For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren. — Romans ix:3.
THIS is known to students of the Scriptures as one of the passages which are commonly accounted difficult, — one of the hard places. A preacher would not be likely to take such a passage as his text, unless he supposed it possible to present a simple and natural explanation of it, and to draw from it as thus explained some useful, practical lessons. Before I try to do this, it may be allowable to offer two or three hints as to the course we ought to pursue in studying the difficult passages of Scripture, — hints that would, indeed, apply to all our Scriptural studies.
My first hint would be this: Be willing to let the Scripture mean what it wants to mean. You may say, "that, of course," but it is very far from being a matter of course. Be willing to let the Scripture mean what it wants to mean. We come to it knowing beforehand what things we like and what things we dislike, and if we find in the passage something not in accordance with the ideas we have been reared in, or that now have possession of our minds, we say, " Well, of course it can't mean that," and then we begin to search for
some other meaniing. The plainer the passage, the harder to find anything else than what is plainly meant, and so we go off and say, "What a difficult passage of Scripture!" Has not that often happened to you? It has happened to me. I have waked up to find, after long years of study, that something I always thought was a very hard passage was plain enough, only I had never been willing to allow it to mean what it wished to mean.
My second hint would be: Take good account of the connection. We are peculiarly prone to neglect the connection in dealing with Scripture, because ,we have the Bible printed — most unfortunately, I think — in little scraps of broken sentences, set before us as if they were separate paragraphs — which is not done in any other book in the world — and broken up also in larger portions which are called chapters, where the connection is often completely severed, and yet we cannot help imagining there must be a new subject at the beginning of a new chapter. Moreover, we are accustomed to hear short passages taken as texts, and too often interpreted without regard to the connection. The connection is sometimes the entire book. I doubt if there is one sentence in the epistle to the Hebrews, and there are very few in the epistle to the Romans, which can be really understood without taking account of the whole epistle. But often the connection is only some sentences before and after. Now, if you consider the connection, it is wonderful how it will help you to understand a difficult passage. You go above the difficult place; you launch on the stream above, and come floating down, and your boat is borne over the
rocks. If you cannot determine the precise meaning of the words, you will see what is the general thought of the passage as a whole, and that is the main consideration.
The last hint I shall mention is, that we must take good account of the state of the writer's mind, when he says these things. What is he thinking about ? What is he aiming at? How is he feeling, when he uses this language? I am sure, if any of you have tried it, you will find that the more care you exercise, when reading the Scriptures, in trying to enter into sympathy with the thought and feeling of the sacred writer, the better you will be prepared to see what he really means.
Now, all these hints I have ventured to offer are of importance to us in studying the text: "I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren." Observe he does not say "I wish." Not he. He could not say that. But he almost says it. The original could not be better translated in any other words than those used in our version. The apostle seems to be like one who is on the point of saying something wrong. He rushes, as it were, towards the brink of saying that he wishes to be accursed for his brethren, only he does not say it — stopping on the brink because it would be wrong, because his devout heart would shrink back from the idea of being accursed from Christ, even for his brethren. Now, why does the inspired apostle use this strange language? Why does Paul almost say a terrible thing, so terrible that many people, as they come upon it, and begin to inquire into the meaning, all out of sympathy with the passion of the writer, imagine that they
must explain it away — that it must be impossible for to approach even to the brink of saying what would be so dreadful.
