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Sermons for the New Life 18 - THE POWER OF GOD IN SELF-SACRIFICE

By Horace Bushnell

      1 Cor. i. 24.-"Christ the power of God."

      THE cross and Christ crucified are the subject here in hand. Accordingly, when Christ is called the power of God, we are to understand Christ crucified; and then the problem is to conceive how Christ, dying in the weakness of mortality and exhibiting, just there, if we take him as the incarnate manifestation of God, the humblest tokens of passibility and frailty, is yet and there, as being the crucified, the power of God.

      At our present point and without some preparation of thought, we can hardly state intelligibly, or with due force of assertion, the answer to such a question. The two elements appear to be incompatible, and we can only say that the power spoken of is, not the efficient, or physical, but the moral power of God; that namely of his feeling and character But as this will be no statement sufficiently clear to stand as the ruling proposition of a discourse, I will risk a departure from our custom and, instead of drawing my subject formally from my text, I will begin at a point external and draw, by stages, toward it; paying it, as I conceive, the greater honor, that I suppose it to be so rich and deep in its meaning, as to require and to reward the labor of a discourse, if simply we may apprehend the lesson it teaches.

      Christ, then, the crucified, and so the power of God-this is our goal, let us see if we can reach it.

      We take our point of departure at the question of passibility in God-is He a being passible, or impassible?

      It would seem to follow from the infinitude of his creatively efficient power, and the immensity of his nature, that he is and must be impassible. There is, in fact, no power that is not in his hands. There are cases, it is true, where superiority in volume and physical force rather increases than diminishes passibility. Thus it is that man is subject to so great annoyance from the mere gnat, and the creature is able to inflict this inevitable suffering upon him, just because of his own atomic littleness. But there is no parallel in this for the relation of God to his creatures, or of theirs to Him; because they continue to exist only by His permission. Besides, He is spirit only, not a being that can be struck, or thrust upon, or any way violated by physical assault. What we call force, or physical power can not touch him. And even if it could, he is probably incapable of suffering from it, as truly as even space itself. Like space, like eternity, he is, in his own nature, as spirit, essentially impassible -impassible, that is, as related to force.

      But the inquiry is not ended when we reach this point, it is only begun. After all there must be some kind of passibleness in God, else there could be no genuine character in him. If he could not be pained by any thing, could not suffer any kind of wound, had no violable sympathy, he would be any thing but a perfect character. A cast iron Deity could not command our love and reverence. The beauty of God is that he has feeling and feels appropriately toward every thing done; that he feels badness as badness, and goodness as goodness, pained by one, pleased by the other. There must be so much, or such kind of passibility in him that he will feel toward every thing as it is, and will be diversely affected by diverse things, according to their quality. If wickedness and wrong stirred nothing in him different from what is stirred by a prayer, if He felt no disaffection toward a thief which He does not feel toward a martyr, no pleasure in a martyr faithful unto death which He does not in his persecutors, He would be a kind of no-character, we can hardly conceive such a being.

      A very large share of all the virtues have, in fact, an element of passivity, or passibility in them, and without that element they could. not exist. Indeed the greatness and power of character, culminates in the right proportion and co-ordination of these passive elements. And just here it is, we shall see, that even God's perfection culminates. He is great as being great in feeling.

      We raise a distinction, as among ourselves, between what we call the active and the passive virtues. Not that all virtues are not equally active, in the sense of being voluntary, or free, but that in some of them we communicate, and in some of them receive action. If I impart a charity, that is my active virtue; if I receive an insult without revenging, or wishing to revenge it, that is my passive virtue. All the wrong acts done us and also all the good are occasions of some appropriate, proportionate and really great feeling, which is our passive virtue. And without this passive virtue in its varieties, we should be only no-characters, dry logs of wood instead of Christian men. Or, if we kept on acting still, we should be only active machines, equally dry as wood, and only making more of noise; for what better is the active giving (f a charity, if there be no fellow-feeling, or pitying passion with it, to make it a charity?

      Now God must have these passive virtues as truly as men. They are the necessary soul of all greatness in him. How then shall we conceive him to have them and to have his sublime perfection culminate in them, when he is, in fact, impassible?

