salvation through a narrow channel
The geographical unity of the Bible is remarkable. This breaking of bread was instituted in the Holy Land. The prophets, from whose writings we have read a portion this morning, prophesied in the Holy Land. The kings of Judah, whose proceedings are exhibited in the first of our three daily readings, reigned in the Holy Land. To the Holy Land Moses led Israel in the beginning of the wonderful works of God upon earth. In the Holy Land is always laid the scene of consummated salvation.
What is the reason of this adherence to one place in the unfolding of the divine plan? Why, for 1,500 years, were the communications of God confined to one people and one spot on earth? Why did they not extend to China, to Libya, to Hindustan, to Greece, to Rome? Why did God, as Paul testified to the crowd at Lystra (Acts 14:16), “suffer all nations to walk in their own ways?” This question touches the roots of things. There is no answer to it if men are immortal souls. In that case, all men in all countries, in all ages, are in danger of eternal perdition, and as much in need of salvation as the descendants of Jacob. Why, then, were no steps taken anywhere for ages but in the narrow channel of Jewish national life? This is a hard problem for those who believe in popular theology. It is for them one of the most formidable of atheistical objections. I remember being staggered by its force before I knew the Truth. When I learnt the Truth, it vanished like smoke.
That truth is a humbling truth, but one that we can see with our eyes to be a truth, as well as attested by the words of truth. It is that man is a mortal being, as ephemeral as the flowers of the field, though a little longer lived for the time being. Why he should be mortal with such adaptations to a perfect state, nature can tell us nothing. Nature exhibits only facts; it has nothing to do with the meaning or destiny of facts. The fact of man’s perishability and relative insignificance it plainly tells. On the question how he came to be in this position, or how long it is likely to last so with him, it is necessarily silent. We can only learn this from God who placed man upon the earth and subjected him to his present lot, and this we do learn with a simplicity that is too plain for the wisdom of this world which delights more in the prestige of facts than in facts themselves. Man is mortal because sin has entered, and sin is nonconformity to the revealed will of God.
We live in an age when the very idea of sin is disappearing. It is written that “fools make a mock at sin.” This is receiving enlarging illustration on every hand in this day of increased knowledge. The notion of “sin” is marked off as an exploded notion—as the narrow conception of an age of ignorance and bigotry, at least in some directions. It is still allowed you may sin against your neighbour. You may hurt a man’s interests; you may break the law; you may injure the State. You may even sin against yourself by violating the laws of health, or running counter to the conditions of well-being, but as for sinning against God, that has come to be regarded as a mere vagary, a fantasy of speech inherited from dark ages. The cause of this is doubtless to be found in the decline of faith in God, and this decline of faith is the result of increase in superficial knowledge. Bacon well said that a little science made a man an atheist, but that much science took him through to the opposite shore of everlasting faith—or some such saying. In this sense, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Fulness of knowledge, including a knowledge of the true teaching of the Bible as distinguished from the fables of theology, will lead to the sublimest and most indomitable faith. It will lead a man to prostrate himself with the humility of a little child in the presence of eternal facts, one of which is the existence of sin.
The very object of God’s dealings with Israel through the Law of Moses for a thousand years was to establish this conception of sin as the cardinal element in the present relations of God and man. We find Paul saying, “I had not known sin but by the law,” and again, God—“hath concluded all under sin that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe.”
Hence we must either bear a reverential attitude towards the central fact, or take our place among the fools who, saying in their heart “There is no God,” make a mock at Him. There is no rational middle ground. Which of these two positions is the position of reason and truth, we have settled for ourselves in assembling round this Table; for this Table has expressly to do with the subject. This bread and this wine, on this occasion, have to do with nothing else; for when Jesus said, “This is my body,” “this is my blood,” it was with reference to the offering of the body and blood in sacrifice. And why offered? “For sin.” To what intent? “That sin might be condemned in the flesh.” With what effect? “That he might ‘put away sin by the sacrifice of himself’—that the body of sin might be destroyed—that henceforth we should not serve sin.”
