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SPIRIT OR LETTER
‘That we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter.’
The man who lives by rule and by rote has not yet entered on the fullness of Christian freedom. Christianity is not a set of rules, but a set of principles. These principles have an endless capacity for adapting themselves to the exigencies of every person’s life. To adapt them to the peculiar and changing circumstances of your own life, you must exercise thought and trouble.
I. When the Jewish Church was in its infancy, God gave it rules for its guidance.—He gave it the Ten Commandments and the ceremonial law. ‘This do, and thou shalt live,’ was the command. Not that faith was unnecessary—Abraham was justified by faith before the law was given—the law was added ‘because of transgressions’ and as a help to the religious life, just as we give help to a little child to teach it to walk, or as we erect a scaffolding to a building to support it until it is finished. The outward expression of religious faith to a Jew, was obedience to a code of laws—laws were his ‘tutors and governors until the time appointed of the Father.’
II. The danger of law is that it is apt to become rigid and stereotyped.—The Jewish law had become so in the time of our Lord. The rich young man who came to our Lord and said, ‘What good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?’ thought he was a model Jew, because he was not conscious of having broken any of the Commandments; but when the test of self-sacrifice was applied to him, ‘If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven, and come follow Me,’ ‘he went away sorrowful.’ He had kept the law, what more could be expected of him was implied in the question ‘What lack I yet?’ The Pharisees taught we may forgive seven times, but not more. We must do no manner of work on the Sabbath-day. It is better to hunger, or to let your beast perish, or a soul be lost, than to work or to travel one step farther than a Sabbath-day’s journey. So they regarded the day itself with superstitious reverence, rather than the spirit and intention for which the day was given. They kept it not ‘in the newness of spirit, but in the oldness of the letter.’
III. ‘But when the fullness of time was come, and God sent forth His Son,’ the letter gave way to the spirit.—Judaism, the child, grew into Christianity—into spiritual manhood. ‘Forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven.’ There is no limit to the number of times we should forgive a repentant brother. Forgiveness is not a limited rule, it is a ‘boundless spirit.’ ‘The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.’ The day itself was nothing, the spirit and intention for which the day was set apart was the point: to rest the body and to refresh the soul. It were better to transgress the letter of the Commandment than to leave these objects unattained.
—Rev. C. Rhodes Hall.
‘It is in the spirit, and according to the principles taught by our Lord Himself, that we invite you to submit yourselves to the discipline of Lent. If a simple rule of life is a help to you, by all means use it. Still, in doing so, do not mistake the means for the end. “The heart knoweth his own bitterness.” Every earnest soul knows its own special weakness, and is conscious of its own besetting sin. The season of Lent is a time to wage war with this worst self of ours. If, in doing so, we find it necessary to deny ourselves this pleasure, or to abstain from that food or drink, remember they are only good in proportion as they serve towards the end you have in view. To refrain from indulging in unnecessary food and drink for its own sake is not religion. But if, in consequence, you are better in health and purer in mind, and have somewhat to give to them that need, that is the very spirit of Christianity.’
THE SINFULNESS OF SIN
‘That sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful.’
In the Bible we have three things:—
I. ‘Sin,’ the vicious principle in the breast.
II. ‘Trangression,’ the act by which that vicious principle shows itself.
III. ‘Iniquity,’ the violation of God’s law, which is committed both by the principle in the breast and by the act which is outward.
It makes but a very little difference, whether it be a thought, or a feeling, or an omission, or a word, or an act—it indicates equally a rebellious state of mind—it is a spot of treason in the midst of God’s government; and though it may be only, as man speaks, a little thing—that you have neglected an opportunity—that you have resisted a conviction—God views it, and it is, the rebellion of the creature and the treason of the subject.
IV. Every ‘sin’ which a man wilfully does is another and another step in advance towards the unpardonable state: and in all ‘sin’ there is a tendency to run faster, faster, as it makes progress. It may be an only just perceptible move down the incline to-day, but to-morrow the rushing abyss! To-day it may be only the grieving of the spirit, in a stifled conviction; but it will be resistance to-morrow! and it will be habit next day! and it will be the quenching of the Holy Ghost next day! and how rapidly the quenching of the Holy Ghost may be going round a man—the Spirit going and never returning, and the door finally and irrevocably shut! There is not a ‘sin’ which has not death bound up in it. So the Apostle traces it. A ‘sin’ leads to a habit; a habit leads to a godless state of mind; and the godless state of mind to death. ‘When lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin; and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.’
