Edited by Rev. John Adams, B.D.
Studies in the Thought of the Fourth Gospel
By W. B. Selbie, MA., D.D.
(John xiv. 6)
These words form the climax of the story of our Lord’s self -revelation to Thomas. Of the three steps or stages here given the last is the highest. It may be true that we cannot understand how Christ is "the life" without in some measure at least knowing Him as "the truth" and "the way"; but certain it is that He only becomes to us the way and the truth as we grow to find in Him our life. As a rough expression of the distinction here involved, we may say that the relation between Christ and His disciples is not only moral as when spoken of in "the way,” or intellectual as in "the truth,” but must also be spiritual as indicated by the term "life.” And in the life which Christ is for men, and wherewith He inspires all His followers, we have the end which is aimed at in every other function and character which He assumes. A careful study of the remainder of the discourse in which these words occur will support this conclusion. Though the term "life" seems almost to disappear and to give place to that of "love,” the whole tenor of the argument points in the direction of a living union between Himself and His own, the attainment of which is the supreme end of their being and of His; for He came into the world that men might have life and have it more abundantly. And here we have an ample and sufficient definition, not only of Christianity, but of revelation itself. And in looking to Christ, and celebrating His coming into the world, we are moved, so far as we are consciously moved at all, by the grateful sense that in Him is life — a new, more potent, more engrossing life for men. Here too is the end and aim of all Christian activities the world over. We preach not to make proselytes, but to produce life.
1. The Supreme Test of Religion.
The difference between a man who has religion and one who has not cannot be better expressed than in this way — that one is alive, the other dead. Probably to many this is rather a hackneyed and unmeaning phrase, but when we come to look at it, there is a great gulf fixed between one whose spirit has been once kindled by contact with the Divine Spirit, and one who lives without God in the world. It is not implied for a single moment that all so-called religious people have this kindling of spiritual life in themselves, or that all those who are outside ordinary religious circles are without it. It is certain, however, that this is the test we ought to apply in gauging the religion of men. The mischief is that, with the tests commonly in vogue, it is quite possible for men to have the name of Christian when their religion is not a life but only a death cunningly concealed. And not until we come to the conclusion that the outward observance and expression of the religion are nothing, but the inward spirit everything, shall we be able really to separate the chaff from the wheat. Our ordinary distinctions between religious people, differences of church name and organisation, differences of religious belief and doctrinal expression, are utterly meaningless beside the broad line which marks off the spiritual from the unspiritual, the quick from the dead. If a man is spiritually alive, we need not care very much in what forms his life finds for itself expression. These things are at best secondary; the great thing is that he be alive unto God. And so the great object of all our church teaching and church activity is not to make men good churchmen or good dissenters, but to wake them up to the sense of the reality of spiritual things; to work on them that miracle of which the prophet Ezekiel tells, and clothe their dry bones with living flesh. No doubt it is a respectable triumph to have compassed heaven and earth in the making of a proselyte; but what is that after all to the joy of having been instrumental in the birth of a soul, of having roused in one human heart the passion for the Divine, that upward looking and forward longing that will speed it to its true goal in God. And it is because we so often lose the latter and higher of these objects in the former and lower, because we forget the inner spirit in preparing the outward show, that our religion is after all so poor a business, a mere stage-play, a hypocrisy, a thing of masks and mummery, rather than a full, potent, and active life. And do not let us think that we are here raising what is, after all, a mere metaphor to the dignity of irrefragable truth. When Christ said, "I am the life,” He was using language of sober fact, and was preparing the way for a St. Paul, who should be able to say, "It is no longer I that live, but Christ liveth in me.” And the experience is not confined to St. Paul. Many a Christian now knows himself to be alive in a sense he was not once, because he is open to the influence of the facts and relationships of a far grander and higher order of things than this material world. There is nothing mean or paltry about the religion of Jesus Christ, though there may be in our expression of it. Give it scope, however, and it opens the heart of man to all noble and uplifting influences, and "brings the soul within the sight and sweep of a whole world of facts, which transcend this world as heaven excels the earth, and which have power to stir more absorbing desires, more overwhelming sorrows, and more rapturous joys than any that are born of time and sense.” Compared with the life lived in these high regions and in this clear air, the life lived in the flesh and the world alone is but a death in life. There is no more comparison between the two than there is between the life which a man lives in the centre of modern civilisation with a refined and complex environment, and the existence of a dull savage in the primeval forests of Central Africa. Face to face with God, men live as they cannot live by any other means. They may be low in station and poor in dress, their natures may be commonplace and even vulgar; but if we look below the surface we shall find that they have an inner life, which they keep for other eyes than ours, and which is rich in experience, lofty in enthusiasm, large in hope. And these men, we say, live indeed, because they have a life which is independent of all outward circumstances and surroundings, which ill-fortune cannot mar, and death itself cannot kill.
