SYDNEY BLACK BIOGRAPHY - CHAPTER 6
SYDNEY BLACK'S greatest gift was undoubtedly his power of influencing men and women for their eternal good by his preaching. It was preaching plus personality, for the same address in the speech of lesser men would probably have failed to move. Examining the few addresses which remain in print, one can readily perceive that the effect they produced was due more to the intense and soul-stirring emphasis with which they were delivered, than to the subject matter. That was always clear, usually presented so as to be understood by the lowliest intellect; but it was the pleading tone, the earnest persuasion, the, at times, overwhelming passion with which he would urge his hearers to come to Christ which moved them to surrender. One very marked feature of his sermons was his constant glorifying of the Son of God. He was at his best then, carried away to heights of spiritual ecstasy during which he would pour out his praise in magnificent and soul-stirring language, seldom equalled, and never surpassed, by his contemporaries. Occasionally there would be a descent into bathos, but it would pass unnoticed, or rarely diverted the mind of his hearers from the main object of his address. There was also the natural exaggeration of fervid oratory, and a habit of repeating certain favourite phrases, which, to those who heard him frequently, was disconcerting. At times also the vehemence of his speaking, and its obvious strain upon himself, would affect his audience with a sense of physical distress; but when all this has been said, it still remains that he was a great preacher, and if the success of a preacher is to be measured by the number of those permanently influenced for Christ, then he was the greatest the community to which he religiously belonged has ever possessed. It was his constant endeavour to secure decisions for Christ. He never preached without expecting results, and he would count the effort lost if no one expressed a desire for the better way. He received many letters from those who were privileged to hear him, nearly all of them expressing sincere thanks for his message. This is one, typical of many others:-
"Having enjoyed the privilege of listening to your discourses at the Fulham Town Hall, I feel it to be a duty before leaving London to thank you for increased light. I am a member of the Established Church, but have never heard the Gospel so simply and clearly expounded before ... I was much touched by seeing several rough fellows, who probably had never before entertained a thought of the state of their souls, paying the deepest attention while you expounded the 'Love of God.' I firmly believe you will reach men who would fly at the sight of a white cravat. May God, in whose strength you labour, preserve you and abundantly bless your efforts."
He never hesitated to speak of sin in most unsparing terms; to him it was not a tendency, nor a weakness in man, but rebellion against God, incited by the enemy of souls, who was as real to the preacher at times as if he were visibly present.
Here is a view of Sydney Black as a preacher, taken from an account of his mission in Glasgow in 1893:-
"When Sydney Black steps briskly to the front of the platform one realises at once that he is a man with a message, and we may add, who does not spare himself in its delivery. Every moment bespeaks energy. Of tall, commanding presence, he is a dark-haired, dark-bearded, pleasant-featured man, the picture of health and happiness.
"His voice at first does not fall pleasantly on the ear, but as one becomes more accustomed to it this harshness is not noticeable. There is no difficulty in following him. Each heading in his subject is logically and lucidly enunciated, then when the truth he has been propounding is laid bare, his whole being bends to the task of driving it home.
"One cannot but be impressed by his magnificent memory. He never speaks from notes. Scripture passages, either as rendered in the Revised or Authorised Version, are all quoted from memory. In this respect he is almost, if not quite, unique among our Evangelists. He has also a rich repertory of anecdote; poetry, sacred and secular; and quotations from standard authors, from which he liberally and effectively culls in the course of his addresses. Plainly he is an omnivorous reader, able to take a comprehensive and masterly grip of the social and the logical questions of the day.
"The most striking characteristic, however, is his intense soul-stirring earnestness; and this Pauline zeal, combined with the talent to play deftly the whole gamut of human emotions, undoubtedly explains his success in winning souls for Christ.
"His oratory is not merely the kind that pleases the ear, it deeply stirs the heart, because his pleading is the compassionate pleading of one touched by the magic spell of Christ's love for his brother man. He evidently realises that the Evangel of Christ is a 'savour of life into life or of death into death,' much too solemn a matter of speak of lightly. And yet while that is so, he is not without humour of a healthy, exhilarating quality."
In place of extracts from Sydney Black's addresses it has been thought more desirable to present one sermon of his, which illustrates his powers of exposition and appeal. It will form a fitting conclusion to the book. It is upon the theme in which he delighted most, "The Love of God," and upon a text which has been the basis of all great evangelical appeal from time immemorial.
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Basis of sermon:- "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have eternal life" (John 3:16).
It is certainly somewhat remarkable that during seven long years of exacting and aggressive evangelistic experience all over the country, we have never, until tonight, ventured to expound this wonderful and time-honoured passage to the public. Having during that period delivered nearly eighteen hundred disquisitions upon Holy Scripture, we have never previously based our observations exclusively upon this transcendently majestic utterance of our Divine Lord.
And even now, occupying once again this essentially evangelical platform, from which we have humbly endeavoured to sound out heaven's large-hearted message since we were but nineteen years of age, we have to claim that indulgence, never previously withheld, as we express our limited thoughts upon a theme which might well employ an angel's tongue.
In the unprecedented impulse given by Professor Max Muller and others to the study of the comparative history of religions, and especially to the distinguishing characteristics of such great heathen systems as Buddhism, Confucianism, and Mohammedanism, we strongly suspect that many of us have been slightly in danger of overlooking the distinguishing peculiarities of our own. This is indeed a tremendous mistake. To such an extent, forsooth, has the fulsome adulation of Gautama Buddha and his mystic speculations proceeded, that in one of our great Lancashire cities today we have a large and influential society of Buddhists, composed for the most part of young men, ostensibly banded together to starve out the Trishna, and by ceaseless and stupendous efforts of self-suppression to attain unto some inexplicable form of Nirvana. We strongly suspect that Sir Edwin Arnold's most fascinating poem, "The Light of Asia," has had largely to do with the inauguration of this startling organisation.
