Lyman Abbott.

What Christianity means to me; a spiritual autobiography online

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look for an interpretation of God's character. He
did not define God or the conditions of fellow-
ship with God, but he brought to his disciples
in his life and experience a revelation or unveiling
of the God who dwelt within him and thus showed
to his disciples the way to fellowship with their
Great Companion. For this purpose he took one
of the most common and one of the most sacred
of human relationships, that between a father and
his child. He told them, When ye pray say, " Our

We make a great mistake if we conceive the
" Lord's Prayer " to be a form which Christ has pre-
scribed. It is a spirit of approach which Christ
illustrates. Look, he says, into your father-heart;
it will interpret your Father to you. Do you want
to become acquainted with God ? Go to him as your
children come to you. What are the things you
want? Are they not such as the following? You
want food for the body, the mind, the spirit. Ask
your Father for them. If your son asks of you
bread will you give him a stone? You want for-
giveness for the wrongs you have done? Do you
always exact of your son the full penalty for his


every transgression? Do you demand an eye for
an eye and a tooth for a tooth? If you forgive
your children their trespasses, why doubt that your
Father will forgive you your trespasses? Are you
not often perplexed which road to take in life?
Ask your Father for guidance. Do you not some-
times dread a temptation which looms in the dis-
tance with threatening? Ask him to lead you by a
path which will escape it. Does it not sometimes
seem to you impossible to overcome the evil desires
within or the seductive influences without you?
Ask him to strengthen your will and give you
power to conquer the world and your own baser
self. Do you want his spirit, the spirit that will
enable you to do his will, to do what you can to
bring his rule upon the earth? He imparts his
own spirit to those that ask him, as you love to
impart your wisdom and your strength to your child
by your counsel and companionship. There is
nothing too insignificant for his concern if it con-
cerns his child. The very hairs of your head are
numbered. You are never beneath his notice. He
is so great that to him nothing is small. A sparrow 1
cannot fall to the ground and he not know it. And


in the thought of him who made you in his own
image, you are of much more value than many

All Christ's instructions had for their aim to
bring his disciples into fellowship with God. The
Westminster Confession of Faith has what may be
conceded to be an admirable and comprehensive
conception of the Higher Powers :

There is but one only living and true God, who is
infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, in-
visible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, im-
mense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise,
most holy, most free, most absolute.

Christ's instructions contain nothing analogous
to this definition. He did not attempt to describe
the attributes of God. He did not discuss and he
did not give any information concerning such ques-
tions as, Is God omnipotent and what does omnipo-
tent mean? Is he omniscient, and what does
omniscience mean? The nearest approach to a
definition of God which is to be found in Christ's
instructions is in the sentence, " God is spirit " ;
and this definition, if so it can be called, was given
only for the purpose of making clear the sentence


which follows, " And they that worship him must
worship him in spirit and in truth." It was given
for the purpose of showing us that our approach
to God does not depend on any particular form or
ceremony but wholly upon our spiritual sincerity
and earnestness. In brief :

Christ does not teach us about God ; he makes us
acquainted with God.

John Stuart Mill wrote in 1834 to Thomas
Carlyle : " I have what appears to you much the
same thing as or even worse than no God at all,
namely a probable God. ... I mean that the
existence of a Creator is not to me a matter of
faith or intuition ; and as a proposition to be proved
by evidence it is but an hypothesis, the proofs of
which, as you I know agree with me, do not amount
to absolute certainty. . . . The unspeakable good it
would be to me to have a faith like yours, I mean
as firm as yours, on that, to you, fundamental
point, I am as strongly conscious of when life is a
happiness to me, as when it is, what it has been for
long periods now past by, a burden." *

No reader of Christ's teachings can doubt that to
1 " Letters of John Stuart Mill," vol. 1 : 90.


him God was not an hypothesis but a personal
and intimate friend. He did not from a study of
the creation arrive at the conclusion that there is a
Creator, as the scientist from a study of the arrow
heads found in rocks, arrives at the conclusion
that there was a prehistoric man. He was
acquainted with God as a child is acquainted with
his father, and his aim was, not to demonstrate by
the scientific method the existence of a Creator,
but to impart to his disciples a spirit of filial obe-
dience which would give to them an experience
of companionship with God similar to his own.
He himself lived in continual and unbroken com-
panionship with God; and he sought to inspire in
his disciples a spirit which would enable them to
live in a similar companionship.

