Stacks Image 385


CHAPTER XV.


KNOWING BY OBEYING.


"If any man willeth to do his will, he shall know of the teaching, whether it be of God, or whether I speak from myself." — John vii. 17 R. V.

THE Revisers have done excellent service to this text. They have brought into prominence the pivotal word which is obscured in our Authorized version and slurred over as a simple sign of the future tense of the verb
to do. "If any man will do" should be "If any man willeth to do." It is not the bare performance of God's outward commands, but the right attitude of any man's will, which will give him certitude respecting Christ's doctrine. He must be brought into ethical harmony with God in singleness of purpose and perfect self-surrender, if he desires to be led on to that faith in Christ which ends in a satisfactory and certain knowledge of the divine character of his teaching. Men are not always in a condition to do God's will, but they can will to do God's will always, even as did the penitent thief on the cross. His hand was not free, but his heart was obedient.

This utterance of Jesus is of great value inasmuch as he teaches that obedience is requisite to saving faith, and this faith is crowned with a joyful assurance. Obedience is the root of faith, and faith is the seed of all spiritual knowledge. Christ tells us in the text how this seed may sprout and bud and blossom and ripen into the fruitage of assurance. It is not pleasant for a preacher to assume that he is addressing any skeptic. We will not make any such assumption. Skepticism in our times does not often go to church. We will assume that all our hearers assent to Christ's claim to be the Revelation of God, and are desirous of arriving at a certainty excluding all doubts respecting both the divine origin of Christianity and their personal salvation. The question which challenged the investigation of every Jew confronts each of us and demands an answer: "Does Jesus speak from himself as a mere fallible man, or is he the mouthpiece of God for the expression of immutable truth? Was his humanity a veil in which the Son of God dwelt, receiving the truth from his Father on one side of the veil, and handing it out to mankind on the other side? Does the Gospel bear the image and superscription of man, or of God?" This is an inquiry which should awaken the most intense interest in every inhabitant of the globe. Values inconceivable, estates imperishable, are involved in this interrogatory. If all your earthly substance, the earnings and savings of all your active life, were sold for one bank note, with what caution and carefulness you would examine that note to determine first its genuineness and then the character of the bank to ascertain its solvency. You would exhaust all sources of knowledge, you would question all the experts accessible. The New Testament is God's bank note issued to you, involving not only temporal values but eternal well being. Especially important is this examination on your part, since the value of Christianity to you individually, after you have proved its heavenly origin, is dependent on your own faith, the attitude of your own will toward the personal Christ. Your lack of faith in a genuine bunk note does not destroy its value so long as the bank is solvent and will give you its face in gold. But your personal faith is absolutely necessary to you, if you wish to realize the transcendent worth of Christianity to you personally, after your reason is convinced of its truth. This kind of faith always implies a will submissive to God's will. It is true that your distrust of a genuine bank bill does not damage its real value, but it is detrimental to you and destructive of all benefit to you, if it causes you to sell it to the rag-collector for a penny a pound, or to regard it as worthless and to keep it forever from the counter of the bank where you might exchange it for gold coin. This is the condition of multitudes in Christian lands. They do not have faith in Christ sufficient to induce a complete submission of the will to God. Hence they live in the land of doubts and darkness. They are paupers with millions of gold on deposit awaiting their demand. Just as confidence in a bank whose notes are in your pocket is requisite to prompt you to present them for the coin, so is faith in God's promises a necessary condition of your reception of the salvation that he offers. He who believeth persistently shall be saved. Let not the man who wavereth think he will receive anything from God. He does not ask us to believe without sufficient evidence, nor does he ask us to obey him without a proper knowledge of his character. When he says, "This is my only begotten and well-beloved Son, hear him, believe in him as ye believe in me," he affords abundant proofs of the Godhood of the Son, who came into the world with the Father's great seal of miracles in his hand. His sinlessness amid a race of sinners demonstrates his heavenly origin. His resurrection according to his own prediction establishes beyond any reasonable doubt the truth, "He who hath seen me hath seen the Father; I and my Father are one." Though the argument is cogent, and the scriptural proofs are convincing, yet there is a still more satisfactory demonstration that Jesus is the Divine Savior, experience of his power to save, and to certify the fact by the testimony of the Holy Spirit crying in the heart "Abba, Father."

