Taken from, “The Cross in Christian Experience”
Written by, William MacCallum Clow
“That will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.” –Exodus 34:7
Compassion is the master moral quality of the time…
The story of the wrongs suffered by defenseless people rouses men to a keen moral indignation. The rumor of famine in any far-off country, with the thought of the gaunt faces of famished men and women and the wail of starving children, evokes a splendid benevolence. The miseries of the poor in the mean streets of our great cities, and their narrow lives and squalid homes, drive tender hearts into sympathy with the crudest socialism.
Christendom today has one favorite aspect of Christ. That is, “Jesus moved with compassion.”
This pity is surging like a wave through all our thinking. It influences men and women in their choice of a profession. The healing of the sick is the most crowded and most honored of all services. Compassion is the dominant emotion in literature and art. The Novel which moves men and women to tears sells in thousands. The picture which appeals to our tender thoughts is visited by crowds. Nowhere is the influence of this prevalent temper more evident than in theology. It has had one far-reaching effect. It has altered our thoughts of God.
Men stand still, as Moses stood, to hear the name of the Lord proclaimed: “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” They listen with eager hearts and glistening eyes to the message. But when the voice continues, “and that will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, “they are chilled. They will not look steadily at this dark line in the face of God. They set it down to the default of a past day, when narrow hearts read God’s character amiss. They turn aside from the God of infinite power and infinite purity, to declare that God is infinite pity alone.
This dark line cannot be left out. It is false to reason and to revelation, and it is degrading to God’s character to erase the line. Let us look at it; first, making ourselves sure that it is a line in God’s face; secondly, entering into its significances; and thirdly, learning why so many minds refuse to see its truth and to be glad in its beauty.
I. To begin with, then, consider the proof of this dark line, “and that will by no means clear the guilty.”
Mark, at the outset, how clear is the testimony of Scripture. In the first story of God’s dealing with man, that story of the Garden which foreshadows all His love and grace, we see it in the face of God Adam and Eve are driven out of Eden, and the angel with the flaming sword which turned every way keeps the way of the tree of life. That is the first declaration that God will by no means clear the guilty. Again, when the flood desolates the earth we see the first visitation of vengeance on the hopelessly corrupt and the willfully impenitent. The story is told with a strange calm. The scene, which maddens us to think of, is slow, resistless, unhastening death tracking its victims to the heights, is described in a few simple lines. It is the act of God that will by no means clear the guilty. Or when we stand where Abraham stood on the hillside overlooking the cities of the plain, and listen to his pleading with God, we see how he shrank from believing that the face of God could be so set against them that do evil.
But the smoke which went up, as from a furnace, from Sodom and Gomorrah, and blotted out the blue of the morning, proclaimed this dark line to Abraham. Take up the record as it engrosses the judgments of the centuries. The destruction of the corrupt Canaanites, the stern dealings with the semi barbaric judges, the bondage and exile of unfaithful Israel, not to speak of God’s penalties passed upon Esau and Saul and David, all emphasize this stern truth. The one prophecy, which was the burden on the lips of Jesus in the closing days of His ministry, was the proclamation of the doom to fall upon the holy city He loved, and the temple which was His Father’s House. With Christ it was an inescapable truth that God will by no means clear the guilty, and visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children.
Mark it again on the broader page of universal history. The one truth of which all secular historians are sure is that the Nemesis of judgment forgets nothing and forgives nothing. As they visit the ruins of the perished kingdoms of the East, as they tell the story of the decline and fall of the proud empires of the West, the vanished splendor of Greece, the lost grandeur of Rome, the despoiling of the glory of France, they emphasize the truth that there is no clearing of the guilty. In narrower spheres of life the truth is as evident and as appalling. The physician who takes you through the wards of a hospital may do so in silence, but he knows the shameful causes of many of the diseases he is powerless to heal. The magistrate can tell you his judgment of the sources of that misery and suffering, which is cast up before him like wreckage on the beach. The scientific teacher can speak out of a more reasoned discernment of outraged nature and broken law and the sure penalty. The novelist, that modern student of the ways of God and men, is more emphatic than the Christian teacher as to the awful certainty of retribution. He is so held and dominated by this one truth that he is often blind to others which are also laws of God.
But let us come nearer home. What is the meaning of that deep-seated twinge of pain, that humbling impotence, that disability of mind, that nausea of the soul at holiness? It may be impossible to trace all impotence and pain back to its source, but, speaking broadly, all suffering is the fruit of some one’s sin. Anguish, as the angel of vengeance, waits on transgression as surely as a shadow. The innocent in this world, because the race is a divine unity, often suffer with the guilty. The keenest stroke sometimes falls upon those who are guiltless of the wrong. Even blunders are punished, for a mistake is also a breach of a law. The men on whom the tower of Siloam fell were not sinners above all other men, but the man who built the tower wall with untempered mortar was guilty. The man who was born blind did no sin, neither did his parents, but somewhere in the course of events, in all innocence, a law was broken.
