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The Message And The Man by J. Dodd Jackson

CHAPTER I. The Note of Accusation.

In a purely heathen country the first business of the preacher must naturally be concerned with the publication of the great historical facts upon which the Christian faith is based. In such a land as ours, where these facts are already the subject of common knowledge, his first service to every soul to whom he is sent is to bring home the truth of that soul's condition and necessity. It is not a pleasant task. It is not an easy one. It forms a duty from which we instinctively shrink, but no ministry is complete in which it is neglected. No ministry that is incomplete can be effective and successful.

Now an examination of the history of preaching will reveal to us that all the great preachers have been examples of faithfulness concerning, not only the softer, but also the sterner portions of their message. Before us are the Hebrew prophets. By them was Israel arraigned at the bar of God. Could anything be more fearful than the indictment they laid? Kings, priests, councillors and commoners -- against them all was the testimony maintained. |Art thou he that troublest Israel?| asks a conscience-stricken monarch of the seer from Mount Gilead. Troublers of Israel they were, exposing, denouncing, declaring judgment against evil doers. Such was their mission. Troublers of Israel, they were sent to be.

After the prophets, when, at last, the fulness of time began to dawn, he appeared who was to be the great herald of the Redeemer. |In those days came John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, Repent ye, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.| John, too, was an accuser. Hark, how he addresses the Pharisees; how he speaks of |the axe laid at the root of the tree!| Once more did Israel hear of her rebellion and transgression. Again was the veil torn from her heart, the trappings of ceremonialism, the rags of hypocrisy. Again were men made to tremble by warning of the doom about to break. Wonderfully effective this ministry seems to have been -- |Then went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judea, and all the region round about Jordan, and were baptized of him in Jordan confessing their sins.| To the preacher came martyrdom, and that as the direct consequence of his faithfulness. It is dangerous to play the accuser at the foot of the throne, and for this, in the lone dungeon of Machaerus, the Baptist dies, but not until He whom he announced, and of whom the law and the prophets did speak, has lifted up His voice to preach to the nations and the ages. To the world came Jesus also as an accuser, and such accusations were His as men had never heard -- accusations founded upon an infinite knowledge of mankind, on an infinite hatred of sin, on a perfect vision of the end of all wrong-doing. To convince and convict the world -- for this first of all was He made flesh. Over the land His |Woe unto you| rang out as the thunder of a divine sentence, blanching the cheek and smiting the soul with shame and fear. For this testimony He died.

And after He had ascended up on high the apostles carried on this accusing work. Knowing |the terrors of the law| they persuaded men. As Paul |reasoned of righteousness, temperance and judgment to come, Felix trembled.| To him the prisoner of that memorable day spoke as the representative of outraged deity. In his voice the hardened Consul heard the echo of his own disregarded conscience, and was reminded of his |more perfect knowledge of that way| which would one day make all the deeper the blackness of his condemnation. The joints of his harness were undone.

