On Responsibility: 4. The History of Responsibility: Part 1

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4.-The History of Responsibility
God has been pleased to give us a history of the course of human responsibility, and while it is, of course, full of instruction to us, and of power to humble and convict man in view of what he is and has been, still He has grouped around it such wonders of His own wisdom and grace, as to render it also full of comfort and blessing to us, as we see Him using it to prepare the way for the full revelation of Himself.
On man's side this history of responsibility is but the account of the course of self-will, which not only can refuse to acknowledge man's sinful condition, and so also to own the provision of God designed to meet man as he is, but also can, in the strength of proud rebellion, charge upon God the cause of its own evil. On God's side it is the history of patient goodness, providing means whereby those who have no claim upon Him yet may find a way in which they may yield what is due to Him. We find more, in truth, as we examine this history, because it becomes apparent that the object which He has in it, in all stages of it, is to bring home to the heart and conscience of man the truth of his condition as a sinner, in order that he may trust altogether in God for salvation. For while man can use the fact of his sinful condition as a stone to hurl at the wisdom of God—as he foolishly thinks he is able to do—he is far from being ready to own that it is condition truly. His effort rather is by using the consequences of it, as he reasons these out, as an objection, to prove that it is not true, and so he requires to have it pressed home on his conscience that he may turn to God.
Man would blame God because he finds that he is a sinner, as though by charging God with the root of his evil, and laying at His door the cause of all the consequences which have flowed from this condition (as he cannot but see and own these), he would manage to get free from responsibility. But before that question of the root of matters ever rises, God has made it necessary for him to decide whether He has provided any means whereby man as a sinner can meet Him. If we find, as assuredly we do, that God has done this, then most certainly the first question for each man is, how has he treated these means, and God in view of them?
Man is a sinner, it is true; but it is nowhere said that any man is condemned for being a sinner. God “will render to every man according to his deeds,” and for these he will be judged. It will, of course, be as a sinner that he meets judgment, but for his deeds. But it is objected, man is a sinner; and this being his nature, it is not his fault if he sins, and therefore it is unjust to condemn him for acts so done. And it is here that the question comes in, “Has a sinner, as such, no responsibility?” or, put in another form, “Has God not provided means of restoration for a man who has sinned?” He has, and therefore every sinner is responsible in view of these.
But, as I have said, it is really to escape from the truth of his condition as a sinner that man raises these objections. For if he acknowledged that truly, while his pride would be thoroughly humbled, he himself would be left in God's hands, and this would he for salvation to his soul, and salvation from the power of his nature.
The blinding power of Satan over the minds of men is in this matter astonishing, and indeed most sorrowful. Under the guise of philosophy he deludes men into thinking that God has willed and pre-ordained everything so that they cannot help themselves. If they have sinned, it was His will that they should sin, and it need not trouble them much, for if He has ordained that they are to be saved, they will be saved. It is an old deceit, but none the less successful with men, though none the less hollow now. In reality it is a covert denial that there is sin. For if that were the truth which the enemy leads men to imagine, then every man could have, nay, ought to have, the consciousness that he had always done God's will. But sin is, as we have seen, the exertion of the creature's will, which is necessarily and invariably in opposition to Gods; and therefore it is very manifest that there is no man who brings to the survey of his own life a single particle of honesty, who can attempt to acquit himself of ever having sinned. The mere voice of conscience, even where instructed only by nature, would suffice to denounce such a man as a liar if he did so.
If there be sin, how can all have been according to God's will? And, on the other hand, if all has been according to God's will, where is there room for sin? It is plain that the two thoughts are mutually destructive. The idea that He has willed that man should frustrate His will is too flagrant an absurdity to need comment, and thus it is that man knows only too well when he listens to its voice that the Bible speaks the truth, when it says plainly to him that he is a sinner. He rarely in these days charges fate with the cause of all things as they are, because this palpably means, as it is not God, some power or principle to which even God must bow. With the revelation of God in the world, the darkness of such a thought (which, however, the wisdom of man had reached before the Lord came into the world) is dispelled, and so man, the poor dupe of one far more subtle than he, now tries to believe that God is responsible for everything as it now exists, heedless of the utter folly of the idea. It is true that He could sweep the whole creation into destruction by one word; and it is also true, most surely and solemnly true, for every unsaved soul, that ere long He will sweep all that is evil in the world into woe that is unutterable but yet is the only fitting resting-place for foul corruption. But the responsibility of the presence of the evil here, for God so ordered it at the beginning (as we have seen in the account of the establishment of responsibility), rests with him who introduced it into the scene of God's power in goodness; and meanwhile He who has power in judgment to remove all by destruction upon all yet waits, in grace bearing with the presence of the evil which He hates, in order that He may provide the means and the opportunity for man, the sinner, to be freed from the consequences of his sins.
