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ESSAY ON THE LAW AS THE STRENGTH OF SIN - Benjamin Jowett, Essays on The Epistles of St. Paul 
The Epistles of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, Galatians and Romans. Vol. 2 Essays and Dissertations by the late Benjamin Jowett, M.A. (3rd edition, edited and condensed by Lewis Campbell) (London: John Murray, 1894). Vol. 2.
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ESSAY ON THE LAW AS THE STRENGTH OF SIN
‘The strength of sin is the law.’
—1 Cor. xv. 56.
These words occur parenthetically in the fifteenth chapter of the First Epistle to the Corinthians. They may be regarded as a summary of the seventh chapter of the Romans. The thought contained in them is also the undercurrent of several other passages in the Epistles of St. Paul, as, for example, Rom. v. 20; xiv. 22, 23; Gal. ii. 17–21; Col. ii. 14. The Apostle is speaking of that prior state out of which he passed into the liberty of the Gospel. When he asked himself what preceded Christ in his own life and in the dispensations of Providence, what he had once felt within warring against his soul, what he saw without contending against the cross, the answer to all was given in the same word, ‘the Law.’
But the singular description of the law as the strength of sin goes further, and has a deeper meaning; for it seems to make the law the cause of sin. Here is the difficulty. The law may have been defective—adapted, as we should say, to a different state of society, enforcing in some passages the morality of a half-civilized age, such as could never render the practisers thereof perfect, powerless to create a new life either in the Jewish nation collectively, or in the individuals who composed the nation; yet this imperfection and ‘unprofitableness’ of the law are not what the Apostle means by the strength of sin. If we say, in the words of James, quoted in the Acts, that it was a burden too heavy for men to bear, still language like this falls short of the paradox, as it appears to us, of St. Paul. There is no trace that the law was regarded by him as given ‘because of the hardness of men’s hearts,’ as our Saviour says; or that he is speaking of the law as corrupted by the Pharisee, or overlaid by Jewish traditions. The Apostle is not contrasting, as we are apt to do, Moses and the prophets with the additions of those who sat in Moses’ seat. The same law which is holy, and good, and just, is also the strength of sin.
There is another kind of language used respecting the law in Scripture which is very familiar, and seems to be as natural to our preconceived notions as the passage which we are now considering is irreconcilable with them. The law is described as the preparation of the Gospel; the first volume of the book, the other half of Divine Revelation. It is the veil on the face of Moses which obscured the excess of light, as the Apostle himself says in the Epistle to the Corinthians; or the schoolmaster to bring men to Christ, as in the Galatians; or the shadow of good things to come, as in the Hebrews. But all these figures of speech can only be cited here to point out how different the conception in them is from that which is implied in such words as ‘The strength of sin is the law.’ In these latter we have not the light shining more and more unto the perfect day, but the light and darkness; that is, the Gospel and the law opposed, as it were two hemispheres, dividing time and the world and the human heart.
Nor, again, if we consider the law in its immediate workings on the mind, as it might seem to be struggling within for mastery over the Gospel, as we may imagine Catholicism and Protestantism in the mind of Luther or of a modern convert, do we make a nearer approach to the solution of our difficulty. Even Luther, when denouncing the Pope as Antichrist, would not have spoken of the Catholic faith as the strength of sin. Still less would he have one instant described it as ‘holy, just, and good,’ and in the next as deceiving and slaying him. The struggle between one religion and another, or, even without any conflict of creeds, between hope and despair, may trouble the conscience, may enfeeble the will, may darken the intellect; still no sober-minded man would think of attributing his sins to having passed through such a struggle.
Once more, parallels from heathen authors, such as ‘Nitimur in vetitum semper,’ and the witness of the heart against itself, ‘that it is evil continually,’ have been quoted in illustration of the verse placed at the beginning of this Essay. The aphorisms alluded to are really metaphorical expressions, intended by satirists and moralists to state forcibly that men are prone to err, not that law is provocative or the cause of sin. Mankind offend in various ways, and from different motives—ambition, vanity, selfishness, passion—but not simply from the desire to break the law, or to offend God. So, again, as we multiply laws, we may seem to multiply offences: the real truth is, that as offences multiply the laws multiply also. To break the law for the sake of doing so, is not crime or sin, but madness. Nor, again, will it do to speak of the perversity of the human will—of men like children, doing a thing because, as we say in familiar language, they are told not to do it. This perversity consists simply in knowing the better and choosing the worse, in passion prevailing over reason. The better is not the cause of their choosing the worse, nor is reason answerable for the dictates of passion, which would be the parallel required.
All these, then, we must regard as half-explanations, which fail to reach the Apostle’s meaning. When we ask what he can mean by saying that ‘the law is the strength of sin,’ it is no answer to reply, that the law was imperfect or transient, that it could not take away sin, that it had been made of none effect by tradition, that its ceremonial observances were hypocritical and unmeaning; or that we, too, use certain metaphorical expressions, which, however different in sense, have a sound not unlike the words of the Apostle. We require an explanation that goes deeper, which does not pare away the force of the expression, such as can be gathered only from the Apostle himself, and the writings of his time. The point of view from which we regard things may begin to turn round; to understand the meaning of the law, we may have to place ourselves within the circle of its influences; to understand the nature of sin, we may be compelled to imagine ourselves in the very act of sinning: this inversion of our ordinary modes of thought may be the only means of attaining the true and natural sense of the Apostle’s words.
We are commencing an inquiry which lacks the sustaining interest of controversy, the data of which are metaphysical reasonings and points of view which cannot be even imagined without a considerable effort of mind, and which there will be the more indisposition to admit, as they run counter to the popular belief that the Bible is a book easily and superficially intelligible. Such feelings are natural; we are jealous of those who wrap up in mystery the Word of life, who carry us into an atmosphere which none else can breathe. We cannot be too jealous of Kant or Fichte, Schelling or Hegel, finding their way into the interpretation of Scripture. As jealous should we be also of any patristic or other system which draws away its words from their natural meaning. Still the Scripture has difficulties not brought but found there, a few words respecting which will pave the way for the inquiry on which we are entering.