An obedient will puts the soul into harmony with God and his moral universe. It puts eye-salve upon men's eyes and they clearly see. Our text, in teaching that knowledge comes through the will, upsets all the mental philosophies. None of them has ever made the will anything more than the executive of man's personality. But Jesus teaches that the will is the organ of spiritual perception, the highest knowledge. At least its right action is the condition of such knowledge. The highest Christian evidences are not logical, but experimental, and are accessible to the Uncle Toms and Dread Scotts, illiterate slaves, as well as to the Isaac Newtons and John Lockes of science and philosophy. The most cultivated intellect refusing to bow to God's commands inevitably misses that knowledge which the humble and God-fearing slave easily receives, because his nature is open God-ward. Says the Psalmist, without any boasting, "I am wiser than the ancients, because I keep thy law." Says Pascal, "The heart has its reasoning which the reason knows nothing of." This is the substance of Balfour's "Foundation of Belief." There are in our text several assumptions: —

1. Christ's doctrines are worthy of examination and of reception, if they are from God. No man can be an honest, religious inquirer who ignores that religious teacher who has subverted the Grecian and Roman mythologies, changed the course of history, and laid the foundation of modern civilization. To neglect Christ is to repress your noblest instincts and to antagonize your clearest moral intuitions. Man is a religious being. He must elect one of the many religions of which the world is full. To refuse to bow the knee to some object of worship is to become an Atheist, a monstrosity. To which one of the rival gods will you bow? The twelve greater gods of mythology were driven from Olympus fifteen centuries ago, Jupiter, Juno, Venus, Apollo, and the rest. Will you turn to one of the modem pagan gods, as Buddha of India? Or will you adopt the religion of the sensual and bloody Mohammed, or become a disciple of Confucius, who has made the millions of China a stagnant pool among the nations of the world? There is a religion which prizes and transforms the individual, quickens the intellect, purifies morals, inspires liberty, organizes free constitutions, founds common schools, builds hospitals, and ministers to suffering humanity everywhere on earth. We need not call its name. It arose upon the world like the sunrise With a self-evidencing power so impressive as to extort from all thoughtful and candid men the exclamation, "This is the Sun, all other lights are mere phosphorescent exhalations from the swamps of the earth, deceiving the hopes of the benighted race of men." We need no candle to see this sunrise. He lights his own pathway through the skies with the splendors which he pours forth. Thus the historic Christ arose, and thus he manifests himself to the consciousness of the believer as the day star arising in She heart. To the believing soul Jesus is the revelation of the true God. The Holy Spirit inwardly reveals him so enstamped with the marks and badges of Divinity that all other lights become dim before his brightness. His matchless symmetry of character, his self-sacrificing philanthropy, his spotless purity, his infinite superiority to all others who claim worship, leave us with no alternative but Jesus or Atheism. The skeptics are so impressed with this fact that they are endeavoring to explain the character of Christ on the plane of naturalism, to classify him as a mere man, to destroy, pervert, or explain his unique Person. This is the Herculean task of Liberalism, to explain away that divine Personality which has burst into the world, changing the color of the whole stream of history, and creating a golden milestone for the course of time to which all events in human annals must be referred, as if nothing had preceded it.

