Lyman Abbott.

What Christianity means to me; a spiritual autobiography online

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the work of serving and saving men which the same
Spirit carried on with Jesus then. Incarnation to
me is not merely an historical episode; it is an


eternal fact. "Behold I stand at the door and
knock; if any man will hear my voice and open
the door I will come unto him and will sup with
him and he with me." This figure interprets to
me the spiritual aspirations of mankind. God is
love. Where God is, love is. And love is every-
where: a universal presence, a mighty though not
resistless power in human life.

We look back into the past for a memory of a
God that was, or forward into the future for a hope
of a God that is to be; and all the while God stands
at the door and knocks for admission to our lives.
Love is God knocking.

Love knocks at the heart of the expectant
mother, that mother-love may interpret God to her.
Love knocks at the heart of the boys and girls at
school and college, that friendship may interpret
God to them. Love knocks at the heart of the
youths and the maidens, that a love as strong as
death, which many waters cannot quench nor floods
drown, and which is of infinitely more value to
them than all their possessions, may interpret God
to them. Love knocks at the door of the mill and
the mine that by making labor a service love may


interpret the spirit of him who is the Maker of
heaven and earth. Love knocks at the door of
sorrow, that human sympathy may interpret to the
mourner him who for our sake became a man of
sorrows and acquainted with grief. Love knocks
at the prison doors, that human forgiveness may
interpret him who came to seek and to save the lost.
And love inspires the faith and hope which looks
up from the hour of death and forward to the
day of judgment not with dread, but with rejoicing,
and sings: Let the heavens rejoice and the earth
be glad, let the sea roar and the fullness thereof,
the world and they that dwell therein; for Love is
coming; he is coming to judge the world with
righteousness and the people with his truth.

While I was engaged in writing this chapter the
life of the Reverend Dr. Daniel Bliss was published
and a copy was sent to me by its author, Dr. Bliss's
eldest son. Dr. Bliss entered the missionary service
of the American Board of Commissioners for For-
eign Missions in 1856 and remained in that service
until his death in the ninety-third year of his age,
in 19 16. For thirty-six years he was the active
and honored President of the Syrian Protestant


College in Beirut, Syria. Toward the end of his
life he wrote some reminiscences for his children
and grandchildren. These reminiscences, parts of
which are included in the life by his son, contain
the following statement in which he defines with
characteristic clearness his faith, which both inter-
prets and confirms the faith which in this chapter I
have been endeavoring to depict:

" Some people have no clear idea in matters of religion
what is cause and what is effect. Some seem to think
that God loves mankind because Christ came and died
for them Just the opposite is true, for God so loved the
world that He gave His only Son to us. Some think
that God loves us because we love Him. The opposite
is true: we love God because He first loved us. Some
seem to think that the Atonement made a change in God's
attitude towards us ; God changeth not, and the Atonement
was made not to change Him but to change us. Some
seem to think that God was angry and Christ came to
reconcile Him; Paul says the opposite is true: God was
in Christ reconciling the world to Himself."

In his father's biography the son says that his
father inherited the Calvinistic tradition. Three-
quarters of a century spent by him in Bible study
and Christian teaching in Syria and three-quarters
of a century spent by me in Bible study and Chris-


tian teaching in America brought us both to sub-
stantially the same understanding and interpreta-
tion of the Gospel message. And it is interesting
to note how in spirit this expression of the father's
faith tallies with that of a younger son, Howard
Bliss, for four years my associate in Plymouth
Church, Brooklyn, and subsequently, and until his
death in 1920, his father's successor in the College
Presidency. 1 In the interpretation of the Gospel
furnished in this chapter there is nothing unique.
It is only the expression of a conviction to which
many of the most devout and earnest disciples of
Christ and students of his teaching have been
coming during the last half century.

If it is true that Jesus Christ came not to recon-
cile God to the world but to reconcile the world
to God, not to redeem men from punishment but to
redeem them from sin, what is the meaning of his
sacrifice? Has it any meaning? To a considera-
tion of that question I devote the next chapter.

