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Vol. 5, Sermon 5 - Reconciliation by Christ

By Frederick W. Robertson


      Preached February 2, 1851

      "And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled." -Col. i. 21.

      There are two, and only two kinds of goodness possible: the one is the goodness of those who have never erred; the other is the goodness of those who, having erred, have been recovered from their error. The first is the goodness of those who have never offended; the second is the goodness of those who, having offended, have been reconciled. In the infinite possibilities of God's universe, it may be that there are some who have attained the first of these kinds of righteousness. It may be that amongst the heavenly hierarchies there are those who have kept their first estate, whose performances have been commensurate with their aspirations, who have never known the wretchedness, and misery, and degradation of a Fall. But whether it be so or not is a matter of no practical importance to us. It may be a question speculatively interesting, but it is practically useless, for it is plain that such righteousness never can be ours. The only religion possible to man is the religion of penitence. The righteousness of man can not be the integrity of the virgin citadel which has never admitted the enemy; it can never be more than the integrity of the city which has been surprised and roused, and which, having expelled the invader with blood in the streets, has suffered great inward loss.

      Appointed to these two kinds of righteousness there are two kinds of happiness. To the first is attached the blessing of entire ignorance of the stain, pollution, and misery of guilt-a blessed happiness: but it may be that it is not the greatest. To the happiness resulting from the other is added a greater strength of emotion; it may not have the calmness and peace of the first, but, perhaps, in point of intensity and fullness it is superior. It may be that the highest happiness can only be purchased through suffering: and the language of the Bible almost seems to authorize us to say, that the happiness of penitence is deeper and more blessed than the happiness of the righteousness that has never fallen could be.

      There are two kinds of friendship-that which has never had a shock, and that which, after having been doubted, is at last made sure. The happiness of this last is perhaps the greater. Such seems to be the truth implied in the parable of the prodigal son: in the robe, and the ring, and the fatted calf, and the music, and dancing, and the rapture of a father's embrace: and once more, in those words of our Redeemer, "There is more joy among the angels of heaven over one sinner that repenteth, than over ninety and nine just persons that need no repentance." All these seem to tell of the immeasurable blessedness of penitence. And this, then, is our subject-the subject of reconciliation.

      But the text divides itself into two branches:

      I. Estrangement.

      II. Reconciliation.

      Estrangement is thus described: "You that were sometime" (that is, once) "alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works:" in which there are three things. The first is the cause of the estrangement-wicked works; the second is the twofold order; and thirdly, the degree of that estrangement; first of all,mere alienation, afterwards hostility, enmity.

      And, first of all, we consider the cause of the estrangement-"wicked works." Wicked works are voluntary deeds; they are not involuntary, but voluntary wrong. There is a vague way in which we sometimes speak of sin, in which it is possible for us to lose the idea of its guilt, and also to lose the idea of personal responsibility. We speak of sin sometimes as if it were a foreign disease introduced into the constitution: an imputed guilt arising from an action not our own, but of our ancestors. It is never so that the Bible speaks of sin. It speaks of it as wicked works, voluntary deeds, voluntary acts; that you, a responsible individual, have done acts which are wrong, of the mind, the hand, the tongue. The infant is by no means God's enemy; he may become God's enemy, but it can only be by voluntary action after conscience has been aroused. This our Master's words teach, when He tells us, "Suffer little children to come unto me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven." And such again is the mystery of Christian baptism. It tells us that the infant is not the child of the devil, but the child of God, the member of Christ, the heir of immortality. Sin, then, is a voluntary action. If you close your ear to the voice of God, if there be transgression of an inward law, if you sacrifice the heart and intellect to the senses, if you let case or comfort be more dear to you than inward purity, if you leave duties undone, and give the body rule over the spirit-then you sin; for these are voluntary acts, these are wicked works.

      The result of this is twofold. The first step is simply the step of alienation. There is a difference between alienation and hostility: in alienation we feel that God is our enemy, in hostility we look on ourselves as enemies to God. Alienation-"you that were sometimes alienated"-was a more forcible expression in the apostle's time than it can be to us now. In our modern political society, the alien is almost on a level with the citizen. The difference now is almost nothing; in those days it was very great. The alien from the Jewish commonwealth had no right to worship with the Jews, and he had no power to share in the religious advantages of the Jews. The strength of the feeling that was existing against the alien you will perceive in that proverbial expression quoted by the Redeemer, "It is not meet to take the children's bread, and cast it to the dogs." In the Roman commonwealth, the word had a meaning almost stronger than this. To be an alien from the Roman commonwealth was to be separated from the authority and protection of the Roman law, and to be subjected to a more severe and degrading kind of penalty than that to which the Roman citizen was subject. The lash that might scourge the back of the alien offender might not fall on the back of a Roman citizen; and this it was that caused the magistrates of Philippi to tremble before their prisoners when the Apostle Paul said, "They have beaten us openly, uncondemned, being Romans." The lash was the alien's portion.