      This brings us to the true point of our question. We discover, first, that God is and must be physically impassible. We discover, next, that he ought to feel appropriately to all kinds of action, and must have, in order to his real greatness in character, all the passive virtues. He must in one view be impassible and in some other, passible, infinitely passible. And how is this, where is. the solution?

      It is here; that God, being physically impassible, impassible as relates to violating force, is yet morally passible. That is, he is a being whose very perfection it is, that he feels the moral significance of things, receives all actions according to their moral import, whether as done to himself, or by one created being to another. In this latter sense, he feels actions intensely according to the moral delicacy of his nature, deeply according to the depth of his nature. In this point of view, he is, just because he is perfect and infinite, infinitely passible. He has just that sense of things which infinite holiness must have, loves the tears of repentance in his child just as infinite mercy must, turns away from all wrong, as profoundly revolted by it, as his infinite, eternal chastity must be.

      It will be seen, at once, that God can receive the sense of actions morally, in this manner, when they can not touch him as force or physically. He can feel ingratitude when he can not feel a blow. He can loathe impurity when he can not be injured by any assault. He can be sore displeased by the cruelty of man to his fellow, when he could not suffer the cruelty himself. He is pleased and gratified by acts of sacrifice, when he could not be comforted, or enriched by the ministries of benevolence. All acts affect him just according to their quality. A thermometer is not more exactly and delicately passive to heat, than he is to the merit and demerit of all actions. So, as regards what lies in character and pertains in that way to spirit, he is the most intensely passible of all beings, and has it for his merit that he is.

      This, accordingly, is the representation given of him in the scriptures, or, as it will more assist my subject to say, in the Old Testament scriptures. Thus he is blessed, or said to be, in all the varieties of agreeable affection, according to the merit and beauty of whatever is done that is right. He smelled a sweet savor, we are told, in Noah's sacrifice. He has pleasure in them that hope in his mercy. He is affected with joy over his people, as a prophet represents, even to singing, in the day of their restored peace. He is tender in his feeling to the obedient, pitying them that fear him as a father pitieth his children. His very love is partly passive; that is, it is a being affected with complacency by those who are in the truth, and a being affected with compassion by the bitter and hard lot of those under sin. On the other hand, by how many unpleasant varieties, or pains of feeling does he profess to suffer, in his relation to scenes of human wrong, ingratitude and disgusting baseness. The sighing of the prisoner comes before him, to command his sympathy. He calls after his people, as a woman forsaken and grieved in spirit. He testifies,-I am pressed under you as a cart is pressed that is full of sheaves. His repentings are kindled together in view of the sins of his people. In all the afflictions of his people he is afflicted himself. And, in the same manner, he is said to be exercised by all manner of disagree. able and unpleasant sentiments in relation to all manner of evil doings; displeased, sore displeased, wroth, angry, loathing, abhorring, despising, hating, weary, filled with abomination, wounded, hurt, grieved, and even protests, like one sorrowing, that he could do nothing more for his vineyard that he has not done in it. There is, in short, no end to the variety of unhappy, or disagreeable sentiments that must be excited in God's breast of infinite purity, by the various complexities of guilt, wrong, shame and loathsomeness that are blended in the societies and scenes of our fallen world. If God could look on these things without disgust and abhorrence, he would not be God. He would want all that is most amiable, freshest, most delicate, purest in love, every thing that most commends him to our reverence.

      But these movings of disgust and abhorrence, all these sentiments that put him in a just relation with evil, are painful. Simply to say that one is displeased is to say that he is disagreeably affected; or merely to say that one dislikes a character is to allege that he is unpleasantly affected by it. What then shall we think of God, when all these varieties of displeasure and dislike must as certainly be living experiences in him, as he is a holy and a living God? So far he is a being subject to pain, by reason of his very perfections. Nay, his pains do them. selves enter into and make up a consubstantial part of his perfections.

