The Baccalaureate Sermon for the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, preached May 30th, 1915, in the Broadway Baptist Church, Louisville, Ky., by J. M. Frost of Nashville, Tenn.
TEXT - Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near: Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isa. 55: 6-9.)
God puts him self into this text as its mightiest factor. The wonderful message is of God in a double sense, from him as its author and concerning him as its subject. The word, "saith the Lord," is the undergirding and guarantee for all the marvelous utterances as being almost too large for human credence or understanding.
In his walks among men, as no doubt you have noticed, when emergencies arise God puts himself forward with special emphasis for the special need. He found Abram in great distress and in person gave him this word: "Fear not, Abram; for I am thy shield and thy exceeding great reward" - he himself for protection, he himself for reward, exceeding great reward - just gives you himself. When he could swear by no greater he sware by himself, that by two immutable things, God's counsel and his oath, we might have anchor within the vail both sure and steadfast. God goes to the limit, puts a mortgage on his character for those who are his.
Something like this is in the text. When confronted with the profoundest problem in his moral government, the problem of making sinners righteous and redeeming a lost world, God comes forward himself in fullness and richness, shows himself in great fashion as the God of grace with the preacher as his messenger and spokesman. And of course we must identify him as seen here with the God of the Bible throughout and also as the God of nature - the God of the universe. "For God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness hath shined in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ."
With all this for our background and with the text as our guide, we confine ourselves to a reverent study of God as seen in the preachers message. We study only a segment of the circle but keep in mind the circle's fullness. A few years ago "the man behind the gun" became current as a vital expression and was readily applied to other things. For example, "the man behind the sermon." Behind the message is the preacher, the man of God, and back of the preacher is God himself, who calls him, sets him forth, gives him his message, girds him with might and attends him in his ministry. Not the preacher, however, but the preacher's God is the present thought and purpose.
We need to pause here long enough to get in mind the inexpressible greatness of God - a vision of him so far as possible, such as Isaiah had in the temple - to contemplate his glory before which the seraphim veil their faces. We need in our study of him and of his ways the overpowering sense of his majesty in righteousness, power, holiness, justice and ineffable glory.
Those who have gone furthest in thinking God's thoughts after him have yet found and confessed their limit, though some have gone great distances in the wayof his thought. In the text God sets himself forward with great emphasis as thinking beyond human thinking. "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts."
This means at least two things - that God is a Person capable of thinking, and that he is not to be judged by human standards. This distinction is of immense moment as emphasizing the Being and Nature of God and as contravening the modern phases of ancient pantheism, and as making God real and ruler in his universe. He is possessed of all those great qualities and attributes which are essential and constitute personality - Divine Personality. In his dealings with men, Who is dealing with whom, Person with person, God with man. In our prayer we pray not to "somewhat," but to "Some One." That Some One is God whose ears are open to the cries of his people.
All this is of practical worth. God is not to be identified with nature in part or whole. Nature cannot love and we cannot pray to nature - cannot pray to force as if force were God. Think of a brokenhearted mother praying to Niagara, or a terrified people praying to a cyclone. The God of grace as a person loves, hears, thinks thoughts too great and high for man, and yet moves in man's behalf. The watch is not the watch-maker. Nature hi all its power, beauty and surpassing wonders, is of God's handiwork, but is not the hand that made it, nor the heart and mind which thought it and filled it with the fullness of good.
Take this saying from the school of learning: "Two things fill me with wonder and awe, the stars above and my soul within." How much more when we come in a reverent study of God, who made the stars and set them in their places, who made the soul with its marvelous temporary dwelling place, and has for its eternal abode "the building of God, thehouse not made with hands, eternal in the heavens."
Or take this other saying, "The undevout astronomer is mad," which means simply that the man is crazy who can walk the highway of the stars and yet see no traces of divine handiwork and has no sense of his glory as declared in the heavens. Indeed, any one of the sciences might well rebuke undevoutness, since nearly every great subject leads back to God in its basal principles. They may be studied in their relation to God or we may study God in his relation to them.
Take the six related sciences if we may venture to name them, either of which is sufficient to subdue us, make us modest in spirit and moderate in speech: Anatomy, Physiology, Biology, Psychology, Astronomy, Theology, this last being the word concerning God set in orderly array. To know God is the greatest possible knowledge, and there can be no higher task for the human heart and mind than the task of setting that knowledge in order, adjusting part to part, forming symmetrical and beautiful harmony, like the music of the stars. During the first decade of my ministry it was a rule with me to read every year one book on Theology, yet I make no boast of knowing Theology except something of its practical worth and rapture as a subject of study. To me it is the crowning glory of the sciences, and to make God known, in Christ, in the pardon of sin, in his will and way, is the Alpha and Omega of preaching. Here we come nearest to the highway which the angels walk.
