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Lecture XX: The Gift of Comfort and Hope

(Art. 25b)
ART. XXVb

Bot sik as with heart unfainedly beleeve, and with mouth bauldly confesse the Lord Jesus, as before we have said, sall most assuredly receive their guiftes: First, in this life, remission of sinnes, and that be only faith in Christs blude; in samekle, that albeit sinne remaine and continuallie abyde in thir our mortall bodies, zit it is not imputed unto us, bot is remitted, and covered with Christs Justice. Secundly, in the general Judgement, there sall be given to every man and woman resurrection of the flesh: For the Sea sall give her dead; the Earth, they that therein be inclosed; zea, the Eternall our God sall stretche out his hand on the dust, and the dead sall arise uncorruptible, and that in the substance of the selfe same flesh that every man now beiris, to receive according to their warkis, glory or punishment: For sik as now delyte in vanity, cruelty, filthynes, superstition or Idolatry, sal be adjudged to the fire unquencheable: In quhilk they sall be tormented for ever, asweill in their awin bodyes, as in their saules, quhilk now they give to serve the Devill in all abhomination. Bot sik as continew in weil doing to the end, bauldely professing the Lord Jesus, we constantly beleve, that they sall receive glorie, honor, and immortality, to reigne for ever in life everlasting with Christ Jesus, to whose glorified body all his Elect sall be made lyke, when he sall appeir againe in judgement, and sall rander up the kingdome to God his Father, who then sall bee, and ever sall remaine all in all things God blessed for ever: To whome, with the Sonne and with the haly Ghaist, be all honour and glorie, now and ever. So be it.

Arise (O Lord) and let thy enimies be confounded; let them flee from thy presence that hate thy godlie Name. Give thy servands strenth to speake thy word in bauldnesse, and let all Natiouns cleave to thy trew knawledge. Amen.

I

The first third of this, the 25th and last article of the Confession (i.e. up to the words “and therefore have they na fruite of Christs death, Resurrection nor Ascension”), has already been dealt with in our 14th lecture. What is said there, from the nature of its content, belongs somewhere halfway between Articles 16 and 17. That it is said here and not at that place may well be one of the traces of the somewhat hasty editing which is characteristic of the whole document.1 If we had to do with a passage out of the Old or New Testaments, the ingenuity of higher criticism would not fail to raise doubts whether misunderstanding on the part of a scribe has not caused a dislocation of the pages here. But it must none the less be noted, that the further reminder of the ambiguous character of the historical form of the church can, in connection with what follows, be to some purpose even here. Despite all reformation the true church and the false are at present still together, just as the wheat and the tares are together and just as according to Article 13 the flesh and the spirit in the Christian life despite all the struggle are still together. The church is looking forward to a final eternal judgement, in which the separation of the two will be accomplished and the true church will be made unmistakeably visible. This judgement, which for the present remains hidden, will be the church's justification.

What this means can perhaps be shown even more clearly, if we proceed from the results of our last lecture on the political service of God. We considered the life of the church in its necessary relation to that of the State, and we considered the Christian life in its necessary determination as political duty and responsibility. This relation and this determination can neither be denied nor avoided; there is no escape from them. The life of faith is enacted in this world. The believer belongs to this world with every word that he speaks and with every step that he takes. If he sought to think even for a moment that he was outside the world, he would only be giving way to fancy. But the order governing the world—so far as the world is ordered at all, and in many ways it is in disorder—is the political order. And this very order, even in its best forms, is a questionable one. What it can bring about and preserve is outward justice, outward freedom and outward peace. Behind these a whole slough of injustice, bondage and strife lies hidden. We are not yet in the Kingdom of God. This is manifestly shown by the fact that this order cannot be preserved even in its best forms save by means of force and coercion. And once again, force and coercion threaten to become more indispensable than ever, when it is a case of replacing a worse form of this order by a better. But love in which faith has its life—and with it faith itself—is clearly endangered where we have to have recourse to force and coercion as means. This danger does not first arise with the possibility of revolution against some definitely bad form of the political order. On the contrary, it arises with the “normal” attitude of submission to what may conceivably be the best form of that order. Even in such a case we give our assent directly or indirectly to force and coercion. Let us recall a single fact: the life of the State, whose character as service of God should be perfectly clear to us, must hold itself ready to make war, and we ourselves are involved by it in this readiness, and perhaps sooner or later in something more than readiness! What will become of faith and love then? We are not going to say that one can in no circumstances take part in war in faith and love. But there are cogent reasons for maintaining that war—and not only war but the whole atmosphere of force and coercion characteristic of the political life critically endangers faith and love. Does the use of such means not involve our leaving the service of Jesus Christ and our entering the service of other masters? That is the questionableness and the danger of the State's service of God.

