HEBREWS ix.13, 14.
For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
The three collects for Good Friday are very grand and very remarkable. In the first we pray:-
'Almighty God, we beseech thee graciously to behold this thy family, for which our Lord Jesus Christ was contented to be betrayed, and given up into the hands of wicked men, and to suffer death upon the cross, who now liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost ever one God, world without end. Amen.'
In the second we pray:-
'Almighty and everlasting God, by whose Spirit the whole body of the Church is governed and sanctified: Receive our supplications and prayers, which we offer before thee for all estates of men in thy holy Church, that every member of the same, in his vocation and ministry, may truly and godly serve thee; through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.'
In the third we pray:-
'O merciful God, who hast made all men, and hatest nothing that thou hast made, nor wouldest the death of a sinner, but rather that he should be converted and live: Have mercy upon all Jews, Turks, Infidels, and Hereticks, and take from them all ignorance, hardness of heart, and contempt of thy Word; and so fetch them home, blessed Lord, to thy flock, that they may be saved among the remnant of the true Israelites, and be made one fold under one shepherd, Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.'
Now these collects give us the keynote of Good Friday; they tell us what the Church wishes us to think of on Good Friday.
We are to think of Christ's death and passion. Of that there is no doubt.
But we need not on Good Friday, or perhaps at any other time, trouble our minds with the unfathomable questions, How did Christ's sacrifice take away our sins? How does Christ's blood purge our conscience?
Mere 'theories of the Atonement,' as they are called, have very little teaching in them, and still less comfort. Wise and good men have tried their minds upon them in all ages; they have done their best to explain Christ's sacrifice, and the atonement which he worked out on the cross on Good Friday: but it does not seem to me that they have succeeded. I never read yet any explanation which I could fully understand; which fully satisfied my conscience, or my reason either; or which seemed to me fully to agree with and explain all the texts of Scripture bearing on this great subject.
But is it possible to explain the matter? Is it not too deep for mortal man? Is it not one of the deep things of God, and of God alone, before which we must worship and believe? As for explaining or understanding it, must not that be impossible, from its very nature?
For, consider the first root and beginning of the whole question. Put it in the simplest shape, to which all Christians will agree. The Father sent the Son to die for the world. Most true: but who can explain those words? We are stopped at the very first step by an abyss. Who can tell us what is meant by the Father sending the Son? What is the relation, the connexion, between the Father and the Son? If we do not know that, we can know nothing about the matter, about the very root and ground thereof. And we do know little or nothing. The Bible only gives us scattered hints here and there. It is one of the things of which we may say, with St. Paul, that we know in part, and see through a glass darkly. How, then, dare we talk as if we knew all, as if we saw clearly? The atonement is a blessed and awful mystery hidden in God: ordained by and between God the Father and God the Son. And who can search out that? Who hath known the mind of the Lord, or who hath been his counsellor? Did we sit by, and were we taken into his counsels, when he made the world? Not we. Neither were we when he redeemed the world. He did it. Let that be enough for us. And he did it in love. Let that be enough for us.
God the Father so loved the world, that he sent his Son into the world, that the world by him might be saved. God the Son so loved the world, that he came to do his Father's will, and put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. That is enough for us. Let it be enough; and let us take simply, honestly, literally, and humbly, like little children, everything which the Bible says about it, without trying or pretending to understand, but only to believe.
We can believe that Christ's blood can purge our conscience, though we cannot explain in any words of our own how it can do so. We can believe that God made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, though we not only cannot but dare not try to explain so awful a mystery. We can believe that Christ's sacrifice on the cross was a propitiation for sin, though neither we, nor (as I hold) any man on earth, can tell exactly what the words sacrifice and propitiation mean. And so with all the texts which speak of Christ's death and passion, and that atonement for sin which he, in his boundless mercy, worked out this day. Let us not torment our minds with arguments in which there are a hundred words of man's invention to one word of Holy Scripture, while the one word of Scripture has more in it than the hundred words of man can explain. But let us have faith in Christ. I mean, let us trust him that he has done all that can or need be done; that whatsoever was needed to reconcile God to man, he has done, for he is perfect God; that whatever was needed to reconcile man to God, he has done, for he is perfect man.
Let us, instead of puzzling ourselves as to how the Lamb of God takes away the sins of the world, believe that he knows, and that he lives, and cry to him as to the living God, -- Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy on us, and take our sins away.
And let us beseech God this day, graciously to behold his family, the nations of Christendom, for which our Lord Jesus Christ was contented to be betrayed into the hands of wicked men, and suffer death upon the cross. Let us ask this, even though we do not fully understand what Christ's death on the cross did for mankind. That was the humble, childlike, really believing spirit of the early Christians. God grant us the same spirit; we need it much in these very times.
