John 11, 3.—This is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.
It is a glorious doctrine that there is a God. "We are forced to assume it, as a first principle of our religious knowledge, and perhaps for that very reason, are prone to underrate or to forget its value. To correct this practical error, we need only ask ourselves, what should we be without a knowledge of this great truth? Men may dispute as to the mode in which our first conceptions of a God have been obtained. Some may derive it from an observation of his works, and subsequent reflection on them. Some may regard it as innate; a kind of invisible writing on the soul, to be educed and rendered legible by intellectual and moral culture. But this much appears certain: we can form a conception of a rational soul without any definite notions of God, even of a God, of any God.
"We can conceive of such a soul with its ideas restricted to itself, or to beings like itself, with no higher standard or more perfect model than that afforded by its own experience, or its observation of its fellows.
Or if we suppose it to rise higher, as imagining one like itself, but differing in degree; conceiving only of itself exalted to a higher rank, but with no conception of a lawgiver, a sovereign, an almighty deliverer. Such a mind would be truly dark, compared with the light which blazes around us.
But suppose a portion of that light to be let in upon it by degrees, and with it a conception of something intrinsically higher, better, nobler than the man himself, distinguished from him not merely by an individual or even a specific, but by a generic difference, possessing all that appears good in us, but without the limitations and defects which mar it; possessing more of knowledge, power, and goodness, much more, vastly more, infinitely more. This is a great advance upon his previous conceptions, this is the idea of a God, however vague and immature; it is a new and grand idea, it presents- a new aim and a higher standard, something to which the awakened soul can now look up, and towards which it can stretch in emulous desire to rise above itself. Even by removing all limitation, and by raising every excellence to the highest pitch conceivable, we come to the idea of perfection, at least negatively; and this, if not all that is attainable, is certainly a great advance from nothing or from self to God, to the notion of a perfect object for our contemplation, our desire, our love.
But this idea of perfection may itself be imperfect. The mind may leave out of view some essential attributes, or view them in a false light and in disproportion. It may even view them as abstractions not inherent in a personal subject, inherent only in the universe, or in its parts, or in the powers of nature, or in deified men, or in lower animals, or in artificial idols. This is heathenism in its various gradations. But even where these grosser errors are avoided or escaped, the view may be confined to what the older theologians called the natural attributes of God, to the exclusion of the moral. The power, wisdom, omnipresence, and omniscience of the deity may be contemplated alone. Increase the light so far as to afford a glimpse of his truth, justice, holiness, benevolence, and mercy. What an advance is this upon the previous conception, even of an allwise and almighty being! It is scarcely less than that before described! But even among the moral attributes of deity so called, some may be acknowledged to the exclusion of the rest. He may seem all mercy and no justice, giving license to transgression; or all justice and no mercy, driving the guilty to despair. So too with his natural perfections; his wisdom may be exalted at the cost of his omnipotence, a wisdom utterly unable to effect its own designs; or his power may appear divorced from wisdom, a blind, unintelligent brute force. All these varieties of error are not only possible, but have been really exemplified in systems of religion and philosophy, and in the tentative inquiries of the individual speculator on the mode of the divine existence. But let these discordant views be brought into harmony and due proportion, as the light of day reduces objects magnified and distorted by the dubious twilight, and how astonishing the change! It is like a new revelation. What before appeared in
conflict now harmoniously co-operates; things which seemed contradictory, illustrate one another. This is indeed perfection. What was seen before was but a name, this is the reality; that was called a perfect being, but this is one; that was the vague conception of a God, this is the God, this the true God.
But even here experience proves that men may cling to the idea of plurality, as something at least possible. Why may there not be many perfect beings? The very question implies some defect in the idea of perfection. That supreme perfection in one being must exclude it in all others, is a higher refinement to which even wise men have not always attained. Hence the doctrine of the divine unity; of monotheism as opposed both to polytheism and to pantheism, is a further advance upon~the steps which we suppose to have been already taken in the ideal progress of a soul from total ignorance of God towards just and clear conceptions of his nature. That the unity of the divine nature stands nearer to the end than the beginning of this progress, is apparent from the fact, that in proportion as the unassisted powers of the human mind have risen to more just views of the deity, the number of the beings in whom it was supposed to reside has always been diminished, sometimes from many thousands to a few hundreds, then to scores and tens, until it has reached two, where many, with the Gnostics and the Manichees, and other dualists have stuck fast, unable to account for the existence of evil, except upon the supposition of two co-eternal but antagonistic principles. When this last difficulty has been vanquished, and the oneness of the Godhead seen to be essential to his absolute perfection, men have sometimes stood still in amazement at their own delay in reaching a conclusion which now seems to them not only obvious but unavoidable. And if we may suppose a single mind to have been brought through all these stages of conviction and illumination, and ^o look back from the last through those by which it was preceded, to the distant starting-point of its ascent, it is easy to conceive of the astonishment with which such an inquirer would survey the vast strides by which he had passed from darkness to twilight, from twilight to the dawn, and from the dawn to the meridian blaze of clearly revealed truth—from no god to a god, from a god to the god, the first to whom there is no second, the whole in whom there are no parts, "the only true God."