The epistle to the Romans is taken up in its doctrinal portion with the great thought of justification by faith: that men are justified simply by believing in Jesus. The apostle discusses that in the first five chapters. We had a text from that portion some Sundays ago. Then, in the next three chapters he discusses the bearing of this justification by faith upon the matter of sanctification, showing how it works in helping us to be good. We had a text from that portion not long ago. In three more chapters he now discusses the bearing of justification by faith upon the privileges of the Jews. The Jews considered themselves far superior, in point of religion, to any nation in the world, and they would begin to see at once that if the apostle's doctrine be true, and a man is accepted through simple faith in Jesus Christ, then a Gentile might exercise that as well as a Jew, and so a Gentile would be as good as a Jew. We cannot imagine how they would shrink back from any doctrine with such a conclusion, that a Gentile is as good as a Jew. We do not know of any national or race prejudices in our time that are so strong as the prejudices then existing between Jew and Gentile. They would especially dislike such teaching from Paul the apostle. They would say he is a renegade himself to the religion of his fathers. He is a traitor to his people. They were indignant at the idea of his saying that a Gentile could be saved as well as a Jew. When Paul said, the following spring, in his address at Jerusalem, that Jesus
had told him to go to the Gentiles, they broke out in rage, and he had to be saved by the Roman garrison. The apostle knew how intensely they would dislike this idea, and so he wanted to assure them in. entering upon this topic — the bearing of justification by faith upon the privileges of the Jews — he wanted to assure them that he loved his own people, and although he is bound to acknowledge, as he is going to acknowledge, that the great mass of his people are rejecting the Messiah, while Gentiles all around are believing unto salvation, yet he acknowledges this with inexpressible pain and grief. That is the way he feels. That is what he wants to impress upon them. He sees what is coming for his nation. This epistle was written twelve years before the destruction of Jerusalem, and only eight years before the war that led to that destruction. The apostle saw that soon their hot fanaticism would break out in desperate rebellion against the Roman authority, and sooner or later they must be crushed out and ground to atoms. Here was a man who saw that his own nation, his own race, bound to him not merely by nationality in the ordinary sense, but by ties of blood through long and pure descent, was going to ruin. His race alone of all the great races of the earth can trace their history back to a historic ancestor; for all the other peoples find their ancestry lost in darkness, but the Jews could go back in history to their common father. His race had great and glorious deeds connected with its history in the past, and had yet more glorious promises for the future in connection with the Messiah. And this man, who loved his people, who loved them so intensely that when the Lord appeared
to him in a vision, and said, "Go preach to the heathen," he remonstrated and did not want to obey, and had to be driven by persecution, clearly sees that the Jewish nation is about to perish. Not only does he see that national destruction awaits them, but he sees that the great mass of them are slighting their own Messiah, now that he is come, are rejecting the salvation that is in him alone, and plunging madly into the darkness of eternity. He feels all that. And listen how he speaks, in introducing this subject, "I say the truth in Christ — I lie not." A man of self-respect never condescends to assure people that he is telling the truth and not lying, unless there is some extraordinary reason for it. "I say the truth in Christ — I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost, that I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. For I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh; who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh the Messiah came, who is over all, God blessed forever." You see that ordinary language does not suffice to express his emotion. In his swelling passion of soul he rushes to the very brink of saying what would be wrong to say, and shrinks back from saying it. That seems to me to be the plain meaning of the passage, and all that is necessary to understand it is sympathy with the sacred writer's state of mind.
Now, as thus explained, the passage is rich in instruction
I shall only gather out three or four of its lessons, all of which connect themselves with one thought: intense concern for the salvation of others.
1. And first. Concern for the salvation of others is naturally enhanced by patriotism. If a man feels at all as a Christian ought to feel in the way of desire for the salvation of all his fellow-men, through common human sympathies and common wants and destinies, then he will naturally feel more of such concern for those who are allied to him by ties of nationality; dear to him through feelings of patriotism — his own people. And all the more if they are also dear to him by ties of personal affection — if they live in his own locality, if they share all his peculiar interests, his difficulties, his joys. Still more if they are his friends, and most of all if they are his kindred. All the reasons we have for desiring the salvation of mankind at large exist in such cases, and then all these additional reasons enhance the concern we naturally feel for their salvation. My friends, not only Paul felt thus, but he who stood on Olivet and looked out on the splendid capital of his country, which he knew was doomed to destruction, shall we not suppose that he felt some peculiar interest in his own people? Why not?
