God's Ownership of Souls
by William Bacon Stevens
"Behold, all souls are mine! The soul that sins, it shall die!" Ezekiel 18:4
This passage contains the statement of two facts which have a most important bearing on man's moral destiny:
1st, That our souls belong to God.
2nd, That He will punish every sinning soul.
That our souls belong to God, is theoretically generally conceded — yet, in its full truth, it is but little acknowledged, and exerts but little influence on our hearts and lives. Yet few truths are more important or deserve deeper consideration. Let us give to them, then, at this time, our calm and patient thought.
"Behold, all souls are mine!"Who speaks this? The Lord God. Here, then, is a distinct declaration of His right of property in the souls of men. Upon what, then, is this right based?
The right of a man to any property is ever subject to the modifications or changes to which all human legislation is liable, and which at times, have overturned all human government. There is, then, no absolute and unqualified right of man to any property which may not be interfered with, or destroyed; for there is nothing stable this side of Heaven. Such is the weakness and insecurity of human rights to human possessions.
You may say a man has a right to do what he will with his property; for example, he may give it away, or keep it, as he will. Not so! With his rights are interlaced the rights of others, and the rights of God. Human laws and divine laws have thrown their meshes around each man, and he cannot act irrespective of the will of the law, or of the will of God, without violating his obligations to both. He must adjust his rights to the rights of others, and to the claims of God — and hence his will is fettered, and can never act in an absolute and independent manner.
So also of man's control over himself, or others. He can never act as he will. His control is always a control under law, limited by statutes, human or divine. He cannot do what he will with his person, if it interferes with the rights of other persons; his line of duty is prescribed by many legal limitations, ever keeping in check his will and ever guiding his every step.
But when we turn from the rights of man to the rights of God — what a contrast! God's right of property in these souls is not derived, as man's is — but original; His, not by conveyance from another — but by right of creation. He made man out of dust; He made the dust out of which man was made; and, having made man in his physical being, He then breathed into him "the breath of life," and "man became a living soul." Here, then, is the absolute and unqualified right of God, by virtue of the act of creation — to the souls of men. There is no right behind this right; it is the primordial right of the Creator to the creature which he has made by the word of His power.
And this soul which God has breathed into man, is perpetually conserved and sustained by God. God did not breathe into man the breath of life — and then leave the spirit which he has thus imparted to take care of itself. No — He daily, hourly preserves that soul, ministers to it the elements of its life, and sustains it in the being in whom He breathed it. But for this perpetual conservation, the soul would cease to be, and man would cease to be; and hence by this right, therefore, as well as by the right of creation, God can truly say, "All souls are mine."
As the Creator of the soul, and the Upholder of the soul — God can do what He will with the soul. There are no codes of law to guide Him, no interlacings of other rights with His right to fetter or restrain His will. On the contrary, His will is His own law, and hence it is said, "He does according to His will, in the army of Heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth." His will, no one can question, no one control; it is as infinite as His own nature, as holy as His own essence — and hence the law, which is but an expression of His will, is said to be "holy and just and good." Here, then, is a right of property in us beyond anything which human laws can know or impart: God's right to the souls of men by creation, by preservation, and by governmental control — an inalienable, absolute, and eternal right.
Now if you will compare for a moment the tenure by which you hold any property or right, with the tenure by which God claims your soul as belonging to Him — you will see at a glance, that the highest and absolute rights of men are as worthless and defective titles, compared with the true original right of our divine Creator. Your right is given to you by others: God's right is self-derived. Your right rests upon deeds and conveyances, the whole value of which resides in certain legal technicalities, or official seals, or judicial records. His right lies in the sole proprietorship of a creating and an upholding God. Your rights are restricted by other rights; your will is fettered by other wills; your tenure is morticed in with other tenures. His rights are based on the counsels of His own will — the one sole controlling will in the universe. How truly, how sublimely, then, may He, the Creator and Upholder of all things, sitting on the throne of Heaven, declare, "Behold, all souls are mine!"
