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The Christian Life by Thomas Arnold

LECTURE XXXVI. 2 CORINTHIANS v. 17, 18.

2 CORINTHIANS v.17, 18.

Old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new: and all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ.

I have, from time to time, spoken of that foolish misuse of the Scriptures, by which any one opening the volume of the Bible at random, and taking the first words which he finds, straightway applies them either to himself or to his neighbour; and then boasts that he has the word of God on his side, and that whosoever differs from him, is disputing and despising the word of God. The most extreme instances of this way of proceeding are so absurd, that they could not be noticed in this place becomingly; and these, of course, stand palpable to all, except to those who have allowed themselves to fall into them. But far short of these manifest follies, great errors have been maintained on general points, and great mistakes, whether of over presumption or of over fear, have been committed as to men's particular state, by quoting Scripture unadvisedly; by taking hold of its words to the neglect or actual violation of its spirit and real meaning. This is a great and a very common mischief, but yet there is a truth at the bottom of the error; it is true, that the greatest questions relating to God and to ourselves, may find their answer in the Scriptures; it is true, that if we search for this answer wisely we may surely find it.

Consider the words of the text, and see how easily they may be perverted, if with no more ado we take them, as said of ourselves, each individually, and as containing to each of us a statement positive of truth. |Old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.| If we believe that this is God's word respecting each of us, what violence must we do to our memory of the past, and our consciousness of the present, if we do try to persuade ourselves that so total a change has taken place in each of us, that what we once were, we are no longer; that what we are, we once were not; and this not in some few particular points, but in the main character of our minds. Again, |All things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ.| If we apply these words to each of us, what exceeding presumption would they breed! If all things in us and about us are now of God, what room can there be for sin? If God hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, what room can there be for fear or for danger? And thus, while we say we are quoting and believing the word of God, we do in fact turn it into a lie; we make it assert a falsehood as to our past state, and a falsehood as to our future state; we make it say, that our old nature is passed away, when it is not; that we have got a new nature when we have not; that we are reconciled to God, and therefore in safety, when we are, in fact, in the extremest danger.

But it is easy to see that we have no right to apply to ourselves words written by St. Paul eighteen hundred years ago, and applied by him to other persons. I go, then, farther; and I say, that if every member of the church of Corinth, to which they were written, had applied them to himself in the manner which I have shown above, the words would in many instances have been perverted no less, and would have been made to state what was false, and not what was true. And the same may be said of many other passages of St. Paul's Epistles, which, having been similarly misinterpreted, have furnished matter for endless controversies, and on which opposite theories of doctrine have been fondly raised, each of them alike unchristian and untrue.

Thus our present position is this: -- that oftentimes by taking the representations of Scripture as true in fact, whether of ourselves or of others, we come to conclusions at once false and mischievous; being, as the case may be, either presumptuous, or fearful, or uncharitable, and claiming for each of these faults the sanction of the word of God.

A similar mistake in interpreting human compositions, has led to faults of another kind. Assuming as before, in interpreting St. Paul's words, that the language of our Liturgy is meant to describe, as a matter of fact, the actual feelings and condition of those who use it, or for whom it is used; and seeing manifestly that these feelings and condition do not agree with the words; we do not here, as with the Scripture, do violence to our common sense and conscience, by insisting upon it that we agree with the words, but we find fault with the words as being at variance with the matter of fact. Some say that the language of the General Confession is too strong a statement of sin; that the language of the Communion Service, of the Baptismal Service, and above all, of the Burial Service, is too full of encouragement and of assurance; that men are not all so bad as to require the one, 'nor so good as to deserve the other; that in both cases it should be lowered, to agree with the actual condition of those who use it.

Now it is worthy of notice, at any rate, that the self-same rule of interpretation applied to the Scripture and the Liturgy is found to suit with neither. We adhere positively to our rule: and thus, as we hold the words of Scripture sacred, we force common sense and conscience to make the facts agree with them; but not having the same respect for the words of the Liturgy, we complain of them as faulty and requiring alteration, because they do not agree with the facts.

I will not enter into the question whether the Liturgy has done wisely or not in thus imitating the Scripture; but I do contend that, in point of fact, there is this resemblance between them. St. Paul's Epistles, in particular, although it is true of other parts of the Scripture also, contain, as does the Liturgy of our Church, a great many passages which, if taken either universally or even generally as containing a matter of fact, will lead us into certain error. Is it, therefore, so very certain that we do wisely in so interpreting them?

