By Frederick W. Robertson
Preached November 9, 1851
"And immediately, when Jesus perceived in his spirit that they so reasoned within themselves, he said unto them, Why reason ye these things in your hearts ? Whether is it easier to say to the sick of the palsy, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and take up thy bed, and walk? But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins (he saith to the sick of the palsy), I say unto thee, Arise, and take up thy bed, and go thy way into thine house."-Mark ii. 8-11.
This anecdote is doubtless a familiar one to us all.
The Son of God was teaching in a house full of listeners, round which crowds were pressing. The friends of a poor palsied man desired His aid. It was scarcely possible for one person to edge his way through the press, where all longed to hear, and none of the crowd were likely to give place; but, for the cumbrous apparatus of a pallet borne by four, it was impossible. Therefore they ascended by the outside staircase, which, in Oriental countries leads to the flat roof, which they broke up, and let their friend down fix the midst, before Jesus. No doubt this must have struck every one. But the impression produced on the spectators would probably have been very different from that produced on Christ. They that saw the bed descending from the roof over the heads of all, and who had before seen the fruitless efforts that had been made to get in, and now remembered that he who had been farthest from Christ was unexpectedly in a few minutes nearest to Him, could not have with-held that applause which follows a successful piece of dexterity. They would have admired the perseverance, or the ingenuity, or the inventiveness.
On none of these qualities did Christ fix as an explanation of the fact. He went deeper. He traced it to the deepest source of power that exists in the mind of man. "When Jesus saw their faith." For as love is deepest in the being of God, so faith is the mightiest principle in the soul of man. Let us distinguish their several essences. Love is the essence of the Deity-that which makes it Deity. Faith is the essence of humanity, which constitutes it what it is. And, as here, it is the warring principle of this world which wins in life's battle. No wonder that it is written in Scripture-"This is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith." No wonder it is said, "All things are possible to him that believeth." It is that which wrestles with difficulty, removes mountains, tramples upon impossibilities. It is this spirit which in the common affairs of life, known as a "sanguine temperament," never says "impossible" and never believes in failure, leads the men of the world to their most signal successes, making them believe a thing possible because they hope it; and giving substantial reality to that which before was a shadow and a dream.
It was this "substance of things hoped for" that gave America to Columbus, when billows, miles deep, rose between him and the land, and the men he commanded well nigh rose in rebellion against the obstinacy which believed in "things not yet seen." It was this that crowned the Mohammedan arms for seven centuries with victory: so long as they believed themselves the champions of the One God with a mission from Him, they were invincible. And it is this which so often obtains for some new system of medicine the honor of a cure, when the real cause of cure is only the patient's trust in the remedies.
So it is in religion. For faith is not something heard of in theology alone, created by Christianity, but it is one of the commonest principles of life. He that believes a blessing is to be got, that "God is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him," will venture much, and will likewise win much. For, as with this palsied man, faith is inventive, ever fertile in expedients-like our own English character, never knowing when it has been foiled; and then nearest victory at the very moment when the last chance has seemed to fail. We divide our subject into
I. The malady presented to Christ.
II. His treatment of it.
I. The malady, apparently, was nothing more than palsy. But not as such did Jesus treat it. The by-standers might have been surprised at the first accost of Jesus to the paralytic man. It was not, "Take up thy bed and walk;" but but "Thy sins be forgiven thee." As with their faith, so it was here. He went deeper than perseverance or ingenuity. He goes deeper than the outward evil ; down to the evil, the root of all evil, properly the only evil-sin. He read in that sufferer's heart a deeper wish than appeared in the outward act, the consequences of a burden worse than palsy, the longing for a rest more profound than release from pain-the desire to be healed of guilt. It was in reply to this tacit application that the words "Thy sins be forgiven thee" were spoken.
Now, sin has a twofold set of consequences. 1. The natural consequences. 2. The moral consequences.
1. By the natural, we mean those results which come inevitably in the train of wrong-doing, by what we call the laws of nature visiting themselves on the outward condition of a sinner, by which sin and suffering are linked together. As for example, when an intemperate man ruins his health, or an extravagant man leaves himself broken in fortune; or when tyrannical laws bring an uprising of a people against a tyrant: these are respectively the natural penalties of wrong- doing.
Here, apparently, palsy had been the natural result of sin for otherwise the address of Christ was out of place and meaningless. And what we are concerned to remark is, that these natural consequences of sin are often invisible as well as inevitable. Probably not one of the four friends who bore him suspected such a connection. Possibly not even his physician. But there were two at least to whom the connection was certain-the conscience of the palsied man himself, whose awakened memory traced back the trembling of those limbs to the acts of a youth long past; and to the all-seeing eye of Him to who in past, present, and future are but one.
