By Frederick W. Robertson
Preached July 27, 1851
"Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such a one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ." -Gal. vi. 1, 2.
It would be a blessed thing for our Christian society if we could contemplate sin from the same point of view from which Christ and His apostles saw it. But in this matter society is ever oscillating between two extremes-undue laxity and undue severity.
In one age of the Church-the days of Donatism, for instance-men refuse the grace of repentance to those who have erred: holding that baptismal privileges once forfeited can not be got back; that for a single distinct lapse there is no restoration.
In another age, the Church, having found out its error, and discovered the danger of setting up an impossible standard, begins to confer periodical absolutions and plenary indulgences, until sin, easily forgiven, is as easily committed.
And so too with societies and legislatures. In one period Puritanism is dominant and morals severe. There are no small faults. The statute-book is defiled with the red mark of blood, set opposite innumerable misdemeanors. In an age still earlier the destruction of a wild animal is punished like the murder of a man. Then in another period we have such a medley of sentiments and sickliness that we have lost all our bearings, and can not tell what is vice and what is goodness. Charity and toleration degenerate into that feeble dreaminess which refuses to be roused by stern views of life.
This contrast, too, may exist in the same age, nay, in the same individual. One man gifted with talent, or privileged by rank, outrages all decency: the world smiles, calls it eccentricity, forgives, and is very merciful and tolerant. Then some one unshielded by these advantages, endorsed neither by wealth nor birth, sins-not to one-tenth, nor one-ten-thousandth part of the same extent: society is seized with a virtuous indignation, rises up in wrath, asks what is to become of the morals of the community if these things are committed, and protects its proprieties by a rigorous exclusion of the offender, cutting off the bridge behind him .against his return forever.
Now the Divine character of the New Testament is shown in nothing more signally than in the stable ground from which it views this matter, in comparison with the shifting and uncertain standing-point from whence the world sees it. It says, never retracting nor bating, "The wages of sin is death." It speaks sternly, with no weak sentiment, "Go, sin no more, lest a worse thing happen unto thee." But then it accepts every excuse, admits every palliation: looks upon this world of temptation and these frail human hearts of ours, not from the cell of a monk or the study of a recluse, but in a large, real way; accepts the existence of sin as a fact, without affecting to be shocked or startled; assumes that it must needs be that offenses come, and deals with them in a large noble way, as the results of a disease which must be met-which should be, and which can be, cured.
I. The Christian view of other men's sin.
II. The Christian power of restoration.
1. The first thing noticeable in the apostle's view of sin is, that he looks upon it as if it might be sometimes the result of a surprise. "If a man be overtaken in a fault." In the original it is anticipated, taken suddenly infront. As if circumstances bad been beforehand with the man: as if sin, supposed to be left far behind, had on a sudden got in front, fripped him up, or led him into ambush.
All sins are not of this character. There are some which are in accordance with the general bent of our disposition, and the opportunity of committing them, was only the first occasion for manifesting what was in the heart: so that if they had not been committed then, they probably would or must have been at some other time; and looking back to them we have no right to lay the blame on circumstances-we are to accept the penalty as a severe warning meant to show what was in our hearts.
There are other sins of a different character. It seems as if it were not in us to commit them. They were, so to speak, unnatural to us: you were going quietly on your way, thinking no evil, suddenly temptation, for which you were not prepared, presented itself, and before you knew where you were, you were in the dust, fallen.
As, for instance, when a question is suddenly put to a man which never ought to have been put, touching a secret of his own or another's. Had he the presence of mind or adroitness, he might turn it aside, or refuse to reply. But being unprepared and accosted suddenly, he says hastily that which is irreconcilable with strict truth; then, to substantiate and make it look probable, misrepresents or invents something else; and so he has woven round himself a mesh which will entangle his conscience through many a weary day and many a sleepless night.
It is shocking, doubtless, to allow ourselves even to admit that this is possible; yet no one knowing human nature from men, and not from books, will deny that this might befall even a brave and true man. St. Peter was both; yet this was his history. In a crowd, suddenly, the question was put directly, "This man also was with Jesus of Nazareth." Then came a prevarication-a lie; and yet another. This was a sin of surprise. He was overtaken in a fault.