But what means this new heathen movement in our midst? It means that we Christians have been so insanely impervious to the highest interests of our Redeeming God, that we have been largely missing the glorious end we have in view in the construction and perfunctory use of mere ecclesiastical machinery, and thereby keeping out of sight, to a deplorable extent, the great distinguishing marks of our holy religion. We have been losing the end in the means.
The ancient Greeks and Romans were constantly agitating themselves with the question, "What is the summum bonum of our life?" or, "What is the chief end of man?" Would to God that in this nineteenth century, and in this great big city of ours, we Christians were continually asking ourselves, "What is our summum bonum, as redeemed men and women?" What is the outcome of all our efforts and all our machinery? What is the ideal conception of Christian desire and ambition? Amid all the trivialities of our terrestrial experience what is the pearl of great price to secure which we would part with all other pearls? What are the elements which will assuredly abide when we have done with this fleeting and fantastic world?
Our text is to answer these practical questions. Herein lies a concise compendium of the permanent elements of the Christian religion. Here we have the everlasting Gospel in a nutshell. God help us to preach it with the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven! In this multum in parvo discourse our Divine Lord, in dispensing His midnight theology to the Jewish ruler, clearly intimates that love is the centre and circumference of the religion enforced by the world's final Speaker.
In expounding this passage, then, tonight, may we fix your earnest attention upon six points, which would appear fairly to cover the ground traversed by the heavenly Speaker on this ever memorable occasion.
1. Firstly, we have here presented to us
THE GREAT GIVER.
"For God so loved the world that He gave ..." Yes, indeed, God Himself is the Giver. Now, in order rightly to appreciate a gift, it would seem essential to know something about the giver. To a thankful and worthy recipient the intrinsic value of a gift is as nothing compared with the personality whose esteem and regard it embodies. A gift of small intrinsic value may be esteemed as of greater worth than all the riches of Croesus, or the wealth of the Indies, if behind it lies a big, throbbing, affectionate heart.
And is it not thus with the eternal God? If we would estimate aright the wealth of His magnificent gift, may we not devoutly enquire what there is attaching itself to His distinguished Personality which lies behind the gift? While on the one hand the smallest manifestation, in actual value, of a heart of affection, is highly esteemed and treasured; on the other hand, taking all the environments into account, the size of our present is surely somewhat of a gauge of the size of our hearts. In this latter particular our Great Giver infinitely excels. He had a heart that could encompass the world, and His present was - Himself!
Not only is it necessary to know something about the Giver, but it seems also equally essential to know the Giver Himself. Indeed, this is life eternal. Paul did not say concerning his Lord, "That I may know about Him," but "That I may know Him." (Phil. 3:10.)
Of one thing, dear hearers, we may rest assured, and that is, if we desire to know the Great Giver we have come to the right theologian to get to know. We have indeed a splendid revelation of God in the Johannine writings. It is certainly true that for the most part John, like other sacred writers, leaves the student of God's nature and character to form his own conception - though sometimes it may be crude - from what is recorded of His action in religious history; but in at least three concise, crisp, comprehensive phrases he has set forth once for all the great limits within which our thoughts on the Divine nature must be confined. The first statement is in the fourth Gospel, in John's narrative of our Lord's words concerning the sincere worship of God, and is as follows:-
(a) "God is Spirit" (John 4:24). The second is in his first epistle:-
(b) "God is Light" (1 John 1:5). The third is in the same epistle:-
(c) "God is Love" (1 John 4:8,16).
It may be well to note that recent criticism has made it clear that these incisive phrases do not merely denote "properties" of God, as God is merciful, or God is tender; but that their content is that of the essential aspects of His nature, regarded from different standpoints. May we venture briefly to look at them in the most reverent spirit. And as we regard them, we shall doubtless be struck with the evolution of thought which they present, each conception being taken up and developed by the succeeding one.
(a) Firstly, then, God is Spirit. This conception would appear to denote God in Himself and His Being. It certainly expresses no moral relation to the universe. It is a purely metaphysical, yet supremely necessary statement. It is rather suggestive of Divine nature than Divine personality. It informs us what God is rather than who He is. It implies that God is not one out of numerous spirits, but Spirit - absolute, eternal, unchangeable Spirit. If you refer to the margin of the Revised Version (John 4:24), you will find not "God is a Spirit," but simply and accurately, "God is Spirit." This conception lifts Him into the infinite regions, millions of miles above the narrow limitations of time and space. It is the monopoly of the Apostle of Love. Definition was the Johannine forte. He initiates us into absolutely startling and magnificent ideas of God. This conception is not hinted at by the monotheistic writers of the Old Testament. True, the Spirit of God is there portrayed in helpful and significant manifestation; but the noblest Hebrew thought of God's nature was literally steeped in references, from which it is impossible for us to extricate ourselves from the idea of limitation. "Thus saith the Lord, the heaven is My throne, and the earth is My footstool: what manner of house will ye build unto Me?"
The fact is God, qua God, is Spirit, is utterly beyond the soaring imagination of mankind. He transcends human ken. That God is only cognisable through the knowledge of His attributes is a truism. No object can be known by us as a bare existence. It is only as possessed of qualities that any being can exist or act. In the sense in which some speak of knowing God in Himself there is no God to know. Thank God, we possess something more tangible than the ridiculous abstractions of German philosophers, who have got out of their depth. "The essence of God," says Professor Flint, "is simply the nature of God as inclusive, not exclusive, of all the perfections which belong to God, and which distinguish Him from His creatures." Indeed, it is impossible to know that He is unless we have some slight recognition of what He is.
