IT is universally admitted that man and every moral creature to be responsible for his acts, must be a free agent. But would God give to His creatures a free will? How is this compatible with His Creatorship and absolute sovereignty? Would it not make the creature capable of disobedience and rebellion, and thus bring the possibility of disorder and strife into every inhabited world? But on the other hand, if man were without free-will—the power to choose between good and evil, obedience and disobedience —his conduct could have no moral quality. He must not only know the distinction between good and evil, but be able consciously to choose the good and reject the evil.
We know, in point of fact, that God was pleased to make man a free moral agent, and we cannot believe that He, who knows the end from the beginning, was ignorant of the use man would make of the freedom, and of the consequent disobedience and strife. He foresaw that the great temptation of the creature would be to affirm his independence of the Creator, and yet He planted in the Garden the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for without this knowledge there can be no real sense of moral obligation. The command that Adam should not eat of its fruit, being a negative one, was a trial, whether he would continue by faith in the goodness of his first estate, and thus continue in the love of his Creator, or rebel against Him. Which should rule, the Divine or the human will? If there was to prevail in the world a moral order, there could be but one will; discordant wills would bring confusion and strife.
We thus stand at the very beginning of creature history face to face with a great problem, for this matter concerned not man only, but all intelligent beings whom God should create, for all would be free agents. Their wills must be brought into accordance with His will, and this by their voluntary act. God would be obeyed and honoured as the one Supreme Ruler, and this obedience must not be compulsory, but spontaneous and joyful, and this honour paid from a loving heart. He would be recognised, not only as the Creator and Lord, but also as the Father to whose love His children respond in glad observance of all His commands. In loving but entire obedience, the foundations of His moral government are laid.
It is obvious that this relation of the rational creature to God's moral rule is a matter of vital importance. Shall there be obedience or disobedience, dependence or independence, peace or war? Is the universe in all its inhabited worlds to be the scene of continual rebellion? Is God to be ever sitting as a Judge, and sin and punishment to be the perpetual order? Can He be honoured in a world where are discord and strife? Would He create worlds and fill them with inhabitants who might at any moment rise up against Him, rejecting His authority, and refusing to obey His laws? We cannot think this of an infinitely good and wise God. He creates rational beings that they may have communion with Him, be workers together with Him, abide in His peace, and be partakers of His blessedness. Shall this purpose in Creation be accomplished? From every orb shall there arise songs of praise, ceaseless hallelujahs, or shouts of defiance and battle-cries? Better that all worlds remain uninhabited and desolate, than be peopled with the disobedient and unholy.
But how shall this possibility of disobedience and rebellion be guarded against? Will God take from His rational creatures their free-will? No. They must be put to the proof, and learn to know themselves, their absolute dependence, and the paramount duty of obedience. If they set themselves against their Maker, and exalt their wills above His will, they must learn by a sad experience the consequence of their foolish and wicked act. The creature, even the highest, must be made to know how weak he is in himself, and that his strength consists in abiding in God.
It is plain that this matter concerns not any one order only of intelligent beings, but all, for the relation of all to God is the same, and obedience demanded alike from all.
But this trial of the creature nature in its relation to its Creator, whether it will acknowledge and rejoice in its dependence upon Him, or madly strive to be independent, need not be repeated in the case of every individual world where rational beings may be found, and this through the ages to come. It may be made in some one world, and made once for all; and it was the Divine will that it be made in the earth and in the nature of man. As a point fundamental to moral government, it must be determined at the very beginning of creature history. God would be known by all moral beings throughout all ages as the Supreme Ruler whose will all must unreservedly obey.1
But the question may be asked, Why should there be this trial? Having made His creature good, why should not God be satisfied with this goodness, and preserve it?
1 The place of obedience in the education of a child is seen in an extract from a teacher (Helen Keller's Life, p. 308): "I saw clearly that it was useless to teach her language, or anything else, until she learned to obey me. . . The
more I think about it the more certain I am that obedience is the gateway through which knowledge, yes, and love too, enter the mind of the child."
