The Living God



Many of you have been struck with the frequent recurrence in Scripture of the phrase "the living God." If you look carefully yxm will find this designation in all parts of the Bible, from the Pentateuch, where Israel is said to have " heard the voice of the living God " speaking from Mount Sinai, to the Revelation, where the flying angel is said to "have the seal of the living God," and God is spoken of as "he that sittcth upon the throne, who liveth forever and ever." This recognition of God as "the living God" is combined with the mention of all his other attributes and works, and these acquire new lustre from the association, while they in turn reflect light upon the meaning of the phrase with which they are combined. The text explains what I mean. There the fact that God is the one only and true God, and that he exercises from everlasting to everlasting the attributes of kingship, shows that the life of God is an all-originating and all-controlling life, shows in fine that it is life in the highest sense. We need not wonder at finding this lofty view of the divine Being so plainly declared, nor at finding the conception of God as the living God underlying the whole Scripture. The very purpose for which the Hebrew nation existed was te root deeply in human consciousness this idea of the one living and true God. And how deeply it was rooted is shown by the fact that among the Jews all natural forces came to be looked upon as directly under God's hand, and as manifesting his will, so that the Psalmist, in his description of the storm, leaves out all mention of secondary causes, and says in so many words, "The God of glory thundereth." So completely were the apostles delivered from all conception of God as a dead abstraction, or as capable of a rival, that they almost by instinct besought the worshippers of idols to "turn from these vanities unto the living God." If we have in any degree lost sight of this truth, we need to get back to it, for a mistake here will vitiate our whole view of Christian doctrine, and may work incalculable injury in our actual lives. Let us first inquire what it means to say that God is the living God, and secondly, what this conception of God involves by way of consequence.

First, the meaning of it: Life, in God, must mean much more than it does in man — must mean nothing less thau an all-originating and all-sustaining life. Man, in a sense, has life and gives life ; but he knows that what life he has is not originated by himself, but has come to him apart from his own knowledge or will. His reason compels him to infer the existence of another life from which his own originally sprang. He knows that he does not sustain his own life from day to day. The machinery of his frame works

* Originally prepared a« a sermon upon the text, Jer. 10: 10—"The Lord is thetnie <iod; he is the living God, and an everlasting king."

on even in his sleep,— some other life keeps all things moving. Indeed, all the life of nature, not originating itself, and not able to account for itself, must be referred back to some higher life that originates and preserves it. And this life in which all other life is grounded, great as it is, and beyond all our efforts to comprehend it, belongs to God. Our first conception of him is that of one who not only has life, but who has it in overflowing fullness, so that he is the source and principle of all other life which the universe contains. This is the main thought of the 104th Psalm. With a little alteration, I may use the following words of a noted interpreter: "You find there, more than in any other ancient poetry, the distinct recognition of the absolute dependence of the universe, as created, upon the Creator. 'He is before all things, and by him all things subsist.' Bnt this is not all. God's work is not regarded as a thing of the past merely,— the universe is not a machine once set going and then left to its fate or to inexorable laws. The great Worker is ever working. The world and all things owe not only their origin but their present form to the operation of God. He who made, renews, the face of the earth. It is the same profound view of the relation of the cosmos to the Creator which Paul exhibits in his speech on Mars' Hill. He too is careful not to separate the past from the present. God, who made the world in the past, did not leave the work of his fingers: the streaming forth «if his omnipotence and love was not checked or stayed; on the contrary, every part of his creation rests at every moment on his hands, 'seeing he giveth' continually, 'to all, life and breath and all things.'" God then is the living God, as being the soul which animates a universe that would be dead w ithout him.