And so in that time of beginnings was set forth for all after years on the stage of that Eastern land the pattern of Gospel preaching, and its great copyists in all subsequent generations have come forth bearing, as their first word to men, the message of accusation. |All have sinned and come short of the glory of God;| such has been their opening announcement. Sin is rebellion against God; such has been their all-embracing definition. |The soul that sinneth it shall die;| -- this |certain fearful looking for of judgment| they have held up before mankind. |Thou art the man!| has been the constant challenge of the Christian ambassador. It would be an interesting employment to journey back across the past and listen for this note as it fell from the lips of the great preachers of bygone ages. Our own Connexional fathers, however, as the figures most familiar to our minds, may remind us how faithful the pulpit used to be in the execution of this hard task. Some of us are old enough to remember as common, a phrase which now we hear only occasionally and in the out of the way corners of our Church. It was the expression |black sermon| as descriptive of a discourse in which the sterner side of the revelation was enunciated. Such sermons in those days formed part of every preacher's armoury. They were sermons of accusation; sermons about sin; sermons diagnostic of the state of the human heart. In these discourses the sinner was assailed through the gateway of his fears. The old preachers believed there was such a place as Hell, and said so, -- sometimes with a great wealth of staking, figurative language which was perhaps used less symbolically than literally. They believed in a final and general judgment in which the dead, small and great, with such as shall be then living upon the earth, will be called to stand before the Great White Throne to give an account of the deeds done in the body. Clearly did they see this coming day and clearly did they proclaim that at any time its terrors may break upon a careless and prayerless world. Some of them gained celebrity by the vigour and colour of their descriptions. In the North of England they still speak of the sermon with which Joseph Spoor transported multitudes into the circumstances of that awful hour. Hugh Bourne, it is well known, gave himself to this kind of preaching to a degree which has made his name the more to be remembered on its account. His language was literal indeed! To our mind, at the moment of writing, returns something of the emotion with which in the days of boyhood we listened to a sermon on |The Pale Horse and his Rider| from a local preacher not long since passed to his reward. Another discourse on |The Swellings of Jordan| has been with us vividly, though forty years have flown since we heard it in a tiny chapel among the Northern hills. We can remember, too, an expression now used no more, but which we have often heard as part of the final appeal with which such sermons were wont to close. |My friends,| the preacher would say, |I have cleared myself this day of your blood.| Sometimes this declaration would be followed by a challenge in which the ungodly of the congregation were called to meet the preacher, |on that day when the books shall be opened and the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed,| there and then to bear witness of his guiltlessness as to their damnation. It was very terrible, no doubt, very harrowing, and often as unpleasant to listen to as to utter, but such preaching was justified by its results. Many a sinner trembled as his heart was opened before him. Many a strong man broke into cries and tears as he saw himself a rebel against divine justice and mercy. Many an one smote upon his breast in terror as the veil of the future was lifted, and he saw himself standing guilty before the last tribunal, and praying for the mountains to fall and hide him from the eyes of an angry God. In our time, however, such preaching has become a tradition. It might be centuries since it was a fashion in the land, for hardly does its echo reach our ears to-day. And concerning this fact there emerges a curious thing. Confessedly the effect of such preaching was often the offending of the hearer. It has ever been so -- was so, as we have seen, with the prophets; the apostles; the Lord Himself -- and yet there is complaint when accusation and warning are withheld, and that, strangely, from the very people who would probably protest the most against it. It is said, even by these very people, that nowadays the preacher does not hurt; that he fails to find the conscience. The fact is, there exists in the heart of man an instinctive expectation that the messenger of God will do these things. It is one of the criticisms of to-day that sternness has died out of theology. The preacher is no longer the representative of a judge; no longer in God's stead the accuser of men. In every age the Church displays favouritism in her doctrinal attachments. In our time it is the doctrine of the divine Fatherhood of which the most is heard. This were well if the whole truth were told; but what manner of fatherhood is that of which we all too often hear? A fatherhood of colossal good nature, of blind, of foolish, indulgence; a conception of paternal wisdom and affection against which the conscience of the thoughtful instinctively revolts. The man in the street is not satisfied, and never will be satisfied, with a merely sentimental God. Some day, perhaps, it may be discovered that he is outside the churches, not because preaching, asking too much, has made him afraid, but because preaching, asking too little, has left him contemptuous.

And how has the change come to pass? Some say that the lack of the hour is a sense of sin. This sense, they tell us, has been lost as a result of our theorising about the origin of moral evil. There are some, indeed, who talk as if the tragedy of sin was not really a tragedy at all, but actually a blessing in disguise. We have been assured that the only hope for humanity lay in a moral fall which had to come to pass that the race might achieve its destiny through its experience of what is only called |wrong-doing,| and of the suffering resulting from it. Only by this rugged and shadowed road, so are we informed, can we ever come to perfection and reach the golden age for which our hearts are sighing. Others see in sin a proof that man is struggling to be better. They regard his transgression as a hopeful symptom of divine discontent. Many do see tragedy in it all, but the blame lies otherwhere than with the transgressor. Sin grows less terrible, but more hopeless, as they talk about heredity, as they transfer the responsibility from the criminal to his circumstances, his education, the conditions of his life or the state of society. Not a sentence of punishment but a vote of sympathy should crime evoke if all that is said along such lines be true.

