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"Never in Bondage"

We . . . were never in bondage to any man. How sayest Thou Ye, shall be made free ? —John viii. 33.

"XTEVER in bondage to any man "? Then what J. ^1 about Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Syria? Was there not a Roman garrison looking down from the castle into the very Temple courts where this boastful falsehood was uttered? It required some hardihood to say, "Never in bondage to any man," in the face of such a history, and such a present. But was it not just an instance of the strange power which we all have and exercise, of ignoring disagreeable facts, and by ingenious manipulation taking the wrinkles out of the photograph? The Jews were perhaps not misunderstanding Jesus Christ quite so much as these words may suggest. If He had been promising, as they chose to assume, political and external liberty, I fancy they would have risen to the bait a little more eagerly than they did to His words.

But be that as it may, this strange answer of theirs suggests that power of ignoring what we do not want to see, not only in the way in which I have suggested, but also in another. For if they had any inkling of what Jesus meant by slavery and freedom, they, by such words as these, put away from themselves the thought that they were, in any deep and inward sense, bondsmen, and that a message of liberty had any application to them. Ah, dear friends, there was a great deal of human nature in these men, who thus put up a screen between them and the penetrating words of our Lord. Were they not doing just what many of us— all of us to some extent—do: ignoring the facts of their own necessities, of their own spiritual condition, denying the plain lessons of experience? Like them, are not we too often refusing to look in the face the fact that we all, apart from Him, are really in bondage? Because we do not realize the slavery, are we not indifferent to the offer of freedom ?" We were never in bondage "; consequently we add, "How sayest Thou, Ye shall be made free?" So then, my text brings us to think of three things: our bondage, our ignorance of our bondage, our consequent indifference to Christ's offer of liberty. Let me say a word or two about each of these.

First as to—

I. Our Bondage.

Christ follows the vain boast in the text, with the calm, grave, profound explanation of what He meant:

"Whoso committeth sin is the slave of sin." That is true in two ways. By the act of sinning a man shows that he is the slave of an alien power that has captured him; and in the act of sinning, he rivets the chains and increases the tyranny. He is a slave, or he would not obey sin. He is more than a slave because he has again obeyed it. Now, do not let us run away with the idea that when Jesus speaks of sin and its bondage, He is thinking only, or mainly, of gross outrages and contradictions of the plain law of morality and decency, that He is thinking only of external acts which all men brand as being wrong, or of those which law qualifies as crimes. We have to go far deeper than that, and into a far more inward region of life than that, before we come to apprehend the inwardness and the depth of the Christian conception of what sin is. We have to bring the whole life close up against God, and then to judge its deeds thereby. Therefore, though I know I am speaking to a mass of respectable, law-abiding people, very few of you having any knowledge of the grosser and uglier forms of transgression, and I daresay none of you having any experience of what it is to sin against human law, though I do not charge you—God forbid !—with vices, and still less with crimes, I bring to each man's conscience a far more searching word than either of these two, when I say, "We all have sinned and come short of the glory of God." This declaration of the universality and reality of the bondage M.s. 14

of sin is only the turning into plain words of a fact which is of universal experience, though it may be of a very much less universal consciousness. We may not be aware of the fact, because, as I have to show you, we do not direct our attention to it. But there it is; and the truth is that every man, however noble his aspirations sometimes, however pure and high his convictions, and however honest in the main may be his attempts to do what is right, when he deals honestly with himself, becomes more or less conscious of just that experience which a great expert in soul analysis and self-examination made: "I find a law "—an influence working upon my heart with the inevitableness and certainty of law—" that when I would do good, evil is present with me."

We all know that, whether we regard it as we ought or no. We all say Amen to that, when it is forced upon our attention. There is something in us that thwarts aspiration towards good, and inclines to evil.

"What will but felt the fleshly screen?"

