By John Percival
"Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, saith the Lord God. Repent and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin."--EZEKIEL xviii. 30.
These words of Ezekiel may be understood as expressing in the prophet's language what the Book of Deuteronomy expresses in such denunciations as those which were read to us the other day in the Commination Service.
They correspond also to the warning of St. Paul when he says--"Be not deceived; God is not mocked; whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. He that soweth to the flesh shall reap corruption; and he that soweth to the spirit shall reap everlasting life." Or again they correspond to that question which is put to us in the Epistle to the Hebrews--"If every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense and reward, how shall we escape?"
Thus we find in the Pentateuch, in Ezekiel, and in the apostolic writings the representatives of three very different stages of religious enlightenment, all teaching us in effect the same lesson, to remember the recompense that sin never fails to bring upon him who commits it. As we listen to the curses of Deuteronomy on one sin and on another, and then read the language of Ezekiel or St. Paul, we are conscious of a difference in the modes of thought and expression. The thought of the apostle is separated from that of the lawgiver or the prophet of the Old Testament by the new revelation and the sacrifice of Jesus; but yet underneath all differences their judgment on every sinful act or habit remains spiritually the same. They all alike bid us, when we think of our sins, to think also of the inevitable punishment which rises behind them like their shadow; and to bear in mind that the root of the whole matter is the one incontrovertible and never-changing fact of human life that as you sow you must expect to reap--he that soweth to the flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption.
Now, inasmuch as your early years are the seed-time of your life, these stern reminders that if you sow any sin in your soul you will some day reap its curse, that God will judge you every one according to his ways, all this is very appropriate for your consideration. And you are likely to be all the more serious about your present life and its habits, tastes, and purposes if this thought really takes possession of you, that there is in fact a very close analogy between the life of the soul and life around us in the outer world, and that every seed we sow in it grows after its own kind.
In the region of animal or vegetable life you see and recognise this law on every side. You trace it sometimes as the law of improvement by culture, sometimes as the law of degeneration.
You cultivate and tend a garden or a field, sowing, planting, eradicating, and the growths of flower or fruit improve in proportion to your care; but leave it to itself and the weeds choke it, and the very fruit degenerates; your rose becomes a dog-rose--it reverts, as men say, to a lower type.
So exactly is it with your own life; so long as it is grafted into a life higher than your own, so long as good purposes are being sown in it and good habits cultivated, and the bad weeded out and the Spirit of God breathes through it, it is growing nearer to the Divine type; but neglect it, or follow sinful impulse or low taste, and it becomes like the garden of weeds; degeneracy begins at once, it is changing to something worse, it is reverting to a lower type.
This is a way of expressing it which is sufficiently familiar to you. But this is only our modern way of looking at those facts of life which were eloquent to men of earlier times as the curse of God.
As, then, it is undoubtedly true that--
"Our acts our angels are, for good or ill, Our fatal shadows that walk with us still,"
these stern warnings which our Lenten services hold up before us are of the greatest value.
Keeping before us this law that in every region of life it is the tendency of everything to bear fruit after its kind, we shall feel that we can hardly impress it too deeply upon our minds that there is no sin which we commit but will assuredly return upon our own heads. The Israelites in the Old Testament saw the hand of God thus visiting their sins upon them in many ways. They thought of Him as smiting them for their sins with consumption or with fever, with plague or mildew, or the sword of the oppressor. These are not our expectations. We have learnt that it is not with such visitations that God punishes us for our sinful indulgence or neglect, but that He does it with a punishment which may be less obvious but is often more ruinous than these.
Neglect the opportunities of good with which He strews your path in early life, let some sin strike its roots in your heart and take possession of it, and the curse of God for that neglect or that sin will overtake you, no doubt of it; coming not perhaps as the Israelite on Mount Ebal expected it to come for any sin of his, but coming, you hardly know how, as the change for the worse, the sinking to lower levels of thought, and taste, and aim, and practice, the reversion to lower types, which is the end of neglect, coming as the creeping and insidious growth of the power of sin working ever stronger in us as the natural fruit of indulgence. So the curse of that ancient Jewish law turns out to be a terrible and unchanging truth, written in a law which is never obsolete and grows not old, a law which calls on us for our Amen! as it cries to us equally in the language of Divine revelation and of the latest scientific discovery: "Sow neglect," it says, "and you will reap deterioration; sow sin, and you will reap corruption."
This vision of the ultimate results of evil is a very ugly one, put it in whatever shape you will, and we are naturally somewhat loth to look it in the face. We would rather not think of any sin of ours as entailing such consequences. This conception of Divine justice or retribution embodied in the action of unbending laws and declaring that death is the fruit of sin, and that death must come of it, this is no doubt a conception which inspires awe. We shrink from it; we hardly dare to say Amen! to its dread utterances. We should like, it may be, to shut our eyes to the fact and dwell rather on the thought that our God is long-suffering and of great kindness and of tender mercy. It is more soothing to think of love than of retribution, or of the arm that shelters or upholds us than of the hand that smites; but the real question should be--"Is it true, this declaration that as we sow we reap, that the wages of sin is death, death of faculty, death of hope?" It is foolish to blink the sterner aspects of life. The fruit of such blinking and turning aside is very often the very thing we do not like to think of--indulgence and its retribution. Divine love and goodness and long-suffering cannot occupy too much of our thoughts and prayers; for it is through these that the heart is touched, and the spirit is fostered in us, and we awake to the new life in Christ.
But if we shrink from contemplating that law of Divine retribution, which works in men's lives side by side with the law of mercy and love, it is time for us to ask ourselves--"How is it that I thus shrink from the thought of these penalties?"
There is indeed one sense in which we naturally shrink from the thought that the wages of sin is death, even while we acknowledge that it is so. It is inexpressibly sad to dwell on the infinite mass of sin which is daily bearing its bitter and deadly fruit in the world, and propagating itself after its kind; to think of the untold number of darkened or misguided souls that have sown to the flesh, and are going in consequence down to failure and death, blighted, corrupted, ruined. From this thought we naturally turn to the thought of God's mercy, and pray that He may yet sow the seeds of new hope in the dismal waste of such lives.
But it happens to us, I fear sometimes, that this thought of God's curse on sin sends a chill through the heart, and we shrink away from it, because of our own unregenerate life, because of the fascination which sinful impulse or habit exercises over us.
If the warning voice of our Lenten Commination Service has convicted any one of us of this motive for shrinking from its stern sentence, it has come to us as a true messenger of the God who has no pleasure in the death of him that dieth. We need the voice of these threatenings, because the heart has such a great power of self-deception in it. Men find it so easy to thrust away into the dim background of their thoughts all the dark but sure consequences of present sins, treating them as a debt which will come up no doubt for payment some day, but may be put aside just now.
And one virtue of our stern plain-speaking Lenten services is this, that they will not allow us to forget that fated reckoning day--they put us, whether we like it or not, face to face with the sure consequences of sin; and they compel us to listen to the question--"What is the choice of thy life?"
For you will bear in mind that we read all these decrees of Divine law with our eye fixed on our own life and not on our neighbour. They are meant to help us to judge ourselves, and not some other person; they lead us to penitence and not to criticism, so that our readiness or our unwillingness to meet and to weigh them, and to respond to them with definite prayer and penitence, may be taken as an index of our religious sincerity, and of our readiness to consecrate our lives to the service of our Saviour Christ.
And it is well for us that we should ask ourselves these questions; for if indeed it is true that every transgression and disobedience shall receive its just recompense and reward, how else shall we escape?