Lyman Abbott.

What Christianity means to me; a spiritual autobiography online

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fifty-third chapter of Isaiah is generally and justly
regarded as the chapter in the Prophets which more
than any other foretells the character and the mis-
sion of the Messiah, It declares that the Messiah
hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows,
that he has been wounded because of our transgres-
sions and bruised because of our iniquities, and that
on him the Lord has laid the iniquity of us all.
But it does not affirm that he has been punished


because of our transgressions, nor that the Lord
has laid on him the punishment of our iniquities,
It affirms that he has suffered and that with his
stripes we are healed; but it does not affirm that
with his stripes we are delivered from the penalty
due to our transgressions.

I went back to the earlier history of Israel. I
found this truth, that God saves the repentant
sinner from his sins illustrated by a curious object
lesson. On the so-called Great Day of Atonement
two goats were brought out before the Congrega-
tion of Israel. One was offered as a sacrifice to
Jehovah; the sins of the people were laid in con-
fession upon the head of the other, which was then
driven off into the wilderness and seen no more. It
was the sins which were sent away.

Then I turned to the four Gospels to re-read the
story of Christ's life and teachings. I did not find
that he anywhere said that he had borne or would
bear for his followers the consequences of their
misconduct. I did not find that anywhere he prom-
ised that his disciples should be relieved from the
consequences of their misconduct. But I did find


him teaching explicitly that their sins did not
separate them from God's love ; on the contrary, he
taught them that God sought them in their sins to
recover them from their sins.

Turn to the fifteenth chapter of Luke's Gospel
and read again the three stories written there: —
the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son. What is
the meaning of these stories? Is it not that our
Father does not wait for us to seek him; that he
comes seeking us; that, as Paul has expressed it,
God has loved us while we were dead in sins; and
as John has expressed it, " Herein is love, not that
we loved God but that he loved us." Our sins hide
God from us, but they do not hide us from God.
As sickness attracts the physician to the hospital,
as ignorance attracts the born teacher to the pupil,
as the negro camp attracted General Armstrong to
Hampton, Virginia, as the ignorance and supersti-
tion of the tribes in Africa attracted Livingston to
the Dark Continent, so our sins attract our Father
to us. " People don't love you when you are
naughty," said a would-be teacher to a naughty
child. " But mother does," was his reply.


" Mother does." And this mother's heart interprets
the heart of Him who dwells in and inspires the
love of the mother.

What Jesus taught by his parables, he taught by
his life. He went seeking the lost, that he might
save them, not from their punishment but from their
sins. In the two instances in which he saved per-
sons from the consequencs of their sin it was made
clear that he did so only that he might save them
from their sin. 1 He did not wait, as we too often
do, for sinners to come to him in the synagogue or
the temple. He went where they were. He spoke
to them in figures drawn from their everyday life
which they could understand. He opened doors of
hope for those against whom the world and the
church had closed all doors of hope- He accepted
their invitations, shared in their festivities, com-
forted them in their sorrows and inspired in them
new hopes and new purposes. And his message to
them was ever the same : " Go, and sin no more."
To Jesus a lost soul was a soul not yet found, and
his life and his teaching interpreted the spirit of his

1 John 5: 14,8: 11.


Father who is seeking and will seek the lost until he
find them.

Thus gradually I came to learn one great differ-
ence between the Christian form of religious life
and all other forms. Other world religions repre-
sent man as seeking God; Christianity is the only
religion which represents God as seeking man.

