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The Gospel of Atonement

F. W. Norwood, 1927: There is all the difference in the world between a religion and a gospel.

Religions are as thick as autumn leaves. Almost every man is compelled to shape out one for himself, in which traditional and personal elements may be strangely mingled. But not every religion could be called a gospel. Indeed, broadly speaking, that title is reserved for the Christian faith.

Christianity did not appear in the world as a new religion, but as "glad tidings" (Luke 8:1). It brought men a message of "peace and goodwill" (Luke 2:14) from God. It offered hope of deliverance to all men from sins and sorrows which are shared alike by all. That was the secret of its power. If it has lost its grip upon us to-day - as indeed it has upon many people - it is because we have missed, or do not believe, its essential message.

Christianity had no radical quarrel with the ancient Judaism out of which it emerged.

Jesus Himself was born of the Jews, and was a true "Son of the Law." He claimed to be in line with all the prophets. He did not ask His disciples to break with the ancient faith. He was sure that certain things which were implicit in Judaism had come to their fulfillment in Himself. His one and only aim was to bring men into such relation with God as would give them deliverance from their sins, peace within their consciences, joy and power in heart and life.

This left Him still a Jew, but with a message and outlook which far transcended Judaism. He reached out to all men. He refused to be circumscribed by any traditional or ritualistic limitations. His province was the universal heart of man. "Neither in this place nor yet in another shall ye alone worship God. Ye shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father seeketh such to worship Him. God is Spirit; and His worshippers must worship Him in spirit and reality" (John 4:21-4).

He never criticized a single form or ceremony. He aimed no polemical shafts at any form of religion whatsoever. He saw the universe as one. He saw the universal heart of man as one, in spite of all its superficial differences.

God loved man everywhere and always. Wherever he was to be found, man was hampered by his sins, confused by his thoughts of the Creator, and of life both here and hereafter. Christ came not to condemn, but to save (John 3:17). He brought good news of God, and revealed the life, the truth, and the way. He called His message the Gospel, which means "good news."

The first disciples were much narrower in their thought and outlook than He. Not all at once did they perceive the universal application of His message. They tried to compress it within the limits of the faith in which they had been bred. They did not believe at first that the Gentiles had an equal share in the " good news."

But the new wine was too strong for the old bottles. Their message fretted itself out of its confinement by the force that was in it. Once they believed in the love of God, they could not set boundaries to it. Because their field was the heart of man, stripped of all accidents of birth and breeding, they found it everywhere the same, full of sorrow, conscious of failure, longing for peace and assurance.

They tried to express their convictions as best they could. Naturally they fell back upon figures and illustrations. Just as naturally they found them in the faith in which they had been brought up. This was wise and necessary also, because the minds of their hearers could easily grasp them. That is why there are in the New Testament so many allusions to the sacrifices of the Temple and so many references to the Old Testament Scriptures. They were most helpful to the original hearers of the message, though they may be confusing to the modern mind.

Men have been doing the same thing ever since. There has been one experience running through the Church in all ages, but the methods of interpretation have been different.

The basic element in the human heart has always been the same. Man has always been full of sorrow and failure while longing for peace and assurance.

That is why we have had so many varying explanations of the Fall and the Atonement. Some of them seem grotesque and even horrible to-day, but in their own day they were powerful and convincing. Instead of their variety convincing us that they were false, we ought rather to think how deep and universal is the human need which has so many facets.

There will be many more yet. Life is always changing. Knowledge grows, experience widens, but the human heart changes little. We are still full of sorrow, conscious of failure, and longing for peace. We still need "good tidings of God." What we are needing is not a new evangel, but the appropriate interpretations and illustrations which, as one has said, "would be to us as absolute a solvent of our difficulties about life as Christianity was to the difficulties of the early Christians."

Ask yourself these questions: Are our human sorrows less to-day than they were? Has science or philosophy delivered us from the fact and feeling of failure? Do we need peace and assurance less or more than our fathers did?