2. Again. Concern for the salvation of others is not prevented by a belief in what we call the doctrines of grace; is not prevented by believing in divine sovereignty, and predestination and election. Many persons intensely dislike the ideas which are expressed by these phrases. Many persons shrink away from ever accepting them, because those ideas are in their minds associated
with the notion of stolid indifference. They say if predestination be true, then it follows that a man cannot do anything for his own salvation; that if he is to be saved he will be saved, and he has nothing to do with it, and need not care, nor need any one else care. Now, this does not at all follow, and I will prove that it does not follow, by the fact that Paul himself, the great oracle of this doctrine in the Scripture, has uttered these words of burning passionate concern for the salvation of others, so close by the passages in which he has taught the doctrines in question. Look back from the text, run back a few sentences and you will find the very passage upon which many stumble: "Moreover, whom he did predestinate" — there are people who shudder at the very words — "them he also called, and whom he called, them he also justified; and whom he justified, them he also glorified." Just a little while after he uttered those words from which men want to infer that the man who believes it need not feel concerned for his salvation or the salvation of others, just a little after, came the passionate words of the text. Nor is that all, for you will find just following the text, where he speaks of Esau and Jacob, that God made a difference between them before they were born, and where he says of Pharaoh that God raised him up that he might show his power in him, and that God's name might be declared throughout all the earth. "Therefore he hath mercy on whom he will, and whom he will he hardeneth." Some good people fairly shiver at the inference, which seems to them to be inevitable from such language as that. But I say the inference must be wrong, for the inspired
man who uttered this language, only a few moments before had uttered these words of the text. And whenever you find your heart or the heart of your friend inclined to shrink away from these great teachings of divine Scripture concerning sovereignty and predestination, then I pray you make no argument about it, but turn to this language of concern for the salvation of others, so intensely passionate that men wonder and think surely it cannot mean what it says. The trouble is in this and many cases that we draw unwarranted inferences from the teachings of the Bible, and then cast all the odium of those inferences upon the truths from which we draw them. Now, I say that whatever be true, for or against the apostle's doctrines of predestination and divine sovereignty in salvation, it is not true that they will make a man careless as to his own salvation or that of others; seeing that they had no such effect on Paul himself, but right in between these two great passages come the wonderful words of the text.
3. The third lesson is, that concern for the salvation of others will sometimes rise to intense passion. The Apostle Paul is not always saying, "Woe is me if I preach not the gospel." He said that under certain circumstances. Nor does he anywhere else use such an expression as this of the text. So, as I said, concern for the salvation of others will sometimes rise to intense passion.
And more generally, let us say, piety has elements of passionate feeling. I suppose that piety is threefold: there is thought, and feeling, and action. Different persons are inclined to prefer one or the other of these three,
according to their own natural constitution, their education, prejudices, etc.; but all three are necessary to a symmetrical Christian character and Christian life. Some persons will say, if you talk with them, "O, I do love Christian thought — I love to hear a preacher who presents to me inspiring thoughts, especially if there is some new thought." And then some of them are carried away with the idea that they want modern thought, as they call it, instead of Scripture. But meantime it is true that we also need feeling. A man who finds himself inclined to prefer what he calls thought in connection with Christianity, and to neglect Christian feeling and Christian action, ought to see to it lest his character be deformed because wanting in essential elements, and ought to cultivate in himself a regard for feeling and for action. Many cultivated people in our time, as they look with ill-concealed disgust upon the poor negroes, with their wild passionate way of expressing religious feeling, had better see to it lest they themselves be ruinously lacking in the element which appears in the blacks to be too exclusive. Then there are those who care nothing about anything but feeling. They say, "I love to hear a man that makes me feel." Their danger is that they will not know what they are feeling about, because it is not Scripture truths that make them feel, and such feeling will not lead to pious action. Emotion in religion is proper and necessary, and I do not condemn .those who value it highly; but such persons must see to it that they have truth, which is the circulating life-blood of piety, and that their feelings shall lead to corresponding earnest and intense activity; for
emotion about religion, as in anything else, if it does not express itself in activity, will not only be worthless, but will injure the character. Others there are who talk of nothing but action, work, work. Now, work is a noble word, but the danger of these persons is, that they will forget to love Christian truth and to cultivate Christian feeling.
