Our Heritage From The Past
When I call to remembrance the unfeigned faith that is in thee, which dwelt first in thy grandmother Lois, and thy mother Eunice; and I am persuaded that in thee also (2 Timothy 1:5)
Extremes are easier than the golden mean. We all know there is a past behind us, but it is easier to either become a devotee of antiques or to cast away the old as a liability than it is to sanely survey the past and take from it the good it offers as the miner would seek the diamonds among the “pipes.” Things are not valuable just because they are old, neither are they worthless for the same reason. Some old things are good, some are of small worth. And these same observations should be made regarding the new. Age is not a full criterion.
Bishop Quayle observed that the mightier the river the greater its debt. Using the Mississippi as an example, he mentions the immediate and distant tributaries as creditors of the mighty “Father of Waters.” And he says life is like that. A man’s size is pretty much measured by his debts. If he has drawn upon others he owes these others for their contributions, and his ability to bless is the measure of the blessings he has taken from others.
“Time brings about great changes,” but these changes are largely limited to incidentals like modes of travel, plans for transmitting thought, and conveniences of daily life. The great fundamentals in man remain the same, and the great fundamentals in nature continue as they were.
There is no instance in which the changing incidentals and the unchangeable fundamentals are better illustrated than in those things which pertain to Christianity. Perhaps we may cover the thought we have in mind by saying that the message of Christianity is always the same, while the methods of Christianity vary with the ages and in different communities during the same age. Failure to make this distinction between the principle which is constant and the details which vary has led to many errors both in thought and in practice.
There are a few words and phrases like “Faith of Our Fathers,” “Back to the Bible,” “Old-time Religion,” and “Pentecost” which have precious meaning within limits, but which have often been maligned by the assigning of undue latitude. These words and phrases are applicable to the message of Christianity, but not to its methods. They are synonyms of type, and not assignations of dates. When they are applied to methods they lose their meaning, and may even become placards of deadness and earmarks of spiritual exhaustion.
It has been remarked that the Church is the conservative element in society, and that it is the last to accept any new idea or to adopt any new reform. This is partly because the Church has moorings, while the rest of mankind are always at sea. People who hold to the Bible as the Word of God are not easily excited by the sudden announcement of some revolutionary idea, and by the time the Church gets around to examine the thesis of the novice, the first converts to the idea have become remiss, so the Church never does become involved.
But this tendency toward conservatism has sometimes been misapplied. When Sunday schools were first proposed many good church people opposed them as being out of harmony with the spirit of the Sabbath day. When it was first proposed to provide heat in New England churches “the old guard” violently opposed the idea on the ground that it was a concession to fleshly ease and comfort and out of harmony with the heroic spirit of worship. John Wesley and the early Methodists opposed the use of musical instruments in the church on the ground that such instruments in the history of true worship as represented by Judaism and Christianity always made their appearance in times of spiritual decline, and that inanimate instruments were incapable of expressing praise to God. It has not always been easy to satisfy immersion congregations with indoor baptisteries, on the ground that Jesus was baptized in a river. It was with reluctance that many modern churches abandoned the common cup in the communion service before the urge of new ideas of sanitation because the change seemed to be a step toward “modernism.”
But when these things are pointed out the thoughtless make a heap of all the church possesses and say, “It is all reactionary. It is all obsolete. Let us discard it and turn to things that are new.” The wording of some of the historic creeds is baffling to those who have not studied theology so some would abandon all creeds and substitute a freelance religion in which everyone believes whatever he chooses and does whatever is right in his own eyes, without acknowledging any authoritative standards of any kind. This is confusing the message and the methods and forgetting the distinction between the incidental and the fundamental.
It is like the distinction between a house and a home. It is a very convenient thing for a family to have a house. It is encouraging to the family’s sense of unity to own the house in which the family lives. But the house is not the home. In fact the home may yet be intact when the house and all its furnishings are burned to ashes.