Let us strip religion to its kernel. Would it not be well if we could believe that God has goodwill and even love toward His creatures? Do we not need some positive and even objective assurance that our sins and failures - so real a part of our lives, but so irrevocable in their nature - can be and are, to use a scriptural phrase, "removed from between us and God" (Isa. 59:2)? Do we not need peace and confidence concerning the future, both in this world and in that other world which persists in haunting our minds? And do we not need some spiritual enabling so that we may here and now live in harmony with our hopes and in assurance of final victory?

These things are the essential content of Christianity. They form its essential substance. They constitute it a gospel of good tidings.

The form under which we interpret and explain them varies constantly and will continue to vary. Even under imperfect forms, men have felt their power. In every changing century, believers have experienced their moral and spiritual enrichment. They are doing so still. Those who to-day are assured of the saving power of the faith would have to explain their assurance in terms which would have been foreign to Wesley or Luther or Savonarola or St. Francis of Assisi, or, perhaps, to St. Paul. But we cannot surrender them. If we do, we may have Religion, but we have not a Gospel.

Some of us devote our whole lives to the attempt to explain these things of which we are personally sure. Our own explanations have undergone many changes even within the compass of our short experience, but the basic reality has not altered.

Do not fasten your attention upon some explanation of the Atonement which satisfied your fathers but does not satisfy you. Before Copernicus, men explained the movements of the heavenly bodies differently from what they do now, but the stars persist in their courses as of old. You still need God. "We are no better than our fathers," (1 Kings 19:4) as the prophet sobbed so long ago. Life sweeps us on towards that "bourne [river] from which no traveller returns." We need peace and assurance.

The right pronunciation of the word "Atonement" is At-onement. Our greatest need is to be at-one with God.

Hearken still to Jesus. There are many religions, but what we need is a gospel. Give renewed attention to Jesus. "The Lord hath yet more light and truth to break forth from His holy Word." (1 Cor. 4:5).

Let me try if I can put what seems to me to be the essential content of the Christian Gospel inside the compass of a single address. It is of course an impossible thing to attempt, but let it go for what it is worth.

I will state it baldly, crudely, without qualifying clauses. I will sketch it in firm black pencil-strokes and put in no shading. If I had only one sermon to preach and wanted to epitomize my belief, this is how I should do it.

God made all the worlds and not merely the earth. They swing in their orbits without cross-communications. Each globe is self-contained; certainly the earth is. One order of existence at a time is the Divine plan.

On this little globe called the earth, He tries out a great experiment. Progressive development shall be its ruling principle. God will begin with the nearest approach to nothingness, and the final issue shall be found in Man.

The Man himself shall be compact of lowly elements, but shall have also within him the germ of spiritual potency. He shall be dust - and spirit. His feet shall be in the mud, but his head among the stars. He shall be gripped by the heel, as though a serpent entwined its coils about him, but shall have powers of mind and spirit by which he may prevail.

He shall be fully conscious of his failures and defeats, but shall not succumb to them. Within him there shall be a still small voice, reproving and yet exhorting. He shall know the full power of evil - of darkness, nothingness, and godlessness. But he shall not rot in these things. A higher voice shall never cease to call him onward.

When he has finally emerged, he shall be fitted for higher fellowship with his unseen God who called him into being.

There arrives a time when man becomes conscious of these things. As though he had eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, he is aware both of evil and of good. He is also aware of his Creator.

He identifies the upward-calling voice with his God; he associates the downward-calling voice with something that is opposed to God. He supplicates the higher power for assistance. He resists the lower power. That is the beginning of religion.

It is the will of the Higher Power that His struggling creature should receive spiritual amplification. The means used is called Prayer There is sufficient answer to it to reward man's faith.

He dreams now of the help of God. At first he imagines that this help will come from without. He tries to persuade himself that violent disturbances in Nature are sent for this purpose. Signs in the sun and moon and stars, storms, earthquakes, and parted rivers are among the evidences of the Divine help.

Slowly he discovers that his help comes from within. The soul is fortified by invisible grace. God is within rather than without. He finds his truest help outside himself in God-filled men. He calls them saints, because they embody spiritual grace; prophets, because they see the inner meaning of things. He often misunderstands them, indeed may slay them, but in his heart he reveres them, and places them at last in the niches of his temple of reverence. The children build the tombs of the prophets whom the fathers slew.