And it is not only a screen. It not only prevents us from rising as high as we would, but it sinks us so low as to do deeds that something within us recoils from and brands as evil. Jesus teaches us that he who commits sin is the slave of sin; that is to say, that an alien power has captured and is coercing the wrong-doer. That teaching does not destroy responsibility, but it kindles hope. A foreign foe, who has invaded the land, may be driven out of the land, and all his slaves set free, if a stronger than he comes against him. Christianity is called gloomy and stern, because it preaches the corruption of man's heart. Is it not a gospel to draw a distinction between the evil that a man does, and the self that a man may be? Is it not better, more hopeful, more of a true evangel, to say to a man, "Sin dwelleth in you," than to say, " What is called sin is only the necessary action of human nature." To believe that their present condition is not slavery makes men hopeless of ever gaining freedom, and the true gospel of the emancipation of humanity rests on the Christian doctrine of the bondage of sin.

Let me remind you that freedom consists not in the absence of external constraints, but in the animal in us being governed by the will, for when the flesh is free the man is a slave. And it means that the will should be governed by the conscience ; and it means that the conscience should be governed by God. There are the stages. Men are built in three stories, so to speak. Down at the bottom, and to be kept there, are inclinations, passions, lust, desires, which are all but blind aimings after their appropriate satisfaction, without any question as to whether the satisfaction is right or wrong; and above that a dominant will that is meant to control, and above that a conscience. That is the pyramid; and as by the sunshine on the gilded top of some spire, the shining apex, the conscience, is illumined when the light of God falls upon it. And when a man is built in that fashion, and keeps to that fashion, then, and only then, is he free.

I need not remind you of how the metaphor of my text receives its most tragical and yet most common illustration and confirmation in the awful fact of the power of any evil thing, once thought or done by a man, to reproduce itself, onwards and ever onwards. It is a far commoner thing for a man never to have done some given evil, never to have got drunk, never to have stolen, or the like, than to have done it only once. I have heard of a mysterious illness, in which at first medical analysis detected with difficulty one single bacterion in a great quantity of blood. But in a few days, so had they multiplied that no drop could be taken anywhere from the veins which was not full of them. That is how men get under the slavery of any evil thing; and habit becomes stronger than anything except that "strong Son of God, immortal Love," whose Spirit can conquer even it. "Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? Then may ye that are wont to do evil learn to do well." The bondage is real and hard.

My text suggests to us that strange, sad fact—

II. Our Ignorance Of Our Slavery.

"We were never in bondage to any man," said the Jews. We are but too apt to repeat the empty boast, and as they forgot Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar, Antiochus and Csesar, we forget our failures, our faults, our sins. We ignore them. Is not that, too, a plain fact of experience? A sadly large percentage of men never have really opened their eyes to the undeniable truth that sin has dominion over them. They go along on the surface of things, keeping to the shallows of human life, occupying themselves with their various duties and enjoyments, and they never know, just because they shut their eyes to facts, or rather turn their eyes away from facts—what is their real condition in God's sight. Some of my present hearers are, in regard to this matter, what the old Puritans used to call "Gospel-hardened." They have their hearts and minds, I was going to say water-proofed, by repeated application to them, as I am trying to apply them now, of truths which but add one more film to the layers between their hearts and the Gospel. Because they are so familiar with the words of our message, they all but lose the faculty of bringing its power into contact with themselves. Oh! if I could overcome that tendency which there is in all regular church and chapel-goers to make themselves comfortable in their corners, and suppose that the man in the pulpit is saying what he ought to say, and that they need not give much heed to his message, because they have heard it all before— if I could once get the sharp point of this great Christian truth of our slavery under sin, through the manifold layers with which your heart is encrusted, you would find out the weight of a good many things that some of you think very phantasmal and of little consequence.