      And what is this, some will ask, but to assume the unhappiness, or, at least, the diminished happiness, of God. Is then God unhappy? Is he less than infinitely blessed? Pressed by this difficulty, it has been the manner of many teachers to fall back on the physical impassibility of God, imagining that there, at that fixed point, the true solution must begin. God, they say, is impassible. We are therefore to understand that, in all these scripture expressions, these abhorrings, loathings, hatings, displeasures, angers, wearinesses, indignations, and the like, the bible is only speaking of God after the manner of men. Yes, but, supposing it to thus speak, what does it mean? Does it mean nothing? When it declares that God abominates sin, does it mean that he has no feeling at all in respect to it? Does it mean that he has a pleasant or pleased feeling? Neither; we mock the dignity of scripture, nay we mock the beauty itself of God, when we turn away, in this manner, all credit of right feeling and true rationality in Him. No, this is what we mean; we mean, if we understand ourselves, that the figures in question, are transferred from human uses and applied over to God; and that when so applied, they express something true concerning God; viz., the great fact that God has the same kind of displeased, disaffected, abhorrent and revolted feeling toward sin, as the purest and holiest man has, only it is God's feeling, in God's measures, and according to God's purity, that his disgust is deep as the sea, that his indignation is a storm vast as the world, that his whole infinitude is moved with dislike, distaste, disgust, offended purity, abhorrence and revolted love. It would even be a discredit to God to suppose any thing less.

      And so we come back on the difficulty, a hundred fold increased, and we ask again, how shall we save the infinite blessedness of God? By just dropping out our calculations of arithmetic, I answer, and looking at facts. It seems to be good arithmetic and logically inevitable that, if any subtraction is made from God's infinite happiness, he can not be infinitely happy. No, it is not inevitable. On the contrary, he may even be the more blessed because of the subtraction, for to see that he feels rightly toward evil, despite of the pain suffered from it, to be conscious of long suffering and patience toward it, to know that he is pouring and ever has been the fullness of his love upon it, to be studying now, in conscious sacrifice, a saving mercy;-out of this springs up a joy deeper and more sovereign than the pain, and by a fixed law of holy compensation, the sea of his blessedness is kept continually full. All moral natures exist under this law of compensation; so that every being is made more blessed in all the passive virtues. To receive evil rightly is to master it, to be rightly pained by it is to be kept in sovereign joy. To suffer well is bliss and victory.

      Probably no one ever thought of compassion as being any thing less than a joy, a holy bliss of feeling. And yet it is co-passion. It suffers with its objects, takes their burdens, struggles with their sorrows-all which is pain, a loss of happiness. Still it is no loss, because there is another element in the conscious greatness of the loss, and the man is even raised in order by the inward exaltation he feels. So in respect to pity, long suffering, patience with evil, and meekness under wrong. They have all a side of loss, and yet they are the noblest augmentations of blessedness. There is a law of moral compensation in them all, by which their suffering is married to inevitable joy,

      Nor is this fact of compensation wholly confined to actions moral; a similar return keeps company with loss and is expected to do so in other matters. The hearer of a tragedy, for example, goes to be afflicted, to have his soul harrowed and torn, that in so deep excitement he may feel the depth of his nature, and be exalted in the powerful surging of its waves! He suffers a great subtraction, but no diminution.

      We need not therefore be troubled or concerned for God's happiness, because he feels toward evil, and with all his feeling, exactly as he should. That, if only we can drop the stupid computations of arithmetic and look into the living order of mind, or spirit, is the sublimity even of his blessedness, as it is the necessary grace of his perfection.

      Thus far I have spoken of Gods passive virtue, principally as concerned in feeling toward what is moral, just according to its quality; in being affected pleasantly, or disagreeably according to the good, or evil of what he looks upon. But there is a moral passivity in all perfect character that is vastly higher than this and reaches farther; viz., a passivity of mercy, or sacrifice. In this, a good, or perfect being not only feels toward good, or evil, according to what it is, but willingly endures evil, or submits to its bad quality and action to make it what it is not; to recover and heal it. No extraordinary purity is necessary to make any one sensible of disaffection, or disgust, or pain, in the contemplation of what is vile and wicked; but to submit one's ease and even one's personal comfort and pleasure to the endurance of wickedness, in order to recover and subdue it, requires what is far more difficult. I can be disgusted easily enough, by the ingratitude, offended by the treachery, wounded by the wrongs of an enemy, but to bear that enemy and put myself in the way of receiving more injury, in order to regain his friendship and restore him to a right feeling, is quite another matter. I am never perfect in my relation to him till I can. All perfect virtue will do this, and none is perfect but this, whether in man, or in angel, or in God.

