Religion must precede morality if morality itself is to survive.
Saturday, July 15, 2017
Plight of Man and the Power of God Religion vs. Morality
The Plight of Man and the Power of God
ROMANS 1. 18
"For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men … "
I propose to call your attention to but two words in the text--namely, the words, "ungodliness" and "unrighteousness."
And, in particular, we shall be interested in the order in which the two words appear and the relationship between them. To use more modem terms, we are invited by these two words in our text, and the order in which they appear, to consider the relationship between religion and morality. Here again we are face to face with a matter that has occupied much attention during the past hundred years. Here also we are considering what can be termed another of the fundamental fallacies with respect to life which are largely responsible for the present state of affairs in the world. And, precisely as we found to be the case in connection with the matter of comparative religion and man's approach to God, here again we find that during the past century there has been that same reversal of the condition which prevailed prior to that.
It is truly amazing and astonishing to note how this second half of the first chapter of the Epistle to the Romans sums up so perfectly the modem situation. Had it been written specially and specifically for our clay it could not have been more perfect or more complete. Each of the main trends in the thought and reasoning of the majority of people is considered carefully, and traced to its ultimate consequences.
The key to the understanding of the whole situation is in the realisation of the fact that man by nature is inimical (harmful) to God, and does his utmost to get rid of God and what he regards as the incubus ( something that weighs upon or oppresses one like a nightmare.) (nightmare) (an imaginary demon or evil spirit supposed to descend upon sleeping person, especially one fabled to have sexual intercourse with women during their sleep) of revealed religion. Man, rebelling against God as He has revealed Himself and from the kind of life that God dictates, proceeds to make for himself new gods, and new religions, and to elaborate a new way of life and of salvation.
Here, in this special matter that we propose to consider together, we have a perfect example and illustration of that tendency.
Until about a hundred years ago it was true to say of the vast majority of the people of this country that religion came first and that morality and ethics followed. In other words, all their thinking about the good life, the kind of life that should be lived, was based upon their religion and their understanding of the teaching of the Bible. "The fear of God" was the controlling motive; it was, to use the language of the Old Testament, the beginning of their wisdom. This was so, of course, because it was as the result of the various religious revivals and movements that the people had been awakened to a realisation of the utter sinfulness and depravity of their lives. As the result of becoming religious they had seen the importance of right living. That was the position.
But then came the great change. At first it was not an open denial of God, but a change and a reversal in the emphasis which was placed on these two matters. More and more, interest became fixed upon ethics, and the emphasis was placed increasingly on morality at the expense of religion. God was not denied, but was relegated increasingly to the position of a mere background to life.
All this was done on the plea and the pretext that formerly too much emphasis had been Placed upon the personal and experiential aspect of religion, and that the ethical and social aspects had not been emphasised sufficiently. But increasingly the position developed into one in which it was stated, quite openly and unashamedly, that really nothing mattered but morality and conduct.
Religion was seriously discounted, and it was even stated blatantly that nothing mattered save that one should live the good life and do one's best.
Everything that stressed the miraculous intervention of God in life, and for man's salvation, was queried and then denied; everything that emphasised the vital link between God and man was minimised until it became almost non-existent. Creeds and confessions of faith, the sacraments, and even attendance at all in a place of worship, were all regarded as expedients which had served a useful purpose in the past, while men were ignorant, and had to be more or less frightened into living the good life. They were now no longer necessary.
Jesus of Nazareth, far from being the unique Son of God who had come on earth in order to prepare a miraculous way of salvation for men, was but the greatest moral teacher and exemplar of all time--simply greater than all others, not essentially different.
The religious motive and the religious background to the good life practically disappeared altogether, and their place was taken by education and a belief in the inevitably good effects of acts of social amelioration i.e. the act of making something better, improvement.
With an air of great patronage and condescension we were told that the magic and the rites and taboos of religion had been more or less necessary in the past, but that now man, in his intelligent and intellectual modern condition, had no need of such things. Indeed they had become insulting. Nothing was necessary save that man should he shown what was good and given instruction concerning it.
Has not that been the popular teaching?
The supreme thing has been to live the good life, to be moral. The majority have ceased to attend a place of worship at all, and (alas!) many who do attend, do so, not because they believe it to be essential and vital, but rather out of habit or because they believe vaguely that it is somehow the right thing to do.
Religion far from being the mainspring and source of all ideas concerning life and how it should be lived, has become a mere addition even in the case of many who still adhere to it.
Righteousness, or morality, has been exalted to the supreme position, and little is heard of godliness. Like the Pharisees of old, there have been many amongst us who were shocked and scandalised by certain acts of unrighteousness, but who failed to realise that their own self-righteousness denoted an ungodliness which was infinitely more reprehensible in the eyes of God. The order has been reversed: morality has taken precedence over religion, unrighteousness is regarded as a more heinous crime than ungodliness.
But now we must come to the vital question. What has been the result of all this?
To what consequences has it led?
The answer is to be found in the present state of the world. We were told that man could be trained not to sin. He could be educated into seeing the folly of war. And here we are in the midst of a war. But apart from the war, and prior to it, this teaching had led to the terrible moral muddle that characterised the life of the people of this country and most other countries.
The very term "moral" has been evacuated almost entirely of any meaning, and the sins of the past have become "the thing to do" of the present. No one, surely, can deny the statement that, morally and intellectually, the masses of the people have sunk to a lower level than at any time during the past two hundred years, in fact since the evangelical revival of the eighteenth century.