1 See Epilogue at close of the volume.



No reader will understand this chapter unless he
has first understood what I have endeavored to
make clear in the preceding chapter: Salvation is
not deliverance from punishment but deliverance
from sin. " The wages of sin is death : but the
gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord."
As the sun drives out the darkness by the gift of
light, as the doctor drives out disease by the gift of
health, as the teacher drives out ignorance by the
gift of knowledge, so God drives out sin by the
gift of his own life. We are saved not by impu-
tation but by impartation of righteousness; not by
being treated as though we were innocent when we
are guilty, but by being made virtuous though we
were guilty. In the language of Paul, we are " con-
formed to the image of God's Son that he may be
the first born among many brethren."



The gift of life can never be conferred except
through self-sacrifice.

The mother who bore us laid down her life in
order that she might give a new life to the world.
I do not suppose that any man can comprehend the
strange feeling of hope and fear which struggles
within the awe-struck heart of the expectant mother.
She goes down to the brink of that mysterious
stream which is both the river of life and the river
of death, and knows not whether the ferryman will
come to carry her away to the unknown land or out
of the unknown land will bring a new life to her.
When the new born child is laid in her arms her
travail pain is not over. Just begun is that mother's
experience, which is at once the greatest fear and
the greatest hope, the greatest sorrow and the
greatest joy of human life. Not only in those few
hours of physical anguish does she suffer; her life
is one long, joyful self-sacrifice — joyful because
the greatest joy of life is the joy of self-sacrifice.
She daily lays down her life for her child. She
delights in menial services rendered to him which
she has never before rendered to any one; she
abandons the society in which market place she


was wont to exchange services of good will, and
devotes herself to the society of the babe who takes
all and gives nothing. The songs she sings to her
babe are her only music; her chief literature is the
stories she reads to the growing child; her most
enticing games are those she plays with him; her
most instructive studies are those in which she is
his leader. She fears nothing so much as that he
may become estranged from her and from his home
and fall into vicious habits; she hopes for nothing
so much as that he may grow up to be gentle and
strong, just and generous, courageous and wise; and
she experiences a remorse in his incipient vices far
greater than any he will ever know, unless in later
years the memory of her tears comes out of the
past to teach him. Motherhood is one long travail
because it is the supremest revelation which human
experience affords of life-giving, and life-giving is
always costly to the giver. This it is which makes
motherhood the most revered of all offices and
mother the most sacred of all words.

Next in real honor though not in popular repute
is the teacher. She, too, is a life-giver; she, too,
knows the travail pain of imparting life. I said


once to a famous educator, " I should think you
would get tired of teaching the same lessons year
after year; what monotony of toil is yours." He
replied, " That is because you are not a teacher,
Mr. Abbott. An editor is interested in new
themes; a teacher is interested in new pupils."
The teacher's problem is as old as the ages and yet
new with every morning and differs with every
pupil. It is easy to lead a horse to water, but hard
to make him drink. If only these boys and girls
were eager to learn, what a delight it would be to
teach them. But they are not eager to learn. And
how to awaken intellectual ambition, concentration
of effort, steadiness of purpose, is the teacher's
problem. The chief intellectual quality she needs is
clearness of expression. The chief moral quality
she needs is inspired patience. And the much cov-
eted title of Ph.D. does not certify to either. If
she have the teacher's ambition, how often as she
confronts stolid and indifferent faces must she cry
out, Their ears are dull of hearing and their eyes
have they closed lest at any time they should hear
with their ears and see with their eyes and should
understand with their hearts. How often as she


sees them discarding her counsels, resenting her
discipline and drifting away from her influence
must she sorrowfully say to herself, I would have
gathered you together as a hen gathereth her
chickens under her wings and ye would not !