This is precisely the picture that is put before us in the history of Cain and Abel in Gen. 4, and the issue which is raised there is as to the way in which sinful man can have to do with God. For men were now no longer innocent, and so were standing before God in a character different from that in which Adam stood before Him, requiring therefore a dealing different to establish and test their responsibility. What met Adam, even when he had sinned, would not meet us who came into the world with a sinful nature, for the conditions are different.
Adam became a sinner by transgressing a simple command, and therefore God had in this transgression the evidence for convincing him that he had become a sinner by his own will. But with us, his posterity, the case is somewhat different, and men (with but scant regard for God, though with much for themselves) are not slow to urge this in such a way as to show that all they seek is that they may evade responsibility. It is true that our responsibility is not the same as Adam's was, as far as regards the conditions under which it is proved or exercised; but the vital questions are— “Does God know this?” and “Has He provided for it?” We find, in fact, when we come to scripture, that God has settled the matter by giving history there. Adam is not heard of afterward in its course (except to acknowledge him in his position as head of the family), and this is, no doubt, because his case would not suit that of his descendants. Yet even in him God has shown that what He desires is, that man should take his true place as a sinner before Him. Adam did this, acknowledging by his confession that the place was his—for the transgression, as I have remarked, made it plain when God pointed to it; and although he tried to evade the truth at first, the fact, that when convicted he did not harden himself against God but acknowledged his guilt, explains how God could meet and reach him in mercy at once. Has man improved in this respect since Adam's time? No, verily. And it is as knowing his proud heart and will that God has provided against all his objections in what He has given of history, wherein He has also shown, not only the relation in which He stands to Adam’s descendants, but also His gracious way of dealing with them when they have proved that they deserve anything but this.
It will be plain to any one who reads attentively the narrative of Gen. 4, and the inspired comment upon it in Heb. 11:44By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts: and by it he being dead yet speaketh. (Hebrews 11:4), that God must have appointed the manner in which men were to approach Him after Adam's sin had brought a new important element into the relations in which they stood to Him. For it is said in Heb. 11:44By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, by which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts: and by it he being dead yet speaketh. (Hebrews 11:4) that it was “by faith” that “Abel offered a more excellent sacrifice than Cain;” and although we have no record of the very instructions given by God, yet that is a most important fact which is stated in Heb. 11, and it is sufficient to prove to a Christian heart that God must have made His mind on the subject known.
Faith, as we learn from the scriptures, is always exercised in view of testimony. If we take even its lowest form, as exhibited in men's every-day dealings with one another, this is true; and from it, as a fact, the Lord seems to argue in 1 John 5:9-129If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater: for this is the witness of God which he hath testified of his Son. 10He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself: he that believeth not God hath made him a liar; because he believeth not the record that God gave of his Son. 11And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life. (1 John 5:9‑12), that He may show how that, although men freely act on this principle towards one another, yet, when it is God we have to do with, we are not so ready to receive His testimony, though it is infinitely more worthy of credence.
“If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater... He, that does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the witness which God has witnessed concerning his Son. And this is the witness (or testimony), that God has given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life” So also in regard to our dealings with God it is declared, “He that hath received his testimony hath set to his seal that God is true;” and in another verse of that chapter in Hebrews, which speaks of Abel's having faith, it is said, “Without faith it is impossible to please him; for he that cometh to God must believe that he is,” which man ought to know from the testimony of His works (see Rom. 1:19, 2019Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath showed it unto them. 20For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse: (Romans 1:19‑20)), “and that he is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him,” which a sinner could never know but by the direct testimony of His gracious word making it known to him.