      Just here then, we begin to open upon the true meaning of my text-Christ the power of God. There is no so great power even among men, as this of which I now 3peak. It conquers evil by enduring evil. It takes the cage of its enemy and. lets him break his malignity across the enduring meekness of its violated love. Just here it is that evil becomes insupportable to itself. It can argue against every thing but suffering patience, this disarms it. Looking in the face of suffering patience it sinks exhausted. All its fire is spent.

      In this view it is that Christ crucified is the power of God. It is because he shows God in self-sacrifice, because he brings out and makes historical in the world God's passive virtue, which is, in fact, the culminating head of power in his character. By this it is that he opens our human feeling, bad and blind as it is, pouring himself into its deepest recesses and bathing it with his cleansing, new-creating influence. There is even a kind of efficiency in it and that the highest, viz., moral efficiency; for it is moral power, not physical, not force. It is that kind of power which feeling has to impregnate feeling; that which one person has in good, to melt himself into and assimilate another in evil. Hence it is that so much is said of Christ as a new-discovered power-the power of God unto salvation; the Son of God with power; the power of Christ, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. The power spoken of here is conceived to be such that Christ is really our new creator. We are his workmanship created unto good works; new creatures therefore in him, transformed radically by our faith in him, passed from death unto life, born of God, renewed in the spirit of our mind, created after God in righteousness and true holiness. All the figures of cleansing, sprinkling, washing, healing,. purging, terminate in the same thing, the new creating efficacy of Christ, the power of God. It is the power of character, feeling, a right passivity, a culminating grace of sacrifice in God.

      But how does it appear that any so great efficacy is added to the known character of God, by the life and death of Christ? Was not every thing shown us in his death explicitly revealed, or, in language, formally ascribed to God, by the writers of the Old Testament? God, I have already shown, was certainly represented there as being duly affected by all evil; that is, he was shown to be affected according to its true nature; displeased, abhorrent, hurt, afflicted, offended in purity, burdened with grief and compassion. But to have these things said, or ascribed formally to God, is one thing, and a very different to have them lived and acted historically in the world. Perfections that are set before us in mere epithets have little significance, no significance but that which we give them by thinking them out. But perfections lived, embodied physically, and acted before the senses, under social conditions, have quite another grade of meaning. How much then does it signify when God comes out from nature, out of all abstractions and abstractive epithets, to be acted personally in just those glorious and divine passivities that we have least discerned in him and scarcely dare impute to him. By what other method can he meet us then, so entirely new and superior to all past revelations, as to come into our world-history in the human form; that organ most eloquent in its passivity, because it is, at once, most expressive and closest to our feeling.

      And if this be true respecting God's mere passivities of sensibility to right and wrong, how much truer is it, when we speak of him in sacrifice. No su6h impression, or conception of God was ever drawn out, as a truth positive, from any of the epithets we have cited. And what we call nature gives it no complexion of evidence. Nature represents inexorable force, a God omnipotent, self-centered, majestic, infinite and, as almost any one will judge, impassible. Such are the impressions it gives and it encourages no other. We could almost as soon look for sacrifice in a steam-engine as in nature. The only hint of possible relaxation we get from it is that which we borrow from the delay of punishment; for this one thing is clear, that justice here is not done, and therefore we may guess that other ideas enter into God's plans. So strongly opposite, therefore, is nature to any conception of flexibility in God, that we are continually put away from Christianity by its suggestions. So closely holden are we by its power, that God, as in sacrifice, appears to be quite inconceivable to many of us, even though we look on the passion of the Lord Jesus itself.

