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THE REVELATION OF GOD'S LOVE THE DISTINCTIVE
CHARACTERISTIC OF THE GOSPEL.
“ God is love.”—1 St. John iv. 8.
WHAT has Christianity done to make good its claim to the proud title of the Gospel—the one good message of glad tidings to mankind ?
It were easy to enumerate many eminent social blessings, many conspicuous elements of individual happiness (which we appropriate and use without stopping to think whence we get, or to what we owe them) which can be distinctly traced to the Christian dispensation as their only authentic source; but if I were asked to name what has been its greatest gift of all, what has most contributed to human progress and human happiness, even as philosophers measure those terms; what it is, more than any other element of knowledge, that has set free the intellect; more than any other principle of conduct has instructed the conscience; more than any other object of desire has elevated the affections; I should say unhesitatingly that it is the unveiling of the face of our Father which is in heaven; the revelation, all the more pregnant and influencing from the way in which it was made, that “God is love."
We must remind ourselves of other forms of religious thought and belief before, perhaps, we shall be ready to admit this. According to Herodotus, the theory of the relation in which the Supreme Being stood to the world which prevailed in his time—i.e., 450 years B.C.—in Greece, in Egypt, in Persia, not only among the illiterate, who might be supposed to be open to the influences of superstition, but among kings, philosophers, statesmen, was that the Deity was a malignant mischief-making Being who, in the possession of happiness Himself, grudged a share of it to His creatures, and even felt a malevolent joy in their sufferings.
The Scandinavian mythology—which was the religion of our forefathers, and which has still left historical trace of its existence in the names of the days of the week-as exhibited to us in the Eddas, prepares the mind of the worshipper from the very beginning for "one all-destroying catastrophe," points to “a creation doomed by necessity to a fatal and final destruction," in which life is nothing else but the alternate ascendency, under different symbols, of the principles of good and evil till the cyclus of the great tragedy is completed by the fiery snake consuming universal nature with all-destroying flames, from which the best and greatest of the sons of earth struggle to escape in vain.
In the far East, 500 millions of minds are crushed to the earth by two degrading superstitions ; in one
of which, Buddhism, the burden of independent personal existence is represented as intolerable, and the only rest for human nature is its re-absorption into the divine : in the other-Hinduism, the favourite Deity is not the beneficent Vishnu but the merciless Siva; and the horrible tortures inflicted on themselves by the worshippers attest their conceptions of the character of the God whom they serve.
Wherever, again, the faith of the Arabian prophet is professed, and the voice of the muezzin summons 250 million hearts to prayer, there, though the belief in the supreme sovereignty of God has kindled sufficient religious enthusiasm to propagate its creed by sword, yet the fact that the believer's mind dwells solely on the unbalanced idea of the Divine Omnipotence—the fact that the evening cry heard from every minaret of Islam is “God is great," not “God is love,” has, perhaps, while stimulating the fanaticism, at the same time crushed the moral energies of the people by that natural product, fatalism-which, whether in a Christian or in a nonChristian, or merely philosophic form, always seems to generate “either desperation or a wretchlessness of most unclean living, no less perilous than desperation.”
And if we turn for relief to the religious conception of the Jew, even in the purest age, it is evident that he regarded the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, with much the same feeling of awe as a Greek might regard the terrible Eumenides. The patriarchal sentiment still lived in all its force—was as strong in Gideon and Manoah as it had been in Jacobthat to see God's face, to hear His voice, to speak with
a messenger from the unseen world, was a deathsummons to a sinful man. The dark side of the lawwhich St. Paul tells us in its essence was a ministration of death—under the influence of this sentiment was continually growing darker still.
The whole history of Judaism, as I read it, is a history of the religious deterioration of the people under the influence of a conception of the Divine nature—true and wholesome in itself and in its place, but false and mischievous as they distorted it—the conception of
God as a consuming fire." It is plain that the prophets and psalmists struggled against this downward current of public opinion, and national belief, in vain. In vain they preached the axioms of a higher morality. In vain (as Mr. Davison says) “they taught the doctrine of repentance with a clearness and certainty which were not admitted into the original law." In vain better and nobler spirits felt and testified that it was a vain oblation to give one's first-born for a transgression—the fruit of one's body for the sin of one's soul. In vain David wrote the fifty-first Psalm. In vain Elijah prayed to the Lord God that His people might know Him, and that He would turn their hearts back again. In vain the piety of Jehoshaphat, or Hezekiah, or Josiah, tried to revive the Mosaic worship in its ancient purity.
The gravitating tendency of human nature, under the pressure of the one paramount idea that the God whom it served is a God to be feared, was too mighty to be resisted, or even sensibly retarded. The administration of Manasseh followed in quick succession upon the
reformation of Hezekiah: and even while there was a voice sounding in Jerusalem, “speaking comfortably to her, and crying that her warfare was accomplished and her iniquity pardoned,” and promising abundant mercy to every wicked man that would forsake his way, “the heart of the people was fat, and their ears heavy, and their eyes closed.” The charmer charmed, but the adder was deaf, and in the valley of the son of Hinnom, where the first high place to Moloch was set up by the very king who had built the splendid fabric of the Temple upon Mount Moriah, “ Tophet was ordained of old,” and parents ruthlessly immolated their offspring to the abomination of the children of Ammon; and if they could not silence the beatings of their own hearts, they could at least drown the screams of their murdered innocents in the roil of drums or the clang of sistra.
Under the discipline of that old divine law, human nature stood-should we not rather say, lay prostratebefore God, like David before Nathan, with the confession of his shame upon our lips—“I have sinned against the Lord "--and there was no prophet near who spoke loudly enough, or clearly enough, or authoritatively enough, to raise each penitent from the ground, and pour into his heart the reassuring word, “The Lord also hath put away thy sin: thou shalt not die.”
This posture of the soul seems to be the natural, necessary consequence of the consciousness of sin. The law gave the knowledge of sin; and one who had been trained under its discipline, and had sought to fulfil its righteous will with all the force of his fiery, earnest soul, tells us how it fared with him: “The command