Christianity was in the world for fourteen centuries before the advent of the printing press. It was here nineteen centuries before the radio came. It was here before the time of good roads and motor cars. It was here before the modern church edifice with educational equipment was even dreamed of. But no agency has made greater use of printing than the Church. There are few Christians nowadays who do not approve the singing of hymns and the preaching of the gospel “over the air.” Good roads and motor cars have occasioned the closing or moving of many country churches. Practically any wide-awake church is thankful for an adequate church building. The old-time “Pulpit voice” is seldom affected by modern preachers, no matter how “old-fashioned” they may profess to be. And the various departments and auxiliaries into which it is customary to divide the church for service purposes have made their appearance everywhere. We welcome all the changes as advancements and consider ourselves faithful yet to the vision of our fathers who made the best of their situation in their endeavors to be good and do good.
But our chief debt to the past arises from the unchanging elements of the gospel — the message itself. A grandmother, a mother and a mother’s son, all in their order possessed and passed on the heritage of “unfeigned faith” — faith that is not put on. This faith involved the Fatherhood of God, the Sonship of Christ, the personality and office of the Holy Spirit, the lost and exposed condition of man, the atonement in the blood of Jesus Christ, the work of regeneration and of sanctification by the Holy Spirit, the dependability of the moral law, the fact of communion with God, the assurance of immortality, the hope of eternal life in heaven. All these and more we have as a heritage from those who have gone before us. They were not inventors, but were discoverers, and we share in their finds.
Abraham went out “not knowing whither he went.” But he came out so well that we can assume the life of faith in God without reluctance. Moses endured as seeing Him whom he could not see. But the issues of his seeming unequal choice were such that we feel there is no risk in taking Christ in preference to all that might be offered in substitution for Him. Job’s patience was a trial to his friends, but we know now that it pays to wait upon God. Daniel’s fidelity was rewarded. Paul rejoiced at the end that he had “kept the faith.” John saw inside heaven and then tried to tell us what he saw and heard in the poor language which our minds can grasp.
And between the men of the Bible and ourselves are the generations in which were faithful men and women who lived up to all the light it pleased God to give them, and then went out with testimonies of triumph on their lips to light the river’s crossing for us. From them we learn how to live — and how to die. We know but few of their names, but we are enlightened by their sustained glory.
And what shall we say of our debt to Martin Luther who rediscovered the way of salvation on condition of simple faith? of the early Baptists who insisted that every believer is his own sufficient priest under Jesus Christ the great High Priest, and assured untitled men that they can find God without the necessity of pope or priest or other human mediator? of John Calvin and John Knox who thundered out the law of God until men became aware that God is Judge as well as Savior? of George Fox and the Quakers who testified to the reality of “the inner light” of spiritual experience? of John Wesley and his coadjutors for their unrivaled construction of the doctrine of scriptural holiness? of General Booth and the Salvation Army for their example of zeal in world-wide evangelism?
Nay, more, we have a heritage in the godly forebears and immediate parents who brought us into touch with the finer things of life at the price of much sacrifice of creature comfort on their own part. There are exceptions, of course, but the most of us owe a debt to our parents which we can pay only to our children. Our parents are gone now. But even if they are living, they ask not that we shall return to them the heritage they handed us. They will consider themselves rewarded if we pass on what has been given to us.
Our danger is that we shall not sufficiently cherish the noble fortune to which we have fallen heir, and that we shall squander it in riotous living. Even in the affairs of this world, it is said to be just as big a task to husband a fortune as to make it in the first place. Many a rich man’s son has died penniless because he was careless of his patrimony. The father laid the foundation in a life of prayer and devotion. His son neglected to set up a family altar. He forsook the house of God for the golf course and places of diversion. He spent his money on selfish pursuits, instead of accounting his means a sacred trust to be used in advancing the kingdom of God. And now it happens that the heritage is gone. The children of the new home are worldly and lawless. The old church is deserted and in disrepair. The heat of evangelistic fervor has cooled in the community. The chain has been broken. The trust of the fathers has been dispersed. Come, let us turn again to the old paths. For a time now we have seemed to think ourselves sufficient. But we know better now. We are beginning to see the disappointing end of the ways of the worldly wise. We know now that the broken cisterns of the ungodly will not hold water. Let us return to the fountain from which our fathers drank. We know now that the ways that merely seem right, without actually being right, end but in the ways of death. Just as the inventions of men have done nothing to provide substitutes for air, water and food for the body, so their sophistries have given nothing in the place of God’s Bible for the intellect, God’s providences for our bodies, and God’s Spirit for our hearts.
“Thus saith the Lord, stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls” (Jeremiah 6:16).