Two great words have been allowed almost to disappear from our vocabulary, one, from before the foundation of the world, what God did for us in Christ Jesus before the world was, the other, in the ages to come, "that in the ages to come he might show the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus.'' Then, as if binding the eternities together, the mighty sweep of the ancient seer, "From everlasting to everlasting thou art God.''
All this they tell us is not practical"not pragmatic," - that the age is practical and calls for deed and not creed, - that is to say, calls for the house and not the foundation, for the beautiful stream flowing through the meadow and not the full gushing fountain yonder at its source, as if there were ever noble deed without the support of creed, as if the great Luther were not first shaken in the depths of his soul by his new creed before he shook the world by the might of his deed. It is true verily, that a man cannot live on the mount of transfiguration for there is the call of the valley and he must answer. But he will be of little use in the valley if he has no mountain experience or seasons of transfiguration glory. Is there not reason to fear lest we forget the first and greatest commandment in being absorbed with the one like unto it?
The prophet calls the people back again and again to contemplate the greatness of God, to meditate on the wonderful things which he hath ordained and set in the heavens, reminding us over and over again that this is the means by which "they that wait on the Lord renew their strength, and mount up with wings as eagles." The wings and eyes of the eagle - what are they for, anyway? To light at the brook yonder to drink? To sweep the field yonder for something to eat? To build the nest yonder on the far off mountain crag? All that and much more, for even the birds of the air cannot live by bread alone. On days the eagle bids farewell to the brook and the field and the mountain crag, and goes aloft to breast the storm or to soar in regions where no storms come, to look the sun in the face, to gaze on far away distances where he can never go. This is his life, his joy which throws a charm over all else.
Oh, it is of man's kinship with God that he needs the eagle's uplift and longs for the things that are higher. No man comes to his best except sometimes he thinks thoughts beyond himself. It is in his supreme moments that man walks in God'sways, in fellowship with him. When we reach the human limits in thinking God's thoughts after him, we gaze with devout hearts and adoring wonder over the shining heights we cannot pass, and sing the song which the seraphim sing, "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory."
And now the reverse of all that we have said, setting the mighty truth in contrast and paradox; God emphasizes in the text his local presence in the sanctuary and with the preacher in his preaching. "Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near." These words bring both preacher and hearer face to face with God. He gives us the startling, overwhelming paradox of himself, inhabiteth eternity, his name is Holy, dwells in the high and holy place, but also in the heart of the humble and contrite ones. When God comes into relation with man, or comes into a man's life, he comes in the fullness of his Being and Person; comes as God without abridgment of himself.
He has been at great pains in his Word, if it may be said, to make real and powerful his local, personal presence in the lives of men, localize himself. That is the meaning in part of Jacob's vision of the ladder when he awakened and exclaimed, "Surely the Lord is in this place and I knew it not"; the meaning also of the burning bush in the life of Moses; of the pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night with the children of Israel; of the tabernacle in the wilderness, and later of the temple with its Holy of holies. Solomon felt its power as confessed in his prayer: "The heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house which I have builded." And yet "the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord" as the symbol of his presence.
Let us recall four great words concerning God - Being, Person, immensity- immensity of God, and local presence. It is the meeting of infinite extremes, his thinking higher than human thoughts, his ways higher than our ways. It is Divine imminence but the imminence of a Person. We must not allow his omnipresence to obscure or in any way weaken the tremendous thought of his personal, local presence.
The story so common among preachers is very pertinent and even powerful. The infidel told his little girl to write, "God is nowhere," but the child in her untrained way misplaced the letters and wrote, "God is now here." We must not fail of this mighty conception and the tremendous power in which is carried in this great fact. The majesty of the Divine presence is very real in the ministry of his Word, if only we can realize it. This is God's meaning by the words in the text concerning himself, - while he is near, - while he may be found.
This emphasizes two elements in preaching, namely, the experiential and the divine elements. The text is a restatement many years afterward of Isaiah's experience in the temple. That was not the prophet's but the sinner's vision of God. There we see the man of God in the process of making. In his preaching he never came from under the spell and charm and power of that experience. The live coal from the altar never ceased to burn in his heart or to keep his lips aflame with his message. The man of God never got away from this, "I have seen the King, the Lord of hosts." The glory of it was ever upon his ministry and makes his ministry luminous even to this day.