The Bible is at once the easiest and the hardest of books. The easiest, in that it gives us plain rules for moral and religious duties which he that runs can read, an example that every one can follow, a work that any body may do. But it is the hardest also, in that it is fragmentary, written in a dead language, and referring to times and actions of which in general we have no other record, and, above all, using modes of thought and often relating to spiritual states, which amongst ourselves have long ceased to exist, or the influence of institutions which have passed away. Who can supply the external form of the primitive Church of the first century, whether in its ritual or discipline, from the brief allusions of the Gospels and Epistles? Who can imagine the mind of the first believers, as they sat ‘with their lamps lighted and their loins girded,’ waiting for the reappearance of the Lord? Who describe the prophesyings or speaking with tongues, or interpretation of tongues? Who knows the spirit of a man who consciously recognizes in his ordinary life the inward workings of a Divine power? The first solution of such difficulties is to admit them, to acknowledge that the world in which we live is not the world of the first century, and that the first Christians were not like ourselves.
Nor is this difficulty less, but greater, in reference to words which are common to us and to them, which are used by both with a certain degree of similarity, and with a sort of analogy to other words which puts us off our guard, and prevents our perceiving the real change of meaning. Such is the case with the words church, priest, sacrifice, and in general with words taken from the Mosaic dispensation; above all, with the word ‘law.’ Does not common sense teach us that whatever St. Paul meant by law, he must have meant something hard to us to understand, to whom the law has no existence, who are Europeans, not Orientals? to whom the law of the land is no longer the immediate direct law of God, and who can form no idea of the entanglements and perplexities which the attempt to adapt the law of Mount Sinai to an altered world must have caused to the Jew? Is it not certain that whenever we use the word ‘law’ in its theological acceptation, we shall give it a meaning somewhat different from that of the Apostle? We cannot help doing so. Probably we may sum it up under the epithet ‘moral or ceremonial,’ or raise the question to which of these the Apostle refers, forgetting that they are distinctions which belong to us, but do not belong to him. The study of a few pages of the Mischna, which mounts up nearly to the time of the Apostles, would reveal to us how very far our dim indefinite notion of the ‘law’ falls short of that intense life and power and sacredness which were attributed to it by a Jew of the first century; as well as how little conception he had of the fundamental distinctions which theologians have introduced respecting it.
But the consideration of these difficulties does not terminate with themselves; they lead us to a higher idea of Scripture; they compel us to adapt ourselves to Scripture, instead of adapting Scripture to ourselves. In the ordinary study of the sacred volume, the chief difficulty is the accurate perception of the connexion. The words lie smoothly on the page; the road is trite and worn. Only just here and there we stumble over an impediment; as it were a stone lying not loose, but deeply embedded in the soil; which is the indication of a world below just appearing on the surface. Such are many passages in the Epistles of St. Paul. There is much that we really understand, much that we appear to understand, which has, indeed, a deceitful congruity with words and thoughts of our own day. Some passages remain intractable. From these latter we obtain the pure ore; here, if anywhere, are traces of the peculiar state and feelings of the Church of the Apostles, such as no after age could invent, or even understand. It is to these we turn, not for a rule of conduct, but for the inner life of Apostles and Churches; rejecting nothing as designedly strange or mysterious, satisfied with no explanation that does violence to the language, not suffering our minds to be diverted from the point of the difficulty, comparing one difficulty with another; seeking the answer, not in ourselves and in the controversies of our own day, but in the Scripture and the habits of thought of the age; collecting every association that bears upon it, and gathering up each fragment that remains, that nothing be lost; at the same time acknowledging how defective our knowledge really is, not merely in that general sense in which all human knowledge is feeble and insufficient, but in the particular one of our actual ignorance of the facts and persons and ways of thought of the age in which the Gospel came into the world.
The subject of the present Essay is suggestive of the following questions:—‘What did St. Paul mean by the law, and what by sin?’ ‘Is the Apostle speaking from the experience of his own heart and the feelings of his age and country, or making an objective statement for mankind in general, of what all men do or ought to feel?’ ‘Is there anything in his circumstances, as a convert from the law to the Gospel, that gives the words a peculiar force?’ And lastly, we may inquire what application may be made of them to ourselves: whether, ‘now that the law is dead to us, and we to the law,’ the analogy of faith suggests anything, either in our social state or in our physical constitution or our speculative views, which stands in the same relation to us that the law did to the first converts?
First, then, as has been elsewhere remarked, the law includes in itself different and contradictory aspects. It is at once the letter of the book of the law, and the image of law in general. It is alive, and yet dead; it is holy, just, and good, and yet the law of sin and death. It is without and within at the same time; a power like that of conscience is ascribed to it, and yet he who is under its power feels that he is reaching towards something without him which can never become a part of his being. In its effect on individuals it may be likened to a sword entering into the soul, which can never knit together with flesh and blood. In relation to the world at large, it is a prison in which men are shut up. As the Jewish nation is regarded also as an individual; as the kingdom of heaven is sometimes outward and temporal, sometimes inward and spiritual, used in reference either to the spread of the Gospel, or the second coming of Christ; as the parables of Christ admit of a similar double reference; in like manner, the law has its ‘double senses.’ It is national and individual at once; the law given on Mount Sinai, and also a rule of conduct. It is the schoolmaster unto Christ, and yet the great enemy of the Gospel; added to make men transgress, and yet affording the first knowledge of truth and holiness; applying to the whole people and to the world of the past, and also to each living man; though a law, and therefore concerned with actions only, terrible to the heart and conscience, requiring men to perform all things, and enabling them to accomplish nothing.