I have already indicated in a previous chapter that
the power and the glory of the Church is in its
spirit of self-sacrifice: of the Roman Catholic
Church not in its cathedrals and the jeweled robes
of its priests, but in the self-sacrificing lives of its
consecrated sisterhoods; of the Protestant Church
not in the autocratic Archbishop Laud but in the
self-sacrificing lives of the persecuted Pilgrims.
The Church is strong only when it goes out to seek
and to save that which is lost. The altar in the
chancel and the cross over it are but symbols. The
Church is powerful when the spirit which the altar
and the cross symbolize inspires it to service and
self-sacrifice. Only a missionary church is a true
church; only a life-giving church is a living church.
General Booth in his ever memorable address when
the Freedom of the City was presented to him by
the Lord Mayor of London revealed the secret of
its power: "The Army has invited the drunkard,


the harlot, the criminal, the pauper, the friendless,
the giddy, dancing, frivolous throngs, to come and
seek God." What sacrifice giving that invitation
involved the story of General Booth's life makes

The spirit of self-sacrifice is the secret of national
greatness. At this writing (1920) the United
States is second to no other Nation in its wealth,
its power, its opportunity for moral leadership.
What has made it great? Only citizens make a
Nation great, and only citizens who possess the
qualities of greatness — service and sacrifice. The
spirit of self-sacrifice called on the men of 1776, and
they laid down their lives to win liberty for them-
selves and bequeath it to their children. It called
on the men of 1812, and they laid down their lives
to win the freedom of the seas for the commerce
of the world. It called on the men of 1861, and
they laid down their lives to maintain the life of
a Nation threatened with destruction and to win
the emancipation of a race denied the inalienable
right to liberty. It called on the men of 1898, and
they laid down their lives to set free a helpless
neighbor from a sixteenth century oppression. It


called on the men of 19 17, and they laid down their
lives to save their oppressed brothers across the
sea. Ever since the first Pilgrims set sail from
Plymouth, it has been calling to their brothers and,
answering the call, millions of immigrants have
come hither from other lands; most of them poor,
many of them illiterate, few of them comprehending
the nature of the liberty they sought. But we who
were born freemen cannot easily realize what tears,
what heart aches, what home-sickness many of these
who are now our fellow citizens have suffered in
leaving their homes, their churches, their native land,
breaking away from all their sacred associations
and honored traditions, in order that they might
win for themselves and their children and their
children's children among strangers in an unknown
country, freedom, education, a better industrial
opportunity, a larger life. Theirs, too, has been the
spirit of self-sacrifice which puts aspiration above
present possession and the love of others above self-
love. The glory of America is not in its mines and
forests, its prairies and water powers, its railways
and sky-scrapers, but in its Valley Forge, its Gettys-
burg, its San Juan Hill, its Chateau-Thierry, its


too little honored immigrant population, and in its
churches, its schools, and its colleges, built and
maintained by the spirit of self-sacrifice.

Henry Drummond has shown in his discerning
volume, "The Ascent of Man," that this life of
self-sacrifice is discernible throughout the drama of
creation daily enacted before our eyes, from the
division of the cell in the very beginnings of life
to the highest ministrations of self-sacrificing love
in motherhood. " There are," he writes, " two
Struggles for Life in every living thing; the
Struggle for Life and the Struggle for the Life of
Others." And again: "The Creation is a drama,
and no drama was ever put upon the stage with
only one actor. The Struggle for Life is the ' Vil-
lain ' of the piece, no more; and, like the ' Villain '
in the play, its chief function is to re-act upon the
other players for higher ends. There is, in point
of fact, a second factor which one might venture to
call the Struggle for the Life of Others, which plays
an equally prominent part. Even in the early
stages of development, its contribution is as real,
while in the world's later progress — under the
name of Altruism — it assumes a sovereignty


before which the earlier Struggle sinks into insig-
nificance." And still again: " The first chapter or
two of the Story of Evolution may be headed the
Struggle for Life, but take the book as a whole
and it is not a tale of battle. It is a Love story."
That sacrifice is the law of nature is recognized
by such purely scientific and avowedly unreligious
writers as Darwin and Haeckel; but nowhere I
think is it more beautifully portrayed and scien-
tifically demonstrated than in this volume of Henry
Drummond, from which I must content myself
with one more quotation in which the truth is
interpreted with equal scientific clearness and
spiritual beauty.

