Motorists may disregard some “road closed, travel at your own risk” signs, but the one that stops them all is the one that reads, “Road closed, bridge out”; for even the most foolhardy knows he cannot pass from one side of an abyss to the other without something solid beneath his wheels.
Bridge builders are, from the approach of the highway department, repairers of breaches. They do not fill up the streams and ravines, they just nullify them as barriers to travel by providing substitutes. A bridge is not the solid ground, but when in good repair, it is no less safe and dependable. The ravages wrought by the earthquake or by erosion are not entirely restored, but by means of bridges they are offset, and the original plan for travel is pursued successfully in spite of them. None would say that the barriers are advantages within themselves, but all rejoice that the barriers are surmountable, and that the engineers are not compelled to abandon their plans for safe and pleasant travel on account of them.
In the record of that greatest of all earth’s catastrophes, when man, the companion of God, became separated and lost, it was God, the offended God, who came asking for further conference, and who proposed repairing the breach, that fellowship might be resumed (Genesis 3:15). Sin cut an abyss that is wide and deep, and it runs right between man and his Maker. Jesus came and bridged that abyss with His own body, and made a way by which the creature may cross back to the favor of his Creator and Lord. This is a straight and unequivocal statement, true and real in meaning, even though couched in the language of metaphor.
It is assuring to know that thoughtful men, beginning with the Apostle Paul, have found it possible to work out by reasoning processes the logical operation of the atoning work of Christ as it applies to the reconciliation of man to God. But it is even more consoling to know that the benefits of this great plan are not confined to those who have ability to understand it. Only those blessed with superior measures of intellectual acumen may be able to trace the processes and purposes of grace through the narrows of systematic theology. But it is enough for the practical man that he believe that Jesus Christ so died for sinful men as to make it possible for them to return to God for reconciliation and companionship.
The philosopher asks of the doctrines of grace, “Do they satisfy the demands of constructive thinking, and do they merit by their evidence a settled conclusion?” The artist asks, “Do these doctrines satisfy the requirements of symmetry and beauty?” Even the expert Biblist wants to know if all the types and symbols have been fulfilled. But only the gifted and those who have leisure can apply these tests. The practical man’s question is, “Do these doctrines work?” and that is the test we can all make. It is not said, “All who can understand and analyze the content of the gospel shall be saved.” No, thank God, no! It says, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved.” And there are more saved people who believe that they may know than there are who know that they may believe.
In the olden times, referring to the glory that surrounds the Infinite Being, it was said that no man could see the face of God and live. This saying gave rise to fear, for some interpreted it to mean that God would take vengeance upon any who might seek to penetrate the awful privacy of His person. But really, the meaning was, as I think a more careful reading will show, that mortal flesh cannot endure the glory of His full revelation which is reserved for the immortals. It is like saying that on one can look steadfastly at the sun in his full noontide brilliance and see. Such a saying is simply a testimonial to the glory of the sun, and is not indicative of any vindictive spirit or temper. Two chapters of our Bible suffice to tell of creation. Part of one chapter is enough to give the history of the first temptation and the fall. All the rest is given to the story of redemption — to the story of the bridge and those who have used it in the highway of the centuries. The Bible is, indeed, by very rank, “a book on redemption.”
Sin as a fact is altogether a matter of human responsibility. Redemption as accomplished in the life and death of Jesus Christ is altogether a divine provision. Just as God cannot be charged with guilt for sin, so man cannot be credited with provision for redemption from sin. But salvation has both divine and human elements in it. Man sinned, God redeemed, now man must accept redemption that God may save him.
The cross was once the symbol of shame. But since Jesus died on it to provide redemption for men, it has become the symbol of glory. That is why Paul could announce that he gloried in the cross. Not any longer in his race or his religion or his pedigree, but in the cross where the blood for his redemption was shed.
It is said that the word bridge does not appear in the Bible, probably because Palestine is a relatively dry country, and bridges were not used. The Jordan was about the only stream that would ordinarily challenge the traveler, and it was crossed at fords. But Jesus used the idea of the bridge when He said, “No man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6), for He was currently describing himself as a way or road, and He had come to the impassable abyss in describing any man’s journey to God. And now He says in substance, “There is no other bridge across the abyss except the one that I have built.” Thank God for our glorious Bridge-Builder! who made the bridge with His own body on the tree.