God sends the prophets. The secret of their endowment is with Him alone. They are His goads and guides, who keep men from succumbing to the evil that is within them. They strengthen the conscience. They lift the world to greater levels. They bear in their bodies the spear-points of the contending forces of good and evil. God sends them, and is Himself their exceeding great reward.

It is the only way. The purer the saint and the bolder the prophet, the more does God come to man.

No other way is open to Him. His very omnipotence disqualifies Him from using other methods. His power is too great to be unloosed. Were He to display it, men would succumb to God as they are in danger of succumbing to evil. God does not want men to suc- cumb - even to Himself. The Divine will is that men should plod through like a pilgrim; fight through like a soldier.

It is the only way! Yet along that line God can do more. He can and He will send a true saint, a veritable prophet.

We know Him as Jesus. He is the world's true saint, without eccentricities, without weaknesses. He is the world's true prophet, not merely proclaiming coming events, but enforcing everlasting principles.

The secret of His being is with God. As indeed it was with every real saint or prophet. Once we have believed that the redeeming God was in every true saint and prophet, we know that He was even more so in Him. How much more so we cannot define. He Himself said that He was one with God (John 10:30), and we believe Him. It is enough for us.

We try to express it in dogmas. We are out of our depth. We are confused by the twin thoughts of an invisible omnipresent God and a localized man in human form. But the essential thing is to know that God is revealing Himself in the only way that is open to Him.

And what happens now?

This! The age-long conflict is precipitated. Evil comes to its maximum of badness. Good comes to its supreme demonstration as a spiritual force. Evil clenches its fist and smites at the face of God in Him. The Spirit of God is triumphant in the dark hour.

O love of God ! O sin of man,
In this dread hour thy strength was tried.
And victory remains with Love!
Jesus, our Lord, was crucified.

It is the Atonement. The At-one-ment. That is to say that God is at one with man in the struggle between the good and the evil, the higher and the lower.

One way only, I have said, has been open to God for the redemption of man without destroying his moral integrity. He can by His spirit enter the heart of man, amplifying his powers in the conflict with evil. His choicest approach has been through inspired personality. Every saint and prophet has been a partial incarnation. The Good Spirit ever aims at His own embodiment in personality. Man's tragedy has been not to recognize God when He drew near in such appearances. It has seemed again and again that He has forsaken His prophets in their hour of trial.

Why has their lot been so hard? It has been all along a redemption by sacrifice - by blood, as the Bible says. It must always be so. Even now, if men died out who were willing to suffer that their fellows might be saved, the downward pull would overmatch the upward pull.

Here God bears witness that all these sacrificial lives were emanations from His own being, and now by a supreme giving of One who was so like Himself that men have believed He transcended ordinary humanity; so full of Himself that God stood revealed. He bears witness that He takes in Himself the full penalty of evil.

He has made the world subject to evil, not as a thing apart from Himself, but as something in which He shares. Down in its deepest darkness He can forgive. Out of the depths of sin He can redeem. God is at-one with man.

How we have disfigured this high doctrine! How faulty and how crude have been our metaphors and similes ! Some of them have justly enough been called, by a recent writer, "an intellectual nightmare."

Maybe! So far as the explanation goes, they deserve to be called so. But the thing itself is of overwhelming beauty and of amazing power. Even under defective images, the imprisoned truth has been powerful. If once let wholly free, it could save the world.

God is at-one with man in the struggle of the higher with the lower. His subjection of the creation to pain and travail and vanity was not a dark doom flung from His hand, as Jove [Jupiter] might fling the thunderbolts. It is God in man, striving, suffering, triumphing in the conflict with evil.

Sinners only are doomed if they persist in succumbing. They who have deeply sinned are the more welcome when they repent, for grace can now abound. None need despair, for God is at-one with them in every upward endeavor.

The love of God releases the powers of the Spirit. There is only one name for this. It is a Gospel. God's good tidings, "God's spell," as the old folk-word has it.

We fumble for appropriate words. We have worn out the old formulae. Give us but the living word to bring this truth home to our generation, and we shall see a revival of Christianity.

For nothing else has ever touched the deep need of man like that!

Sermon by Frederick William Norwood of the City Temple, London, 1927.


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