Let me briefly trace the progress of that experimental exposition. Emerging out of the depths of an apparently hopeless struggle between his renewed will and the power of indwelling corruption - a struggle in which he feels himself all but overmastered by evil, as if in spite of himself he could not help "committing sin" and so being "the servant of sin" - Paul rises by successive steps to the highest climax of assured triumph and holy joy. And it is worthy of remark that it is mainly through the apprehension of sonship that he reaches that elevation.
Deliverance from condemnation, of course, comes first (viii. 1-1l). That is fully brought out, so as to do ample justice to the free grace of God in justifying "him which believeth in Jesus." But the apostle passes on and up to the position or platform of sonship. And I think it especially deserving of notice that he very emphatically connects the realisation of our sonship, - or our receiving the Spirit of adoption to enable us to realise it, - with our mortifying the deeds of the body (12-17). "If ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body ;" it is the very body of which he had so sadly complained a little before, "0 wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death ?"- it is that body of which he now speaks hopefully ; - " If ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live." How and why? "For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God." What can this mean but that it is the fact of our becoming "the sons of God," - and as such "receiving, not the spirit of bondage again to fear, but the spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father" - that turns, as it were, the tide of battle in the strife between us and the evil that is in us? "The Spirit beareth witness with our spirit that we are the sons of God ;" and so gives us, in virtue of God being our Father and "his seed remaining in us," the capacity, in a sense and measure, of being sinless, - or of feeling that "we cannot sin because we are born of God." Continuing servants merely, we could never be quite sure of our standing firm and being successful in striving with the flesh. But now that we are sons, so far as we realise our sonship, we "mortify the deeds of the body ;" for, as John puts the same thought in other words, "whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin."
Is not Pauls practical appeal in this passage to the sonship, as the secret of the believers victory over indwelling sin, proved thus to be in harmony with the Lords representation, as I have been trying to explain it? And is it not very much equivalent to what John says in his Epistle: "Whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world; and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith. Who is he that overcometh the world but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God ?" (iv. 5). For he so believes as to partake with the Son of God in his sonship. But Paul has not done with the sonship when he represents our realising it, by receiving the Spirit of adoption, as that grace or experience by which we "mortify the deeds of the body," and "overcome the world." He fills his own mind, and ours, with large expectations of future blessedness and joy, connected with the sense of this sonship, attested by our own conscience and the Spirits powerful co-operation. He brings in all creation as waiting anxiously for these expectations to be fulfilled in "the manifestation of the sons of God" (ver. 19-22). And having reconciled himself and us to this attitude of waiting, amid creations groanings and our own, by reminding us of the Spirit of the Son ever "helping our infirmities" (ver. 2 3-27), - he carries us far back into the depths of the past eternity, that we may see there the original and everlasting ground of our security as sons of God by adoption - which is really nothing short of the security of that only-begotten and well-beloved Son with whom our adoption makes us one; "We know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose; for whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the first-born among many brethren; moreover, whom he did predestinate, them he also called; and whom he called, them he also justified; and whom he justified, them he also glorified."
Finally, he crowns the whole with the bright view of Gods eternal purpose at last accomplished, and his Son rejoicing as "the first-born among many brethren," all "conformed to his image as the Son" and so glorified with him. Thus the apostle fixes, on the side, as it were, of both eternities, "the sacred chain that binds the earth to heaven above." Called as sinners - justified as subjects - glorified as sons ; so runs the climax. Whereupon there breaks forth the greatest perhaps of all the songs of inspiration; beginning with "What shall we then say to these things? if God be for us, who can be against us ?" - and ending with the glorious challenge - " For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (ver. 3l_39). This element of inviolability - " the Son abideth ever" - is what determines the whole character of the relation of fatherhood and sonship, as subsisting between God and any of his subjects and servants. Christ was in the position of a subject and servant when he uttered the words. And I can almost fancy that I see him as he utters them. I think it must be with intense self-consciousness that he utters them. There is a falling back upon himself and his own unchanging fellowship with the Father, in his utterance of them. Let what may happen, "the Son abideth ever." He instantly, indeed, dismisses all exclusive thought of self, as if he stood alone. What I am, I would have you to be; but what I am chiefly thinking of when I say that, is that "the Son abideth ever." It is the sense of my "abiding ever," as the Son, in the Fathers house, that sustains me, whether you continue in my words or not. And it is that "abiding ever in the Fathers house," and the sense of it, that I long to share with you; making you free, as I am free: "For if the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed."
All through his service of humiliation this thought was ever present to his heart - " the Son abideth ever." It was his consolation, his strength, his joy. It gives singular weight and force to very many of his expressions with reference to what the Father is to him and he is to the Father; investing them, as it does, with a certain strange complexion or character of conscious, confident unchangeableness. Hence the intense repose which, amid all its strange and often terrible vicissitudes, marked the life of Christ. Hence his sleeping in the storm, and his quiet demeanour before Caiaphas and Pilate. He was always self-possessed, because he was always conscious of his sonship, and of his abiding ever as the Son in the Fathers house. There was no need of haste; no room for feverish or fitful agitation. Let him be working ever so busily, let him be suffering ever so acutely, Jesus is always resting. "The Son abideth ever."