An ancient king is said to have ordered a bell of superior tone to be hung on his palace grounds. But the repeated efforts of the old bell-maker were in vain. Either faults showed up in the molding or accidents marred the usefulness of his product. At last the king became impatient, and told the old bell-maker that he could have one more chance. If his next attempt was not successful, the old artisan was to forfeit his life. When the time came that the metal was about to be run into the mold, the old artisan’s lovely daughter who stood by watching, suddenly leaped into the pot, and her flesh and blood were mingled with the metal. In spite of his deep sense of tragedy and loss, the old bell-maker poured the metal, and the result was a bell of such superior tone that the king was not only content, but highly pleased, so that he promoted the artisan and gave him many honors. All the time the metal had needed something that human flesh and blood could provide. And that is a symbol of redemption. Not that God is represented by the king, but that we are represented by the bell, and that something that we lack has been provided for us by the flesh and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In the twentieth chapter of I Samuel is recorded the interesting story of David’s and Jonathan’s meeting in the field. David had incurred the wrath of the jealous King Saul, but Jonathan, the king’s son, was torn between his respect for his father and his love for David. David had insisted that designs were against him in the palace, and that he must get away to save his life. Jonathan did not think it was that bad, and was reluctant to have his friend depart. Finally it was agreed that David should withdraw temporarily, and that Jonathan would observe the effect upon his father when David’s absence was noticed, and that he would advise David accordingly. But since an open meeting between the two was not advisable, they agreed upon a sign. David would hide among the rocks in the field, Jonathan would come with bow and arrow as though upon a hunt. He would shoot an arrow, and send his serving boy to find it. If, in the effort to help the boy, Jonathan should say, “the arrow is on this side of you,” then David would know that Saul was appeased, and that it was safe for him to show himself and return to the palace. If, on the other hand, he should call to the boy, saying, “Is not the arrow beyond thee?” then David would know that King Saul was wroth, and that he must take his leave. The signal was, of course, that David’s life was sought, and that he must flee with all speed.
It is not always permissible to spiritualize the historic incidents of the Bible, lest the practice lead to our reading into the sacred Book things that were never intended. But we use this incident to illustrate, and not plainly to state the thought we have in mind, and no one should be misled into thinking that the history itself is not valid. The words, “Is not the arrow beyond thee?” appear to be apt in urging upon us the fact that the goal we seek is beyond our human accomplishments. Let the question be, Where lies the essential content of that salvation which restores us to the right relation to God, and to the right state before God? Then the answer is, It lies beyond:
1. It lies beyond the limits of human merit. No matter how well one may have been born, no matter how carefully he has been trained, no matter how well he may have conducted himself since the beginning of his responsible years, still, “the arrow is beyond” him. There is not enough merit in all human excellencies to redeem the soul from death. This is evident from the conclusion that we can claim no credit for what has been given us by others, and as to ourselves, we owe it to God to live well always, and we cannot accumulate credit by means of which to check off the guilt involved in a single sin. There is no such thing as a work of supererogation.” When we have done our best, we still must say, “We are unprofitable servants, we have done only that which it was our duty to do.” We must have merit beyond the human, for all members of the race are just as we are on this point. We must have merit beyond that which any angel might give us, for the angels, too, owe all obedience, and can transfer no credit to another. In the fifth chapter of Revelation this story is given to us in sacred drama. God sits on the throne with the doomsday book in His hand, and the salvation of men depends upon finding someone worthy to take that book from the hand of God, break its seven seals, and read its contents. No such an one could be found “in heaven, on earth nor in the regions under the earth” (an expression meaning no one could be found anywhere) . John, the observer, wept for what seemed now to be the hopeless lot of men. But an angel said, “Weep not: behold, the Lion of the Tribe of Juda, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof.” Then as John looked, he beheld among the elders “a Lamb as it had been slain.” This one came and took the book and proceeded to break the seal, and then all the redeemed of heaven took up the “new song,” the song of redemption: “Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation: and hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth.” Here, beyond us, in the shed blood of the Lamb of God lies the merit for our salvation.
2. It lies beyond mere creed and concept. No matter how orthodox one may be in doctrine, no matter how clear his intellectual concepts of God, sin, duty, and privilege, he must still possess the power of an inner life sufficient to make these concepts vital. Otherwise he will be grasping at shadows, and missing the substance; for realities are above and beyond their own definition. John Wesley in his preconversion days is a good example. In those days he was already a theological thinker in his own right, and the concepts of those days required very little revision even in his ripe years. But he himself said, “I went to Georgia to convert the Indians, and there discovered I had need that someone convert me.”
