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Romans i. 18-23

WE have as it were touched the heart of the Apostle as he weighs the prospect of his Roman visit, and feels, almost in one sensation, the tender and powerful attraction, the solemn duty, and the strange solicitation to shrink from the deliverance of his message. Now his lifted forehead, just lighted up by the radiant truth of Righteousness by Faith, is shadowed suddenly. He is not ashamed of the Gospel; he will speak it out, if need be, in the Cæsar's own presence, and in that of his brilliant and cynical court. For there is a pressing, an awful need that he should thus "despise the shame." The very conditions in human life which occasion an instinctive tendency to be reticent of the Gospel, are facts of dreadful urgency and peril. Man does not like to be exposed to himself, and to be summoned to the faith and surrender claimed by Christ. But man, whatever he likes or dislikes, is a sinner, exposed to the eyes of the All-Pure, and lying helpless, amidst all his dreams of pride, beneath the wrath of God. Such is the logic of this stern sequel to the affirmation, "I am not ashamed."

For God's wrath is revealed, from heaven, upon all godlessness and unrighteousness of men who in unrighteousness hold down the truth. "God's wrath 39 is revealed"; Revealed in "the holy Scriptures," in every history, by every Prophet, by every Psalmist; this perhaps is the main bearing of his thought. But revealed also antecedently and concurrently in that mysterious, inalienable conscience, which is more truly part of man than his five senses. Conscience sees that there is an eternal difference between right and wrong, and feels, in the dark, the relation of that difference to a law, a Lawgiver, and a doom. Conscience is aware of a fiery light beyond the veil. Revelation meets its wistful gaze, lifts the veil, and affirms the fact of the wrath of God, and of His judgment coming.

Let us not shun that "revelation." It is not the Gospel. The Gospel, as we have seen, is in itself one pure warm light of life and love. But then it can never be fully understood until, sooner or later, we have seen something, and believed something, of the truth of the anger of the Holy One. From our idea of that anger let us utterly banish every thought of impatience, of haste, of what is arbitrary, of what is in the faintest degree unjust, inequitable. It is the anger of Him who never for a moment can be untrue to Himself; and He is Love, and is Light. But He is also, so also says His Word, consuming Fire (Heb. x. 31, xii. 29); and it is "a fearful thing to fall into His hands." Nowhere and never is God not Love, as the Maker and Preserver of His creatures. But nowhere also and never is He not Fire, as the judicial Adversary of evil, the Antagonist of the will that chooses sin. Is there "nothing in God to fear"? "Yea," says His Son (Luke xii. 5), "I say unto you, fear Him."

At the present time there is a deep and almost ubiquitous tendency to ignore the revelation of the wrath of God. No doubt there have been times, and 40 quarters, in the story of Christianity, when that revelation was thrown into disproportionate prominence, and men shrank from Christ (so Luther tells us he did in his youth) as from One who was nothing if not the inexorable Judge. They saw Him habitually as He is seen in the vast Fresco of the Sistine Chapel, a sort of Jupiter Tonans, casting His foes for ever from His presence; a Being from whom, not to whom, the guilty soul must fly. But the reaction from such thoughts, at present upon us, has swung to an extreme indeed, until the tendency of the pulpit, and of the exposition, is to say practically that there is nothing in God to be afraid of; that the words hope and love are enough to neutralize the most awful murmurs of conscience, and to cancel the plainest warnings of the loving Lord Himself. Yet that Lord, as we ponder His words in all the four Gospels, so far from speaking such "peace" as this, seems to reserve it to Himself, rather than to His messengers, to utter the most formidable warnings. And the earliest literature which follows the New Testament shows that few of His sayings had sunk deeper into His disciples' souls than those which told them of the two Ways and of the two Ends.

Let us go to Him, the all-benignant Friend and Teacher, to learn the true attitude of thought towards Him as "the Judge, strong and patient," "but who will in no wise clear the guilty" by unsaying His precepts and putting by His threats. He assuredly will teach us, in this matter, no lessons of hard and narrow denunciation, nor encourage us to sit in judgment on the souls and minds of our brethren. But He will teach us to take deep and awful views for ourselves of both the pollution and also the guilt of sin. He will constrain us to carry those views all through our personal 41 theology, and our personal anthropology too. He will make it both a duty and a possibility for us, in right measure, in right manner, tenderly, humbly, governed by His Word, to let others know what our convictions are about the Ways and the Ends. And thus, as well as otherwise, He will make His Gospel to be to us no mere luxury or ornament of thought and life, as it were a decorous gilding upon essential worldliness and the ways of self. He will unfold it as the soul's refuge and its home. From Himself as Judge He will draw us in blessed flight to Himself as Propitiation and Peace. "From Thy wrath, and from everlasting condemnation, Good Lord—Thyself—deliver us."