RESTORATION OF FALLEN HUMANITY
‘I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.’
Romans 7:23-Lamentations :
The Bible teaches us that man was made capable of making the best of himself, of choosing between right and wrong, and choosing the right; that he chose the wrong, and that mankind since has been unable to rise to the height of his opportunities and to choose what is best for him. This truth occurs not only in the Old Testament, but the idea of the Fall is found in the religious idea of many people, and the very fact that it is found so widely spread, and that the idea is so prevalent, seems to argue that there is substantial truth behind it.
What is the effect of this doctrine of the Fall upon the lives of those who are weighed down with the sins of the social evils of the day? What is going to be the effect upon us of holding this view that mankind is fallen and needs restoration?
I. It will keep us on our guard against unsound schemes of social amelioration, it will make us realise that if we are to make for lasting progress, we must try and set right the very mainspring of the actions of men. We must try and get at the character as well as the environment. Not that we must neglect interest and work on behalf of such things as education, and sanitation, and housing, and fair conditions of labour, but all this must be built upon work for the character of men. We may give men the fair conditions of labour they ask for, all the opportunities that they covet, and yet they may be unable and unwilling to use them; and we who care for our fellow-men, and who work for the welfare of the whole, if we hold the doctrine of the Fall, will be on our guard against laying hold upon schemes which seem fair, but will prove unsuccessful. St. Paul found within himself a chaos of disorder, one law fighting against another, and he came to the conclusion that if he were to make the best of himself, it must be through Jesus Christ. ‘O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ.’ And the experience of the last nineteen hundred years has shown that it is possible for weak men to become strong by being joined to the second Adam, the source of strength, by trying to model their lives on His life, by asking for and receiving strength from Him. Many and many a man has found that it has been possible to keep these laws, these jarring laws, at peace. And if we are anxious to do something to remedy those social evils that are a burden to us, we must bring men into contact with the second Adam, Jesus Christ our Lord. What organisation is so well qualified to bring men into touch with Christ, and to lift up their ideals in this country, as the Church of England? Having the whole of the population mapped out, and having every one under the care of some one whose chief work it is to care for his fellow-men, and to help them to make the best of their lives, the Church of England has the power to work for the social progress of the working people of our country.
II. The fact of believing in the Fall and the restoration by Jesus Christ will have an effect on our individual lives if it is held plainly.—If you believe you have a tendency to go off the track and do wrong, you will be careful to try and keep in touch with Him Who is the source of all strength. St. Paul proved, and many a man has proved, that it is possible to overcome this evil tendency by the strength which comes through Jesus Christ. If we believe that, then it will make us fly to the fountain of grace, to use the means of grace that we know of.
III. The Church gives us an hypothesis of life, which has proved useful in the past and will prove useful in the future.—Let us hold fast to this doctrine of the Fall and the restoration in Jesus Christ, and we shall work for lasting progress amongst our people. In Christ there is neither bond nor free, but all are one in Him. And, again, we shall work for the salvation of the individual as well as the community. ‘I can do all things through Christ Who strengtheneth me.’
—Rev. A. Shillito.
‘There always have been people both before and after Pelagius who denied the Fall. There always have been people who have said that humanity is sound enough at the core, and that, if only the environment were right, mankind would be able to make the best of itself. That seems to me to be the fundamental defect of so many of the idealistic, socialistic schemes that are put forward to-day, for there are people who would not, even if they had every chance, make the best of their opportunities, who would not willingly consider the welfare of the whole rather than their own. The fundamental mistake of so many of these schemes is that they miss out what is a great fact of life—that there is something wrong with mankind. Then, again, there are others who deny the idea of a fall because they think it is inconsistent with the idea of evolution. The idea of evolution has taken such a hold upon us that many people find it hard, some impossible, to square the theory of development with the idea of a fall. But, after all, it is but a theory, a theory which seems to be true, and which explains a great deal that could not be explained before; but there are still many gaps, and it is quite possible that science may find a place for such a fact as the Fall. We have not yet explained how man came to have powers of reflection and self-consciousness. It is quite possible that science may have to acknowledge that these came from outside, and, if so, then, at that time when these powers of reflection were given, it is possible that mankind made the choice and fell. At any rate, this theory of a fall, which is taught from very old times and throughout the Bible, has proved an admirable working hypothesis for life, and we are not going to give it up for something which has not, at any rate at present, proved itself true.’