This ambiguity in the use of the word ‘law’ first occurs in the Old Testament itself. In the prophecies and psalms, as well as in the writings of St. Paul, the law is in a great measure ideal. When the Psalmist spoke of ‘meditating in the law of the Lord,’ he was not thinking of the five books of Moses. The law which he delighted to contemplate was not written down (as well might we imagine that the Platonic idea was a treatise on philosophy); it was the will of God, the truth of God, the justice and holiness of God. In later ages the same feelings began to gather around the volume of the law itself. The law was ideal still; but with this idealism were combined the reference to its words, and the literal enforcement of its precepts. That it was the law of God was a solemn thought to those who violated the least of its commandments; and yet its commandments were often such as in a changed world it was impossible to obey. It needed interpreters before it could be translated into the language of daily life. Such a law could have little hold on practice; but it had the greatest on ideas. It was the body of truth, the framework of learning and education, the only and ultimate appeal in all controversies. Even its entire disuse did not prevent the Rabbis from discussing with animosity nice questions of minute detail. In Alexandria especially, which was far removed from Jerusalem and the scenes of Jewish history, such an idealizing tendency was carried to the uttermost. Whether there was a temple or not, whether there were sacrifices or not, whether there were feasts or not, mattered little; there was the idea of a temple, the idea of feasts, the idea of sacrifices. Whether the Messiah actually came or not mattered little, while he was discernible to the mystic in every page of the law. The Jewish religion was beginning to rest on a new basis which, however visionary it may seem to us, could not be shaken any more than the clouds of heaven, even though one stone were not left upon another.
This idealizing tendency of his age we cannot help tracing in St. Paul himself. As to the Jew of Alexandria the law became an ideal rule of truth and right, so to St. Paul after his conversion it became an ideal form of evil. As there were many Antichrists, so also there were many laws, and none of them absolutely fallen away from their Divine original. In one point of view, the fault was all with the law; in another point of view, it was all with human nature; the law ideal and the law actual, the law as it came from God and the law in its consequences to man, are ever crossing each other. It was the nature of the law to be good and evil at once; evil, because it was good; like the pillar of cloud and fire, which was its image, light by night and darkness by day—light and darkness in successive instants.
But, as the law seems to admit of a wider range of meaning than we should at first sight have attributed to it, so also the word ‘sin’ has a more extended sense than our own use of it implies. Sin with us is a definite act or state. Any crime or vice considered in reference to God may be termed sin; or, according to another use of it, which is more general and abstract, sin is the inherent defect of human nature, or that evil state in which, even without particular faults or vices, we live. None of these senses includes that peculiar aspect in which it is regarded by St. Paul. Sin is with him inseparable from the consciousness of sin. It is not only the principle of evil, working blindly in the human heart, but the principle of discord and dissolution piercing asunder the soul and spirit. He who has felt its power most is not the perpetrator of the greatest crimes, a Caligula or Nero; but he who has suffered most deeply from the spiritual combat, who has fallen into the abyss of despair, who has the sentence of death in himself, who is wringing his hands and crying aloud in his agony, ‘O wretched man that I am!’ Sin is not simply evil, but intermediate between evil and good, implying always the presence of God within, light revealing darkness, life in the corruption of death; it is the soul reflecting upon itself in the moment of commission of sin. If we are surprised at St. Paul regarding the law—holy, just, and good as it was—as almost sin, we must remember that sin itself, if the expression may be excused, as a spiritual state, has a good element in it. It is the voice of despair praying to God, ‘Who shall deliver me from the body of this death!’ It approximates to the law at the very instant in which it is repelled from it.
There are physical states in which the body is exquisitely sensitive to pain, which are not the sign of health, but of disease. So also there are mental states in which the sense of sin and evil, and the need of forgiveness, press upon us with an unusual heaviness. Such is the state which the Scriptures describe by the words, ‘they were pricked to the heart,’ when whole multitudes in sympathy with each other felt the need of a change, and in the extremity of their suffering were saved, looking on the Lord Jesus. No such spiritual agonies occur in the daily life of all men. Crimes and vices and horrid acts there are, but not that of which the Apostle speaks. That which he sums up in a moment of time, which may be compared to the last struggle when we are upon the confines of two worlds, of which we are so intensely conscious that it is impossible for us permanently to retain the consciousness of it, is ‘Sin.’
As there could be no sin if we were wholly unconscious of it, as children or animals are in a state of innocence, as the heathen world we ourselves regard as less guilty or responsible than those who have a clearer light in the dispensation of the Gospel, so in a certain point of view sin may be regarded as the consciousness of sin. It is this latter which makes sin to be what it is, which distinguishes it from crime or vice, which links it with our personality. The first state described by the Roman satirist—
is the reverse of what the Apostle means by the life of sin. In ordinary language, vices, regarded in reference to God, are termed sins; and we attempt to arouse the child or the savage to a right sense of his unconscious acts by so terming them. But, in the Apostle’s language, consciousness is presupposed in the sin itself; not reflected on it from without. That which gives it the nature of sin is conscientia peccati. As Socrates, a little inverting the ordinary view and common language of mankind, declared all virtue to be knowledge; so the language of St. Paul implies all sin to be the knowledge of sin. Conscientia peccati peccatum ipsum est.
It is at this point the law enters, not to heal the wounded soul, but to enlarge its wound. The law came in that the offence might abound. Whatever dim notion of right and wrong pre-existed; whatever sense of physical impurity may have followed, in the language of the Book of Job, one born in sin; whatever terror the outpouring of the vials of God’s wrath, in the natural world, may have infused into the soul—all this was heightened and defined by the law of God. In comparison with this second state, it might be said of the previous one, ‘Sin is not imputed where there is no law,’ and man ‘was alive without the law once; but when the law came, sin revived, and he died.’ The soul condemned itself, it was condemned by the law, it is in the last stage of decay and dissolution.