This wrath, holy, passionless, yet awfully personal, "is revealed, from heaven." That is to say it is revealed as coming from heaven, when the righteous Judge "shall be revealed from heaven, taking vengeance" (2 Thess. i. 7, 8). In that pure upper world He sits whose wrath it is. From that stainless sky of His presence its white lightnings will fall, "upon all godlessness and unrighteousness of men," upon every kind of violation of conscience, whether done against God or man; upon "godlessness," which blasphemes, denies, or ignores the Creator; upon "unrighteousness," which wrests the claims whether of Creator or of creature. Awful opposites to the "two great Commandments of the Law"! The Law must be utterly vindicated upon them at last. Conscience must be eternally verified at last, against all the wretched suppressions of it that man has ever tried.

For the men in question "hold down the truth in unrighteousness." The rendering "hold down" is certified by both etymology and context; the only possible other rendering, "hold fast," is negatived by 42 the connexion. The thought given us is that man, fallen from the harmony with God in which Manhood was made, but still keeping manhood, and therefore conscience, is never naturally ignorant of the difference between right and wrong, never naturally, innocently, unaware that he is accountable. On the other hand he is never fully willing, of himself, to do all he knows of right, all he knows he ought, all the demand of the righteous law above him. "In unrighteousness," in a life which at best is not wholly and cordially with the will of God, "he holds down the truth," silences the haunting fact that there is a claim he will not meet, a will he ought to love, but to which he prefers his own. The majesty of eternal right, always intimating the majesty of an eternal Righteous One, he thrusts below his consciousness, or into a corner of it, and keeps it there, that he may follow his own way. More or less, it wrestles with him for its proper place. And its even half-understood efforts may, and often do, exercise a deterrent force upon the energies of his self-will. But they do not dislodge it; he would rather have his way. With a force sometimes deliberate, sometimes impulsive, sometimes habitual, "he holds down" the unwelcome monitor.

Deep is the moral responsibility incurred by such repression. For man has always, by the very state of the case, within him and around him, evidence for a personal righteous Power "with Whom he has to do." Because that which is known of God is manifest in them; for God manifested (or rather, perhaps, in our idiom, has manifested) it to them. "That which is known"; that is, practically, "that which is knowable, that which may be known." There is that about the Eternal which indeed neither is nor can be known, 43 with the knowledge of mental comprehension. "Who can find out the Almighty unto perfection?" All thoughtful Christians are in this respect agnostics that they gaze on the bright Ocean of Deity, and know that they do not know it in its fathomless but radiant depths, nor can explore its expanse which has no shore. They rest before absolute mystery with a repose as simple (if possible more simple) as that with which they contemplate the most familiar and intelligible event. But this is not not to know Him. It leaves man quite as free to be sure that He is, to be as certain that He is Personal, and is Holy, as man is certain of his own consciousness, and conscience.

That there is Personality behind phenomena, and that this great Personality is righteous, St Paul here affirms to be "manifest," disclosed, visible, "in men." It is a fact present, however partially apprehended, in human consciousness. And more, this consciousness is itself part of the fact; indeed it is that part without which all others would be as nothing. To man without conscience—really, naturally, innocently without conscience—and without ideas of causation, the whole majesty of the Universe might be unfolded with a fulness beyond all our present experience; but it would say absolutely nothing of either Personality or Judgment. It is by the world within that we are able in the least degree to apprehend the world without. But having, naturally and inalienably, the world of personality and of conscience within us, we are beings to whom God can manifest, and has manifested, the knowable about Himself, in His universe.

