ROMANS 1:14.—“I am debtor both to the Greeks, and to the Barbarians; both to the wise, and the unwise.”
THIS is the reason which the apostle Paul assigns for his readiness to go to Rome, or to the ends of the earth, to preach the gospel of Christ which is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believes it. He is a debtor. He owes the gospel to the world. But St. Paul was not under any such special and peculiar indebtedness, in this particular, as to make his position different from yours and mine. We are too apt to regard the prophets, apostles, and martyrs, as holding a different relation to the work of evangelizing the world from that which ordinary Christians sustain; and that therefore the Great Steward will not require of the Church at large such an entire self-sacrifice in this behalf, as he did of the first preachers of Christianity.
How ready the sluggish disciple is to conclude that he is not called upon to exercise a self-denial for Christian missions that costs him, and tasks him, merely because he is not himself a missionary. Had he decided to devote his life to preaching the gospel to the heathen, there would then be a special obligation resting upon him; but not having so decided, his relation to the great work of missions, he thinks, is distant and unimportant. Such is the unconscious reasoning of too many within the Christian Church; and hence it is, that the work which is dearest of all to the heart of Christ makes so little progress in the world, compared with the great numbers and the immense resources of the Christian Church.
But there is no distinction between Christians, any more than of persons, with God. All Christians stand upon the same position, in regard to the work of evangelizing the world. They are all of them, debtors. Every individual member of the Christian Church owes the gospel to mankind. Each and every disciple of Christ must say with St. Paul: “I am debtor both to the Greeks and the Barbarians, both to the wise and the unwise.”
Let us then in the first place consider the nature and strength of that particular motive to labor for the spread of the gospel which is presented in the text.
The feeling of indebtedness, in an honorable mind, is a powerful one. It lies under all the trade and commerce of the world, and is the spring which impels all the wheels of secular business. Men owe one another sums of money, and the endeavor to discharge these obligations makes up the sum and substance of agricultural, manufacturing, and mercantile life. Hence it is, that anything that injuriously affects the sentiment of pecuniary obligation strikes a blow at the pecuniary prosperity of a nation; while everything that contributes to deepen and strengthen this sentiment promotes national wealth.
Suppose that by reason of some false theory in morals, or some strong workings of human selfishness, the entire mercantile community should lose its respect for contracts, and promises, and obligations of every kind; suppose that the feeling of indebtedness should die away, and utter indifference to debts should take its place; what a total paralysis in all departments of trade and commerce would ensue. This is sometimes seen upon a small scale, at some particular crisis. A commercial revulsion sometimes occurs within a certain country, or a certain section of a country, because mercantile honor has declined. Men lose confidence in each other, because they see, or think they see, a lax morality, a false theory of indebtedness, creeping in and influencing their fellow men; and the consequence is a refusal either to buy or to sell. And thus all the wheels of business are blocked.
But the power of this sentiment is seen very clearly in the instance of the individual. When a high-minded and strictly honorable man has legitimately come under certain obligations, there is a wholesome pressure upon him which elicits all his energies. He is in debt. He feels the responsibility, and acknowledges it. He proceeds to meet it. His time is sacredly devoted to his business. He economizes his expenditures. He engages in no rash or speculative transactions. He keeps his affairs under his own eye, and bends all his energies with sagacity and prudence to the extinguishment of his indebtedness.
Never are all the merely secular abilities of a man in better tone, or braced up to a more vigorous and successful activity, than when, under the sense of obligation, he proceeds with perfect integrity to obey the injunction, “Owe no man anything.” Like a well-built and tight ship, with no gay display of streamers, but with sails well bent, cordage new, strong, and taut, a skilful pilot at the helm, and a thoroughbred master in command, such a man is a master-spirit. Though the gales increase, and the billows roll, “and the rapt ship run on her side so low that she drinks water, and her keel ploughs air,” yet there is concentrated and well-applied energy on board, and she weathers the storm.