If from the Apostle’s ideal point of view we regard the law, not as the tables given on Mount Sinai, or the books of Moses, but as the law written on the heart, the difficulty is, not how we are to identify the law with the consciousness of sin, but how we are to distinguish them. They are different aspects of the same thing, related to each other as positive and negative, two poles of human nature turned towards God, or away from Him. In the language of metaphysical philosophy, we say that ‘the subject is identical with the object;’ in the same way sin implies the law. The law written on the heart, when considered in reference to the subject is simply the conscience. The conscience, in like manner, when conceived of objectively, as words written down in a book, as a rule of life which we are to obey, becomes the law. For the sake of clearness we may express the whole in a sort of formula. ‘Sin=the consciousness of sin=the law.’ From this last conclusion the Apostle only stops short from the remembrance of the Divine original of the law, and the sense that what made it evil to him was the fact that it was in its own nature good.
Wide, then, as might at first have seemed to be the interval between the law and sin, we see that they have their meeting point in the conscience. Yet their opposition and identity have a still further groundwork or reflection in the personal character and life of the Apostle.
I. The spiritual combat, in the seventh chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, which terminates with the words, ‘O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God, through Jesus Christ our Lord,’ is the description, in a figure, of the Apostle’s journey to Damascus. Almost in a moment he passed from darkness to light. Nothing could be more different or contrasted than his after life and his former life. In his own language he might be described as cut in two by the sword of the Spirit; his present and previous states were like good and evil, light and darkness, life and death. It accords with what we know of human feelings, that this previous state should have a kind of terror for him, and should be presented to his mind, not as it appeared at the time when he ‘thought, verily, that he ought to do many things against Jesus of Nazareth,’ but as it afterwards seemed, when he counted himself to be the least of the Apostles, because twenty years before he had persecuted the Church of God; when he was amazed at the goodness of God in rescuing the chief of sinners. The life which he had once led was ‘the law.’ He thought of it, indeed, sometimes as the inspired word, the language of which he was beginning to invest with a new meaning; but more often as an ideal form of evil, the chain by which he had been bound, the prison in which he was shut up. And long after his conversion the shadow of the law seemed to follow him at a distance, and threatened to overcast his heaven; when, with a sort of inconsistency for one assured of ‘the crown,’ he speaks of the trouble of spirit which overcame him, and of the sentence of death in himself.
II. In another way the Apostle’s personal history gives a peculiar aspect to his view of the law. On every occasion, at every turn of his life, on his first return to Jerusalem, when preaching the Gospel in Asia and Greece, in the great struggle between Jewish and Gentile Christians—his persecutors were the Jews, his great enemy the law. Is it surprising that this enmity should have been idealized by him? that the law within and the law without should have blended in one? that his own remembrances of the past should be identified with that spirit of hatred and fanaticism which he saw around him? Not only when he looked back to his past life, and ‘the weak and beggarly elements’ to which he had been in bondage, but also when he saw the demoniac spirit which, under the name of Judaism, arrayed itself against the truth, might he repeat the words—‘the strength of sin is the law.’ And, placing these words side by side with other expressions of the Apostle’s, such as, ‘We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against spiritual wickedness in heavenly places,’ we can understand how heretics of the second century, who regarded the law and the Old Testament as the work of an evil principle, were induced to attach themselves specially to St. Paul.
III. The Gospel of St. Paul was a spirit, not a law; it nowhere enjoined the observance of feasts and sacrifices, and new moons and sabbaths, but was rather antagonistic to them; it was heedless of externals of any kind, except as matter of expediency and charity. It was a Gospel which knew of no distinction of nations or persons; in which all men had the offer of ‘grace, mercy, and peace from the Lord Jesus Christ;’ which denounced the oldness of the letter; which contrasted ‘the tables of stone with fleshy tables of the heart;’ which figured Christ taking the handwriting of ordinances and nailing them to His cross; which put faith in the place of works, and even prohibited circumcision. Such a Gospel was in extreme antagonism to the law. Their original relation was forgotten; the opposition between them insensibly passed into an opposition of good and evil. And yet a new relation sprang up also. For the law, too, witnessed against itself; and, to the Apostle interpreting its words after the manner of his age, became the allegory of the Gospel.
IV. Once more: it may be observed (see note on the Imputation of the Sin of Adam), that the place which the law occupies in the teaching of St. Paul is analogous to that which the doctrine of original sin holds in later writings. It represents the state of wrath and bondage out of which men pass into the liberty of the children of God. It is the state of nature to the Jew; it is also a law of sin to him; he cannot help sinning, and this very impotency is the extremity of guilt and despair. Similar expressions respecting original sin are sometimes used among ourselves; though not wholly parallel, they may nevertheless assist in shadowing forth the Apostle’s meaning.
V. It is not, however, to the life of the Apostle, or to the circle of theological doctrines, that we need confine ourselves for illustration of the words, ‘the strength of sin is the law.’ Morality also shows us many ways in which good and evil meet together, and truth and error seem inseparable from each other. We cannot do any thing good without some evil consequences indirectly flowing from it; we cannot express any truth without involving ourselves in some degree of error, or occasionally conveying an impression to others wholly erroneous. Human characters and human ideas are always mixed and limited; good and truth ever drag evil and error in their train. Good itself may be regarded as making evil to be what it is, if, as we say, they are relative terms, and the disappearance of the one would involve the disappearance of the other. And there are many things, in which not only may the old adage be applied — ‘Corruptio optimi pessima,’ but in which the greatest good is seen to be linked with the worst evil, as, for example, the holiest affections with the grossest sensualities, or a noble ambition with crime and unscrupulousness; even religion seems sometimes to have a dark side, and readily to ally itself with immorality or with cruelty.