But not in any one of these things, nor in all of them put together, lies the whole reason of our modern tenderness in dealing with sin. Even preaching has its fashions, and he is a bold man who dares to disregard the prevailing mode. The convention of the time may decide that it is not quite |the correct thing| to lay too much emphasis on the harder teaching of the Christian belief. Whether unpopular with the people or not, this teaching may be unpopular with the preachers. We do not speak of these unpleasant things, for why be singular in direful prophecy? Of some preachers, to summarise, we will say that their need is a recovery of the sense of sin; of others that a deepened consciousness of every man's power to triumph over his inherited tendencies, his circumstances, his training and the temptations of his age, must precede the return of success. To others we would venture a reminder that the preacher might, perhaps, be all the better for a little more personal independence, and for the realisation that he is not responsible only to men for the manner in which his work is done, but to Him who sent him out to preach the whole message of His heart. The thing for the preacher to do is to learn the truth and tell it, even though it be bitter to the hearer and bitterer to himself; even though it make short work of social respectability and conventional religiosity, bringing the blush of shame to the cheek and setting the pulses throbbing with the fear of the lightnings of God.

Faithfulness, then, is essential to the completeness of the message -- faithfulness as to the true condition of the soul and its position in the sight of God. As Samuel stood before Saul in that fateful hour when the king, having disobeyed the commandments of the Lord, had brought of the sheep and of the oxen which he should have utterly destroyed; as the prophets, the apostles, the Master alike lifted up their witness against a corrupt and stiff-necked people, so the preacher of to-day must bear his testimony against the sins of men; must pronounce the penalties of ungodliness. A revelation of the transgression of the individual, of the lost state of every soul out of Christ, are part of the Word received from Him who sent him. This declaration must not concern the individual alone. To the age, also, he has a message of kindred truth. The pulpit is erected as a witness against the generations as they come and go. It is by the preacher that Jesus Christ speaks to successive centuries. He is the true oracle of God. Against the carelessness, the covetousness, the debauchery and corruption of the nations, God would speak through him. Against the oppression of the poor, the robbery of the widow, the exploitation of the savage; against the crimes of the empires, the Almighty, through his lips, would make His anger known. He has done so often and often. Again and again has the preacher turned back the tides of national iniquity, again and again prevented the wrongful purpose upon which a people had set its heart. The need is with us still. This warning and accusing note of sternness must be regained. To tell men of their sins and that they are lost unless God delivers them; to tell the age of its iniquities and that the sure end of national vice is national destruction -- here is our work to-day.

So there needs something in the nature of a reversion to the methods of days that are no more. Yet a full return to the mode of our fathers is impossible. Let this be acknowledged frankly and fully and at once. Those |black sermons| to which we listened forty years ago can never be preached again. The day has gone, at least within the area of civilisation, for painting flaming pictures of hell, for realistic and horrible descriptions of the tortures of the damned. That kind of thing has had its day and can be done no more. Preachers could not do it; hearers would not hear it. The misfortune has been that the passing of our fathers' methods has not been followed by the discovery of others in which the truth they conveyed could be expressed in forms more suitable to different times. Even the man outside the Church has left behind him the literal understanding of those old figures of speech. Few now think of heaven as our grandsires thought of it; few imagine hell as they imagined it. Yet is there still a heaven; yet is there still a hell.

And, hard as it is to write it, it is to the preaching of hell that we must return -- the hell of degradation and of loss and of sure retribution. That hell is the latter state to which every path of wrong-doing leads with the inevitability of eternal law. Sin is hell in the making. Hell is sin found out, perhaps, alas, too late. This word is needed in our churches this very day.

It is needed, it was recently suggested to us, especially by our young people. With good reason the churches are all anxious as to the young people, so many of whom, alas! show a disposition to leave the temples of their fathers. It cannot be said that the Church has not done her best along certain lines to keep the coming generation at home. Older men and women have been heard to murmur that too much has been done for the young person's sake, too many things sacrificed. Religion has been made very easy -- too easy, it is said. Unpleasant demands have been kept, it is suggested, too much in the background. We all know parents who confess that their children are permitted to do things at home of which they, the parents, disapprove, lest they should go elsewhere and do worse. It is alleged that the same thing often happens in the Church for the same reason. Ah! you must be careful what you say lest you offend the young! This is an indulgent, a good-natured, a compromising time. Behind this solicitude the best reasons lie, but is there no danger to these young people in all this amiability? Is it quite impossible for a young man to be put in peril by our very anxiety to save him?