The little child who is ushered into life, misshapen in body, cramped in mind, darkened in spirit, has done no sin, but its helplessness and torture are the terrifying proofs that God will by no means clear the guilty, and that He visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and upon the children’s children.
Mark it again in the teaching of Jesus. I need not trouble you with references to the teaching of Christ that applies to this life. There is scarcely a parable which does not emphasize it. When He said to the impotent man, “Sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee,” He set the truth in an unforgettable sentence. But the most convincing and definite sayings of Jesus are those which affirm that this dark line remains in God’s face in the world to come. He speaks in grave warning of the outer darkness, the everlasting fire, the shut door, the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. You know how men shrink from these decisive utterances, and draw precarious conclusions from their words, and build large hopes on Christ’s reticence. The Oriental mind sought refuge from the intolerable fear of an endless succession of unhappy lives in Nirvana. Western minds have sought to escape the force of Christ’s message by as incredible suppositions. They have invented the doctrine of purgatory, the belief that the cleansing fires of pain and sorrow may perfect in believing men what God’s grace and discipline have failed to do, here and now. They tell themselves that in Christ’s parables of judgment, the fire that is not quenched, the worm that dies not, the outer darkness, the gnashing of teeth, are only figures, and that they are rude, pictorial words used to convey truths too spiritual for any earthly image. But that reasoning yields no analgesic. They are figures, but they have a meaning. The spiritual penalty, they declare, has more anguish in it than any material pain we may conceive.
However far it may transcend the power of our imagination, however stern may be the message for our heart, no one can be honest with the teaching of Jesus who does not see that He was certain that God could by no means clear the guilty. Even if we can “faintly trust the larger hope,” that hope leaves no room for believing that God will look lightly on sin.
II. Consider, in the second place, the significances of this dark line in the face of God.
Have you never known a human face in which there were lines, at first sight stern and forbidding, but as you learned their meaning, and came to know what lay behind their severity, they gave the face its strength and distinction and charm? This dark line makes God wondrously beautiful.
Its first significance is His inflexible justice.
It declares that God has no caprice, that He will not trifle with a wrong, nor softly indulge even His own and His dearest. It declares that God is unswervingly just and impartially righteous towards all men. The craving for justice is the most deeply rooted of the heart.
Have any of you travelled in the East? Do you know the state of the people lying under the government of the Turk? What is the first need of those who live under such an oppressive rule? The weak are oppressed, the laborer defrauded, the widow despoiled, the poor man’s lamb is snatched away to grace the rich man’s feast. Violence and exaction sit in high places. The murderer escapes judgment. The rich corrupt justice. Everywhere you see the passive, despairing faces of men who have lost heart and hope. What is their cry? It is the cry for a judge who will do rightly, a judge whom no influence can sway, and no secret bribe seduce, a judge who will be inflexibly just. You hear the echo of that cry of the oppressed in the outburst of the Psalmist, when he calls upon the heavens and the earth to be glad, the sea to roar, the field to be joyful, and the trees of the wood to rejoice “Before the Lord: for he cometh, for he cometh to judge the earth; he shall judge the world with righteousness, and the people with his truth.”
The very hope of one who would be inflexibly just makes dumb nature vocal with joy. For the brute creation, and even dumb nature, suffer under injustice as well as man. Now we can look up at that dark line and see its beauty. We can see that justice is a nobler attribute in God than an easy generosity. We can see that even mercy is not to be exercised at the cost of justice; and we are hushed and awed, and yet tranquil, because God is too just to do what our sin-excusing hearts might do in our weak partialities clear the guilty. We understand Faber’s simple and musical and yet most wise canticle–
“God’s justice is a bed, where we
Our anxious hearts may lay,
And, weary with ourselves, may sleep
Our weariness away.”
Its second significance is His wrath at sin.
The lines of anger, like the lines of grief, do not run in laughing curves. The darkest line in a human face is the line of an anger which is shot through with grief. It is not otherwise with the face of God. We have seen so many human faces in which love has been grieved and heated to a stern anger, that we should not wonder at this line in God’s dear face.
Is there a father here who has a son falling in to the habit of the drunkard? Has any mother suddenly discovered her daughter slipping into secret and willful transgression? How much more gladly would you lay all your children in early graves, and suffer a lifelong loneliness, rather than see the sanctities outraged by their sin? How much sweeter are those faces who have only a sorrow behind their gravity, but not the knowledge of a shame which has stirred them to hot anger. Sir Walter Scott has pictured this truth for us in the Heart of Midlothian, He draws the austere features of David Deans, grave and solemn as those of a man who speaks much with God. When the news of his daughter is brought to him, the rugged lines of his face stand out in anguish. He still hopes that she is guiltless of the crime with which she is charged. But when the convicting evidence seems complete, the lines of a holy and solemn wrath appear in the strong face. Men who looked upon him with the most careless glance might have understood how dark anger is when shot through with grief. To his other daughter, who feared to speak to him in his vexed indignation, he says, “She went out from us because she was not of us; let her gang her gate. The Lord kens His time. She was the bairn of prayers, and may not prove a castaway. But never more let her name be spoken between you and me.”