And such experience, brethren, is true, doubtless, much oftener than we imagine. The irritable temperament, the lost memory which men bewail, the over-sensitive brain, as if causeless-who can tell how they stand connected with sins done long ago? For nothing here stands alone and causeless. Every man, with his strength and his weaknesses, stunted in body or dwarfed in heart, palsied in nerve or deadened in sensibility, is the exact result and aggregate of all the past-all that has been done by himself, and all that has been done by his ancestors, remote or near. The Saviour saw in this palsied man the miserable wreck of an ill-spent life.
2. Now quite distinct from these are the moral consequences of guilt: by which I mean those which tell upon the character and inward being of the man who sins. In one sense, no doubt, it is a natural result, inasmuch as it is by a law, regular and unalterable, a man becomes by sin deteriorated in character, or miserable. Now these are twofold, negative and positive-the loss of some blessing, or the accruing of some evil to the heart. Loss-as when by sinning we lose the capacity for all higher enjoyments; for none can sin without blunting his sensibilities. He has lost the zest of a pure life, the freshness and the flood of happiness which come to every soul when it is delicate, and pure, and natural. This is no light loss. If any one here congratulates himself that sin has brought to him no positive misery, my brother, I pray you to remember that God's worst curse was pronounced upon the serpent tempter. Apparently it was far less than that pronounced on the woman, but really it was far more terrible. Not pain, not shame- no, these are remedial, and may bring penitence at last-but to sink the angel in the animal, the spirit in the flesh; to be a reptile, and to eat the dust of degradation as if it were natural food. Eternity has no damnation deeper than that.
Then, again, a positive result-the dark and dreadful loneliness that comes from doing wrong-a conscious unrest which plunges into business, or pleasure, or society, not for the love of these things, but to hide itself from itself as Adam did in the trees of the garden, because it dare not hear the voice of God, nor believe in His Presence. Do we not know something of a self-reproach and self-contempt, which, alternating at times with pride, almost tear the soul asunder? And such was the state of this man. His pains were but the counterpart and reflection of a deeper sorrow. Pain had laid him on a bed, and said to him, "Lie there face to face with God-and think!" We pass on now to consider-
II. Christ's treatment of that malady.
By the declaration of God's forgiveness. Brethren, if the Gospel of our Master mean any thing it means this-the blotting out of sin: "To declare His righteousness in the remission of sins that are past." It is the declaration of the highest name of God-love. Let us understand what forgiveness is. The forgiveness of God acts upon the moral consequences of sin directly and immediately; on the natural, mediately and indirectly.
Upon the moral consequences directly. Remorse passes into penitence and love. There is no more loneliness, for God has taken up His abode there. No more self-contempt, for he whom God has forgiven learns to forgive himself. There is no more unrest, for "being justified by faith, we have peace with God." Then the fountains of the great deep are broken up, and unwonted happy tears can come- as with the woman in the Gospels. I pray you to observe that this comes directly, with no interval-"Being justified by faith." For God's love is not an offer but a gift; not clogged with conditions, but free as the air we breathe.
Upon the natural consequences, not directly, but indirectly and mediately. The forgiveness of Christ did not remove the palsy; that was the result of a separate, distinct act of Christ. It is quite conceivable that it might never have been removed at all-that he might have been forgiven, and the palsy suffered to remain. God might have dealt with him as He did in David's case: on his repentance there came to him the declaration of God's pardon, his person was accepted, the moral consequences were removed, but the natural consequences remained. "The Lord hath put away thy sin, nevertheless the child which is born to thee shall die."
Consider, too, that without a miracle they must have remained in this man's case. It is so in everyday life. If the intemperate man repents he will receive forgiveness, but will that penitence give him back the steady hand of youth? Or if the suicide between the moment of draining the poisoned cup and that of death repent of his deed, will that arrest the operation of the poison? A strong constitution or the physician may possibly save life; but penitence has nothing to do with it. Say that the natural penal consequence of crime is the scaffold: Did the pardon given to the dying thief unnail his hands? Did Christ's forgiveness interfere with the natural consequences of his guilt?
And thus, we are brought to a very solemn and awful consideration, awful because of its truth and simplicity. The consequences of past deeds remain. They have become part of the chain of the universe-effects which now are causes, and will work and interweave themselves with the history of the world forever. You can not undo your acts. If you have depraved another's will, and injured another's soul, it may be in the grace of God that hereafter you will be personally accepted and the consequences of your guilt inwardly done away, but your penitence can not undo the evil you have done, and God's worst punishment may be that you may have to gaze half frantic on the ruin you have caused, on the evil you have done, which you might have left undone, but which being done is now beyond your power forever. This is the eternity of human acts. The forgiveness of God-the blood of Christ itself-does not undo the past.
