Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
Arpil 26, 1962
NUMBER 50, PAGE 1,12-13a

Strictness Of Christian Morality

Wm. L. Davidson

(Editor's note: This excellent article by William L. Davidson, professor in the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, nearly a hundred years ago, is taken from an ancient book entitled Christian Ethics, and was sent to us by Tant Williams, Jr., of South Houston, Texas.)

I. Object Of Christianity

The one great object of Christianity is to bring joy and gladness to mankind, and this it does by enunciation of reconciliation with God and the means of it. Christ's work Is the removal of sin from the individual's conscience, and the restoration of fellowship and filial intercourse with the Supreme. Jesus likened Himself to a joyful Bridegroom and His disciples to joyous "sons of the bridechamber." (John 3:29) Moroseness, therefore, and gloom are excluded. Nevertheless, joy and gladness ... are not incompatible with pain and sacrifice. On the contrary, man's ethical condition being what it is, and the circumstances of human life being what they are, pain and sacrifice are indispensable as a means to happiness. If sin be man's greatest evil and righteousness his greatest good, then sin must be fought with and resisted at whatever cost — righteousness must be won, however great the effort Hence, the strong and startling note of severity that pervades the Christian ethics. Repentance stands at the very threshold — not mere consciousness of sin and sorrow for it, but hatred of it and departure from it (however painful may be the process), amendment or reformation of life by yielding up oneself to God, and to the guidance of His Spirit. Self-renunciation of the most absolute kind is demanded of the follower of Jesus. Not only is he to sit loose to "the world," he is to despise and strenuously withstand it. Riches, honour, fame — these, and the like, are certainly not forbidden, but they are to be strictly watched, lest they become a snare; and even the tenderest and most natural social relationships — those of family, friendship, etc. — are at once to be severed, if they take too strong a hold of the affections. The Christian must be prepared to part with what is nearest and dearest to himself, — even his own right hand or right eye, if it offend him. (Matt. 5:29, 30) He is to separate from father and mother, and wife and children, and brothers and sisters, if they stand between him and his Christian calling. (Luke 14:26) Christ Himself claims to have come, in the first instance, to cast fire on the earth" (Luke 12:49); and the immediate result of His Gospel was "not peace, but a sword." (Matt. 10:34)

This extreme severity — not unconditional, however, be it observed — marks off Christianity from ancient Greek ethics, and indeed, from ethics in general. What is the reason of it? The reason of it is, perception of the magnitude of the issues at stake in man's earthly life, involving a due estimate of sin and demanding immortality.

1. So long as there was no true appreciation of the nature and disastrous consequences of sin — so long as evil was looked upon merely as a defect, as ignorance, or, it might be, as a want of harmony between man and his environment — there could scarcely have arisen that deep consciousness of the gravity of living that characterizes the teaching of Christ and His apostles. The most that seemed necessary for a man to do, in order to find peace and satisfaction, was to withdraw from the world and live in solitary communion with himself enjoying the pleasures of philosophic thought or calm unruffled contemplation.

But with Christianity came the intense consciousness of the real character of sin, of its appalling consequences, and its universal sway. Sin is now seen to be more than a defect: it is a positive disease, self-induced by man, polluting everything, and eating as a canker into the soul. It was taught by Socrates, and became a commonplace of the Greek schools afterwards, that vice is ignorance and virtue knowledge; or, as it was otherwise expressed, that no man sins willingly. Sin, in other words, was conceived as a mere intellectual limitation--it was a lack of knowledge; which being removed, sin would immediately cease. To this and all similar notions, Christianity is opposed. Sin, according to Scripture, is no mere intellectual limitation: it is a thing of the will — it is conscious rebellion against God, deliberate transgression of His Law. Hence, knowledge is not the cure for it. Nor can escape from it be secured by withdrawing into solitude — monasticism and the hermit's cell are no safeguard; for, the root of the evil is within — it goes down deep to the center of human inclinations and desires. The desert is the home of "wild beasts." As a writer of the last century quaintly expressed it: "A man may be dead to the world in the midst of its temptations, and he may meet with the devil in a wilderness as well as in a court and pride and sourness are extremely apt to grow in the shade." Sin pervades the world; and wherever it finds access, it pollutes and destroys. It must, then, be severely dealt with. There can be no happiness, much less blessedness, where it holds sway.

2. But, further, the results of submission to sin are not temporal only, but eternal. This is distinctive of Christian teaching. Man's life is not limited by the threescore years and ten; there is a hereafter, of endless duration, for which the present life is but a preparation. This gives a peculiar solemnity to life, and deepens our sense of responsibility. Man, says Christianity, is above all things, a spiritual being, whose present existence conditions his future; the character formed now is perpetuated indefinitely, so that the present life and the life to come are not two separate and isolated lives, but one life, the parts of which are of a piece, so that the Seer of Patmos can lay down the principle of the future thus: "He that is unrighteous, let him do unrighteousness still and he that is filthy, let him be made filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him do righteousness still: and he that is holy, let him be made holy still." (Rev 22:11) Without this doctrine of a future life, brought to light by Jesus in the gospel, the austerity of Christian morality would only be partially intelligible. Christianity must of necessity be serious and severe, as facing sin, if sin works ruin both here and hereafter.