Every one of us admits the truth of this in his own case, Looking back to past life, he feels that the errors which have most terribly determined his destiny were the result of mistake. Inexperience, a hasty promise, excess of trust, incaution, nay, even a generous devotion, have been fearfully, and, as it seems to us, inadequately chastised. There may be some undue tenderness to ourselves when we thus palliate the past: still, a great part of such extenuation is only justice.
Now the Bible simply requires that we should judge others by the same rule by which we judge ourselves. The law of Christ demands that what we plead in our own case, we should admit in the case of others. Believe that in this or that case which you judge so harshly, the heart, in its deeps, did not consent to sin, nor by preference love what is hateful; simply admit that such an one may have been overtaken in a fault. This is the large law of charity.
1. Again, the apostle considers fault as that which has left a burden on the erring spirit. "Bear ye one another's burdens."
For we can not say to the laws of God, I was overtaken. We live under stern and unrelenting laws, which permit no excuse, and never heard of a surprise. They never send a man who has failed once back to try a second chance. There is no room for a mistake; you play against them for your life; and they exact the penalty inexorably, "Every man must bear his own burden." Every law has its own appropriate penalty; and the wonder of it is, that often the severest penalty seems set against the smallest transgression. We suffer more for our vices than our crimes; we pay dearer for our imprudences than even for our deliberate wickedness.
Let us examine this a little more closely. One burden laid on fault is that chain of entanglement which seems to drag down to fresh sins. One step necessitates many others. One fault leads to another, and crime to crime. The soul gravitates downward beneath its burden. It was profound knowledge indeed which prophetically refused to limit Peter's sin to once. "Verily I say unto thee . . . . thou shalt deny Me thrice."
We will try to describe that sense of burden. A fault has the power sometimes of distorting life till all seems hideous and unnatural. A man who has left his proper nature, and seems compelled to say and do things unnatural and in false show, who has thus become untrue to himself, to him life and the whole universe becomes untrue. He can grasp nothing; be does not stand on fact; he is living as in a dream-himself a dream. All is ghastly, unreal, spectral. A burden is on him as of a nightmare. He moves about in nothingness and shadows, as if he were not. His own existence swiftly passing might seem a phantom life, were it not for the corroding pang of anguish in his soul, for that at least is real!
2. Add to this, the burden of the heart weighing on itself.
It has been truly said that the human heart is like the millstone, which, if there be wheat beneath it, will grind to purposes of health; if not, will grind still, at the will of the wild wind, but on itself. So does the heart wear out itself against its own thought. One fixed idea-one remembrance, and no other-one stationary, wearing anguish. This is remorse, passing into despair; itself the goad to fresh and wilder crimes.
The worst of such a burden is that it keeps down the soul from good. Many an ethereal spirit, which might have climbed the heights of holiness, and breathed the rare and difficult air of the mountain-top, where the heavenliest spirituality alone can live, is weighed down by such a burden to the level of the lowest. If you know such an one, mark his history; without restoration, his career is done. That soul will not grow henceforth.
3. The burden of a secret.
Some here know the weight of an uncommunicated sin. They know how it lies like ice upon the heart. They know how dreadful a thing the sense of hypocrisy is; the knowledge of inward depravity, while all without looks pure as snow to men.
How heavy this weight may be, we gather from these indications. First, from this strange, psychological fact. A man with a guilty secret will tell out the tale of his crimes as under the personality of another; a mysterious necessity seems to force him to give it utterance-as in the old fable of him who breathed out his weighty secret to the reeds. A remarkable instance of this is afforded in the case of that murderer, who, from the richness of his gifts and the enormity of his crime, is almost a historical personage, who, having become a teacher of youth, was in the habit of narrating to his pupils the anecdote of his crime with all the circumstantial particularity of fact, but all the while under the guise of a pretended dream. Such men tread forever on the very verge of a confession: they seem to take a fearful pleasure in talking of their guilt, as if the heart could not bear its own burden, but must give it outness.
Again, is it evidenced by the attempt to get relief in profuse and general acknowledgments of guilt. They adopt the language of religion; they call themselves "vile dust and miserable sinners." The world takes generally what they mean particularly. But they get no relief, they only deceive themselves; for they have turned the truth itself into a falsehood, using true words which they know convey a false impression, and getting praise for humility instead of punishment for guilt. They have used all the effort, and suffered all the pang which it would have cost them to get real relief, and they have not got it; and the burden unacknowledged remains a burden still.
