Edited by Rev. John Adams, B.D.
Studies in the Thought of the Fourth Gospel
By W. B. Selbie, MA., D.D.
KNOWLEDGE AND ACTION
(John vii. 17)
These words are among the deep sayings of Jesus Christ. He came into the world to reveal God to man, to teach religion, and to show men the way of life. But men were blind and could not understand the beauty and truth of His teaching. Though He spake to them with authority they would not hear. The Jews marvelled at His wisdom but could not conceive how He had attained it. He told them, "My doctrine is not Mine, but His that sent Me.” He had a spiritual knowledge, and it came to Him not by learning, but by insight into the will of God.
Here, then, is the principle of all religious knowledge. The quest for the knowledge of God still rouses the most eager efforts of men. "Oh that I knew where I might find Him,” are words which have an echo in every heart. Even those who have abandoned the search in despair and have concluded that the best knowledge of God is to say that we know Him not, are ready to listen to those who profess to teach the deep things of God. But men in these days are beginning to understand that the knowledge of God is not to be attained merely by methods of observation and study. We live in a scientific age. The progress of science has lighted up the whole world, and religion cannot ignore it. It has changed our conception of the Bible and of the history of religion. Biblical criticism, the historical method, and the science of comparative religion are legitimate and useful studies. But they can only give us teaching about God, and not the knowledge of God Himself. For it is possible to know much about God and His works, but not to know Him. The Pharisees knew the laws of God, but they were blind and unable to see the glory of the Father in the face of Jesus Christ. Therefore, Jesus spake these words and bade them do the will of God that they might know the teaching.
1. The Need of Sympathy.
Thus the knowledge of God, according to Jesus Christ, does not come by study but by sympathy. To know a friend is not to know his history, and his ancestry, and his habits, but to have a fellow-feeling with the man himself. There must be a certain likeness of nature, and identity of interest, and sympathy of soul, before a man can be truly known. So it is with God. Study and investigation show us but the outskirts of His ways. There must be a certain moral sympathy with Him before He can be fully known. There is an old saying that the heart makes the theologian, or in more modern speech, "It is the fundamentally ethical quality in man on which Christ seizes as the organon for gaining a true knowledge of God.” There is a real distinction between religious and scientific knowledge, but the one may be as sound and trustworthy as the other. Truth about God comes to men by processes as valid as those which result in any scientific formula. It has its foundation in experience, an experience to which modern psychology is teaching us to attach an ever-increasing importance. It is impossible to describe God in fixed terms as you can the properties of air and water. But to the religious man the words "God is love" convey as much as a chemical formula does to the scientist, and for him are equally true. But the criterion of truth is necessarily different in both cases. As Prof. Paulsen says, "The final and highest truths — the truths by which and for which a man lives and dies — do not rest upon scientific knowledge but have their origin in the heart, in the essential principle of the will.” This principle is universal and belongs to all men. Therefore, when Jesus Christ bade men do the will of God in order that they might know of the teaching, He was not evading the issue, but laying down a natural law of the religious life and consciousness. He calls men to do His will, to follow Him, and He proclaims Himself as the way to the Father. To the soul that cries, “Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief,” He opens the plain path of the duty that lies nearest, and bids it seek God by service and sacrifice and the life of holy love.
The method of Jesus is thus the strictly scientific method of the hypothesis. Every scientific truth is first an assumption which a man puts to the test of experience and proves by taking it for granted. So if you would know God you must take Him for granted and walk in His light until the day dawns and the shadows flee away. This explains why spiritual knowledge is so real, and the grasp of religious truth so possible, to people who are altogether illiterate. These can at least do the will of God as they know it, and strive to walk in His ways, and the experience they gain thereby brings them ever nearer to Him who is the truth. This is why the knowledge of God is often hidden from the wise and prudent and revealed to babes. It is only a humble and childlike spirit that will suffer a man to take Christ at His word and submit his will to the daily practical guidance of the will of God. Here is the bond of union between all true believers.
2. Its Practical Character.
The subject becomes clearer when we remember that Jesus Christ did not leave men in any doubt as to what the will of God might mean. His ethical teaching has too often been regarded by the Christian Church as a mere ideal and as unsuited to the necessities of daily life. It was not so to Jesus Christ Himself. His spirit was intensely practical, and there is no doubt that He meant men to fulfil the demands which He laid upon them. This does not mean that we must put a literal interpretation upon all His words. He spoke figuratively, but behind all the images He used were definite principles on which He would have men act. The great aim of His teaching was the building up of Christian character. But the attainment of this character was not an end in itself. Men were to be pure in heart that they might see God. So He required of men faith rather than knowledge, or as a means to knowledge. They were to trust God by walking in His ways in order that they might know Him. Faith is thus an active principle in the religious life, and the end of it is a clean heart and life, and a deeper and fuller acquaintance with the Divine. Religious experience, according to Jesus, is not a product of mysticism or sentiment. It is a severely practical thing. It means the denial of self for the ends of God’s kingdom; the renunciation of this world to win a better; the taking up of the cross after Christ; the discipline of the soul and the quickening of the moral sense. So to Jesus the ethical in religion is always prior to the intellectual. The sin of unbelief consists not in wrong opinions, but in irreverence, unteachableness, and satisfaction with oneself. Christian character results in, and does not follow from, the Christian creed.
