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THE FOUNDATIONS OF OUR FAITH
Origin of the word.---The quest.-Four characteristics.
-Not a creed.-Not a liturgy.-Not a confession.
Origin of the word.—The word religion is said to come from religare, meaning “to bind back.” We were created in the likeness of God but have somehow become alienated from him. As the planets were made to move obediently in their orbits, so we were made to live in harmony with divine law; but, alas, we have “transgressed,” that is, crossed the line. In so doing we have exiled ourselves from God, like planets swept out of their orbits into lawless space. We have sinned; and without holiness “no man shall see the Lord.” The question of all questions now is: How can we be restored to him?
If this be so, the search for religion is the noblest that can engage our energies. But where shall we find it? Take heed; for there are fabrications many and diverse counterfeits passing current under that name. The test is a simple one. A genuine religion must do what it proposes to do; that is, it must bind the soul of the sinner back to God.
The quest.- For our guidance in this quest we have the Bible. It is a revelation or “unveiling" of God as the Saviour of men. As such it is authoritative and trustworthy, having been written by men who "spake from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit.” 2 Peter 1:21.
And for our further guidance we have Christ, the only-begotten Son of God; as it is written, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God; . . . and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.' We perceive him walking through the Scriptures, from the first prophecy in Eden to the last vision of the Apocalypse, as the teacher of religion. This was the theme of his ministry on earth. The religion which he set forth is called "The ministry of reconciliation,” because it presents a definite plan for the recovery of our lost estate. The man who accepts it is homeward bound.
Four characteristics.—The religion thus outlined in the written and incarnate Word is defined by the Apostle James: “Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” James 1:27. Now James was the ultilitarian
the ultilitarian among the apostles. He was a theologian with a clear eye to the needs of practical life.
The religion which he thus defined is marked by four characteristics. It is not one among many, but the only one. It is "pure and undefiled"; that is, not a mixture of truth and error, but absolutely faultless every way. It is acceptable to God. There are many systems of faith and conduct which commend themselves to various classes of men; but the true religion is that which passes muster before the Holy One. It does what it proposes to do; that is, it binds the sinner back to God.
By this definition of. Religion three things are ruled out as non-essential and two are counted in. As to the things which are ruled out, James intimates that religion is
Not a creed. A creed is necessary as a symbol of faith; nevertheless a man may be orthodox and not religious at all. A man without a creed is an invertebrate: but a man with a creed and nothing else is a lifeless automaton: because "as he thinketh within himself so is he." A creed is like a physician's prescription—a paper full of zigzag characters, having no value except as it stands for something. It is not the paper, but the thing which it stands for, that must be taken inwardly to effect a cure.
Not a liturgy.-Rites and ceremonies are important; but they are not the essential thing. They are, as Salter says, "the aliment of religion but not
, its life, the fuel but not the flame, the scaffolding but not the edifice." They are like the vial into which the apothecary puts the prescription; it is necessary, yet of no value whatever except for what it holds. To place one's confidence in the saving power of the Church and its sacraments is as vain as it would be for a patient to expect to be cured of a mortal malady by the application of the vial rather than by the remedy within it.
Not a confession.—Such a confession is important; for is it not written, "With the heart man believeth unto righteousness and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation"? The man who imagines himself to be a Christian without coming out into the open may well question the sincerity of his faith and the validity of his hope. An open
confession is like the label on the vial. The law requires it, because there is no telling what mistakes might occur without it. But the label has no value except as it describes something. Lipservice has a place in religion only so far as the lips serve the heart, the heart being true to truth and righteousness.
Now these are the things which religion is not. They are necessary as indications and concomitants of religion; but they are only the shadows of it. Where is the substance, the essential thing, by which the soul is healed, as when medicine—the medicine called for by the prescription, contained in the vial and duly labelled—being taken into the system finds its way into blood and sinew and expresses itself in terms of physical life?
The two hemispheres of religion as set forth by James, are doing good and being good. And it is characteristic of this apostle of the practical life that he puts the former before the latter, unselfishness before self, beneficence being the keynote of character.
The doing good is expressed in the words "to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction."
The world is full of such needy and helpless ones; and our relation to them was indicated by our Lord in clearest terms when he said, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, ye have done it unto me.”
It is related of Palmaris, a devotee of the twelfth century, that in token of repentance he set out from his home at Piacenza on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He had not proceeded far, however, when his Lord appeared to him in a vision, saying, “I care not for thy pious pilgrimage. There are widows and fatherless at Piacenza who need thee; go back and visit them !" He was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, the legend says, but returning to his native town founded charitable institutions which have preserved his name in the odor of sanctity to this day.