The material vision of God is impossible. "No man hath seen God at any time." But there is a glorious moral and life-giving view of God through the Christ. From the exclusive standpoint of this metaphysical definition of John, God can neither be seen nor known. O beloved hearers, if John had left us here we should indeed of all men have been the most miserable. Our burdened and weary spirits, panting like the hart after the permanent elements of religion, would in the agony of dark despair be exclaiming, "I cannot grasp the conception. It is intangible. It is fantastic and unhuman. It is unreadable. It is high; I cannot attain unto it." Then you continue, "I must have a God. My spirit yearns for dependence upon a higher power; for fellowship with a sympathising and superior intelligence; and for progress in a moral and spiritual life of refinement."
O thou last of all the sacred penmen, hast thou no brighter definition of God to leave with these aspiring souls?
(b) And now John takes the next step in this Divine development of thought. He informs us that "God is light." He does not suggest that God "is a light," or even "the light of the world," but that "God is light." It is another and a nearer definition of God's nature, and not of His dealings. It simply means that God is absolute intellectual and moral truth, as the antithesis of falsehood. It introduces us to the kingdom of mind, and to the area and environment of action, as they relate to truth. God is all-knowing and supremely holy. With Him is no ignorance of mind as He calmly surveys a realistic and idealistic universe. No foul, dark spot can be discerned upon His robes of unapproachable purity. O thou daring intruder, who dost thoughtlessly and unpreparedly rush into the presence chamber of Jehovah, take off the shoes from thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.
This light, then, is not simply the sphere of His abode, for He Himself is light. In Him is no darkness at all. Here we have infinite self-distribution and diffusiveness throughout the whole creation of God. That which is pure, glorious and stately permeates it through and through. It is the revelation of a God of spotless purity, of supreme dignity, of inviolable rectitude, of almost Greek symmetrical perfection. It is the dazzling sunbeam of burning light from the clear sky of awful sacredness. Like the seraphim in Isaiah's vision, let us veil our faces and cry, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts: the fullness of the whole earth is His glory."
Though this idea of God in His moral relations to the entire universe is not distinctly an Hebrew one, yet it appears to underlie the thought of the Divine glory, even in the Hexateuch. We read of Sinai and its tragic wonders, "And the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like devouring fire on the top of the mount in the eyes of the children of Israel."
Seeking souls, let not this blaze of white light upset your mental and moral equilibrium. Cry out for a nearer revelation, and assuredly thou shalt not be disappointed. John has yet more to say. We tell you our God is verily the most misunderstood Being in the world. We greatly fear that, regarded exclusively from the standpoint of these two definitions, and as largely interpreted through the lurid haze of men's flighty and suspicious imaginations, He is conceived of as an unapproachable God, as a God of inflexible austerity, of jealousy and hardness, self-seeking and unkind; creating only to crush; placing suns in the universe simply to snuff them out; forming mis-shaped vessels simply to dash them to pieces; bringing fallen humanity into existence to crush, flail and damn. Is that a right conception of the "Shining God?" We assure you it is entirely the reverse. It is surely a desperate mixture of heaven's inviolable sacredness and purity with the dark exploits of self-assertion and moral suicide.
Basking in this eternal canopy of light, then, as we pass on to a final and soul-filling definition, we can but exclaim with Thomas Binney, in the stateliest hymn ever written:-
"Eternal Light! Eternal Light!
How pure the soul must be,
When, placed within Thy searching sight,
It shrinks not, but with calm delight,
Can live, and look on Thee!
The spirits that surround Thy throne,
May bear the burning bliss;
But that is surely theirs alone,
Since they have never, never known,
A fallen world like this.
O how shall I whose native sphere,
Is dark, whose mind is dim,
Before the Ineffable appear,
And on my naked spirit bear
The uncreated beam?"
And echo answers, How? How? How?
(c) John now leads us on to a magnificent height, as he assures us that "God is Love."
This is the third and culminating definition of God. That glorious display of Divine effulgence might almost have intimidated us from Him, but see here how the golden sceptre is extended that we may touch the top of it and live! Here is Personality definitely and beneficently revealed. It is not now simply what God is, but what relations does He sustain to us as individuals? How does he treat us?
The Greek word, as we shall see, expresses self-sacrificing personality. The idea is not merely that of unlimited self-diffusiveness, but a self-diffusiveness which seeks and obtains an immediate response. Here we have God enticing a recognition not only of glory, but of goodness.
The "Spirit," then, of which we have spoken is pure, refined, unadulterated, spontaneous love! And the "Light" we have described is Love Shining! Alleluia! The mystery is solved.
Again with Binney we exclaim, in profound adoration:-
"There is a way for man to rise,
To that sublime abode:
An Offering and a Sacrifice,
A Holy Spirit's energies,
An Advocate with God.
These, these prepare us for the sight,
Of holiness above;
The sons of ignorance and night,
May dwell in the Eternal Light,
Through the Eternal Love!"
This love is original. It is not evolved. It answers to God's inmost nature, and finds its only source in Him, and not in man. In the Old Testament, as a recent writer points out, love is an attribute of God. In the New Testament love is the Being of God. This is indeed, the crowning stroke of the Johannine theology, and of the Apostolic writings.