Yet, in proportion to the gravity as turned towards the disease is the joy when the disease is eradicated. Union with God secures peace and infuses strength, so that warfare becomes no hardship — rather it is quickening and exhilarating, seeing that the warrior is conscious of ample power in himself to conquer. Sin is already to the Christian a vanquished factor, and his new life begun now is the pledge and earnest of that which is to be. So that the strictness or severity of Christian ethics, at which so many have stumbled, is justified on the ground that only thus can true and abiding gladness be attained. Were austerity set forth as an end in itself, Christianity would stand self-condemned; but it is only a means, and a means that accomplishes the highest end — it effects eternal blessedness and peace. It expresses man's attitude toward sin, or towards "the world," in so far as the world is sinful and the source of temptation; it does not express his inmost nature or his ultimate end "For the end of those things is death. But now, being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto sanctification and the end eternal life. For the wages of sin is death; but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Rom. 6:21-23)

II. Objection To Christianity

Still, exception is often taken, and very strong objection made, to Christ's attitude towards the world, and, in particular, to His seemingly unqualified condemnation of riches and property. That His condemnation is "unqualified," cannot be granted. His treatment of the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-30), for instance, was dictated by the fact that the youth was running great risk in trusting in his riches; and the parable of Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16: 19-31) does not condemn wealth, but the abuse of it, or the irresponsible use of it. But that Jesus is stern in His note of warning against property and riches is indisputable. Yet, He had good reason for it. Let us see by a typical example.

Once, there came to Him (Luke 12:13-21) a worldly-minded man, making the request, "Master, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me." The circumstances seem to have been these: One of two brothers had fallen heir to an inheritance — perhaps, it was left to him by his father, or, perhaps, it was bequeathed him by a friend. No matter; the inheritance was his, and the law could not take it from him. Nevertheless, the other brother was envious, and desired a share of the inheritance. Presumably, he could not wrest it from him at law — otherwise, he would have done it: he could simply trust to persuasion and entreaty. But the man in possession, for good reason or for bad, was deaf alike to argument and to appeal. And so the aggrieved brother came to Jesus, and tried to enlist Him in his cause. Perhaps, after all, the complainer had really a grievance. The possession coveted is denominated "the inheritance" — apparently, therefore, the family inheritance, which had fallen of right to the other brother, but regarding which this brother thought that he himself had, at any rate, moral claims. But the other brother thought differently; and probably, he was right. From Jesus' answer, it may be gathered that the complainer was a greedy man — a selfish man, a covetous man; and to put property, either in the shape of money or of land, into such a man's hands, is the worst thing, both for the man himself and for other people, that could possibly be done. The best thing that you can do with a selfish man, or with a self-indulgent man, is to strip him of all his goods. It is only when he finds himself poor and wretched, and feels the necessity of bestirring himself to exertion in order to gain a livelihood, that he comes to realize the dignity of life, and the enormous responsibility that prosperity or good fortune entails. And so Jesus made answer, "Man, who made Me a judge, or a divider over you?" The emphasis is on "you." In other words, "I am, indeed, a judge, and so I can apportion gifts and adjust rights, but only among Mine own. You and I move in different spheres; not to you does my jurisdiction extend. The circle in which My influence is felt and in which My word is law is the circle of the pure and the unworldly; the circle in which you live is that of the worldly and the selfish. Judge you who may, I cannot interfere, and I will not." And then, in order to bring out the true character of the petitioner and to emphasize his peril, He added a strong warning against covetousness, and concluded with the brief, but telling, parable of the Rich Fool. "Money you want? Property is it? A share in your brother's inheritance? Well, suppose you got it: suppose you got even far more than that? Suppose that the things prospered with you beyond your wildest expectation; so that your storehouses and barns grew far too small to hold your fruits, and you had to build new and larger ones. What then? Why, from bad you would go to worse; and, the more you prospered in worldly things, the less would you amass of spiritual riches. Beginning with covetousness, you would end in self-indulgence. Self would come to occupy your whole interest and concern: your sole desire would be how best to live at ease, to 'eat, drink, and be merry,' till the day would come when God would call you into reckoning. Suddenly perhaps, He would call you; at all events, it would be when you were unprepared. In the midst of your self-indulgence and your mirth, the voice would come, Thou fool, this night is thy soul required of thee. Then, the things which thou halt prepared, whose shall they be?"

Now, surely, if this be the end of covetousness, Christ was right in warning men against riches. If covetousness leads to self-indulgence and to the imbruting of the reason, happiness is impossible; and highest good there can be none, for the man on whom it lays its firm grasp, Austerity here is certainly a necessity, in the interests of blessedness itself.