Thomas Chalmers

Lectures on Romans
ROMANS, x, 2.
"For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge."

VER. 2. It is evident from this verse that the Israelites had one good quality while they wanted another. But the remarkable thing - I had almost said the strange thing of this verse - is, that the apostle should make their possession of this one good quality the reason of his prayer. 'It is my prayer that they might be saved - for I bear them record that they have a zeal of God.' They had zeal, but they wanted knowledge. One would think, that, if they wanted both, they would at least stand in greater need of his prayers; and the mystery is, how it comes about, that their having something of what is good should be the moving cause why Paul should be led to pray for their supreme good, even the everlasting salvation of their souls - a pretty plain intimation, that if they had not been in the possession at least of this something, if they had not had thus much of good, even zeal for God, he would not have prayed for them.
The only explanation I can give of this peculiarity, and it appears to me a very probable one, is this. You know that it is only the prayer of faith that availeth; and that in proportion as this faith is staggered or weakened in any manner, in that proportion prayer loses of its efficacy. It is thus that you have not the same heart, the same encouragement, the same confidence, in praying for some great and palpable unlikelihood - as in praying for that which you either know to be agreeable to the will of God, or to be in harmony with the established processes of nature and of providence. It is thus that you could not pray so hopefully for the salvation of a thorough and confirmed reprobate, as for that of a man in whom you could perceive some lurking remainders of good - some aspirations towards a state of betterness - some symptoms or promises of a coming penitency or coming amendment. When all these are utterly extinguished, then faith is extinguished, and the tongue of prayer is either put to silence or paralysed. There is the despair of any reformation; and whosoever asks for that which he despairs of, let not that man think that he shall obtain it of the Lord. There is a dependence affirmed constantly in the New Testament between that faith wherewith a prayer ascends upwardly to heaven, and that fulfilment which comes in answer thereto downwardly upon earth; and whatever therefore shall tell adversely or favourably on the faith of supplicants below, must tell adversely or favourably on the fulfilments that are granted in the sanctuary above. And so it is just as if all chance of a man’s salvation were done away, when all hope of it had died away from the hearts of those who should pray for it. There is an observable harmony here between that process which takes place in the hearts of believers, and that process which takes place in the counsels and acts of the upper sanctuary. You know that according to the usual methods of the divine administration, the Spirit is given in larger measure and larger manifestations to those who have duteously responded to His earlier intimations, or made right and faithful use of His first and feebler influences upon their hearts - whereas He is more and more withdrawn from those who quarrel or who resist these first impressions of us upon the conscience - so that at length He may take a final and irrecoverable departure away from their souls, and abandon to their own infatuation the unhappy men, who, growing every year in moral hardihood, live in the recklessness of all that is sacred, and die at the last in fatal impenitency.