And he assumed that this companionship with
God is not a special privilege of saints or scholars
but is the common heritage of all God's children.
He spoke to the plain people, not only in language
which they could understand but of experiences
which they could appreciate and of virtues which
they could exercise. The figures he used to illus-
trate the life of God in the soul of man were


taken from the ordinary vocations of the common
people; they were such as a farmer sowing his
seed, a fisherman casting his net, a steward faithful
to his absent lord, a woman preparing bread for
her household, a merchant buying a valuable pearl,
a lucky finder of a treasure hidden in a field who
sells all that he has to purchase the field. It is of
little children whose characters are not yet formed
he said, " Of such is the kingdom of heaven " ; it is
to a miscellaneous congregation of all sorts and con-
ditions of men he said, " The kingdom of heaven is
within you " ; it is of corrupt politicians and aban-
doned women he said that they should enter the king-
dom of heaven before the men whose pretentious
piety was worn as a cover for greedy hearts and
selfish lives ; it is to a woman of the town who had
shown her sorrow for her past life by her tears, and
her revering acceptance of his message by anointing
his feet with ointment that he said, " Thy faith has
saved thee " ; and he whose last supper with his
eleven personal friends we have made a church sac-
rament, ate also with publicans and sinners in a feast
which was not less sacramental.

Thus the faith of Jesus in his Father was a faith


also in his fellow men. He believed that there was
in them something of the divine life and that it
might be so inspired as to become an invincible
power. This faith he showed by carrying not only
the message of charity, but also the message of trust
and confidence to the plain people. He told them
that the Father trusted them and put responsibilities
upon them. He made clear to them that the
Father does not desire to keep his children in the
nursery; that he desires that they grow up into
brave, wise, strong men endowed with a noble
manhood. And they can become brave only by
facing danger, strong only by bearing burdens, wise
only by solving problems.

And he made it clear that while God is the Great
Ruler of men and their Great Helper and their Great
Companion, he will not impose on the indifferent un-
sought companionship, nor force his help on those
wh© desire to live without it, nor drive into his king-
dom those who do not wish to become its citizens.
He who desires the Father's counsel must ask for it ;
he who desires the Father's companionship must seek
it ; he who desires to be in the Father's kingdom and
under the Father's rule must knock for admission.


This truth that the Father entrusts the direction of
their lives to his children and gives them at once lib-
erty to choose and responsibility for their choice,
Christ illustrates by a very simple but very striking

A father had two sons. At his death the prop-
erty would be divided between them. But the
younger son was not willing to wait for his father's
death. He was impatient of control, weary of his
home and its duties, wished to live his own life,
carve out his own destiny, try experiments for
himself. He came to his father with the demand,
Give me the portion of goods that falleth to me as
my share of the inheritance. The father did not
refuse. He anticipated his own death, gave his son
the inheritance which in due course would later
come to him, and let him go forth to try the world
for himself. It is thus the Father treats his chil-
dren. He puts the rudder into their own hands
and lets them choose their own course of life.

In teaching this truth, that God entrusts to his
children, individually and collectively, the determin-
ation of their own destiny, Jesus carried out the
earlier teaching of the Old Testament. It is equally


clearly taught in Jehovah's treatment of Israel as a
nation and in Christ's treatment of his disciples as
pioneers in the church.