To interpret the course of Evolution without this [law
of sacrifice] would be to leave the richest side even of
material Nature without an explanation. Retrace the
ground even thus hastily travelled over, and see how full
Creation is of meaning, of anticipation, of good for man,
how far back begins the undertone of Love. Remember
that nearly all the beauty of the world is Love-Beauty —
the corolla of the flower and the plume of the grass, the
lamp of the firefly, the plumage of the bird, the horn
of the stag, the face of a woman; that nearly all the
music of the natural world is Love-Music — the song of
the nightingale, the call of the mammal, the chorus of
the insect, the serenade of the lover; that nearly all the


foods of the world are Love- foods — the date and the
raisin, the banana and the bread-fruit, the locust and the
honey, the eggs, the grains, the seeds, the cereals, and the
legumes; that all the drinks of the world are Love-drinks
— the juice of the sprouting grain and the withered hop,
the milk from the udder of the cow, the wine from the
Love-cup of the vine. Remember that the Family, the
crown of all higher life, is the creation of Love; that Co-
operation, which means power, which means wealth, which
means leisure, which therefore means art and culture,
recreation and education, is the gift of Love. Remember
not only these things, but the diffusions of feeling which
accompany them, the elevations, the ideals, the happiness,
the goodness, and the faith in more goodness, and ask
if it is not a world of Love in which we live. 1

Truly does Drummond say that " Literally, scien-
tifically, Love is life." Myriad are the voices with
which nature proclaims that God is Love and that
Love can give life only through suffering and self-
sacrifice. Science confirms what the heart of man
has desired to believe. Love and sacrifice — the
Struggle for Others — is the law of human nature
because it is the law of God's own nature. His own
spirit, the spirit of love, service and sacrifice, he
breathed into man in the dawn of creation, and
still breathes into every child of man who is

1 Henry Drummond : " The Ascent of Man," page 232.


brought into the world. As the mother can give
life to the child, the saint to the church, the patriot
to the nation, the nation to the world, and nature
to lier great progeny, so God can give his life to
his children only by sacrifice.

The pagans offered sacrifices to appease the wrath
of angry gods or win the favor of corruptible gods ;
the Israelites offered sacrifices, to satisfy the law
of a just God or to express their thanks for the
goodness of a merciful God. Both offered sacri-
fices by or on behalf of men to God or the gods.
The Glad Tidings of Jesus Christ is that sacrifice
for sin is offered not by man to God but God to
man; it is not an act of man to procure forgive-
ness but an act of God conferring forgiveness.
God brings the gift into the temple and man comes
empty-handed. The rich One brings his wealth to
the poor; the wise One brings his wisdom to the
ignorant; the strong One brings his strength to the
weak; the living One brings his life to the dead.

The New Testament writers present this truth
in many different ways.

Sometimes in argument with the Jews, as in the
Epistle to the Hebrews : there is no longer need


of a Temple, for man is the Temple and God dwells
in him; there is no longer need of a sacrifice, for
God's Son is the sacrifice.

Sometimes in a figure: the Lamb of God taketh
away the sins of the world; the Lamb is one w T hich
God provides, man has not to provide one.

Sometimes in explicit terms : Hereby know we
love because he laid down his life for us; and we
ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.

Sometimes as God's unspeakable gift to the
world: God so loved the world that he gave his
only begotten Son.

Sometimes as the revelation in a divinely en-
dowed human life of what God is and what we
ought to be : Have this mind in you, which was
also in Christ Jesus : who. existing in the form of
God, counted not the being on an equality with
God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself,
taking the form of a servant, being made in the
likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a
man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient even
unto death, yea, the death of the cross.