The third indication we have of the heaviness of this burden is the commonness of the longing for confession. None but a minister of the Gospel can estimate this: he only who, looking round his congregation, can point to person after person whose wild tale of guilt or sorrow he is cognizant of-who can remember how often similar griefs were trembling upon lips which did not unburden themselves-whose heart being the receptacle of the anguish of many, can judge what is in human hearts: he alone can estimate bow much there is of sin and crime lying with the weight and agony of concealment on the spirits of our brethren.
The fourth burden is an intuitive consciousness of the hidden sins of others' hearts.
To two states of soul it is given to detect the presence of evil: states the opposite of each other-innocence and guilt.
It was predicted of the Saviour while yet a child, that by Him the thoughts of many hearts should be revealed; the fulfillment of this was the history of His life. He went through the world, by His innate purity detecting the presence of evil, as He detected the touch of her who touched His garment in the crowd.
Men, supposed spotless before, fell down before Him, crying. "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, 0 Lord!" This, in a lower degree, is true of all innocence: you would think that one who can deeply read the human heart and track its windings must be himself deeply experienced in evil. But it is not so-at least not always. Purity can detect the presence of the evil which it does not understand: just as the dove which has never seen a hawk trembles at its presence; and just as a horse rears uneasily when the wild beast unknown and new to it is near, so innocence understands, yet understands not the meaning of the unholy look, the guilty tone, the sinful manner. It shudders and shrinks from it by a power given to it, like that which God has conferred on the unreasoning mimosa. Sin gives the same power, but differently. Innocence apprehends the approach of evil by the instinctive tact of contrast; guilt, by the instinctive consciousness of similarity. It is the profound truth contained in the history of the Fall. The eyes are opened; the knowledge of good and evil has come. The soul knows its own nakedness, but it knows also the nakedness of all other souls which have sinned after the similitude of its own sin.
Very marvellous is that test-power of guilt: it is vain to think of eluding its fine capacity of penetration. Intimations of evil are perceived and noted, when to other eyes all seems pure. The dropping of an eye, the shunning of a subject, the tremulousness of a tone, the peculiarity of a subterfuge, will tell the tale. "These are tendencies like mine, and here is a spirit conscious as my own is conscious."
This dreadful burden the Scriptures call the knowledge of good and evil: can we not all remember the salient sense of happiness which we had when all was innocent-when crime was the tale of some far distant hemisphere, and the guilt we heard of was not suspected in the hearts of the beings around us? and can we not recollect, too, how by our own sin, or the cognizance of others' sin, there came a something which hung the heavens with shame and guilt, and all around seemed laden with evil? This is the worst burden that comes from transgression: loss of faith in human goodness; the being sentenced to go through life haunted with a presence from which we can not escape; the presence of evil in the hearts of all that we approach.
II. The Christian power of restoration: "Ye which are spiritual, restore such an one."
First, then, restoration is possible. That is a Christian fact. Moralists have taught us what sin is; they have explained how it twines itself into habit; they have shown us its ineffaceable character. It was reserved for Christianity to speak of restoration. Christ, and Christ only, has revealed that he who has erred may be restored, and made pure and clean and whole again.
Next, however, observe that this restoration is accomplished by men. Causatively, of course, and immediately, restoration is the work of Christ and of God the Spirit. Mediately and instrumentally, it is the work of men. "Brethren, . . . . restore such an one." God has given to man the power of elevating his brother man. He has conferred on His Church the power of the keys to bind and loose, "Whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted; and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained." It is therefore in the power of man, by his conduct, to restore his brother, or to hinder his restoration. He may loose him from his sins, or retain their power upon his soul.
Now the words of the text confine us to two modes in which this is done: by sympathy and by forgiveness. "Bear ye one another's burdens."
By sympathy. We Protestants have one unvarying sneer ready for the system of the Romish confessional. They confess, we say, for the sake of absolution, that absolved they may sin again. A shallow, superficial sneer, as all sneers are. In that craving of the heart which gives the system of the confessional its dangerous power, there is something far more profound than any sneer can fathom. It is not the desire to sin again that makes men long to unburden their conscience, but it is the yearning to be true, which lies at the bottom, even of the most depraved hearts, to appear what they are, and to lead a false life no longer; and besides this, it is the desire of sympathy. For this comes out of that dreadful sense of loneliness which is the result of sinning; the heart severed from God, feels severed from all other hearts: goes alone as if it had neither part nor lot with other men; itself a shadow among shadows. And its craving is for sympathy: it wants some human heart to know what it feels. Thousands upon thousands of laden hearts around us are crying, Come and bear my burden with me; and observe here, the apostle says, "Bear ye one another's burdens." Nor let the priest bear the burdens of all: that were most unjust. Why should the priest's heart be the common receptacle of all the crimes and wickedness of a congregation? "Bear ye one another's burdens."