When Moses brought the Children of Israel to
Mt. Sinai, God did not assume to be their sovereign.
He was elected their sovereign by popular suffrage.
Before he gave them the Ten Commandments
which were to be the constitution of the new
nation, he directed Moses to put before the assembly
of the people the question whether they would have
him as their king. " Thus shalt thou tell the Chil-
dren of Israel: If ye will obey my voice indeed
and keep my covenant, ye shall be unto me a king-
dom of priests and a holy nation.'' Moses brought
to the Children of Israel this message and " all the
people answered together and said, all that Jehovah
hath spoken will we do." Not till then was their
constitution given them; not till then did Jehovah
assume the sovereignty of the nation.

Later, after they had been under the rule of
Jehovah for over forty years and had realized the
justice, the mercy, but also the inflexibility of his
rule, and had taken possession of the Holy Land,
the same question was put to the people before


their final settlement: "If it seem evil unto you,"
said Joshua, " to serve Jehovah, choose ye this day
whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your
fathers served, that were beyond the River, or the
gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell."
And he put before them very explicitly the difficulty
of the life to which loyalty to Jehovah summoned
them. Again the people voted whom they would
have as their ruler. " Nay," they replied, " but
we will serve Jehovah."

When some centuries subsequently the author of
Deuteronomy put before Israel a later interpreta-
tion and amplification of the law, as it had been
developed in the life of the nation, while the inevi-
table result of disobedience was clearly pointed out,
the same freedom of choice to obey or disobey was
affirmed: "I have set before thee life and death,
blessing and cursing : therefore choose life, that both
thou and thy seed may live."

Finally, as the captivity of Israel in Babylon
drew to its close, it was left to the exiles to deter-
mine whether they would return to their native
land and endure the difficulties and privations of a
new settlement in a country devastated by wars, or


would remain in comparative comfort in the land
in which most of them were born and where they
possessed the only home they had ever known.
Some went, some remained.

Thus in the four great crises of their history,
the responsibility of determining their national
destiny was thrown upon Israel by Jehovah.

Jesus Christ dealt with his disciples in the same
spirit. He put upon them the responsibility of
their lives. After the twelve had been with him
scarcely a year, he sent them out two by two, to
carry to the villages the same message of the
Father's love that he was carrying to the cities,
and he left them to phrase that message, each
according to his own understanding of it. In one
somewhat enigmatical and often misunderstood
passage, he told them that he gave them the keys
of the kingdom of heaven; life was theirs, they
could open what doors they would and what they
would they could lock against themselves. After
his death he put upon the disciples the responsibility
for carrying on to its completion the work which
he had begun. You can do the work if you will,
he told them, but if not, it will not be done. You


can cure the world of its sins; but if you do not
cure it, the world will not be cured. 1 They should
have his companionship as he had his Father's
companionship. But the work would be theirs, the
responsibility would be theirs, the results would
depend upon them.

And this in fact has been the case. When his
disciples have possessed his spirit, and in that spirit
have carried on his work, they have succeeded.
When they have lost his spirit, when they have
been idle and indifferent, or busy about other
things, or have quarreled among themselves, the
work has halted, progress has stopped, humanity
has suffered.

But it was not only by his words that Jesus
taught his disciples. What should be their conduct
toward one another he taught them by his own
conduct; what might be their experience of God he
taught them by his own experience.

The fragmentary narrative of his life afforded
by the Gospels gives us interesting indications, not
only of the various estimates formed concerning
him by the community, but also of the varying esti-

1 See Appendix.


mates formed concerning him by his disciples. The
Pharisees scornfully asked, " How knoweth this
man letters having never learned? " He had never
studied the Rabbinical books under the theological
teachers of his time and knew the traditions of
the church only to condemn them. The Messiah
they said would come out of the unknown; but as
for this fellow — we all know where he came
from. A Nazarene ! Could any good come out of
Nazareth? Nor was Jesus less a puzzle to the
common people. They heard him gladly. They
were fascinated by the charm of his personality.
They wondered at the words of grace which flowed
from his lips. But Messiah? Prophet? Rabbi?
No! Certainly not at the first hearing did they so
judge him. He was nothing but a peasant. A
son of the carpenter whose mother and brothers
and sisters they knew as their neighbors and com-