And yet some who have maintained this truth most earnestly, have declared that this principle of universal life is itself unintelligent and unconscious, and that the great life of the universe comes to consciousness only in individuals, whether of this or other races. In opposition to this the Scriptures maintain again that this life of God is a life of the spirit, coiwious, intelligent, self-determining, free; acting in infinite wisdom for infinitely worthy ends; and displaying in all its acts the glory of a perfect character — a character of holiness and love. If we do not admit this to be a true representation of God, we put God below man — the Creator below the creature. Indeed we cannot account for man at all, or for the wonderful adaptations of the universe. There are marks of intelligent design everywhere. Means are fitted to ends. The God who so fitted and adapted one part of his creation to another must be a God of intelligence and purpose and benevolent impulse. There must be a thinking and willing above us, separate from the thinking and willing of the creature, — or else the creature could never have been ruade to think and will. Nothing can produce what is above itself,— the offspring of the beast is only a beast, not a man. All the universe, if there were no life in it but that of blind natural forces, could not produce anything that was not blind and unintelligent like itself. But man on the other hand, being gifted with the power of thought and will, instinctively reasons that the power that gave him being must think and will also; otherwise there is no adequate cause for his existeuce. And David puts the argument in poetic yet unanswerable form when he asks: "He that planted the ear, shall he not hear? He that formed the eye, shall he not see? He that teacheth man knowledge, shall not he know?"

And Bo our reason drives us to the belief in God as a personal Being — distinct from his works and exalted above his works, even while he is moving all the wheels of his great system. And, as man's personality implies a conscious intelligence, a self-determining will, a character, an end, so applying these same ideas to God, when raised to their highest power, we see in God a consciousness that embraces at the same moment all things in the universe and in himself; a will that ordains either directly or by permission all existences and events; a character that makes every thought and determination infinitely benevolent and holy; an end in creation and in his own existence infinitely worthy of himself. But what is the deepest and most central idea of this personal life? I answer, it is the idea of will — will exercised in all things in infinite freedom and infinite power. Ask yourself what it is that most contributes to make you a living soul, and you find it is your freedom, your power under certain limitations to become an originating cause. If man were a mere machine, moved by forces entirely external to himself, he would not be man.— he would not call himself alive. But this will within us, which forms decisions, chooses ends, leaps forward towards the objects of its choice, and guides all the enginery of the nature onward with it to the goal, this is our great heritage, this gives us all the substantial existence we have, this constitutes our dignity in the creation. The plant or the brute acts only as it is acted upon; it chooses no end for which to work; it has no spontaneity of life. But man stands nearest God by virtue of this faculty which in a certain sense creates, bringing forth new thoughts, desires, and acts, and exerting a force which is felt in its last vibrations in every part of the universe and by God himself.

And yet, as I just said, man exerts this living force only under limitations. External circumstances confine him. His own nature binds him. How he came to be what he is, he does not know; and he can alter himself as little sis he can make over again the outward world. And so this will-power which man exerts, and which constitutes the essence of his life, only feebly reflects the energy of will that exists in God. What must this will be, that constitutes the central principle of God's personality — that makes him in deed and in truth the living God? You can see at once that his will has no external restrictions. '' None can stay his hand, and say 'what doest thou ?'" You can see that, will being essential to his personality, he does nothing without a will — no blind action — no unconscious action like that of our sleep and our dreams, but wherever God works through the universe — and he works everywhere — he works in all his personality, works as a living, conscious, moral agent, works with perfect freedom the present decrees of an infinite will.