"All souls." What a compass does this give to His spiritual proprietorship! All human souls are His. Every being who ever lived on this earth in whom God breathed the breath of an immortal spirit, belongs to God. The souls of all fallen angels are His. They have alienated themselves from God, cast off his authority, placed themselves in open rebellion to Him and His moral government, and are using the great powers of mind with which they are endowed to thwart the divine will, and spread ruin and woe throughout the earth; yet they can not release themselves from the ownership of God. He has never vacated His right to their souls. They are His, despite their rebellion; His, despite their sin; nor can they ever free themselves from the absolute right of God to do what He will with His own.
The souls of the dwellers in Heaven belong to God. Each and every order of spiritual existences, from the lowest who waits before the throne, to the tallest archangel in the hierarchy of Heaven — belongs to God; for by Him, says the apostle, "were all things created, which are in Heaven and in earth; whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers."
What a mighty proprietorship is this!
To be able to stand on this world, and say of each generation of its hundreds of millions of beings, as they pass in a procession sixty centuries long, "Behold, all these souls are mine!"
To stand like Uriel in the sun, and say of the thronging myriads which inhabit the planets of this solar system, as they sweep their swift orbits around the central light, "Behold, all these souls are mine!"
To go down to the gates of the world of darkness, where the angels "which kept not their first estate are reserved under chains" for the judgment, and say, in the hearing of these fallen spirits, causing each to tremble as it is uttered, "Behold, all these souls are mine!"
To sit upon the throne of Heaven, surrounded by the countless throng of angels, and say, "Behold, all these are mine!"
Oh, surely, He who can say this must be the great and glorious God! The question now arises, For what purpose did God make these souls? Let God Himself answer. By the mouth of Isaiah He declares, "I have created him for my glory; I have formed him; yes, I have made him"; and again, He says, "This people have I formed for myself — they shall show forth my praise!"
God's glory is, then, the great object of man's creation; and the chief end of man is to glorify God. The ownership of our souls being then vested in God, and the object of the creation of those souls being God's glory — there result from these two facts, certain inferences which are of most weighty import.
The first inference is: That man holds his soul in trust from God, for the use of God. God has not given you a soul to do what you please with it, irrespective of Him. He has, indeed, implanted in you a will; but with that will, He has also given two laws — the law of conscience, and the moral law of Sinai; and that will must guide all its volitions according to these laws, and any breach of either is known to, and punishable, by God. You are held responsible for every act of that will, and each putting forth of that will in opposition to God's will is sin.
In human law, where a person holds property belonging to another, in trust for certain purposes — he is bound to adhere strictly to the terms of his trusteeship; and nothing short of the power which constituted or recognized him a trustee, can discharge him of his obligation, or change the terms of his trust. Each deviation, therefore, in the use of the property from the original design, is a highly criminal breach of trust, and attended with human disgrace. Yet how many there are who would scorn to pervert from its original use a trust estate — who would die, sooner than disgrace their names by untrustworthy acts — who do, every day, use God's souls, with which they are put in trust — in doing and thinking, in feeling and loving things which are hateful to Him, and insulting to His glory.
The terms of trusteeship inscribed on each soul are — "Occupy until I come." Occupy the powers, the affections, the sensibilities, the will of this soul — for me. Occupy as my steward, for my glory. And whenever these souls are used for any purposes contrary to God's will, then is there in you a great breach of moral trust, and that is sin.
But not only is there a breach of trust in thus misusing the soul with which you are placed in trust, there is also involved in such conduct, absolute treason and rebellion!
God says your soul is His, consequently He has a right to rule over it and receive its allegiance as its governor and king; but you cast aside His rule, and give your allegiance and obedience to God's enemy! Is not this treason, rebellion? Writers on constitutional and civil law tell us, that it is high treason — where a man is adherent to the king's enemies. And do you not adhere to God's arch-enemy? Christ declares, "He who is not with me is against me."
Locke, in his work on Civil Government, says, "Rebellion is an opposition not only to persons — but to authority which is founded in the constitution and laws of the government." Are you not opposing yourself both to the person and authority of God; rebelling against His divine sovereignty, and breaking, day by day, the great and foundation laws of His kingdom? Adjudging your conduct then by the plain principles of human law — you must stand charged with rebellion against God, in opposing yourself to His rightful authority, and with high treason against your divine King — in adhering to, and aiding and supporting His enemy, the Prince of Darkness. There is no possible escape from these conclusions. They are the verdict of conscience, of reason, of revelation; and by this verdict, you will be sentenced at the day of judgment.
