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Abuse of Doctrine
This is an instance of the abuse of doctrine. The doctrine itself may be right, but the use which is made of it may be wrong. It is precisely there that many practical and serious mistakes are made by men. Instead of looking at the doctrine itself, they look at what somebody has said respecting it, or at some use which has been made of it; and dwelling upon the perversion of the doctrine, they forget what the doctrine itself really requires: so good becomes evil spoken of; mistakes are made which tend towards looseness of faith, and after that to enslavement, and darkness of doubt and unbelief. There is nothing wrong in the proverb, "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge." All life is teaching that. This has ceased to be a proverb in the sense of being a local epigram, something that a few people have discovered here and there: it is now the philosophy of life; it is now a condensed expression of universal and irresistible law. Yet this doctrine, so true to fact, so coincident with history and experience, has been twisted into private interpretations, and has been demoralised, and has been perverted into an occasion of offence. Therefore the Lord will have no more of it. He will put a stigma upon it, he will brand it as obsolete in its merely epigrammatic form, and he will show that although he can do without our proverb his great law rolls on, the same, inevitable, irresistible, and in the end beneficent.
How do men pervert this doctrine of the fathers having eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth being set on edge? They seek to ride off from responsibility on the ground that they are suffering vicariously, and perhaps innocently; they cannot help doing evil: the thirsty throat was born within them, and water cannot quench it, so they must drink fire and brimstone: they say they are fated to do evil; the thief is in their muscles, and they must steal; their father was a felon, and they must keep up the family line. Do they speak so frankly? No. Whoever speaks frankly may be converted; whoever looks at himself and says, You are a drunkard, you are a thief, you are a bad man, may tomorrow pray. His frankness is the beginning of a religion. How then do men speak about themselves now? In a pensive tone, with a melancholy that is supposed to express a degree of resignation, philosophical, although self-reproachful; they speak now about law, heredity, development: and thus they walk down to darkness on the stilts of polysyllables. The fathers have eaten sour grapes, say they, and our innocent teeth are set on edge: this is the outworking of the mystery, the occult law of heredity. The Lord will not have that any longer; he says: This proverb shall cease; these people are being ruined by their own epigrams; they do not see the full sweep and scope and bent of things. Then he lays down the grand, all-inclusive, all-involving doctrine to which we shall presently turn. But is there not a law of succession, of heredity; is there not a mystery of paternity, following the little boy all the time? Yes, there is. Take care what use you make of that fact. Let it fall under the great all-governing law, and then it will come into right perspective. Do not take it out and look at it in its isolation, or then it will become a fallacy, a lie. Be careful how you pluck anything out of its proper place. The buttercup that looks so beautiful on the greensward looks ashamed of itself and offended at you the moment you pluck it. Take care how you pull things out of their setting. You have put the buttercup into a vase filled with scented water, but it drinks, and dies. Be careful how you take out a text from the Bible. The Lord never made any texts. Where did we get that word "text"? It has ruined us; it has ruined the pulpit, it has emptied the pews, it has turned honest, frank, brave men into bigots. God knows nothing about texts; he knows about the book, the revelation, the whole thought, the all-encircling thought and love: but little preachers, with partial digestion, suffering from an eternal disagreement with the things they have eaten, have discovered texts, chapters, verses, and thus they have cut up God's paradise into little bouquets of flowers which they have set in their houses, and if they be not accepted as the only flowers which God ever made, then the man who doubts that solemn fallacy is a heretic. How does society, that humanity which is next to God, treat this law of heredity? From the highest spiritual civilisation get hints of the true theocracy. How then does society treat this law of heredity? Very directly, summarily, and justly. The culprit, being not only a felon but a philosopher, says to the magistrate, I was born as you find me; I am not the thief, it is my father who is guilty of felony; I am the victim of heredity; I do not know what the word means, but I feel as if it covered all I want to say: excuse my detaining your worship any longer, I have an engagement in another place; pity me as the victim of heredity. And his worship, being also a philosopher, without being a felon, says, The argument is good, it is based in reason; you are discharged. Is it so in society? Is it not accounted just in society that the soul that sinneth it shall be punished? Instead, therefore, of having a theology that does not coincide with our own highest instincts and noblest practices, we had better see what adjustment can be created as between our theology and our habits, laws, and practices. Society may be right, when the individual citizen may be wrong. There is a spirit in the individual man, and there is also a spirit in the social man, and no law can stand in any civilised country that does not represent the supreme instinct and highest spiritual education of the citizenship. In society we ignore heredity: what if in the Church it has been pushed as a doctrine to evil because of irrational uses?