And Christ is for man this life. That is to say, in and through Christ we may obtain this life, and by Him it is sustained. He is at once its source and its goal. As to the process by which Christ becomes the life of men, we can say very little. We do not know, for example, how seed germinates, and brings forth first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear. It is with results rather than with processes we have to deal. We must be cautious, too, how we here press the metaphor of the new birth, and beware of turning analogies into laws. The life which Christ gives is sometimes spoken of as a life which has been once lost, and therefore not newly given. It is regarded as the healing of the sick and the raising from the dead. "They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.” "You did He quicken who were dead in trespasses and sins.” It is, therefore, a life not utterly abnormal or even supernatural. Man is a spiritual being, and contact with Christ kindles the latent spirit of God within him. Man was made in God’s image, and Christ is his life, because He has proved His power to bring out this image, and make all its grandest features clear.
2. The Laws by which it is Governed.
Having said so much, we may go on to show how the life Christ is comes under some of those laws which govern all life as we know it. For instance, we say that all life is derived and resembles that from which it is derived. Or, in other words, life is passed on from one organism to another, and always after its own kind. And so may we not only say that it is through Christ that Christians live, but that it is His life which is reproduced in them. And this brings us at least a step nearer the heart of the matter. When He said, "I am the life,” He meant to do more than remind us that we possess a life resembling the life that is in Him. The parable of the Vine and the Branches teaches clearly enough that the same life animates both, and the whole of New Testament teaching regarding the mystery of communion between Christians and their Lord goes to show that they become partakers of the life that was in Him. The best illustration of this that we can find is that derived from our experience of contact between human personalities. We all know how contact with a greater and stronger personality produces effects in us that may reasonably be compared to the importation of new life. So contact with Jesus Christ, through the doing of His will and the thinking of His thoughts, means that virtue goes out from Him and enters into His followers. The result is not only that we come to share His standpoint and to see things with His eyes, but that a new vital force enters into us. We receive power from on high, and become capable of efforts which would be impossible to our unaided strength. In the first enthusiasm of the Christian propaganda the gospel was quite commonly represented in terms of force. "It was the power of God unto salvation,” and it was so because it brought men and women within range of a spiritual renewal which meant to them "the power of an endless life.” The means by which this was accomplished was the dominating personality of Jesus Christ, who became to men the source of a new life and hope. As devotion to Him absorbed their energies, and the life that they lived in the flesh took a new and higher direction, they were freed from its temporary distractions and were able to concentrate themselves on the eternal goal. So doing, they learned for themselves the secret of the words: "The choice of ways is arbitrary, the problem of truth is insoluble until council has been held in the inner shrine of life.”
But, further, the life thus given must be sustained and must grow. So salvation in Christ has its perfect work, because He is not merely the giver but the nourisher of divine life in man. God hath blessed us with every spiritual blessing in Christ, and so hath called us into fellowship with Himself. As Dr. Dale says: "The life of faith in the Son of God is the ideal life for man. When God calls us into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, He calls us back to those divine heights which are native to us, to our original place in the Divine household.” And may we not say, we keep the place thus given, and climb ever higher those hills of God, by the grace which this same Christ supplies? Life must be constantly nourished if it is to win in the fight with the forces of decay and death, and we must eat of the bread and drink of the water of life if we would live and not die. Or, to render this into plain prose, we must cultivate the spiritual habit, and in the things of God deal with ourselves in as orderly and rigorous a fashion as in the things of daily life. The fact that the life is given to us in Christ does not absolve us from all responsibility. It is a free ethical and spiritual life which is given, and it rests with us to make it what it may become. He works in us through certain appointed and, we may say, natural channels, and we have to make room for His operation. It is given to us to quench as well as to cherish the life He supplies. And when we say He sustains as well as gives it, it must always be with the reservation, if we will. While on His side are springs of living water, clouds big with fatness, on ours must be the thirsty land that waits for the early and latter rain. "I am the vine,” He says, "ye are the branches"; "the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine.” And in this fresh image we can see how our life not only is drawn from His, but depends upon a constant and intimate communion with Him. In the spiritual as in the natural world it is true that communion is the law of all life. Independent life tends to degenerate into its lower and primitive elements. And to a true communion there are at least two parties. Christ has done His share of the work and does it, and it remains for us to do ours. Hence the imperative need for our cultivation of the spiritual habit of prayer, for example, which is the drawing in of Divine life from the spring, of spiritual exercises which are the gymnastics of the soul and train us for climbing on the mountains of God, of faith which reveals to us that God’s stores are inexhaustible, and so makes the Christ-life in us, as has been said, "not a luxury, but an energy.”