I say this is a glorious doctrine. It is a glorious thing to know the true God, even in the lowest sense; to know that he exists, to see the proofs, to feel the necessity of his existence. Even in this, supposing it to be possessed alone, there would be something elevating and enlarging in the capacity to frame such a conception of the true God, even as remote, even as an object of mere speculative contemplation. How much more to feel his influence! If it is a privilege and honour to behold, by the artificial aid of glasses, those heavenly bodies which directly and sensibly affect us least, how must we feel towards those which are revealed to the unassisted eye, if free from all obstruction and disease, and whose effects are matters of perpetual experience? So, too, the soul, when once brought to contemplate God, the only true God, feels a desire, or at least a need of some more intimate relation to him. Not contented with his light, it craves his heat, or in its absence, feels itself to be forever cold and dead. Under this impression, in obedience to the law of our original constitution, many a great but half-enlightened mind has yearned after intimate communion with th^J; God whom it has learned to contemplate, with an eye of speculative reason, as possessed of all conceivable perfection. But this instinctive movement is repressed by new discoveries, disclosing the necessity of further and still clearer revelations of the object which appeared to be completely unveiled to the eye of the spectator.
I have supposed the inquirer, in the process which has been described, to set out from himself, and by removing all that seems imperfect and corrupt, and indefinitely magnifying all that we regard as good in bis own constitution, to arrive at last at the conception of a God. From the very nature of this process, it involves comparison at every step, between God and himself. And this comparison inevitably carries with it a conviction of inferiority, a sense of insignificance and meanness. This could not fail to arise, even from the contemplation of God's natural perfections, his power and his wisdom, as contrasted with the ignorance and weakness of his creatures. No wonder that it should be so, when God and he are at the opposite extremities of the scale, through which he has been passing in his quest of infinite perfection. In proportion as his views of God have risen higher, must his views of himself have become more humbling, even in reference to natural qualities.
But he cannot confine his view to these. If really enlightened as to the divine nature, he must see that its moral perfections are not only real but essential, and that these must be taken into the account in measuring the interval between himself and God. This new and more complete comparison invariably produces a deep sense not only of physical inferiority, but of moral uncongeniality. The more correct his notion of God, the more clearly must he see that holiness is necessarily included in it, and the more distinct his view of that holiness, the more vivid and painful the sense of his own sinfulness, because it essentially consists in opposition to that holiness of God which he now sees so clearly. This is in fact necessary to a just view of the divine nature on the part of fallen creatures. Where there is no sense of sin, there is no apppreciation of God's holiness. .
This is to fallen man the natural order of his thoughts and his discoveries. We do not first see God, and then by contrast with his holiness, discover what sin is. It might be so with other beings, or with man before his fall, but it is not so with us. It is the gnawing sense of guilt that leads men to their first discoveries of God in the perfection of his nature. The reproofs of conscience presuppose a law, discriminating between right and wrong; and such a law presupposes a lawgiver. It is not before a mere abstraction that man trembles, but before a personal avenger. While the conscience still remains insensible, the proofs of God's existence may make slight impressions on the understanding. But when conscience is aroused, and man confesses to himself, if not to others, that he is a sinner, his thoughts are irresistibly borne onward to the bar at which he is to be arraigned, to the judgment-seat and him who sits upon it.
