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INDIVIDUAL RESPONSIBILITY GROWING OUT OF OUR PERILS AND OP
ADDRESS BY REV. A. J. GORDON, D. D.,
John Foster used to say, “Power to its last particle is duty." It is a faithful saying and worthy of all consideration. Without ability there can be no responsibility, as without a substance there can be no shadow. And even with the substance there can be no shadow except there be sunlight to cast it; and with ability there can be no clear sense of responsibility except we stand in “ the light of the knowledge of the glory of God.” Therefore what we need is not a revival of ethics, as some are saying, but a revival of vital piety. For men will not recognize their stewardship to Christ until they recognize Christ's lordship over them, and it is written in Scripture that “no man can say that Jesus is Lord but by the Holy Ghost.”
Now we are accustomed to say that responsibility is measured by opportunity. That is certainly one of its measures. But there are two factors necessary to constitute an opportunity, viz., the ability and the occasion. There may be the ability without the occasion, or there may be the occasion without the ability; in either case we have but half an opportunity which cannot evoke any very great responsibility. But where both are present in large degree-ability and occasion—the upper and nether millstones of accountability have come together, and woe be to the Christian who gets between them. For if now corn is not ground into bread for a suffering world, the owner of the corn will be ground; if he does not give his substance he shall be in peril of losing his soul. It is estimated that eight billions of dollars are treasured up in the hands of Protestant Christians to-day in the United States, a sum so great that it staggers our mathematics to compute it. That is one single element of our ability. Into our doors, the untaught and unregenerated populations of the Old World are pouring by the hundreds of thousands every year, while through our doors we can look out upon every nation of the globe as a field ripe for missionary harvest. Here is our occasion. It is enough to startle one into alarm, to think of the stupendous obligation created by the conjunction of these two elements.
But I think that another measure of our responsibility is the present day perils ; for those perils have their remedy in the . eternal provision of the gospel which we carry in the New Testament.
Have you ever noticed how largely in the beginning the truths of the gospel took their shape and expression from prevailing errors and objections ? As in minting the coin, the gold is driven into all the ruts and cavities of the die, so in uttering the gospel Christ matched and molded it to the errors and objections and unbeliefs of his age. Therefore the gospel will ever be found to be adapted to meet prevailing errors since it was originally shaped to those errors. Thus also with Christianity as a whole—it was run in the matrix of human sins; it was shaped to the needs and yearnings of the human race. Therefore I know the gospel is divine because it is so wondrously human; because it fits into all the turns and folds of man's need. Christianity does not answer the woes and sorrows and yearnings of our race, therefore, with harsh negations, but with gracious affirmations. She gives what our restless humanity demands, only in a higher and better form than they dream of.
I. If we look at the great laboring class of society, we hear from some of its representatives the impatient murmurings of Communism.
I know of no answer to such murmurings which is at once so subduing and so potent as the divine communism which is presented in the New Testament. I open the first chapter of the church's history and I read this remarkable statement concerning the primitive Christians: “And all that believed were together, and had all things common, and sold their possessions and goods ana parted them to all as every man had need.” “Neither said any of them that aught of the things which he possessed was his own." (Acts ii. 44, 45.) At once I hear the current comment on this text —that it represents only a provisional and temporary condition of things and that it was not intended for a permanent model. Yes!
That is the way we are apt to look upon ideals which are too high for our faith or too hard for our selfishness. It is the exegesis of covetousness and self-interest that has largely fixed this interpretasion upon this text. As a matter of fact there is not the slightest intimation anywhere that this feature of the primitive church was intended to be transitory. And in a time when it is necessary for us to call out our reserves, I am profoundly grateful for this lofty and divinely appointed example of Christian communism. Of course in translating this example into practical experience we must take into account all the modifying texts such as “If any will not work, neither shall he eat,” which excommunicates from our community all the idle and shiftless; and “ If any man provide not for his own, especially for those of his own house, he has denied the faith and is worse than an infidel,” which enjoins upon us the duty of making decent provision for the family. And what we shall find as the resultant is this: that the church according to its primitive ideal is the one institution in which every man's wealth is under mortgage to every man's want, every man's success to every man's service; so that no laborer in any part of the field should lack the means for prosecuting his work so long as any fellowdisciple in any other part of the field has ability to supply his lack. This I believe is the divine communism on which the church was founded, and by which it was intended to be perpetuated. And if we could present this fresh, unsullied ideal in active operation, to the discontented working classes to-day it would be the most powerful answer possible to their bitter complaint of the selfishness and unsympathy of men.