With this view of it you will be at no loss to understand the saying - that to him who hath, more shall be given; and from, him who hath not, there shall be taken away even that which he hath. Paul himself, who served God with good conscience from his youth, though then in ignorance and in unbelief, had at length a full revelation given to him - whereas those of his countrymen who even against conscience maligned and resisted the Saviour, and so put away from them the things which belonged to their peace, were delivered up to that state of judicial blindness in which they were for ever hid from their eyes. The life of a Christian is made up of perpetual accessions of grace from one degree of it to another, till he arrives at perfection, and is ripe for glory. The life of an impenitent is made up of perpetual and successive extinctions of one good feeling, of one lingering sensibility after another, till he pass away into utter darkness, and is ripe for the awful the irremediable destruction which follows it. There is a point somewhere in this dismal this descending pathway, where the irrecoverable step is taken, and he has sinned unto death. You will here be reminded of the apostle John, who bids us pray for those who have not sinned unto death; but who adds that “there is a sin unto death, and I do not say that he should pray for it.” Now, as the last symptoms of any remaining good die away from the character of these reprobates, so the last sparks of a hope for their recovery die away from the hearts of by-standers who are looking on, and who at length cease to persuade and even cease to pray for them. Paul had not just sunk so low in despondency with regard to the Jews. He was not yet discouraged out of all faith and all prayer about them. He still observed one good point or property in the character of that nation - a zeal of God, even that very zeal which actuated himself when he breathed forth threatenings and slaughter against Christians - And so he still could hope, and still could pray for them. From the materials of such an argument as this there may be constructed a powerful appeal, by which, if possible, to arrest the headlong way of that moral desperado, who, hastening on from one enormity to another, is fast losing all the delicacies of conscience, the truth and the tenderness of other days - in whose breast that light of the inner man which has been termed the candle of the Lord is fading away to its ultimate extinction ; and whom the Spirit, tired and provoked by the stubborn resistance of all His warning, is on the eve perhaps of abandoning, and that for ever, to his own heart’s wickedness since he will have it so. Every year finds him a more confirmed alien from God, and stouter in all the purposes of rebellion than before. The disease of his soul grows and gathers in inveteracy - till, encrusted all over with that judicial hardness to which he has been delivered, all the touching demonstrations of Providence and all the loud artillery of menacing sermons play vpon him in vain. Even when age and disease overtake him, even the alarurn bell of his coming mortality might bring no terror to his ear; and with all his sensibilities lying prostrate under the power of that corruption which has withered them, he may be alike unappalled by the demonstrations of his guilt, and the fell denunciations of the vengeance which is due to it.

The truth is that he is sunken, he is profoundly sunken in spiritual lethargy; and now beyond the possibility of recall, he affords the dire and the dreadful spectacle of a helpless a hopeless creature, whom the Spirit of God hath irrecoverably forsaken. Know then all ye regardless hearers who have entered and are now walking on a path of wilful iniquity, that this is the state to which you are descending. Your friends behold the progress of this impenitency. They sigh and they even supplicate Heaven on your account; but the time may speedily arrive, when the characteristics of your impiety shall look so indelible and so desperate, that to supplicate in faith is beyond them. And is it not the to retrace your footsteps on this way of destruction, unknowing as you are near or how soon you shall be on the verge of that condition when the Spirit of God shall cease to strive; and the very parents who gave you birth may weep, but cannot pray for you!

The Jewish character was not yet so utterly desolated of all worth and goodness, as to drive the apostle from hope’s last refuge - even prayer. They wanted knowledge, but they had zeal; and this so far propped his spirit in that exercise, to the success of which a certain faith and a certain hopefulness are so indispensable. That must have been a valuable property, in virtue of which they could still be prayed for. But that on the other hand must have been a most important and essential property, from the want of which they eventually perished. Had they added knowledge to their zeal, they would still have remained the favourites of Heaven; and from the actual history of the Jewish people, we may learn what a serious want the want of knowledge is. That day of their tremendous visitation, in the prospect of which our Saviour shed tears over their devoted city, came upon them, to use His own language,just because they knew not the things which belonged to their peace. Their ruin as a nation was the effect of their ignorance; and in that fearful that overwhelming doom which our Saviour wept over, but would not recall, we have experimental proof of that alliance which obtains, by the ordinations of the gospel, between the knowledge of man and his salvation, on the one hand, and between the want of that knowledge, and his utter and irreversible wretchedness, upon the other. The judgment which went forth against them because of their ignorance, had in it as much of the spirit and character of a vengeance, as if it had been inflicted on the worst moral perversities whereof humanity is capable. It is true that the awful extermination came upon them, because they had killed the Prince of life. But it was in the spirit of a blind zeal, and as Peter and John testify, through ignorance that they did it. Their condemnation still resolves itself into the want of knowledge - for had they known, Paul says, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. Let us not then underrate the importance of knowledge in religion; nor, under the imagination that ignorance is not a responsible or not a punishable offence, hold that men might be in safety however defective in point of information, however wrong in point of mere understanding.