All these things are apostolically testified as you know. It was for “the sins of many,” that we might be forgiven because of our faith in what was accomplished in Christ in this matter. We show our faith in having been “baptised into his death,” and thus assuming “the fellowship of his sufferings,” we receive forgiveness of sins for his sake, and stand justified in him, in hope of eternal life to which otherwise we had no access. Forgiveness is at root of the whole transaction—forgiveness by favour, yet not relaxing the law of God’s supremacy. Christ died that God might forgive; yet forgiveness in the case is an act of favour—not of claim. Christ did not substitutionally pay a debt for others, from which they might then claim freedom. He submitted to the “righteousness of God” in crucifixion that God might be just, and, at the same time, exercise the prerogative of forgiveness without the compromise of His supremacy. “Sin hath reigned unto death;” even so “grace (favour) reigns through righteousness” in the death and resurrection of the sinless Jesus, who partook of our nature for the purpose. It is all an operation of righteousness (there is no unrighteousness in it), and it is all an arrangement of favour (there is no debt in it, either as regards the ransomer or the ransomed). The triumph is fittingly celebrated in the song put into the mouths of those who are saved at last:
“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by his blood.”
The matter is high and holy, and has no benefit for those who treat it in a flippant or indifferent spirit. God’s own declaration governs all:
“To this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at My Word.”
It may seem as if all this had very little to do with the limited nature of the divine operations in the earth, I mean as affording an explanation of that limitation—at which the “learned” stumble. It really has everything to do with it. If God cannot look on “sin,” if “the wages of sin be death,” and if all men are sinners, does it not follow that whole nations of mankind are really to Him as He declares—“less than nothing and vanity?” The masses of barbarous human life as we survey them, say in China, in India, in Africa, in Russia, or even in our own country, may oppress human imagination as a nightmare problem; but what are they in relation to God? As they are here, is how they really are. If they were immortal beings, the problem would be great and distressing, but as the mere propagation of mortal life, with many gratifications while it exists, and disappearing from creation in the painless grave that waits it, the problem is far otherwise. They come without a right to come; they go without a claim to stay, it is an evil state while they are in it. Manifestly the only question is, what is the meaning of the phenomenon from the Creator’s point of view? This is the question which human wisdom is not asking, will not ask. They look at the matter from the creature point of view; this is the wrong end to lay hold of! Endless stumble must be the result of this method of treating the problem. It cannot be understood from this end. How could it? The march of reproduction is endless as an affair of mechanical capacity; and if the question is to be debated as to how it bears on the creatures, the point would constantly press—which set are we to specially consider? —those that have been, those that are, of those that may come if fathers and mothers are not drowned. If it is those that have been, that are to be considered, why should they be considered? They are gone, they are nowhere, they are mere memory. If it is those now living that are to be considered, why only those that are living now, seeing that those who are gone had a “now” once, and therefore an equal claim? If those that are to come, how can we apply the problem, seeing they will only come as long as they have a chance of coming, and will never come at all if some great catastrophe should sweep the present inhabitants from the face of the earth?
It is evident that the question cannot be debated from the creature end. It must be considered from the Creator’s point of view alone, and from this point of view, it is simple. He has formed a purpose which He has revealed, of which the human race is but the raw material, and the purpose is of that character that but a very small proportion of the human race can be finally utilised in harmony with it. That purpose is to people the earth with an immortal race that will recognise His headship and heartily accord to Him the deference and praise which are reasonable towards Him as the author of all things and in which He delights. This race He produces, not by direct creation (which would exclude experience of evil), but by a preliminary education of faith and obedience during an evil state, brought on by sin. This process involves the development of character, which contains within it the highest excellence of ultimate result, inasmuch as those who have been faithful and submissive during evil, are by that very experience better qualified to enjoy the blessedness of a perfect state, and to afford to God the satisfaction in His works which He desires. This being the purpose, we have a key to the present state of things, and to the procedure God has adopted in bringing it about. “All flesh is grass,” who can deny it? It is a matter of painful experience. No theory gets rid of this; but here is a view that reconciles us to it. Though subject to evil, the human race is on its way to beautification, yet only in God’s way, which will limit the result to those operated upon and chosen at last because fit and faithful.