      On reference to the second chapter of the Ephesians we find a conception given of alienation in the twelfth verse, where the apostle, speaking of the Ephesian converts, says, "That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world." This, brethren, is alienation, exclusion-to have no place in this world, to be without lot or portion in the universe, to feel God as your enemy, to be estranged from Him, and banished from His presence: for the law of God acts as its own executioner within our bosoms, and there is no defying its sentence; from it there can be no appeal.

      My Christian brethren, hell is not merely a thing hereafter, hell is a thing here; hell is not a thing banished to the far distance, it is ubiquitous as conscience. Wherever there is a worm of undying remorse, the sense of having done wrong, and a feeling of degradation, there is hell begun. And now respecting this. These words, "banishment from God," "alienation," though merely popular phrases, are expressions of a deep truth-it is true they are but popular expressions, for God is not wrath. You are not absolutely banished from God's presence. The Immutable changes not. He does not become angry or passionate whenever one of the eight hundred million inhabitants of this world commits a sin. And yet you will observe there is no other way in which we can express the truth but in these popular words. Take the illustration furnished to us last Sunday: it may be that it is the cloud and the mist that obscure the sun from us: the sun is not changed in consequence: it is a change in our atmosphere. But if the philosopher says to you, the sun in its splendor remains the same in the infinite space above, it is only an optical delusion which makes it appear lurid: to what purpose is that difference to you? to you it is lurid, to you it is dark. If you feel a darkness 'in your eye, coldness in your flesh, to what purpose, so far as feeling is concerned, is it that philosophy tells you the sun remains unchanged? And if it be that God in the heaven above remains love still, and that love warms not your heart; and that God is Light, in whom is no darkness at all, yet He shines not in your heart; my Christian brethren, let metaphysics and philosophy say what they will, these popular expressions are the true ones, after all; to you God is angry, from God you are banished, God's countenance is alienated from you.

      The second step of this estrangement reaches a higher degree still; it is not merely that God is angry, but that we have become enemies to God. The illustration of the process of this we have seen in our common everyday life.

      It is sometimes the case that strength of attachment settles down to mere indifference, even changes to hatred. The first quarrel between friends is a thing greatly to be dreaded; it is often followed by the cessation of all correspondence, the interruption of that intercourse which has gone on so long. Well, a secret sense of self-blame and of wrong will intrude, and the only way in which we can escape it is by throwing the blame elsewhere. You see by degrees a cankered spot begins, and you look at it and touch it, and irritate it until the mortification becomes entire, and that which was at first alienation settles down into absolute animosity.

      And such is it in the history of the alienation of the soul from God. The first step is to become indifferent, communion is interrupted, irregularity is begun, sin by degrees widens the breach, and then between the soul and God there is a great gulf fixed. Observe by what different ways different classes of character arrive at that. Weak characters have one way, and strong and bold characters have another. The weak mind throws the blame on circumstances; Unable itself to subdue its own passions, it imagines there is some law in the universe that so ordains it; insists that the blame is on circumstances and destiny, and says, "If I am thus it is not my fault , if I am not to gratify my passions, why were they given to me? 'Why doth He find fault, for who hath resisted His will?'" And so these weak ones become by degrees fatalists; and it would seem, by their language, as if they were rather the patient victims of a cruel fate, the blame belonging not to then, but to God.

      The way in which stronger and more vicious characters arrive at this enmity is different. Humiliation degrades, and degradation produces anger; you have but to go into the narrow and crowded streets of the most degraded portions of our metropolis, and there you will see the outcast turning with a look of defiance and hatred on respectability, merely because it is respectable: and this, brethren, many of us have seen, some of us have felt, in our relation towards God. That terrible demon voice stirs up within us, "Curse God and die." Haunted by furies, we stand, as it were, at bay, and dare to bid defiance to our Maker. Nothing so proves the original majesty of man as this terrible fact, that the creature can bid defiance to the Creator, and that man has it in him to become the enemy of God.

      We pass on, in the next place, to consider the doctrine of reconciliation. We need scarcely define what is meant by reconciliation. To reconcile is to produce harmony where there was discord, unity where before there was variance. We accept the apostle's definition of reconciliation. He says that "Christ hath made of twain one new man, so making peace." Now the reconciliation produced by Christ's atonement is fourfold:

      In the first place, Christ hath reconciled man to God.

      In the second place, He hath reconciled man to man.

      In the third place, He hath reconciled man to himself.

      And in the fourth place, He hath reconciled man to duty.

