The Seat and Source of Authority in Religion
Jeremiah 10:23
O LORD, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walks to direct his steps.

We cannot but admire the marvellous precision with which instinct works. The lower animals make no progress, because their work, as the fruit of unerring instinct, is perfect. Their wants are few and limited, and they are endowed with the power perfectly to satisfy those wants. But that is what is here denied as belonging to man. With the greatest wants of any creature, he has the fewest instincts; and therefore at the beginning of his existence he is the most dependent of all creatures. Made to think, he is made to go out of himself, to separate himself from all his surroundings, to know himself as a lonely, isolated individual, and to rise above himself to the eternal source of all existence. As so constituted, he cannot find the way of his life within himself. His way is like that of a ship as it crosses the sea. The chart and compass are there, and the captain too, with his intelligence to regulate the whole; and yet it cannot be said that her way is within herself, or that she has within herself all that is needful to direct her over the billows; for, not to speak of the winds of the free heavens required to fill the sails, there are two points without the vessel, above and beyond her altogether, by which her course is absolutely determined. These are the pole star and the destination of the ship: a point in the high heavens, and a point on the other side of the sea. By those two points is her course determined across the dark and treacherous deep. The mariner has to be looking out of himself continually in two directions. His eye has to be now looking at the heavens, and anon to be sweeping the horizon. And so it is with man. He has the chart of conscience and the compass of reason; but these have no meaning at all, save as they imply that which is above and beyond man himself, even the revealed will of God — that word that is settled as a pole star in the heavens; and the true destination of man as a voyager across the sea of time to the eternal shore. Suppose, for a moment, that you have a ship at sea, but there are no clear heavens above it, and no definite destination before it. What a strange and anomalous thing it would be, blown about by every wind, without meaning or purpose, and certain to founder at last! Now that is what the life of every man is, who has no belief in a God above him, and an eternity before him. There are millions of men in that condition today. But there are others who have found both of these in Christ. He is above them, and He is before them. He is that One, therefore, by whom their whole course is fixed — their pole star, and their eternal haven.


1. The authority of Nature. Wherever we have law we have authority — a something that either enforces itself, and is obeyed by us in spite of ourselves; or a something that ought to be obeyed, whether we obey it or not. The laws of Nature are so many principles that for the most part enforce themselves. We have the power to violate them, but they enforce themselves not the less. The law breaker does not break the law in the way of setting it aside, or of rendering it non-effective. Strictly speaking, he only breaks himself; as when, ignoring the law of gravitation, he steps over the brink of a precipice. The laws of Nature are universal. They determine the circulation of the planets and the circulation of the blood. They form a constellation and they shape a tear. They are uniform in their operation. The same causes, in like circumstances, are always producing the same results. The laws of health are those we are bound to respect if we would prolong our days upon the earth as far as possible. Now, there is clearly an authority here of a certain external character.

2. The authority of conscience. If now we turn away from that outer authority, and consider what we ourselves are, as having a nature of our own, we find that we are not merely creatures of sensation, capable of bodily pain and pleasure, but that we have a moral nature, capable of feelings of another kind; emotions of joy and sorrow, satisfaction and chagrin, self-approbation and shame, springing out of perceptions of moral good and evil, right and wrong, a something that ought to have been done, and a something that ought not to be done. Who can deny that there is a form of authority here, stamped upon our very being; and that there are laws and rules of moral conduct, which no time can change, to which the most earnest and thoughtful are keenly alive, and to which only the most degraded are insensible.

3. The real authority is not in the impersonal whole of nature without us, which, as impersonal, is inferior to ourselves; nor is it in the conscience within us, which may be very dimly sensible as to what right and wrong really are, but it is in the God above us, of Whose will all that is good in nature and man is the expression; and of whose word, the ideal man, Jesus Christ, is the one realised embodiment. As the eye is made for the light, so is the conscience made for God. A conscience without God is an eye in darkness, or a function without its legitimate object. Man's life attains to perfection, as it consciously approximates to God, and it moves in its legitimate orbit, as the centre of its gravity is in Christ.


1. The authority of the Bible. This is derived from Him. The method is an entirely mistaken one that begins by searching out all the seeming contradictions, and arguing from these as to the worth of the book as a whole. The true method is to take one's stand upon the undeniable truth of the book; and from that point, look at the supposed errors, which will then appear to be utterly fractional, in their relation to the whole, and comparatively non-essential in respect of the exclusive claim of the whole. If that is allowed to be the true method, the question arises: — "In what does the substantial unity of the Bible consist?" We understand it to consist in this, that it testifies in all its parts, when spiritually understood, to Christ, Jesus says: "Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad." All the saints and prophets of the old time were looking in this direction; and their inspiration lay in the extent to which they were elevated to see that vision. In like manner, the New Testament finds its unity as pointing in all its parts to the living and incarnate Christ.

2. The authority of the Church. We all know how much this is discounted in our time; and how much there is to justify this disparagement of the Church. There are its divisions, its animosities, and what, in some respects, may be called its failures. But no one whose ideas have been formed along the line of the Divine purpose is much affected by all that, in the way of being shaken in his faith. Faith is just the cultivation of ideas, as opposed to a life that is always buried in what it calls practical affairs. The idea of the Church is that of a body formed and filled by the Word and Spirit of God. Surely a body of that description has some authority? The Spirit of truth is promised to lead us into all truth. The common convictions of the sanctified thinkers of all ages have the authority of all the truth they contain.

3. The authority of the State. This, too, is derived from Christ. When Pilate, speaking in the name of imperial Rome, declared that he had power to dispose of Jesus, the Master said: "Thou hast no power over Me at all, except it were given thee from above." The State, as empowered to enforce its decisions by physical force, is clearly separate from the Church, which has no right to lift the sword. It is no part of the function of the one of those great forms of authority to supersede the other. But there are questions with which both have to deal. There is the question of education, the question of the social condition of the people, the Sabbath question. Questions of this kind cannot be solved apart from the cooperation of both the spiritual and the secular functions.

(P. Ferguson, D. D.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: O LORD, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps.

WEB: Yahweh, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man who walks to direct his steps.

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