Magna Charta is a name very dear to the hearts of the English people. For, ever since that memorable day on which that noble instrument was extorted from King John at the point of the sword, England has been the pioneer to all the other nations of the earth in personal freedom, in public righteousness, in domestic stability, and in foreign influence and enterprise. Runnymede is a red-letter spot, and 1215 is a red-letter year, not only in the history of England, but in the history of the whole modern world. The keystone of all sound constitutional government was laid at that place on that date, and by that great bridge not England only, but after England the whole civilised world has passed over from ages of bondage and oppression and injustice into a new world of personal liberty and security, public equity and good faith, loyalty and peace. All that has since been obtained, whether on the battle-field or on the floor of Parliament, has been little more than a confirmation of Magna Charta or an authoritative comment upon Magna Charta. And if every subsequent law were to be blotted out, yet in Magna Charta the foundations would still remain of a great state and a free people. 'Here commences,' says Macaulay, 'the history of the English nation.'
Now, after the Prince of Peace had subjugated the rebellious city of Mansoul, He promulgated a proclamation and appointed a day wherein He would renew their Charter. Yea, a day wherein he would renew and enlarge their Charter, mending several faults in it, so that the yoke of Mansoul might be made yet more easy to bear. And this He did without any desire of theirs, even of His own frankness and nobleness of mind. So when He had sent for and seen their old Charter, He laid it by and said, Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away. An epitome, therefore, of that new, and better, and more firm and steady Charter take as follows: I do grant of Mine own clemency, free, full, and everlasting forgiveness of all their wrongs, injuries, and offences done against My Father, against Me, against their neighbours and themselves. I do give them also My Testament, with all that is therein contained, for their everlasting comfort and consolation. Thirdly, I do also give them a portion of the self-same grace and goodness that dwells in My Father's heart and Mine. Fourthly, I do give, grant, and bestow upon them freely, the world and all that is therein for their true good; yea, all the benefits of life and death, of things present and things to come. Free leave and full access also at all seasons to Me in My palace, there to make known all their wants to Me; and I give them, moreover, a promise that I shall hear and redress all their grievances. To them and to their right seed after them, I hereby bestow all these grants, privileges, and royal immunities. All this is but a lean epitome of what was that day laid down in letters of gold and engraven on their doors and their castle gates. And what joy, what comfort, what consolation, think you, did now possess every heart in Mansoul! The bells rang out, the minstrels played, the people danced, the captains shouted, the colours waved in the wind, and the silver trumpets sounded, till every enemy inside and outside of Mansoul was now glad to hide his head.
Our constitutional authors and commentators are wont to take Magna Charta clause by clause, and word by word, and letter by letter. They linger lovingly and proudly over every jot and tittle of that splendid instrument. And you will indulge me this Communion night of all nights of the year if I expatiate still more lovingly and proudly on that great Covenant which our Lord has sealed to us again to-day, and has written again to-day on the walls of our hearts. Moses made haste as soon as the old Charter was read over to him, and nothing shall delay us till we have feasted our eyes, and our ears, and our hearts to-night on the contents of this our new and better covenant.
1. The first article of our Magna Charta is free, full, and everlasting forgiveness of all the wrongs, injuries, and offences we have ever done against God, against our Saviour, against our neighbour, and against ourselves. The English nobles extorted their Charter from their tyrannical king with their sword at his throat, and after he had signed it, he cast himself on the ground and gnawed sticks and stones in his fury, so mad was he at the men who had so humiliated him. 'They have set four-and-twenty kings over my head,' he gnashed out. How different was it with our Charter! For when we were yet enemies it was already drawn out in our name. And after we had been subdued it would never have entered our fearful hearts to ask for such an instrument. And, even now, after we have entered into its liberty, how slow we are to believe all that is written in our great Charter, and read to us every day out of it. And who shall cast a stone at us for not easily believing all that is so written and read? It is not so easy as you would think to believe in free forgiveness for all the wrongs, injuries, and offences we have ever done. When you try to believe it about yourselves, you will find how hard it is to accept that covenant and always to keep your feet firm upon it. That the forgiveness is absolutely free is its first great difficulty. If it had cost us all we could ever do or suffer, both in this world and in the world to come, then we could have come to terms with our Prince far more easily; but that our forgiveness should be absolutely free, it is that that so staggers us. When I was a little boy I was once wandering through the streets of a large city seeing the strange sights. I had even less Latin in my head that day than I had money in my pocket. But I was hungry for knowledge and eager to see rare and wonderful things. Over the door of a public institution, containing a museum and other interesting things, I tried to read a Latin scroll. I could not make out the whole of the writing; I could only make out one word, and not even that, as the event soon showed. The word was gratia, or some modification of gratia, with some still deeper words engraven round about it. But on the strength of that one word I mounted the steps and rang the bell, and asked the porter if I could see the museum. He told me that the cost of admission was such and such. Little as it was, it was too much for me, and I came down the steps feeling that the Latin writing above the door had entirely deceived me. It has not been the last time that my bad Latin has brought me to shame and confusion of face. But Latin, or Greek, or only English, or not even English, there is no deception and no confusion here. Forgiveness is really of free grace. It costs absolutely nothing, the door is open; or, if it is not open, then knock, and it shall be opened, without money and without price.