Thus, then, we are justified in concluding that there must have been some communication of the divine mind as regards the manner in which He was to be approached by men now in their altered condition, in view of which testimony Abel, being a sinful man, could alone exercise faith. If this, which, under the circumstances of man's position it may easily be discerned was an obvious necessity for man, be refused to us by captious objectors (for there are such), the scriptures (Gen. 4 and Heb. 11) at least declare plainly that there was a way of approach to Jehovah, and of having dealings with Him, which Abel used, and the Lord acknowledged as right, and in this, if nowhere else, is contained what it was necessary to show to sinful man, namely, the divine testimony to the possibility of sinners, as such, having to do with God (without His hinting that their condition was an insuperable barrier to their approaching Him), and to the means whereby that approach was to be made.
Now God has so wisely and wonderfully ordered it, that it is in what passed between Himself and Cain, the man who failed in this approach, that we find the truth and force of it pressed on man, and thus objectors are met. Cain, we learn, offered a sacrifice different from that offered by his brother, and this was refused by Jehovah. It is plain from both the scriptures under consideration that the whole question of these men's acceptance was not, as has long been falsely taught, one of the inherent character of the person offering, but of the offerings themselves. It is not, in other words, that Abel was an inherently good man, and Cain inherently a wicked one, and that therefore the offering of the one was accepted, and that of the other rejected. But Cain's was not an excellent sacrifice in Jehovah's eyes, whatever it might have been in Cain's. And now that he has failed, seeking to approach the Lord in his own way, and with his own works (or, which amounts to the same thing, with the evidences of them), instead of in the way which Jehovah approved, in what manner is he met? Does Jehovah blame him for his having been born a sinner? Indeed He does not; but that being a sinner he had not regarded what as a sinner he was bound to regard and submit to, namely, God's way, provided in His grace, whereby sinners, as such, might have dealings, other than judgment, with Him who has power to destroy both body and soul in hell,” the portion of sinners.
The Lord points to his responsibility before Him in his condition at that time, which, of course, God knew perfectly; and if we read Gen. 4:77If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him. (Genesis 4:7) as some do, He even recalled Cain in grace after his self-will and failure in responsibility to the remedy for him as a sinner. Thus, “if thou doest well, shalt not thou be accepted?” shows that his deeds were in question in God's accepting his person, in other words, that he was addressed on the proper ground of his individual responsibility to God, which was accurately defined; and “if thou doest not well, a sin-offering lieth at the door,” points him to the divinely appointed remedy for him in his condition as a sinner, and even if declared to be such by his own acts. But if this latter clause be read as it is given in the ordinary Authorized Version, it simply presses the converse of the truth expressed in the former, and declares Cain answerable for the consequences of his deeds, “if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door.”1
We have in this the relative positions of God and sinful man clearly defined, and the question of responsibility, as affecting a sinner's condition, fully elucidated. In principle the ground thus laid down in the dealing of Jehovah with these two men has never been altered, and it remains to this day, that the full embodiment of the “more excellent sacrifice” is still the only way of approach to God for a sinful man, while we also still find Him expressing His condemnation of men who have “gone in the way of Cain” (Jude 1111Woe unto them! for they have gone in the way of Cain, and ran greedily after the error of Balaam for reward, and perished in the gainsaying of Core. (Jude 11)), even in the midst of Christendom.
In the renewed earth (Gen. 8) we find Noah as its responsible head making public avowal of the subsistence of this ground, and relationship between God and His creatures. And sacrifice had its divinely appointed place, even when the law came in with what seemed to be a new condition of having dealings with God.
We might trace this many-sided subject of sacrifice, with its varied shades of meaning, and measures of reference to man's relations with God; and nothing can surpass the interest which it possesses for the student of scripture who sees by faith its spiritual teaching. But although instructive and helpful in itself, it is only the general principle of sacrifice which comes within the range of the history of responsibility.
(To be continued.)
1. I would only say further as to this, that if this clause be read as it appears in the Authorized Version, it is difficult to see the connection between the first part of the verse ending with that clause, and the latter part, saying, “and unto thee (or subject unto thee) shall be his (that is, Abel's) desire, and thou shalt rule over him.” Whereas, if read in the other form, this latter clause becomes simply the assurance, that even though a sinner, and failing, if he submitted to God's provision of the “sin-offering,” he would be maintained in his rightful supremacy as the elder brother. This view is however not without its own difficulties, and it is of course not impossible to read and understand the verse in the other form.