There is nothing about us that is more remarkable and more awful, when you come to think of it, than the power that we have, by not attending to something, of making that something practically non-existent. The great search-lights, that they now have on battleships, will fling a beam of terrible revealing power on one small segment of the vast circle of the sea; and all the rest, though it may be filled with the enemy's fleet, will be lying in darkness. So just because we cannot get you to think of the facts of your slavery to sin, the facts are non-existent as far as you are concerned. Let me plead with you. Surely! surely, it is not a thing worthy of a man never to go down into the deep places of your own hearts and see the ugly things that coil and wrestle and swarm and multiply there! Ezekiel was once led to a place where, through a hole broken in the wall, there was showed him an inner chamber, on the walls of which were painted the hideous idols of the heathen. And there, in the presence of the foul shapes, stood venerable priests and official dignitaries of Israel, with their censers in their hands, and their backs to the oracle of God. There is a chamber like that in all our hearts; and it would be a great deal better that we should go down, through the hole in the wall, and see it, than that we should live, as so many of us do, in this fool's paradise of ignorance of our own sin. It is because we will not attend to the facts that we ignore the facts. The evils that we do, and that we cherish undone in our hearts, are like the wreckers on some stormy coast, that begin operations by taking the tongue out of the bell that hangs on the buoy, and putting out the light that beams from the beacon. Sin chokes conscience; and so the worse a man is, the less he feels himself to be bad; and while a saint will be tortured with agonies of remorse for some slight peccadillo, a brigand will add a murder or two to his list, and wipe his mouth and say, "I have done no harm." We are ignorant of our sin because we bribe our consciences, because we drug our consciences, because we will not attend to the facts of our own spiritual being.

That ignorance of our bondage is characteristic of the tone of mind of this generation. Things have changed in that respect, as in a great many others, since I was a boy. I do" not hear now, from people who desire to unite themselves to Jesus Christ, the deep poignant penitence and confession of sin that one used to hear. I do not hear the facts of sin, its gravity and universality, preached from pulpits in the way it used to be. I notice in the ordinary, average man a tendency to think more about environment and heredity than about individual responsibility, and on the whole a very much lowered sense of the depth and the power and the universality of transgression. And that is why, to a large extent, the Christianity of this generation is so shallow a thing as it is.

That brings me, lastly, to say a word about—

III. The Consequent Indifference To Christ's Offer Of Freedom.

"How sayest Thou, Ye shall be made free?" Of course, if they had no consciousness of bondage, there was no attraction for them in a promise of freedom.

That remark opens out two thoughts, on which I do not dwell. First, the ignoring of the fact of sin which is so common amongst us all to-day, makes it impossible to understand Christ and Christianity. Brethren, that great Gospel, and that great Lord who is the subject of the Gospel, have many other aspects than this. But this is the central thought as to it and Him, that it is the emancipation from sin, because He is the Emancipator. "The spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He hath anointed Me to preach deliverance to the captives." And wherever we find, as we do find, in many quarters to-day, that the central fact of Christianity, the Death for the sin of the world, is deposed from its place, there the life-blood is ebbing out of the Gospel. Historically, the beginning of almost all heresies has been the under-estimate of the fact of sin. As long as you dwell in the shallows of human experience, a shallow Christianity and a shallow Christ will be enough for you. But when once you get to understand the depths of your own need, and the depths of your brother's need, then nothing less than the Christ that died to solve the problem, insoluble else, of how to emancipate the soul and the world from the tyranny of sin, will be enough for you. Once "the waters of the great deep are broken up," and the floods are out, there is nothing for it but the Ark. It is not enough then to speak of a human Christ; it is not enough, when a man's conscience has been roused, not to exaggeration, but to clear sight, of what he is— it is not enough then to speak of an example Christ, or of a teaching Christ. Ah! we want more than that. We want "that which first of all I delivered unto you, how that Jesus Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures."

And, brethren, just as the ignoring of the fact of sin makes the understanding of Christ and His word impossible, so it makes real reception of Him for ourselves impossible. Many men are brought near to Jesus by other roads; thank God for it! There are a thousand ways to the Cross, but it is the Cross that we must clasp, if in any true sense we are to clasp Christ. And there is all the difference betweeen the superficial, partial, and easy-going profession of Christianity which is so common amongst us to-day, and the life and death clutching and clinging to Him which comes when, and only when, a man feels that the tyrant whom he served as a slave, is close behind him, and that his only chance of freedom is to hold fast by the horns of the altar of the Sanctuary, and to cleave to the Christ in Whom, and in Whom alone, we are free indeed.