Our greatest dangers are usually least seen, our subtlest foes least suspected, our strongest snares least apprehended. Who of us, for instance, when dead in trespasses and sins, knew his own death, or apprehended from it any danger; when walking according to the course of this world, had the remotest idea that the whole world, the moral as well as the immoral part of it, lies in wickedness; when under the influence of Satan, was sensible of his poisonous breath, though at that very time it was diffusing itself through and tainting his life blood?
We have heard or read of a traveler, who once rode by night over an unknown but most dangerous piece of ground, and reached his destination in safety. Struck, however, by what he had seen in the dim night of the rugged and precipitous road by which he had come, and how slowly and carefully his trusty horse had here and there picked his way, he felt an inclination to survey it the next morning by the light of day. But when he saw stretched before him in the broad daylight the road, which he had traversed under the cover of night; when he perceived how he had in this place ridden on the very brink of a deep precipice, and in that place had passed over the broken arches of a bridge with a roaring river underneath, he was so overwhelmed with a sight of the fearful perils of the road, and a sense of his own preservation, that he swooned away through agitation of mind.
May we not apply this little incident, be it true or false, to our own experience of the dangers which we have escaped, and the way by which we have come? How perilous was our state by nature; how dangerous our condition; how beset with steep precipices, hidden from view, was our path; and how, but for special grace and the leading and upholding of our wise and yet invisible Guide, we might have been hurled down from some giddy height and been dashed to pieces, or fallen through the broken arches of time into that roaring flood which has swallowed up so many in destruction and perdition!
These thoughts may perhaps prepare us to look a little more solemnly and feelingly into the point now before us, which we therefore resume from our last paper, that is, the inspired declaration that Satan, called "the prince of the power of the air" for reasons already explained, works as a spirit in the children of disobedience. Several things are worthy of notice in this inspired declaration:
1. The persons or characters in whom he thus works. They are termed "the children of disobedience." We need hardly observe that these are the same characters as the dead in trespasses and sins, with this difference, that the one is a negative and the other a positive mark. Their death implies the total absence of all in which consists the life of God; their disobedience implies an active principle in them of opposition to the will and word of God.
"The children of disobedience" is a Hebrew idiom, signifying those who are so thoroughly and entirely disobedient to the expressed will and word of God that they may be considered as much under its influence, authority, and power as if disobedience had given them actual birth and being, and exerted over them all the claims and demands of a parent. It is a peculiar feature of that strong and vivid language in which the Old Testament was written to invest objects with personal qualities. Thus sparks are called "sons of the burning coal" (Job 5:7, margin); an arrow, "the son of the bow" (Job 41:28); anointed ones, "sons of oil." (Zech. 4:14, marg.) A man sentenced to die is called "a son of death" (Psalm 79:11; 1 Sam. 20:31; 2 Sam. 12:5); rebels, "children of rebellion" (Numb. 17:10); and one deserving to be beaten, "a son of stripes." (Deut. 25:2.) We shall presently meet with an almost similar expression, "children of wrath," by which is meant that as the children of death are those over whom death will reign in all its power and authority, so wrath will reign unchecked over all to whom it is due, and upon whom it is poured out. The children, therefore, of disobedience are those so thoroughly and completely under its power and dominion that they can do nothing but disobey.
2. But now observe the expression, "works." It is in the original a stronger word than "works," and means not only working, but powerful working, being in fact the word from which our term "energy" is derived. It means, therefore, a powerful, energetic, unwearied, active working—the working of one who neither fatigues nor tires, but labors at his infernal work with all the unflagging strength of an angel, and all the infuriate malice of a devil.