After he had taught and healed for nearly two
years opinions changed somewhat, but the puzzle
continued. To some he was John the Baptizer,
risen from the dead, to some Elijah or Jere-
miah or some other ancient prophet come back


again to earth as a forerunner of the Messiah.
One of his more intimate disciples believed him
to be the Messiah, and later it is clear that the
other disciples held the same opinion, for James
and John came with their mother asking for office
when he, their king, should have established his
kingdom. But when he died their faith died also.
They scattered, and some of them went back to
their fishing. The story of their master's resur-
rection brought to them by the women seemed to
them as idle tales. Not until their skepticism was
overcome and they were convinced of the reality of
the resurrection did their vanishing faith that their
Master was the Messiah return.

Apparently the first to believe and to teach what
we now call the divinity of Jesus Christ was Paul.
His study of the Old Testament during his two
years in Arabia convinced him that the Messiah
foretold in the Old Testament prophecy was the
Son of God, and he came out from his retirement
to preach in the Synagogues this new interpreta-
tion of the ancient prophets and to follow it with
the teaching that the Jesus who had been put to
death and had risen from the dead was this Mes-


siah. 1 This became the message of the apostles.
The astonishing welcome this message received
from the plain people in pagan lands gave life and
body to the apostles' faith. It revealed a universal
human need to which their message ministered.
They remembered the appearances of the Angel of
the Lord to patriots and prophets as narrated in
the sacred books of their nation, and they began
to wonder if they had not been living with the Angel
of the Lord. They recalled that strange life and
that extraordinary character with its puzzling but
glorious self-contradictions: courageous but never
combative; gentle but never timid; masterful but
never self-assertive; simple in tastes but never
ascetic; sympathetic with all men but compromis-
ing with none; rejoicing in activity yet seeking
solitude; pure in heart yet friend of sinners;
patient with wrongs to himself but indignant with
wrongs to others ; vanquishing a mob by the magic
of his presence yet yielding himself up without
resistance to the legalized force of an unjust gov-
ernment. They looked back upon a life which
more than fulfilled the ideals of character which
1 Compare Acts 9 : 20 with 22.


one of their number portrayed in a prose poem in
praise of love. The prose poem might well serve
as a biography of Jesus Christ by substituting for
the word love his name. Christ " suffered long and
still was kind; Christ envied not, vaunted not him-
self, was not puffed up, did not behave himself un-
seemly, sought not his own, was not easily provoked,
thought no evil, rejoiced not in iniquity but
rejoiced in the truth, bore all things, trusted all
things, endured all things."

Thus gradually their ancient Jewish faith that
God reveals himself to man in man took on a new
meaning. They restudied the Hebrew prophets.
They recalled the prophet's pen-picture of the
Messiah's life: " He hath borne our griefs and
carried our sorrows; he was oppressed and he was
afflicted yet he opened not his mouth." They
recalled Isaiah's declaration that the Deliverer of
Israel would be called " Wonderful-Counselor,
God-Hero, Father-Everlasting, Prince of Peace." *
Was there ever such a wonderful-counselor, divine
hero, gracious and patient father, fountain and
giver of peace?
1 See George Adam Smith: Isaiah 11 : 140.


Their faith in their master grew with their
ministry. By giving their message they gained both
clearness of vision and strength of conviction. But
it was not until more than half a century after
Christ's death, spent in interpreting Christ and the
Christian life to others, that John, the clearest in
vision of any of the twelve, gave to their faith a
definition which, after nineteen centuries, still re-
mains the clearest and most intelligible definition of
the Christian's understanding of Christ which the
Christian Church possesses: " That which was from
the beginning, which we have heard, which we have
seen with our eyes, which, we have looked upon, and
our hands have handled, of the word of life; . . .
that which we have seen and heard declare we unto
you that ye also may have fellowship with us ; and
truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with
his Son Jesus Christ." 1

The New Testament never affirms that Jesus
Christ is God. 2 It never uses such language as
that of the Nicene creed : " God of God, Light of

*I John 1:1, 3.

