THE question of conduct is largely, if not entirely, involved in that of personal responsibility. We find ourselves here in this present world without having been consulted. We cannot choose our parents, our relatives, the place of our birth, or the environment of our infancy, childhood, and youth. All these matters, which have so vital a bearing on the development of our character, are determined absolutely without our consent.
When we reach the age of discretion and must decide for ourselves what is right and what is wrong we find ourselves in the midst of some community where certain moral and social ideas prevail. What those ideas are depends entirely upon the particular part of this great planet in which our lot is cast. What is thought right in one section of the world--say, in the jungles of Africa--may be condemned as utterly wrong in America. Left to themselves and without any external authority, men and women have no universal code of honor, morality, or conduct to govern their daily lives. It is true that for its own protection, and inspired by the law of self-defense, mankind everywhere, and under all environments, gradually evolves certain laws as to bodily injury, or human life, or property. But these laws are founded entirely upon utilitarian reasons, and have for their object the safety of the individual.
Leaving all religion out of the question, why is it wrong for me to kill my neighbor, or to steal his goods, or to injure his reputation?
Only because the instinct of self-preservation, innate in human nature, has created a custom or a law forbidding these things. Under our hypothesis they are not wrong because of any higher law which makes one responsible here or hereafter. All the penalties for the violation of law and all the rewards of obedience to such law are applied and meted out here and now in this present world.
Under the supposition we are considering there is no other world to which men are destined where they are held responsible. Indeed, responsibility implies a person or a power to whom we are responsible. Even in matters of every-day concern the law of responsibility is more or less operative. A child is responsible to his parents. Servants are responsible to their masters. A clerk is responsible to his employer. A pupil is responsible to his teacher. Soldiers are responsible to their commanding officers. In a broader sense, a business is responsible to the community and the state. All human society is based on and kept together by this law of responsibility. But does not our responsibility as human beings end here and now with this life?
It is at least significant that in almost every age and nation, quite apart from Christianity, men have believed that they will be held responsible after death for the deeds done in the body. This belief in a time and place of future retribution has formed an important tenet in the creeds of all the great pagan religions. Indeed, the more advanced in moral and intellectual culture these nations of the past have been, the more completely has this belief dominated and influenced their lives. It is only necessary to refer to the strong and overmastering convictions of such great leaders of thought as Socrates, Plato, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Aristotle, all of whom lived before the Christian era, as examples of the truth of this statement.
In view of the all but universal prevalence of this feeling of responsibility to some higher power, we might call it instinctive in human nature. When Christ came and preached to men everywhere that their lives would be reviewed and passed upon by a just and infallible Judge His appeal met a response in their hearts. The Gospel message was easily grafted upon the nature of man, for he had been prepared for it by his own conscience and by the light of his own experience.
Long before Saint Paul told the Roman Christians that we should all stand before the judgment seat of Christ men had been convinced that they were responsible to some unknown god or mysterious power. When the Apostle declared that every one of us should give an account of himself to God he was but making clear in the light of the authority and power of the risen Christ what men had always and with more or less emphasis believed.
Speaking broadly, men may be divided into two classes: those who realize that they are responsible beings and those who do not. While we may admit that all men theoretically believe that they are responsible, it is quite another thing to realize that responsibility. To live as men who are some day to render an account to a merciful but all-searching God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid, this is indeed to impart to human life a dignity and power which otherwise it could not possess.
So far as we know, man is the only creature capable of such responsibility. The lower animals have their day, and bow their heads and pass away. But "Man! what a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties! In form and moving, how express and admirable! In action, how like an angel! In apprehension, how like a god!"
To man alone is given the high prerogative of knowing God's will, and, knowing, to yield a glad obedience to that will. If a man is responsible to a personal God, who has the right and power to review his life and to pass judgment upon it, then our days spent here on earth are invested with a profound moral significance. Then what we believe or fail to believe, what we do or refrain from doing, our relation to God and our fellow-man, the use we are making of our time and our opportunities--all these considerations enter into the problem and tell upon the final issue.
As in all the relations of human life, he is the noblest man who realizes his responsibility to his country, to his age, and to his fellow-man, so in our relations to the great Judge of all men he alone is wise who now sits in judgment upon himself that he may not be judged of the Lord hereafter.
Perhaps the most fundamental difference between man and man is that which divides the man who does in his secret heart believe that he is responsible and has an account to give from the man who has no such inspiring motive. With the one man there is the present inspiration of almost incalculable power, entering into the recesses and secrets of his life; he is constantly asking himself, How will this look at the day of judgment? What is the Eternal Judge thinking of it now? Everywhere in the New Testament this belief in a man's responsibility meets us; not an abstract responsibility to some vague and unknown power, but the clear and certain fact that we shall have to account, each one of us, one day, to a living Judge. When this conviction is wanting, how enormous is the difference in the whole range of thought and action! If a man has no account to give, no wrong that he does has lasting consequences. No wrong that is done to him, if unpunished by human law, will ever be punished. If a man is not responsible, life is a hideous chaos, or a game of chance in which the last vestiges of a moral order are buried out of sight. Therefore we conclude, both from the universal testimony of mankind, apart from Christianity, and from the strong reinforcement and clear revelation of the Gospel message, that we are responsible for the use we make of our time, our influence, our property, and our opportunity, and that every man must give an account of himself to God.
It is said that on one occasion, while at a gathering of friends in New York, during a lull in the conversation, some one asked Daniel Webster, the distinguished statesman, what was the most important thought that ever entered his mind. Reflecting a moment, he replied, "The most solemn and important thought that ever entered any man's mind is that of his personal responsibility to Almighty God."