by Horatius Bonar
How may I, a sinner, draw near to Him in whom there is no sin, and look upon His face in peace?
This is the great question which, at some time or other, every one of us has asked. This is one of the awful problems which man in all ages has been attempting to solve. There is no evading it: he must face it.
That man's answers to this question should have been altogether wide of the mark, is only what might have been expected; for he does not really understand the import of the question which he, with much earnestness perhaps, is putting, nor discern the malignant character of that evil which he yet feels to be a barrier between him and God.
That man's many elaborate solutions of the problem which has perplexed the race since evil entered should have been unsatisfactory, is not wonderful, seeing his ideas of human guilt are so superficial; his thoughts of himself so high; his views of God so low.
But that, when God has interposed, as an interpreter, to answer the question and to solve the problem, man should be so slow to accept the divine solution as given in the word of God, betrays an amount of unteachableness and self-will which is difficult to comprehend. The preference which man has always shown for his own theories upon this point is unaccountable, save upon the supposition that he has but a poor discernment of the evil forces with which he professes to battle; a faint knowledge of the spiritual havoc which has been wrought in himself; a very vague perception of what law and righteousness are; a sorrowful ignorance of that Divine Being with whom, as lawgiver and judge, he knows that he has to do; and a low appreciation of eternal holiness and truth.
Man has always treated sin as a misfortune, not a crime; as disease, not guilt; as a case for the physician, not for the judge. Herein lies the essential faultiness of all mere human religions or theologies. They fail to acknowledge the judicial aspect of the question, as that on which the real answer must hinge; and to recognise the guilt or criminality of the evil-doer as that which must first be dealt with before any real answer, or approximation to an answer, can be given.
God is a Father; but He is no less a Judge. Shall the Judge give way to the Father, or the Father give way to the Judge?
God loves the sinner; but He hates the sin. Shall He sink His love to the sinner in His hatred of the sin, or His hatred of the sin in His love to the sinner?
God has sworn that He has no pleasure in the death of a sinner (Eze 33:11); yet He has also sworn that the soul that sinneth, it shall die (Eze 18:4). Which of the two oaths shall be kept? Shall the one give way to the other? Can both be kept inviolate? Can a contradiction, apparently so direct, be reconciled? Which is the more unchangeable and irreversible, the vow of pity or the oath of justice?
Law and love must be reconciled, else the great question as to a sinner's intercourse with the Holy One must remain unanswered. The one cannot give way to the other. Both must stand, else the pillars of the universe will be shaken.
The reconciliation man has often tried; for he has always had a glimpse of the difficulty. But he has failed; for his endeavors have always been in the direction of making law succumb to love.
The reconciliation God has accomplished; and, in the accomplishment, both law and love have triumphed. The one has not given way to the other. Each has kept its ground; nay, each has come from the conflict honored and glorified. Never has there been love like this love of God; so large, so lofty, so intense, so self-sacrificing. Never has law been so pure, so broad, so glorious, so inexorable.
There has been no compromise. Law and love have both had their full scope. Not one jot or tittle has been surrendered by either. They have been satisfied to the full; the one in all its severity, the other in all its tenderness. Love has never been more truly love, and law has never been more truly law, than in this conjunction of the two. It has been reconciliation, without compromise. God's honour has been maintained, yet man's interests have not been sacrificed. God has done it all; and He has done it effectually and irreversibly.
Man could not have done it, even though he could have devised it. But truly he could do neither. God only could have devised and done it.
He has done it by removing the whole case into His own courts of law, that it might be settled there on a righteous basis. Man could not have gone into court with the case, save in the certainty that he would lose it. God comes into court, bringing man and man's whole case along with Him, that upon righteous principles, and in a legal way, the case may be settled, at once in favour of man and in favour of God. It is this judicial settlement of the case that is God's one and final answer to man's long unanswered question, "How shall man be just with God?" "Wherewith shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before the high God?" (Micah 6:6).