It must be remembered, too, that as the life of God is a self-existent life, so it is sufficient to ilself. God does not need the universe, nor any creature, to supplement his existence or render him more happy. He is the everblessed God because, independently of the things he has made, he possesses infinite resources of knowledge and communion and joy in his own holy nature. And these are secured to God forever by the fact that in his nature there are distinctions which are revealed to us under the figure of persons, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Before the world was, these existed, so that God in himself had objects of contemplation and of love from eternity — objects infinitely surpassing his after creation, in magnificence and glory. God is the living God, because his life is an absolutely independent and self-sufficient life. And so all his acts and forth-puttings of power, whether in creation or in providence or in redemption, are free acts, dictated not by necessity but by pure disinterested love. Any other conception than this denies in effect that he is the living God. If there be anything in him which compels him to create or to reveal himself, then he ceases to be free. And the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is the most rational of all doctrines, because only by it can the independence of God, or in other words his Godhood, be maintained. The Unitarian view of the absolute simplicity of the divine nature leaves God without an object, without love, without communion, unless he finds it in the world. Eternity past, on this theory, must be an eternity of desolation ; and, to escape this conclusion, many a Unitarian thinker is driven to believe in the eternity of matter and so to put side by Hide with God an eternal something which he did not originate, and which determines and limits him. This is to destroy his Deity altogether. And the only refuge from this is the Pantheistic conception of God and nature as one, and of an unintelligent, half-material God that comes to life and consciousness only in individual minds. And, that Unitarianism tends to Pantheism and the denial of all real life in God, is abundantly .shown by the history of Mohammedanism and modern Judaism on the one hand, and on the other by the rapid downward progress of New England thought from the cautious Unitarianism of Channing to the half-fledged Pantheism of Theodore Parker and the full-fledged Pantheism of Ralph Waldo Emerson. How much better than all this, how much more rational and how much more safe the Scriptural view of a trinity of persons in the divine nature — a view which maintains the absolute perfection of God by declaring his eternal independence and self-sufficiency — a view which recognizes in him a fullness of resources that needs no creature and no universe to render it more complete, that provides eternal nnd infinite objects of contemplation and the means of perfect love and fellowship without going outside of his own nature, and that shows how the eternal existence of these objects of regard can never hamper or limit him, locause they are not created objects, but the Son and the Holy Ghost, the equal partakers of his essence and the sharers of his throne.

Thus, I have attempted to explain the meaning of the phrase "the living God," and have shown that it involves the ideas, first, of an all-originating and sustaining life, in opposition to the views of the Deist who would banish God from the universe he has made and set a-going; secondly, of a consciously voluntary life, in opposition to the views of the Pantheist who would entomb God in the great machine and confound him with it; thirdly, of an eternally independent and self-sufficient life, in opposition to the views of the Unitarian, who would deny the distinction of persons in the Godhead and logically destroy his Deity by making him dependent upon his creation. I f you have followed me thus far, you will appreciate two most important and valuable results which flow from this conception of God as the living God. And the first is, that it utterly delivers us from the tyranny of the modern idea of law, which so weakens the faith and oppresses the hearts of many believers. I say the tyranny of the modern idea of law, and by this I mean the overstraining of the idea so that it encompasses and swallows up all things — the universe, freedom, and God himself. How many there are who begin to doubt whether the dominion of fixed law leaves any room for miracles, for answers to prayer, for pardoning grace, for regenerating power! Now I think it is easy to see, after what has been said, that these doubts all rest upon a mistaken notion of the nature of law and of its relation to God. Far be it from me to decry the true idea of "the reign of law" which constitutes the strength and inspiration of modern science. I stand for it. I rejoice in it as almost a new revelation of the perfections of God himself. But on that very account I am unwilling to sacrifice that which is its greatest glory — its connection with the unseen worker who manifests himself through it. To deify law, and put it in place of God,— that is to unmake it, to destroy it . To imagine some blind, unconscious force shaping all things into forms of beauty and regulating all the changes of nature and of history,— that is to put ourselves under the awful sceptre of fate, and to turn law into a hideous monstrosity. And from this conception, the revelation of God as the living God delivers us. If he is the all-originating, all-sustaining, all-controlling One, and no force is exerted in the universe without his permission and superintendence, then law assumes a different aspect to us. The laws of nature and the laws of the Spirit are all manifestations of the harmony of his nature and the power of his will. His laws are fixed because his will is infinitely wise and so infinitely unchanging,— and the regular sequences of nature are but the orderly methods of his operation. What is law? Can you give any better definition of it than this — a steady will enforced by power? Can you define the phrase "laws of nature " any better than by saving that they are the manifestations of a present God, enforcing an infinitely wise and changeless will by the exercise of infinite power? See then how all thefse laws which we are tempted to look upon as dead material things are revelations of a personal will, a present upholder and mover, in other words, a living God! However closely these laws may press me or cross me, there is an infinite personality in them. God in all the rectitude and benevolence of his character is present in them, not suffering them to bring wrong or harm to his creatures, but making all things in the universe "work together for good to them that love him."