THE BITTER CRY OF HUMANITY
Side by side with the glory of our calling, place the shame and the misery of what we are. My desires, my passions are ever at war with the true self, and too often overcome it. And so there goes up the bitter cry, ‘Wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?’
I. The Cross of Jesus Christ is the Divine answer to this great and exceeding bitter cry of our suffering, struggling, sinful humanity.—For the Cross is not merely an altar, but a battlefield, by far the greatest battlefield in all human history. That was the crisis of the conflict between good and evil which gives endless interest to the most insignificant human life, which is the source of the pathos and the tragedy, the degradation and the glory, of the long history of our race. It is the human struggle which we watch upon the Cross: the human victory there won which we acclaim with endless joy and exultation. Man faced the fiercest assault of the foe, and Man conquered. Man conquered man’s foe, and in the only way in which that foe could be conquered, the way of obedience. ‘He became obedient unto death.’
II. But what has this to do with us?—It cannot be too often repeated, that it has nothing to do with us, if Christ be merely ‘Another,’ separate from us as we are, or imagine ourselves to be, separate from each other. That which He took of the Virgin Mary, and took in the only way in which it could have been taken, by the Virgin Birth, was not a separate human individuality, but human nature; that nature which we all share. It was in that nature that He faced and overcame our enemy.
III. A separate individuality cannot be imparted to us, but a common nature can. And that nature which the Eternal Word assumed of the Virgin Mary, and in which He conquered sin and death, is communicated to us by His Spirit, above all, in the sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Communion. Here is the heart of the Atonement. That victory over sin and death is mine, and yet not mine. That is the splendid paradox which lies at the very root of Christianity. It is mine, because I share in that human nature which, by its perfect obedience, the obedience unto death, ‘triumphed gloriously’ upon the Cross. It is not mine until, by a deliberate act of my will, in self-surrender to Christ, I have made it my own. By grace and by faith, not by one of these without the other, we become one with Him Who died and rose again. It is faith, the hand of the soul stretched out to receive, which accepts and welcomes grace, the hand of God stretched out to give.
—Rev. J. H. Beibitz.
I. St. Paul recognised in the Christ the Divine manhood or true Being of mankind.—This manhood was, he says, personified in the first Adam, who was a living soul embodied in the rudimentary conditions of animality and innocence. By means of self-chosen methods, under the influence and temptation of their outwardly attractive and promising appearance, Adam and Eve sought to realise their nature and destiny; but in so doing they pass under the dominion of the outward world; and learn in the sorrow and suffering of bondage to this dominion, the ineffectiveness of self-efforts based upon the outward appearance of things. For the realisation of the Nature and Destiny of man such efforts are a transgression of the law of Righteousness. The law of human development is self-surrender to the inspirations of the inward principle of life—a law of development abundantly illustrated in the Garden of Eden. In the fullness of time the Divine manhood is personified in Jesus, the second Adam or Man. He refuses any alliance with the powers of the outward world, however specious and alluring. He repudiates all self-chosen methods, and surrenders Himself only and wholly to the inspirations of the indwelling Spirit of Life. By His obedience he realises, through suffering and death to self, the destiny of the Divine sonship of the race. He became emphatically ‘the Christ,’ declared by His resurrection to be the Son of the Living God. The last and closing revelation of the Divine manhood is an inward revelation of the exalted Christ, the glorified Son of Man Who is our true God and Eternal Life. He is the Life-giving Spirit indwelling the being of every man, and He it is who realises the Divine Sonship in each and all who believe in the Christ as the Life of mankind; for in Him is the Resurrection Power Who raises this life into fullness of consciousness in every member of the race. As such He is, in the language of St. Paul, ‘the Lord and Giver of Life’—‘the last Adam, Who became a Life-giving Spirit.’ We need again and again to be reminded that this Life-giving Spirit in the being of every man is the Living God of Christianity—is the Lord God, in fellowship with Whom is found the Wisdom and Power that brings men into the peace and joy of life eternal. All other gods are idols.