Thus does the Great God approach us, to speak unto us. Today, if thou wilt hear His voice, harden not thy heart, as in the provocation. Here and now we are to be plied with the demonstrations of an Eternal Father's love, which are verily beaming upon a guilty and rebellious race from a Saviour's countenance, and descending upon it with softest, sweetest, tenderest accents from a Saviour's lips.
O sin-tossed men and women, this is the God that offers you the gift. We entreat you to accept it by opening your moral, physical and spiritual natures to the Giver. O mystery of mysteries! O problem of the ages! The Giver and the Gift are ONE!
2. May we now briefly consider somewhat more in extenso,
THE GREAT MOTIVE
prompting the Gift. It is almost unnecessary to point out that the motive is "Love." "God so loved the world that He gave ..."
Have we any adequate conception of this great quality? We have just noticed its outshining, as God's nature, in its personal relation to the human family. Let us now look a little more narrowly into this intensely important quality, for herein lies the very kernel of the Gospel. The verb agapao, to which the Greek word translated in this passage "loved" belongs, may be traced in Greek literature from the time of Homer. But it is wonderfully instructive to note that the kindred noun agape belongs exclusively to the range of sacred literature. It is first found in the Septuagint, which was the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures used by our blessed Lord Himself. While, however, it is found but fifteen times in the Septuagint, and not once in the Pentateuch, it is found in every book in the New Testament, excepting the Gospel of Mark, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Epistle of James.
Now there are several things in connection with the remarkable quality represented by this word that we may here note. Dr. Westcott has recently pointed out very lucidly the various relations in which it is found in the New Testament.
(a) In the first place it is used to connote the feeling of the Divine Father for the Divine Son, "The Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into His hands." John 3:35.
(b) Again it describes the feeling of the Father towards a ruined world, "For God so loved the world ..." John 3:16.
(c) It refers, thirdly to the feeling of the Eternal Father for loving and obedient men, "If a man love Me, he will keep My word: and My Father will love him." John 14:23. And again, when Jesus came to a certain point in that intercessorial prayer of infinite tenderness, and in referring to His disciples, He said, "That the world may know that Thou didst send Me, and lovedst them even as Thou lovedst Me." John 17:23. O wonderful revelation! All the intensity of absolute love lavished upon the Divine Son by the Divine Father is lavished upon the little company of disciples, and lavished upon you and me! When we think over it, and try to realise it, we are free to confess to you that we are so overwhelmed with the conception that we can scarcely proceed with our remarks.
Then this love is reciprocal. For, again, the same word is employed to describe:-
(d) The feeling of the Divine Son for the Divine Father, "That the world may know that I love the Father, and as the Father gave Me commandment, even so I do." John 14:31.
(e) Again it expressed the feeling of the Son for His followers, both individually and collectively, "Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister, and Lazarus." John 11:5. And again, "Now before the feast of the Passover, Jesus knowing that His hour was come that He should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved His own which were in the world, He loved them to the uttermost." John 13:1.
From these and kindred portions, it must be abundantly evident that God is love, both in His nature, and in His revelation of Himself. Now this great quality, so far as it relates to mankind as its object, is not spontaneous emotion produced by some beauty, merit or devotion in the object upon which it is centred. On the contrary, it is an expression of character determined by will. In this sense agape is the unselfish and voluntary impartation to others of what we are, and of what we have. It expresses self-abnegation as the direct antithesis of self-assertion.
God, then, in His nature is pure unselfishness. The creating and upholding of the world are in essence a continued manifestation of His nature, but his self-abnegation in Redemption is the very consummation of the Divine counsel in creation, in the very teeth of the horrible intrusion of self-assertion, which is moral suicide. Now in view of the fact that agapao occurs in heathen as well as in sacred literature, and that agape appears in the Septuagint, Archbishop Trench, in his splendid work on New Testament synonyms, points out that they could not have been understood in their true and startling significance until Jesus Christ came into the world - the Revelation of Divine unselfishness. In truth agape is a quality 'born within the bosom of revealed religion.' This noun never appears outside revelation, because the quality it represents does not appear. It is hard to understand the significance attached to the verb in the writings of Homer and others, seeing that amongst the ancient Greeks and Romans there was no possible raison d'etre for its true usage. The ethics of Greece and Rome were based on fearful self-assertion, both in the state and in the individual. But the very essence of this word is unselfishness. The explanation would seem to be that the Divine Spirit, in taking of the things of God and revealing them unto us by His own selected instrumentality, has sanctioned and perhaps suggested this glorious connotation of a word used in a far different sense by the cultured ancients.
Even Judaism was a stranger to this conception of God. It was profoundly ignorant of absolute unselfishness. The world was utterly without any manifestation of it until Jesus Christ came to reveal the nature of God. And when He appeared He said, "Ye have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: but I say unto you, Resist not him that is evil: but whosoever smiteth thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." And again, "Ye have heard that it was said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy: but I say unto you, Love your enemies, and pray for them that persecute you; that ye may be the sons of your Father which is in heaven."