If both the necessity of the State's service of God and its questionableness and danger cannot escape our notice, then we cannot fail to notice either the fact that this proclaims, that even the church and even the Christians live here and now within the confines of a world not yet redeemed, and that this world is the world of sinful man, whose reconciliation is indeed already accomplished in Jesus Christ but is still hidden. What was done for man once and for all on Calvary and what his life is in the mystery of God to all eternity is one thing, and what he himself experiences, thinks and does here and now is another. The Word of God and faith are the bridge between the one and the other. But the gulf between the two remains, and this bridge over it is formed only by the Word of God and faith. Hence our existence in the church and in the State, with all the problems which surround this twofold existence. Hence, too, the ambiguous form of the church herself. Hence life in the spirit and in the flesh, in the struggle of the one against the other. And hence the judgement, the day of the Lord, as the goal and the end of all, even of all our days as Christian men.

II

It is noteworthy that the heading of this last article is not “of the last judgement,” but “of the guiftes freely given to the Kirk.” In accordance with the content of the article, I have entitled this chapter—The Gift of Comfort and Hope. Our forefathers did not overlook the enigmatic character of the life of the church and of Christians. In fact in the very face of this enigma they held fast to the gift which has been vouchsafed and promised to the church by God. And in the divine judgement itself, which is to come and which will solve this enigma finally and for ever, they saw the gift of God and not something for fear and trembling. They looked forward with gladness to the judgement. That is the final lesson which we have to learn from them.

To sum up: the discord in the existence of the church and in that of the Christian is to be seen and acknowledged as such. The church would not be alive if she failed courageously to enter into this discord. Nor would she be alive if she did not perceive it as discord and did not suffer under it. And once more the church would not be alive if she thought that she could overcome this discord by means of anything which could be felt, thought, said or done by Christians. There are systems enough whose purport is to endow the church and Christians with strength and confidence for their existence in the world by giving them advice of one kind or another on how to be done with the riddle and contradiction of their existence, and on how to gain peace from the menace to their existence. There are conservative systems, which maintain that in order to master that enigma, the church has internally only to consolidate herself as far as possible and externally to enter into the most reliable agreements she can with State and people, society and learning. And there are revolutionary systems which hold that in order to have a right to expect that the Kingdom of God may sooner or later come of its own accord and be visible both in the confines of the church and in political, economic and social relationships, the church has internally merely to give free course to the Holy Spirit and externally merely to let the power of faith and hope which she possesses have free play. Both systems equally overlook the fact that to bridge the gulf between what has already happened and what has not yet become visible is not a task committed to us. And both equally overlook the fact that he who wants to gain peace for himself in this matter can only be a servant of unrest, and conversely that he who wants peace here, may not desire to escape unrest in any direction whatever. Both systems equally overlook the one real bridge which leads across the gulf—the Word of God and faith. It is of this bridge that the Confession reminds us once more when it reminds us of the gift vouchsafed and promised to the church. It reminds us not of any good deeds whether revolutionary or conservative which the church might have to perform, but of the gift which God has vouchsafed and will vouchsafe to the church.

In describing this gift the Confession mentions two things—the comfort of sins forgiven and the hope of resurrection and eternal life. It mentions these two in particular, clearly in reference to the concluding words of what is called the Apostles' Creed, which forms the secret clue to the whole document. Note however that these two things correspond precisely to the nature of the gulf which runs right through the middle of the church and the life of Christians. Note further how both in their own way indicate the judgement of God and with it the closing of that gulf which is to be accomplished by God and not by us. And note finally how both of them point us to the one real bridge by which alone we can cross the gulf here and now.

The forgiveness of sins is the gift bestowed on us by God, the comfort which we may lay hold of and possess, although our reconciliation with God is still hidden, hidden in what happened on Calvary and not yet visible in what we call our Christian life and not visible either in the historical form of the church or in our political service to God. But even here and now, in the midst of the contradiction of our existence, we are not unreconciled. And why are we not unreconciled? Because our reconciliation is hidden there at what happened on Calvary. And that place there is greater than our present position here. The time of Jesus Christ is more important than our time. And what comforts the church is that our present position is seen in the light of that place and our times are utterly in the hands of Him Who revealed Himself at that time as the Lord. There and then the gulf was already closed for to-day. There the judgement of God has already taken place in so far as His verdict on us has already been given and He has already decided there in our favour with justice and mercy. We are startled by the utter insufficiency of our Christian life and by the fact that the true and false church continue to exist visibly together, and startled too by the dreadful questionableness and danger of our political service of God. We may well be frightened and ought to be. But we have something more pressing to do than to be frightened. We have to accept the comfort that in Jesus Christ there is forgiveness of all the sin with which we could charge ourselves and with which others could charge us, and this without any merit on our part, and yet in accordance with justice and with full validity. The charge against us has been brought already in a more terrible form than we or anyone else could bring it. But also the verdict has already been given and is to the effect that in Jesus Christ we are in the right before God. This is still more important and right, actually it is infinitely more important and right, than the other fact that apart from Jesus Christ we must without any doubt be in the wrong in everything. The more pressing thing which we have to do is to have faith, i.e. to hold firm to the fact that we have been put in the right in Jesus Christ, and in Him alone, but in Him for all time. The more pressing thing which we have to do is to live in this faith at every point, in our personal life, in the church and in the State. In this faith we lay hold of and possess the forgiveness of all our sin, and therefore in this faith we shall live as those who are comforted. This is the gift of comfort which God has given His church.