This indivisible connection between conscience and the being of a God is far beyond the reach of sophistry; this witness cannot be silenced or gainsayed, and if its testimony be for a time suppressed or disregarded, it will yet speak out, in shrieks or whispers, in some emergency of life, upon the death-bed, or in hell, bringing home the irresistible conviction that there is a just and holy God, against whom we have sinned, and from whom we are to receive our everlasting portion. It is the want of this convincing evidence, at least in any adequate degree, that dims the clearest speculations of the heathen sages. Because they had no due sense of sin, they had and could have no correct conception of that God against whom all sin is committed, and to whose very nature, no less than his will, it is essentially opposed. Hence too the wisest of the heathen, those who approached nearest to the Scriptures in their views of the divine perfections, are precisely those who seem to have had the most definite, experimental sense of sin. The same thing is exemplified in Christian errorists. The further they recede from deep and thorough views of sin, the more they are disposed to extenuate it, the more jejune do they become in their conceptions of the divine nature, till in many cases God becomes tr them a name, an idea, an abstraction, a nonentity.
On the other hand, the clearer the conception of God's holiness, the deeper the conviction of man's vileness; so that nothing more contributes to this deep humiliation than enlarging views of the divine perfection, forcing the self-convicted sinner to exclaim with Job, " I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now mine eye seeth thee; wherefore I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes!"
And this sense of vileness cannot be separated from an apprehension of God's wrath, and a desire to escape it. The man can no longer be contented with a scientific contemplation of the deity; he feels his alienation, and his need of reconciliation, and he asks, can God communicate with fallen creatures? will his holiness admit of it? his justice suffer it? And if he can thus condescend to deal with sinners, will he? has he done so? has he ever sent a message to man since the fall? The knowledge that he can renew the intercourse without a violation of his attributes is blessed knowledge that he will; still more so that he has already actually done it is a glorious revelation, prompting the earnest, passionate inquiry, when, where, how? what has he sent? whom has he sent?
The answer to this question brings us on still further in our search for God. He has sent us a message in his word, indited by his Spirit, a written revelation, perfectly consonant with that in nature, but transcending it, and going far beyond it; so that one of these great volumes serves to illustrate and expound the other. When we open this new volume, it is to meet a new disclosure. He has not only sent a message, but a messenger—a living representative, a personal ambassador. He has sent not only his own Spirit in his word and in the hearts of men, but Vol. Ii.—16
his own Son, the brightness of his glory, the express image of his person—not a created representative, but God manifest in the flesh, the great mystery of godliness, or of the Godhead, the unity of persons in that one divine essence—a secret hidden from philosophers, and held back even from the chosen people, or imperfectly disclosed to them in types and symbols, perhaps to save them from polytheism until they were established in the doctrine of God's unity, but now brought to light in the gospel, a new and glorious light, transcending all our previous discoveries—three persons and one God—the Son and the Spirit the revealers of the Father, sent by him for this very purpose, the Spirit in his word and in the hearts of his people; but his mission is dependent upon that of the Son, who comes in human flesh to reveal the Father, to instruct, to conquer, to atone—first as the angel of the covenant, then as the Messiah, the anointed—as a prophet to instruct, as a king to conquer, as a priest to expiate, as a Saviour to redeem—-the Christ—Jesus—both together Jesus Christ—the anointed Saviour, the Son of God and the Son of man—■ God and sent of God—man and sent to man. This is indeed the only true God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent. What a privilege to know this Saviour, not apart from God or independently of him, but as essentially one with him. None knoweth the Father but the Son, and he to whom the Son revealeth him. We cannot know God without him. He is the great revealer of the Father—his Word, his Wisdom. Our notions, which might else be too abstract, are embodied and realized in him. Even in theory, our views of God are too vague without Christ, and unless taken through him. But there is still another and a far stronger reason why we must come to God through him. God is holy, and we are sinners. As ah ahsolute sovereign, as a righteous judge, he is forever inaccessible. Our God is a consuming fire, to which no man can approach and live. Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. We may come to God through him, not only as a man hut as a Saviour. It is through this new and living way that we may venture to approach. God brings us near to himself through the blood of the everlasting covenant. There is forgiveness with him that he may be feared. We are forgiven that we may know him.
It is only thus that we can know him, and that not speculatively but experimentally. We may know him as a merciful and sin-pardoning God. We may know him as ours by faith and a self-appropriating knowledge. In our own happy experience we may know, not only that he is, but that he is a rewarder of those diligently seeking him. We may know him as a child knows its parent, with a knowledge which cannot be mistaken, or confound its object with another—a knowledge necessarily including trust, esteem, and intimate communion. To know God is to love him. All alienation here implies some defect of knowledge. To know God in Christ is to know him as a Saviour, and to trust in him as such. To know him is to know his Holy Spirit, and to seek his influences, and to have them. All this is really included in the knowledge of the only true God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent.