Is not this the explanation of the calm, serene, quiet peace which underlies the whole troubled experience of Christ? "The Son abideth ever." He abideth ever as the Son. Let him be tried, buffeted, tormented to the utmost; let him even have to be made sin and made a curse for us; still "the Son abideth ever." And he can say in the worst extremity, "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit;" having said just before, in the same spirit of unruffled composure, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
"The Son abideth ever." I believe that if we study the human and earthly life of Christ with that as the motto or key to it, we may come to a better understanding of what the relation of fatherhood and sonship between God and us, if we are in his Son, really is, - and ought to be apprehended by us to be, - than we could do by means of the most minute and articulate enumeration of fatherly acts and offices on the part of God, and filial duties and responsibilities on our part. I own, therefore, that I have a feeling of relief in being warrantably compelled to say, that I have no time or space left for what I might call relational details. The relation itself is manifested and acted out in the history of the man Christ Jesus. Let an insight into the relation be got, by deep thought exercised upon the history. Let it be thought, however, based upon this one condition - that there is in the relation a very peculiar element of inviolability. "The Son abideth ever."
All other conceivable relations, so far as I can see, may be violated. Husband and wife may part. Rulers and subjects may be arrayed in arms against one another. Friends may disagree, and brothers may fight. Parent and child on earth may be mortal foes. All other conceivable relations admit of fluctuation and variety, according to change of circumstances. They are all liable to breaks and interruptions; to fitful and capricious movements on one side or other; to strange alternations of pathos and of passion. This relation alone; the relation between the Eternal Father and his Incarnate Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, - and in Him, so far as they can realise it, between "his Father and their Father" and "the little ones whom he is not ashamed to call his brethren;" this relation alone is always and for ever the same. From whatever may be turbulent, uncertain, or uneasy, in any other relation, we may take refuge at any time in this one. Be the temptation that assails us ever so strong; be the affliction that tries us ever so severe; be the work we have to do ever so hard, or the death we have to die ever so cruel ; - in the unchanging fatherhood of God we, like his Son, may have evermore quiet peace.
Is it not in this view worthy of remark that it is in immediate connection with one of his most intensely filial appeals to the Father, - that which opens with such a burst of grateful love, "I thank thee, 0 Father," and closes with so sublime an assertion of mutual intimacy and insight, "No man knoweth the Son but the Father, neither knoweth any man the Father but the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son shall reveal him," - that Jesus issues his gracious invitation to the weary, "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden," and gives them his gracious assurance of relief - " I will give you rest" (Matt. xi. 25-30) It is his own rest which he promises to share with them ; the rest which his "meek and lowly heart" always possessed, under a yoke of obligation such as never any other had to take upon him, and a burden of obedience such as never any other had to bear or to fulfill; the rest which made him feel . even "that yoke easy and that burden light." "I will give you rest." Surely, I repeat, it is his own rest he means to say that he will give, - as it is his own yoke he would have them to make theirs, - " Take my yoke upon you and learn of me." It is that rest in the Fathers knowledge of the Son and the Sons knowledge of the Father of which he has just been speaking. His own knowledge of the Father he shares with them, revealing to them the Father. And it is by sharing with them his own knowledge of fatherly and filial love that he shares with them his own rest ; - the rest which that knowledge must always have imparted to his own soul, even when it was most troubled.
Have we not here the essence of what is implied, whether in the way of privilege or in the way of duty, in the relation of fatherhood and sonship between God and us ? - First, there is rest, the Sons own rest, in the ever-present consciousness of his filial fellowship with the Father. And then, secondly, there is the Sons own "meekness and lowliness of heart," as he takes upon him whatever yoke the Father is pleased to lay upon his neck, and bears whatever burden the Father is pleased to lay upon his shoulders. For so he sustains that joint character of the Fathers servant and the Fathers son, in which he "glorifies the Father on the earth, and finishes the work which the Father giveth him to do" (John xvii 4).
I now bring these lectures to a close. I do so with the feeling that, however inadequately I have handled my great theme, I have at least thrown out some suggestive thoughts. I do not pretend to have established any peculiar views of my own. Very possibly not a few of the opinions I have advanced, and the criticisms by which I have supported them, may be shown to be crude conjectures and unwarrantable interpretations. Be it so. I shall still cherish the hope that more competent workmen may enter into my demolished labour, and may rear a better structure. For I cannot divest myself of the impression that, whether I am right or wrong in my notions of the Divine Fatherhood, the subject has not hitherto been adequately treated in the Church.