'Free and full.' I could imagine a free forgiveness which was not also full. I could imagine a charter that would have run somehow thus: Free forgiveness and full, up to a firmly fixed limit. Free and full forgiveness for sins of ignorance and even of infirmity and frailty; for small sins and for great sins, too, up to a certain age of life and stage of guilt. Free and full forgiveness up to a certain line, and then, that black line of reprobation, as Samuel Rutherford says. Indeed, it is no imagination. I have felt oftener than once that I was at last across that black line, and gone and lost for ever. But no--
'While the lamp holds on to burn, The greatest sinner may return.'
'Free, full, and everlasting.' Pope Innocent the Third came to the rescue of King John and issued a Papal bull revoking and annulling Magna Charta. But neither king, nor pope, nor devil can revoke or annul our new Covenant. It is free, full, and everlasting. If God be for us, who can be against us? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
2. 'Free, full, and everlasting forgiveness of all the wrongs, the injuries, and the offences you have done against My Father, Me, your neighbours, and yourselves.' Now, out of all that let us fix upon this--the wrongs and the injuries we have done to our neighbours. For, as Calvin says somewhere, though our sins against the first table of the law are our worst sins, yet our sins against the second table, that is, against our neighbours, are far better for beginning a scrutiny with. So they are. For our wrongs against our neighbours, when they awaken within us at all, awaken with a terrible fury. Our wrongs against our neighbours wound, and burden, and exasperate an awakened conscience in a fearful way. We come afterwards to say, Against Thee, Thee only have I sinned! But at the first beginning of our repentances it is the wrongs we have done to our neighbours that drive us beside ourselves. What neighbour of yours, then, have you so wronged? Name him; name her. You avoid that name like poison, but it is not poison--it is life and peace. More depends on your often recollecting and often pronouncing that hateful name than you would believe. More depends upon it than your minister has ever told you. And, then, in what did you so wrong him? Name the wrong also. Give it its Bible name, its newspaper name, its brutal, vulgar, ill-mannered name. Do not be too soft, do not be too courtly with yourself. Keep your own evil name ever before you. When you hear any other man outlawed and ostracised by that same name, say to yourself: Thou, sir, art the man! Put out a secret and a painful skill upon yourself. Have times and places and ways that nobody knows anything about--not even those you have wronged; have times and places and ways they would laugh to be told of, and would not believe it; times, I say, and places and ways for bringing all those old wrongs you once did ever and ever back to mind; as often back and as keen to your mind as they come back to that other mind, which is still so full of the wrong. Even if your victim has forgiven and forgotten you, never you forget him, and never you forgive yourself when you again think of him. Welcome back every sudden and sharp recollection of your wrong-doing. And make haste at every such sudden recollection and fall down on the spot in a deeper compunction than ever before. Do that as you would be a forgiven and full-chartered soul. For, free and full and everlasting as God's forgiveness is, you have no assurance that it is yours if you ever forget your sin, or ever forgive yourself for having done it. 'Forgive yourself,' says Augustine, 'and God will condemn you. But continually arraign and condemn yourself, and God will forgive and acquit and justify you.'
3. 'I give also My holy law and testament, and all that therein is contained, for their everlasting comfort and consolation.' This is not the manner of men, O my God. Kind-hearted men comfort and console those who have suffered injuries and wrongs at our hands, but the kindest-hearted of men harden their hearts and set their faces like a flint against us who have done the wrong. All Syria sympathised with Esau for the loss of his birthright, but I do not read that any one came to whisper one kind word to Jacob on his hard pillow. All the army mourned over Uriah, but all the time David's moisture was dried up like the drought of summer, and not even Nathan came to the King till he could not help coming. All Jericho cried, Avenge us of our adversary! But it was Jesus who looked up and saw Zaccheus and said: Zaccheus, come down; make haste and come down, for to-day I must abide at thy house. 'The injuries they have done themselves also,' so runs the very first head of our forgiveness covenant. Ah! yes; O my Lord, Thou knowest all things; Thou knowest my heart. Thou knowest that irremediably as I have injured other men, yet in injuring them I have injured myself much more. And much as other men need restitution, reparation, and consolation on my account, my God, Thou knowest that I need all that much more--ten thousand times more. Oh, how my broken heart within me leaps up and thanks Thee for that Covenant. Let me repeat it again to Thy praise: 'Full, free, and everlasting forgiveness of all wrongs, injuries, and offences done by him against his neighbours and against himself.' Who, who is a God, O my God, who is a God like unto Thee!