Again, by forgiveness. There is a truth in the doctrine of absolution. God has given to man the power to absolve his brother, and so restore him to himself. The forgiveness of man is an echo and an earnest of God's forgiveness. He whom society has restored realizes the possibility of restoration to God's favor. Even the mercifulness of one good man sounds like a voice of pardon from heaven: just as the power and the exclusion of men sound like a knell of hopelessness, and do actually bind the sin upon the soul. The man whom society will not forgive nor restore is driven into recklessness. This is the true Christian doctrine of absolution, as expounded by the Apostle Paul, 2 Cor. ii. 7-10: the degrading power of severity, the restoring power of pardon, vested in the Christian community, the voice of the minister being but their voice.
Now, then, let us inquire into the Christianity of our society. Restoration is the essential work of Christianity. The Gospel is the declaration of God's sympathy and God's pardon. In these two particulars, then, what is our right to be called a Christian community ?
Suppose that a man is overtaken in a fault. What does he, or what shall he do? Shall he retain it unacknowledged, or go through life a false man? God forbid. Shall he then acknowledge it to his brethren, that they by sympathy and merciful caution may restore him? Well, but is it not certain that it is exactly from those to whom the name of "brethren" most peculiarly belongs that he will not receive assistance? Can a man in mental doubt go to the members of the same religious communion? Does he not know that they precisely are the ones who will frown upon his doubts, and proclaim his sins? Will a clergyman unburden his mind to his brethren in the ministry? Are they not in their official rigor the least capable of largely understanding him? If a woman be overtaken in a fault, will she tell it to a sister-woman? Or does she not feel instinctively that her sister-woman is ever the most harsh, the most severe, and the most ferocious judge?
Well, you sneer at the confessional; you complain that mistaken ministers of the Church of England are restoring it amongst us. But who are they that are forcing on the confessional? who drive laden and broken hearts to pour out their long pent-up sorrows into any ear that will receive them? I say it is we: we by our uncharitableness; we by our want of sympathy and unmerciful behavior; we by the unchristian way in which we break down the bridge behind the penitent, and say, "On, on in sin-there is no returning."
Finally, the apostle tells us the spirit in which this is to be done, and assigns a motive for the doing it. The mode is, "in the spirit of meekness." For Satan can not cast out Satan. Sin can not drive out sin. For instance, my anger can not drive out another man's covetousness; my petulance or sneer can not expel another's extravagance. The meekness of Christ alone has power. The charity which desires another's goodness above his well-being, that alone succeeds in the work of restoration.
The motive is, "considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted." For sin is the result of inclination or weakness, combined with opportunity. It is therefore in a degree the offspring of circumstances. Go to the hulks, the jail, the penitentiary, the penal colony, statistics will almost mark out for you beforehand the classes which have furnished the inmates, and the exact proportion of the delinquency of each class. You will not find the wealthy there, nor the noble, nor those guarded by the fences of social life, but the poor, and the uneducated, and the frail, and the defenseless. Can you gravely surmise that this regular tabulation depends upon the superior virtue of one class compared with others? Or must you admit that the majority at least of those who have not fallen are safe because they were not tempted? Well, then, when St. Paul says, "considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted," it is as if he had written, Proud Pharisee of a man, complacent in thine integrity, who thankest God that thou art "not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, or as this publican," hast thou gone through the terrible ordeal and come off with unscathed virtue? Or art thou in all these points simply untried? Proud Pharisee of a woman, who passest by an erring sister with a haughty look of conscious superiority, dost thou know what temptation is, with strong feeling and mastering opportunity? Shall the rich-cut crystal which stands on the table of the wealthy man, protected from dust and injury, boast that it has escaped the flaws, and the cracks, and the fractures which the earthen jar has sustained, exposed and subjected to rough and general uses? Oh man or woman! thou who wouldst be a Pharisee, consider, oh consider thyself, lest thou also be tempted.