Nor did Christ wait for repentance. By his
character even more than by his words, he inspired
in men both sorrow for the past and aspirations for
the future. His life was a continual illustration of
the truth enunciated by one of his disciples: "the
goodness of God calleth thee to repentance." He
did not wait for the corrupt tax gatherers to reform
their ways before he accepted their invitations to a
feast. He accepted those invitations as an indica-
tion of their desire for a better life, and, to the
complaints of his critics, replied, " They that be
well need not a physician but they that are sick,"

A woman of the town came in as a spectator to
the house where he was dining. Something in his
words awakened in her a spirit of sorrow for the
past and of aspiration for the future. Her tears


fell upon his unsandalled feet stretched out behind
him as he reclined at the table. She knelt to wipe
away the tears with the tresses of her hair; then,
unresisted, kissed his feet and anointed them with
the ointment which such women constantly carried
with them. Her hands were not clean nor her heart
pure. But she had some desire for clean hands and
a pure heart, and Christ asked nothing more, but
turned to her with the message, " Thy sins are

He was one clay passing through Jerusalem,
city of priests, city of tax gatherers. The Roman
system of taxation was such that no man could
be a tax gatherer and not be an oppressor of the
people. He was part of an organized system of
corruption and oppression. One of these tax gath-
erers who was short of stature climbed a tree
to see the Rabbi whose fame gathered a following
crowd about him wherever he went. Christ waited
for no expression of repentance, but called to
Zaccheus to come down. I will be your guest
to-day, he said. He offered his friendship without
waiting for any expression of repentance and by
his friendship inspired the repentance. Before he


left the tax gatherer's house Zaccheus had promised
to restore fourfold to those whom he had plundered
by false accusation and to give half of what
remained to the poor.

Self-confident Peter, who had resented Christ's
warning, followed him to the Court of Caiaphas
and there denied that he knew the Master, who
was on trial for his life. Jesus did not wait until
Peter went out and wept bitterly; but as he passed
by to his trial and his death he looked with a pene-
trating glance of love upon his disciple, and it was
this look of love which awakened repentance in Pe-
ter's heart and brought bitter tears to his eyes.

Repentance is not the condition of divine love
and mercy; it is the condition of divine forgiveness
because an unrepentant heart is bolted against the
entrance of forgiveness. It is not that God is
unwilling to forgive; but forgiveness is deliverance
from sin, and it is impossible to lift sin off from a
man who desires to hold on to it. God says to
every man, " Let go your sin and I will lift it off " ;
but if the man will not let his sin go it cannot be
lifted off.

Is not this deliverance from sin that which in


our better moments we desire for our children, our
homes, our nation? Do we not desire for our
children that they should be honest, truthful, brave?
That their lips shall be unstained by profanity, their
hands clean from greed, their hearts unpolluted by
foul imaginings and base desires ? Do we not desire
for our homes that, whether they are rich or poor
in their furnishings, peace and good will shall abide
in them? Do we not wish for America that she
shall be not merely a nation of great cities and great
railways, but of freemen living together in accord
under the protection of a just government? Not
deliverance from the sorrows which sin brings but
from the sin itself we crave: that our boys be saved,
not from headache but from drunkenness; our
homes not from poverty but from quarreling; our
nation not from the wounds of war but from the
shame of cowardice.

Nature in a parable teaches us what the New
Testament teaches in explicit language. Emerson
says, " Take what figure you will, its exact value,
nor more nor less, still returns to you. Every
secret is told, every crime is punished, every virtue
rewarded, every wrong redressed, in silence and


certainty." This is but a half truth, and a half truth
is generally a dangerous error. It is true that
nature's laws can never be violated with impunity,
she has no favorites, she is immutable, inexorable.
Her laws written in the constitution of the world
of matter and in the souls of men are never set
aside. She does not remit the consequences of dis-
regarding her laws. But she does repair the hurt.
When I was a boy, in careless climbing I broke my
arm. Nature did not say, This is a little boy, he
meant no harm, and I will not break his arm. But
when the doctor set the arm and put it in splints,
then nature began to knit the bone together.
Nature punishes but it also repairs. When the dys-
peptic ceases to violate the laws of health the
stomach begins to repair the ravages which he has
made in it; when the drunkard abandons his cups
the body begins to cast out the alcoholized tissues
and bring new healthy ones to take their place.
And if nature is unable unaided to repair the wrong 1
there are curative agencies in the world outside ready
to give their aid.

This law of healing written in material nature is
written scarcely less clearly in the nature of man.