The mode of this active energy is in a good measure hidden from us, though there are few of us probably who have not felt it—at least been painfully sensible of a spirit working in us allied to, and yet distinct from our own spirit. Thoughts, imaginations, workings, heavings of a peculiarly infernal and diabolical kind worthy of the devil, and such as only that foul, malicious, blasphemous spirit could suggest, most of us have painfully felt. But we cannot explain how he gains this access to our mind, or influences its movements. Yet there is this clear and most blessed distinction between his influences for evil and those of the Holy Spirit for good, that they are not creative or permanent—at least not in the vessels of mercy. He worked in us all in days past, but he did not seal us for perdition as the Holy Spirit seals us for salvation. He found us sinners, and acted on our sinful nature, but did not create in us a Satanic nature, as the Holy Spirit creates a spiritual nature, or assimilate us permanently to his own likeness, as the blessed Spirit assimilates us to the likeness of Christ. And when dislodged and spoiled of his goods, he never again enters the palace of the saint's heart, though he may annoy him by his passing breath.
But we have now mainly to consider his working in the children of disobedience. Satan has in them a ground on which he can work. He finds them all ready and fully prepared to fall in with his suggestions, and act under his prevailing influence. He has but to breathe, so to speak, into them his own infernal enmity, rebellion, pride, and desperate malice against God and all that God is or has, and he finds them willing to fall in with all that he suggests to their mind. Satan, as a fallen angel, retains, as we have pointed out, angelic qualities, and especially that spiritual subsistence which is the essence of angelic nature. "He made his angels spirits." "Are they not all ministering spirits?" He is therefore a spirit, though a fallen spirit, a foul spirit, an unclean spirit, and is said in the words before us to be "the spirit" that now works in the children of disobedience.
This working is partly direct and partly indirect. It is direct when he breathes into the children of disobedience his own special sins, such as pride, enmity, rebellion, malice, blasphemy, and what the scripture calls "spiritual wickedness" (Eph. 6:12) and "the depths of Satan." (Rev. 2:24.) But he works indirectly when he presents to the corrupt mind of man those fleshly temptations which he is not himself subject to or indeed capable of. These are comprehended in the words of John as "the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life." None of these lusts is Satan capable of. He has no flesh to gratify, no carnal eye to please, no worldly pride to indulge. But he finds all these things in us, and by presenting to each of these lusts its suitable object, and we may add by darkening the mind and hardening the heart, gives them fresh prevalence and power.
It seems also that some, as a mark of God's judicial displeasure, are specially given up to Satan. Thus he entered into Judas after the sop (John 13:27), and filled the heart of Ananias (Acts 5:3), taking, as it were, full and final possession of them in body and soul. This is different from merely working in them, as we see in the case of Judas, for he first put into his heart to betray Christ. (John 13:2), and then when the temptation was received and entertained and determined to be acted upon, he entered into him, and got full possession.
"Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past, in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind."
It is worthy of observation how the Apostle would remind us of the state and condition in which we were, not only as dead in trespasses and sins, but as actually walking in those base lusts, and carrying out in practice those sensual desires which were connected with our spiritual death. And he does this for two reasons, first, that he may thereby magnify the riches of God's grace, and secondly, by bringing before us what should be a matter of the deepest humiliation and self-abhorrence, remind us of our base original. How clearly, too, does he show that there is no difference between the saved and the lost, except what grace makes between them; that all, elect and non-elect, are equally dead in trespasses and sins, that, all equally walk according to the course of this world in their unregenerate condition; and that all are equally led and acted upon by the prince of the power of the air, that foul and accursed spirit which we see even now working everywhere around us in the children of disobedience.