But in addition to the historical proofs, for what may be called the religious importance of knowledge, which might be drawn from the narratives of Scripture, there is abundance of still more direct proof in its merely doctrinal or didactic passages. On the one hand the knowledge of God and of Jesus Christ is said to be eternal life. And on the other hand many are said to perish for lack of knowledge. When Christ shall come in flaming fire and amid the elements of dissolving nature, it is to take vengeance on those who know not God. Knowledge and ignorance in fact are dealt with, even as righteousness and sin are dealt with. They are dealt with morally, or as the proper subjects of a moral reckoning; and whereas under our existing economy the pleasures and preferments of a joyful, eternity in heaven come in train of the one, hell and destruction and all the penal consequences of guilt in most frightful aggravation are made to follow in the train of the other.

Now the question is, ought this in moral fairness to be? The equity of such a dispensation has been stoutly and openly denied. It has been asked if man be responsible for knowledge or understanding or belief, just as he is responsible for the dispositions of his heart or the doings of his hand. They can understand how man should be punished for his wrong behaviour. But they understand not how man should be punished for his wrong belief. The difficulty is to conceive on what ground the mere views of the understanding should properly be made the subjects of count or reckoning at all. Are the wrong views of the understanding to be resented or revenged upon, just as you would resent or revenge the wrong volitions of the will? You at once perceive the justice of retribution for the conduct. But you do not perceive the justice of retribution for the creed. You would never think of blame or of vengeance either for the height of a man’s stature, or for the hue and the features of his countenance. And in like manner the opinions of the judgment are held by some to be equally exempted, as things of physical and organic necessity, from blame or from vengeance. Man is held by them to be responsible for his doings, which he can help; but not for his doctrines, which they say he cannot help - And so the God of Christianity has been. charged with unrighteousness; and Christianity itself with this dread inscription upon its forehead that who believeth not shall be damned- it has been indignantly exclaimed against as a hard and a most revolting dispensation. Now we shall not enter on the consideration that the punishment consequent on tho unbelief is not all for the unbelief, but for the guilt of a broken law, the condemnation of which takes its own proper and primary effect upon you, because you have not found your way to the place of refuge or of protection therofrom. This is very true - yet it is further true, that the guilt of a broken law is every where spoken of as enhanced and deepened to tenfold aggravation by the guilt of a rejected gospel. There is a wrath that abideth on unbelievers - even that wrath which their sins had excited in the bosom of the Deity, and which they have not escaped from by the way announced and intimated in the Now Testament.

But there is also a wrath added to the former, and augmented on the head of unbelievers, just because they have not betaken themselves to that way. In other words, there is a displeasure on the part of God towards unbelief, just as there is a displeasure towards any moral violation. The creed of the infidel is dealt with as his crime; and the question still remains, how comes it that the mere errors of tho understanding should have the same sort of delinquency affixed to them, as the wilful errors either of the heart or of the conduct!

In reply to this interrogation, we fully admit that no man is punished for what he cannot help, but then we affirm that his belief in certain circumstances, (and we think that Christianity is in these circumstances) is that which he can help. We admit that a moral delinquency should be charged on that which is not wilful - but we affirm that many are the occasions in which the belief or the unbelief is wilful; and that therefore, there might be no contravention of obvious justice in pronouncing the one to be a duty, and in proceeding against the other as you would against a crime. It is utterly a mistake to imagine that knowledge and opinion and belief, and in a word the various states of the understanding, are in no way dependent upon the will. It is by an act of the will that you set yourself to the acquisition of knowledge. It is by an act of the will at the first, and by a continued act of the will afterwards, that you first commence, and then continue a prolonged examination into the grounds of an opinion. It is at the bidding of the will, not that you believe without evidence, but that you investigate the evidence on which you might believe. In all these cases the will either gives its consent, or withholds it. It cannot create the light of evidence any more than it can create the light of nature. But it lies with it whether the evidence shall be attended to or regarded with the eye of the mind, even as it lies with it whether the illuminated landscape shall be looked upon or regarded with the eye of the body. It is in your power to shut or to avert the mental eye, just as it is in your power to shut or to avert the corporeal eye. It is in no way your fault, that you do not see when it is dark. But it is in every way your fault that you do not look when either the light of the natural heavens, or the light of Heaven’s revelation is around you.