4. 'I do also give them a portion of the self-same grace and goodness that dwells in My Father's heart and Mine.' The self-same grace and goodness, that is, that My Father and I have shown to them. That is to say, we shall be made both willing and able to grant to all those men who have wronged us the very same charter of forgiveness that we have had granted to us of God. So that at all those times when we stand praying for forgiveness we shall suspend that prayer till we have first forgiven all our enemies, and all who have at any time and in any way wronged or injured us. Even when we had the Communion cup at our lips to-day, you would have seen us setting it down till we had first gone and been reconciled to our brother. Yes, my brethren, you are His witnesses that He has done it. He has taken you into His covenant till He has made you both able and willing, both willing and able, to grant and to bequeath to others, all that free, full, and everlasting forgiveness and love that He has bequeathed to you. Till under the very last and supreme wrong that your worst enemy can do to you and to yours, you are able and forward to say: Father, forgive him, for he knows not what he has done. Forgive me my debts, you will say, as I forgive my debtors. And always, as you again say and do that, you will on the spot be made a partaker of the Divine Nature, according to the heavenly Charter, 'I do also give them a portion of the self-same grace and goodness that dwells in My Father's heart and in Mine.'
5. 'I do also,' so Mansoul's Magna Charta travels on, 'I do also give, grant, and bestow upon them freely the world and all that is therein for their good; yea, I grant them all the benefits of life and of death, and of things present and things to come.' What a magnificent Charter is that! 'All things are yours: whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours.' What a superb Charter! Only, it is too high for us; we cannot attain to it. Has any human being ever risen to anything like the full faith, full assurance, and full victory of all that in this life? No; the thing is impossible! Reason would fall off her throne. The heart of a man would break with too much joy if he tried to enter into the full belief of all that. No; it hath not entered into the heart of a still sinful man what God hath chartered to them whom He loves. This world, and all that therein is, and then all the coming benefits of life and of death. What benefits do believers receive from Christ at their death? We all drank in the answer to that with our mother's milk, but what is behind the words of that answer no mortal tongue can yet tell. All are yours, and ye are Christ's, and Christ is God's. Till, what joy, what comfort, what consolation, think you, did now possess the hearts of the men of Mansoul! The bells rang, the minstrels played, the people danced, the captains shouted, the colours waved in the wind, and the silver trumpets sounded.
6. 'And till the glory breaks suddenly upon you, and as long as you yet live in this life of free grace I shall give and grant you leave and free access to Me in My palace at all seasons, there to make known all your wants to Me; and I give you, moreover, a promise that I will hear and redress all your grievances.' At all seasons; in season and out of season. There to make known all your wants to Me. And all your grievances. All that still grieves and vexes you. All your wrongs. All your injuries. All that men can do to you. Let them do their worst to you. My grace is sufficient for all your grievances. My goodness in you shall make you more than a conqueror. I undertake to give you before you have asked for it a heart full of free, full, and everlasting forgiveness and forgetfulness of all that has begun to grieve you. No word or deed, written or spoken, of any man shall be able to vex or grieve the spirit that I shall put within you. You will immediately avenge yourselves of your adversaries. You will instantly repay them all an hundredfold. For, when thine enemy hungers, thou shalt feed him; when he is athirst, thou shalt give him drink. For thou shalt not be overcome of evil, but thou shalt overcome evil with good.
7. 'All these grants, privileges, and immunities I bestow upon thee; upon thee, I say, and upon thy right seed after thee.' O Almighty God, our Heavenly Father, give us such a seed! Give us a seed right with Thee! Smite us and our house with everlasting barrenness rather than that our seed should not be right with Thee. O God, give us our children. Give us our children. A second time, and by a far better birth, give us our children to be beside us in Thy holy Covenant. For it had been better we had never been born; it had been better we had never been betrothed; it had been better we had sat all our days solitary unless all our children are to be right with Thee. Let the day perish, and the night wherein it was said, There is a man-child conceived. Let that day be darkness; let not God regard it from above; neither let the light shine upon it, unless all our house is yet to be right with God. O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son! But thou, O God, art Thyself a Father, and thus hast in Thyself a Father's heart. Hear us, then, for our children, O our Father, for such of our children as are not yet right with Thee! In season and out of season; we shall not go up into our bed; we shall not give sleep to our eyes nor slumber to our eyelids till we and all our seed are right with Thee. And then how we and all our saved seed beside us shall praise Thee and bless Thee above all the families on earth or in heaven, and shall say: Unto Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and hath bestowed upon us a free, full, and everlasting forgiveness, and hath made us partakers of His Divine Nature, to Him be our love and praise and service to all eternity. Amen and Amen!
* LECTURE DELIVERED IN ST. GEORGE'S FREE CHURCH EDINBURGH