II. The function of the Christ, according to St. Paul’s estimate, is to present to the world the true Image of Divine love, and to reproduce in all that believe this Divine love to be the eternal life of men the same image and likeness; making them in all things ‘perfect, even as their Father Which is in heaven is perfect.’
Rev. R. W. Corbet.
‘The law which had slain his former life of comparative innocence now puts to death the new life of effort to conform to its commandments. He is again at-two within himself. He finds himself consenting to the law that is holy, righteous, and good, even at times delighting in the law of God inwardly; but he sees a different law ruling his outward members, warring against the law of his mind, and bringing him into bondage to the law of sin and death which is in his members. He is doubly slain; the old life without the law is impossible. The law killed that life, and the new life of moral endeavour under the law is also impossible. It has made sin more exceedingly sinful, but it has contributed no power adequate to counteract and to overcome the overmastering exactions of the law of sin and death which rules the outward conditions of existence. Sin still reigns; its reign is recognised to be infinitely disastrous, but all efforts to dispute and put an end to its reign have signally failed; and in this failure the new life of moral endeavour has received its death-blow as an instrument or way of righteousness. “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me out of the body of this death?” is the cry of every ardent soul who has struggled, together with St. Paul, to conform to the law of righteousness by any will or efforts of their own. But, as ever, “man’s extremity is God’s opportunity,” and in the extremity of his distress he found, as others find, the answer to their question of despair. “I thank God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” All that was necessary to crown with infinite satisfaction the aspirations of man’s true nature was found in the exalted Christ—the glorified Son of Man.’
THE GREAT DELIVERER
I. The awakened sinner.—He is represented as contemplating the ideal of righteousness as contained in the law and fulfilled in Jesus Christ. It fascinates and inspires him to a godly life. But even as he is conscious of this—
( a) He discovers his inability to realise it. When he ‘would do good, evil is present.’ Day by day his efforts are frustrated or miserably fail.
( b) By-and-by the source of this weakness reveals itself. He becomes conscious of a force, law, or process within his own nature, opposing the law of righteousness. It subjects him to a grievous thraldom. And as he reflects upon the fate to which such a tendency, if unchecked, will surely consign him, he calls out in horror and alarm.
II. The need of a deliverer.—The helplessness of the sinner would occasion despair, were it not relieved. ‘Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?’ This alarm is intended to be produced that he may ask the more earnestly for One Who is ‘mighty to save.’
( a) He does not appeal to the justice of God: it is for mercy he cries. And only mercy can intervene in such a case.
( b) A greater than human power is required. We can help one another in many things, even spiritual things. But there are ills and burdens we cannot remove.
III. The Deliverer found.
( a) The relief is immediate. The figure employed, as also the ecstatic thanksgiving, preclude the idea of a gradual deliverance. It is through such deep and excited moments of realisation that the great transition is made.
( b) Solemn and heartfelt gratitude is evoked. Salvation from sin is our greatest debt to God. His creation brought us into being, and His providence sustains us in comfort and sufficiency; but His grace surpasses all. The natural utterance of one so marvellously delivered would be, ‘What shall I render unto the Lord for all His benefits toward me?’
‘It has been supposed by some that the “body of death” mentioned is an allusion to the Roman custom of attaching corpses to prisoners convicted of capital offences—a loathsome and terrible burden! But it is unnecessary to conclude that this was Paul’s intention. The inward experience might in itself be so described. When good and evil incarnate themselves, so to speak, in the same nature, there must be the utmost discord and misery. But the pain accompanying such spiritual disclosures is not arbitrarily inflicted. It is sent to bring us to our true and only Saviour.’
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Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Romans 7". Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34