In particular, I venture on a critical observation touching the theology of the Reformation. In that theology, the subject of adoption, or the sonship of Christs disciples, did not, as it seems to me, occupy the place and receive the prominency to which it is, on scriptural grounds and warrants, entitled. It may be thought at first sight presumptuous to hazard this remark; but let the explanation which I am disposed to give of the fact be duly considered. The Reformers had enough to do to vindicate "the article of a standing or falling Church " - justification by faith alone; to recover it out of the chaos of Popish error and superstition; and to reassert it in its right connection with the doctrine of the absolute Divine Sovereignty, which Augustine had so well established. Their hands were full. It need not be matter of surprise that in their case, as well as in that of their predecessors the early fathers, there should have been lines of theological inquiry on which they scarcely at all entered.
One might almost say that it has fared somewhat ill with the truth as regards Gods fatherhood and his peoples sonship at both eras - both in the primitive Church and in the Church of the Reformation. It may, perhaps, in some respects, have I had more justice done to it at the former era than at the latter; although the patristic literature shows too plainly how the controversies about the supreme divinity of the Son tended to draw mens minds away from the sonship of his disciples. The divines of the Protestant Reformation and their successors gave their main strength to the questions at issue between them and Rome; of which questions this could scarcely be said to be one. The creeds and confessions of the Protestant and Reformed Churches, as well as the theological systems of their colleges, are for the most part extremely meagre and defective in what they say on the subject. In some it is not even noticed; in others it is made a part of justification, or a mere appendix to it; in none, I believe, does it receive sufficiently full and distinct treatment. Hence perhaps it is that the doctrine of the fatherhood has been so little understood and so much abused in recent days.
I have long had the impression that in the region of that great truth there lies a rich field of precious ore yet to be surveyed and explored; and that somewhere in that direction theology has fresh work to do, and fresh treasures to bring out of the storehouse of the Divine Word. For I am not one of those who would lay an arrest on progress in the science of divinity, and compel it to be stationary. I would not, indeed, be disposed to reopen discussions which, after ample investigation, under the useful, and perhaps necessary pressure of controversy, have been satisfactorily closed, or to unsettle the conclusions to which the Churches have harmoniously come on the vital and cardinal articles of the faith. I do not call for any revision of our creeds, confessions, and catechisms. By all means let them stand untouched; as monuments of the vast erudition and mental power of other days, and as safeguards of truth and bulwarks against error for ages yet to come. But it is no disparagement to these symbols to say of them that they do not exhaust the whole volume of revelation. For that is simply saying that the compilers were uninspired men, and that "the riches of Christ are unsearchable."
Take our own books, for instance, our Confession and Catechisms. I never have had any scruple to affirm that their statements on the subject of adoption are by no means satisfactory. No doubt all that they say is true; but it amounts to very little. The answer in the Shorter Catechism is really, in substance, scarcely anything more than that adoption is adoption. In the other documents, the matter is handled more fully, and some of the privileges of the children of God are enumerated. Still even in them the whole matter is left in the last degree vague and indefinite. And no information whatever is given, nor is any opinion expressed, as to how the relation of sonship is constituted, or as to what its precise nature is, viewed in the light of the incarnation.
The contrast is very remarkable, in this respect, between their treatment of the subject of adoption, and their treatment of all the other topics connected with the purchase and application of redemption; plainly showing, as I cannot but conclude, that while they had fully matured their views and made up their minds upon these last, - and were, in fact, quite at home in them, - they were very much at sea as to the former, - or had not sufficient leisure to master it.
I hold them, therefore, to have virtually left the whole of that department of theology which bears on Gods paternal relation to his people, and their filial relation to him, to a large extent an open question, or tabula ram, so far as any formal verdict or deliverance of theirs is concerned. I consider that we have the fullest liberty to sink new shafts in this mine, which they evidently had not adequately explored, if only we take care that our diggings shall do no damage to any of the far more important mines which they did explore, - and explored so thoroughly and so well.
I have endeavoured to lend some help in the way of, as it were, breaking ground. I have sought to observe the caution which I have now given, and I trust I have not violated it. Some of the thoughts I have ventured to throw out may seem to some critics to be nothing better than speculations. But I hope it will be admitted that none of them touch the foundations of the sacred temple of truth, or displace any of its stones. What I have advanced may, perhaps, in the long run and in other hands, add some features of symmetry and beauty to the structure, and even strengthen some of its buttresses. But all the old glory remains untarnished; all the old refuges for the weary and the lost are as open and as secure as ever.
I thoroughly believe that the line of inquiry which I have been tracing is as safe as I think it will prove to be interesting for any one who will prosecute it with due reverence, docility, and humifity of spirit. I commend the subject to the study of younger and fresher minds. And in doing so, I can scarcely suggest a better text from which to start than that wonderful answer, as it has always appeared to me, in the Larger Catechism, to the question (65), "What special benefits do the members of the invisible Church enjoy by Christ?" They "enjoy union and communion with him in grace and glory." This covers and comprehends all; union inferring communion. It explains their justification, as being community of righteousness with him. It explains their regeneration and sanctillcation, as being community of nature with him. It explains their adoption, as being community of sonship with him. To which last I assign the highest place.
For whereas in the others we have communion with him principally in grace, it is pre-eminently in the souship that we have communion with him in glory.
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