But not only does this sentiment of indebtedness constitute a powerful motive to action: it is also a cheerful and an encouraging motive. The species of indebtedness of which we are speaking, supposes the possibility of payment. It implies a proper proportion between the talents and resources of the person, and the amount of his liabilities. In case his debt becomes so vast, and out of all relation to his present and prospective means of extinguishing it, as to render its payment hopeless, then the sentiment of indebtedness operates like an incubus. The proposition to pay a debt as large as that of a nation, like the proposition to lift a mountain, would be paralyzing upon any one man’s energies. He could not lift a finger towards the impossible task.
But we are speaking of a kind of indebtedness that stands in practicable proportion to individual ability. And in this reference we affirm, that he who feels the stimulation of such a moderated obligation is under a pressure that strengthens, rather than weakens him. He finds in his very indebtedness a cheerful and encouraging motive to “go forth to his work, and his labor, until the evening.” Every hour of faithful effort, every well-contrived plan, all his sagacity, prudence, and economy—the whole labor of the day—tends directly and surely to the extinguishment of the claims that lie against him.
Men distinguished in the monetary world have described the sense of satisfaction, nay, the gush of pleasure, which they experienced in the earlier days of their career, from the excitement incident to a gradual but certain overcoming of their liabilities. Though later years brought with them vast wealth, yet they confessed that their earlier years were their happiest—the most marked by energy, a sense of power, and the feeling of buoyant hopefulness.
Such is the general nature and influence of that sentiment to which St. Paul gives utterance, when he says: “I am debtor both to the Greeks, and to the Barbarians; I owe the gospel to the wise, and to the unwise.” And we proceed now to apply what has been said, to the Christian’s indebtedness to the unevangelized pagan.
I. In the first place, every Christian owes the gospel to the pagan, because of the deep interest which Christ takes in the pagan.
In the account of the last judgment, we are taught that all neglect of human welfare is neglect of Jesus Christ; that he who cares nothing for unevangelized man cares nothing for the Son of God. Our Lord identifies himself with those who have never heard of his gospel, and represents all discharge of duty to them as discharge of duty to Him, and all dereliction of duty to them as dereliction of duty to Him. When those on the right hand shall ask: “Lord, when saw we thee an hungered and fed thee? or thirsty and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger and took thee in? or naked and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? the King shall answer, and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto ME.” And when those on the left hand shall ask: “Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to ME.” In these remarkable words, the Divine Redeemer indicates his profound interest in every sinful man without exception.
Anything that is done for human salvation, in any nation or age, is done for Him. And the awful curse of the merciful Saviour falls upon those who do nothing for human welfare. Jesus Christ compassionates lost men universally, and intensely desires their deliverance from sin. His compassion is so tender, and his desire so strong, that anyone who labors to save a human soul from sin labors for Him. He who spiritually feeds, clothes, and medicines any sinner, feeds, clothes, and medicines the Saviour of sinners. Our Lord thus identifies himself with the sinful and lost world for which he died.
We have no conception of the immensity of that Divine sympathy and compassion for man which moved the second Person of the Godhead to become the Man of sorrows, and, in the phrase of the prophet, to “take our infirmities and bear our sicknesses.” When he was upon earth, the sin and suffering of the children of men immediately and uniformly affected his heart, and we never detect in him the least indication or exhibition of weariness, or indifference, towards human woes and wants. So absorbed was he in his merciful work, that “his friends went out to lay hold on him, for they said, He is beside himself.” When, upon that last and sorrowful journey to Jerusalem, he had reached the summit of the Mount of Olives, and the whole city burst upon his view, his eyes filled with tears at the thought of its guilt and misery. Look through the world, look through the universe, and see if there be any sorrow like unto his sorrow—so profound, so spontaneous, so unceasing, so commiserating.