Observe, too, how completely the Apostle identifies himself with the vilest and the worst. We know, from his own testimony, that he was, before called by grace, a man of the strictest severity of life, and that his walk and conduct externally were so unblemished that he could say of himself, "touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless." But here he puts himself among and on a level with the heathen Ephesians, abandoned as they had been to all that outward ungodliness, which, as we see from Rom. 1, 1 Cor. 6:9, 10, was common to all the Gentile world. "We all," he says, "I and you, and every one of us, without exception, had our conversation, that is, lived and walked, as the rule and habit of our life, in the lusts of our flesh, our chief, our only object being to fulfill and gratify the desires of the flesh and of the mind, whatever they were. I was by birth a Jew, brought up in the very straitest sect, that of the Pharisees, imbued from earliest childhood with the strict maxims and traditions of the fathers; and when I reached maturer age came to Jerusalem, and there sat as a pupil at the feet of Gamaliel, to learn more thoroughly and devote myself more fully to the most intense practice of all external obedience, that I might gain eternal life by my good works. You, on the contrary, were blind heathens, abandoned to the worship of idols, destitute of the commonest principles of morality, and without the least knowledge of the only true God. You, therefore, walked and lived, wallowed, rolled, and weltered in all manner of vile filth, brutality, sin, and crime. Still, whatever outward difference there was thus between us, in this point we were fully alike, that the flesh was everything with us both; and, so long as we could fulfill its lusts, and desires, we were well content. My flesh was pious flesh, and yours impious; I was the whited sepulcher on the outside, and you were the foul sepulcher inside. I, in my Jewish zeal, hated and persecuted the Church of God, and you, in your heathen zeal, would have killed all who did not worship the great Diana of the Ephesians. But we were alike bent upon serving the flesh, though in different ways and by different means."
We may observe here a distinction drawn by the Apostle between the desires of the flesh and the desires of the mind. Both are opposed to God and godliness, both are the fruits of our fallen nature; but the desires of the flesh seem to be those grosser and more sensual lusts and passions which are connected, so to speak, with the lower part of our nature; and the desires of the mind are those which are connected with its higher qualities. Thus some are steeped up to the very lips in all manner of vile abominations of sensual lust, in the gratification of which they find all their pleasure; while others, who would scorn or at least are not tempted to the baser lusts of the flesh, carry out with equal ardor the promptings of a more refined character and disposition. Ambition to rise in the world; thirsting after power over their fellow-men, a craving for fame and distinction in any particular branch of art or science, discontent with their present situation in life, envying every one superior to them in birth, wealth, talent, accomplishments, position, or worldly happiness; attempts, more or less successful, to rise out of obscurity, poverty, and subjection, and to win for themselves name, fame, and prosperity—how wide a field does this open to our view, as embracing "the desires of the mind!"
And observe how the Apostle puts upon a level the desires of the flesh and the desires of the mind, and stamps them both with the same black mark of disobedience and its consequences—the wrath of God! We look around us. We see the drunkard staggering in the street, we hear the oath of the common swearer, we view the sons and daughters of Belial manifesting in their very looks how sunk they are in deeds of shame. These we at once condemn; but what do we think of the pushing tradesman, the energetic man of business, the active, untiring speculator, the man who, without scruple, puts into practice every scheme and plan to advance and aggrandize himself, careless who sinks if he rise? Is he equally guilty in our eyes? What do we think of the artist devoting days and nights to the cultivation of his skill as a painter, as an architect, as a sculptor; of the literary man, buried in his books; of the naturalist, devoting years to the particular branch of study which he has selected to pursue; or similar examples of men, whose whole life and all whose energies are spent in fulfilling the desires of their mind?
As far as society, public welfare, the comfort of themselves and their families, and the progress of the world are concerned, there is a vast difference between these two classes; and we would do violence to right feeling to put them upon the same level. But when we come to weigh the matter as before God, with eternity in view, and judge them by the word of truth, we see at once that there is no real difference between them; that the drunkard does but fulfill the desires of his flesh, and the scholar, the artist, the man of business, the literary man, in a word, the man of the world, whatever his world be, little or great, does but each fulfill the desires of his mind. Both are of the earth, earthy; both are sworn enemies to God and godliness; and could you look into the very bottom of his heart, you might find the man of intellect, refinement, and education a greater foe to God and his word than the drunkard or the profligate!