Why should He permit Adam to be tempted? If not tempted, might he not have remained good? To find an answer we must consider the two relations in which the creature may stand to his Creator. That under all possible conditions he is dependent, follows from the fact of his creation; yet we may still take the distinction of an absolute and a relative dependence. We may here take Adam as an illustration. Created good, and endowed with powers which he was to exercise, and in whose exercise there was place for his free-will, he may be said to have had a relative independence—a sphere of action assigned to him by God, in which was room for personal freedom. In the voluntary exercise of his powers within this sphere, he was to fulfil the duties God had given him to do. He was not, indeed, independent of his Creator within this sphere, but, having faith in God, who had placed him in it, he was to believe himself able to do all that came within it. To distrust this sufficiency would be to show a want of faith in God, who never assigns a duty but He gives the power to fulfil it.
We thus see how the position of a moral being created good, a free agent with an appointed sphere of action, involved in its very nature a semi-independence. It was right in Adam to have a certain trust in himself. If he was put into the Garden to dress it and to keep it, he must believe himself able to fulfil this command in virtue of the powers God had given him, in the exercise of his own judgment and without special Divine help. But this relative independence in a creature with free-will tended to spread beyond its appointed bounds. That self-reliance, which faith in God's appointments rightly gave, might easily become overweening self-sufficiency; and the desire arise to- change relative to absolute independence. This disposition to pass beyond the limits appointed to the created nature is seen in Adam's temptation, "Ye shall be as gods." Perhaps also an illustration of this may be found in the angels who, we are told, "left their first estate," or did not keep within the limitations assigned them, and yet were not like Adam tempted from without. They would be more than ministering spirits to others; they would be rulers, masters.
In a realm of reasonable beings, having a limited sphere of action, but with free-will, with power to disobey God, and set themselves in opposition to Him, it is plain that there could be no assured permanency of order and peace. Rebellion against His limitations might at any moment break out, and the creature in his pride and selfsufficiency assert his independence of his Creator. God therefore would take from the creature all reliance upon himself, all trust in his own goodness. He must at the first be put to the test, he must be made conscious of his own weakness, and feel that, renouncing any creature strength, he must trust in God alone.
Having created angels and men, it was shown by their experience that, retaining free-will, no reliance could be placed upon their native goodness as a stable foundation for the Divine order. Should God then take away their free-will? No; for this would change a moral into a mechanical government. This knowledge of their weakness must be given them at the first. From the beginning, the creature must be taught to renounce all confidence in himself as able by his own strength to do God's works; in God must be all his trust.
The will of God in permitting this trial of created goodness must be seen in its relation to His purpose in the Incarnation of His Son. It was His will that a sure foundation should be laid on which He might build the superstructure of all creature life. He would not build on the quicksands of individual wills, but on the stable foundation of the creaturehood taken by His own Son. On Him as the perfectly obedient One the whole purpose of God in Creation could rest.
Having seen why this trial of the creature should be made, and made in human nature, the question comes, How shall it be made? We can think of but two ways—in the person of every individual, or of some one as the representative of all. It is evident that if every creature coming into the world is to have his individual trial, as had Adam, this trial must continue to the last one of the race; and as the influences active in forming the moral character are continually changing, there can be no uniform rule of judgment. But we need not consider this. We know that God in His wisdom chose headship. He made Adam, the first of the race, its head, its representative. In him, and not in everyone of his posterity, should the trial of humanity be made. According to its results in him should humanity abide in its creature goodness, or fall into a lower and evil condition.
But we are here carefully to note that this headship did not take away the individual responsibility of those represented in the head. Adam's disobedience brought the race into a condition of alienation from God, but not into a condition which shut the penitent out of the mercy and grace of God. They, Adam included, were put under a probation of grace. A new trial was given, and the question before them was, Would they be obedient to God? It was a matter of individual responsibility. The nature given them had been tried, and had fallen under the trial; this would not be repeated. The essential element in the new trial was to confess this failure, and henceforth to put no trust in themselves as good, but to trust only in God. Confessing their weakness, they must cast themselves upon His mercy, and He would teach them His will, and give them strength to fulfil it.