What is the great principle then that is to supersede small proverbs, and local sayings, and misapplied epigrams? "As I live, saith the Lord" solemn word: when it is uttered I feel as if the gates of eternity had been thrown back that the King might come out in person and address his people the universe "As I live, saith the Lord God,... behold, all souls are mine"; and the law of punishment is, "The soul that sinneth, it shall die." The universe replies, That is just, that is good. The word "soul" does not bear a merely theological definition in this connection; there is no exclusive reference to what is termed the doctrine of immortality, or to any psychological puzzle: by "soul" understand person, individual man, mind, intelligence, and moral accountability, as represented by an abstract term. All souls are God's: in their coming and going, in their evolution, in their refluence, and in their flowing, in all the changing phases of their education they are God's own souls, and he watches them with a care he does not bestow upon the stars. He will not have a child lost; if one member of his household be gone astray he will leave those who are at home that he may follow the one that is wandering. "The Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost" God is not at ease whilst one of his children is out of doors. "God is love." That does not prevent his laying down the law, "The soul that sinneth, it shall die." That is not arbitrary; that is necessary, that is reason working itself out, a great stern law operating beneficently, when judged by sufficient breadth of time. The Lord is not a tyrant with a rod of iron in his hand, smiting men because they do wrong; he is the Sovereign of a universe so constituted that no man can tell a lie without loss loss of quality, loss of standing, loss of dignity, loss of confidence. That is God's universe sensitive to truth, sensitive to all that is exact, honourable, noble, pure, right. It is good to live in such a universe so long as we are in harmony with its spirit, but when we lose touch with its moral music it crushes us, not tyrannically and arbitrarily, not in a spirit of petty resentment, which begets resentment, but in a spirit of justice, reason, righteousness.
Do not hew this law into little proverbs: accept the law in its unity, entirety, and purpose; live in harmony with it, then it will be living in a house that is founded upon a rock; live otherwise, and the rock will, so to say, leap from its place to avenge the affronts that are dealt on the face of its land. We need no theologian with his elaborate apparatus to teach us this doctrine, for we see it in our own circle, we observe it in the operation of our own consciousness, and we note it in all the evolution and procession of human history. Do not understand the word "die" as imparting some narrow physical fact. The word "die" needs to be properly defined. There are those who say, Why do you not believe the word "die" when it stands there? Simply because the word "die" does not stand there in any little, narrow, partial signification. To die is not to fall down and be prostrate and cold. Many a living man, according to social interpretations of that term, is dead. It is possible, in Christian terms, to be dead whilst we are living: this is a contradiction which words can never reconcile, but which consciousness and experience daily and amply testify. There are men who are sepulchres; there are men who know they are dead, but try to persuade an unsuspecting companionship, whether in the house or in the church, that they are living, because they can utter religious words and attend to religious formalities. By "die" understand loss, want of sympathy with God, alienation from right, life without life. My soul, come not thou into that mystery or secret! Thus interpreted the word "soul" has its true significance, the word "die" is promoted to its right symbolism, and then the law operates, and we acknowledge its operation and attest its beneficence: "The soul that sinneth, it shall die" go down in volume, in quality, in power, in utility, in interest, in sympathy with things upright and beautiful. To die in the fleshly sense of the term would be nothing. There are men who are so weary of what is called their life that they would be glad to die. When we read "In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die," persons say, Why not accept the word "die" as indicating a sublime and solemn fact? Because there is a sublimer and more solemn fact. It is possible to be dead whilst we live; it is possible to be conscious yet not to be blessed. Along that suggestion lie all the mysteries of the future, and we cannot follow them in their evolution and culmination.
See how good the Lord is. The just man shall live, saith the Lord. If the just man have a son that is a robber, the robber shall not be saved because the father was a just man. If a bad man have a good son, that good son shall live, though his father be wallowing in hell. There is the law of heredity torn to shreds, so far as it is perverted into a refuge of lies. Your father is a good man, therefore you are a good man, would seem to be the short and easy logic, wanting in nothing but in reason and truth. If the Lord will not take you to heaven because your father was a good man, is he likely to send you to hell because your father was a bad man? Be faithful to the reasoning: do not shrink from all the issues of the statement. The Lord defends himself against accusations so unjust and debasing; he deals with the individual soul; he inquires into individuality of character. The question is, not what was your father, but what you are. Shall we say, Lord, my father was a bad man, and therefore I cannot help being bad myself? The Lord will not allow that reasoning. The Lord gives every man a chance in life, an opportunity; allots to every man a measure of faith, or grace, or reason; attaches to every man something on which he can found a divine judgment. Shall we say, My father was so good that I have not felt the need of being good myself; I want to be saved with the family? The Lord will not admit such reasoning. We are not saved in families, we are saved one by one; so the Lord will have it that his way is equal. The great law of punishment therefore stands. "The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wicked ness of the wicked shall be upon him." Finally? Perhaps Certainly finally? No. When did the Lord ever speak without putting in some sign of his fatherly heart? Where is there a history without at least the suggestion of a gospel?
