Lyman Abbott.

What Christianity means to me; a spiritual autobiography online

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God because the body is the creation of God. Simi-
larly the spiritual laws are the laws of God because
they are the laws of his own being, and he is the
Father of our spirits and we inherit from him his
nature. What we call the moral laws are as truly
natural as are the laws of light, heat, electricity and


gravitation. The difference is that man can violate
the laws of God, material nature cannot violate
them. As the eye is made for seeing and the ear for
hearing and the lungs for breathing, so the mind is
made to perceive and apprehend truth and the con-
science to perceive and appreciate right and wrong
and the affections to hate that which is evil and love
that which is good. Paul's counsel, " Abhor that
which is evil, cleave to that which is good," is an in-
terpretation to man of his own divine nature. De-
pravity is not natural; it is, as Bushnell has said,
contra-natural. The non-theological man recog-
nizes this truth and calls the mother who deserts her
child an " unnatural " mother.

To Paganism God was a King ; but Jesus told his
disciples, " When ye pray say Our Father." One
difference between a king and a father is this: the
king issues laws and demands of his subjects obedi-
ence — nothing more. The father also demands
nothing more ; but he wants more. He wants to be
his child's ideal and the object of his child's reverenc-
ing love. The father needs the child no less than
the child needs the father. The child needs some
one to care for him; the father needs some one to


care for ; the child needs some one to love him ; the
father needs some one to love. Our needs make us
dear to God. Therefore it is that Jesus sums up all
the laws of the Kingdom in the saying, " Thou shalt
love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with
all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and thy neighbor
as thyself."

Because the laws of God are the laws of our own
nature, because his commands are only calls to us to
live normal, natural lives, the kind of lives for which
we are fitted, his Kingdom is a free Commonwealth.
It has been well called by a modern scholar " The
Republic of God." To live divinely is to live freely.
The commandments of God are not restraints on our
liberty but inspirations to liberty, for they are inter-
pretations to us of our own true nature, and ideals
of what we can become. If we are true to ourselves
we shall be true to God, for we are his offspring.

Into these few pages I have tried to condense
the experience of a lifetime. Into a few linos I
here endeavor to condense the message of these

Christianity means to me :


A new spirit of love service and sacrifice in hu-

A new and ever developing life in art, literature,
music, philosophy, government, industry, worship.

A relief from the heavy burden of remorse for
past errors, blunders, and sins.

An ever growing aspiration for the future and an
ever increasing power toward achievement.

Faith in ourselves and in our fellow men; in our
infinite possibilities because in our infinite inherit-

Faith in the great enterprise in which God's loyal
children are engaged, that of making a new world
out of this old world, a faith which failure does not
discourage nor death destroy.

Faith in a Leader who both sets us our task and
shares it with us ; the longer we follow him and work
with him, the more worthy to be loved, trusted and
followed does he seem to us to be.

Faith in a companionable God whom we cannot
understand, still less define, but with whom we can
be acquainted, as a little child is acquainted with his
mysterious mother.

Faith in our present possession of a deathless life


of the spirit, which we share with the Father of our
spirits and our divinely appreciated leader.

The autobiography of the unknown author of the
one hundred and third psalm is the story of our past
experience :

Bless the Lord, O my soul,

And forget not all his benefits :

Who f orgiveth all thine iniquities ;

Who healeth all thy diseases ;

Who redeemeth thy life from destruction;

Who crowneth thee with loving-kindness and tender

mercies ;
Who satisfieth thine age with good ;
So that thy youth is renewed like the eagle.

The prayer of the apostle to the Gentiles is the
expression of our hope for the future :

For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father,
from whom every family in heaven and on earth is
named, that he will grant you according to the riches
of his glory, to be strengthened with might, by his
Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in
your hearts by faith, that ye being rooted and
grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with


all saints, what is the breadth, and length, and depth,
and height; and to know the love of Christ, which
passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all
the fullness of God.


Howard S. Bliss was associated with me in the
pastorate of Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, for four
years. Then, after a successful independent pas-
torate in New Jersey, he accepted a call to become
the successor of his father, the Reverend Daniel
Bliss, as President of the Syrian Protestant College
at Beirut, Syria. During the Great War (1914-
191 8) he preserved the College despite the machina-
tions of astute and powerful foes, and maintained
peace within the College between students who
belonged to the races and shared the religious faiths
of those who were grappling in deadly strife with-
out. Then, his task accomplished, he came home to
die. Eager student, loyal friend, chivalric soldier,
patriotic American, devoted Christian, his last mes-
sage to his generation was an article in the Atlantic
Monthly published a few weeks before his death.
From this, the culmination of his great career/ I
quote the following sentences which I would gladly
make the culmination of my life's teaching:



Does Christ save you from your sin?
Call Him Savior !

Does He free you from the slavery of your
passions ?

Call Him Redeemer!

Does He teach you as no one else has taught you ?
Call Him Teacher!

Does he mold and master your life?
Call Him Master!

Does He shine upon the pathway that is dark to

Call Him Guide!

Does He reveal God to you?
Call Him the Son of God!

Does He reveal man?

Call Him the Son of Man!

Or, in following Him, are your lips silent in
your incapacity to define Him and His influence
upon you?

Call Him by no name, but follow Him!