But we are not yet done with this inference, that you hold your souls in trust for God; for your conduct in withholding your souls from Him is not only a breach of trust, not only treason, not only rebellion — but it is absolute robbery of God! If you keep from God, what belongs to God — is it not robbery? God thinks so, for He charged His people of old with robbery, when they withheld from Him the service and love which was His due. By the mouth of the prophet Malachi He asks, "Will a man rob God? Yet you have robbed me." "But you say, Wherein have we robbed You? In tithes and offerings." "You are cursed with a curse: for you have robbed me, even this whole nation." If those who withheld "tithes and offerings" robbed God — then how much more those who withhold the love and devotion of their souls?
Now is it not strange that while, if you are honest, you are forced to confess that you occupy this position — that you yet feel no dishonor or disgrace concerning it. I speak to you who are men of honesty and honor, who would eat the crust of poverty sooner than betray a human trust — do you feel no sense of shame in betraying the divine trust which God has placed in your charge? I speak to you men of patriotism, who would shed your blood sooner than join the enemies of your country or foment rebellion against the government which protects you — do you feel sad smiting of conscience, no goadings of remorse, at your treason in adhering to the enemy of all righteousness, in being a child and follower and servant of him who plotted rebellion in Heaven, who plotted rebellion on earth, and who is ever waging war with God? I speak to you men of honesty and business integrity, who would scorn to do an act of fraud, who would beg, sooner than rob — do you feel sense of shame in thus robbing God of the love and service and devotion of your souls? That love which should be God's-you give to another; that mind which should be used for God — you use for another; that service which should be God's — you give to another.
This brings us to the second inference which is — that all misuse of this trust, is sin. God requires us to love Him with all our soul; this, He says, is the first and great commandment. Each lack of conformity to this law is sin, for the apostle distinctly states, "Sin is a transgression (or lack of conformity to) of the law." Each soul, then, which withholds itself from God, does, by that act, break the first and great commandment, and consequently commits sin. And now, what does God in the text say of such sinning soul?
"The soul that sins — it shall die." What a fearful doom is this! Yet it is the doom which the owner of the soul pronounces upon every soul which spurns His ownership and does not render Him true and faithful worship. What is meant by this death of the soul — human thought cannot understand; because we know not what man loses when he loses Heaven — or what man suffers when he enters Hell. The two great elements of this death of the soul are:
1st, The absence of all that constitutes everlasting life.
2nd, The presence of everything that constitutes everlasting despair.
There is forever present to the soul — the consciousness of this its twofold misery. The death of the soul does not deprive it of its consciousness — it is ever conscious, ever sensitive, ever active. It is dead, indeed, as the apostle states, in trespasses and sin. Dead to all influences of spiritual joy and peace. Dead to all enjoyments of eternal bliss in Heaven. Dead to all love to God and things holy and divine. There is no living joy in such a soul, no active love, no calming peace, no animating hope. Like the Dead Sea — nothing pure, good, lovely, healthful, lives in it, moves over it, grows around it. It is a bleak, bare, stagnant, desolate pool of bitter sorrow, barren of every delight, and breeding only the noxious exhalations of a miasma, which ever wraps the soul as in the winding sheet of eternal death.
When to this loss of Heaven, and this absence of everything that can give life or joy — you add the other great element of spiritual death — the presence and endurance of every woe which God has denounced against the wicked; the withdrawal of the light of His countenance and the restraining influences of the Holy Spirit; the giving up of the soul to the full development of its own lusts and passions; the ever-present goadings of a conscience fully awakened at the judgment, and never again to be seared or silenced; the agonies of a remorse that ever preys upon the spirit with more than the tearing fangs of a vulture; and the ever-increasing guilt which grows up in that soul as the ages roll on — then will you be able, in some measure, to know what is meant by the words of the text, "The soul that sins, it shall die!"
Continue to withhold your souls from God — and that doom must be yours. But if, recognizing God's right to your soul, you give it to Him to be washed in the blood of Jesus, and to be robed in his spotless merit — then is your salvation sure, and the soul which God breathed into you at your birth, will live forever a redeemed soul in Heaven!