But now, after that you have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn you again to the weak and beggarly elements…
I have been thinking how difficult it would be for us not to be Christians. It is hard, we say, to have faith; but do we realize what a task a man imposes upon himself if he attempts to live without faith? Is not some faith one of the first vital necessities of the human reason and heart? I wish, then, this morning, to invert a very common way of reasoning about religion among men. Instead of treating a religious faith as though it were a good thing to be added to a man's moral capital in life, I would raise the question rather, whether a man will have capital enough for life left if he lets a Christian faith go from him?
I. IN ORDER NOT TO HAVE FAITH, ONE MUST VACATE A CONSIDERABLE PORTION OF HIS OWN MENTAL EXPERIENCE.
1. There is a large part of every man's self-conciousness which is bound up with faith in realities beyond this present world of sights and sounds. It would be almost an impossible task for us to disentangle all faith in things Divine and eternal from the elements of our self-consciousness. Our reasons have their roots in the Divine. If these primal beliefs in God and immortality were simply results of argument, we might reason ourselves out of them: but they are elements, rather, of our rational and conscious life, so that we cannot separate them wholly from ourselves. Atheists, after all, can only make believe not to believe.
2. There is another tremendously present thing which would have to be put away from us in order that we might be able to live without faith, and that is the Divine imperative of conscience. Something higher and better than we lays hold of us in conscience. There are several other vital elements which must be sacrificed in the vain effort to live without faith.
3. One will have to leave out some of the most marked experiences of his life. The simple fact is, that the invisible powers are constantly laying hold of the life of man in the world. It would be an impossible task for us to account wholly for our own lives simply and solely upon natural causes. Super-sensible influences do mingle and blend with the sensible; providences are realities of human experience.
4. There is another side of our experience, which I will just mention, from which one must cut himself loose, if he would have any success in not belonging to a Christian world; he must break off his fellowship with the truest and best life of humanity. The history of man is not merely, nor chiefly, political; it is religious. The history of the kingdom of redemption is the paramount part of human history. Other history, what we call profane history, is the form and shaping of events only; the substance of history is its spiritual progress; the issue of it, and the main thing in it all along, is redemption. If, then, one wants not to be a Christian believer, a citizen of a world becoming Christian, he will have to begin by denying himself a goodly fellowship.
II. Let us consider further HOW MUCH ONE WILL HAVE TO BELIEVE IN ORDER NOT TO BE A CHRISTIAN, in relation to some particulars of the Christian life.
1. One vital element of the Christian life is trust in the goodness of the heavenly Father. We do not conceal from ourselves, we cannot, that this is a trust written often across the face of events in our lives which seem to contradict it. As Christians we believe in the sunny side, that is, in the Divine side, of everything. We say it is only our present position in the shadow, or under some cloud, which prevents our seeing the bright and eternal side of it. Wait, and we shall see the goodness of the Lord. We were sailing one afternoon with the broken coast of Maine in the distance projecting upon our horizon. A black thundercloud gathered in shore over the hill-tops. We could see the play of the lightnings, and the waters breaking from the cloud. That was all that the villagers and the fishermen along the shore could have seen. But we, at our distance, beheld also the untroubled sun in the clear sky above; its beams struck the edges of that heavy mass of vapours, and above the darkness and the lightnings we could see the upper side of the cloud turn to gold; and, even while it was blackness and fear to those below, its pinnacles and towers were shining before our eyes like the city of God descending from heaven. Thus Christian faith beholds also the heavenly side of this world's storm and darkness.
2. Take as another instance the Christian belief in our personal sinfulness and need of forgiveness. How many thoughts of the heart must one forget not to believe that? I pass to two other examples.
3. Men say it is hard to believe in an atonement. Perhaps it may be in some of our human philosophies of God's method of reconciling the world; but not to believe in Jesus' word that the Son of man has power on earth to forgive sin, would require us to believe some things about God which it would be very hard for us to hold of the Creator of our hearts. Even a human government would be incomplete unless, in some hand, there should be lodged some power of pardon. Not to believe in the authority of God Himself over the execution of His own law is to believe that God's government is not so perfect as man's. Or, to take the subject up to a higher plane, where I much prefer to study it, our human love can sometimes find for itself a way of forgiveness which it will follow without dimming its own purity, or losing its own self-respect, though it be for it a way of tears. To believe, then, that the God of love can find no way of atonement for sin, though it be the way of the Cross, is. to believe that man's heart is diviner than God's.
4. The other remaining point which I will mention is the Christian belief in the last judgment. Surely everything in this world would be left at loose ends, and all our instincts of justice, righteousness, and love thrown into confusion, if we should attempt to wrench the substance of this Christian faith in the judgment to come from our experience of this present life. Not to believe in it requires a great task of reason and conscience; for then one must believe that there is no moral order, as there is plainly a natural order of things; one must then believe that the one constant undertone of justice in man's consciousness is a false note of life; that the first laws of things are but principles of eternal discord; that man's whole moral life and history, in short, is meaningless and worthless. You say it is a terrible thing to believe in the judgment to come; yes, but it is a more fearful thing not to believe in it.
(Newman Smyth, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage?
WEB: But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, why do you turn back again to the weak and miserable elemental principles, to which you desire to be in bondage all over again?