The sin in both is one and the same, and consists in this, that in all they do they seek to gratify that carnal mind which is enmity against God, which is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. God is not in all, or indeed in any of their thoughts. Instead of living to and for him in whom, as creatures of his hand, they live and move and have their being, they live wholly unto and for themselves, and thus are practical rebels against God, as rejecting his rightful claims upon their obedience. We must have very slight and superficial, not to say altogether false and wrong ideas of sin, if we limit it to certain outward acts, condemned generally by men's natural consciences. Sin is not to be weighed in this scale, nor measured by this standard. It is to be measured by the holiness of God and the demands of his righteous law, which extends itself to the inmost thoughts of the heart. Sin is of a much deeper, subtler, wider nature than most men apprehend, or indeed than any can know or feel until they experimentally learn that God's commandment is exceeding broad, that it demands purity in the inward parts, a perfection of obedience of body and soul, and a thorough yielding up to the service of God of every faculty of the mind, of every member of the body, of every thought of the heart, of every word of the tongue, of every action of the hands. Measured by this standard—and the glory of God demands no less—we are brought to see what sin really is, and that whatever men be outwardly and morally, yet that inwardly, as they stand before the eyes of infinite purity, and as weighed in the balance of a righteous law, there is, as the Apostle elsewhere testifies, "no difference, for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God."
It is, indeed, in this coming short of the glory of God that the essence of sin mainly lies. So great, so unspeakably great is the glory of God, that to come short of it, that is, to come short in rendering that full obedience and devotion of the whole man which it requires, is to sin against God, and as the prophet speaks to "provoke the eyes of his glory" (Isa. 3:8), as if those glorious eyes which run to and fro throughout the whole earth (2 Chron. 16:9) viewed with holy indignation those creatures of his hand that pay him not the tribute which is his due. And as the law is the manifestation of God's holiness, and as a word which has issued from his lips in order to bind all who are under it to a perfect obedience to its commands, every mouth must be stopped by a sense of guilt and shame where that law is revealed in its spirituality and power, as the Apostle testifies—"Now we know that what things soever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God." (Rom. 3:19.)
Now what is the consequence of this universal sentence of condemnation? That which the Apostle adds, and to which we now come in our exposition—"And were by nature the children of wrath, even as others."
We have already pointed out the meaning of the expression, the children of wrath. This point therefore need not detain us long. To be a child of wrath is to be deserving of wrath, as a child or son of death was one who deserved death; and as children are naturally heirs of their father's property, so to be a child of wrath is to be an heir of it, and to have it for a full and everlasting portion. This wrath is the just indignation of God against sin and sinners, without respect of persons, according to that testimony—"But unto those who are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that does evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile." (Rom. 2:8, 9.)
But the question naturally arises, "Is there, then, no difference between the elect and the non-elect in this matter? You have already told us, and laid it down very fully and clearly from the first chapter of this epistle, that the elect were blessed from all eternity with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ, that they were made accepted in the Beloved, and ever stood before God in the Person and work of his dear Son without spot or wrinkle, or any such thing. How, then, can they be children of wrath, even as others? Was there not from all eternity a distinction between them and the rest of mankind who were to be left to fill up the measure of their iniquities?"
Now this difficulty, if indeed it is worth calling a difficulty, is cleared up by the words "by nature." The distinction between those that are saved and those that are lost is by grace; by nature distinction between them there is none. In Adam they all alike sinned by original transgression; in themselves they have all sinned by actual transgression. Take away grace, view them only as they are by nature, there is no difference between them. Their sins are as great, if not greater, their nature as corrupt, their hearts as evil, the whole bent and course of their thoughts, words, and works, before called by grace, were as saturated with sin and crime. And as all these things deserve wrath, and but for grace, would draw down wrath as their everlasting portion, they are rightly and truly said to be by nature children of wrath, even as others.
It is very necessary ever to bear in mind that there are certain immutable laws of right and wrong, of obedience and disobedience, of things pleasing and displeasing to God as the great and glorious Jehovah, and that no acts of God in grace in the least degree alter, diminish, or supersede these immutable laws which have their birth from his glorious perfections. Grace does not alter the nature of sin, render it less damnable in itself, or turn away from it the wrath of God. It turned indeed the wrath of God from the person of the sinner to the Person of the Surety; but when it met and encountered sin in Him, it burst forth so furiously that he cried out, "I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; melting within me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaves to my jaws; and you have brought me into the dust of death." (Psalm 22:14, 15).
