Taken and adapted from a sermon titled “The Guilt of the Pagan” which was
presented to the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church, May 3, 1863.
Written by William G. T. Shedd.
Edited for thought, sense and space.
…which St. Paul rests his position that the pagan world is in a state of condemnation. He concedes that man outside of the pale of revelation is characterized, not indeed by total, but by great ignorance of God and divine things; that his moral knowledge is exceedingly dim and highly distorted. But the fault is in himself that it is so.
“As they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind.” The question very naturally arises, and is frequently urged by the unbeliever, How comes it to pass that the knowledge of God, of which the apostle speaks, and which he affirms to be innate and constitutional to the human mind, should become so vitiated in the pagan world? The majority of mankind are polytheists and idolaters, and have been for thousands of years. Can it be that St. Paul is correct in affirming that the doctrine that there is only one God is native to the human mind, –that the pagan “knows” this God, and yet does not glorify him as God? The majority of mankind are earthly and sensual, and have been for thousands of years. Can it be that St. Paul is correct in saying that there is a moral law written upon their heart, forbidding such carnality, and enjoining purity and holiness?
The theory that the pagan is possessed of such an amount and degree of moral knowledge as has been specified has awakened some apprehensions in the minds of some Christian theologians, and has led them unintentionally to foster the opposite theory,which, if strictly adhered to, would lift off all responsibility from the pagan world, would bring them in innocent at the bar of God, and would render the whole enterprise of Christian missions a superfluity and an absurdity.
Their motive has been good. They have feared to attribute any degree of accurate knowledge of God and the moral law to the pagan world, lest they should thereby conflict with the doctrine of total depravity. They have erroneously supposed that if they should concede to every man, by virtue of his moral constitution, some correct apprehensions of ethics and natural religion, it would follow that there is some native goodness in him.
But light in the intellect is very different from life and affection in the heart. It is one thing to know the law of God, and quite another thing to obey it.
Even if we should concede to the degraded pagan, or the degraded dweller in the haunts of vice in Christian lands, all the intellectual knowledge of God and the moral law that is possessed by the ruined archangel himself, we should not be adding a particle to his moral character or his moral excellence. There is nothing of a holy quality in the mere intellectual perception that there is one Supreme Being, and that he has issued a pure and holy law for the guidance of all rational creatures.
The mere doctrine of the Divine Unity will save no man.
There is no redemptive power in it. It forgives no sin, and it delivers from no bondage to sin. “Thou believest,”says St. James, ” that there is one God; thou doest well; the devils also believe and tremble.” Satan himself is a monotheist, and knows very clearly all the commandments of God; but his heart and will are in demoniacal antagonism with them. And so it is, even in a lower degree, in the instance of the pagan and of the natural man in every age and in every clime. This intellectual perception, this constitutional apprehension of the first principles of natural religion, instead of lifting up disobedient man into a higher and more favorable position before the eternal bar, casts him down to a deeper perdition.
These facts prove that the pagan man is under supervision; that he is under the righteous despotism of moral ideas and convictions; that God is not far from him; that he lives and moves and has his being in his Maker; and that God does not leave himself without witness in his constitutional structure. Therefore it is, that this sea of rational intelligence thus surges and sways in the masses of paganism; sometimes dashing the creature up the heights, and sometimes sending him down into the depths.
But we answer no, to the question that is put by the objector, for a second reason that is still more conclusive, because it is still more practical. The guilt of the pagan can not be reduced to a minimum and disappear, because, wherever he is found, he is found to be self-willed and determined in sin. He does not like to retain truth in his mind, or to obey it in his heart.
There is not a single individual of them all who has been necessitated to do wrong. Each one of them has a will of his own, and loves the sin that is destroying him more than he loves the holiness that would save him. Notwithstanding all the horrible accompaniments of sin in heathen society, the wretched creature prefers to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season rather than come out and separate himself from the unclean thing, and begin that holy warfare and obedience to which his God and Saviour invite him. This, we repeat, proves that the sin is not forced upon the rational creature. For if he hated his sin, nay, if he felt weary and heavy-laden because of it, he would leave it.
If the positions that have been taken are correct, natural religion consigns the entire pagan world to eternal perdition.
Men are condemned already, previous to redemption, by the law written on their hearts;by their natural convictions of moral truth; by natural religion,whose truths and dictates they have failed to put in practice. And it is precisely because the pagan world has not obeyed the principles of natural religion, and is under a curse and a bondage therefore, that it is in perishing need of the truths of revealed religion.
Therefore, only know that the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses all sin…
…from every soul upon whom it drops. And we know that our Redeemer and King has commanded us to proclaim this fact to every human creature. Events and successes are with him.
The church has nothing to do but obey orders, like soldiers in a campaign.
The great and the simple work before the church is to sprinkle the nations with the blood of atonement. This it does, instrumentally, when it preaches forgiveness of sins through Christ’s oblation. The one great and awful fact in human history, we have seen, is the fact of guilt. And the great and glorious fact which the mercy of God has now set over against it, is the fact of atonement. It requires no high degree of civilization to apprehend either of these facts. The benighted pagan is as easily convicted as the most highly educated philosopher; and his reception of the atonement of God is, perhaps, even less hindered by pride and prejudice.
Let the church, therefore, dismissing all secondary and inferior aims, however excellent and desirable in themselves, go forth and proclaim to all the nations that “they are without excuse, because that when they knew God they glorified him not as God;” and also that ” God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”