According to the moral law, men were expected to love one another, but to do so in the way in which God loves us demanded a new revelation, which should alter the centre of the gravity of ethics, and place mankind in a completely new relationship to God and to each other. It has been well said that before Jesus Christ came love was in men's hearts, but not the love deliberately exercised by an unselfish nature. There was (1) Natural love - the affection manifested by those through whose veins the same blood flows. This is the love of kith and kin. There was (2) Patriotic love - the affection for Fatherland and for each other, exercised by those of the same nationality. There was (3) Admiring love - produced by noble deeds, and frequently expressing itself in shrines and temples. There was (4) Grateful love - evolved by deeds of courage and self-denial, enacted on man's behalf by his fellow-man. And there was (5) Complacent love - produced by loveable qualities in the object of its attraction. All these are beautiful and sacred forms of love, but, taken en masse, they most inadequately portray the love of God. The peculiarity and uniqueness of God's love are its thorough disinterestedness. God's love is not relative; it is absolute. It is not produced by any beauty, merit, nobility, or community of nature and purpose in its object. True, we love because He first loved us, but we nowhere find that He loved because we first loved Him! Did you ever think of that? God cannot help loving you because He is love. If God did otherwise than love you He would change His nature and cease to be God. He was a loving Father from all eternity. He was the everlasting Father before He was a Creator, Judge, or Supreme Ruler. Creation and providence are but prior manifestations of the Divine unselfishness, which culminated in the beautiful babe of Bethlehem, and the tragedy of the cross of Calvary.
Dear hearers, no mother ever loved her child with a tithe of the love with which God loves you. He has lavished upon you - and cannot do otherwise - all the resources of His infinite nature and world-embracing affection. He loves you - not because you deserve to be loved - not because you have accomplished anything to merit His love - not because you asked to be loved - not even because you needed His love, but because He is love. O if thou wert only half as willing to be saved as God is to save thee, thou wouldst here and now surrender thyself wholly to Him. Listen, then, to His declaration, as He gently draws us to His adorable self, "I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for Mine own sake."
He is able, willing, and anxious to forgive thee, and to change thy stubborn heart for His own sake. "O that thou mayest be willing in the day of His power!"
We are led to conclude from these considerations that God's nature being unselfishness, and his motive unselfishness, God's nature and God's motive are one. God is always true to Himself, and hence absolutely disinterested love is at the base of all His dealings with mankind. We Christians, too, always find our natures and our motives identical; but, alas! alas! we have a lower nature as well as a Godlike nature, and we continually have to probe ourselves to find out which nature it is our actions embody. O that we may keep the spirit nature in the ascendancy! God help us to starve out the old nature by persistently feeding and sustaining the new. So shall our motives ever be identical with the God-imparted gift of unselfish love!
Now arises the question, how far was the Divine unselfishness prepared to proceed? That question must be answered under our next head,
3. THE GREAT GIFT.
"God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son." What does that mean? It means that God had a heart as big as the sun, and that His gift is correspondingly vast. It means that unselfish love is never fully satisfied until it gives itself. It means that Divine love was prepared, in the interests of mankind, to proceed until it could not take another step! It means that when God gives Himself, it is the extreme resource of Divine philanthropy. That little word so equals all that follows of our text. It assures us that God could not manifest His unselfish self to the world in any more striking and beneficent fashion. It declares to us the moral impossibility of God doing other than He has done, providing His love is to be the basis of the world's regeneration.
O perishing sinner, here indeed is glorious news for thee! Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and God shall shine upon thee! God is here pouring forth upon thee all the resources of unlimited love. What a revelation!
Love is self-sacrifice as opposed to self-seeking. Love is life. Selfishness is death. Love is communion. Selfishness is separation. God has shown the dimensions of His great heart by the dimensions of His great sacrifice.
A little boy was at a crowded and inspiring foreign missionary meeting. His spirit was mightily stirred within him as he listened to the speeches of the deputation, representing various fields of enterprise. An earnest appeal for funds was made, followed by the inevitable collection. Our little friend in the gallery had not a penny piece in his pocket. With a pang of emotion he was compelled to allow the plate to pass him, but his heart was filled with noble resolve. His opportunity was yet to come. He waited until everybody else had passed out at the end of the meeting, and as he was leaving the gallery the collector was still holding out the plate, doing his duty to the very last. Turning his beaming face upwards our hero exclaimed, "Do you mind holding the plate a little lower?" "Certainly, my boy," was the reply, as he suited the action to the words. "Lower still," continued the boy. The plate was held still lower. "Do you mind putting it down on the floor?" persisted our hero. The plate was placed on the floor, and quickly stepping on to it, the lad triumphantly exclaimed, "I have no money to give to India, but I give myself." That was the size of his throbbing heart. His heart was three times four. His offering was four times three!
And so God's great gift exactly represents the extent of His love. And what is that? Boundless! Unlimited! Eternal! What is the gift? The Authorised and Revised Versions tell us it is "His only begotten Son." The word in the original, however, is monogenes, which was never intended in the Johannine writings, or in sacred literature generally, to signify "only begotten;" but simply only or unique. It refers to the absolute oneness of the Being of the Father in a way altogether singular. The idea is not that of generation. That insoluble truth is represented by another phrase entirely in the New Testament. The idea undoubtedly is, in this connection, that of a personal existence of a really unique character. We are quite surprised that in the Revised Version we have "only begotten," instead of "unique," and that the original simple conception has been permitted to have incorporated with it an idea of generation, which only became associated with it many decades after John wrote. We are unable to explain how this conception can have been admitted, seeing that the same word, according to nearly all the ancient authorities, is applied to God Himself in John 1:18. Indeed we have this stated in the margin of the Revised Version; and to speak of "the only begotten God" savours of heresy, which almost makes one shudder.