With regard to our Liturgy I need not follow up the question now; but with regard to St. Paul, it is certain that he, in many parts of his Epistles, chooses to represent that which ought to be as that which actually was: he chooses to regard those to whom he is writing as being in all respects true Christians, as being worthy of their privileges, as answering to what God had done to them, as forming a church really inhabited by the Holy Spirit, and therefore being a true and living body of due proportions to Christ its Divine head. Nor does he trust exclusively to the common sense and conscience of those to whom he was writing to interpret his language correctly. He might Lave thought indeed that if he wrote to them as redeemed, justified, sanctified, as having all things new, as being the children of God, and the heirs of God, and the temples of the Holy Ghost, any individual who felt that he was none of these things, that sin was still mighty within him, and that he was sin's slave, would neither deny his own conscience, nor yet call St. Paul a deceiver; but would read in the difference between St. Paul's description of him and the reality, the exact measure of his own sin, and need of repentance and watchfulness. But he does not rely on this only: he notices sins as actually existing; he mingles the language of reproof and of anxiety, so as to make it quite clear that he did not mean his descriptions of their holiness and blessedness to apply to them all necessarily; he knew full well that they did not: but yet he knew also that, considering what God had done for them, it was monstrous that they should not be truly applicable.

But why then, you will say, did he use such language? why did he call men forgiven, redeemed, saved, justified, sanctified? -- he uses all these terms often as applicable generally to those to whom he was writing; -- why did he call them so, when in fact they were not so? He called them so for the same reason which, made prophecy foretell blessings upon Israel of old, and on the Christian church afterwards, which were fulfilled on neither: -- in order to declare, and keep ever before us, what God has done and is willing to do for us: what he fain would do for us, if we would but suffer him; what divine powers are offered to us, and we will not use them; what divine happiness is designed for us, and we will not enter into it. Let us ponder all the magnificence of the scriptural language, -- the words of the text for example, not as describing what we are when we are full of sin; nor yet as mere exaggerated language, which must be brought down to the level of our present reality. Let us consider it as containing the words of truth and soberness; not one jot or one tittle needs to be abated; it must not be lowered to us, but we rather raised to it. It is a truth, it is the word of God, it is the seal of our assurance: it is that which good men of old would have welcomed with the deepest joy; which, to good men now is a source of comfort unspeakable. For it tells us that God has done for us, is doing, will do, all that we need; it tells us that the price of our redemption has been paid, the kingdom of heaven has been set open, the power to walk as God's children has been given: that so far as God is concerned we are redeemed, we are saved, we are sanctified; it is but our own fault merely that we are not all of these actually and surely.

This is not a little matter to be persuaded of; if it be true, as I fear it is, that too many of us do not love God, is it not quite as true that we cannot believe that God loves us? Have we any thing like a distinct sense of the words of St. John, |We love God because he first loved us?| We believe in the love of our earthly friends; those who have so lately left their homes have no manner of doubt that their parents are interested in their welfare, though absent; that they will often think of them; and that, as far as it is possible at a distance from them, they are watching over their good, and anxious to promote it. The very name home implies all this; it implies that it is a place where those live who love us; and I do not question that the consciousness of possessing this love does, amidst all your faults and forgetfulnesses, rise not unfrequently within your minds, and restrain you from making yourselves altogether unworthy of it. Now, I say, that the words of the text, and hundreds of similar passages, are our assurance, if we would but believe them, that we have another home and another parent, by whom we are loved constantly and earnestly, who has done far more for us than our earthly parents can do. I grant that it is hard to believe this really; so infinite is the distance between God and us, that we cannot fancy that he cares for us; he may make laws for a world, or for a system, but what can he think or feel for us? It is, indeed, a thought absolutely overpowering to the mind; it may well seem incredible to us, judging either from our own littleness or our own forgetfulness; so hard as we find it to think enough of those to whom we are most nearly bound, how can the Most High. God think of us? But if there be any one particle of truth in Christianity, we are warranted in saying that God does love us; strange as it may seem, He, whom neither word nor thought of created being can compass; He, who made us and ten thousand worlds, loves each one of us individually; |the very hairs of our heads are all numbered.| He so loved us, that he gave his only-begotten Son to die for us; and St. Paul well asks, |He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, will he not also with him freely give us all things?|

Believe me, you could have no better charm to keep you safe through, the temptations of the coming half year, than this most true persuasion that God loves you. The oldest and the youngest of us may alike repeat to himself the blessed words, |God loves me;| |God loves me; God has redeemed me: God would dwell in my heart, that I might dwell in him: God has placed me in his church, has made me a member of Christ his own Son, has made me an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.| I might multiply words, but that one little sentence is, perhaps, more than all, |God loves me.| Oh that you would believe him when he assures you of it, for then surely you would not fail to love him. But whether you believe it or not, still it is so: God loves every one of us; he loves each one of us as belonging to Christ his Son. He does love each, of us; let us not cast his love away from us, and refuse to love him in return; he does love each of us now, but there may be a time to each of us, -- there will be, assuredly, if we will not believe that he loves us, when he will love us no more for ever.

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