Now, my whole case is that, according to the Bible, that is something which is quite inevitable, something which follows as the night the day.
Once the relative positions of religion and morality are reversed from that which we find in our text, the inevitable result is what we find stated in such clear and terrible terms in the remainder of this chapter.
Religion must precede morality if morality itself is to survive.
Godliness is essential to ethics.
Nothing but a belief in God and a desire to glorify Him, based upon our realisation of our utter dependence upon Him and our acceptance of His way of life and salvation in Jesus Christ His Son, can ever lead to a good society.
This is not merely a dogmatic statement. It can be proved and demonstrated repeatedly in the history of mankind.
As Paul reminds us here, it is the essential story of mankind. Observe it in the story of the Children of Israel in the Old Testament. See it again in the history of Greece and Rome. They had exalted moral ideas and fine ethical systems and conceptions of law and justice, but the ultimate downfall of both is to be traced finally to moral degeneracy.
And then consider it in the history of this country.
Religion and spiritual revival have always led to moral and intellectual awakening and a desire to produce a better society. And conversely, ungodliness has always led to unrighteousness.
A slackening in spiritual zeal and fervour, even though the zeal and fervour be transferred to a desire to improve the state of society, has always eventuated ultimately in both moral and intellectual decline.
The great periods in the history of this country in every sphere are the Elizabethan, the Puritan and the Victorian.
Each followed a striking religious revival. But as religion was allowed to sink into the background, and even into oblivion, and men thought that they could live by morality alone, degeneration set in rapidly.
Emil Brunner has said that this is so definite as to be capable of statement as a law of life in which there are distinct steps and stages. A Swiss Protestant theologian died in 1966
He puts it thus: "T
he feeling for the personal and the human which is the fruit of faith may outlive for a time the death of the roots from which it has grown, but this cannot last very long. As a rule the decay of religion works out in the second generation as moral rigidity, and in the third generation as the breakdown of all morality. Humanity without religion has never been a historical force capable of resistance. Even today, severance from the Christian faith, whenever it has been of some duration, works out in the dehumanization of all human conditions. 'The wine of life has been poured out'; the dregs alone remain."
Here, then, is a fundamental principle which we must grasp firmly before we begin to organise a new state of society and a new world.
Religion, a true belief in God in Jesus Christ, is fundamental, vital, essential. Any attempt to organise society without that basis is doomed to failure even as it always has been in the past. The pragmatic test, as we have just seen, demonstrates that abundantly. But we are not left merely in the world of pragmatism.
A study of the Bible, indeed a study of man himself in the light of the Bible, furnishes us with many reasons which explain why it must inevitably be the case that to trust to morality alone without religion, or to place morality before religion, leads only to eventual disaster. We must consider some of these reasons.
(i) First of all we note that to do so is an insult to God.
We must start with this because here we have the real explanation of all that follows. But even apart from that we must start with this because it is absolute. And we must be very careful always to draw that distinction.
Before we begin to think about ourselves and the result in ourselves, before we begin to consider the good of society or anything else, we must start with God and we must start by worshipping God.
If we advocate godliness simply because it leads to the true morality, if we commend religion because it leads to the best state of society, then we are again reversing the order actually and insulting God.
God must never be regarded as a means to an end; and religion is not to be commended primarily because of certain benefits which follow its practice.
And yet one hears statements not at all infrequently which give the impression that religion and the Bible are to be valued solely in terms of England's greatness.
That is why the charge of national hypocrisy is so frequently levelled against us by other nations. We tend to believe, and perhaps rightly, that we have been blessed in the past because we have been religious.
But when we make use of that fact and advocate religion in order that we may be blessed we are insulting God. The more religious the nation, the more moral and the more dependable and solid is the nation.
Hence the temptation to statesmen and leaders to pay lip service to religion, and to believe in its maintenance in a general form.
But that is the very opposite of what I would stress, and what is emphasised everywhere in the Bible. God is to be worshipped
because He is God,
because He is the Creator,
because He is the Almighty,
because He is the "high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity,"
because His Name is Holy.
And in His presence it is impossible to think of anything else. All thoughts of self and of benefits that may accrue, all ideas concerning the possible results and advantages to ourselves, or to our class or country, are banished.
He is supreme and He is alone. To place anything before God is to deny Him, however noble and exalted that thing may be. The results and blessings of salvation, the moral life and the improved state of society--all these things are the consequents of true belief and they must never be allowed to usurp the supreme position.
Indeed, as I have said, if we truly worship God and realise His presence, they cannot do so.
This is one of the most subtle dangers that faces us as we try to think out and plan a new state of society for the future.
It is a danger which can be seen in the writings of a number of writers to-clay who are concerned about the state of this country.
I think in particular of men like Mr. T. S. Eliot and Mr. Middleton Murry. They advocate a religious society and a Christian education--or what the, call such--simply because they have found all else to fail, and because they think that this is more likely to be successful.
But they fail to realise that before you can have a Christian society and Christian education you must first of all have Christians.
No education or culture, no mode of training, will ever produce Christians and the corresponding morality.
To do that we must come face to face with God and see our sin and helpless plight; we must know something about the wrath of God, and repent before Him and then receive His gracious offer of salvation in Jesus Christ His Son.
But that is not mentioned. Men ever desire the benefits of Christianity without paying the price. They need to be reminded again that "God is not mocked," and that even in the name of Christian civilisation He is often grievously insulted. Whatever may follow, God must be worshipped for His own sake because He is God. He demands it and will have it.
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