HUMAN AND DIVINE LOVE CONTRASTED.
ROMANS v. 7, 8. "For scarcely for a righteous man will
one die; yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die. But God
commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died
GOD's love to men, in its various relations, and in its various expressions, is the great and prevalent theme of the gospel. The gospel, indeed, is altogether a manifestation of that love, not only in the plan which it unfolds, but throughout all the language of its record. It is not only asserted that God loves us, but one principal object of whatever the sacred writers have been prompted to say, appears to be that of magnifying the divine attribute, and enhancing the estimation in which it should be held by those who are the objects of its exercise. And they do so, by employing simple but emphatic declarations - by indulging in bold and striking figures - and by having recourse to interesting, familiar, and impressive analogies.
Of this latter mode of showing forth the greatness of God's love, we have an excellent example in the words of my text. The apostle draws his illustration from what occurs among men - from their sentiments and behaviour towards those of their own species, whom they are led to succour or befriend. In the practical regards, which they exhibit for one another in circumstances of danger, or in times of need, we may sometimes be called to witness an extraordinary display of generosity and disinterestedness. But the most surprising instance of it, which has actually happened, or which can even be expected or imagined to happen, comes far - comes infinitely - behind that love to our race which God has revealed in the scheme of human redemption. On comparison, not only does the latter infinitely surpass the former in degree, but it possesses a richness, and it flows in a direction, and it engages in enterprises, and it delights in doings, which constitute a perfect contrast between the one and the other, and represent the love of God to man as belonging to a higher order of affections, than the love of man to his fellow, even in its purest and loftiest achievements.
Let us give our attention for a little to this important subject, by considering the two branches separately, into which it here divides itself, and the relation which they bear to the apostle's object in bringing them under our view.
I. First; there is the love of man to his fellow creatures. "For scarcely for a righteous man will. one die; yet peradventure for a good man some, would even dare to die." In the annals of the world, you may find instances of generosity and of gratitude, in which these sentiments were manifested by the greatest of all personal sacrifices - the sacrifice of life. But such instances are rare, - so rare, that the apostle himself does not seem to have been aware of one which he could specify as authentic and appropriate; for he speaks here, not as if he had a matter of real and known fact in his eye, but only as if he were admitting an hypothesis, an event within the bounds of possibility or of likelihood. And, with all your knowledge of history, even since the introduction of Christianity has engendered the spirit, and given larger room for the exploits, of a nobler philanthropy, there are but few among you, perhaps,. who can produce a single example of the benevolent heroism to which we allude. You may have read or heard of frightful dangers being encountered, poignant sufferings being endured, and. extraordinary alienations of wealth or power being submitted to, for the purpose of rescuing others from threatened and inevitable destruction. There may be cases of this kind, amounting to the romantic and. the splendid, which cannot be contemplated without admiration, and which redeem our species, in some measure, from the stigma of that selfishness which is generally imputed to it, and by which it is too truly characterised. But seldom has it been known, that any one has deliberately devoted himself to death, in order to deliver his fellow-mortal even from the heaviest calamity, or to procure for him even the most precious privilege. And among the few solitary cases of this kind, with which the course of ages has furnished us, it may not perhaps be difficult to discover, that the deed which has been ascribed to generous and high-wrought feeling, might be justly, and in a great degree at least, traced to the workings of self-love, or to a desire for posthumous fame, or to some other motive which detracts from the worth and purity of the affection that was supposed. to be chiefly operative.
Granting, however, that instances could be adduced free from all such imperfection and alloy, it remains true, that wherever the elevated spirit in question has displayed itself, it has been uniformly a tribute paid to distinguished and commanding excellence, or in acknowledgment of obligations too strong and too sacred to be satisfactorily fulfilled by a less noble or a less costly recompense. It has been dictated by an enthusiastic and worshipping delight in pre-eminent virtue, or called forth by such experience of undeserved, and unexpected, and unmeasured kindness, as overpowers every consideratjon of ease and safety, and can be contented with nothing short of the highest and most unbounded expressions of reciprocal attachment. And, if we seek for it animating a single bosom, or giving birth to a single effort, where it had nothing to awaken it, or nothing to work upon but moral corruption, base ingratitude, bitter hostility, total. and inveterate worthlessness - we shall seek for it in vain, for we shall seek for that, to which there is no adequate cause - no counterpart in the rational constitution of man - to which his judgment and his sensibilities are in thorough opposition, and, of which, therefore, the whole earth has never afforded the slightest proof, or been visited with one solitary practical illustration.