Sometimes by a figure often used in Christian
literature but often misunderstood and misinter-


preted. " The life of the flesh," said the Jewish
law, " is in the blood." This use of blood to
signify the vital principle, the life, the temper of
mind, the natural disposition, the inherited quality
or character is very common in English literature
and ought to have saved us from misunderstanding
it as used in the Bible. " The blood of Christ,"
says Stanley, " means the inmost essence of his
character." 1 Substitute the words " deliverance
from sin " for " forgiveness of sin " and " life
poured out " for " blood shed " and texts which
have often been emptied of their meaning become
vital again.

This is the New Covenant in my life poured out
for many for their deliverance from sin.

Except a man imbibe my spirit of life he cannot
be my disciple.

The spirit of Christ's life cleanseth us from all

Without the imparting -of life there can be no
deliverance from sin.

i See Dean Stanley's Essay on " The Body and the Blood "
in his " Christian Institutions." See also the illustrations of
this customary use of blood in English literature given by the
Century Dictionary.


We are saved not by the drops of blood which
trickled down from Christ's hands and feet, not by
the blood and water that flowed after his death
from Christ's pierced side; but by the life which
that blood symbolized; the life given from his early
boyhood to his death; the life still given by him
in every self-sacrificing service of mother to her
children, of every Christian worker to his church,
of every patriotic citizen to his country, of the
loyal soldier laying down his life on the field of
battle. Every aspiration to a life of love, service
and sacrifice, however it may seem to come, repeats
the call of the Apostle — "I beseech you by the
mercies of God that you present your bodies a living
sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your
reasonable service."

It was not by his death that Christ saved the
world, but by laying down his life for the world —
by his death only as that was an inevitable conse-
quence of the completeness of his consecration to
his Father's will. Passion week began when he was
born ; yea, when in the counsels of eternity he said,
I will go down into that suffering, sin-stricken world
and will lay down my life for it. From the be-


ginning to the end his life was laid down for hu-
manity. Laid down as truly when he went into
the wilderness and wrestled with the tempter; as
truly when he went into the courts of Jerusalem
and scourged out the traders, knowing what hos-
tility he was arousing ; as truly when he set his face
steadfastly to go to Jerusalem, where his enemies
were, and his disciples followed amazed and won-
der-stricken that he should go thither; as truly
when he knew the plot that Judas was making for
his destruction and refused to flee; as truly when
he faced the mob in the Temple courts in Jerusalem
and told the Hebrews to their face that they were
traitors to their God and to their native land — as
truly then as when in the court of Pilate he said,
" I am a king," and when in the court of Caiaphas
he said, " I am the Son of God," and walked out
bearing his cross to be nailed upon it. And in all
this he was interpreting the life of God in his
world; the life of a Father who always has com-
passion on his children, always goes out to seek
and to save them, always shares their sorrows and
their sins.

Tersely and very beautifully and very clearly has


Sir Oliver Lodge put this truth, this revelation of
the nature and perpetual sacrifice of God through
the life and passion of Jesus Christ, in what is, I
think, the briefest life of Jesus in literature, but
not the least significant :

Undoubtedly the Christian idea of God is the simple
one. Overpoweringly and appallingly simple is the notion
presented to us by the orthodox Christian churches: — A
babe born of poor parents, born in a stable among cattle
because there was no room for them in the village inn
— no room for them in the inn — what a master touch !
Revealed to shepherds. Religious people inattentive.
Royalty ignorant, or bent on massacre. . . . Then the
child growing into a peasant youth, brought up to a trade.
At length a few years of itinerant preaching; flashes of
miraculous power and insight. And then a swift end:
set upon by the religious people; his followers over-awed
and scattered, himself tried as a blasphemer, flogged, and
finally tortured to death. Simplicity most thorough and
most strange ! In itself it is not unique; such occurrences
seem inevitable to highest humanity in an unregenerate
world; but who, without inspiration would see in them a
revelation of the nature of God? 1

Jesus Christ came to a Nation in which for
centuries religion had found two not always con-

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Online LibraryLyman AbbottWhat Christianity means to me; a spiritual autobiography → online text (page 8 of 10)