This sympathy and compassion originated partly from his Divinity, and partly from his humanity. As God, he understood as no created mind can understand what sin, and guilt, and hell are; and as man, he was bone of man’s bone, and flesh of man’s flesh. The doctrine of the incarnation explains this profound interest, and this entire identification. The Divinity in his complex person gave the eye to see, and the humanity gave the heart to feel and suffer; and when such an eye is united with such a heart, the sorrow and the sympathy are infinite. As God, the Redeemer was the creator of men, and as man, he was their elder brother; and therefore it is, that he can so unify himself with the world of mankind, as he does in these wonderful utterances which will constitute his rule of judgment in the last great day. “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.”
II. In the second place, every Christian owes the gospel to the unevangelized pagan, because of his own personal indebtedness to Christ.
That every Christian is indebted to Christ will not be denied for an instant. There is no claim equal to that which results from delivering an immortal soul from eternal death. Language fails to express the absoluteness of the right which the Redeemer has to the service of his redeemed people. The right to man’s service which he has by virtue of his relation as a Creator is immeasurable. To originate a being from nothing, and then to uphold him in existence, lays the foundation for a claim that is complete and indefeasible. And did mankind realize how entirely they belong to their Maker, by virtue of being his workmanship in a sense far more literal than that in which we say that a watch belongs to the artisan who made it; did they feel the force of the fact that God made them, and not they themselves; they would not dare to set up a claim to those bodies and spirits, those talents and possessions which are His. “I have made the earth, and created man upon it; I, even my hands, have stretched out the heavens, and all their host have I commanded. Every beast of the forest is mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills,” saith the Almighty.
But this claim which God as Redeemer possesses upon a human being whom he has saved from eternal death is even greater than that of God as Creator. “Ye were not redeemed with corruptible things as silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish, and without spot.” The Christian Church, many centuries ago, was agitated with the question of whether it is scriptural and proper to say that Mary was the “mother of God,” and that sinners are redeemed by the “blood of God.” The phrases, “mother of God,” and “blood of God,” were condemned by the Church represented in general council, because those who contended for their use were understood to employ them in a sense inconsistent with the Divine attributes. They were taken to mean that Mary was the mother of unincarnate God; and that the blood spoken of was the blood of unincarnate God. This is incompatible with the impassibility of the Divine Essence. But the Church was willing to affirm, and did affirm, that the Virgin Mary was the mother of incarnate God, and that the blood spilled upon Calvary was the blood of incarnate God.
There is a mother of the God-man and a blood of the God-man. In this latter statement, the birth and the blood are confined to the human nature of Jesus Christ, while, at the same time, this birth and this blood are infinitely exalted and dignified above the birth and blood of an ordinary man, by the union of the humanity with the Divinity. This makes the sacrifice of Christ more than finite, and more than human. It becomes an infinite and divine oblation. And to indicate this, the Scripture itself employs the phraseology which by a wrong interpretation led to the Nestorian controversy. St. Paul, addressing the elders of Ephesus at Miletus, says: “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the Church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.” (Acts 20:28.)
If this language be explained as the Church explained it, by the union of two distinct natures in the one person of the Lord Jesus Christ, so that he is at once truly God and truly man, then it teaches the Christian that he has been redeemed by no merely common and finite sacrifice; that his sin has been expiated by the blood of a God-man, the “precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.” And it is this great fact which brings every redeemed sinner under an infinite indebtedness to his Saviour. He has been purchased by the blood of God incarnate.
It was this truth that filled the Apostle Paul with such an overwhelming sense of his duty to Jesus Christ. This it was, that made him say: “I am debtor both to the Greeks and to the Barbarians. I owe the knowledge of this great atonement which my Redeemer has made for the sin of the whole world, to every human creature, wise or unwise, high or low, rich or poor.” The stupendous fact that God Almighty unites himself with the sinner’s nature, and dies in the sinner’s stead, lays upon that sinner an immeasurable obligation to live and labor for the same world and the same object for which, in the phrase of the hymn, “God the Mighty Maker died.”