For if we are of that spirit, my friends, then, instead of tormenting our minds as to the how and why of Christ's sacrifice on the cross, we shall turn our hearts, and not merely our minds, to the practical question -- What shall we do? If Christ died for us, what shall we do? What shall we ask God to help us to do? To that the second collect gives a clear answer at once -- Serve the living God.
And how? By dead works? By mere outward forms and ceremonies, church-goings, psalm-singings, sermon-hearings? Not so. These are right and good; but they are dead works, which cannot take away sin, any more than could the gifts and sacrifices, the meats and drinks of the old Jewish law. Those, says St. Paul, could not make him that did the sacrifice perfect as pertaining to the conscience. They could not give him a clear conscience; they could not make him sure that God had forgiven him; they could not give him spirit and comfort to say -- Now I can leave the church a forgiven man, a new man, and begin a fresh life; and go about my daily business in joyfulness and peace of mind, sure that God will help me, and bless me, and enable me to serve him in my calling.
No, says St. Paul. More than dead works are wanted to purge a man's conscience. Nothing will do that but the blood of Christ. And that will do it. He, the spotless Lamb, has offered himself to God, as a full and perfect and sufficient sacrifice, offering, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world; and therefore for thy sins, whoever thou art, be thy sins many or few. Believe that; for thou art a man for whom Christ died. Claim thy share in Christ's blood. Believe that he has died for thee; that he has blotted out thy sins in the blood of his cross; that thou needest not try to blot them out by any dead works, forms, or ceremonies whatsoever; for Christ has done and suffered already all for thee. Thou art forgiven. Put away thy sins, for God has put them away; rise, and be a new man. Thou art one of God's holy Church. God has justified thee. Let him sanctify thee likewise. God's spirit is with thee to guide thee, to inspire thee, and make thee holy. Serve thy Father and thy Master, the Living God, sure that he is satisfied with thee for Christ's sake; that thou art in thy right state henceforward; in thy right place in this world; and that he blesses all thy efforts to live a right life, and to do thy duty.
But how to serve him, and where? By doing something strange and fantastic? By giving up thy business, money, time? Going to the ends of the earth? Making what some will call some great sacrifice for God?
Not so. All that may be, and generally is, the fruit of mere self- will and self-conceit. God has made a sacrifice for thee. Let that be enough. If he wants thee to make a sacrifice to him in return, he will compel thee to make it, doubt it not. But meanwhile abide in the calling wherein thou art called. Do the duty which lies nearest thee. Whether thou art squire or labourer, rich or poor; whether thy duty is to see after thy children, or to mind thy shop, do thy duty. For that is thy vocation and calling; that is the ministry in which thou canst serve God, by serving thy fellow-creatures for whom Christ died.
This day the grand prayer has gone up throughout Christ's Church -- and thou hast joined in it -- for all estates of men in his holy Church; for all estates, from kings and statesmen governing the nations, down to labouring men tilling in the field, and poor women washing and dressing their children at home, that each and all of them may do their work well, whatever it is, and thereby serve the Living God. For now their work, however humble, is God's work; Christ has bought it and redeemed it with his blood. When he redeemed human nature, he redeemed all that human nature can and ought to do, save sin. All human duties and occupations are purified by the blood of Christ's cross; and if we do our duty well, we do it to the Lord, and not to man; and the Lord blesses us therein, and will help us to fulfil our work like Christian men, by the help of his Holy Spirit.
And for those who know not Christ? For them, too, we can pray. For, for them too Christ died. They, too, belong to Christ, for he has bought them with his most precious blood. What will happen to them we know not: but this we know, that they are his sheep, lost sheep though they may be; and that we are bound to pray, that he would bring them home to his flock.
But how will he bring them back? That, again, we know not. But why need we know? If Christ knows how to do it, surely we need not. Let us trust him to do his own work in his own way.
But will he do it? My friends, if we wish for the salvation of all Jews, Turks, Infidels, and Heretics, do you suppose that we are more compassionate to them than God who made them? Who is more likely to pity the heathen? We who send a few missionaries to teach them: or God who sent his own Son to die for them?
Oh trust God, and trust Christ; for this, as for all other things. Believe that for the heathen, as for us, he is able to do exceedingly and abundantly beyond all that we can ask or think; and believe too, that if we do ask, we do not ask in vain; that this collect which has gone up every Good Friday for centuries past, from millions of holy hearts throughout the world, has not gone up unheard; that it will be answered -- we know not how -- but answered still; and that to Jew and Turk, Heathen and Heretic, this day will prove hereafter to have been, what it is to us, Good Friday.