When Christ bids us pray Forgive us our debts as
we forgive our debtors, he does not make our for-
giveness of others the standard to which God con-
forms his forgiveness. " What man is there of
you," he asks, " of whom if his son asks bread
will he give him a stone? If ye then being evil
know how to give good gifts unto your children
how much more shall your Father which is in
heaven give good things to him that ask them."
Similarly in this prayer he bids us remember that,
imperfect as we are, we forgive one another; much
more then may we with faith pray that our Heavenly
Father will forgive us. It is true that he adds, "If
ye forgive not men their trespasses neither will your
Father forgive your trespasses." But this is not
because the Father will shut his heart up against us
if we shut up our hearts against one another. It is
because forgiveness of sin is deliverance from sin
and the unforgiving soul is not willing to be deliv-
ered from its relentless hatred.

The Gospel, then, reduced to its simplest form,
may be stated thus : God wishes me to be his son.
Do I wish God to be my Heavenly Father? If
this is what I really wish, he will take me as I am


and make me what he wishes me to be. All that
he asks is that I should wish to be what he wishes
me to be. Faith is just the desire to be like God;
it is reaching out the hand and taking hold of the
stretched-out hand of God.

There seem to me to be a great many Christians
in the church who do not understand this Gospel
as well as the Hebrew Psalmist did, although he
wrote some centuries before the life, teaching and
sacrifice of Jesus Christ had made it clear. Listen
to him :

Delight thyself also in Jehovah;

And he will give thee the desires of thy heart.

Commit thy way unto Jehovah ;

Trust also in him, and he will bring it to pass.

And he will make thy righteousness to go forth as the

And thy justice as the noonday.

Delight yourself in God. That is all. Want to
want him; desire to have him; when you read the
life of Christ say, Yes, that is the kind of life I
would like to live, that is the kind of man I would
like to be; Lord, make me like him. That is all,
absolutely all.


I do not know where this truth is more beautifully
told than in Henry Ward Beecher's graphic descrip-
tion of his Christian experience.

I was a child of teaching and prayer; I was reared in
the household of faith; I knew the Catechism as it was
taught; I was instructed in the Scriptures as they were
expounded from the pulpit and read by me; and yet, till
after I was twenty-one years old, I groped without the
knowledge of God in Christ Jesus. I know not what
the tablets of eternity have written down, but I think
that when I stand in Zion and before God, the brightest
thing I shall look back upon will be that blessed morning
in May when it pleased God to reveal to my wandering
soul the idea that it was his nature to love a man in his
sins for the sake of helping him out of them; that he did
not do it out of compliment to Christ, or to a law, or a
plan of salvation, but from the fullness of his great
heart, that he was a Being not made mad by sin, but
sorry, that he was not furious with wrath toward the
sinner, but pitied him — in short, that he felt toward me
as my mother felt toward me, to whose eyes my wrong-
doing brought tears, who never pressed me so close to
her as when I had done wrong, and who would fain with
her yearning love lift me out of trouble. And when I
found that Jesus Christ had such a disposition, and that
when his disciples did wrong he drew them closer to him
than he did before — and when pride, and jealousy, and
rivalry, and all vulgar* and worldly feelings rankled in
their bosoms, he opened his heart to them as a medicine
to heal these infirmities : when I found that it was Christ's
nature to lift men out of weakness to strength, out of


impurity to goodness, out of everything low and debasing
to superiority, I felt that I had found a God. I shall
never forget the feelings with which I walked forth that
May morning. The golden pavements will never feel to
my feet as then the grass felt to them; and the singing
of the birds in the woods — for I roamed in the woods
— was cacophonous to the sweet music of my thoughts;
and there were no forms in the universe which seemed to
me graceful enough to represent the Being, a conception
of whose character had just dawned on my mind. I felt,
when I had with the Psalmist called upon the heavens,
the earth, the mountains, the streams, the floods, the birds,
the beasts, and universal being to praise God, that I had
called upon nothing that could praise him enough for
the revelation of such a nature as that in the Lord Jesus

All this may be true, and yet the past remains.
God may not remember your sin, but you cannot
forget it. He may not punish you, but how can
you escape your own self-punishment? His prom-
ise may remove your fear of the future, but not
your sorrow for the past. You shot a poisoned
arrow into the heart of your wife. You cannot
draw it out : nor can he. You did a dishonest thing :
you cannot undo it: nor can he. You can pay
the money back, but you cannot undo the dishon-
esty. The past is past : not even God can change it.