Yes, there is such a possibility. It arises when we shrink from that plainness of speech which is, after all, friendship's best service. Is it not better to offend, even to wound deeply, than to speak only the smoother things, however kindly the intent, and, so speaking, fail to produce that great renunciation, that strengthening of bands, that strong grasp of the Eternal which alone mean safety in future years? We know that the whole question is encompassed with difficulties. It is hard to write it, but the best friends of the young are not always those preachers who are most tender concerning their feelings.

And not for the sake of the young only is this note of sternness needed. It may be recalled that, some time ago, the columns of a well-known religious weekly contained a discussion as to which are morally the most perilous years of a man's life. The conclusion reached therein was startling, but bore the test of reflection. We have generally assumed that |the dangerous years| are those of early manhood, the years that lie between leaving school and marriage. In those years the youth has probably left the Sunday School behind him, probably hangs only loosely to the Church. He feels the vigour of his young manhood stirring within him. He is drinking his first draughts of the wine of life. Restraints are being relaxed and companionships are being formed, while there is a sense of freedom almost intoxicating in its exhilaration. These are the days that we have commonly described as the most perilous of life.

Probably, however, we have been wrong in this conclusion. In the discussion referred to it was contended, perhaps established, that the period of greatest moral and spiritual danger lies a score or more years further along the road. From forty to fifty, and nearer fifty than forty, was maintained to be the fateful age. Youth has innocence, ambition, enthusiasm, ideals. Youth has generous impulses, has not yet been soured by disappointments, has not yet found out the cynicism of the world, has not become infected by the canker of covetousness. It has made no enemies, is not corrupted by success, is not daunted by failure. A score of years later some or all of these things will have happened to a man. Harder has become the world, fiercer the battle in which he is engaged, lower burn the fires of life; enthusiasm has faded as grey hairs have come. These are the perilous years.

There is one thing the preacher must never forget: -- That the men and women before him go in constant peril from temptation. Not of the avowedly non-Christian only is this true, but of all. Yonder man, known for his respectability, his regular attendance at the sanctuary, falters, perhaps, this very day on the crumbling edge of a moral precipice. Ever and anon some one is missed from the means of grace. Where is he? Hush! Tell it softly and with tears. He has fallen who but recently bade so fairly to carry his cross to the summit of the hill. Can it be that he fell because in the House of Prayer no voice warned him? Can it be that he has committed the greater sin because no reproof was whispered in his ear concerning the beginnings of transgression? Was there no message committed to the preacher for that man as he drew near the parting of the ways? Did the messenger suppress the truth because it was hard to utter?

What, then, is it that is asked? Not, of course, a ministry of continual denunciation, of constant reproach, of endless accusation -- not that, but a ministry in which the witness shall be not one-sided but complete. Let us hear, if you please, of the sweeter things; tell us again, and again, of that divine Fatherhood in which must be our final trust; whisper in our cars of the gentleness of God and the infinite tenderness of His Son; but tell us all, for so wayward are we, so presumptuous, so prone to go astray that we need to hear of chastisement as well as mercy. We must be reminded that |the way of transgressors is hard| as well as of the blessing that the Lord has in His heart for us.

To the preacher, then, we would say: -- Here is a task which must not be neglected however hard it be. The word should be a hammer to break, a sword to pierce, an arrow in the heart. Here is something for us all to do: -- To cultivate the arts of the counsel for the prosecution. In the exercise of those arts all our knowledge of human nature, all possible learning in the word will be needed to their very last syllable. It is not true that any one is qualified to wave the lamp that shall reveal the pitfall in the path of the over-confident disciple. He must be a wise physician who has to diagnose the sickness of the soul. He must be a lawyer learned in the law who has to explain the position of the rebel before his flouted Sovereign. He must have larger skill than most who has to bring home the broken will of God to the soul. A reflection, more important still, has yet to be suggested. For this work the preacher will need to be a man of holiness, for, though he speak to his brother only as a fellow-sinner saved by Grace, he must speak as one who has escaped from bonds. Thus comes character into the business. |Woe is me,| said the prophet, called to witness against the transgression of Judah, |for I am a man of unclean lips.| Only by prayer, by the cleansing of the fountain, by sustaining grace shall we be sufficient for these things. For this manner of preaching one man alone can ascend into the hill of the Lord: -- |He that hath clean hands and a pure heart, and hath not lifted up himself unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully.|

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