And, once more, the life thus originated and sustained reproduces itself. If it is to live, it must increase and propagate its kind. If we are in Christ, then we shall manifest or advertise Christ. We shall show that His word is to us not a mere formal statement of truth, but spirit and life. Apart from Him, we can indeed do nothing; but the question is whether we do all that we might do, having Him and with His life in us. Does the fruit we bear show that we are of a surety branches of the true vine? We need to act more resolutely up to the often-expressed conviction that life in Christ is not mere sentiment, but an energy of the soul. He must work through us as well as in us. And the value of the work thus done is the exact measure of the depth and reality of the spiritual life we live in Him. Of all this the disciples give us the best, if the most elementary, examples. With the departure of Jesus from the earth they entered upon a new stage in their devotion to Him. And it is significant that they then learned to look to Him not simply as a blessed memory, but as a practical inspiration. The power of that Spirit which He gave they realised in the promise, "Lo, I am with you alway"; and they went about doing not their own work, but the work of Him who had chosen and sent them forth. And therein is our discipleship to-day — in doing the works of the Master in His stead, and not in vapid worship or empty profession of His name. To succour the poor and needy, to preach the gospel to the outcast, to teach the ignorant, to nurse the sick, to live in peace and charity with all — these things, and not any systems of doctrine, however well ordered, are the legitimate and natural result of the Christian life in man.
And so, finally, this life which Christ is, like His truth, is very broad. Its glory is ' that it includes every other kind of life. They who live through Him and in whom He is, can never confine their interests and activities to some small section of existence which they call religious, and shut themselves off from all other life because they label it as secular. There is a lower and a higher in all life, undoubtedly, but the province of the higher is to absorb that which is lower. The life of Christ is given to men that they may spread it, and so by it spiritualise the universe. It would be a fine thing if Christians would live as though they believed in their Christianity, in its spreading, reproductive power. They could offer then a bolder front to evil, and give much-needed confirmation to their own faith. It is sheer faint-heartedness and arrant lack of faith to deal with the Christian life as though it were some delicate exotic, to be shielded from every breath of air and kept in a glass house, a prisoner for ever. This life is indeed spiritual, but it was given that it might permeate all life. It must be suffered freely to mix with lower life, and not be pent up in a prison-house of strained emotions. The Christianity that puts a mask on a man, makes his movements awkward, and fetters his freedom, is as false as it is unnatural. This life of our Lord is not as one life among many; it is the supreme life, destined to prevail over all others, to absorb everything that is best in humanity. And so, if we live in Him indeed, we live most intensely. The life of the spirit leads to more active and nobler life in the body. Our stake in life is doubled, our interest in men and the affairs of men vastly increased. The Christian lives as no other man can live, because his life is the most fruitful in results, the most broad in outlook, and the most full of joy.
Now let us go back to the point raised at the beginning. This aspect of the Christian religion as a life which is in Christ and which Christ is, is as old as Christianity itself, but, as far as Christians are concerned, it is comparatively new. In the Life of Dean Stanley it is stated that he was one of the first to reach and maintain the point that religion was life rather than creed. This has become now quite a pulpit commonplace, but there is still need for it to be transferred from the pulpit to the pew. The root of the whole matter is in the fact that the difference between the spiritual and the unspiritual is absolute. The end of all religious teaching is to open men’s eyes, to transfer them to a finer atmosphere, make them live again. Christ is to us nothing until we have ceased merely to speculate about Him, and come to share His life. In the famous words of Melancthon: "To know Christ is to know the benefits He confers, not merely to be acquainted with His natures and the modes of His Incarnation.”