Plato’s kingdom of evil (Rep. I.) is not unlike the state into which the Jewish people passed during the last few years before the taking of the city. Of both it might be said, in St. Paul’s language, ‘the law is the strength of sin.’ A kingdom of pure evil, as the Greek philosopher observed, there could not be; it needs some principle of good to be the minister of evil; it can only be half wicked, or it would destroy itself. We may say the same of the Jewish people. Without the law it never could have presented an equally signal example either of sin or of vengeance. The nation, like other nations, would have yielded quietly to the power of Rome; ‘it would have died the death of all men.’ But the spirit which said, ‘We have a law, and by our law he ought to die,’ recoiled upon itself; the intense fanaticism which prevented men from seeing the image of love and goodness in that Divine form, bound together for destruction a whole people, to make them a monument to after ages of a religion that has outlived itself.
VI. The law and the Gospel may be opposed, according to a modern distinction, as positive and moral. ‘Moral precepts are distinguished from positive, as precepts the reasons of which we see from those the reasons of which we do not see.’ Moral precepts may be regarded as the more general, while positive precepts fill up the details of the general principle, and apply it to circumstances. Every positive precept involves not merely a moral obligation to obey it so far as it is just, but a moral law, which is its ultimate basis. It will often happen that what was at first just and right may in the course of ages become arbitrary and tyrannical, if the enforcement of it continue after the reason for it has ceased. Or, as it may be expressed more generally, the positive is ever tending to become moral, and the moral to become positive; the positive to become moral, in so far as that which was at first a mere external command has acquired such authority, and so adapted itself to the hearts of men, as to have an internal witness to it, as in the case of the fourth commandment; the moral to become positive, where a law has outlived itself, and the state of society to which it was adapted and the feelings on which it rested have passed away.
The latter was the case with the Jewish law. It had once been moral, and it had become positive. Doubtless, for the minutest details, the colours of the sanctuary, the victims offered in sacrifice, there had once been reasons; but they had been long since forgotten, and if remembered would have been unintelligible. New reasons might be given for them; the oldness of the letter might be made to teach a new lesson after the lapse of a thousand years; but in general the law was felt to be ‘a burden that neither they nor their fathers were able to bear.’ Side by side with it another religion had sprung up, the religion of the prophets first, and of the zealots afterwards; religions most different indeed from each other, yet equally different from the law; in the first of which the voice of God in man seemed to cry aloud against sacrifice and offering, and to proclaim the only true offering, to do justice and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God; while in the second of them the national faith took the form of a fanatical patriotism. And yet the law still remained as a body of death, with its endless routine of ceremonial, its numberless disputes, its obsolete commands, never suffering the worshipper to be free, and enforcing its least detail with the curses of the book of the law and the terrors of Mount Sinai.
Much of this burden would have been taken off, had there existed among the Jews the distinction which is familiar to ourselves of a moral and ceremonial law. They would then have distinguished between the weightier matters of the law and the ‘tithe of mint, anise, and cumin.’ Such distinctions are great ‘peace-makers;’ they mediate between the present and the past. But in Judaism all was regarded as alike of Divine authority, all subjected the transgressor to the same penalty. ‘He who offended in one point was guilty of all;’ the least penalty was, in a figure, ‘death,’ and there was no more for the greatest offences. The infringement of any positive command tortured the conscience with a fearful looking for of judgement; the deepest moral guilt could do no more. Such a religion could only end in hypocrisy and inhumanity, in verily believing that the law demanded His death, in whom only ‘the law was fulfilled.’
Let us imagine, in contrast with this, the Gospel with its spiritualizing humanizing influences, soothing the soul of man, the source of joy, and love, and peace. It is a supernatural power, with which the elements themselves bear witness, endowed with a fullness of life, and imparting life to all who receive it. It is not a law to which the will must submit, but an inward principle which goes before the will; it is also a moral principle to which the heart and conscience instantly assent, which gives just what we want, and seems to set us right with the world, with ourselves, and with God. Yet, in a figure, it is a law also; but in a very different sense from that of Moses: a law within, and not without us; a law of the Spirit of life, not of death; of freedom, not of slavery; of blessing, not of cursing; of mercy, not of vengeance: a law which can be obeyed, not one to which, while it exacts punishment, obedience is impossible. When we look upon this picture, and upon that, is it strange that one who was filled with the mind of Christ should have regarded the law as the strength of sin?
Of what has been said, the sum is as follows:—When St. Paul speaks of ‘the law as the strength of sin,’ he uses the term law partly for law in general, but more especially for the burden of the Jewish law on the conscience; when he speaks of sin, he means chiefly the consciousness of sin, of which it may be truly said, ‘Where there is no law, there is no transgression; and sin is not imputed where there is no law.’ Thirdly, he speaks of the law from his own spiritual experience of ‘fears within, and of fightings without;’ and from a knowledge of his own countrymen, who ‘please not God, but are contrary to all men.’ Fourthly, he conceives the law as an ideal form of evil, analogous to original sin in the language of a later theology. Lastly, if there be anything apparently contradictory or to us unintelligible in his manner of speaking of the law, we must attribute this to the modes of thought of his age, which blended many things that are to us separate. Had St. Paul distinguished between the law and conscience, or between the law and morality, or between the moral and ceremonial portions of the law itself, or between the law in its first origin and in the practice of his own age, he would perhaps have confined the law to a good sense, or restricted its use to the books of Moses, and not have spoken of it in one verse as ‘holy, just, and good,’ and in the next as being the means of deceiving and slaying him.
In another sense than that in which the Apostle employs the words, ‘the law is dead to us, and we to the law.’ The lapse of ages has but deepened the chasm which separates Judaism from Christianity. Between us and them there is a gulf fixed, so that few are they who pass from them to us, nor do any go from us to them. The question remains, What application is it possible for us to make of that which has preceded? Is there anything in the world around standing in the same relation to us that the law did to the contemporaries of St. Paul?