And, again, in the person of Heman—"You have laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the deeps. Your wrath lies hard upon me, and you have afflicted me with all your waves, I am afflicted and ready to die from my youth up; while I suffer your terrors I am distracted. Your fierce wrath goes over me; your terrors have cut me off." (Psalm 88:6, 7, 15, 16.)
It is an utter misunderstanding of grace, and of the whole wondrous scheme of salvation, to think that because the elect are accepted in the Beloved and have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace, their sins are not sins, nor as such deserving of punishment, or that they themselves are not by nature children of wrath, even as others. The testimony of God's word, and the experience of every saint, will amply contradict any such presumptuous notions. No, the very sweetness of grace lies in this, that it has put away deserved wrath; and this makes the Church sing aloud—"And in that day you shall say, O Lord, I will praise you; though you were angry with me, your anger is turned away, and you comforted me." (Isa. 12:1.) Such a view is, indeed, quite to lose sight of the mind of the Holy Spirit, as here expressed by the Apostle, for his object clearly is to remind us of our obligations to distinguishing, sovereign grace by showing us that we deserve nothing at God's hands but wrath, and that had we our just due, it would be poured out upon us to the uttermost. And surely every one who has felt anything of the wrath of God as his just due, on account of his personal transgressions, will freely acknowledge that he is by nature a child of wrath, even as others, and that there are thousands in hell who have not sinned as great as he has.
We need, not, however, dwell further on this point, nor indeed should we have touched upon it, except to clear up what might have been considered a difficulty, if not a contradiction to any previous statement of divine truth. Let us rather, with the Apostle, bless and adore the rich mercy of God extended towards us in the Person and work of his dear Son, according to the words which we shall now further open—"But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love with which he loved us." We may observe here the blessed union of mercy and love in the bosom of God, and the way in which the Apostle sets forth and exalts both as thus united. He does not simply say that God is merciful, but that he is "rich in mercy;" nor does he merely declare that he loved us, but that the love with which he loved us was "great love."
As love was the first moving cause in the mind of God, according to that testimony, "God so loved the world—that he gave his only begotten Son" (John 3:16); and again—"Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins" (1 John 4:10); we will consider that point first.
1. The testimony of the word of truth is that "God is love" (1 John 4:8)—pure, perfect, holy, eternal love. Love is one of his brightest, most blessed, and glorious perfections, softening, if one may so speak with all holy reverence, the severe and more dreadful features of his Divine Majesty, such as his justice, holiness, wrath against sin, and inflexible resolve by no means to clear the guilty. But it is specially to be remarked that this alike glorious and amiable perfection of love shines forth to us only in the Person of his dear Son. Whatever love God has to the creatures of his hand, as to the holy angels who stand in his presence, or to the stranger to whom he gives food and clothing (Deut. 10:18) as an act of pure beneficence, we poor sinners, as sinners, can only know him as pure love in the Person and work of the Son of his love. When, then, under divine teaching, in favored moments, we can look up to God as manifesting himself in the Person of his dear Son, we see in him nothing but pure and perfect love; and as this love is manifested to faith, and shed abroad in the heart by the Holy Spirit, it raises up and draws forth love to God in return, as being in himself pure Love in its fountain, of which he grants to believing souls this blessed stream.
But this love the Apostle would specially exalt as being great; "for his great love with which he loved us." Its greatness is to be measured by two things; first and mainly by the gift of his dear Son, secondly by our miserable, undone, and most wretched condition as sinners in his sight.
The Scriptures are very full, clear, and blessed upon the love of God as manifested in the gift of his dear Son. Thus, besides the testimonies which we have already quoted, we find the Apostle declaring—"But God commends his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." (Rom. 5:8.) And, again—"He who spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?" (Rom. 8:32.) How great this love is to the people of his choice is declared by our Lord in that most remarkable expression in the prayer which he offered up just before his sufferings and death, which we have thought sometimes is the greatest word in the whole book of God—"And have loved them, as you have loved me." (John 17:23.)