Our text indicates, then, that God gave His unique Son. He had, and can have, but one Son of this completely unique character and substance. And note carefully, God must have had the present to give before He could sacrifice Himself in giving it. The history of the Divine Son begins not in the manger in Bethlehem, but with all eternity. The Eternal Logos is the Eternal Son. Of the Son, we read in Col. 1:15-17: "Who is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in Him were all things created, in the heavens and upon the earth, things visible and things invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things have been created through Him, and unto Him; and He is before all things, and in him all things consist." It was surely real self-abnegation which sent down from yonder sapphire throne the Son, "who, being in the form of God, counted it not a thing to be grasped at to be on an equality with God, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, becoming obedient unto death, yea, the death of the cross." God gave, and truly He had something to part with! And moreover, this was not a loan, but a gift! Jesus Christ is not lent to the human race, He has come to stay. And so the life and death of the Son of God link hands in human experience. God has given the dying Christ for us, that He might give the living Christ to us. And we must come to His death before we can get to His life. "For if, while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, being reconciled, shall we be saved by His life." Theologians dream of a "limited atonement." We tell them, in view of these things, that a "limited atonement" involves a "limited incarnation." If Jesus only died for some, he only lived and lives for some. Let there be no mistake here. He came to His life and then to His death. We come to His death and then to His life. That is to say, dear soul, if thou wouldst have the Son of God as thine own permanent possession, thou must place thyself in a position in which He will come to stay, by plunging into the fountain opened in Judah for the guilty conscience, and by clinging to the virtue of His death. Thus, freed from a burdened conscience, thou art ready for transformation in to the Divine likeness by the power of the Indwelling Guest - the Unique Son who, by His Spirit, comes to abide!
O that we could more effectually impress this two-fold consideration upon every seeker in this congregation. From the inmost soul we assure thee, O man, that we literally abhor that conception of our salvation provided by the Son of God, which represents both it and Him as a species of life-saving apparatus! Do not, we entreat thee, go away with the erroneous idea that God sent His unique Son into the world for the sole purpose of providing a way of escape from impending wrath. He most certainly did that, but a thousand times more than that Jesus Christ came down from heaven to earth to lift us up from earth to heaven - legally, morally and spiritually. That is exactly the reason why God's gift is permanent and abiding. That is why His Son has come to stay. The restoration of holiness is the grand aim and ideal of the whole scheme of redemption. Dost thou say Christ lived, and died, and rose again to rid thee of thine accusing and guilty conscience, and that thou seekest no sacrifice beside? Aye, but we tell thee, He died to make thee a better man.
"He died that we might be forgiven;
He died to make us good."
He died to save us from the guilt of sin. But He also died to save us from the power f sin. He died to procure forgiveness for sins of deepest dye. But he also died to eradicate the horrible plague infecting the whole human race. "Who forgiveth all thine iniquities; Who healeth all thy diseases." He died to pardon the reeling drunkard; but he also died to put out the fiery thirst, and to radically restore the blasted home. Thus, through Jesus' pardoning blood, we may be justified as to sin, that it may not condemn; we may be sanctified as to sin, that it may not reign, and we may be glorified as to sin, that it may not be!
O guilty soul, rest thy burdened conscience on the merits of His blood, and then open thine heart for the reception of God's unfailing Gift - the Unique Son - the Divine Spirit - the new life - the unselfish love!
4. Again our text suggests to us the thought of
THE GREAT MULTITUDE.
May we then hastily notice the area over which this Divine philanthropy extends, "God so loved the world ... that whosoever ..."
From the signification of kosmos as the material universe - a frequent New Testament signification - there succeeded, very naturally, that conception of it as the framework of things in which man lives and moves; which exists for him; and of which he may be regarded as the centre (John 16:21). And then, finally, it came to signify the men themselves - the sum total of those living in the world, as in our text and John 1:29.
This is, then a cosmopolitan word - that adjective being derived from it. It is absolutely impossible for us to escape inclusion within its scope. He who tries to limit it, to prop up the strangled myth of a "limited atonement," is guilty of a philological monstrosity, which would be positively amusing if it were not so cruelly distressing. Be assured, then, doubting souls, that God's unselfishness is as unlimited objectively as it is subjectively. God's very nature and essence preclude the idea of the exclusion of a single soul from within the pale of this infinite assurance.
And, as if this were not sufficient, and to give mankind a double assurance, we are here confronted, in the relative clause, with the word whosoever. Truly here are pastures where the impartial Shepherd leads about the disconsolate and dubious of His universal flock. O wandering sheep, come home, come home!
THE WORLD! WHOSOEVER!
Every letter is worth a world! Every letter weight a ton! These blessed expressions are broad as the heavens, deep as the eternal ocean, and vast as eternity itself. God be praised, there is no distinction with Him. If His love be absolute and not relative, it cannot, of a necessity, be bounded or limited. We say deliberately that to exclude one, God must change His nature.
Our text suggests to us that God so loved the world that he wants more children. His desire is to permanently enlarge the boundaries of His family. He has a unique Son, but even He does not exhaust the resources of His love. He wants millions and millions more sons and daughters, and to bring this about, He sends down His only and dearly beloved One to fit them, and love them, and fetch them!
If there be one here tonight who imagines that there is room in the heart of God and of Christ for him, and not for his friend or brother, step up here on to the rostrum, and inform us what there is about you to render you an eternal favourite of the God with whom we have to do! We undertake to say that when you present yourself to us, your very appearance will be against you!
Jesus Christ steps out from His heavenly mansions to this sin-cursed earth of ours, places one foot upon the land, and the other foot upon the sea, and with a tender yet far-reaching voice, pulsating with infinite beneficence, he exclaims:-
"I represent my Father's heart,
He loves you all! He loves you all!
I and my Father are one,
I love you all! I love you all!
None need perish, since I have died!"
5. And once again may we call your attention to
THE GREAT RESULT.