"Scarcely for a righteous man will one die." Suppose an individual distinguished by the strictest principles of honour and integrity; who had ever abhorred the most distant approach to anything that savoured of injustice or oppression; who had exerted himself on all occasions to maintain the rights, and redress the wrongs, of others; and who not only had committed no offence against the community, but whose undeviating rectitude, whose righteous deportment, .whose imnmoveable fidelity, whose defence of truth, whose practice of all the sterner virtues, arising from the fear of God and the hatred of every thing that is mean or base, had distinguished him above his every associate and fellow-citizen, and rendered him the object of profound and universal veneration ; suppose .that such a person had long filled your eye and commanded your respect, and that by the decree of iniquity or of despotism, he were doomed to expiate an imaginary crime on an ignominious scaffold; which of you would step forward to. ward off his fate, and to save his life by the sacrifice of your own? Is there one in the whole range of your personal acquaintance, or is there one of all the multitude that books and fame have brought within the sphere of your knowledge, whom you could confidently expect to pay such a difficult and an expensive homage to moral greatness in the form of fallen humanity? Or, from what, you feel in your own minds, and from what you know of that. nature which you have in common with the whole posterity of Adam, could you anticipate that any man, with all the passionate devotedness he might be conceived to possess to whatsoever things are true, and virtuous, and venerable, could so far overcome his inborn repugnance to the suffering of death, as that he would willingly submit to it, even in its mildest shape, in order to purchase an exemption from the evil for him who had been thus long and deservedly the object of his deepest reverential regard? No, my friends; neither experience, nor observation, nor any acquaintance, you may otherwise have with mankind, will justify you in. speculating on such an instance of love, as coming within the limits of probability, or in affirming it as a fact which has at any time been exhibited to the world. You can only allow it to be possible; and say with the apostle, that "scarcely for a righteous man will one die."
But, supposing,- that to the righteousness' of this Individual, we were to add the more engaging and attractive graces of benevolence; supposing that he shrunk from the very idea of inflicting pain on any of his fellow-creatures - that he sympathized with all the children of affliction- that he was prompt, and liberal, and unwearied, in relieving distress wherever it was to be found - that he was ever ready to help his friends, and to forgive his enemies - that he delighted in scattering blessings over all his neighbourhood, and, diffusing happiness 'throughout the whole familyof mankind - that the poor and the ignorant, the fatherless and the widow, the sorrowful and the outcast, found in him a refuge from their troubles, and a solace to their hearts - that he was distinguished, in short, by all that is melting in tenderness, by all that is winning in compassion, by all that is god-like in beneficence; and supposing that his goodness had not been able to screen him from the tyrant's violence, but had only seemed to hasten his end, and to bring upon him the doom of most unmerited destruction, would there be any among those to whom such merciful and generous characters as his are dearest - would there be any, even of those who had shared most plentifully in the kindness that he felt, and in the bounties that he lavished, and over whose feelings gratitude had acquired the most undivided ascendency, that would agree to be his substitute, to receive the stroke which was about to fall upon him, and to expire amidst shame and torture, in his behalf? Yes; you may conceive such cases to occur. There is something within us which, though it amounts not to all that is requisite for the heroism that is imagined, seems to tell us, that by minds of greater ardour and of stronger nerve, it is a practicable attainment. And it is believed, that even in this world - so barren of sublime morality - it has been oftener than once realized. Still, however, the apostle speaks correctly when he says, that it is only "some" who would thus die for a good man - that, even for this act of chivalrous per. formance, there would be required a "daring" of which man's breast is seldom conscious - and that after all, the fact must be qualified with a "peradventure," as if it were still but doubtful, and hardly to be numbered among the higher accomplishments of our species, Or among the nobler capabilities of our nature.
To the statement of the apostle, we may superadd the statement of our Lord himself, that "greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." This is the utmost limit to which human affection can go. No higher or more precious exercise of it can be predicated with any degree of certainty and truth. TIhe tie of friendship is strong and. endearing, Those whom it unites have a mutual sympathy and a mutual complacency, to which the strongest ordinary likings and alliances bear no proper comparison. They have a community of attachments and aversions of joys and of sorrows. Their hearts are knit together, as if they were one. It is misery for them to be separated in life, and greater misery still to be divided by death. And he is happiest who is privileged to offer the largest sacrifices for the welfare and the safety of the other, when opportunity occurs, or when circumstances require. Under such impulses it is not difficult to call up cases to our imagination, and it may not be impossible to discover cases in history, which hold out one man risking or surrendering his life, that he may vindicate the honour, or redeem the life, of another. And this may be still more readily admitted, if we consider friendship as comprehending those relationships of kindred, which, binding husband and wife, parent and child, brother and sister, by a thousand endearments, render delegated suffering a pleasure, as well as a duty, and instinctively prompt to efforts and endurances, from whose ample range even the terrors of death are not excluded.