No human anger against sin, however noble be the heart which feels it, can perfectly image the wrath of God. But both of human and divine anger, at their highest, there is this to be said, that it can by no means clear the guilty, even though the guilty be its own.
The third significance is His passionate desire for holiness.
Here we touch the deeper significance. Where only justice and aggrieved wrath are found there is no room for mercy or for healing, but where a passionate desire for holiness lodges, there is hope even for the worst. The angel with the flaming sword is not only an angel of vengeance. He is the angel who keeps wandering and tempted souls in high and austere paths from which their feet might decline. The waters of the flood did not only punish the guilty. They cleansed the land for the people of God. The Canaanites were driven out not merely as an act of vengeance on their foul obscenities. God had need of a sanctuary for His service. This line in God’s face is darker when it sees the sin of His own, because of His passion for holiness. Browning, in the Epistle of Karshish, retelling the story of Lazarus, sets this truth in a single flash. He pictures Lazarus coming back to this world with a new sense of spiritual values, and therefore with a passionate desire for holiness–
“Should his child sicken unto death, why look
For scarce abatement of his cheerfulness,
Or pretermission of his daily craft–
“While a word, gesture, glance, from that same child
At play or in the school or laid asleep.
Will startle him to an agony of fear,
Exasperation, just as like! demand
The reason why—‘’tis but a word’ –object,
‘A gesture ‘ –he regards thee as though
Thou and the child have each a veil alike
Thrown o’er your heads, from under which ye both
Stretch your blind hands and trifle with a match
Over a mine of Greek fire, did ye know!”
It is that “agony of fear, that exasperation just as like” lest His child fall into sin, and lie under its curse, which makes the dark line in the face of God.
III Why do so many refuse to see the truth and beauty of this dark line?
The reason is that one of the most controlling truths in God’s character is overlooked. What stirs God to the depths is not suffering but sin. Under the power of this dominant emotion of compassion we fix our eyes on suffering, until to escape suffering becomes the chief object of life, and to prevent it, the highest service of man. But God does not so regard suffering. He does not willingly afflict. But if God disregarded suffering as men conceive Him to do, this world, with its unceasing cries of pain and sorrow, would be unintelligible.
As Browning sets it in his poem, it is a small thing that “his child should sicken unto death” compared with even a gesture of sin. Blake has characteristically said of God–
“He doth sit by us and moan.”
Blake is seldom so trivial and so unheavenly as in that line. Over our sin God does more than sit by us and moan. He lets the suffering continue, for He makes pain and anguish and tears His ministers; but at sin His heart grows heavy, and His face grows dark, and He puts forth all that wisdom and love can do to remove its curse and break its power. If men would take God’s way, and deal first with the world’s sin, the world’s suffering would greatly cease.
There is one place, and only one place, where all this stands clearly out, and that is the place called Calvary. There God saw His child sicken unto death, but saw neither word nor gesture which touched Him with wrath. Nowhere can it be more movingly seen than at the Cross that God will by no means clear the guilty. Nowhere is it more sadly plain that He visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, than when He laid the sins of men upon the Son of Man.
In the Cross we see the dark line of God’s face, and understand His justice, His grieved anger, and His passionate desire for holiness. We see what the prophet described dimly and wonderingly, and yet in a vision of truth, when he wrote, “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”
Had there been no dark line in God’s face there would have been no Cross. What Jesus saw as He was dying was this line in a face of love dark with anger at the sin of man.
Meet the author and part of your Christian heritage: William MacCallum Clow (1853-1930) “Born and reared in Glasgow, Clow was educated in the University of Glasgow. He had a significant ministry in Aberdeen at the South Church, and was later called to serve as a professor of practical theology and ethics at United Free Church College. Here he was closely united with A.B. Bruce. Though he is not usually considered in the ranks of Scotland’s foremost preachers, Clow is compelling for two reasons, he is more exegetical than Alexander Whyte and George Morrison, and works in a text without abandoning the central application; he is dedicated to the centrality of Christ’s atoning work. The Atonement is the primary message of Clow. His preaching can be described as “beautiful” but substantive.” –The Company of Preachers, Vol. 2.
“The missing note in the preaching of today is note persuasive urgency. . . A sociological message is being delivered. . . Yet it sometimes suggests that Christianity is little more than a movement for the social betterment of people . . . There has been neglect of the counsel to “do the work of an evangelist.” –William MacCallum Clow