      In the first place, the atonement of the Redeemer has reconciled man to God, and that by a twofold step: by exhibiting the character of God; and by that exhibition changing the character of man.

      Brethren, the sacrifice of Christ was the voice of God proclaiming love. In this passage the apostle tells us that "Christ has reconciled us to God in the body of His flesh through death." We will not attempt to define what that sacrifice was-we will not philosophize upon it; for the more we philosophize the less we shall understand it. We are well content to take it as the highest exhibition and the noblest specimen of the law of our humanity-that great law, that there is no true blessedness without suffering, that every blessing we have comes through vicarious suffering. All that we have and enjoy comes from others' suffering. The life we enjoy is the result of maternal agony; our very bread is only obtained after the toil and anguish of suffering myriads; there is not one atom of the knowledge we possess now which has not, in some century of the world or other, been wrung out of Nature's secrets by the sweat of the brow or the sweat of the heart. The very peace which we are enjoying at this present day, how has that been purchased? By the blood of heroes whose bodies are now lying mouldering in the trenches of a thousand battle-fields.

      This is the law of our humanity, and to this our Redeemer became subject-the law of life, self-surrender, without which reconciliation was impossible. And When the mind has comprehended this, that the sacrifice of Christ was the manifestation of the love of God, then comes the happy and blessed feeling of reconciliation. When a man has surrendered himself in humbleness and penitence to God, and the proud spirit of self-excuse has passed away: when the soul has opened itself to all His influences and known their power: when the saddest and bitterest part of suffering is felt no longer as the wrath of the Judge but as the discipline of a Father: when the love of God has melted the soul, and fused it into charity: then the soul is reconciled to God, and God is reconciled to the soul: for it is a marvellous thing how the change of feelings within us changes God to us, or rather those circumstances and things by which God becomes visible to us. His universe, once so dark, becomes bright: life, once a mere dull, dreary thing, "dry as summer dust," springs up once more into fresh luxuriance, and we feel it to be a divine and blessed thing.

      We hear the voice of God as it was once heard in the garden of Eden whispering among the leaves: every sound, once so discordant, becomes music, the anthem of creation raised up, as it were, with everlasting hallelujahs to the eternal throne. Then it is that a man first knows his immortality, and the soul knows what is meant by infinitude and eternity ; not that infinitude which can be measured by miles, nor that eternity which can be computed by hours; but the eternity of emotion. Let a man breathe but one hour of the charity of God, and feel but one true emotion of the reconciled heart, and then he knows forever what is meant by immortality, and he can understand the reality of his own.

      The second consequence of the Redeemer's atonement is the reconciliation of man to man. Of all the apostles, none have perceived so strongly as St. Paul that the death of Christ is the reconciliation of man to man. Take that one single expression in the Epistle to the Ephesians-"For He is our peace who hath made both one." Observe, I pray you, the imagery with which he continues, "and hath broken down the middle wall of partition." The veil or partition wall between the court of the Jew and Gentile was broken asunder at the crucifixion. St. Paul saw in the death of Christ a spiritual resemblance to that physical phenomenon. Christ was not only born of woman, but under the law; and He could not become, as such, the Saviour of the world; but when death had taken place, and He was no longer the Jew, but the Man, no longer bound by limitations of time, and place, and country, then He became, as it were, a Spirit in the universe, no longer narrowed to place and to century, but universal, the Saviour of the Gentile as well as the Messiah of the Jew.

      Therefore it was that St. Paul called the flesh of Christ a veil, and said the death of Christ was the taking down of "the middle wall of partition" between Jew and Gentile. and therefore it is by the sacrifice of Christ, and by that alone, man can be thus reconciled to man: and on no other possible basis can there be a brotherhood of the human race. You may try other ways: the men of the world have tried, and doubtless will go on trying, until they find that there is no other way than this. They may try by the principle of selfishness, the principle of moral rule, or the principle of civil authority. Let the political economist come forward with his principle of selfishness, and tell us that this is that by which alone the wealth of nations can accrue. He may get a nation in which there are a wealthy few and miserable many, but not a brotherhood of Christians. Suppose you say, men should love one another. Will that make them love one another? You may come forward with the crushing rule of political authority. Papal Rome has tried it and failed. She bound up the masses of the human race as a gigantic iceberg; but she could give only a temporary principle of unity and cohesion.