Now, in all the examples to which we have referred, the sacrifice is made in consideration of motives that arise from worth exhibited, or benefits conferred, or obligations of some kind or other imposed, by them on whose account it has been demanded. Scarcely for a "righteous man" will one die - peradventure for a "good man," some will even dare to die - greater love hath no man than this, that a man should lay down his life for "his friend."
But supposing ,a person destitute of these claims on generous feeling - supposing him, on the contrary, to be iniquitous, malevolent, and hostile; supposing him to be covered with moral deformity that makes him loathsome, and guilty of atrocious crimes committed against the comfort, the reputation, the honour, of one who had lavished upon him every token of kind regard, who had treated him with the confidence of a friend, with the affection of a brother, with the tenderness of a parent - and supposing that for, all his demerit, he had been condemned to die, and under his sentence of condemnation, cherished as bitter an enmity, and expressed as determined a vengeance, against his benefactor as he had ever done before - would that benefactor, or would any of the children of men, consent to occupy his room, and suffer his judicial fate, in order to send him back again to the life, and the liberty, and the enjoyment, which he had so justly forfeited?
Ah! no: that is a height of love, which humanity has never reached, and of which humanity is utterly incapable. Philosophy may conjecture it as possible, and poetry may give it a place in her fictitious delineations. But we observe not the seeds or elements of it in the moral constitution of man, In vain shall we search for any exemplification of it in the annals of human philanthropy. The scripture represents it as utterly unattainable. And were it ever to occur, we should be compelled to regard it as a miracle not less striking, than the most wonderful of all those wonderful works ,which stamped divinity on the economy of Moses, and on the gospel of Christ.
II. But that which man in all his love to his brethren has never felt, or offered, or accomplished, has been realized and manifested in the love which he has experienced from the holy God, "God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." The love of God is illustrated by two circumstances here specifically stated. First, "Christ died for us;" and, secondly and chiefly, he " died for us, while we were yet sinners."
1. "Christ died for us." The apostle could not speak of God dying for us, which would have been the exact parallel; for death cannot possibly be predicated of him who is eternal, and who "alone hath immortality."
In the First Epistle of John, indeed, at the third chapter, and sixteenth verse, our version reads thus - " Hereby perceive we the love of God,. because he laid down his life for us." But in the original, it is not "the love of God," but merely "the love," or "love ;" and, therefore, we should rather render the passage in the following manner :- " Hereby perceive we the love of God in Christ; or hereby perceive we love- divine love,- because he, in whom,, and, by whom, that love hath been manifested, died for us." Or, if we take it as it stands in our version, we are to consider it as ascribing to God what strictly and properly can affirmed only of Christ, - of Christ as "God manifest in the flesh," possessing the divine and human, natures in mysterious union, the divine nature, imparting a dignity and a value to the human nature, and to the sufferings and death that it endured, which it could not otherwise have had. A similar form of expression is found in the Acts of the Apostles, at the 20th chapter and 28th verse, where Paul is represented as saying to the elders of Ephesus, " Take heed, therefore, unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood." In the rigid sense of the terms it could not be the blood of God; but it was the blood of "Emmanuel," or "God with us," incarnate in "the man Christ Jesus." When we speak of the "arm" of God, we mean his power: when we speak of his "eye," we mean his omniscience; and when the apostle speaks of his "blood," he means the atonement which was made for sin by him, who was God and man in one person, and whose supreme deity gave to his suffering humanity its virtue, for the expiation of human guilt.
When, therefore, it is said, in the words of our text, as a proof of God's love, that "Christ died for us," we must remember, exactly and impressively, who Christ was, as well as what he did. He died for us that he might take away our sin, and make reconciliation for our iniquity. And we cannot estimate sufficiently the pains and the ignominy of that death, to which be submitted, as the punishment that was due from holy and incensed omnipotence, to a rebellious, degenerate, and guilty world. But, in viewing it as a manifestation of divine love it is necessary to recollect the intimate connexion, which God had with it. The scheme, of which it formed the leading feature and the essential principle, was altogether of his appointment. He so loved the world, as to give his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him might not perish, but have everlasting life. And in reference to his incarnate Son becoming a sin-offering for us, he is said to have "laid upon him the iniquity of us all," and to have "set him forth as a propitiation for our sins through faith in his blood." And, while God was thus so gracious, as to devise a plan, by which our souls might be redeemed through the sacrifice of Christ, it becomes us to think of the relation in which Christ stood to him, Christ was not the creature, nor the mere servant of God, but "his Son, his only begotten and well beloved Son, the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person."