One answer that might be given is, ‘the Roman Catholic Church.’ The experience of Luther seems indeed not unlike that struggle which St. Paul describes. But whatever resemblance may be found between Romanism and the ancient Jewish religion—whether in their ceremonial or sacrificial character, or in the circumstance of their both resting on outward and visible institutions, and so limiting the worship of Spirit and truth—it cannot be said that Romanism stands in the same relation to us individually that the law did to the Apostle St. Paul. The real parallels are more general, though less obvious. The law St. Paul describes as without us, but not in that sense in which an object of sense is without us: though without us it exercises an inward power; it drives men to despair; it paralyzes human nature; it causes evil by its very justice and holiness. It is like a barrier which we cannot pass; a chain wherewith a nation is bound together; a rule which is not adapted to human feelings, but which guides them into subjection to itself.
It has been already remarked that a general parallel to ‘the law as the strength of sin’ is to be found in that strange blending of good and evil, of truth and error, which is the condition of our earthly existence. But there seem also to be cases in which the parallel is yet closer; in which good is not only the accidental cause of evil, but the limiting principle which prevents man from working out to the uttermost his individual and spiritual nature. In some degree, for example, society may exercise the same tyranny over us, and its conventions be stumbling-blocks to us of the same kind as the law to the contemporaries of St. Paul; or, in another way, the thought of self and the remembrance of our past life may ‘deceive and slay us.’ As in the description of the seventh chapter of the Romans—‘It was I, and it was not I; and who can deliver me from the influence of education and the power of my former self?’ Or faith and reason, reason and faith may seem mutually to limit each other, and to make the same opposition in speculation that the law and the flesh did to the Apostle in practice. Or, to seek the difficulty on a lower level, while fully assured of the truths of the Gospel, we may seem to be excluded from them by our mental or bodily constitution, which no influences of the Spirit or power of habit may be capable of changing.
I. The society even of a Christian country—and the same remark applies equally to a Church—is only to a certain extent based upon Christian principle. It rests neither on the view that all mankind are evil, nor that they are all good, but on certain motives, supposed to be strong enough to bind mankind together; on institutions handed down from former generations; on tacit compacts between opposing parties and opinions. Every government must tolerate, and therefore must to a certain degree sanction, contending forms of faith. Even in reference to those more general principles of truth and justice which, in theory at least, equally belong to all religions, the government is limited by expediency, and seeks only to enforce them so far as is required for the preservation of society. Hence arises a necessary opposition between the moral principles of the individual and the political principles of a state. A good man may be sensitive for his faith, zealous for the honour of God, and for every moral and spiritual good; the statesman has to begin by considering the conditions of human society. Aristotle raises a famous question, whether the good citizen is the good man? We have rather to raise the question, whether the good man is the good citizen? If matters of state are to be determined by abstract principles of morality and religion—if, for the want of such principles, whole nations are to be consigned to the vengeance of heaven—if the rule is to be not ‘my kingdom is not of this world,’ but, ‘we ought to obey God rather than man’—there is nothing left but to supersede civil society, and found a religious one in its stead.
It is no imaginary spectre that we are raising, but one that acts powerfully on the minds of religious men. Is it not commonly said by many, that the government is unchristian, that the legislature is unchristian, that all governments and all legislatures are the enemies of Christ and His Church? Herein to them is the fixed evil of the world; not in vice, or in war, or in injustice, or in falsehood; but simply in the fact that the constitution of their country conforms to the laws of human society. It is not necessary to suppose that they will succeed in carrying out their principles, or that a civilized nation will place its liberties in the keeping of a religious party. But, without succeeding, they do a great deal of harm to themselves and to the world. For they draw the mind away from the simple truths of the Gospel to manifestations of opinion and party spirit; they waste their own power to do good; some passing topic of theological controversy drains their life. We may not ‘do evil that good may come,’ they say; and ‘what is morally wrong cannot be politically right;’ and with this misapplied ‘syllogism of the conscience’ they would make it impossible, in the mixed state of human affairs, to act at all, either for good or evil. He who seriously believes that not for our actual sins, but for some legislative measure of doubtful expediency, the wrath of God is hanging over his country, is in so unreal a state of mind as to be scarcely capable of discerning the real evils by which we are surrounded. The remedies of practical ills sink into insignificance compared with some point in which the interests of religion appear to be, but are not, concerned.
But it is not only in the political world that imaginary forms of evil present themselves, and we are haunted by ideas which can never be carried out in practice; the difficulty comes nearer home to most of us in our social life. If governments and nations appear unchristian, the appearance of society itself is in a certain point of view still more unchristian. Suppose a person acquainted with the real state of the world in which we live and move, and neither morosely depreciating nor unduly exalting human nature, to turn to the image of the Christian Church in the New Testament, how great would the difference appear! How would the blessing of poverty contrast with the real, even the moral advantages of wealth! the family of love, with distinctions of ranks! the spiritual, almost supernatural, society of the first Christians, with our world of fashion, of business, of pleasure! the community of goods, with our meagre charity to others! the prohibition of going to law before the heathen, with our endless litigation before judges of all religions! the cross of Christ, with our ordinary life! How little does the world in which we live seem to be designed for the tabernacle of immortal souls! How large a portion of mankind, even in a civilized country, appears to be sacrificed to the rest, and to be without the means of moral and religious improvement! How fixed, and steadfast, and regular do dealings of money and business appear! how transient and passing are religious objects! Then, again, consider how society, sometimes in self-defence, sets a false stamp on good and evil; as in the excessive punishment of the errors of women, compared with Christ’s conduct to the woman who was a sinner. Or when men are acknowledged to be in the sight of God equal, how strange it seems that one should heap up money for another, and be dependent on him for his daily life. Susceptible minds, attaching themselves, some to one point some to another, may carry such reflections very far, until society itself appears evil, and they desire some primitive patriarchal mode of life. They are tired of conventionalities; they want, as they say, to make the Gospel a reality; to place all men on a religious, social, and political equality. In this, as in the last case, ‘they are kicking against the pricks;’ what they want is a society which has not the very elements of a social state; they do not perceive that the cause of the evil is human nature itself, which will not cohere without mixed motives and received forms and distinctions, and that Providence has been pleased to rest the world on a firmer basis than is supplied by the fleeting emotions of philanthropy, viz. self-interest. We are not, indeed, to sit with our arms folded, and acquiesce in human evil. But we must separate the accidents from the essence of this evil: questions of taste, things indifferent, or customary, or necessary, from the weightier matters of oppression, falsehood, vice. The ills of society are to be struggled against in such a manner as not to violate the conditions of society; the precepts of Scripture are to be applied, but not without distinctions of times and countries; Christian duties are to be enforced, but not identified with political principles. To see the world—not as it ought to be, but as it is—to be on a level with the circumstances in which God has placed them, to renounce the remote and impossible for what is possible and in their reach; above all, to begin within—these are the limits which enthusiasts should set to their aspirations after social good. It is a weary thing to be all our life long warring against the elements, or, like the slaves of some eastern lord, using our hands in a work which can only be accomplished by levers and machines. The physician of society should aid nature instead of fighting against it; he must let the world alone as much as he can; to a certain degree, he will even accept things as they are in the hope of bettering them.