The love of God to his dear Son must be so infinite as to exceed all conception of men or angels. Now, that he should love the people of his choice with the same love—the same in nature, the same in degree as that with which he loves his dear Son, is one of the most overwhelming thoughts which can move and stir a human bosom! Indeed, so overwhelming is it in its sublime mystery and unapproachable depth, that as it can only be received by faith, so faith itself can only fall down in reverent astonishment and admiration before it, and cry out, "O the depth! O the blessedness of this love!"
Love does not, however, necessarily imply mercy. This latter attribute regards us as sinners, and is the flowing out of love in a way of pity and compassion to us as cast by sin into a most miserable and truly deplorable condition. We may know something of the blending of love and pity as two distinct and yet united affections in our own experience. A parent loves his child distinct from and independent of any feeling of compassion or pity for it; for the child may not be in circumstances to draw out any such latent feeling. But if the child is sick or afflicted, or in any circumstances of distress, then pity and compassion flow forth out of the bosom of love; and the deeper the love, the more tender will be the pity.
This blending of love and pity is beautifully represented in that lively comparison of the Church to an outcast child—"No one had the slightest interest in you; no one pitied you or cared for you. On the day you were born, you were dumped in a field and left to die, unwanted." (Ezekiel 16:5.) No eye pitied this poor outcast child, and it was too senseless to pity itself. But the Lord pitied it, and had compassion upon it! With his pity there was love, and with love came acts of love—"Now when I passed by you, and looked upon you, behold, your time was the time of love; and I spread my skirt over you, and covered your nakedness; yes, I swore unto you, and entered into a covenant with you, says the Lord God, and you became mine." (Ezek. 16:8.)
We see this mingling of love and pity illustrated also by the parable of the prodigal son. The father loved him because he was his son—independently of his conduct, good or bad. But when his repenting prodical came back with grief in his heart, and confession of his sin and unworthiness in his lips, we read that "when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him." What a blending was here of love and pity. Pity moved the father to run to meet the returning prodigal, and love to fall upon his neck and kiss him. Had there been no previous love, and we might add no previous relationship of father and son, and had he not been in so miserable a plight, there would have been no pity; but loving him as his son, and because he was his son, pity and compassion flowed forth, as he came home in poverty, hunger, and rags, in guilt, and shame, and sorrow, and the two combined to bring forth the gracious command to clothe him in the best robe, to kill the fatted calf, and to rejoice over him who was dead and is alive again, who was lost and is found.
Now, as God is great in love, his love in fact being infinite, so his mercy is rich, or rather, he is rich in mercy. Mercy well suits a sensible sinner; and the riches of God's mercy especially suit those who are brought down in real extremity of soul to see and feel how abundant he must be in mercy, how overflowing in the exceeding riches of his grace, that they may venture to entertain a hope of an interest in it, as freely coming down to them in their low and lost estate. We know mercy, feelingly and experimentally, before we know love. Love is first in God, but it is not first in our experience of it; nor do we go to God when made first to feel our need of mercy, as if we were objects of his love, or could venture to entertain the remotest idea that a God so holy could love a sinner so vile; but we go to him to obtain mercy, as the Apostle speaks—"Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need." (Heb.4:16.)
Mercy is the first thing sought for at the throne of grace; and when this mercy is obtained, then grace is ever after continually sought for to help the helpless and dependent soul in every time of need, which need lasts all through life; and until grace is swallowed up in glory. Was not the simple plea for mercy the tax-collector's prayer in the temple, "God be merciful to me a sinner?" And such has been the prayer of all and everyone, whose heart has been touched by the finger of God.
When, then, God graciously bows down his ear and listens to the sigh and cry of the repenting, confessing sinner, and manifests mercy to his soul, he at the same time sheds abroad his love in his heart, and then the mercy of God and the love of God, as they are one in him, unite and become one in the sinner's bosom.
But the point on which the Apostle chiefly dwells, as a proof and mark of the riches of God's mercy and the greatness of his love—is the quickening of those who were dead in trespasses and sins. As this, however, opens up a fresh portion of our subject, we shall defer our exposition of it to our next paper.