      Therefore we turn back once more to the cross of Christ: through this alone we learn there is one God, one Father, one baptism, one Elder Brother in whom all can be brothers. But there is a something besides, a deeper principle still. We are told in this passage we can be reconciled to man by the body of Christ through death. And now, brethren, let us understand this. By the cross of Christ the apostle meant, reconciled by the spirit of the cross. And what was that spirit? It was the spirit of giving, and of suffering, and of loving, because He had suffered. Say what we will, love is not gratitude for favors which have been received. Why is the child more beloved by the parent than the parent by the child? Why did the Redeemer love His disciples more than they loved their Master? Benefits will not bind the affection; you must not expect that they will. You must suffer if you would love; you must remember that "it is more blessed to give than to receive." The Apostle Paul felt this when he said reconciliation was produced through the body of the flesh of Christ by death.

      Once more: man becomes by the Redeemer's atonement reconciled to himself.

      That self-reconciliation is necessary, because we do not readily forgive ourselves. God may have forgiven us, but we can not forgive ourselves. You may obtain a remission of the past, but you can not forgive yourself and get back the feeling of self-respect, unity within, rest, by sitting still and believing that God has forgiven you, and that you have nothing left to look for? My brethren, there is a spirit of self-torture within us which is but a perversion of nobleness, a mistake of the true principle. When you have done wrong, you want to suffer. Love demands a sacrifice, and only by sacrifice can it reconcile itself to self. Then it is that the sacrifice of Christ replies to this, answers it. satisfies it, and makes it plain. The sacrifice of Christ was suffering in love, it was surrender to the will of God. The Apostle Paul felt this: when that Spirit was with him he was reconciled to himself. He says, "I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me." If ever you devoted yourself to another's happiness or amelioration, so far and so long as you were doing that you forgave yourself; you felt the spirit of inward self-reconciliation; and what we want is only to make that perpetual, to make that binding which we do by fits and starts, to feel ourselves a living sacrifice, to know that we are, in our highest and best state, victims, offered up in love on the great altar of the kingdom of Christ, offered by Him to God as the first-fruits of His sacrifice; then we are reconciled to ourselves "by the blood of His flesh through death."

      And lastly, through the atonement of the Redeemer, man becomes reconciled to duty. There is no discord more terrible than that between man and duty. There are few of us who fancy we have found our own places in this world; our lives, our partnerships, our professions, and our trades, are not those which we should have chosen for ourselves. There is an ambition within us which sometimes makes us fancy we are fit for higher things, that we are adapted for other and better things than those to which we are called. But we turn again to the cross of Christ, and the mystery of life becomes plain. The life and death of Christ are the reconciliation of man to the duties which he has to do. You can not study His marvellous life without perceiving that the whole of its details are uncongenial, mean, trivial, wretched circumstances-from which the spirit of a man revolts.

      To bear the sneer of the Sadducee and the curse of the Pharisee; to be rejected by His family and friends; to be harassed by the petty disputes and miserable quarrels of His followers about their own personal precedence; to be treated by the government of His country as a charlatan and a demagogue; to be surrounded by a crowd of men, coming and going without sympathy; to retire and find His leisure intruded on and Himself pursued for ignoble ends-these were the circumstances of the Redeemer's existence here. Yet in these it was that the noblest life the world has ever seen was lived. He retired into the wilderness, and one by one put down all those visions that would have seduced Him from the higher path of duty; the vision of comfort which tempted Him to change the stones of this world into bread; the vision of ambition which tempted Him to make the kingdoms of this world His own by seeking good through evil; the vision which tempted Him to distrust God, and become important by pursuing some strange, unauthorized way of His own, instead of following the way of submission to the will of God.

      He ascended into the transfiguration mount, and there His Spirit converses with those of an elder dispensation, who had fought the fight before Him, Moses and Elias, and they spoke to Him of the triumph which He had to accomplish in death at Jerusalem. And He went down again with calm, serene, and transfigured faith, and there, at the very foot. of the mount, He found His disciples engaged in some miserable squabble with the Scribes and the Pharisees about casting out a devil. And this life of His is the only interpretation of this life of ours-the reconciliation of our hearts with what we have to do. It is not by change of circumstances, but by fitting our spirits to the circumstances in which God has placed us, that we can be reconciled to life and duty. If the duties before us be not noble, let us ennoble them by doing them in a noble spirit ; we become reconciled to life if we live in the Spirit of Him who reconciled the life of God with the lowly duties of servants.

      And now one word in conclusion. The central doctrine of Christianity is the atonement. Take that away and you obliterate Christianity. If Christianity were merely the imitation of Christ, why then the imitation of any other good man, the Apostle Paul or John, might have become a kind of Christianity. If Christianity were merely martyrdom for truth, then, with the exception of a certain amount of degree, I see no difference between the death of Socrates and the death of Jesus Christ. But Christianity is more than this. It is the At-one-ment of the Soul. It is a reconciliation which the life and death of Christ have wrought out for this world-the reconciliation of man to God, the reconciliation of man to man, the reconciliation of man to self, and the reconciliation of man to duty.

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