For His things unseen, ever since the creation of the universe, are full in (man's) view, presented to (man's) mind by His things made—His everlasting 44 power and Godlikeness together—so as to leave them inexcusable. Since the ordered world was, and since man was, as its observer and also as its integral part, there has been present to man's spirit—supposed true to its own creation—adequate testimony around him, taken along with that within him, to evince the reality of a supreme and persistent Will, intending order, and thus intimating Its own correspondence to conscience, and expressing Itself in "things made" of such manifold glory and wonder as to intimate the Maker's majesty as well as righteousness. What is That, what is He, to whom the splendours of the day and the night, the wonders of the forest and the sea, bear witness? He is not only righteous Judge but King eternal. He is not only charged with my guidance; He has rights illimitable over me. I am wrong altogether if I am not in submissive harmony with Him; if I do not surrender, and adore.

Thus it has been, according to St Paul, "ever since the creation of the universe" (and of man in it). And such everywhere is the Theism of Scripture. It maintains, or rather it states as certainty, that man's knowledge of God began with his being as man. To see the Maker in His works is not, according to the Holy Scriptures, only the slow and difficult issue of a long evolution which led through far lower forms of thought, the fetish, the nature-power, the tribal god, the national god, to the idea of a Supreme. Scripture presents man as made in the image of the Supreme, and capable from the first of a true however faint apprehension of Him. It assures us that man's lower and distorted views of nature and of personal power behind it are degenerations, perversions, issues of a mysterious primeval dislocation of man from his 45 harmony with God. The believer in the holy Scriptures, in the sense in which our Lord and the Apostles believed in them, will receive this view of the primeval history of Theism as a true report of God's account of it. Remembering that it concerns an otherwise unknown moment of human spiritual history, he will not be disturbed by alleged evidence against it from lower down the stream. Meanwhile he will note the fact that among the foremost students of Nature in our time there are those who affirm the rightness of such an attitude. It is not lightly that the Duke of Argyll writes words like these:—

"I doubt (to say the truth, I disbelieve) that we shall ever come to know by science anything more than we now know about the origin of man. I believe we shall always have to rest on that magnificent and sublime outline which has been given us by the great Prophet of the Jews." 1414Geology and the Deluge, p. 46 (Glasgow, 1885).

So man, being what he is and seeing what he sees, is "without excuse": Because, knowing God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor thank Him, but proved futile in their ways of thinking, and their unintelligent heart was darkened. Asserting themselves for wise they turned fools, and transmuted the glory of the immortal God in a semblance of the likeness of mortal man, and of things winged, quadruped, and reptile. Man, placed by God in His universe, and himself made in God's image, naturally and inevitably "knew God." Not necessarily in that inner sense of spiritual harmony and union which is (John xvii. 3) the life eternal; but in the sense of a perception of His being and His character 46 adequate, at its faintest, to make a moral claim. But somehow—a somehow which has to do with a revolt of man's will from God to self—that claim was, and is, disliked. Out of that dislike has sprung, in man's spiritual history, a reserve towards God, a tendency to question His purpose, His character, His existence; or otherwise, to degrade the conception of Personality behind phenomena into forms from which the multifold monster of idolatry has sprung, as if phenomena were due to personalities no better and no greater than could be imaged by man or by beast, things of limit and of passion; at their greatest terrible, but not holy; not ultimate; not One.

Man has spent on these unworthy "ways of thinking" a great deal of weak and dull reasoning and imbecile imagination, but also some of the rarest and most splendid of the riches of his mind, made in the image of God. But all this thinking, because conditioned by a wrong attitude of his being as a whole, has had "futile" issues, and has been in the truest sense "unintelligent," failing to see inferences aright and as a whole. It has been a struggle "in the dark"; yea, a descent from the light into moral and mental "folly."

Was it not so, is not so still? If man is indeed made in the image of the living Creator, a moral personality, and placed in the midst of "the myriad world, His shadow," then whatever process of thought leads man away from Him has somewhere in it a fallacy unspeakable, and inexcusable. It must mean that something in him which should be awake is dormant; or, yet worse, that something in him which should be in faultless tune, as the Creator tempered it, is all unstrung; something that should be nobly free to love and to adore is being repressed, "held down." Then 47 only does man fully think aright when he is aright. Then only is he aright when he, made by and for the Eternal Holy One, rests willingly in Him, and lives for Him. "The fear of the Lord is," in the strictest fact, "the beginning of wisdom"; for it is that attitude of man without which the creature cannot "answer the idea" of the Creator, and therefore cannot truly follow out the law of its own being.

"Let him that glorieth, glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth Him" (Jer. ix. 24) who necessarily and eternally transcends our cognition and comprehension, yet can be known, can be touched, clasped, adored, as personal, eternal, almighty, holy Love.

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