God provides the basis of the reconciliation; a basis which demonstrates that there is no compromise between law and love, but the full expression of both; a basis which establishes both the authority and the paternity of Jehovah, as Lawgiver and Father; a basis which reveals in infinite awfulness the exceeding sinfulness of sin, the spotless purity of the statute, the unbending character of God's governmental ordinances; and which yet secures, in and by law, the righteous overflow of His boundless love to the lost sons of Adam.
This basis of reconciliation between law and love God has Himself not only provided, but brought into His own courts of law; proposing to the sinner that all the questions between Himself and the sinner should be settled on this basis ,-so equitable, so friendly, so secure; and settled in judicial form, by a legal process, in which verdict is given in favour of the accused, and he is clean absolved, -"justified from all things."
The consent of parties to the acceptance of this basis is required in court. The law consents; the Lawgiver consents; Father, Son, and Spirit consent; and man, the chief party interested, is asked for his consent. If he consents, the whole matter is settled. The verdict is issued in his favour; and henceforth he can triumph, and say, "It is God that justifieth; who is he that condemneth?"
Sin is too great an evil for man to meddle with. His attempts to remove it do but increase it, and his endeavours to approach God in spite of it aggravate his guilt. Only God can deal with sin, either as a disease or a crime; as a dishonour to Himself, or as a hinderer of man's approach to Himself. He deals with it not in some arbitrary or summary way, by a mere exercise of will or power, but by bringing it for adjudication into His own courts of law. As judge, seated on His tribunal, He settles the case, and settles it in favour of the sinner, -of any sinner on the earth that will consent to the basis which He proposes. Into this court each one may freely come, on the footing of a sinner needing the adjustment of the great question between him and God. That adjustment is no matter of uncertainty or difficulty; it will at once be granted to each applicant; and the guilty man with his case, however bad, thus legally settled, retires from court with his burden removed and his fears dispelled, assured that he can never again be summoned to answer for his guilt. It is righteousness that has reconciled God to him, and him to God.
As sin is too great an evil for any but God to deal with, so is righteousness too high for man to reach; to high for any but God to bring down and place at our disposal. God has brought down, and brought nigh, the righteousness. Thus the guilt which we have contracted is met by the righteousness which God has provided; and the exclusion from the divine fellowship, which the guilt produced, is more than reversed by the new introduction which the righteousness places at our disposal.
May I then draw near to God, and not die? May I draw near, and live? May I come to Him who hateth sin, and yet find that the sin which He hateth is no barrier to my coming, no reason for my being shut out from His presence as an unclean thing? May I renew my lost fellowship with Him who made me, and made me for Himself? May I worship in His holy place, with safety to myself, and without dishonour to Him?
These are the questions with which God has dealt, and dealt with so as to ensure a blessed answer to them all; an answer which will satisfy our own troubled consciences as well as the holy law of God. His answer is final and it is effectual. He will give no other; nor will He deal with these questions in any other way than He has done. He has introduced them into His courts of law, that there they may be finally adjusted; and out of these courts into which God has taken them who can withdraw them? Or what end would be served by such a withdrawal on our part? Would it make the settlement more easy, more pleasant, more sure? It would not. It would augment the uncertainty, and make the perplexity absolutely hopeless.
Yet the tendency of modern thought and modern theology is to refuse the judicial settlement of these questions, and to withdraw them from the courts into which God has introduced them. An extrajudicial adjustment is attempted; man declining to admit such a guilt as would bring him within the grasp of law, and refusing to acknowledge sin to be of such a nature as to require a criminal process in solemn court; yet admitting the necessity or desirableness of the removal of the sore evil under which humanity is felt to be labouring, and under which, if unremoved, it must ere long dissolve.
