The Moral Precepts of Christ Generally
Robert Dale, 1884
In our Lord's ethical teaching, He recognized the worth and the authority of the ethical knowledge which men already possessed. It was not necessary that He should speak to Jews as though they did not regard the Ten Commandments as Divine laws for the regulation of human life. He assumed that their conscience had been developed and instructed by a long succession of great religious and moral teachers. He built on the foundations of Moses and the prophets.
About some moral virtues He said little or nothing. His objects were practical — not speculative. He did not care, merely for the sake of giving theoretical completeness to His ethical system, to re-assert obligations which were universally acknowledged. He did not begin at the beginning. He began with men, where He found them; and led them on to diviner ideals of righteousness. The Jews knew already that murder was a crime, and that whoever killed a man had to submit to trial, and either justify the act or suffer for it. But Christ taught that there is a tribunal at which men must give account of their words — as well as their actions; that words of severe moral condemnation and words of scorn — may have the same moral quality as deeds of violence; and that even anger may be criminal, though it may find expression neither in act nor speech.
They knew that gross acts of sensuality were immoral: but Christ taught them that sensual thoughts and sensual impulses, voluntarily indulged, are, in the Divine judgment, akin to sensual acts — and that God condemns those who commit adultery in their heart.
They knew that it was a grave moral offence to swear a false oath — but Christ taught them that they ought to be so truthful in their common speech as to render oaths unnecessary. They knew that they were under obligations to be just — but Christ transfigured the law of justice, and said, "In everything, do unto others as you would have them do unto you."
The ethical method of Christ, was the ethical method of the apostles. It was not necessary that they should speak to heathen men as if they knew nothing of the principles of morality. Among the Greeks and the Romans — justice, temperance, fortitude, and prudence were honored as the elements of a noble life, and the virtues of private citizens were regarded as necessary to the strength and safety of the community. Their moral life had been developed by the family and the state, by common sorrows and common joys, by industry, by commerce, by war, by the conflicts of political parties, by civil and criminal legislation. Even the most barbarous races had some knowledge of moral duty. Paul made his appeal to the conscience of heathen men, and speaks of "the law written in their hearts." John, after being surrounded for many years by the licentious immorality of Asia Minor, believed in "the light which enlightens every man."
We are not, therefore, to be surprised if there are some considerable virtues which are not inculcated in the New Testament by any explicit precepts. The Christian revelation takes its place in the great historic development of the religious and moral life of man. The Eternal Word who was made flesh and dwelt among us, had not been silent during the ages which preceded the Incarnation; nor had the Divine voice been heard only among the Jewish people. The natural conscience of man had received illumination from Christ, and, among the nobler races, had discovered the great outlines of human duty. As Christ built upon the foundations of Moses and the prophets — He also built upon whatever was true and just in the common morality of mankind. He did not disparage the illumination which the natural conscience had received from Himself. What He had taught men with sufficient clearness before He became man — it was unnecessary that He should teach them again.
And in the permanent appeal of Christ to the human race — in His appeal to ourselves — He does not speak to us as if He were a stranger, needing credentials to command our confidence. He takes it for granted that we shall know His voice. He assumes that we are already His disciples, and that whatever light we have has come from Him, "the light of the world." What we have already learned from Him, should prepare us for His further teaching. He relies on the conscience of man to recognize His authority.
And yet there are many of His precepts which are very remote from the moral principles by which most men suppose that human life ought to be governed. There are passages in the Sermon on the Mount which naturally suggest the objection that, as a moral teacher, the Lord Jesus Christ is too unpractical to be trusted; and I confess that I am astonished by the unmeasured admiration which is often expressed for our Lord's ethical teaching — by people who reject the supernatural contents of the Christian revelation in which that teaching is rooted. For Christ demands an impossible perfection.
No doubt many of His precepts were intentionally expressed in a startling form — a form intended to make it quite clear that they were not meant to be mere rules of conduct. For the most part they are directly addressed to the conscience and the heart — rather than to the will. Christ claims authority over us, and apart from unreserved obedience to Him, there can be no true Christian morality. But His specific commandments are meant to quicken and to enlighten the moral sense, and to ennoble our conceptions of moral duty — rather than to give us definite directions to guide our actions. He has made it impossible for us to treat them as the Jewish rabbis treated the commandments of the Old Testament.