All this is wonderfully duplicated in the New Testament with Paul as a preacher and as Isaiah's great counterpart. His vision en route to Damascus was the vision which Saul of Tarsus had of the glorified Christ-the vision not of the preacher, but of the persecutor-the sinner's vision of the Saviour of men in his glorified state, and forever afterward he lived in its power. It colored, gave flavor and tone to all his preaching. Like Isaiah he neverlost sight of that vision; that experience was a growing power and increased its momentum with the years; he never got away from what he saw and heard, never weakened in the sense and conviction that Christ had saved him in his exceeding sinfulness-that he had seen the King in the glory of his saving power. Years after, like Isaiah in the text, Paul voiced it all as the sum and substance of his experience of grace and as the one theme of his preaching. "It is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptation that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners of whom I am chief, that in me the chief of sinners he might show forth all long suffering and mercy as a pattern" of his saving grace and power.
In addition to all this which inheres in the man of God, preaching has also a divine element. Call it what you may, superhuman, supernatural, but a divine power. This is the power in which men are born from above, born of God through the Spirit of God. It is the mighty working of his Holy Spirit, the power which opened Lydia's heart while Paul was preaching, and which must always give the increase if there be increase, no matter who preaches. "Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord." "They shall be willing in the day of my power" - made to acquiesce, to consent to purpose a new purpose, to determine and move off in a new course and new life - set out to build what before he destroyed.
This reversion of a mighty human will as if God put his hands on the machinery of a great character and reversed his passion of antagonism and fiery hate, reversed all his thinking, reversed his affections, reversed his willing, so that the man himself of his own choosing reversed all his powers and course of life - this is conquest indeed, the standing or oft repeated miracle in the history of preaching.
Oh, this is of God, the divine element in preaching, his thought moving and operating beyond our thinking and his ways outstripping our ways. Behind allpreaching is the man, the man of God with his manhood, experience and training, but behind the preacher is God himself. As behind the floodtide, filling harbor and inlet, overflowing beach and seawall are the might and fullness of the ocean's flow, so back of the preacher is God, in the fullness and richness of grace in Christ Jesus, the preacher's inexhaustible resource, the power of God to save, to save by the foolishness of preaching them that believe. It is the estimate and emphasis which God places upon preaching, his guarantee that his Word shall not return void but shall accomplish its high ends. The increase is of him through agencies chosen and appointed by himself, to bring returns in grace, as in the fruitage of the field, some thirty, some sixty and some an hundredfold - the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth.
Here we may well uncover and put off our sandals, for we stand on holy ground. In his message of grace God would have it known and given emphasis, that he has mercy for the returning sinner and will abundantly pardon, - goes again beyond human thought and human ways. It is the very Holy of holies in the divine economy. Here the ark of the covenant, here the mercy seat, here the cherubim, here over all the ineffable glory of the shekinah, the symbol of the Divine Presence, the God of mercy and of pardon.
Mercy on God's part means on man's part sin, sinner, sinfulness, guilt, exceeding sinfulness. His pardon is the doing away with all that, while justifying grace goes further and treats the sinner as righteous and marks the ungodly as godly, gives him a place in the divine family, an heir of God and a joint heir with Christ. In all this God abundantly pardons and his act of grace is the wonder of men and of angels.
God pardons sin, it is worth while to note, not as Creator, not as Judge of all the earth, not even as Father, in somesentimental notion of "universal Fatherhood," but he pardons as God. Godhood goes before and is greater than Fatherhood, comes perhaps to its fullest and is supreme in the exercise of mercy and of pardon. God's mercy is not the pity of a father toward a wayward child, but something greater and out of comparison with all things human. God's mercy is God's impulse toward the sinner as he sees him. It finds expression and satisfaction in Christ's death on the cross, has its fruitage in saving the sinner and working in him sonship and glorious liberty of the children of God.
This great word in the text of mercy and pardon may be aptly interpreted in our familiar hymns. For example, the sinner when awakened to a sense of sin, brought under conviction by the Holy Spirit makes his plea for pardon - can anything be finer as a plea and can God answer the plea in the pardon of the sinner's sin?
Are not thy mercies large and free,
May not a sinner trust in thee?
My sins, tho' great, do not surpass
The power and glory of thy grace;
Great God! Thy nature hath no bound,
So let thy pardoning love be found.
Then save a trembling sinner,
Lord, Whose hope, still hovering round thy Word,
Would light on some sweet promise there,
Some sure support against despair.