And yet even here the grace of God's forgiveness is not in vain. It can not undo the natural consequences of sin, but it may by His mercy transform them into blessings. For example, suppose this man's palsy to have been left still with him, himself accepted, his soul at peace. Well, he is thencefore a crippled man. But crippling, pain-are these necessarily evils? Do we not say continually that sorrow and pain are God's loving discipline given to His legitimate children, to be exempt from which were no blessing, proving them to be "bastards and not sons?" And why should not that palsy be such to him, though it was the result of his own fault? Once, when it seemed in the light of the guilty conscience only the foretaste of coming doom-the outward a type of the inward, every pang sending him farther from God, it was a curse. Now, when penitence and love had come, and that palsy was received with patience, meekness, why may it not be a blessing? What makes the outward events of life blessings or the reverse? Is it not all from ourselves? Did not dissolution become quite another thing by the Fall-changed into death; assuming thereby an entirely altered character: no longer felt as a natural blessed herald, becoming the messenger of God, summoning to higher life, but now obtaining that strange name-the "king of terrors?" And in Christ, death becomes our minister again: "Ours," as St. Paul says, "with all other things." The cross of Christ has restored to death something more blessed than its original peacefulness. A sleep now: not death at all. And will not a changed heart change all things around us, and make the worst consequence of our own misdoing minister to our eternal welfare? So that God's forgiveness, assured to us in the cross of Christ, is a complete remedy for sin, acting on its natural consequences by transformation indirectly; on its moral results directly, by removing them.
Lastly, let us learn from this the true aim and meaning of miracles. Let us attend to the account our Master gives us of the reason why He performed this miracle. Read verses 9,10. To say,"Thy sins be forgiven thee," was easy, for no visible result could test the saying. To say, "Take up thy bed and walk," was not apparently so easy, for failure would cover with confusion. He said the last, leaving the inference-If I can do the most difficult, then of course, I can do the easier. Here we have the true character of a miracle: it is the outward manifestation of the power of God, in order that we may believe in the power of God in things that are invisible.
Now contrast this with the popular view. Miracles are commonly reckoned as proofs of Christ's mission, accrediting His other truths, and making them, which would be otherwise incredible, evidently from God. I hesitate not to say that nowhere in the New Testament are they spoken of in this way. When the Pharisees asked for evidences and signs, His reply was, "There shall no sign be given you." So said St. Paul in his Epistle to the Corinthians-not signs, but "Christ crucified." He had no conception of our modern notion of miracles-things chiefly valuable because they can be collected into a portable volume of evidences to prove that God is love: that we should love one another: that He is the Father of all men. These need no proofs, they are like the sun shining by his own light.
Christ's glorious miracles were not to prove these, but that through the seen the unseen might be known; to show, as it were by specimens, the living Power which works in ordinary as well as extraordinary cases. For instance here, to show that the One who is seen to say with power, "Take up thy bed and walk," arresting the natural consequences of sin, is actually, though unseen, arresting its moral consequences. Or again, that He who bade the waves "Be still" in Galilee, is holding now, at this moment, the winds in the hollow of His hand. That He who healed the sick and raised the dead, holds now and ever in His hand the issues of life and death. For the marvellous is to show the source of the common. Miracles were no concession to that infidel spirit which taints our modern Christianity, and which can not believe in God's presence, except it can see Him in the supernatural. Rather, they were to make us feel that all is marvellous, all wonderful, all pervaded with a Divine presence, and that the simplest occurrences of life are miracles.
In conclusion. Let me address those who, like this sufferer, are in any degree conscious either of the natural or moral results of sin, working in them. It is apparently a proud and a vain thing for a minister of Christ, himself tainted with sin, feeling himself, perhaps more than any one else can feel, the misery of a palsied heart, for such a one to give advice to his brother-men; but it must be done, for he is but the mouthpiece of truths greater than himself, truths which are facts, whether he can feel them all or not.
Therefore, if there be one among us who in the central depths of his soul is conscious of a Voice pronouncing the past accursed, the present awful, and the future terrible-I say to him, Lose no time in disputing, as these Scribes did, some Church question, "whether the Son of Man hath power on earth to forgive sins;" nor whether ecclesiastical etiquette permits you to approach God in this way or in that way-a question as impertinent as it would have been for the palsied man to debate whether social propriety permitted him to approach the Saviour as he did, instead of through the door.
My Christian brethren, if the crowd of difficulties which stand between your soul and God succeed in keeping you away, all is lost. Right into the Presence you must force your way, with no concealment, baring the soul with all its ailments before Him, asking, not the arrest of the consequences of sin, but the "cleansing of the conscience from dead works to serve the living God;" so that if you must suffer you shall suffer as a forgiven man.
This is the time! Wait not for another opportunity nor for different means. For the saying of our Lord is ever fulfilled, "The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force."