Yet, though thus possessed of all the attributes of divinity, and forming the object of the ineffable complacency and love of, his Father, God did "not spare him," but prepared a body for his inhabitation, sent him to sojourn in our evil world, made him "a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief," and then "freely delivered him up to the death for us all." So that, "in this was manifested the love of God toward us, because' that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him."
2. But the principal evidence of God's love to us is contained in the fact, that Christ died for us, "while we were yet sinners." Had the nature and character of man been such, as that the eye of God could have looked on him with complacency - had there existed in him a paramount disposition to keep the divine commandments, and to promote the divine glory - had he followed such a course of obedience as at once conformed to the.will, and reflected the image of him, who is "glorious in holiness" - or, having, through the power of temptation, fallen from his allegiance, had the feelings of penitential regret and sorrow pervaded his heart, and made him willing to return to the path he had forsaken, and to regain the favour he had lost; and, amidst numerous failings and transgressions, had there been a resolute striving to render any portion of that submission, which the great ruler of the universe must ever require from the rational subjects whom he governs - had these been the circumstances of the case, we should not have been amazed by any degree of condescension and of pity which appeared in God's administration towards the human race. Mysterious and adorable as the incarnation of his own Son, and its accompanying course of humiliation, must have been in our esteem, whatever gave rise to such an act of benignity, still we should have observed in the objects whom it regarded, the qualities that seemed to merit or to justify it, on the ordinary principles of moral rectitude and consistency. But the marvel lies in this, that there was no good desert no amiableness of disposition - no excellence of conduct - no compunction for offence, and no desire of reformation - to attract the regards of a holy being, and to invite a willing interposition of his benevolence.
On the contrary, there was worthlessness, there was guilt, there was perversity, and such a degree of those odious qualities, as to alienate kind affection - to provoke a just indignation to warrant an utter exclusion from happiness and from hope. It was this barrier which lay between God and his apostate offspring; and in surmounting it, he has outstripped all the doings, and all the conceptions of man, respecting the exercise of compassion between one intelligence,: and another, and caused us to wonder and to worship at the extent of that love, which he has embodied in the death of Christ for the salvation of sinners. We were "yet sinners," when Christ died for us. We were not only undeserving of a single token or communication of good will, but corrupt and vile throughout every department of our moral frame, and throughout the whole extent of our moral practice. We had incurred the displeasure of "him who is of purer eyes than to behold, iniquity," and who "hates all the workers of it with a perfect hatred," and had fully merited the penalty with which he had righteously armed and sanctioned his law. We had no sincere regret, no genuine abasement, no penitential visitings of the soul, to melt his indignant eye, to arrest his avenging arm, to stay his coming wrath, to bespeak his relenting's,' and his long suffering, and his sparing mercy. And having trampled on his rich goodness, as well as. disobeyed and insulted his dread authority, we had see thus arrayed against us that very attribute on which alone we could have depended, and to which alone we could have appealed. So that had our own case been presented to us in all its melancholy details and bearings, and had we judged of it by the feelings of man to man, and the treatment of man by man within the whole range of human consciousness and experience, we must have at once concluded, that if such an arrangement as the death of Christ for sinners was necessary for their redemption, the favour of God which they had lost by transgression they had lost for ever, and that nothing awaited them but punishment, and misery, and despair.
But there are resources in the eternal mind, which are equally beyond our reach and our comprehension. There is a power, and a magnitude, and a richness in the love of God towards those upon whom it is set, to which the love of the creature cannot even approximate, of which the imagination of the creature could not have formed any previous idea, and which, even to the experience of the creature, presents a subject of inscrutable mystery- a theme of wondering gratitude and praise. Man may love, man should love, man must love his fellows; but he never did, and never can love them like God. His is a love that throws man's into the distance and the shade. Had he only loved us as man loves, there would have been no Salvation - no heaven - no felicity for us - no glad tidings to cheer our hearts; no promised land on which to fix our anticipations - no table of commemoration and of communion spread for us in the wilderness, to refresh us amidst the toils, and the languishings, and the sorrows of our pilgrimage' thither. His violated law must have taken its course; the vials of his wrath must have been poured out; and everlasting, unmitigated ruin must have been our portion.