We have thus considered the nature of the feeling of indebtedness, and the foundation upon which it rests, with reference to the duty of every Christian to obey the great command of his Redeemer, to preach the gospel to every creature. As to its source and foundation, it springs out of the fact of Christ’s deep interest in the salvation of men, and of the believer’s personal redemption by the blood of incarnate God; and as to its nature and operation, it is a powerful and a cheerful motive, and principle of action.
We now proceed to draw some conclusions from the subject.
1. We remark, in the first place, that every Christian should look upon the work of evangelizing the world as a debt which he literally and actually owes to Christ, and to his fellow man.
He should heartily acknowledge this debt, and not attempt to free himself from it, by explaining it away as a figure of speech. It is a great honor and privilege to be allowed to labor together with God in anything. When we consider how imperfect and unworthy our services are, it is strange that the Infinite One, who is excellent in working, and who doeth all things well, should admit us into a fellowship of toil with him. Yet so it is. “We are laborers together with God,” says the Apostle. If we felt the full significance of this truth, we should need no further motive to self-sacrifice in the work of preaching Christ. The honor and privilege would be enough. But, alas! we do not. And therefore we need to stimulate ourselves to greater activity, by the consideration of our serious and solemn duty in the premises.
“Freely ye have received, freely give.” This was the command which our blessed Saviour gave to his twelve disciples, when he sent them out as his commissioned heralds. He had endowed them with miraculous powers—“power against unclean spirits to cast them out, and to heal all manner of sickness and all manner of disease.” This endowment laid them under obligation to employ it faithfully, and scrupulously, in his service.
Suppose now that, like Simon the sorcerer, they had attempted to use this supernaturalism for their own selfish purposes; suppose that instead of giving health to the sick, and sight to the blind, freely and without price, they had sold miracles, and taken money for the marvelous cures. How instantaneously would the wrath of the Lamb, the merciful Redeemer who had endowed them and commissioned them, have fallen upon them. But the case would have been the same, had they neglected to make any use at all of their supernatural gifts. By being thus selected by the Redeemer, and clothed with miraculous virtues, they were constituted debtors to the inhabitants of Judea. They owed these healing mercies to the sick and the dying, and the mere non-use of them would have been a sin and a crime.
Precisely such is the relation which every individual Christian sustains to that power of healing spiritual maladies, and saving from spiritual death, which is contained in the gospel of Christ. Having himself freely received this gospel, he is now under a solemn duty to give it to others. If he should formally refuse to impart the gift; if he should deliberately decry and oppose Christian missions; if he should put obstacles in the way of those who are endeavoring to evangelize the nations; he would of course incur the Divine condemnation. But so he will, if he simply neglects to discharge his indebtedness; if he merely non-uses the precious and the marvelous treasure which has been committed to him in virtue of his own discipleship. That Christian, if we can call him such, who should trust in the blood of the God-man for personal justification in the great day of judgment, and yet never commend this same method of salvation to the acceptance of his fellow creatures, either himself personally or by proxy through some missionary, would be precisely like that Judas who carried the bag and what was put therein, but who expended the contents upon his own traitorous and worthless self.
We cannot too carefully remember that the work of missions is not an optional matter, for a disciple of Christ. It is a debt. “Woe is me,” said St. Paul, “if I preach not the gospel.” The “treasure” which “has been committed to earthen vessels” must be made over to those for whom it is intended, or it will prove to be a poison and a curse. It is like the manna which God bestowed upon the Israelites in the desert. So long as they used it, it was the bread of heaven and angels’ food; but when they hoarded it, it became corruption and putrefaction in their very hands. If the Church looks upon the gospel, and the preaching of it, as a gift which it has freely received and from which untold blessings have come upon herself, and heartily acknowledges her obligation to impart this gift to others; if she does not regard this evangelizing work as an optional matter, but a most solemn debt to her redeeming God and her perishing fellow creatures; she will go forward, and by the grace of God fulfill her obligations. But if this sentiment of indebtedness declines in her mind and heart, then she will lapse back into indifference and apathy, and these are the harbingers of a corrupt Christianity, which will be buried in one common grave with Paganism, Mohammedanism, and all forms of human sin and error.