There are three sayings of Jesus reported in the Gospels
which Catholic scholars regard as supporting the claim
that Jesus gave to the apostles certain peculiar ecclesias-
tical powers which they were authorized and enabled to
transmit to their successors in office. These are (i)
" Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my
church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against
it" (Matt. 16: 18). (2) "I will give unto thee the keys
of the Kingdom of Heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt
bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever
thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven "
(Matt. 16: 19 Compare Matt. 18: 18). (3) "Jesus there-
fore said unto them again, Peace be with you; as the
Father has sent me even so send I you. And when he
had said this he breathed on them and saith unto them,
Receive ye the Holy Spirit: whosoever sins ye remit,
they are remitted them; whosoever sins ye retain, they
are retained." My interpretation of the first of these
passages I have given in Chapter III. My interpretation
of the other two here given are condensed and in one
respect modified from those given in my commentary on
the New Testament: (1875-1876).

I. And I will give unto thee the Keys of the Kingdom
of Heaven.
The key in the East was a symbol of authority, was
made long, with a crook at one end, so that it could be



worn round the neck as a badge of office. To this use of
the key reference is had in the phrase, " The government
shall be upon his shoulder" (Isaiah 9:6) and in the
promise to Eliakim, " The key of the house of David I
will lay upon his shoulder" (Isaiah 22:22). The phrase
" kingdom of heaven " in the Gospels never means the
visible, external, organic church, and rarely, if ever, the
future state in contrast with the present, but the reign
of God in the individual soul, or in the community. The
" keys of the kingdom of heaven " do not, then, symbolize
power to admit or exclude from the earthly church, or
from heaven, but power in the life of allegiance to God,
i. e. in the Christian life. The word bind is never used
in the N. T. as a metaphor for condemnation, but is
used metaphorically for binding the individual by laws,
as in Rom. 7 : 2, I Cor. 7 : 27, 39 ; and the word loose is
never used as a symbol for pardon or deliverance from
sin, but always, either literally of unbinding or dissolving,
as in Mark 1:7; 2 Pet. 3, 10, n, 12, or metaphorically
of the relaxing or dissolving of a law, as in Matt. 5 : 19 ;
John 5:18; 7 : 23 ; 10 : 35 ; I Cor. 7 : 27. The words
" bind " and " loose " had also this well established signi-
ficance among the Jewish rabbis, being nearly equivalent
to " prohibit " and " permit."

Two questions remain to be asked and answered : First,
On whom is this gift bestowed? Certainly not on Peter
and his successors in office, for neither here nor anywhere
else in the N. T. is there any hint that he had either
office or successors. In Matt. 18 : 18 it is conferred cer-
tainly on all the twelve; and since it is there coupled with
instructions concerning forgiveness, and a promise con-
cerning prayer, which are of universal application, it
may safely be regarded as not confined to them, but be-



stowed on all who possess a divinely inspired faith in
Christ the Son of the living God. Second, Are there
any parallel passages to this promise, as thus interpreted?
Confessedly there are none which sustain the papal in-
terpretation. The supposed power of the pope to admit
to and shut out from heaven rest solely on this one
verse, though John 20 : 23 is cited in support of his power
to remit or retain sin. On the other hand, the right of
the individual Christian to rely daily upon the personal
help of a living Savior, and to be governed in his life,
not by laws and rules and regulations, but by the in-
dwelling Spirit of God, illuminating and inspiring his
conscience, is abundantly confirmed by other passages of
scripture. See for example John 8:32, 36; Rom. 7:6; 2
Cor. 3:17; 5:7; Gal. 3:25; 4:7, 31; 5:1, 16, 18; Col.
2 : 14-16, 20-22.

I understand, then, the promise of the keys to be made
to Peter as the possessor of a living faith in Jesus as the
Divine Messiah, and through him to all who, by a like
faith, are endued with a like strength of character, God-
given, and I would paraphrase it thus: To my disciples
I will give authority in their spiritual life, so that they
shall no longer be bound by rules and regulations like
those of the Pharisees or of the Mosaic code, but what-
soever, under the inspiration of a living faith in me, they
shall prohibit themselves, God will prohibit, and what-
soever under that inspiration they shall permit themselves,
God will permit: for they shall have the mind of the

II. Whosoever sins you remit they are remitted unto
them, etc.
The word remit signifies primarily to get rid of. It is


not penalty but sin which the apostles are empowered
to get rid of. See chapter VIII in this book. Compare
Micah 7:19; Isaiah 44:22. Here therefore there is no
hint of any authority in apostle or apostolic successor
to declare sins forgiven or unforgiven in his discretion;
there is the declaration that when the disciple of Christ
is filled with the Christ spirit and sets himself in the
spirit of his Master to cure men of their sins, his work
shall not be in vain — the devil cast out shall not return
to find the house swept and garnished so that he may take
possession again. The second clause is more difficult of
interpretation. Taken literally it would seem to imply
power to fasten it upon the sinner as by a curse. But
can this language be taken literally? It is capable of a
merely negative interpretation. The meaning then would
be, You have power to redeem men from their sins ; there-
fore the responsibility is laid upon you. If you fail the
sins will be retained. History confirms this interpretation.
The Wesleyan movement, the Salvation Army, the temper-
ance, anti-slavery, and other reforms, attest the truth
that persons possessed of a Christ-like spirit of purity,
courage, and self-sacrifice have a marvelous power to
cast out evil from the individuals and from the commu-
nity, though they may have no office in the church, while
on the other hand, that power has never been possessed
by the mere ecclesiastical office holder, if he was not en-
dowed with the Christ-like spirit.


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Online LibraryLyman AbbottWhat Christianity means to me; a spiritual autobiography → online text (page 10 of 10)