And now the gift promised us by God is the resurrection of the body and eternal life—the hope which we may lay hold of and possess, although our reconciliation with God is still hidden, hidden with Christ in God and thus not visible as yet in any of the spheres we have mentioned. Once again, even here and now, we are not unreconciled. And why are we not unreconciled? The reason is that our reconciliation is hidden, not merely somewhere or other, but there with Christ in God and that thus the time lying before us is in the same hands as that which lies behind us. This is the hope of the church. Jesus Christ alone is her hope, just as Jesus Christ alone is her comfort. We have, strictly speaking, absolutely no knowledge of the resurrection of the body and eternal life beyond what the Word of God tells us, and it tells us that Jesus Christ has arisen from the dead and lives eternally with God and that His resurrection and eternal life are our future also, because He is our Lord, the Lord of Creation and of our whole existence, both our souls and bodies, and because we belong to Him and not to ourselves. But in knowing this we know enough. In Him the verdict on us has been not only given but put into effect. If His righteousness means resurrection from the dead and eternal life and if His righteousness is our righteousness, then what we have to await and what is revealed to us as our future can only be resurrection and eternal life. Such is the hope in which we may live—once more in all spheres, in our personal life, in the church and in the State. All the darkness of our present position is not dark enough to resist such light as this. All our feeling of weakness, all our lack of assurance and the anxiety of which our hearts can be full at the present time, cannot be great enough to destroy the strength and confidence with which we may live in this light. But life in this light is life from and with the Word of God in which the risen Jesus Christ meets us continually. Because He does so, and because He permits His Word continually to be spread abroad and to be heard, our hope cannot die or be thwarted, or degenerate into weariness and despair, but can and will hold its ground in the midst of every kind of weariness and despair. But for this very reason we must continue in faith and in adherence to the Word of God. Any future life other than that of the Word and so of Jesus Christ Himself could only consist in our condemnation and eternal death, of which indeed the Confession also warns us. But this can only be mentioned as a warning, an indication of what man might be if left to himself and thus lost, but what in Jesus Christ he cannot be, a reminder of the fact that outside the Word of God there is no life but only temporal and eternal torment. If we adhere to the Word of God, we can and shall think of this torment, of which the Confession speaks, only as something that has fallen into oblivion for time and eternity.

III

We have come to the end. I promised at the beginning of these lectures to render a service to what is called Natural Theology—to its establishment and propagation—by confronting it with its exact opposite, the teaching of the Reformation, without saying any more about it itself. It has now been so confronted. I believe that there is no important statement in the Scottish Confession and no important statement occurring in my lectures either, which the representative of Natural Theology can avoid considering as the direct opposite of his own tenets and therefore of necessity extraordinarily interesting and profitable for his own particular undertaking. I feel therefore that I have fulfilled my obligations toward the Gifford lectures.

I close with a short observation about prayer, with which the Confession ends: “Arise, O Lord, and let thy enemies be confounded; let them flee from thy presence that hate Thy godlie name. Give thy servands strenth to speake thy word in bauldness, and let all Natiouns cleave to thy trew knawledge. Amen.”

Its first sentence comes from Psalm 68, 2, the second sentence from Acts 4, 29, the third seems to be a free composition on the part of the authors of the Confession. The teaching of the Reformation is only rightly understood when it is realised that its Confession of faith must end with prayer and therefore naturally must begin with prayer too, and that the only prayer possible at this place must be the one found here, “Arise, O Lord,” and “give Thy servants strength”—the prayer for God's Word and Revelation, and the prayer for faith and thus in the first instance and in the second a prayer for God's own action, which alone makes amends for what we ourselves shall do badly on all occasions, however hard we strive after right knowledge of God and right service of God. The church, by praying and praying thus, declares that she puts her trust not in herself but in the comfort and hope, whose name is Jesus Christ—and in the power of the name of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the one true God, to whom alone all Honour and Glory is due. By praying and praying thus the church declares that she is crossing the gulf by the one real bridge. Without prayer of this kind Reformation teaching would have no real foundation. All its statements, strictly speaking, can only be understood, if one allows oneself to be called by them to prayer of this kind. Natural Theology has this advantage over the teaching of the Reformation that it has no need of prayer of this kind, and requires neither to begin nor end with it. What it claims to know about God, the world and man can most certainly be known without such prayer. Is this an advantage? I wish to leave this question open, after having indicated once more the dimension to which men must turn their gaze if the statements of Reformed Theology are not merely to be heard and discussed, but recognised as the Words of Truth.

As Prof. G. D. Henderson has shown in his introduction to the new edition of the Confession.