But behold! God is by itself; and his love, in all its workings, and in all its influences, and in all its effects, can stoop to no parallel with the best and most ardent of human affections. Guilt, which forbids and repress man's love, awakens, and kindles, and secures God's. Death for the guilty is too wide a gulf for man's love to pass over. God's love to the guilty is infinitely "stronger than death," and spurns at all such limits, and smiles at the agonies and the ignominies of a cross, that it may have its perfect work. God, in the exercise of his love toward, our sinful and miserable race, is concerned, where man would be unmoved, indifferent, and cold. God, is full of pity, where man would frown with stern and relentless aversion. God forgives, where man would condemn and punish. God saves, where man would destroy." While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us."
Well may we ask, " Is this the manner of man, 0 Lord God'?" And' well may God answer, " My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts." And well may we exclaim, "Herein, indeed, is love ; not that we loved God - but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins." " 0 the breadth, and length, and depth, and height of the love of God and of Christ; it passeth knowledge!" We cannot enter, at present, into a full application of the interesting subject, which we have endeavoured to illustrate. But our time has been occupied to little purpose, and we must be very unsusceptible of good impressions, if all that we have offered to your attention be allowed to pass away as a dreamy or useless speculation, and if we do not more or less experience its practical influence in our minds, and manifest it in our conduct. There is no theme more deeply affecting than the love of God, as revealed and set forth ,in the death of Christ for sinners. It embraces all our permanent interests. It is fitted to exert a happy and improving power over the whole of our Christian character. It is fraught with the richest consolation which can be needed by us, or administered to us, in our circumstances of sinfulness, and danger, and distress, And whatever imperfections may attach to our illustrations of it, the simple fact anflounced in the text, is such as to teach us many useful lessons, and to exert upon us many salutary innfluence, unless we are strongly cased in infideity and impenitence. And 0, if even our infidelity and impenitence will not melt away at the contemplation of God's rich and ineffable love to our guilty race, how aggravated must be our condemnation, and how utterly hopeless - how impenetrably dark - how superlatively wretched, must be all our future prospects!
But if the love of God be felt by us in all its importance, and in all its power, it will constrain us to accept the boon it has provided for us at such a costly rate, and to prize the salvation which comes thus recommended to us, as of inestimable value. It will stir us up to love God in return - to feel for him a love which will fill and pervade the heart, which will lead us to seek and to take delight in holding spiritual intercourse with him, and which will be embodied in our life and conversation, determining us to devote ourselves cordially and constantly to the service of' him who has redeemed us in his love and in his pity, that we might be to him a holy people.
It will encourage us to confide in God for every blessing that we need, and to confide in him even when appearances would indicate that he has forgotten us or cast us off; for the truth contained in the text is incompatible with any disposition on his part to refuse us whatsoever our necessities may require. He that spared not his own Son, but freely delivered him up to the death for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things; and how can he ever leave or forsake those whom he thus purchased at the price of blood, so precious and divine?
And finally, it will make us embrace every opportunity of celebrating its greatness, of proclaiming our sense of those obligations under which it has laid us, of exercising all those sentiments which it naturally inspires, and of pledging ourselves to all that conduct which it both prescribes and exemplifies. In the good providence ,of God, that opportunity is now before us. Let us cheerfully and gratefully avail ourselves of it. Let us sit down at a communion table with hearts overflowing with love to Him who first loved us, and who loved us in the midst of our unworthiness, and who loved us even to the death. Let us exercise a vigorous and a lively faith in the merit of that great atonement, which the wisdom of God, in furtherance of the love of God, has appointed for cancelling our guilt, and establishing our peace and hope. Let us be filled with sentiments of profound humility and godly sorrow, as we read, in the memorials of Christ's death, the evil and the bitterness of sin which rendered it necessary, and, to take away which, its shame and its agonies were endured. Let us abound in joy when we meditate on the fruitful and inexhaustible mercy, which we are called to remember as we shew forth the Lord's death, and from which we are emboldened to draw consolation and encouragement, and liberal and constant supply to every necessity that can possibly occur in our lot.
And having experienced the love of God in giving Christ to the death for us, let us rest upon the promise, that this divine Saviour will come again and he, whom we commemorate as having once suffered for our transgressions, will appear hereafter, and ere long, to give us complete and eternal redemption, and that, having rescued us from, the dishonours of the grave, and clothed us with the robe of immortality, and introduced us into the incorruptible inheritance of his Father's kingdom, he will give us in our everlasting experience to understand the full meaning, and will tune our hearts for pouring forth the rapturous strains of that high anthem, "Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God even his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen."
Preached at the celebration of the Lord's Supper, in St. George's Church, Edinburgh, 10th May 1829.
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