II. Mere weakness of character will sometimes afford an illustration of the Apostle’s words. If there are some whose days are ‘bound each to each by natural piety,’ there are others on whom the same continuous power is exercised for evil as well as good; they are unable to throw off their former self; the sins of their youth lie heavy on them; the influence of opinions which they have ceased to hold discolours their minds. Or it may be that their weakness takes a different form, viz. that of clinging to some favourite resolve, or of yielding to some fixed idea which gets dominion over them, and becomes the limit of all their ideas. A common instance of this may be found in the use made by many persons of conscience. Whatever they wish or fancy, whatever course of action they are led to by some influence obvious to others, though unobserved by themselves, immediately assumes the necessary and stereotyped form of the conscientious fulfilment of a duty. To every suggestion of what is right and reasonable, they reply only with the words—‘their consciences will not allow it.’ They do what they think right; they do not observe that they never seem to themselves to do otherwise. No voice of authority, no opinion of others, weighs with them when put in the scale against the dictates of what they term conscience. As they get older, their narrow ideas of right acquire a greater tenacity; the world is going on, and they are as they were. A deadening influence lies on their moral nature, the peculiarity of which is, that, like the law, it assumes the appearance of good, differing from the law only in being unconscious. Conscience, one may say, putting their own character into the form of a truth or commandment, ‘has deceived and slain them.’
Another form of conscience yet more closely resembles the principle described in the seventh chapter of the Romans. There is a state in which man is powerless to act, and is, nevertheless, clairvoyant of all the good and evil of his own nature. He places the good and evil principle before him, and is ever oscillating between them. He traces the labyrinth of conflicting principles in the world, and is yet further perplexed and entangled. He is sensitive to every breath of feeling, and incapable of the performance of any duty. Or take another example: it sometimes happens that the remembrance of past suffering, or the consciousness of sin, may so weigh a man down as fairly to paralyze his moral power. He is distracted between what he is and what he was; old habits and vices, and the new character which is being fashioned in him. Sometimes the balance seems to hang equal; he feels the earnest wish and desire to do rightly, but cannot hope to find pleasure and satisfaction in a good life; he desires heartily to repent, but can never think it possible that God should forgive. ‘It is I, and it is not I, but sin that dwelleth in me.’ ‘I have, and have never ceased to have, the wish for better things, even amid haunts of infamy and vice.’ In such language, even now, though with less fervour than in ‘the first spiritual chaos of the affections,’ does the soul cry out to God—‘O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?’
III. There is some danger of speculative difficulties presenting the same hindrance and stumbling-block to our own generation, that the law is described as doing to the contemporaries of St. Paul. As the law was holy, just, and good, so many of these difficulties are true, and have real grounds: all of them, except in cases where they spring from hatred and opposition to the Gospel, are at least innocent. And yet, by undermining received opinions, by increasing vanity and egotism, instead of strengthening the will and fixing the principles, their promulgation may become a temporary source of evil; so that, in the words of the Apostle, it may be said of them that, taking occasion by the truth, they deceive and slay men. What then? is the law sin? is honest inquiry wrong? God forbid! it is we ourselves who are incapable of receiving the results of inquiry; who will not believe unless we see; who demand a proof that we cannot have; who begin with appeals to authority, and tradition, and consequences, and, when dissatisfied with these, imagine that there is no other foundation on which life can repose but the loose and sandy structure of our individual opinions. Persons often load their belief in the hope of strengthening it; they escape doubt by assuming certainty. Or they believe ‘under an hypothesis;’ their worldly interests lead them to acquiesce; their higher intellectual convictions rebel. Opinions, hardly won from study and experience, are found to be at variance with early education, or natural temperament. Opposite tendencies grow together in the mind; appearing and reappearing at intervals. Life becomes a patchwork of new and old cloth, or like a garment which changes colour in the sun.
It is true that the generation to which we belong has difficulties to contend with, perhaps greater than those of any former age; and certainly different from them. Some of those difficulties arise out of the opposition of reason and faith; the critical inquiries of which the Old and New Testament have been the subject, are a trouble to many; the circumstance that, while the Bible is the word of life for all men, such inquiries are open only to the few, increases the irritation. The habit of mind which has been formed in the study of Greek or Roman history may be warned off the sacred territory, but cannot really be prevented from trespassing; still more impossible is it to keep the level of knowledge at one point in Germany, at another in England. Geology, ethnology, historical and metaphysical criticism, assail in succession not the Scriptures themselves, but notions and beliefs which in the minds of many good men are bound up with them. The eternal strain to keep theology where it is while the world is going on, specious reconcilements, political or ecclesiastical exigencies, recent attempts to revive the past, and the reaction to which they have given birth, the contrast that everywhere arises of old and new, all add to the confusion. Probably no other age has been to the same extent the subject of cross and contradictory influences. What can be more unlike than the tone of sermons and of newspapers? or the ideas of men on art, politics, and religion, now, and half a generation ago? The thoughts of a few original minds, like wedges, pierce into all received and conventional opinions and are almost equally removed from either. The destruction of ‘shams,’ that is, the realization of things as they are amid all the conventions of thought and speech and action, is also an element of unsettlement. The excess of self-reflection, again, is not favourable to strength or simplicity of character. Every one seems to be employed in decomposing the world, human nature, and himself. The discovery is made that good and evil are mixed in a far more subtle way than at first sight would have appeared possible; and that even extremes of both meet in the same person. The mere analysis of moral and religious truth, the fact that we know the origin of many things which the last generation received on authority, is held by some to destroy their sacredness. Lastly, there are those who feel that all the doubts of sceptics put together, fall short of that great doubt which has insinuated itself into their minds, from the contemplation of mankind—saying one thing and doing another.
