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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : LECTURE I. GENESIS iii. 22.

The Christian Life by Thomas Arnold

LECTURE I. GENESIS iii. 22.

GENESIS iii.22.

And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil.

This is declared to be man's condition after the Fall. I will not attempt to penetrate into that which is not to be entered into, nor to pretend to discover all that may be concealed beneath the outward, and in many points clearly parabolical, form of the account of man's temptation and sin. But that condition to which his sin brought him is our condition; with that, undoubtedly, we are concerned; that must be the foundation of all sound views of human nature; the double fact employed in the word fall is of the last importance; the fact on the one hand of our present nature being evil, the fact on the other hand that this present nature is not our proper nature; that the whole business of our lives is to cast it off, and to return to that better and holy nature, which, in truth, although not in fact, is the proper nature of man.

All individual experience, then, and all history begins in something which is evil; all our course, whether as individuals or as nations, is a progress, an advance, a leaving behind us something bad, and a going forwards towards something that is good. But individual experience, and history apart from Christianity, would make us regard this progress as fearfully uncertain. Clear it is that we are in an evil case; we have lost our way; we are like men who are bewildered in those endless forests of reeds which line some of the great American rivers; if we stay where we are, the venomous snakes may destroy us; or the deadly marsh air when night comes on will be surely fatal; it is death to remain, but yet if we move, we know not what way will lead us out, and it may be that, while seeming to advance, we shall but be going round and round, and shall at last find ourselves hard by the place from which we set out in the beginning. Nay, we may even feel a doubt, -- a doubt, I say, though not a reasonable belief, -- but a doubt which at times would press us sorely, whether the tangled thicket in which we are placed has any end at all; whether our fond notions of a clear and open space, a pure air, and a fruitful and habitable country, are not altogether merely imaginary; whether the whole world be not such a region of death as the spot in which we are actually prisoned; whether there remains any thing for us, but to curse our fate, and lie down and die. Under such circumstances, although we should admire the spirit which hoped against hope; which would make an effort for deliverance; which would, at any rate, flee from the actual evil, although, other evil might receive him after all his struggles; yet we could forgive those who yielded at once to their fate, and who sat down quietly to wait for their death, without the unavailing labour of a struggle to avoid it.

But when the declaration has been made to us by God himself, that this dismal swamp in which we are prisoners is but an infinitely small portion of his universe, that there do exist all those goodly forms which we fancied; and more, when God declares too that we were in the first instance designed to enjoy them; that our error brought us into the thicket, having been once out of it; that we may escape from it again; nay, much more still, when He shows us the true path to escape, and tells us, that the obstacles in our way have been cleared, and that he will give us strength to accomplish, the task of escaping, and will guide us that we do not miss the track; then what shall we say to those who insist upon, remaining where they are, but that they are either infatuated, or indolent and cowardly even to insanity; that they are refusing certain salvation, and are, by their own act, giving themselves over to inevitable death.

This, then, is the truth taught us by the doctrine of the Fall; not so much that it is our certain destruction to remain where we are, for that our own sense and reason declare to us, if we will but listen to them; but that our present position is not that for which God designed us, and that to rest satisfied with it is not a yielding to an unavoidable necessity, but the indolently or madly shrinking from the effort which would give us certain deliverance.

Now it is a part of our present evil condition from which we must escape, that we know good and evil. We are in the world where evil exists within us, and about us; we cannot but know it. True it is, that it was our misfortune to become acquainted with it; this noisome wilderness of reeds, this reeking swamp; it would have been far happier for us, no doubt, had we never become aware of their existence. But that wish is now too late. We are in the midst of this dismal place, and the question now is, how to escape from it. We may shut our eyes, and say we will not see objects so unsightly; but what avails it, if the marsh poison finds its way by other senses, if we cannot but draw it in with our breath, and so we must die? And such is the case of those who now in this present world confound ignorance with innocence. This is a fatal mistaking of our present condition for our past; there was a time when to the human race ignorance was innocence; but now it is only folly and sin. For as I supposed that a man lost in one of those noxious swamps might shut his eyes, and so keep himself in some measure in ignorance, yet the poison would be taken in with his breath, and so he would die: even thus, whilst we would fain shut the eyes of our understanding, and would so hope to be in safety, our passions are all the time alive and active, and they catch the poison of the atmosphere around us, and we are not innocent, but foolishly wicked.

We must needs consider this carefully; for, to say nothing of wider questions of national importance, who that sees before him, as we must see it, the gradual change from childhood to boyhood, who that sees added knowledge often accompanied with added sin, can help wishing that the earlier ignorance of evil might still be continued; and fancying that knowledge is at best but a doubtful blessing?