This conception of God as the living God delivers us from the tyranny of the idea of law, moreover, by showing us that God is not confined to the domain of nature's laws, but while he is in them, is also above them, making them serve him. You know how man uses the laws of nature and makes them serve him. As he did not originate them, so he cannot destroy them or dispense with them. If he thinks to override one of them, like the law of gravitation, he comes down with broken bones. But it is wonderful how he can combine them to produce new effects which nature never would have produced of herself. By making use of the expansion of steam and combining this with other known mechanical laws, he can bring in a force which shall counteract the law of gravitation and can lift himself in an elevator from the bottom to the top of a building without breaking his bones at all. And the chemist can so combine the forces of nature as to produce ice in a red-hot crucible. So man, limited as he is, is yet above nature, and by combining nature's laws in new ways can make them serve his purposes. And now, if man can do this, has the living God less power than man? Cannot he combine the laws of nature in unseen ways to accomplish his plans and to answer the prayers of his people? Nay, cannot he do more than this, namely, exercise an absolute spontaneity and freedom by making new beginnings in history without any reference to natural law at all? It is the glory of man that his will is in part an originating force, not wholly determined by the antecedents of his situation, but capable of new decisions unconnected with his former life and for which no laws of nature can account. And cannot God in like manner exercise his infinite freedom of will, inserting a new and personal force into nature, and thus working miracles of healing and resurrection and renewing of the soul? Oh, yes! Our God is not a dead God, but a living God. Law is not an exhaustive expression of his will. After law has uttered its last word, there is still room for another and more glorious manifestation of God in the merciful, helpful, pardoning, restoring aspects of his character — and that manifestation we call grace. Nature is the loose mantle in which he commonly reveals himself; but he is not fettered by the robe he wears — he can thrust it aside when he will and '' make bare his arm " in providential interpositions for earthly deliverance, and in mighty movements within the bounds of history for the salvation of the sinner and for the setting up of his kingdom.

The other benefit which results to us from this conception of God as the living God, is the new vividness and reality which it gives to all God's dealings with our individual souls. So all-pervasive is the false conception of law of which I have spoken, that many Christians have come to think of God's moral attributes and doings as conditioned by it. They have come to expect more from natural causes in their own experience and in the progress of religion in the world than they expect from God. Their God is a God in fetters — a God confined and constrained, not only by the laws of his own creation, but by the laws of his own being. And so holiness and love and grace have come to be abstractions to them, and they have "limited the holy One of Israel." I fear, indeed, that in much of our modern preaching this idea has insensibly exerted far too great an influence. Even God's moral law has put on the semblance of a mere law of nature, in which the personality and living will of God is lost sight of. Sin is conceived of as misfortune and weakness, like the misstep that breaks the limb on a dark night, instead of the transgression of command and the opposition to God which the guilty conscience declares it to be. A merely subjective atonement that will repair tho injury done to itself by the individual soul is said to be all-sufficient, while the offended personality of God and the necessity of satisfaction to his outraged holiness are forgotten.

And the punishment of the sinner for rejecting the atonement is made to consist only in the reaction of natural law, instead of consisting also in the just retribution and wrath which a personal God who hates all sin visits upon him who persists in ungodliness and tramples under his feet the blood of Jesus. In fine, a materializing, semi-pantheistic conception of law has risen like a vapor from the lower levels of physical research, and has enshrouded every one of the mountainous truths of revelation that used to stand out so clear in sunlight, till the life and glory of them is all gone. Do you know the reason? The sunlight that once gave them splendor and beauty was the light that shone from the face of a personal and living God, and when the sun sets, the mountains must be dark!