      To know him thus, we therefore need the more. If the Old Testament gives us only verbal epithets concerning God, and nature sets us off from the conception of any real passivity in these, how necessary, original, powerful, is the God of sacrifice, he that endures evil and takes it as a burden to bear, when we see him struggling under the load. And if still we can not believe, if we reduce our God in speculation still to a dry, unmoving, negative perfection, which escapes suffering by feeling nothing as it is, only the more wonderful is the power that can be a power so great upon us, when obstructed by such unbelief. Still the fact is fact-the Christ has lived, his great and mighty passion has entered into the world, and we do get impressions from it, even when we are shutting its most central truth away. Somewhere still there is, (how often do we say it) a wondrous power hid in the cross! It penetrates our deepest nature; and when our notional wisdoms are, at some time, left behind, when we are merely holding the historic fact in practical trust unexplained, nothing meets our feeling so well as to call it the great mystery of godliness. We do it because we feel a somewhat in it more than we can reason out of it; because it penetrates and works in our deepest nature, with a wondrous incomprehensible efficacy.

      But in all this we are supposing that Christ suffered and that he is indeed the incarnate Word of God's eternity-God manifest in the flesh. And the suffering is, by the supposition, physical-a suffering under force. If then God is in his very nature physically impassible, as we have said, how does it appear that he is any way expressed in the passion of Christ, how does the passion present him as in sacrifice? Ah, that is a difficulty! I confess, in all humility, that I can not reason it. I can only so far answer as to make out a case for faith, unobstructed by the veto of reason.

      And, first of all, it is not asserted, when we assert the physical impassibility of God, that he can not suffer by consent, or self-subjection, but only that he can not be subjected involuntarily. We know nothing of the liberty possessed by the divine nature, to exist under assumed conditions, whenever there are any sufficient reasons for so doing. To deny that God has such kind of liberty in the Word, might even be a greater infringement of his power, than to maintain his natural passibility.

      In the next place, we can clearly enough see that there is no difficulty in the passion of Christ which does not also exist in the incarnation itself. It is indeed the incarnation, or one of the included incidents. And the incarnation is, by the supposition, a fact abnormal, inconceivable, speculatively impossible. How can the infinite being, God, exist under finite conditions; how can the All-Present be localized; how (for that is only another form of the same question) can the impassible suffer? And yet it would be a most severe assumption to say that God can not, to express himself and forward his negotiation with sin, subject himself, in some way mysteriously qualified, to just these impossible conditions.

      Be this all as it may, there are ways of knowing and perceiving that are shorter, and, in many things, wiser than the processes of the head. In this passion of Jesus, it must be enough that I look on the travail of a divine feeling, and behold the spectacle of God in sacrifice. This I see and nothing less. He is visibly not a man. His character is not of this world. I feel a divinity in him. He floods me with a sense of God, such as I receive not from all God's works and worlds beside. And when I stand by his cross, when I look on that strong passion and shudder with the shuddering earth, and darken with the darkening sun, enough that I can say-My Lord and my God! I ask no sanction of the head. I want no logical endorsement. Enough that I can see the heart of God, and, in all this wondrous passion, know him as enduring the contradiction of sinners. No matter if I can not reason the mystery; no matter if the whole transaction is a doing of the impossible, when so plainly the impossible is done when I have the irresistible verdict in me, self-pronounced! Why should I debate the matter in my head, when I have the God of sacrifice in my heart? I will give up my sins. He that endures me so, subdues me, and I yield. O thou Lamb of God that takest away the sin of the world, what thou bearest in thy blessed hands and feet, I can not bear; take it all away. Hide me in the depths of thy suffering love, mold me to the image of thy divine passion!