The nature of that way we see when we look back, for the work is largely advanced. We see Abraham chosen, and the land of his pilgrimage promised to him for an everlasting possession. We see his posterity chosen under a covenant of works, and organised into a nation under a law given through Moses. We see the nation as a whole disobedient, but a remnant in all their generations found faithful. We see the prophets sent generation after generation to prevent absolute failure. We see the Lord Jesus at last raised up in their midst as a protest against their evil works; as a declaration of God’s readiness to forgive; as a manifestation of His power and love; and as the opening of the way of life eternal through death and resurrection for all who should believe on him, and submit to him as the Lord and Master appointed for law-giving now and judgment hereafter. We see this opened way afterwards proclaimed to the world in general, that “whosoever will” might enter into it and secure the covenanted blessings. As the centuries advance, we see the way corrupted by human gloss, human opinion, human tradition and fable. We see it concealed from view by the spreading growth of a time-serving political ecclesiasticism. But we see the Bible preserved in the midst of all the confusion, and we see the beams of its beautiful light shining out again and again on the prevailing darkness—purifying life and inspiring hope.
The course of the matter—the channel of this revelation—has all lain within the boundaries of Jewish national life. This is no accident. It is a thing declared.
“You only have I known of all the families of the earth;”
“Salvation is of the Jews,”
“To them pertain the glory and the promises.”
This is the plan—to work from a chosen centre. It is a reasonable plan—may we not say a necessary plan, seeing it has been chosen?
“They are not all Israel that are of Israel, neither because they are the seed of Abraham are they all children;”
But though they are not all Israel, some of them are, and in the end, these are all that will be needed. It must have been the same if any other nation had been chosen, only a selection would have proved suitable, the rest would have been as the decayed leaves of autumn. Why quarrel with the plan? Has not God a right to make a plan? And is not any plan made by Him sure to be a wise one? Is not our part to simply recognise and accept His plan, whatever it is?
The learned of this world speak disparagingly of the Jewish conception of things as a “tribal” one—a “tribal” history, a “tribal” religion, a “tribal” God. They think they have condemned and dismissed and disposed of the matter by calling it “tribal,” as against “racial.” What if in this they are simply defining the fact of the matter? What if “the whole world lieth in wickedness?” What if mankind by nature are “strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world?” What if death has passed upon all men, for that all have sinned? Could salvation in that case approach us in any other character than a “tribal” character? Must it not be a thing outside of us, fenced off from us, narrowed into a line of things to which we have no natural access? What is gained by calling it “tribal?” If it professed to be cosmopolitan, and were found to be tribal; if it proposed a benefit for every member of the human family and were found to restrict it to a few, there might be something damaging signified by this learned outcry of “tribalism.” But seeing it expressly limits its proposals, and expressly affirms the ineligibility of the human race in general, it is a curious discovery to convict it of being in harmony with its own professions. “But,” it may be said “it proposes to bless all the families of mankind.” So it does; and give it time enough, it will show you the blessing accomplished. “No more curse” is written at the end of its work; but you must allow it to get to that end before you cry “failure.”
Brethren and sisters, let us not be laughed out of the hope of Israel, nor reasoned out of it, nor coaxed out of it, nor cajoled out of it, nor frightened out of it, nor moved out of it at all. There is not an objection to it that is founded on true reason. All objections have their root in incomplete knowledge on some point or other. They mostly originate in pride and sentiment, acting with much knowledge of natural things it may be, but in much ignorance of what God has revealed to His apostles and prophets by the Spirit. How vain are the thoughts and theories of men in the darkness that waits us all at last. How enlightening, and ennobling, and uplifting are the promises of God in that same hour. Christ is not only proclaimed the Light of the World; he is proved to be such by a history that cannot be overthrown, by words that cannot be matched in human utterances. His words ring through the world though heard only by ears attuned,
“He that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”
“I will give to him that is athirst of the water of life freely.”
Where among the million-voiced babble of the world can you find a voice like this? Let us adhere to it and follow it to the very end, however dark and bitter may be tribulation’s road. The tribulation is no accident. It is part of the plan. Out of it victoriously we shall at last come if we cast not away our well-founded confidence. At last we shall stand in the assembly of the tried men and women of all ages, who will stand on Mount Zion in the strength of immortality, in the gladness of acceptance, and in the rapture of praise that will only find fit expression in the song that John heard them sing in vision with a sound like mighty thunderings, and the roar of many waters.
“Seasons of Comfort” Vol. 2, Robert Roberts