But our path is not backwards, but onwards. Israel in the desert was hungry and thirsty, while in Egypt he had eaten bread to the full; Israel in the desert saw a wide waste of sand, or sandy rock, around him, while in Egypt he had dwelt in those green pastures and watered gardens to which the Nile had given freshness and life. But that wilderness is his appointed way to Canaan; its dreariness must be exchanged for the hills and valleys of Canaan, and must not drive him back again to the low plain of Egypt. There is a moral wilderness which lies in the early part of our Christian course; but we must not hope to escape from it but by penetrating through it to its furthest side.

Undoubtedly this place, and other similar places, which receive us when we have quitted the state of childhood, and before our characters are formed in manhood, do partake somewhat of the character of the wilderness; and it is not unnatural that many should shrink back from them in fear. We see but too often the early beauty of the character sadly marred, its simplicity gone, its confidence chilled, its tenderness hardened; where there was gentleness, we see roughness and coarseness; where there was obedience, we find murmuring, and self-will, and pride; where there was a true and blameless conversation, we find now something of falsehood, something of profaneness, something of impurity. I can well conceive what it must be to a parent to see his child return from school, for the first time, with the marks of this grievous change upon him: I can well conceive how bitterly he must regret having ever sent him to a place of so much, danger; how fondly he must look back to the days of his early innocence. And if a parent feels thus, what must be our feelings, seeing that this evil has been wrought here? Are we not as those who, when pretending to give a wholesome draught, have mixed the cup with poison? How can we go on upholding a system, the effects of which appear to be so merely mischievous?

Believe me, that such questions must and ought to present themselves to the mind of every thinking man who is concerned in the management of a school: and I do think that we could not answer them satisfactorily, that our work would absolutely be unendurable, if we did not bear in mind that our eyes should look forward, and not backward; if we did not remember that the victory of fallen man is to be sought for, not in innocence, but in tried virtue. Comparing only the state of a boy after his first half-year, or year, at school, with his earlier state as a child, and our reflections on the evil of our system would be bitter indeed; but when we compare a boy's state after his first half-year, or year, at school, with what it is afterwards; when we see the clouds again clearing off; when we find coarseness succeeded again by delicacy; hardness and selfishness again broken up, and giving place to affection and benevolence; murmuring and self-will exchanged for humility and self-denial; and the profane, or impure, or false tongue, uttering again only the words of truth and purity; and when we see that all these good things are now, by God's grace, rooted in the character; that they have been tried, and grown up amidst the trial; that the knowledge of evil has made them hate it the more, and be the more aware of it; then we can look upon our calling with patience, and even with thankfulness; we see that the wilderness has been gone through triumphantly, and that its dangers have hardened and strengthened the traveller for all his remaining pilgrimage.

For the truth is, that to the knowledge of good and evil we are born; and it must come upon us sooner or later. In the common course of things, it comes about that age with which we are here most concerned. I do not mean that there are not faults in early childhood -- we know that there are; -- but we know also that with the strength and rapid growth of boyhood there is a far greater development of these faults, and particularly far less of that submissiveness which belonged naturally to the helplessness of mere childhood. I suppose that, by an extreme care, the period of childhood might be prolonged considerably; but still it must end; and the knowledge of good and evil, in its full force, must come. I believe that this must be; I believe that no care can prevent it, and that an extreme attempt at carefulness, whilst it could not keep off the disorder, would weaken the strength, of the constitution to bear it. But yet you should never forget, and I should never forget, that although the evils of schools in some respects must be, yet, in proportion as they exceed what must be, they do become at once mischievous and guilty. And such, or even worse, is the mischief when, with the evil which must be, there is not the good which ought to be; for, remember, our condition is to know good and evil. If we know only evil, it is the condition of hell; and therefore, if schools present an unmixed experience, if there is temptation in abundance, but no support against temptation, and no examples of overcoming it; if some are losing their child's innocence, but none, or very few, are gaining a man's virtue; are we in a wholesome state then? or can we shelter ourselves under the excuse that our evil is unavoidable, that we do but afford, in a mild form, the experience which must be learned sooner or later? It is here that we must be acquitted or condemned. I can bear to see the overclouding of childish simplicity, if there is a reasonable hope that the character so clouded for a time will brighten again into Christian holiness. But if we do not see this, if innocence is exchanged only for vice, then we have not done our part, then the evil is not unavoidable, but our sin: and we may be assured, that for the souls so lost, there will be an account demanded hereafter both of us and you.

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