Now this experimental knowledge of the highest good, when imparted to a lost and ruined world, is life. Look abroad upon the valley of dry bones by which you are surrounded,—see all the elements of our moral constitution dislocated, decomposed, dissolved,—a wide-spread scene of confusion and corruption, in which matter and form may still be recognized. But life is wanting—all is dead. Philosophy has lavished its experiments upon it for a course of ages, but with no effect, except to aggravate the ghastliness of death by occasional spasms of apparent life. To this scene of mournful desolation and decay introduce the knowledge of God, the true God, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent. This is precisely what was wanting—it is life, it is life from the dead: the effect is instantaneous and electric; the graves of humanity are opened; see, it bursts its cerements and comes forth in a blessed resurrection, alive to God, to holiness, to happiness; the paralyzed faculties begin to move; the affections are restored to their forsaken objects; the harmony and balance of the powers is reinstated; darkness is turned to light, weakness to strength, death to life; old things are passed away, all things are become new.
But what if this new life, all glorious as it is, should prove to be but transient, evanescent, like a pleasing dream? But see, it stretches out into the future, and as it advances, all checks are removed. It swells, it grows; life from the dead is followed by no new vicissitude: man lives to die no more. We may look for decay and retrocession, but it comes not. God is unchangeable, so is the new relation of the soul to him; it cannot fail until the mercy of the Father and the merit of the Son, and the influences of the Spirit are exhausted; it is a new creation; it is a new world; and the life, instead of failing, grows more real and abundant till it reaches the verge of this world, and launches forth into a new state of existence, but not there to die; it lives in those waters of eternal being, buffets the waves of that shoreless ocean, rises and falls upon their crests, and by them is borne on and on beyond our view. It is forever. Yes, it is forever. Yes, this new life is eternal. Well might the great High Priest of our profession, in his sacerdotal prayer, say of his followers and of all who should believe upon him through their word—" And this is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent."
To be ignorant of all this is a terrible condition; but there is another still more fearful, I mean that of knowing it but only as a speculative truth. Yes, the thickest darkness of the heathen mind in reference to these great truths, though more degrading in itself, and in its present effects, is less appalling in its influence on character and destiny, than barren, unavailing, unbelieving knowledge. Why? because opposition or indifference to the truth is never a mere intellectual deficiency or error, but invariably the fruit of moral dispositions. The ear which will not hear when God speaks, and the eye which cannot see with all the light which he affords, are sins of a corrupted and hard heart; and he who finds himself in this position, instead of pitying the blindness of the heathen and the doom to which it is conducting them, may almost envy their superior chance of clemency at God's bar, in comparison with those who know and even boast of knowing who he is and what he has already done for man's salvation, and yet proudly say by every action of their lives that they will not be saved in this way, or rather that they need not to be saved at all. For this, disguise it as yon will, my hearer, is the genuine spirit of your life, if not the language of your lips, so long as you remain contented with a cold intellectual assent to the great doctrine of one only true God and of Jesus Christ whom he has sent. For nothing can be clearer than that this one true God is a God of infinite holiness and justice, and that these perfections of his nature make the punishment of sin an absolute necessity, and that this necessity can only be avoided in the person of the sinner by the transfer of his guilt to another, and that Jesus Christ whom God has sent was sent for this very purpose.
These are not mere circumstantial adjuncts of the great truths which we have been considering, but integral and essential elements. There is no revelation of the one true God which is not a revelation of his holiness, i. e. the opposition of his nature to all sin, for what is sin but opposition to his nature and his will, and how can he but be opposed to his own opposite, or fail, in the exercise of infinite rectitude and power, to destroy it? And again, if you exclude from your idea of the Christ whom he has sent the capacity and will to save, by self-substitution for the actual offender, what is left ?. If you leave this out, you hare not even a correct intellectual apprehension of the one true God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent, and must suffer the same consequences from the want of this essential knowledge that you pity in the doom of the poor heathen.
If you take all this in—if you know God as a God of perfect holiness and justice, and Jesus Christ whom he has sent as a divine and all-sufficient Saviour, and yet bid defiance to the one by refusing to accept the other, your fate can differ from the heathen's only as the fate of one who stumbles in the dark ought to differ from the fall of one who rushes to destruction with his eyes wide open, and amidst the blaze of noon. The course of duty and of safety then is plain. Repent, believe, submit to God by accepting of his Son, and thus prove by your own experience that this is indeed eternal life, to know the only true God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent.