GOD'S austerities are as inflexible and immutable as His patience and meekness and forbearance. If the Old Testament is presented too frequently as portraying a cruel God, the New Testament is too often presented as portraying an effeminized God whose gentleness is mere amiability and whose meekness is nothing but weakness. The Fatherhood of God during the past half-century has tended toward becoming a reflection in theology of the self-indulgent, easy-going temper of our age. The effect of this on morals has been and still is disastrous. We must have a God who hates as passionately as the God of the Old Testament hates--who hates evil with consuming force wherever it is and in whomsoever. Such a God we have. Just as all the gentleness of Jesus Christ and His revelation are to be found at the base of God's character as manifested in Old Testament times, so all the fine austerity and severity of Javeh reappear in the person and teaching of Jesus Christ.
Though the Lamb of the Revelation stands fixed in the centre of Godhead, anger and punishment and violent force rise and swell through the universe in its march toward the goal of God's placing. There is even war in Heaven.
It is of the utmost importance to hold that the revelation of love in Jesus Christ is the amplification and completion, not the nullification, of all the revelation that has preceded. It is the stability of God that is the source of our confidence in Him. Whim and caprice find no foothold in Him, or in that which emanates from Him. With Him there can be no variation, and whatever shadows there may be, they are not shadows cast by turning.
Carry this thought up to date and we find ourselves secure in the character of God as given, to us by the Church of the ages and the Holy Scriptures, which constitute its basic literature. There must be a fixed theology, if there be a God with a fixed character. There must be a progressive theology if there is spiritual growth in the souls of men. But in theology as in the Subject of theology there can be no contradiction and no shadow cast by turning. The sole change possible and necessary is one not of destruction but of fulfilment. I came, said Christ, not to destroy, but to fulfil. Heresy is incomplete thinking. Schism is incomplete conduct.
The almightiness, the justice and the austerity of the God of power as made known in the Old Testament are not minimized or superseded by the revelation of the God of love as made known in Jesus Christ. They are interpreted and transfigured. Our eyes are purified so that we can see more clearly, and we are emancipated from the cult of the incomplete into catholicity of intention and belief. What we shall come to know of God's character in the future does not indicate some hitherto undeveloped element in Him; it is simply developed sight on our part which enables us to see what formerly we were blind to.
I could see
The revelation that is always there,
But somehow is not always clear to me.
God is almighty in the sense of being the author and absolute controller of all might.
O God, creation's secret force,
Thyself unmoved, all motion's source.
So runs the ancient hymn. God does not make futile experiments. The issue of His works is as sure as their beginning. His almightiness includes in it physical force as operative in nature. It would appear to me as though a dangerous and spurious distinction were frequently made between what God does and what He permits. Except where the human will enters in to thwart God's operations on earth, God is the ultimate agent of that which happens. The thunder of the avalanche and its consequences, and the flash of the lightning and its destination, are not the activity of irresponsible nature but of nature's Almighty Creator and Sustainer. Physical force is not necessarily brute force. It may be, and is, Divine force so far as it has in it the ethical and ultimate purpose of God. It is because we see only in part, because we think and live incompletely, that we incline to conclude otherwise. We forget that time is a little figment of the sun soon, at longest, to be blotted out. If physical force, including that process of disintegration called death, forms part of a process productive of more abundant life, it is not contrary to love. It is unkind to the lower in order to be kind to the higher. In a scheme that looks beyond time it has an important function. May it not be that we are laying too much stress on the value of physical life? It is much stronger to think of God as King of the universe which He made, and using the inexplicable physical forces which have always been operating, now violently, now kindly, than to credit them to the control of evil agents, who are using them successfully against God and His plan. So far as justice and the infliction of punishment is concerned, there is nothing in the Old Testament quite comparable with what is found in the Sermon on the Mount. God is revealed as an exacting God:--Not every one that saith unto me Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Thy name, and by Thy name cast out devils, and by Thy name do many mighty works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me ye that work iniquity.--Such a passage is by no means isolated.--Be not afraid of them which kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom ye shall fear: fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell: yea, I say unto you, fear him.--Every one who shall confess me before men, him will I also confess before my Father which is in heaven. But whoseoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven. Think not that I came to send peace on the earth: I came not to send peace but a sword.
But enough of quotation. The teaching of our Lord is full of similar passages, whose austerities more than match those of the Old Testament. As for hell, the New Testament portrayal of it; is far more awful than is to be found elsewhere. A modern writer, in view of current events, refers to "the stern necessity of the once discredited, but now grateful doctrine of hell."
The awful passages of the New Testament, especially those dark, mysterious ones which were uttered by our Lord's own lips, would be paralyzing but for the fact of the Incarnation. A God who made Himself known as we have come to know Him in history and personal experience, even though He proclaimed Himself merciful and gentle, would repel rather than attract unless there were some assurance more than mere words that He was not arbitrary or cruel in His seeming severities. Such assurance we have in the Incarnation. In Jesus Christ God reveals Himself as being under His own disciplines, penalties and austerities. It would be incomplete to say that He first became so when Jesus Christ entered into the world. God did indeed then stoop that man might rise. But in another sense He revealed in incontrovertible terms the eternal truth that God in creating man laid upon him no necessity except that which was inherent in the Divine life as such, and not merely in the Divine character as Creator. The Incarnation lays it all open as in a scroll unrolled.
Was there anything which man is subjected to that Jesus Christ did not voluntarily and deliberately subject Himself to? He plumbed the depths and scaled the heights. Being formed in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, becoming obedient unto death, yea, the death of the Cross. Though as sinless as God, He bowed Himself to the worst penalties of wrongdoing--He became sin for us. He was recognized by His forerunner as the sin-bearer. Entering into a society of sinful men, He felt the bitterness and wickedness of the sins of others as none but a sinless one is capable of doing. The physical force which desecrated His sacred body was worse than the ruthlessness of the avalanche or the swift stroke of the lightning. It was the unclean battering of brute force put into execution by the hands of those who were made in His image.
God has so ordered His revelation that He does not depend upon the championship of human argument to vindicate His character. He Himself is best able to make clear to mankind what He is and what His estimate of the value of human life is. By the spectacle of Himself living victoriously as man not merely under the normal disciplines and austerities which inhere in Him as God, but also under the abnormal conditions bred and inflicted by human self-will, His love is vindicated, and declared in new and triumphant tones which come echoing down the ages.
O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past tracing out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been His counsellor? or who hath first given to Him, and it shall be recompensed unto Him again? For of Him, and through Him, and unto Him are all things. To Him be the glory for ever. Amen.
Fortified by the Incarnation we are in a position to look life, as we of to-day know it, squarely in the face with both hope and expectancy, hope which never allows life to be without a future and expectancy that forms the highway for the feet of the always coming Son of God. The age is brimming with pain, self-inflicted by society upon itself, in addition to the inscrutable dark mysteries which originate and operate quite independently of what men may think or do. The crown of almightiness is its kingliness. God has proved in Jesus Christ that not only have hostile forces no victorious power over Himself or anything that is His, but also that eventually they prove to be tributary to His purposes. When human self-will clothes itself in the forces of nature and is manifested as "science without a soul," such triumph as is achieved is momentary and in reality an element in its own ultimate defeat. Long ages ago this was the interpretation of God's almightiness by a poet--
Why do the nations rage,
And the peoples imagine a vain thing?
The^kings of the earth set themselves,
And the rulers take counsel together
Against the Lord, and against His anointed, saying,
Let us break their bands asunder,
And cast away their cords from us.
He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh;
The Lord shall have them in derision,
Then shall He speak unto them in His wrath,
And vex them in His sore displeasure:
Yet I have set my king
Upon my holy hill of Zion.
We have neither reason nor right to allow ourselves to suppose that God's plans can suffer ultimate defeat. It is a species of doubt to which the Incarnation, the greatest fact in history, gives flat and emphatic denial. Delay is nothing but a salutory discipline for us men of the moment. Reverses stimulate courage and give occasion to furbish ideals and simplify motives. Bondage, the defeat of a generation, treachery within, do not mean victory, for the enemy where God's cause is concerned. God's plans are indestructible, and His purpose cannot be deflected, for He is Almighty and is the Master of all force. He is well experienced in wars, and knows how to distil the red flood of tragedy into a perpetual deed of benediction.
At a grave crisis in the slow working out of personal freedom in America for herself and for the world, James Russell Lowell wrote in terms peculiarly suited to the crisis of to-day--
Careless seems the great Avenger; history's pages but record
One death-grapple in the darkness 'twixt old systems and the Word;
Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne,--
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.
Again in another passage the poet sings--
Though the cause of Evil prosper, yet
Tis Truth alone is strong,
And, albeit she wander outcast now,
I see around her throng
Troops of beautiful, tall angels, to
Enshield her from all wrong.
We have been thinking of the mighty sweep of world movements. But a man cannot be brave for others unless he is first brave in himself; he cannot be hopeful for others unless he is first hopeful for himself; in the high altitudes of moral and spiritual realities you cannot give to others except so far as you are winning or have won them for yourself. There is not one of us who, either as a part of, or apart from, the tempest of destruction that is raging, is not obliged daily to face some phase of the antagonisms, contradictions and austere forces which originate either in the perversity of men or in unsolved mystery. Our outlook for the world is coloured by our mind on that which is personal.
The Incarnation teaches us not only the art of fearlessness but also the science of super-victory--the phrase is St. Paul's, not mine. Who shall separate us from the love, the operative, ceaseless self-giving, of Christ? In answer the Apostle proceeds to enumerate such things as are due to or aggravated by the will of man, concluding with one of the most trenchant, thrilling sentences in all literature:--In all these things we are more than conquerors, we are super-victors, through Him that loved us. As for the great forces that emanate from and, with all their elements, are controlled by God, he says in fine climax:--I am persuaded that neither they nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
In short, God reigns. The thought is vast and adequate, be unsolved mysteries of His being and operation what they may.
It is easy to praise Thee, O God, for the joys that flow from Thee and for Thy beauty. But in the mystery of Thy control of life are dark places which cloud my soul. Thine austerities loom large and threatening. How can I find music in my soul for these? Whatever it may be, it must be the music of faith. The mystery is too deep for me to plumb. But Thou dost not allow evil to reign. Thine is the victory, the super-victory. The very wrath of man can be turned to Thy praise." Darkness and sorrow and pain may call forth a minor note, but even a sobbing song can praise Thee. Therefore, O Lord, I praise Thee in storm and tempest. Praised be God our Father in whom can be no variation, neither shadow that is cast by turning!