This is a real, a mighty question with eternal destinies hanging in the balance. Not an answer, but the testimony of many, many thousands through all the ages, as to what they found in answer to their call when seeking the Lord and calling upon him, are these familiar words:
I heard the voice of Jesus say,
"Come unto me and rest;
Lay down, thou weary one, lay down,
Thy head upon my breast."
I came to Jesus as I was,
Weary and worn and sad;
I found in him a resting place
And he has made me glad.
And then the wonderful words, much as if a note from the heavenly musichad found a place in the music of our souls:
O happy day, that fixed my choice,
On thee, my Saviour and my God!
Well may this glowing heart rejoice,
And tell its raptures all abroad.
All this means, as we look back through the text, that God pardons - pardons sin - pardons in Christ - abundantly pardons - makes known his pardon in the sinner's heart as a rapturous experience of grace.
Professor Edward Everett Hale, Jr., relating his conversion which a few years ago made a profound impression throughout the country, tells how his salvation came through prayer, how he learned that he must come by the way of the cross, how nature, whatever it might offer to others, showed him nothing but law; how he found it all different at the cross where he saw the love of God in Christ Jesus and found his deliverance and pardon. Bunyan's Pilgrim, too, climbing the longdrawn hill with the burden of sin on his heart, came in sight of the cross. His burden fell off, went rolling down the hill, tumbled into an open, empty sepulcher and was seen no more forever.
Pilgrim went on his way rejoicing, singing as he went, and when asked what made him so light-hearted and free, answered: "When I recall what I saw at the cross, that will do it; when I remember the parchment in my bosom, that will do it; when I think of the heavenly land to which I am going, that will do it." So this great word of mercy and pardon is the major note in the song of redemption, the song which the redeemed in all the ages have sung, the song on earth which matches the song the glorified sing, the song of Moses and the Lamb, the exhibition here and even the more glorious exhibition hereafter of God's mercy and abundant pardon.
God puts a limit upon himself even in the working of his grace. This is the answerto a plea as to why all are not saved when his sufficiency is so great and his mercy so abounding. The text presents two groups of four words each which match and check each other as follows: While he is near, may be found, will have mercy, will abundantly pardon-these are all of God and mark his movement manward. Seek - call - forsake sin - turn unto the Lord - these are all of man and mark his movement Godward. Man calls and God answers; man seeks and God is found; man turns from sin and God pardons. Herein God and man come together. Where these groups of words meet, divine sovereignty and man's free agency meet, blend and flow on together to the honor and glory of God, to the salvation and glory of man.
The great building of the Sunday School Board at Nashville is of stone construction, having in front four massive Corinthian columns bound together at the top with a massive stretch of stone, each column having for its base a block of granite weighing twenty-seven thousand pounds. I have ventured to name these several parts as expressive of Bible thought and truth. The corner blocks of granite are Divine Sovereignty and Man's Free Agency; the two inside blocks of granite, the one God's call on man and man's answer, the other man's call on God and God's answer; the four columns taken in order are the miracle of incarnation, the miracle of Christ's works, the miracle of Christ's words, and the miracle of his resurrection, while the massive girder of stone at the top, crowning and binding all into one is the miracle of Christ's character, the inexpressible glory of all.
That is my creed set in stone, but also the creed of my deepest heart experience, the sum and substance of all my preaching, the basis of all my hopes for time and the outstretching ages. The two elements, God's call and man's answer, man's call and God's answer, constitute by far the largest part of Bible history, the largest part also of human history, the largest and most commanding experiencein the individual life. God called and you answered, you called and God answered. This touches the profoundest phase of psychology - this intercommunication of God's Spirit with man's spirit. The interchange of thought and words with Moses at the burning bush, with Isaiah in the temple, with the believer in Christ when God says "my child" and the believer responds "Abba Father"- all this is just as real and practical as the wonderful talk of Jesus with the woman at the well. Even that talk indeed went deeper and touched things eternal more than appeared in its physical aspects. For as a result the whole city was soon thrown into commotion. "There is something in man, call it what you may, but something that feels the intangible, that sees the invisible, and hears the inaudible." We seek and find, call and God answers; God calls - calls by name-and we answer, "Here am I, send me." This is the crowning glory of manhood when under God's marvelous touch a man responds to the commanding call, becomes the man of God and is commissioned as God's messenger and spokesman.
The text in all its wonderful scope and all that has been said in exposition, finds illustration and emphasis in the two concrete cases, the God of Jonah as seen in the Book of Jonah, and of Paul as seen in his sermon to the men of Athens.