2. In the second place, we remark in view of this subject, that Christians should labor zealously to discharge this debt to Christ, and to the world of sinners for whom he died.
In speaking of the influence of the feeling of indebtedness, we had occasion to remark that it is always a stimulus to effort, in case the payment of the debt is within the compass of possibility. Such is the fact in the instance before us. The debt which the believer is to pay is not his debt to eternal justice. That he can never discharge. That is beyond all created power. Christians are not to send the gospel to the Greek and the Barbarian, for the purpose of making an atonement for their sins, and thereby canceling their obligations to law and justice. That debt Christ himself has paid; and paid to the uttermost farthing.
But this is the debt which you, and I, and every professed disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ owes, and which we must discharge. It is the obligation to do here upon earth, in our own little period of time, and our own little section of space, all that in us lies to “preach the gospel to every creature.” If the providence and Spirit of God indicate that we are to go in person, then we are to go in person. If the providence of God has forbidden this, but has placed in our hands the silver and the gold by which we can send our representative, then we are to give our silver and our gold, with our prayers for the Divine blessing upon it. One or the other of these two courses must be pursued, in order to discharge our indebtedness to our Redeemer and our fellow sinners.
And, by the grace of God, this can be done. The labor to which we are called by our Lord and Master is not of that immense, and infinite kind which he undertook when he veiled his deity in our flesh, and sweat great drops of blood under the burden of God’s wrath, in our stead. It is that moderate and proportioned species of labor, which consists in giving back to Christ what we have received from him. This is all. We are to provide salvation for the destitute, out of resources which God has first bestowed upon us. If God has given us the requisite mental and moral powers, and the means of education and discipline, these we are to employ in personal evangelistic service, if such be the leadings of his grace and providence. God has given us personal influence more or less, and a portion of this world’s goods more or less, and these we are to employ in making the world better.
We repeat it; the disciple of Christ is to “give to God the things that are God’s;” to pay his debt out of God’s own purse and treasury. And therefore it is, we say again, that this indebtedness is not of that infinite and superhuman nature that puts it entirely beyond the reach of a mortal. It is simply to employ, to the best of our opportunity, our talents, our time, our wealth, our prayers, in extending the knowledge of Christ to the whole world. Each and every one of these things comes to us, ultimately, from God. And is it not a deep and selfish sin that refuses, or neglects to employ in his service even a portion of his overflowing bounty, but squanders it upon the pampered and worldly creature?
3. The third and final observation suggested by the subject is, that the faithful Christian will be rewarded for his discharge of his obligations to the unevangelized world.
In that memorable picture which our Lord draws of the final day, he represents himself as saying to those who have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and visited the prisoner: “Come ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” God rewards his own grace. His people, who in this world have been enabled by him to discharge their duty with measurable fidelity, will be crowned with glory and honor in the next.
It is not by absolute merit that the disciple acquires this immense compensation. He has done what he has, only in the strength of Christ, and therefore his reward is a gracious reward. Hence we find that the faithful disciples are surprised to learn, in the great day, that their imperfect services have been so highly estimated by the Lord and Judge. They cannot imagine that they deserve such an amazing recompense. “When saw we thee an hungered and fed thee; or thirsty and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger and took thee in? or naked and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick or in prison and came unto thee?” It will indeed be a surprise, and a joy unspeakable, when the believer, who is deeply conscious of his imperfect services, shall yet hear from the lips of the Infallible One: “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.”
But he will hear this plaudit, because God gives “grace for grace,” and by grace the believer is enabled to discharge the debt which he owes to Christ, and to his fellow men. And he will say with St. Paul, who in our text confesses himself to be a debtor to the Greek and the Barbarian: “I have fought a good fight, I have kept the faith, I have labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I but the grace of God that was in me. Henceforth there is a crown of righteousness laid up for me, and not for me only, but for all who love his appearing.”
William G. T. Shedd, Sermons to the Spiritual Man