Take a few illustrations. "Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you." The command to love our neighbors as ourselves quite prevents us from regarding this precept as a definite rule of action, for we could not do some men greater harm than by giving them what they asked for, and lending them what they wanted to borrow.
"Whoever smites you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also;" to do this literally would be to irritate an angry man to fury, and we are sure that Christ did not mean us to offer provocation to fresh violence.
"Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth;" if this were meant to be literally obeyed, it would forbid the farmer to store his harvest in the autumn for the coming winter, and would require him to give his wheat to the cattle or leave it on the ground instead of carrying it to his barns.
But even when we have distinguished between the picturesque forms of our Lord's precepts and their inner reality and meaning — we have not escaped from the difficulty. Men do not speak their real thoughts; if they did, they would say that many of Christ's commandments are, in their spirit and substance, fantastic and impossible. They do not become easier to obey, but very much harder, when, instead of taking them as they stand and treating them as rules of conduct, we treat them as the expression of principles which are to be a law to the inward life.
"Whoever smites you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also." If this were meant to be taken literally, it would impose an extremely light duty. For in decent civilized society, men very seldom smite us either on the right cheek or the left, so that the duty of turning the other would not come often; and if anyone happened to smite us on one cheek, to turn the other as an act of obedience to Christ would require very little effort. But never to feel personal resentment against those who recklessly misrepresent us, who slander us, who insult us; and even when duty requires us to take measures to resist or to redress an injury, to be as free from the spirit of revenge as a judge on the bench when he sentences a thief to be imprisoned or a murderer to be hung; to be righteously indignant at wrong-doing, but not to suffer the sense of the wrong done to ourselves to exaggerate the guilt of the wrong-doer, or to make us desire for our personal satisfaction that he should suffer for his offence — this is a much more difficult matter, and this is what Christ requires.
Or, if we supposed that when Christ said, "Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth," He meant that we are not to be thrifty and save money, nine men out of ten would find it delightfully simple to reach the height of perfection. Not to save money! nothing can be easier; with most of us the difficulty lies all the other way.
Christ's precept is harder than it looks. It requires an emancipation of the heart from the love of wealth — and a perfect trust in the Divine care. It requires us to have thoughts about what constitutes wealth quite different from the thoughts of those who have not passed into the Kingdom of Heaven. This is a duty which is quite beyond our strength; and very many reasons may be alleged to prove that it is not a duty at all.
When we begin to take Christ's moral teaching seriously, we shall sometimes find ourselves on the point of saying that it is "in the air;" that it has no solid foundations, and is out of all real relations to human life. Men have actually said this. They have contended that to take the precepts of Christ literally and as they stand, would break up the order of human society, would destroy some of the common virtues which are the security of human institutions, would make property worthless, would render the progress of civilization impossible. If, on the other hand, these precepts are taken in their real sense, they imply the necessity of a still greater change in the whole moral life of mankind. The substance of our Lord's moral teaching is so startling that men regard it not unnaturally as too highly strained; very beautiful as an ideal, but not the kind of teaching which can be accepted as a real law of life; it is too unrealistic; it is not sufficiently homely; it asks for too much.
We may not put thoughts like these into words, but I am greatly mistaken if such thoughts are not actually present in many minds. We may be afraid to think them — and yet they influence us. And so instead of giving the laws of Christ any real authority — we silently put them aside, and accept in their place the current moral maxims of our country and our age. Instead, for instance, of forgiving our brother though he sins against us seven times a day, instead of trying to do this in any sense that can be put upon the precept which requires it — we stand upon what we call our personal dignity and rights, which the common opinion of society permits and even requires us to maintain. Instead of forgiving the man who has offended us, we think it enough if we keep out of his way and say nothing against him; we suppose that we have been very magnanimous if we have "looked over" an offence two or three times — though "looking over" an offence is not quite the same as forgiving it; and we think that we are quite at liberty to have nothing to do with the offender if he offends again.
We think it impossible that our Lord could have really meant what He said; or if He meant it, we say vaguely that precepts of this kind about forgiving a man seven times a day, turning the left cheek to be smitten when we have been smitten on the right, and loving our enemies — are precepts which it will be impossible to obey until the golden days of the millennium have begun. But this is an irrational evasion.