2 The language of Thomas in John 20 : 28, " My Lord and
my God," is the language of emotion, not of theological defini-


Light, Very God of Very God; Begotten not made;
Being of one substance with the Father." It never
discusses or defines his metaphysical relation to the
Infinite and Eternal Spirit. The declared opinions
of theologians on such questions are their deduc-
tions from the simpler and more spiritual faith of
the Apostles. That faith is expressed in such decla-
rations as that Christ is God manifest in the flesh,
that is in a human life; that he is such a manifesta-
tion of the Word of Life as can be looked upon, that
is, as is possible in our present earthly condition ; that
God was in Christ reconciling the world unto him-
self ; that through Christ, by our understanding of
his spirit, we have access to the Father; that thus
we can have fellowship with one another and with
the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.

It is not my endeavor in this book to define a phil-
osophy but to portray an experience. My faith in
God, in Jesus Christ, in myself, in my fellow men
and in immortality is one single and indivisible faith.
Let me see if I can state it simply and clearly.

We live in two worlds — a world of matter,
which is under inviolable law; a world of the spirit,
which is free. God is a spirit, and is the Father of


our spirits. Jesus Christ is the supreme manifesta-
tion history affords of what God is and what we
may become. In his life of love, service and sacri-
fice is the supreme manifestation of that life of the
spirit which we can share with him and his Father,
an immortal life which the decay of the instruments
it uses does not and cannot destroy.



In our study of the life of Christ in my Congre-
gational Bible class, I early came upon a fact the
full significance of which did not at first occur to
me, but which eventually led to a radical reconstruc-
tion of my theology. I had thought that Jesus
Christ bore the punishment of our sins that we
might be released from that punishment. But I
found to my surprise that in the teaching of Jesus
Christ nothing was said about salvation from pun-
ishment and much about deliverance from sin. I
found two phrases in the New Testament translated
forgiveness of sin: one, literally translated, is
remission of sin; the other, deliverance from sin.
The first regards sin as a burden which is taken
from man; the other, regards sin as a despot from
which man is delivered. The phrase remission of
sins is of frequent occurrence; the phrase remission



of punishment never occurs — not even once. But
in classical Greek I could not discover that the
phrase remission of sins ever occurred; the word,
ordinarily translated forgiveness, signifies compas-
sion or fellow feeling. It began to dawn upon me
that Jesus Christ did not promise to deliver the
repentant sinner from penalty and did promise to
deliver him from sin.

The difference between these two conceptions of
salvation may be made clear by a simple illustra-
tion. Two companions in a robbery are arrested,
tried, convicted and sentenced to ten years' impris-
onment. The first by political influence obtains a
pardon, is released after a few months' impris-
onment, and returns to his criminal companions and
his criminal courses. The other serves out his full
term, is converted, looks with shame upon his past
life and with aversion upon his past companions,
and goes out to spend the rest of his life in honest
and honorable service. One is saved from his pun-
ishment but not from his sin; the other is saved
from his sin but not from his punishment ; the pun-
ishment is one means of his salvation.

It gradually became clear to me that it was this


second salvation which Jesus Christ offers to the
world and which makes his life, teachings and
sacrifice Glad Tidings. His message as understood
by his apostles, is interpreted by such verses as:

Thou shalt call his name Jesus for he shall save his
people from their sins.

Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of
the world.

This cup is the New Testament in my blood which is
shed for many for the remission of sins.

He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins (literally
remit or send away our sins) and cleanse us from all

Then I went back to the Old Testament. The

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Online LibraryLyman AbbottWhat Christianity means to me; a spiritual autobiography → online text (page 6 of 10)