It surely devolves upon us to point out the result of accepting the gift our philanthropic God is offering to us. In other words, so far as it relates to a lost world, we are to view the design of the birth, life, death, burial and resurrection of the Son of God.
The result described here is two-fold, negative and positive, "That whosoever believeth on Him (1) should not perish, but (2) have eternal life."
The Gospel of Jesus Christ never leaves the human race, or any part of it, in a merely negative position. The ideal it sets before us can never be reached until we take a positive and decided stand upon its feasible proposals. The Gospel, as we have before hinted, is often presented as though it simply signified the being saved from everlasting punishment, and the escaping - by the skin of our teeth - from impending wrath. It is all this, but infinitely more. True, we must come out of the darkness ere we can stand in the light. True, we must "cease to do evil" before we can "learn to do well." True, we must put off the old man ere we can put on the new. But yet, in our estimation, the Gospel denotes not so much the coming out of darkness, as the standing in the light, and feeling its sunshine - not so much dying unto sin as living unto God. A message which only suggests salvation from guilt is only half a Gospel, and only half a truth. And what is worse, it is the selfish half. It leads men to consider neither God nor His Son, nor their fellows; but only that most despicable of all motives for being good - to get off to heaven as quickly as possible.
Enquirers sometimes show their hand when they quite inadvertently remark to us, at the close of our meetings, "O sir, my sense of indwelling sin so humbles me, that I feel if I am only counted worthy to get into heaven at all, and to crouch down just inside the everlasting gates, at the remotest niche from the Throne of the Lamb, I shall be perfectly satisfied." We reply, "Stay one moment, dear friend; that part of heaven must have been crowded out long ago, and, doubtless, millions of your species have been for ages waiting for every inch of standing room that may be left. Poor bilious soul, if thou has no higher ambition than this, we almost despair of any fitness whatsoever for the everlasting habitations." We tell you it is positively dishonouring to our dear Lord, and to His finished work, to attempt to utilise Him just in so far as we would escape condemnation. There is not a breath of this in our text. It not only negatively asserts that if we accept the gift of God we shall not perish, but it also roundly declares that everlasting life is ours. Now life and death are here placed in direct antithesis. They are poles asunder. Nevertheless, we think if we see and know what the life is, its antithesis will be at once so apparent as to need, for this evening's purposes, no further elucidation.
What then, is the eternal life so positively promised to those who believe in the Son? We appeal to the apostle of love once more to report to us how our Divine Lord Himself defines it to us, once and for ever. "This is life eternal that they should know Thee the only true God, and Him whom Thou didst send, Jesus Christ" (John 17:3). Does it seem strange to thee to be told that life is knowledge? Art thou asking thyself, as thou considerest the definition, "Is the spirit's life the study of religion? Is the great eternal future a university of sacred learning? This may be the scholar's heaven," you continue, "but it has very little charm for me."
But may we remind you that knowledge is a word of more than one significance. The knowledge of God which is termed life, is little akin to that knowledge of Him called theology, or the universe interpreted through the idea of God. There is indeed a mighty distinction between knowing God and knowing about God. There is the knowledge of God gained from the study of sacred literature; and the direct knowledge emanating from experience and feeling. By the former we know God's mind; by the latter we feel God's heart.
Astronomy tells us there is a sun; that it is ninety-six millions of miles from the earth; that certain gases are in its vicinity; and that the earth sustains a certain relationship to it in the solar system. Now, all this is very interesting and fascinating, but, beloved hearers, I know there is a sun, not because astronomers tell me so, but because I see it; and I know that the sun is warm because I feel it.
So it is in the spiritual realm. I know there is a "Sun of Righteousness" because I see Him reflected, as in a mirror, in the lives and faces of redeemed humanity. And I know that "Sun" is warm because I feel my breast beating and pulsating in unison with God's great heart.
Thus the knowledge of God, which is eternal life, is not that knowledge - very important in its place - which comes by adding fact to fact, and inference to inference, in long and laborious research, but that knowledge which is an immediate, irresistible and penetrating force in our lives. In other words, it is the gift of the Holy Spirit!
Whence, then, comes this great gift of life? From what source does the Holy Spirit emanate?
Now we have seen that God is Spirit, that God is light, and that God is love. We venture just here to add a fourth Johannine definition, and point out that God is life, in relation to all who would enter His Spirit-endowed family. We here pass from the idea of God Himself to the revelation of God in man. God is the source of eternal life. We have seen that God is Spirit, and that this spirit is love. We have seen that God is light, and that this light is "love shining;" now we see that God is life to all who will fling open their natures to receive Him; and that this life is also love because this life is God, and God is love. We have seen that this love is unselfish, because absolute. And if God dwell in us, and God is love, and love is unselfishness, then it must follow that pure absolute unselfishness dwells in us, and
THIS IS ETERNAL LIFE!
Now the old question is answered, "Will God indeed dwell with man?" Listen to the words of Jesus: "He that believeth on Me, as the Scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. But this spake He of the Spirit, which they that believed on Him were to receive." Thus it appears that the unselfish God is to be reproduced in us, and we can only be Christians just in so far as we realise it.
It is further very instructive to notice that the identical Greek words we have already referred to, as describing the feelings of the Divine Father and Son, reciprocally and otherwise, are actually employed to describe the feeling of men: (1) for the Father, (2) for the Son, (3) for the brethren, and, (4) for life. So that we are expected to love God, and Jesus Christ, and one another, with absolute, God-imparted, disinterested affection. This is "life eternal" for "the love of God hath been shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit which was given unto us." We are to be miniature "Suns of Righteousness," walking about this dark, sin-stricken world, lighting men and women to eternity. That is to say, we are to incarnate the 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians, which presents us with a luminous exposition of the characteristics of this love - all of which are fraternal! And how far are we to go? We answer, "Just so far as Jesus Christ went." His love for us led Him to Calvary; and if that same love dwells in us, we must, if needs be, toil up to our Golgotha for our brethren!
