« PreviousContinue »
pagan Plutarch answered this Christian preacher eighteen centuries in advance: “I had a great deal rather that men should say that there was no such man as Plutarch than that they should say that there was one Plutarch that would eat his children as soon as they were born” as was said of the god Saturn. In other words, the ascription of a degraded character to God and the worship of him in that character must be more hateful to him even than sheer atheism. Is it not so ? The esteem which a man should profess for you or me, while and because he supposed us to be vile and low like himself, is an attachment which our souls would spurn. And unless God have a lower self-respect than you or I, he must be as well pleased with the worship of those who ascribe to him the traits of Pan, Apollo, or Apollyon as with the direct worship and service of Satan. They that worship him, says that wonderful summary of the Saviour, "must worship him in spirit and in truth,” in conformity to the truth of his being, as a righteous God.
Conversely, if men are in no degree responsible for their religious views, they cannot be held responsible for affections or conduct. For it is impossible that one who does not hold certain views should feel and act as he would if he held them; and before God and man he might plead that impossibility. Concede him that, and he has but to shut his eyes to the evidence of all unwelcome truth and duty, and go on in irresponsibility and disobedience. It lies within his reach, but he will not reach it. No claim can be laid upon him unless by miraculous methods in order to ensure right opinions ; and then this irresponsible man has but to stop his ears to the voice from heaven or close his eyes to the visible sign, and the claims of God have failed to reach him. Or he may deny the heavenly origin alike of audible word and visible sign, and the claims they should authenticate are lost upon him. Just so it was done of old. When the voice came from heaven they said that it thundered; and when Christ did many miracles they said: “This fellow doth not cast out devils, but by Beelzebub." Now if it were innocent for them to hold that opinion, it was innocent for them to reject the Son of God. With those views they could not do otherwise. So also if the views of the atheist, deist, and idolater are innocent, then are their scoffing and blasphemy and devil worship also innocent. No high affection can spring from low thought. And if our Creator lays no hand of authority on the religious principles of the world, then must he be content to leave its religious affections and practices in their past and present chaos and look with equal complacency on the devoted martyr at the stake and the man of wrath that lights the fire. If, therefore, there be any course of conduct or exercise of affection which God would require of his creatures, he must even insist on those opinions without which they cannot take place. How can a man love God who does not believe there is a loveworthy God; repent of sin, who does not think he is a sinner; trust in Christ, who disbelieves Christ's saving power ; pray to God, with no belief in prayer ?
And so on through the whole round of duties and affections. The demand is necessary.
II. It is right and proper that God hold men responsible for their religious principles :
(1) Because there is religious truth, and we have faculties given us to ascertain it. There are evidences, and we have capacities to appreciate evidence. The use of these powers is as truly subject to our will as that of our other powers. It is just as righteous to hold us responsible for the use of these faculties as of any others, and on the subject of religion as on any other subject. Is not the juror or the judge who fails to use earnestly this capacity to ascertain the claims the responsibilities of prosecutor and defendant a guilty man? and shall not the man who will not use it to know the claims of God and his own responsibility at that highest tribunal of the universe be held a most guilty man? The relation of both nature and revelation to man is that of fact, truth, to faculties fitted to ascertain it — truth and not falsehood. They may be misused and grasp error. But the whole world knows that falsehood is not their element or aliment. They are not filled and satisfied with it, but they perpetually reach forth after solid fact.
Meanwhile the most vital facts on the most vital themes, the great moral interests of man, lie in the foreground of human vision; if not always recognized, yet, when pointed out, recognizable. How often have pagan minds asserted the very obligations which their lives have repudiated, and indignantly condemned and
punished the wrongs which they practiced, or which they enthroned in heaven! And when the clear teachings of the divine word have come, commanding reverence, love, beneficence, purity, repentance, reformation, how have they come like a sunbeam, carrying their own light with them! And God's historic ways, claims, and disclosures to man, though not seen by the same intui. tive recognition, make their appeal to the same historic sense and judging power to which all great facts of human concernment bring their credentials. Now the God who comes with these supreme claims on claims also to have borne witness of himself and his Word, not, indeed, enough to confound and overwhelm the resisting mind — for there is no such evidence in this world — but enough to convince the fair-minded, earnest inquirer both of the fact and the chief contents of that Revelation. If he have given such evidences on a theme that infinitely transcends all other themes in importance, he may well hold us peculiarly responsible for that fair-minded, earnest inquiry. Brought as we are in regard to questions of inconceivable magnitude to the manifest alternative of this light or no light at all, it cannot but be that he who turns in levity away, or gives it but a passing thought, should deserve and incur a condemnation proportionate to the gravity of the issue. When we consider that the interests at stake so dwarf all other interests, and the relations in question so swallow up all other relations, and the views we take here so lie at the foundation of all we shall be and do as moral beings and human beings, fashioning our whole career in this universe of God and for all eternity, we may well ask, If we be not held responsible for the use of our faculties here, - for the sincere, devoted, and, if need be, protracted search for truth and duty, — for what shall we be held responsible? What is there left worthy of God's attention after abandoning control of all that shapes and makes the man and his life? Nor will it avail to plead the difficulties that overhang some of the themes of religion, and to turn away from the whole subject. The plea he makes condemns him. “ Thou knewest,” may his Maker reply, “thou knewest that this gravest of themes called for the best of thy energies, and wherefore then didst thou so discard it from all serious attention throughout thy life?”
We cannot even plead novelty in this appointment. We are living daily under a system of Providence where we are assumed to have knowledge, right knowledge, of natural laws, to ignore which is folly and ruin. We are living under a system of human laws that require and assume the use of our means of knowing and hold us responsible for the knowledge we might have had. In regard to a multitude of interests the inquiry of the court is not, Did this party actually come to a knowledge of the facts or the requisitions? but, Was there a suitable notification, or means of knowing, so that with reasonable attentiveness he might have known? We pay roundly for simple neglect. There are business transactions of the gravest consequence, where the law is inexorable, and the most honest igno