It is important to remember, further, that the doing of God’s will does not necessarily involve any high achievements or any heroic measures. When Jesus bade men "seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” He was no doubt bidding them start on a very high enterprise. But the quest of it was to begin low down in the region of daily service and discipline. The maxim, "Do the duty that lies nearest thee,” is truly Christian; and the beauty of the ethics of Jesus lies in the fact that they begin with the common round and daily task and lead men into larger fields. The disciple of Jesus is like the soldier on active service who is so occupied with routine and details that he has scarcely any recognition of the fact that he is under the command of a great general and playing his part in a vast campaign. Yet it is the glory of Christianity to teach men to do the commonest duties as unto the Lord. The Christian life toils on through valleys and low-lying places, but its face is set to the hills. As a modern teacher has said: "It moves from small moral matters up to large religious ones. The road up is man’s natural path. It may see in the little the large, and may look through the finite limited duty into the friendly face of the Eternal.”
Thus the way to God lies along the steep and lonely path of duty; by that way alone can men attain to the heavenly vision and to the peace which passeth understanding. "Turn to the right and keep straight on,” said a great bishop once to one who asked him to put religion into a sentence. And the maxim is a good one. The light of the knowledge of God comes slowly, and there are many difficulties and hindrances to be faced, but it is at least something to know that we have our faces set in the right direction. Frederick Robertson put this truth into memorable words when he said: "It is an awful moment when the soul begins to find that the props on which it has blindly rested so long are, many of them, rotten, and begins to suspect them all. In that fearful loneliness of spirit — I know but one way in which a man may come forth from his agony scatheless: it is by holding fast to those things which are certain still — the grand simple landmarks of morality.... If there be no God and no future state, yet' even then it is better to be generous than selfish, better to be chaste than licentious, better to be true than false, better to be brave than to be a coward. Thrice blessed is he who — when all is drear and cheerless — has obstinately clung to moral good. Thrice blessed because his night shall pass into clear bright day.” "He that willeth to do His will shall know of the teaching.”
3. The Power of Will.
Once more, it is important to notice that the appeal of Jesus Christ here is not to the emotions but to the will. Sentiment plays so large a part in religion that we are apt to forget that in Christian teaching the chief stress is laid on the will. The true sequence is obedience first, then knowledge, and obedience is an affair of the will. This is entirely in accordance with the findings of modern psychology, which teaches us that "The willing department of our nature dominates both the conceiving department and the feeling department.”
Those who have studied the pathology of souls are fully aware of the fact that a most serious symptom is the loss of will power which comes through a long persistence in evil. Christianity does not merely say to the sinner, "Be good,” but brings to him the promise of power. To multitudes of men and women Christ means and has meant a reinforcement of the will power such as alone can give them the means of throwing off ingrained habit and of asserting their truer selves. Jesus asks His followers for something more than mere assent to His words. He asks them for devotion to His ideals and consecration to His service, and for an obedience which is the highest form of faith. Men are not to be persuaded of the truth of Christianity by arguments, they have to prove it for themselves by becoming dedicated spirits. No doubt this is much to ask, but it is only what every teacher asks of his pupils — that they should put themselves into his hands and follow his methods that they may learn what he has to teach. It will be an immense gain when the Christian Church comes fully to understand that the method of Jesus is moral and practical rather than intellectual or sentimental. With Him character is the first thing, and the roots of character are in the will. Thus His appeal to all perplexed and doubting souls is that they approach the great problems of life and destiny along the simple road of duty and of ethics. By taking Him as our guide thus far, we can feel our way gradually towards that larger knowledge which He has to give.
4. A Basis of Unity.
Here too we have the real basis of Christian unity. With regard to the intellectual expression of religion there must always be difference of opinion, and human nature being what it is, it is well that such differences should exist. But in matters of conduct and character there is no room for wide diversities. We can all recognise goodness when we see it, and goodness is the same for all. It is often said that the truest Christian unity is to be found in the mission field, where Christian churches are constrained to forget their differences when they come to face their common foe. So at home they should find a like principle of union in the effort to maintain the ethical ideal, and to get the will of God done on earth as it is in heaven. We can all sing the same hymns because they express, as a rule, the ethical and spiritual rather than the dogmatic side of our religion. There is a camaraderie among saints which no differences of opinion can altogether obscure, and our first business as Christians is to be saints in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore strive, one and all, to do the will of God more perfectly, that we may come to know more of His mind, and that we may help to establish the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. The law here stated is universal in its application. The knowledge of God is possible to all men. It is not the possession of the select few, of the learned or of the privileged. He has hidden these things from the wise and prudent and has revealed them unto babes. If the way to religious knowledge were by argument and study, but few would be able to attain it. To be pure in heart is possible to all who have the will, and therefore all may see God. Just as it is possible to get into touch with the spirit of a great master of painting or of music by perpetually copying his work, so by the imitation of Christ it is possible to enter into His mind and to know His teaching. The experiment is one that all have to make for themselves. It may be faultily made, for it is no impossible perfection that Jesus demands, but if there is the good will behind it, it will not be without results. To all those who truly seek Him and are perplexed by doubts and failures He points out the road of service, self-sacrifice, and holiness. It is a great thing that the divers thoughts of men should be expressed in one tongue which all can understand. So there is a moral esperanto, a language of the soul which is the same for all — the language of good deeds and a holy life. This alone can bring about that unity amid diversity which should be the hope and prayer of every true follower of Christ.