This union of headship and of individual responsibility is seen in all the dealings of God with men. It is seen in Adam and in Christ. But nowhere does headship set aside individual responsibility. Every child of Adam is put on his own personal trial, whether he will obey the will of God as it is made known to him, or disobey. And so is it with every child of Christ. By God's act he is made a branch in the Vine; but he may become a withered branch. Whether he will abide in Christ, or not, is a question for himself to answer. Headship does not make those under it passive. Adam's children were not given over helpless to destruction, nor Christ's children saved without their own co-operation. Both must be diligent in working with God their salvation.
We dwell here chiefly on the trial of man. If it be said that angels sinned before man, this is true; but the higher place given to man in the Divine purpose, as already shown, explains why the trial of his faith and obedience is given the prominent place it holds in the sacred record. Doubtless, the trial of the angels was substantially the same as the trial of man, and teaches the same lesson, the weakness of the creature. Some did not abide in their first estate. But with the cause of their sin and fall we are not now concerned. God's great work of manifestation is in man; and his sin and fall are therefore set forth for the instruction of all creatures.
It is to be noted that this trial of created natures was in that nature highest of all, that which is most capable of knowing God, and of communion with Him. It was, therefore, in this nature that the manifold evils of sin could be most clearly shown, as the richest soil brings forth most abundantly thorns and thistles and all noxious plants. In humanity in its many forms of development could every species of alienation from God and of hostility to Him be shown—all the heights and depths of wickedness. The history of the human race is a most fearful illustration of the evils which disobedience and alienation from God bring with them, and therefore has a deep and permanent interest for all His reasonable creatures.
Thus, both from its special relations to God, and its great moral capabilities of good and evil, humanity was best fitted to be the nature in which the trial should be made, whether separated from Him, it is, or is not, sufficient for itself. In the person of the first man was the trial made, but its lesson is for all time and for all moral beings; it stands, therefore, in brief terms upon the first page of the Bible, and all the subsequent pages of human history serve to show the depths into which our race has fallen through disobedience—the depths of savagery and barbarism, the deeds of malice and cruelty, of lust and hate, of oppression and robbery; and we are taught most impressively what crimes men, separated from God, are capable of in their relations to one another. Instead of the crystal streams of Eden watering the peaceful garden, rivers of blood have watered the earth, and the trophies of death stand everywhere in our sepulchres and graveyards as in mockery of the living God and the risen Lord. And the end is not yet. Humanity has not yet shown forth all its capacities of wickedness. There is yet to be made the last and most determined attempt of human pride to attain its highest good without God, to be absolutely independent.
How God in His wisdom has provided that when this trial between Himself and the creature for supremacy is over, disobedience shall never more enter the heavenly realms, though there shall be freedom of will, may be spoken of when we consider the supernatural life given us in Christ.
We may now see why the Cross should stand as a symbol on the first page of creature history, both as a warning against disobedience and a proof of Divine holiness and love. All generations to come must be taught that only as abiding in holy obedience can they please God, and be blessed by Him. In themselves they may put no trust. It is only through the Crucified One that any, even the highest and holiest, can approach the Father; and none, therefore, may be ignorant of the story of the cross, and of the proof it gives both of God's holy severity and of His Fatherly love. It is not too much to believe that during the coming ages, all who look upon the Son will see the marks of the nails and the spear, and know that the sacrifice offered on Calvary opens the way to the creature to come acceptably before the Father; and all those in the new creation who have not sinned will, as they look upon Him, be reminded of their own weakness, and be taught that they stand accepted of the Father only as abiding in the Son.
How long has been the trial of man in the past we know not, nor how long will be the time of his trial in the future; but we may believe, as already said, that this trial will be long enough to bring out all that is in him, both of good and evil. For this a long period may be needed, for every year brings some new developments. History never repeats itself; every century, indeed, every year, shows new phases and brings out new forms of character. The trial of man must, therefore, continue till all the secret capacities of human nature for good and for evil are brought to light. God alone can know when this is done, when the lowest depths have been fathomed, and the loftiest heights of faith been reached; but the trial is not finished, and all that is in man cannot be revealed till the end of the redemptive work, and the Judge sits upon the great white throne. Then the light of God will clearly 1llumine the path from Eden downward. When every capacity of wickedness, every form of rebellion, shall have been exhausted, then will man's history remain as an eternal lesson to all God's creatures in all His realms of the fatal results of disobedience, and as a monument both to His goodness and to His holiness.