It is thus that the will has virtually to do with the ultimate belief, just because it has to do with the various steps of that process which goes before it. Where there is candour, which is a moral property, the due attention will be given; and the man will arrive at the state of being right intellectually, but just because he is right morally. When there is the opposite of candour - a thing pronounced upon by all as a moral unfairness - the due attention will be refused; and the man will be landed in the state of being wrong intellectually, but just because he is wrong morally. You find a most impressive exemplification of this in the history of those very Jews whom we now are considering. During the whole of our Saviour’s ministry upon earth, they were plied with evidences, which, if they had but attended to would have carried their belief in the validity of His claims and credentials as a Messenger from heaven. But the belief was painful to them; and at all hazards they resolved to bar the avenues of their minds against the admittance of it. This was the attitude, the wilful, the hardy, the resolved attitude in which they listened to all His addresses and looked upon all His miracles. That unwelcome doctrine which so humbled the pride, and did such violence to the bigotry of their nation, was not to be borne with - and, rather than harbour a thing so intolerably offensive, they shut their minds against all that truth which lay both in the words and in the works of the Son of God; and they shut their hearts against all that tenderness as well as truth which fell in softest accents from a Saviour’s lips, or beamed in mildness and mercy upon them from a Saviour’s countenance.

Who does not see that the will had a principal concern in all this opposition - that the pride and the passion and the interest and the ease, that these propensities of man’s active and voluntary nature, had undoubted sway and operation in this warfare ; that their love of darkness and their hatred of light affixed to their unbelief the stigma of a moral condemnation - their love of that which left a veil over their corruptions, their hatred of that which laid them open to the display and the disturbance of an exposure which they feared? It was on the strength of these moral perversities that they resisted and withstood the Saviour, and at length perished in the delusion which themselves had fostered. Theirs was not the darkness of men whom no light had visited, but it was the darkness of men who obstinately shut their eyes - who had lulled their own consciences asleep; and whom neither the voice of pitying friendship, nor the voice of loud and angry menace could again awaken.

They were in this state when Christ wept over them, as He pronounced the doom of their approaching overthrow - a doom that fell upon them, not because of their mental delusion, but because this delusion was the fruit and the forthcoming of their moral depravity - not because they had minds that did not receive the truth, but because they had hearts that did not love and would not listen to it. And this is for our admonition to whom the latter ends of the world have come. In this our day, the want of faith is still due, we believe, as heretofore, to the want of a thorough moral earnestness. Did we only prevail upon you to seek after; to enquire as you ought, we have no doubt that you would come to believe as you ought. If blind, we fear that you are wilfully blind; and if short of that faith which is unto salvation, it is because you are not honestly and with all your heart in pursuit of salvation. You are not giving earnest heed to the witness upon earth, that is to the Bible, which ia a light shining in a dark place ; and which at last would manifest its own truth and divinity to the conscience of him who attentively regarded it. And you are not sending forth earnest prayer to the witness in heaven, that is to the Holy Spirit, whose office it is to pour the light of a convincing and an affecting demonstration over the pages of the written record. You are not doing what you might if you so willed - and if you do not see the light of that evidence which belongs to the truth as it is in Jesus, it is positively because you are not looking for it.

In other words, if you die in mental darkness, it is because you live in moral unconcern; and whatever the damnation be which rests on unbelief it is altogether due unto yourselves. Often are you visited with the misgivings of a conscience which tells you that your present state is far from satisfactory; but these you contrive to stifle and suppress. The whole business of your souls is postponed and wilfully postponed from one day and from one year to another; and, abiding in darkness because you choose the darkness, von remain to the end of your lives in a voluntary destitution of that knowledge for the lack of which men perish everlastingly.
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