" The Moving Finger writes : and having writ
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a word of it."

That is true. Not even Almighty God can make
the past other than it is. But God can bring good
out of our evil, and he often does. John B. Gough
once said to me, " I never come into a parlor where
ladies and gentlemen are gathered to meet me with-
out thinking they are saying to themselves, Here
comes the man who has twice had delirium tremens ;
and I never dare to share in a communion service
where fermented wine is used lest its fragrance
should prove to me an irresistible temptation." He
carried the effects of his sin with him to his dying
day ; but he was saved from the sin of drunkenness
and the very painful memory of his past made him
all the more effective as an apostle of temperance.
The greatest single crime of history was perpetrated
when Judas, Caiphas and Pilate conspired to slay
the innocent. But out of that conspiracy the
world's redemption was wrought.

The history of America illustrates this truth in a
very striking manner. The Civil War was an awful


tragedy, and those who are responsible for bringing
it on, whether by their ambition, their recklessness,
their cowardice, or their carelessness, were guilty of
an awful sin. And yet, on looking back we can see
now what we could not see then. Before the Civil
War a great chasm had been opened between the
North and the South. The union of States was one
of law, not one of the spirit. The North despised
the South as a community of braggarts; the South
despised the North as a community of mere money
makers. Each said, The other will never fight.
But the four years of bloody war created in each
section a respect for the other section not known
before, and out of a conflict whose wounds we had
thought could never be healed came forth a fra-
ternal fellowship which we never knew before.

The memory of our sins will remain. We shall
carry it with us even to heaven; but the Apostle
John tells us that it will add a new song to the
celestial choral : " And they sung a new song, say- (
ing, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open
the seals thereof: for thou wast slain and hast
redeemed us to God by thy blood, out of every
kindred and tongue and people and nation." They


remembered their sins in remembering their redemp-
tion from sin, as Israel remembered the oppressions
they had endured in Egypt in remembering their
deliverance and their Deliverer. In both cases the
song they sung was a " New Song." And we need
not wait for heaven to sing it.

But it is not only the memories of the past which
are burdens to us; the present and the future are
burdens also. " We have done the things we ought
not to have done, and we have left undone the
things we ought to have done, and there is no health
in us." The evil is still here. And the conscious-
ness that it is here fills us with apprehension for
the future. This sense of evil in us, this appre-
hension of sins into which it will bring us, an appre-
hension so great as to lead sometimes to despair,
this is the last and greatest enemy of all. And to
meet this enemy with courage born of hope, the
God of the Old Testament and of the New equips us.

Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as

snow ;
Though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.

What shall be white like snow? The sins. What


shall be as wool? The sins. Is this possible?
Can our sins become virtues?

It has sometimes been said that there is no good
in man. It would be truer to say that there is no
evil in him. For there is nothing in man which is
inherently evil ; nothing which cannot be directed to
a good purpose and made to serve a beneficent end.
Vice is virtue misplaced. Appetite? Is that a
vice? There are some readers of this book who
would better eat less than they do; but there are
others whose doctors wish them to eat more than
they do. Some have too much appetite, and some
not appetite enough. Appetite is a virtue; it is the
misdirection and misuse of appetite which is a vice.
Approbativeness, is that a sin? A man without
any care for the opinions of others is a man without
sympathy ; he cannot understand other men. Pride,
is that a sin? A man without pride! Such a
creature is not a man; he has not a vertebrate
column. Acquisitiveness, is that a sin? Acquisi-
tiveness, which is a seed of all manner of evil, is
also a seed of all manner of good. It drives the
busy wheels of industry and sets us all working.
What our Father says is this: Not only will I


allow no sin you have committed to separate you
from me; not only will I pluck the evil out of your
evil doing and make it bring forth good ; but I will
make the sin in you a virtue if you will let me.