3. The goal lies beyond mere formal religion. One may give his hand to the preacher and make his solemn vows before the people, he may be baptized by the most orthodox minister in the most approved mode, he may offer his prayers, pay his tithes, go to church, read the Bible, take part in the responses, and do every thing that is required by the most exacting ritual, and yet be a denizen of the house of the dead. Form, with the spirit, is all right. But form, without the spirit, is formality, and formality is represented by the human body after the spirit has departed — it is a corpse.
4. The goal lies beyond the scope of good conduct. One is not made right by doing right. This is reversing the order. Jesus said, “Make the tree good and the fruit will be good.” People who are right live right also. But living right as a method of getting right is like substituting whitewash for washing white. The story is that a hostel of uncertain reputation advertised on its display board, “The Inn of the Black Dragon.” A young man bought the place, decided to transform it into a place where men would be glad to bring their families, and in keeping with the changed character, he rechristened the place as “The Inn of the White Lamb.” The new name was placed on the display board. The board had originally been painted white and the words “The Inn of” were in black, followed by the picture of the black dragon. When the change was made, the board was painted over in black, the words “The Inn of” were painted in white and were followed by the picture of a white lamb. But the paint used was of poor quality, and one morning, after a storm in the night, the landlord looked up at his board to find that his place was again, “The Inn of the Black Dragon.” Yes, the arrow of true righteousness is beyond the sphere of mere human conduct.
5. The arrow lies beyond mere profession. There are myriads of sincere people who profess themselves to be Christians, who, nevertheless, have never been touched by the regenerating Spirit of God. They have professed with their mouths, but have never truly believed with their hearts and been born again. The estate of people like this is called by Dr. E. Stanley Jones, “religious varioloid.” Varioloid, you know, is a light form of small pox that never does kill anyone, but makes those who have it immune to the real kind. This is what profession without corresponding possession does. One cannot escape from this snare by ceasing to profess. Christians are supposed to profess to be Christians. No, profession is included, but the arrow of possession lies yet beyond that.
6. The arrow even lies beyond mysticism. The term mystic is often used in intended compliment, as in the instances in which people turn away from E. Stanley Jones’ meetings, after hearing his impressive personal testimony. Some say in evident admiration, “He is certainly a mystic.” But mysticism, wonderful as it is in some aspects, does not actually go far enough. It goes to the limit of human psychology, but it stops at the border line of supernatural. The mystic seeks to apprehend God by the process of meditation, rather than by the reach of reason; but, like reason, meditation stops just short of the goal; for if one goes on to the goal he is no longer a philosopher or a mystic, but is a Christian.
7. The arrow is beyond sentimentalism or emotionalism. There is indeed feeling in the process of finding God, but it is a form of feeling as high above mere emotionalism as reality is higher than shadow. Speaking of an apparent sentimental appeal in which people were exhorted to go to heaven to see their dear ones, a disgusted old-time religionist said, “That is all very well for those people to want to go to heaven to see their kinfolks. But I think some of them would have voted just as intelligently if they had been asked to go to Georgia to see their kinfolks.” Rousseau, the skeptic, was a devotee of sentimentalism. He opposed corporal punishment in the training of children, and then allowed his own children to become wards in an orphanage. He was so sensitive that his critics said he had stripped himself of his skin. Nevertheless, he did not find God. Toplady was right when he sang, “Could my tears forever flow,” for emotionalism is of itself no better than rationalism. Men who have found God “feel” that they have done so. But when one makes feeling the touchstone, he has accepted wild fire for real fire. Wild fire has heat and no light. Fox fire has light and no heat. But real fire has both heat and light.
8. There is even a supernaturalism that does not find the arrow. We do not know how large an element of the human — plus there may be in witchcraft and various forms of spiritism. But we do know that a supernaturalism that can exist divorced from moral requirements is more closely related to the devil than to God. And the supernaturalism that rings true is the kind that makes its possessor a new creature and causes old things to pass away and all things to become new. For us today, when Jesus says, “Behold, I make all things new,” He puts His hand right on our hearts; for that is where the new creation begins for everyone of us.
Yes, the arrow of attainment for which we seek, and for which our hands reach up, lies beyond the human sphere. Call it what you will — a supernatural religion, a spiritual miraculousness, a divine response, a revelation of God through the Spirit — no matter what the name. The fact is what counts. And although the arrow lies beyond human merit, beyond human creed, beyond religious forms, beyond good conduct, beyond mere profession, beyond mysticism or any other process, beyond sentimentalism and emotionalism, beyond just undefined supernaturalism; it nevertheless is to be had on terms that the humblest of us can meet.