2. We note another assumption in the text. The will of God is so far known to every soul as to make it morally accountable. To the Hebrews God revealed his commands through revelation. They were required to bow to the mandates of Jehovah. We are assured in our text that every devout Jew who had thus obeyed would be drawn into so strong sympathy with Jesus and into so complete identity of will with that of the Father that he would immediately discover the truth of the teaching of Christ by a kind of spiritual intuition arising from spiritual affinity. All truly spiritual minds in the Hebrew nation did receive him as the promised Messiah. The same is true of the pagan world to-day. All who have the spirit of faith and hunger for righteousness are disposed to receive Jesus Christ as the object of their faith when his Gospel is first clearly made known. This is because the moral law which is incarnated in him is also imbedded in our nature though fallen. All pagans who hearken to its voice are listening to an echo of the voice of the Son of God through whom they were created. Hence Jesus affirms that every truly conscientious person, Jew or Gentile, who desires to do right and wills to obey his moral convictions, will infallibly recognize Christ as his Savior and Lord, when his Gospel is presented to him. Immanuel Kant affirmed that the two things which awakened in his bosom the highest emotions of sublimity were the starry heavens above and the moral law within. Daniel Webster testified that his most sublime thought was man's responsibility to God. Natural religion, or the religion of conscience, is sufficient to render all men everywhere accountable to the moral Governor of the universe. "For when the Gentiles, which have not the (written) law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these having not the law are a law unto themselves; which show the work (essence) of the law written in their hearts" (Rom. ii. 14, 15). Such Gentiles are "of the truth." Jesus says, "every one who is of the truth," disposed to follow wherever truth leads, "heareth my voice," i.e., obeys me. There is no exception. Hence there can be no such character as an honest skeptic. If he is honest now, he has not always followed his best light, even though it be the starlight of Nature. At some point in his history he has seen his duty and refused to do it fearing unpleasant consequences. This refusal has dulled his moral perception so that he does not recognize the Truth when she puts on the vesture of flesh and walks forth in the form of the sinless Son of God. Willful sin spreads a film over the eye of the soul. Hence no man who has willfully sinned even once, can set up the plea of perfect honesty in his neglect of Jesus Christ. Not till there is heartfelt repentance of that sin will the power of a clear spiritual perception be restored by the grace of God. Living in a skeptical age we fail to find one unregenerate person who declares that he now wills to do all the known will of God, and that he has always and invariably thus willed. Hence we say there are no honest and innocent unbelievers. It is said that a man may repeat a falsehood so many years that he may come at last to believe his own lie. But this does not lessen his responsibility, nor does it prove that he is now an honest man. The Gospel of Christ commends itself to every man's conscience, just as the theorem in geometry and the multiplication table commend themselves to every man's reason. The careless boy who learns this table incorrectly cannot be an accurate accountant till he has eliminated from his memory this streak of falsehood. It is just so with the man who insists that his conscience does not prompt him to show by love and obedience his gratitude to Jesus Christ his Divine Benefactor and Savior.

The eye that sees no beauty in the rainbow is a defective eye. The soul that sees no loveliness in Christ has a perverted moral sense. No soul can set up the plea that he came honestly by this perversity till he has shown that it is not the product of his own will in transgressing some known law of God. "Ye will not come unto me that ye may have life," said Jesus to students of the Scriptures seeking eternal life in the Old Testament, while rejecting the Giver of eternal life with manifest marks of divinity written in every feature and in every word and deed. "The Scriptures testify of me, and yet ye will not come to me that ye may have eternal life." Our text recognizes the fact that there is more than one will in the universe. A free will is a cause uncaused, a first cause, of its own moral acts. When God created the first moral intelligence, he introduced the possibility of moral discord commonly called sin. Every free agent in probation may, by a deadlock of his will with God's will, obstruct his own salvation, and commit moral suicide. The possibility of such a result cannot be avoided in a moral system. Risks always attend freedom. To eliminate this risk would be to reduce the moral system to a mechanical system in which the Maker is the only responsible being, yea, and the only person. All things would move smoothly in such a universe. There would be eternal harmony, with no discord grating on the ear, no desire or purpose clashing with the will of God. There would be no suffering, because there could be no sin; and there could be no sin, because there is no freedom. Nor could there be any acceptable praise from a universe of puppets acting only as they are acted upon by the manager behind the scenes. God had such a universe once before he created angels and men. The whole material world, every particle of matter in the remotest fixed star, obeyed the Creator's will. But he was not satisfied with the obedience of mechanical necessity. It afforded no scope for the display and exercise of his moral attributes. He wished creatures capable of bearing his image, beings having personality and faculties responsive to his own, beings with whom he could commune. Such beings must be free, for God is free. In probationary beings freedom to stand is inseparable from freedom to fall. This is saying that sin under such conditions is possible, not necessary. Into such a universe no suffering could come except through the gateway of some will setting itself against God. What a sad and eventful hour was that when the first will arose in rebellion against the moral Governor of the world! It requires no prophet's eye to foresee the unutterable woe which must follow the collision of the creature with the Creator. When the collision came on the earth, the Son of God appeared in the robes of humanity to persuade his mortal kinsmen to obey the scepter in the hand of omnipotent love, rather than to render an eternal, unwilling submission to the rod in the hand of justice. To prevent a disaster so appalling was an occasion worthy of the interposition of God the Father Almighty, who so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. Behold the suffering which wrung the Father's heart in the surrender of the Son of his eternal love. In the atonement mark the removal of the barriers against pardon on the God-ward side, and the melting suasives applied to men to remove their hardness, disarm their hate, dispel their fears, and draw them to a penitent submission to God, and a glad enthronement of his Son as both Savior and Lord. The whole range of possible motives is appealed to, hope and fear. While Sinai threatens, Calvary invites. Jesus uncovers the abyss of woe, and bids the sinner look upon the undying worm and the unquenchable fire. He also parts the clouds above, and bids him hear the angels in the presence of his Father rejoice over one sinner that repenteth. He goes about doing good to the souls and bodies of men, that he may draw their wills into submission to his Father. When he sees that all his work of love, all his instructions and arguments, are unavailing, he weeps over his beloved Jerusalem in view of that pitiless storm of wrath which would so soon come down upon the Holy City.