But this conception of God as the living God gives us back our faith. Divine holiness is no abstraction now, but a living attribute of God, penetrated through and through with the energy and activity of will. Moral law comes now to be the manifestation, not simply of what God is, but of what he wills and demands. Obedience is recommended now not simply by our needs but by the authority of God — it is not only the best policy of the soul to yield itself to him, but it is his bounden duty — and disobedience is enmity against the law giver. Now we need an atonement, not only to reconcile us to God, but to reconcile God to us. Now we need a forgiveness which shall bring us as guilty sinners into communion once more with a personal God. And how wonderfully personal on this better view does grace become; not simply the remanding us to some new working of law, by which all shall be made of us that naturally can be, but the free, unbought extension to us of God's will and purpose of redemption, restoring us to his favor and making us sons of God! So in redemption, as in creation and providence, we recognize the relation of a personal God to onr souls, putting into every act and effort of his love the warm'th and directness of an infinite, divine affection. So we come into a fellowship with God which would have been utterly impossible if God had been only another name to us for law. We find one who, "in opposition to all dead abstractions, all vague head-notions, is the living Person, the source and fountain of all life, loving and loved in return." It was this for which the Psalmist longed when he cried: "As the hart panteth after the water-brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God! My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?" "What we want," says Robertson, "is not infinitude, but a boundless One; not to feel that love is the law of this universe, but to feel One whose name is Love. For else, if in this world of order there be no one in whose bosom that order is centred, and of whose being it is the expression: in this world of manifold contrivance, no personal affection which gave to the skies their trembling tenderness, and to the snow its purity; then order, affection, contrivance, wisdom, are only horrible abstractions, and we are in the dreary universe alone. It is a dark moment when the sense of that personality is lost: more terrible than the doubt of immortality. For, of the two, eternity without a personal God, or God for seventy years without immortality, no one after David's heart would hesitate. 'Give me God for life, to know and be known by Him! No thought is more hideous than that of an eternity without Him.'"

And yet I do not know that we should ever be convinced of this, if God had not shown his will and power in the incarnation. The greatest proof of will and power is self-limitation; and the self-limitation of God in the person of Christ, the voluntary resigning of his glory, the narrowing of himself to our human conditions, and the taking upon him of our burdens of guilt and penalty, these show personality as nothing else could. Not will alone, but heart also, must go to the making of a man. So he in whose image we are made shows most that he is the living God by the exhibition of his love in the cross. For "God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself ;" And, as Jesus himself said: "He that hath seen me hath seen the Father." If we have ever thought that God was a dead God, identical with the wheels and processes of nature; if we have ever thought of him as only a thinking mechanism, a God of mere Idea and Reason, as cold and emotionless as the white clouds above our heads or the snow beneath our feet; if we have ever thought of him as mere force or arbitrary will, without care for the creaturen who sin and who suffer; let our eyes be opened to see the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. There we see that God has heart as well as mind and will, that his nature is tremblingly sensitive to our human griefs and needs, that he has an eye to pity and an arm to pave. The living Christ, in whom God manifests himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life, is the final and conclusive proof that God is the living God.

There are two Scripture sentences which I would leave with you in conclusion. They suggest more than a thousand admonitions or invitations conld. They are both found in the Epistle to the Hebrews, and the one sounds as if addressed to the children of God, the other as if addressed to those who know not God. The first is this: "Ye are come unto Mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God." It suggests the glorious heritage of the Christian with whom God has entered into relations of personal friendship and communion, and the infinite possibilities that lie before him in that future city which the boundless freedom and the inventive mind of God shall fill with wonders of blessing and glory to those who love him. The other text suggests the boundless possibilities of misery and shame and condemnation that lie before the unrepenting sinner, when once he shall see face to face that infinite Being whom he has made his enemy. Ponder this text, Osinner : "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!"