It is foolish to lament over these things; it would be still more foolish to denounce them. They are the mental trials of the age and country in which God has placed us. If they seem at times to exercise a weakening or unsettling influence, may we not hope that increasing love of truth, deeper knowledge of ourselves and other men, will, in the end, simplify and not perplex the path of life. We may leave off in mature years where we began in youth, and receive not only the kingdom of God, but the world also, as ‘little children.’ The analysis of moral and religious truth may correct its errors without destroying its obligations. Experience of the illusions of religious feeling at a particular time should lead us to place religion on a foundation which is independent of feeling. Because the Scripture is no longer held to be a book of geology or ethnology, or a supernatural revelation of historical facts, it will not cease to be the law of our lives, exercising an influence over us, different in kind from the ideas of philosophical systems, or the aspirations of poetry or romance. Because the world (of which we are a part) is hypocritical and deceitful, and individuals go about dissecting their neighbours’ motives and lives, that is a reason for cherishing a simple and manly temper of mind, which does not love men the less because it knows human nature more; which pierces the secrets of the heart, not by any precess of anatomy, but by the light of an eye from which the mists of selfishness are dispersed.
IV. The relation in which science stands to us may seem to bear but a remote resemblance to that in which the law stood to the Apostle St. Paul. Yet the analogy is not fanciful, but real. Traces of physical laws are discernible everywhere in the world around us; in ourselves also, whose souls are knit together with our bodies, whose bodies are a part of the material creation. It seems as if nature came so close to us as to leave no room for the motion of our will: instead of the inexhaustible grace of God enabling us to say, in the language of the Apostle, ‘I can do all things through Christ that strengtheneth me,’ we become more and more the slaves of our own physical constitution. Our state is growing like that of a person whose mind is over sensitive to the nervous emotions of his own bodily frame. And as the self-consciousness becomes stronger and the contrast between faith and experience more vivid, there arises a conflict between the spirit and the flesh, nature and grace, not unlike that of which the Apostle speaks. No one who, instead of hanging to the past, will look forward to the future, can expect that natural science should stand in the same attitude towards revelation fifty years hence as at present. The faith of mankind varies from age to age; it is weaker, or it may be stronger, at one time than at another. But that which never varies or turns aside, which is always going on and cannot be driven back, is knowledge based on the sure ground of observation and experiment, the regular progress of which is itself matter of observation. The stage at which the few have arrived is already far in advance of the many, and if there were nothing remaining to be discovered, still the diffusion of the knowledge that we have, without new addition, would exert a great influence on religious and social life. Still greater is the indirect influence which science exercises through the medium of the arts. In one century a single invention has changed the face of Europe; three or four such inventions might produce a gulf between us and the future far greater than the interval which separates ancient from modern civilization. Doubtless God has provided a way that the thought of Him should not be banished from the hearts of men. And habit, and opinion, and prescription may ‘last our time,’ and many motives may conspire to keep our minds off the coming change. But if ever our present knowledge of geology, of languages, of the races and religions of mankind, of the human frame itself, shall be regarded as the starting-point of a goal which has been almost reached, supposing too the progress of science to be accompanied by a corresponding development of the mechanical arts, we can hardly anticipate, from what we already see, the new relation that will then arise between reason and faith. Perhaps the very opposition between them may have died away. At any rate experience shows that religion is not stationary when all other things are moving onward.
Changes of this kind pass gradually over the world; the mind of man is not suddenly thrown into a state for which it is unprepared. No one has more doubts than he can carry; the way of life is not found to stop and come to an end in the midst of a volcano, or on the edge of a precipice. Dangers occur, not from the disclosure of any new, or hitherto unobserved, facts, for which, as for all other blessings, we have reason to be thankful to God; but from our concealment or denial of them, from the belief that we can make them other than they are; from the fancy that some a priori notion, some undefined word, some intensity of personal conviction, is the weapon with which they are to be met. New facts, whether bearing on Scripture, or on religion generally, or on morality, are sure to win their way; the tide refuses to recede at any man’s bidding. And there are not wanting signs that the increase of secular knowledge is beginning to be met by a corresponding progress in religious ideas. Controversies are dying out; the lines of party are fading into one another; niceties of doctrine are laid aside. The opinions respecting the inspiration of Scripture, which are held in the present day by good and able men, are not those of fifty years ago; a change may be observed on many points, a reserve on still more. Formulas of reconciliation have sprung up: ‘the Bible is not a book of science,’ ‘the inspired writers were not taught supernaturally what they could have learned from ordinary sources,’ resting-places in the argument at which travellers are the more ready to halt, because they do not perceive that they are only temporary. For there is no real resting-place but in the entire faith, that all true knowledge is a revelation of the will of God. In the case of the poor and suffering, we often teach resignation to the accidents of life; it is not less plainly a duty of religious men, to submit to the progress of knowledge. That is a new kind of resignation, in which many Christians have to school themselves. When the difficulty may seem, in anticipation, to be greatest, they will find, with the Apostle, that there is a way out: ‘The truth has made them free.’