Methinks I see the adorable Lamb of God, just before he leaves the mercy-seat and mounts the throne of final judgment, look down from some heavenly Olivet, and with tearful eyes exclaim, "O rebellious men, rebellious men, how often I would have gathered you, but ye would not." Here the human will defeats the merciful and saving purpose of our adorable Savior.

Omnipotence has its limitations. Wisdom and love set bounds to the exercise of power. God is too wise to attempt to create loyalty by almightiness, and He is too good to crush out freedom of will and reduce a man to a machine, in order to save him from hell, and he is too pure to enthrone a vile soul in a holy heaven, and to compel unholiness to dwell forever in the presence of His own spotless purity. Banishment from God would be a mercy to such a soul. Freedom of moral choice is a right which our Creator will ever sacredly respect.

The great problem of salvation involves the question, how to bring all human wills into accord with God's will. Hence we are all taught to pray, "Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven." The whole scheme of the Gospel, in all its provisions, doctrines, and motives, under the dispensation of the Holy Spirit, is adapted to secure this harmony of wills by the glad surrender of man to God. If the present dispensation fails to sway any human will, it is certain that the visible reign of the Son of God on the earth would fail to do anything more than to constrain unwilling souls into a sullen and unloving submission to a majesty and power which it would not be good policy to resist. The present dispensation of the invisible Christ influencing men by his representative, the Paraclete, best conserves that balance of motives requisite for the free action of the will in its choice of a spontaneous obedience to God, aided, but not compelled, by Divine grace. The risen Jesus has been exalted, not to necessitate repentance, but to give the gracious ability to repent and claim by faith the remission of sins. We believe that this is the best state of probation for a fallen race, redeemed by the blood of God's only begotten Son; that it is best adapted to test the question of our loyalty to Christ, and to develop stalwart Christian characters. Our faith in God's wisdom and love constrains us to believe that he has adopted the best means to persuade sinners to repent and to receive Jesus Christ, and that this best method will continue till he descends to the general judgment to pronounce the final sentence upon the righteous and the wicked.

The doctrine that spiritual insight or the capacity to receive spiritual truth comes from a will in accord with the Divine will is only another way of saying that sympathy with the truth is requisite to a vision of truth, that obedience lifts the soul out of darkness into the marvelous light. Then Christ stands forth apart from all created beings as the truth itself, manifested in humanity in order that the truth may be more perfectly manifested to humanity. Thus seen with the two eyes of obedience and faith Jesus Christ, the fountain and essence of truth, ceases to be a vague and shadowy being, but he becomes a glorious reality. Viewed with the intellect only he is without substance and comeliness, "and there is no beauty that we should desire him." Obedience sets an electric are light in the soul, dispelling all shadows and illusions, and setting Christ forth as a bright reality. It has been well said that if a person should pull up doubt by the root he would find a sin at the end of it as the seed from which it sprung. Doing God's will, therefore, is the shortest road out of the wilderness of doubt.