The history of six thousand years of evil has been lost on man. He refuses to read its awful lesson regarding sin, and God's displeasure against the sinner, which that history records. The flood of evil that has issued forth from one single sin he has forgotten. The death, the darkness, the sorrow, the sickness, the tears, the weariness, the madness, the confusion, the bloodshed, the furious hatred between man and man, making earth a suburb of hell,-all this is overlooked or misread; and man repels the thought that sin is crime, which God hates with an infinite hate, and which He, in His righteousness, must condemn and avenge.
If sin is such a surface thing, a trifle, as men deem it, what is the significance of this long sad story? Do earth's ten thousand graveyards, where human love lies buried, tell no darker tale? Do the millions upon millions of broken hearts and heavy eyes say that sin is but a trifle? Does the moaning of the hospital or the carnage of the battlefield, the blood-stained sword, and the death-dealing artillery, proclaim that sin is a mere casualty, and the human heart the seat of goodness after all? Does the earthquake, the volcano, the hurricane, the tempest, speak nothing of sin's desperate evil? Does mans aching head, and empty heart, and burdened spirit, and shaded brow, and weary brain, and tottering limbs, not utter, in a voice articulate beyond mistake, that sin is GUILT, that that guilt must be punished,-punished by the Judge of all,-not as a mere "violation of natural laws," but as a breach of the eternal law, which admits of no reversal, "The soul that sinneth, it shall die"? For without law, sin is nothing. "The strength of sin is the law" (1 Cor 15:56); and he who makes light of sin must defend moral confusion and injustice; he who refuses to recognize sin as guilt, must dissolve the law of the universe, or ascribe imbecility and injustice to the Judge of all.
The world has grown old in sin, and has now more than ever begun to trifle with it, either as a necessity which cannot be cured, or a partial aberration from good order which will rectify itself ere long. It is this tampering with evil, this refusal to see sin as God sees it, as the law declares it, and as the story of our race has revealed it, that has in all ages been the root of error, and of wide departure from the faith once delivered to the saints. Admit the evil of sin, with all its eternal consequences, and you are shut up to a divine way of dealing with it. Deny the evil of sin, and the future results of that evil, and you may deny the whole revelation of God, set aside the cross, and abrogate the law.
"By the law is the knowledge of sin." Therefore the connection between sin and law must be maintained, both in condemnation and in pardon. God's interposition in behalf of man must be a confirmation, not a relaxation of the law; for law cannot change, even as God cannot change or deny Himself.
Favor to the sinner must also be favor to the law. Favor to the sinner which would simply establish law, or leave its sanctities untouched, would be much; but favor to him which would deepen its foundations, and render it more venerable, more awful than before, is unspeakably higher and surer. Even so has it been. Law has not suffered at the hands of love, nor love been cramped and frozen by law. Both have had full scope, fuller scope than if man had never fallen.
I know that love is not law, and that law is not love. In law, properly, no love inheres. It is like the balance which knows not whether it be gold or iron that is laid upon it. Yet in that combination of the judicial and the paternal, which God's way of salvation exhibits, law has become the source and vehicle of love, and love law's upholder and honourer; so that even in this sense and aspect "love is the fulfilling of the law."(1)
The law that was against the sinner has come to be upon the sinner's side. It is now ready to take his part in the great controversy between him and God, provided he will conduct his case on the new principles which God has introduced for the settlement of all variances between Himself and the sinner; or rather, provided he will put that case into the hands of the divine Advocate, who alone knows how to conduct it aright, and to bring it to a successful issue,--who is both "propitiation" and "Advocate,"--the "propitiation for our sins" (1 John 2:2), "the Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous" (1 John 2:1).
(1) "of law there can be no less acknowledged than that her seat is the bosom of God, her voice the harmony of the world; all things in heaven do her homage, the very least as feeling her care, and the greatest as not exempted from her power; both angels and men, and creatures of what condition soever, though each in different sort and manner, yet all, with uniform consent, admiring her as the mother of their peace and joy." --Hooker, Eccl Pol. B. 1 sec 16.