      Here now, my friends, and at this point I close; here let us learn to conceive more fitly the greatness of God. His greatness culminates in sacrifice. He is great, because there is, a moral passivity so great in his perfections. All which the cross of Jesus signifies was central, eternally, in his majestic character. Nothing superlative is here displayed, nothing is done which adds so much as a trace to God's personal glories. All that is done is simply to express, or produce in real evidence, what his glories were from eternity. All that is discovered to us in the passion was in him from eternity. The cross was the crown of his perfection before the worlds were made. He was such a being as could feel toward evil and good according to what they are; such a being, too, as could suffer an enemy, endure his wrong in royal magnanimity, and subdue him by his patience. O, if he were only wise, omnipotent, a great architect piling immensity full of his works, fixed in his eternity, strong in his justice, firm in his decrees, that were doubtless something; even that would present him as an object worthy of profoundest reverence; but in the passion of Jesus he is more. There his power is force; here it is sacrifice. There he creates by his fiat; here he new-creates by the revelation of sacrifice. There he astonishes the eye; here he touches and transforms the heart. Is it wrong to say that here is the summit of his greatness? Were he, then, the mere ideal that figures in our new literature, some great no-person, some vast To Pan sleeping back of the stars; some clear fluid of impersonal reason, in which both we and the stars are floating, having neither will nor feeling; a form of stolidity made infinite; would he be a greater being, more admirable, warmer to our love, and worthier to be had in reverence? O, these great passibilities! this sorrowing love this enduring patience that bears the sins of the world! He that groans in the agony, he that thirsts on the cross, this is the real and true,-the Lord he is the God the Lord he is the God! The God of mere amplitude will do to amuse the fancy of the ingenious; the God of sacrifice only can approve himself to a sinner.

      And here it is that our gospel comes to be so great a power. It is not, on one hand, the power of omnipotence, or of a naked, ictic force, falling in secretly regenerative blows, like a slung shot in the night. Neither is it, on the other hand, any mere appeal of gratitude, or newly impressed obligation, drawing the soul to God by the consideration of what he has done, in the cross, to purchase a free remission. Bonds of gratitude, alas! have never been so great a power on human souls. And how does it appear that any such bond has been even admitted, when as yet the remission itself is rejected and the want of it unfelt? No! this power, this wonderful power! is God in sacrifice. It is measured and expressed and incorporated in the historic life of the world as a power new-creative in the passion of Jesus, the incarnate Word of God; for it is here that God pours out into the world's bosom his otherwise transcendent perfections, and opens, even to sight, the otherwise inaccessible glories of his love, It is even the official work, therefore, and mission of the Holy Spirit to be Christ in men, taking the things of Christ's passion and showing them unto men's hearts; for Christ, himself is, in his sacrifice, the mighty power of God. This is the power that has new-created and sent home, as trophies, in all the past ages, its uncounted myriads of believing, new-created, glorified souls; the power that established, propagates, perpetuates, a kingdom; the power that has tamed how much of enmity, dissolved how many times the rock of obstinacy, cleansed, purified, restored to heaven's order, comforted in heaven's peace how many guilty, otherwise despairing souls. It can do for you, O sinner of mankind! all that you want done. It can regenerate your habits, settle your disorders, glorify your baseness, and assimilate you perfectly to God. This it will do for you. Go to the cross, and meet there God in sacrifice. Behold him, as Jesus, bearing your sin, receiving the shafts of your enmity! Embrace Him, believe in Him, take Him to your inmost heart. Do this, and you shall feel sin die within you, and a glorious quickening, Christ the power of God, Christ in you the hope of glory, shall be consciously risen upon you, as the morn of your new creation.

      And you, my brethren that have known this dawning of the Lord-what a certification have you, in this sacrifice, of God's sympathy. How intensely personal is he to you. Go to him in your every trouble. Go to him most confidently in all the troubles of your inward shame, and the struggles even of your defeated hope. When tie loads of conscious sin are heaviest on you, and you seem even to be sinking in its mires, address him as the God of sacrifice. Have it also as your lesson, that you yourself will be most in power, when readiest in the enduring of evil that you will bear fruit and be strong, not by your force not by your address, not by your words, but only when you are with Christ in sacrifice. Strange that any one who has ever once felt the power of God in Christ, should, for so much as a moment, miss or fall out of this glorious truth. It comes of that delusion of our selfishness, which is, in fact, a second nature in us,-the seeing only weakness in patience, and loss in sacrifice. But if God's own might and blessing are in it, so also are yours. Look for power, look for the fullness of joy where Christ himself reveals it. Take his cross, that same which he brought forth out of the bosom of God's eternal perfections, and go back with him in it, to be glorified with him, in the hight of his beatitude.

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