That wonderful book contains only eleven hundred words, yet God's name is used fifty times, sixty times if you include the pronouns, literally pulsing and throbbing with his divine presence, purpose and power. Read it through with your heart and mind, watching for the stately movements of Jehovah. The God of Jonah appears there the God of the Hebrews, maker of heaven and earth, He holds the elements in his hands whether in calm or storm; is deeply concerned and moved because of sin among men; commissions a man with the great task of preaching; overtakes and apprehends him when off the line of duty; shows himself in turn a prayer-hearing and prayer-answering God-hearing the mariner's prayer; hearing the wayward prophet's prayer out of the depths, delivers him and sets him in the way again; hears the people of Nineveh pray; shows himself a repenting God toward repenting sinners, and withal a God great enough to take care of all the difficulties in the Book of Jonah and in the life of Jonah; and by delivering Jonah from the fish and the sea demonstrates his power and purpose as a far-off forecast, to raise his Son from the grave in spite of stone and seal and soldier, and even the grip of death. One view of God moving in majesty through that wonderful history should save the book of Jonah from the jest at least of reverent or even thoughtful people. It is a marvelous display of God's work among men, showing throughout the traces of his presence and power.
The other case is altogether different, comes centuries later and shows the preacher in the best environment the world could give of its culture, religion and wisdom. Paul in Athens with something new to tell, was stirred in heart when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry; he made his new message the talk of the street and of the market place as he preached the resurrection of Jesus, for what had been forecast with the God of Jonah had now become history. Thought to be a setter forth of strange gods because of what he said concerning the deity of Jesus, he was brought into Areopagus, before whose ancient tribunal god and goddesses had been on trial. He the lone advocate, his soul thrilled within him, this Hebrew of the Hebrews, as he made known the Unknown-as the God who made the world, the Lord of heaven and earth; who giveth all life and in whom we live; who calls men to repentance and has appointed a day of judgment. The Godhead whom Paul served is not like unto images of art, nor dwells in temples made with hands; and yet is not far from every one of us, says Paul - "That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him and find him." Him declare Iunto you, O Athenians, "glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders," even to the raising of Jesus Christ from the dead.
At that word the high court went to pieces, but God was present - present in power to save. New trophies came to the cross and the risen Christ; a new glory fell that day upon the Areopagus; the song of salvation was heard on Mars' Hill. And Athens, so famous in antiquity, is best known around the world today because that man with his new message told in her streets and high court of Christ crucified, the wisdom of God and the power of God, as having died for our sins and who was raised again for our justification.
What glorious things we see as with adoring wonder we contemplate the God of the man of God, working his wonders of grace. The heavens indeed declare his glory, but far more the cross and the redemption which comes through the cross. Its glory outshines all the wonder of the stars and awakens in human hearts a song surpassing the song which the angels sing.
This is the glory of preaching, the preacher's joy and crown of rejoicing. Forty-four years ago almost to the day in the commencement at Georgetown College, this state, my school life was closing, or rather opening on the larger life. Our great President, Dr. N. M. Crawford, preached the sermon from the words, "I will honor them that honor me, and they that despise me shall be lightly esteemed." Through all these years I have walked in the strength of that great truth. Oh not as I would, and yet as I could, and the sermon of today in sentiment and purpose, is a far-off echo of that great Baccalaureate. And now in this presence, and on this occasion which means so much to buoyant hearts and lives, after nearlyhalf a century, my heart's testimony to God is, that had I a thousand lives I would gladly give them all to the preaching of the wonderful gospel of his grace.
There is no honor like that honor, no service like that service for blessing the world, as the preacher bears the message of salvation and preaches not himself but Christ Jesus the Lord. To be called the man of God is the preacher's highest distinction, and yet a distinction before which he will often stand abashed as unworthy and inadequate. It is not a distinction, however, for him to claim but simply to be and live-a distinction with him and the people somewhat as the brightness on Moses' face. He wist not that his face was shining, but all the people wondered at the glory of his countenance, lit up as it was from his communion with God on the mountain.
Man is weakest and most insignificant when compared with God, but greatest and most powerful when combined with God as co-worker in saving the lost. Blessed is the man who is anchored by faith in God, walks in his might, counts his honor the supreme thing, and lives in his service. Here he finds safety, here he gets his inspiration, and here also his resting place. We may not attain Sidney Lanier's lofty sentiment but we may aspire to its devotion:
"As the marsh-hen secretly builds on the watery sod,
Behold I will build me a nest on the greatness of God;
I will live in the greatness of God as the marshhen flies
In the freedom that fills all space 'twixt the marsh and the skies;
By so many roots as the marsh-grass sends in the sod,
I will heartily lay me a-hold on the greatness of God."