Death is the antithesis of this. If to live is to know God, and Jesus Christ; then to perish is to be ignorant of God and Jesus Christ. If life be "the communion of the Holy Spirit," then to perish is to hold communion with Satan - the eternal Ego - the embodiment of selfishness. If "life" is the Great Spirit taking possession of our little spirits; then "perishing" is dying to our spirit's highest and purest interests.
O men and women, here and now we place before you life and death, blessing and cursing, love and hate, God and Satan. We entreat you, we implore you, at once - without a moment's delay - to choose life, blessing, love and God!
6. Lastly, a word upon
THE GREAT CONDITION.
"That whosoever believeth on Him ..." Here we have the age-abiding principle of faith presented to us, as the condition of life eternal. This is both Scriptural and scientific. It is precisely what we have been anticipating. If life be the experimental knowledge of God in Jesus Christ, how can we possess such knowledge unless we believe on Him? How can we commune with one in whom we do not implicitly trust? But ere the Divine Spirit, the Saviour's Representative, can take complete possession of our natures, and we thus become possessed of the power of an endless life, we must clearly demonstrate that our faith is implicit and unwavering. This must be accomplished by our attention to some specific act of obedience, as a pledge that the Spirit's work shall hereinafter be in no wise hindered in our lives by wilful self-assertion, which is the root of all sin.
During our Lord's earthly ministry, He invariably looked for "faith in action," ere He recognised and rewarded it as the genuine article. Blind Bartim'us had faith; but a faith that importunately cried out, "Thou Son of David, have mercy on me." Jairus had faith; but not a faith that indolently stayed at home, but that went out and fetched the Son of God. The poor woman with the issue of blood had faith: but it was a faith that laughed at impossibilities, and cried, "It shall be done." And it was done; for her trembling touch sent a blood-staunching shock of healing power from the Great Physician right through her stricken frame. In these and all other cases, before life, healing or cleansing are imparted by the Son of God we see "faith in action." In these cases we notice faith crying out to Jesus; and faith laying hold on Jesus.
So it is tonight with every applicant for eternal life. Your faith must be "faith in motion," or it is the faith of demons. True, you cannot address your Lord in person: you cannot fetch Him to your dwelling; nor can you touch the hem of His apparel; but you can, and you ought, aye, and you must - if you would enter into life - surrender in one specific act of faith and love, to the claims of Him who said, "He that believeth and is immersed shall be saved." This beautiful symbolic act is heaven's own appointed means, by which we are enabled not only to come "into Christ," to "put on Christ," and, as believing penitents, to receive "the remission of sins;" but also to pledge ourselves to be henceforth led by the Spirit's teaching, filled with the Spirit's love, and to exchange the self-assertion, which is living death, for the Indwelling God, which is eternal life.
Depend upon it, there is no faith alone in this much abused passage. In fact, literally rendered, it would read, "Whosoever believeth into Him," or, in other words, "whosoever exercises such simple trust as impels him to come into Him." The faith which is crowned with eternal life is the faith that leads us to "put on Christ;" and if we have Christ on, we must necessarily be in Him. We have come into Him because we have sincerely trusted His living love and dying merits. But how do we come into Him? Let Paul inform us. He says, "Ye are all sons of God, through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were immersed into Christ did put on Christ" (Gal. 3:26-27). That is very simple. It is self-explanatory.
O that many in this congregation tonight may thus be begotten by the Spirit, through faith, and be born of water, in this highly important act of consecration, and thus allow the Divine Spirit to have all His own way with them!
We now leave these matters with you. We implore you not to let the day of patient grace go by. Now that a way at once so palpable and so accessible has been provided - when, in the lack of all righteousness of your own, the righteousness of God in Christ is held out to you, that you may robe yourself in it, and appear before heaven, invested in all its honours, and crowned with its eternal rewards - when God has thus embarked the very credit of His honesty upon the fulfilment of His assurance, that if you will but close with Christ, and accept of Him as proffered to you in the gospel, you shall receive with Him an unfaltering benediction here, and a blissful eternity hereafter - when these things are urged upon your attention, week after week, by pastors, teachers and evangelists, and the many remembrancers of Him who never leaves Himself without a witness in the world - O say, say, say, we beg of you, how will you be able to stand the day of impending judgment, if it shall be found that heedless, careless and insane, amid all these invitations, you still deliberately decide to grovel in the depths of selfishness and carnality, moved by no terrors in the ominous indications of vengeance, and by no fascination in the offered mercy of God?
A Christian gentleman called in, by request, to see a dying boy, who had been dragged up in ignorance and indifference. Seeing the end was nigh at hand, he lovingly smiled down upon him, and encouragingly said, "My lad, God loves you." With a desperate effort the sufferer raised himself from his pillow, and shouted out to everybody in the house, "God loves me! God loves me! I shall die happy now!"
"Father of Jesus, love's reward!
What rapture will it be,
Prostrate before Thy throne to lie,
And gaze, and gaze on Thee."
Beloved hearers, my last message to you tonight is this - and as we may never all meet together again on earth to remind each other of it, may God help you to remember it, in life and in death - "God loves you! God loves you! GOOD NIGHT!!"
A SIXTY-PAGE PAMPHLET
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"SHALL THE SAVIOUR'S PRAYER BE
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