"But" here the divine voice took upon it all the music of eternity "But if the wicked will turn from all his sins that he hath committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die." That is the gospel, the good news, the glad tidings of the Cross. But, Lord, he has made a history, he has a foul past; what shall be said of the yesterdays all stained and tainted with crime? There is an answer to that inquiry, the inquiry itself being natural "All his transgressions that he hath committed, they shall not be mentioned unto him." That is a divine forgiveness. Sometimes men increase the estimate of their own virtue by reminding the forgiven one how much has had to be forgiven. The Lord will have none of that partial pardoning; transgressions of yesterday shall have no life today, no memory; they shall never be the subject of reproachful reminiscence nay, they shall never be the subject of ungracious comment; they shall die: "In his righteousness that he hath done he shall live. Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord God: and not that he should return from his ways, and live?" This God is the God we adore. May a righteous man fall? The Lord says he may: "But when the righteous turneth away from his righteousness, and committeth iniquity, and doeth according to all the abominations that the wicked man doeth, shall he live? All his righteousness that he hath done shall not be mentioned: in his trespass that he hath trespassed, and in his sin that he hath sinned, in them shall he die." No election can supersede character. It is character that is elected goodness to life, evil to death; and the devil has never been able to invert or modify that law.
Now the Lord God becomes preacher, apostle, missionary, and he says: "Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin. Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby ye have transgressed; and make you a new heart and a new spirit: for why will ye die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord God: wherefore turn yourselves, and live ye." That is preaching. It is so righteous, so stern in law, so noble in reason, so tender to tears of the heart in mercy and grace. The old preachers used to wrestle with their hearers. The great men of the pulpit that made the pulpit what it was in its best days wrestled with their hearers, seized them, arrested them, in the name of the Cross, in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, and would not let them go until there was a clear understanding as to the responsibility of the preacher and the hearer. Such preaching has its vindication in God's own voice and in God's own method. Here is the exhortation, here is the appeal, here is the application. What is forgotten in the modern sermon is the application, the last tug, that final wrestle, that concluding importunity. A sermon should have reason, doctrine, philosophy, Scripture, experience: but it should never be without emotion, exhortation, appeal, tenderness. The preacher stands up to call men to repentance, to forgiveness, to heaven. A wonderful spectacle this of all men turning away from their paths of death, and turning into the paths of life. "Turn ye, turn ye! why will ye die?" Think of ten thousand all going in one direction, and a voice following them a voice of reason and pleading and tenderness, and think of a moment in which the whole ten thousand feel that they are wrong, and they turn and return. That is the picture. God looks for it, expects it, welcomes it. Do not wait until the whole world turns, but let each man himself, as one, turn, think, pray, love, and say to the dying Christ, the one Saviour of the world, "Let me hide myself in thee."
Almighty God, thou settest up and thou puttest down as seemeth good in thy sight The first shall be last, and the last shall be first. Thou doest as thou pleasest amongst the armies of heaven, and amongst the children of men. Thou art doing all things well. Help us to believe in thy fatherly providence: oh that we may rest in the Lord and wait patiently for him, that he may give us our heart's desire. May our heart's desire be that God's will shall be done on earth as it is done in heaven. Thou art a great Destroyer: who can stand before the breath of thy mouth? Our God is a consuming fire: none can stay his hand, none may say unto him, What doest thou? Thou art a great Saviour; it is in thine heart to save the men thou hast created; there comes to us the great cry, Turn ye, turn ye! why will ye die? This is thy voice; it is the voice of thine heart, it comes from heaven, it comes from the Christ, it comes in all the events of thy providence. In God there is no death; thou wouldst have all men turn and be saved; thou art the living God, and thou wouldst give life to all those who put their trust in Christ. For this Christ we bless thee; he is the brightness of thy glory, he is the express Image of thy person. We see not God, but we see Jesus; we follow him with wonder, admiration, rapture, confidence; we give ourselves wholly into his care. We say, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God, the Creator of all men, and the Redeemer of the world: have us ever in thy holy keeping. Thou knowest the world we live in; thou dost govern all its affairs. For a time we seem to rule them, but thou dost overrule our dominion, and out of darkness thou dost bring light, and out of tumult great peace. Thou knowest the weariness of many: oh the heartbreak, the heartache, the weariness, the tears that bring no relief, the sighing that is almost prayer: thou knowest all our life; continue to pity us and to sustain us by thy love; and when the night draws nigh, so much longed for by many, may it be found that even in our waiting and sighing and weariness we have been enabled to show forth somewhat of the grace and majesty of Christ. Amen.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Ezekiel 18". Parker's The People's Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Sixth Week after Easter