Moses has been called the meekest man in history.
But when he brought the Egyptian to the ground
with a single blow and killed him, I do not believe
Moses was the meekest man on earth. What is
meekness? Meekness is passion tamed. And be-
cause Moses had this power of passion, he had in
him a power of patience. Patience involves, first of
all, a power to feel, and secondly, the power to keep
that feeling in control. Paul, brought up as a
Pharisee, never, as his letters clearly show, lost his
pride; but it was so purified, transfigured, inspired
by a new purpose and directed to a new object that
what had been a vice became a virtue. It was no
longer pride in himself and his own righteousness,
but pride in his Leader and in the Cause to which
he had consecrated himself. He became a leader
of a despised sect and the follower of a convict
condemned first by a Jewish and then by a Roman
Tribunal, and put to the most ignoble death known
to that age. And even in this outcast sect Paul was


looked upon with suspicion by his co-religionists as
a heretic. But never did he apolgize; never did he
take a defensive attitude. He gloried in being a
Jew, gloried in being a Christian Jew, gloried in
his Convict-Leader, gloried in the cross on which
that Leader had been put to death. His pride be-
came an instrument of power and an equipment for
service. His scarlet sin became white as snow.

Nor is this transformation of character wrought
by the spirit of Jesus,Christ merely in the individual :
it is also social and organic. The great upward and
forward movements in human history are divinely
inspired movements; the Democratic movement,
the Emancipation movement, the Temperance move-
ment, the present movement towards international
justice and peace are all parts of that greater
movement which we call Christianity. God is
re-creating the world.

My realization of the fact that Jesus Christ does
not promise remission of penalty but does promise
remission of sin revolutionized my theology because
it revolutionized my religious experience. Let me
here in five definitions briefly define that revolution.

Salvation no longer means to me deliverance from


Hell and admission to Heaven; it means deliver-
ance from Sin. Exemption from penalty without
deliverance from sin would not be salvation. If a
good man were to go to Hell and retain his good-
ness he would be saved. If a bad man were to go
to Heaven and retain his evil nature, he would be
lost. Heaven must be in us — Hell is in some.
The Gospel is not the good news that guilty men
may be saved from punishment, but the good news
that guilty men may be made virtuous. In one
word, Salvation is character.

Justification by faith no longer means to me that
Christ has suffered the penalties of my sins and
therefore if I accept his sacrifice God will treat
me as though I were innocent although I am guilty ;
it means that Jesus Christ offers himself to me as
my divine companion and if I accept his compan-
ionship I can be made virtuous although I have
been guilty.

Atonement no longer means to me that Christ has
made a reparation to God for the wrong I have
done and therefore God is reconciled to me. It
means that Christ has by his life and teaching inter-
preted God to me and by his personal presence


inspires in me the will to do my Father's will and
so has reconciled me to God.

Regeneration does not mean to me a new faculty
miraculously given to man by some magic formula,
as baptism, or by some supernatural experience for
which man must wait. In every normal man is
the capacity for goodness and truth, for love and
service, for hope and joy. But this sleeping capac-
ity is naught unless it is awakened into life. It is
a seed, but a lifeless seed until it is given life by a
divine power above itself. So I might say to the
seeds in my garden bed, You can never come into
the kingdom of light and life and beauty until you
are born from above, and all the while God's sun,
which shines alike on the evil and the good, is
waiting to give them life.

Incarnation means to me more than that the Spirit
of God dwelt unrecognized by the world centuries
ago for a few years in Jesus of Nazareth; it also
means to me that the same Spirit still dwells in the
world, carrying on now with the followers of Jesus

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Online LibraryLyman AbbottWhat Christianity means to me; a spiritual autobiography → online text (page 7 of 10)