3. As a safeguard against fanaticism we call attention to the fact that Jesus does not promise that obedient souls will have new revelations of spiritual truths, but that they will be perfectly assured of the Divine origin of truths already accredited as inspired. They will know all vital Christian truths when they know Jesus Christ as the truth. In addition the Holy Spirit will reveal such personal facts as the pardon of sins and purity of heart — facts fundamental to salvation in its two great stages of regeneration and entire sanctification. We do "not assert that there will be in all who do God's will a perfect agreement respecting every item of the so-called evangelical creed, for the systematic classification of Christ's teachings as unfolded by his apostles, and their formulation in a creed, is the work of fallible human intellects in which there will always be room for differences of opinion and belief; yet the spiritual transformation which follows obedient faith enables men to see, eye to eye, all cardinal truths. The anointing that abideth and teacheth removes many intellectual difficulties, and magnifies all vital truths, such as the supreme Divinity of the Son of God and of the Personal Paraclete. There may be intellectual mysteries respecting these Persons, but to the consciousness they will be realities incomprehensible and generally indistinguishable. He who has had difficulties with the doctrine of Christ's Godhood will see a new and unanswerable argument in the fact that faith in him has created the soul anew. He can no longer doubt that he was its original Creator.

Sin, the essence of which is the neglect and rejection of Christ by unbelief, will now be seen in its enormity; also the unspeakable baseness of ingratitude toward such a Benefactor and Savior, and the fitness of the ultimate woeful destiny of all who persist in thwarting his efforts to "bless them by turning them away from their iniquities." It is a very significant fact that just in proportion to the decline of a church in spirituality by the admission of members who have never bowed their wills to God in the new birth, will be the amount of skepticism and agnosticism. Where the converting power has long been absent from a people, they become at last unable to call Jesus Lord. But when such persons make a complete surrender of their wills to God, their spiritual intuitions are so clarified that orthodoxy naturally follows. We need not cross the oceans and the centuries to find instances of spiritual decline followed by doctrinal decay. It is only one hundred and fifty years since Whitefield preached throughout America as a burning seraph just come from the presence of God, with his ardor in no degree dampened by the chill of unbelief. Many churches welcomed this great evangelist and heeded his messages of warning. These churches hold fast orthodoxy to-day. But those churches which were so spiritually dead as to shut their doors against him, have long since abandoned the doctrines of their Puritan ancestry, the faith once delivered to the saints, and have ceased to call Jesus Lord. It has been said that orthodoxy can be conserved only by spirituality. The heart is the keeper of the head.

This suggests the most effective method of restoring the agnostic, the pantheist and the skeptic to the true faith. First show in your own transfigured character that regeneration by the Holy Spirit is a reality giving victory over. the world and over sin, which their false philosophy signally fails to do. Secondly, induce them to practice the little truth to which they still cling. If their God is only a power which inclines to righteousness it affords some obligation to revere, and to worship. This implies prayer and praise and an earnest study of nature, history, and the records of that modern form of religion which has adorned individuals with the highest excellencies, and has given its national possessors the political domination of the world. This will bring them to the study of their dusty Bibles and to a clear knowledge of God's will. If they submit to his law just as perfectly as it is revealed to them they will be led step by step to Christ, the truth and the life. A heated theological debate with them will not bring them to Christ. It may be an exciting kind of intellectual athletics, a brilliant sword practice, but it will not bring them to a penitent reception of salvation through faith in the atonement. The old couplet is true:

Convince a man against his will,
He has the same opinion still.

What skeptics need is the warm atmosphere of unfeigned Christian love to thaw their hearts chilled by willful unbelief. How true is our text in the case of good people who are in doubt about the possibility of a complete extinction of the inherited propensity to sin. The sincere inquirer may easily put the doctrine to the test. I have a vivid recollection of an eloquent passage in one of Joseph Cook's lectures in which he calls upon the intellectual doubter to be scientific in his treatment of the Gospel by putting it to the test of an actual personal experiment. He challenged his hearers to fulfill the conditions of certainty and see what will be the result. Said he, "I assert that it is a fixed natural law that when you yield yourself utterly to God, he streams through and through your whole being, soul and body, giving you a new sense of his existence, and imparting a strength and a joy unknown before." Will you try self-surrender, submitting your will to God's will and continue in this attitude till heaven's fire descends on all your public and private altars? I have never known one to fail who perseveringly tried this experiment.

In conclusion we would say that we have specially accentuated the will of man because it is the only creator of character and destiny. For man is a creator of character. That is all that we shall ever be able to create in this world. We may amass money, build houses, ships, railroads, and cities, but we are only putting matter into new combinations; we create nothing but character, a fountain of joy or of sorrow evermore. In this particular man is like God. The moral attributes of both rest upon will, free will.

"Choose ye this day whom ye will serve."