If the Christian Church ever reaches ideal perfection, all these precepts will become obsolete. The millennium, if it is ever to come to the Church on earth, will be precisely the age in which it will be impossible to obey them. When the whole earth is filled with the glory of God, and the whole race penetrated by the spirit of Christ, there will be none to smite us on the right cheek, and Christian meekness will have no occasion to turn the left cheek to the smiter; all offences will cease, and for Christian charity to forgive an offender seven times will therefore be impossible; we shall be unable to love our enemies — for there will be no enemies left in the world to love.
In our better moments we are able to see that Christ has, after all, revealed the perfect life. If we could only obey His laws, it would be well with us. His commandments transcend the common maxims of morality, but in transcending, fulfill them. It may, perhaps, be necessary to impose oaths on men to make their testimony in courts of justice truthful; but the ideal law requires an habitual truthfulness which would render oaths unnecessary. The time may not have come for breaking up our war ships, closing our arsenals, disbanding our armies — but the temper which Christ inculcates when He says "Resist not evil" would lessen the occasions of national quarrels, and when difficulties arise, would make a peaceful solution easy. If we kept a check on our anger, we would never be guilty of acts of violence. If we felt the stain of sensual thoughts like a wound, we would never be guilty of acts of sensuality.
It may be true that an eager passion for wealth has been one of the chief springs of industry, and has contributed to the development of the material prosperity of the race. But it is also true that the race has become rich as the result of scientific discoveries which were made by men who cared nothing for riches; and that it was only because these men did not lay up treasures on earth for themselves, that they were able to increase the wealth of others. Nor would the world become poorer if manufacturers, merchants, tradesmen, and working people regarded their secular occupations not simply as a means for earning bread and making money for themselves — but as the service which they are appointed by God to render to mankind. Under the new motive, if they had the spirit of Christ, they would work as hard as under the selfish way of thinking; and the new motive would save them from many practical mistakes, and from many immoralities which at present lessen the efficiency of their industry.
But the question returns: Is Christian morality possible? In the Gospel of Luke, the precept requiring us to forgive our penitent brother no matter how often he offends us, is followed immediately by the words, "And the apostles said unto the Lord: Increase our faith." It is not certain that the prayer was the answer which the apostles gave to the precept; but there are many of the precepts of Christ which naturally suggest the prayer. For if we think that the laws of Christ require a perfection which it is useless to attempt to reach — then our faith in Christ is defective — and we reject Him as the Lord of life and conduct, though we may think that we receive Him as the sacrifice for our sin, and our Savior from eternal destruction.
But where there is a real faith in Christ, there will be belief in His commandments as well as in His promises; in what He has said about human morality — as well as in what He has said about Divine grace. A man may believe in the Nicene, or in the Confession of Augsburg, or the Confession of the Westminster divines; but if he does not believe in the Sermon on the Mount — believe in it seriously as containing the laws which must govern his own life — he has denied the faith, and is in revolt against Christ.
The doctrines and the ethics of the Christian revelation are really inseparable. Christian morals are rooted in the central doctrine of our relation to God in Christ, and God's relation to us in Him; and we must believe in some of the characteristic doctrines of Christ before we can discover the possibility of obeying His commandments. The immense demands of the Sermon on the Mount are explained by what our Lord said to Nicodemus about the new birth, by what He said to the woman of Samaria about the living water, by what He said in the synagogue at Capernaum about the Bread of Life, by what He said to the elect disciples about the Vine and the branches.
The divine life which Christ gives, must find its expression in a diviner morality than is possible to man before that life comes to him. While we are "apart" from Christ, the commandments require a perfection beyond our strength; but when He abides in us and we abide in Him — we can keep the laws of Christ, because the life of Christ has become ours. His laws are promises. His ethics are doctrines. If He calls us to a righteousness which we cannot achieve unless we receive the life of God — He means us to ask Him for that life with a sure confidence that the prayer will be answered. If He has given us an ideal of perfection which seems to belong to a nobler world than this — He means us to believe that He has founded the Kingdom of Heaven among men; and that even while we are still environed by "things seen and temporal," we may live in God and God in us.