The same thing is true as to bodies of men. You can easily think of a great religious denomination in our country, who care mainly for thought, instruction, knowledge. A noble idea it is, but possibly their danger may be that they will underrate Christian feeling. You can very easily think of another powerful and useful denomination of Christians whose great idea is feeling. Everything is made to contribute to working up emotion, and their danger is that they will neglect the importance of holding truth, even if they do not neglect the importance of activity.
The same thing is also true about certain periods of Christian history. You can find periods when all the Christian world seemed devoted to the idea of doctrine, when men disputed through a lifetime about the doctrines of Christianity, when all the great divisions of the time centered themselves upon the difference between two words of Scripture. You can find other periods where Christianity seemed to run altogether into mystical feeling; when good people gave themselves up to solitary lives, or retired to the privacy of their homes, and thought that all that could be done was to try to cultivate Christian sentiment in private. And ours is an age which runs towards activity. The Christian idea
now is work. I thank God that we live in such an age. It is good to live in a time when the idea is to work. It is a noble privilege to live in such a period. But our danger is that we shall not care for Christian truth, and that in our fancied superiority to all mere emotion we shall shrink away from those great sentiments, that passionate Christian feeling, which alone will stir us up to intense, loving and persevering Christian activity.
4. One more lesson. Concern for the salvation of others, such as Paul here expresses, must have had some good ground in the nature of things. Ah! my friends, you cannot tell me that the man who wrote those words thought that everybody was going to be saved at last. If he did not believe in divine mercy and divine love; if he did not believe in the salvation that is in Jesus Christ — in the glory and the power of his grace, and his everlasting intercession — then who ever did? He did believe in these. And yet do you think a man could have felt that passionate distress to which he here gives such strong utterance, if he had thought, as so many well-meaning people think now-a-days, that God is so good and merciful, that somehow or other, may be not at first when they die, but sometime or other, it will be well with everybody at last? Paul did not think so. He could not have thought so. And I venture to say Jesus Christ did not think so. If we are determined that we will cling to certain ideas, because they suit our natural feeling, then I am persuaded we must turn our back upon the authority of the word of God. There must be some ground for such concern as Paul felt. I shrink from telling what it is. I think of the awful
terms which the Scriptures themselves sometimes employ, — the images of horror, the words of everlasting fire — and I do not wish here and now to speak of them. But there must be some ground for this passionate concern for men's salvation which Paul expresses. And if men ought to feel so, and if devout people do feel so with reference to others, then tell me how those others ought to feel as regards themselves? My friends, who do not care anything about your souls, you must be madmen and irresponsible, or else you ought to care.
I humbly confess to-day, in behalf of my Christian hearers, that we do not feel on this subject as we ought to feel. It is only now and then that we catch glimpses of the reality. "Life is oft so like a dream, we know not where we are," and we do not realize things, and so we do not feel the concern we ought to feel. We are wanting in our duty to you in this respect. And yet you do not know how much concern we do feel. Many and many a time have persons who are here to-day, when they found themselves in the presence of those they loved, wanted to say something, their very life has trembled with the desire to say something, and they have shrunk back. May be they were afraid they would meet no sympathy. This may have been true in some cases. And yet, my brethren, I suspect it has sometimes happened that you shrank from speaking when that very one you loved was secretly wishing that you would speak, but from a like shrinking to yours, perhaps from a fear that you would suppose he cared more than he did, or from a strange sensitiveness with regard to the feelings that lie deepest in our hearts,
would offer you no encouragement. But I venture to say to such as are not Christians, there are those that do feel a deep yearning, an unutterable concern sometimes for your salvation, and O, my friends, you ought to feel concern for yourselves.
[From John A. Broadus, Sermons and Addresses, 1888, pp. 110-123. The book was provided by Steve Lecrone, Burton, OH. — jrd]
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