A thoughtful senator, speaking from wide experience, recently said: “So long as it is possible for a single man to hold a hundred million dollars of property, and to wield the vast power which such wealth puts into his hands, so long will there be discontent among the laboring classes—a discontent which will inevitably find expression in the doctrines of communism and anarchy." This is certainly no extravagant statement. Two centuries ago quaint Thomas Fuller said: “If any suppose that society can be peaceful while one half is prospered and the other half pinched, let him try whether he can laugh with one side of his face while he weeps with the other." I am not concerning myself now, however, with those outside the church, but those within.
As surely as darkness follows sunset will the alienation of the masses follow sanctimonious selfishness in the church. If a Christian's motto is, “ Look out for number one,” then let him look out for estrangement and coldness on the part of number two. The church millionaire stands at exact antipodes to the church mil. lennial, and in proportion as the former flourishes, the latter will be hopelessly deferred. It is not an orthodox creed which repels the masses, but an orthodox greed. Let a Christian man stand forth conspicuously in any community, as honest as the law of Moses, and, yet let it be seen that he is building up an immense fortune by grinding the faces of the poor, and compelling them to turn the grindstone for him while he does it, and he will wean a whole generation from the gospel. The reckless “I don't care for the church,” which is coming up in ever-loudening chorus from the poorer classes, is but the echo of the stolid and selfish “ I do care for myself and my own, that we may live luxuriously and fare sumptuously,” which is the undeniable expression of so many Christian lives. We have no power to prevent men of the world from heaping up colossal fortunes if they wish to do so. But our gospel plainly forbids Christians to do it. “ Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth,” said Jesus to his disciples for all timea text which it requires no very skillful exegesis to explain ; but which it would require a very ingenious exegesis to explain away. It is the violation of this plain command on the part of multitudes of Christians which constitutes one of the greatest perils of the American church to-day.
God is very emphatic in condemning this sin, saying, “Ye have robbed me in tithes and offerings, even this whole nation.” And this theft cannot be condoned by a post mortem restitution. God has assessed tithes upon the living, not legacies upon the dead, and if wealthy Christians insist that their dues to God shall be paid from the skeleton fingers of a corpse instead of from the living fingers of a man, they rob their giving of its greatest value.
I wonder not that President Wayland used to condemn strongly what he called “a long-tailed benevolence.” It is the least effective form of charity, for the circulation is always feeblest at the extremities. If the Christian is to bless humanity with a warm flesh-and-blood sympathy, let him extend to men the help of a living hand, and not merely touch them with the cold tail of a residuary legacy.
Dr. McGlynn told the exact truth when he recently declared
that the corruption of the church is traceable to these two things -Roman gold and Roman purple. From the days of Constantine that corruption has gone on. As fast as the church became a coffer for hoarding coveted wealth she became a coffin for enshrining a dead Christianity. And to-day the scandal of Christendom is exhibited to our gaze in a pope claiming to be the true and only vicar of Christ, living in a palace with six hundred attendants, enjoying a personal income of a million and a half dollars annually, while upon his approaching anniversary the kings of the earth are proposing to vie with each other in sending him sumptuous presents, many of which will be wrung out of the grinding poverty of their subjects. Oh, if according to the dream of devout Catholics of the Middle Ages some Papa Angelicus were to arise, an angel-pope who should fling out this vast and prodigal church wealth among his penniless subjects while he himself once more took up the primitive commission and went forth without purse or scrip, what an “anti-poverty" argument would that be for men and angels to witness! I say all this not to cast gratuitous contempt on Rome, but to bring a solemn warning to America. That eight billions of money hoarded up in the hands of the Protestant Christians of the United States constitutes a tremendous danger. I cannot see how the church can keep hold of it and be able at the same time to take hold of the million hands of poverty and illiteracy and spiritual destitution which are stretched out for help. An eminent clergyman of England has described his visit to the death-bed of a wealthy parishioner. As he knelt by his side he twice requested him to give him his hand while he prayed, which he strangely declined to do. But as soon as the death gasp was over and the blankets were turned down, the reason was apparent. It was found that both hands were holding his safe-key in their death grip, so that he had no hand of fellowship to extend to the minister praying for his soul. Where are the Church's hands today, when the greatest opportunity ever brought within the reach of any generation of Christians is just within her grasp ; opportunity for the salvation and shaping of a new race in a new world ; and of recovering the old races in the old world from their long bondage to death? Is it possible that with the memory of Him “who though rich, for our sakes became poor,” ever before us we should be found impotent to take hold of this opportunity, because we could not let go of our safe-keys ?