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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
E. A. Stevens
Missionary in Burma, Aug. 1875
Many do not believe that they are. Some even object, that missionaries going and preaching to them will be the means of insuring the condemnation of many, by giving them light, while failing to correct them. Others are in doubt, while yet they are not willing to neglect utterly the duty of aiding missions. The question is evidently, therefore, one of no small importance in its bearing on the missionary enterprise; for if any one denies, or only doubts its necessity, it cannot be expected that he will be zealous in its support.
As there is but one living and true God, who is the Judge of all the earth, and by whom the final state of the heathen, as all others, is to be determined, the answer to this question must evidently come from him alone. Whatever we may think, he will appoint the future condition of the heathen, according to his infinite wisdom. And of one thing we may be perfectly assured, he will do right; nor is it possible for any human being to be more alive to the demands of right, or yet more compassionate, than he is.
What, then, do the Scriptures say on this momentous subject?
The Scripture Testimony
Many passages may be quoted, but a few only will be adduced.
There is a class of passages which unequivocally declare that no idolater shall inherit the kingdom of God.
'Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers ... shall inherit the kingdom of God." I Cor. 6:9, 10.
See also Gal. 5: 9-10; Rev. 22:15.
No language surely can be more decisive on the point in question. For, if idolaters cannot inherit the kingdom of God, there is only one alternative: they perish.
The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews uses this solemn exhortation: "Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord" (Heb. 2:14). And the Apostle Peter urges, "It is written, Be ye holy, for I am holy" (1 Pet. 1:16).
Evidently, therefore, in order that the heathen may "see the Lord" (the meaning of which language undoubtedly is the same as entering into the kingdom of God), they must be holy. Now, although many are inclined to apologize for them, because they have been born and brought up in darkness, who has ever contended that they are holy? Is not their very name a synonym for wickedness? And here we have the word of God declaring in specific terms, that the unholy "shall not see the Lord."
We have the explicit declaration of the Redeemer himself, "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." John 3:3.
Is this true of those only who have heard the gospel? Does not the utterance rather indicate the moral condition of human nature, and the only way in which the natural man can become holy, and so enter the kingdom of God? We are not of those who believe in baptismal regeneration, but in regeneration by the Spirit, through the word of God; as said the Apostle Peter, "born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth forever" (1 Pet. 1:23).
Now, the word of God, in order to produce any effect, must evidently first be heard, or in some other manner learned. For it is addressed to the minds of men. After it has been learned, then, by the operation of the Holy Spirit in the mind, it is thought upon, it is believed, it is received and obeyed (1 Pet. 1:22); and thus the sinner is regenerated through it, and made holy, a child of God, and an heir of the heavenly inheritance.
While, then, one class of passages declares that, because God is holy, man also must become holy in order to dwell with God, other passages teach us, that, through regeneration by the word of God, this holiness is to be obtained. Who, then, will presume to say, that, while men in Christian lands must be born again in order to be saved, the heathen may enter the kingdom of God without hearing the word, without being born again, and so without holiness? If this were so, would it not be better to be born and brought up in heathenism, rather than under the influences of the gospel?
One passage more, only, will be adduced, the language of the Apostle Paul in the first and second chapters of his Epistle to the Romans. He being the apostle of the Gentiles, sent to preach the gospel to the heathen, as Peter was to the Jews, travelled extensively among them, observing their lives, reasoning and disputing with them, and striving to persuade them to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, that they might be saved.
After delineating their frightful wickedness, and proving them to be "without excuse" (Rom. 1:20-32), he convicts them of being exposed to "the wrath of God, which is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men" (Rom. 1:18): "then, leading us forward to the judgment seat of Christ, the apostle declares that God will render to every man according to his deeds; . . . indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile; " that is, as we well know, of the heathen. Known unto God is the true condition and character of the heathen world; and here we have the explicit declaration, how he, the righteous One, will judge them at the last day.
The plain teaching of the above passages is, that the heathen, being idolaters and unholy, cannot, continuing as they are, be admitted into the kingdom of heaven ; that they need to be born again instrumentally, through the preaching of "the word of the truth of the gospel." And so appears the reason for the loving and gracious command of the Redeemer, "Go ye unto all the world, and preach the gospel unto every creature."
Illustrative Missionary Testimony
But, while this will be admitted to be the plain teaching of the New Testament, many sincere minds will still painfully inquire, "How can this be right, and consistent with the goodness and compassion of God?" As this inquiry probably arises from a lack of accurate information with respect to the character and condition of the heathen, for the purpose of illustration a few facts will now be adduced, drawn from actual observation of missionaries residing among them.
In every part of the world, where missionary effort has been persisted in for a considerable time in the vernacular tongues, it has been found, that the human family have a sense of right and wrong, and a capacity to know God, and to look into the future; such a nature, indeed, being the essential groundwork on which to labor for their salvation, and constituting their chief difference from the brutes. And, wherever man is found, he is manifestly depraved; living in sin, and knowing the fact.
But in this paper our illustration will be drawn from the Buddhists of Burmah, where the writer has passed more than thirty years in direct missionary work, prosecuted, not in his native tongue, through an interpreter, but in the language of the Burmans, among whom he has labored.
1. The Burmans have much correct knowledge of God
It is true, their land is full of idols, and their hilltops on every side are covered with pagodas. It is true, they call these idols and these pagodas “gods”, and bow down to them, and worship and make offerings to them. But, when questioned particularly, they readily admit, that these are not truly gods; that the idols are but images of the God they worship, and the pagodas are but repositories of his relics.
And they say that worship paid to these his substitutes is equivalent to worship paid to the God himself. As to him, his name was Gautama. Originally he was a mere man; but by persistent endeavors to keep the moral law, through countless ages, in different states of being, he gradually increased in virtue, subduing all the evil propensities of his nature, until, finally, he attained to perfection.
Simultaneously with this attainment, he also obtained infinite knowledge and infinite power. These attainments he made at the age of thirty-five years, and became God; in this state of divinity he continued forty-five years (being contemporary with the Prophet Daniel); then, at the age of eighty, he died and was annihilated. Since then there has been no God in the world.
Before him there had been gods innumerable as the sands on the seashore; but since the world came into being in the form we now behold, there had been three other gods of the same kind, whom they denominate Buddha’s; and before the world shall come to its end, which is to be by fire, another Buddha will make his appearance, continue his allotted time, and like his predecessors pass away into annihilation. This is the Burmese idea of God.
Now, with all the error involved in this idea, let us observe, that they believe in God, as the greatest and best of all beings. In direct terms they are accustomed to ascribe to him infinite power, infinite intelligence, infinite love and compassion. He has the profoundest regard for the moral law, and in heart and he is perfectly conformed to it. This being their understanding of the character of God, the Burmans and the Buddhists generally (who are supposed to number not less than four hundred millions of our fellow-men), are perfectly aware that, when they do wrong, they act in direct opposition to the mind of God.
When they sin, therefore, they do so knowingly, just as men do in Christian countries. And we see that their character agrees with that given by the Apostle Paul to the heathen of his day: "that which may be known of God is manifest in them, for God hath showed it unto them" (Rom. 1:19). And again, after describing their sinfulness, "knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them" (Rom. 1. 32).
2. The Burmans have much correct knowledge of the moral law.
Gautama has taught them, that they ought to worship God with the profoundest reverence and sincerest love; that they ought to worship the law, which is the word of God; and the priests, who preach the law, and seek to practise it after his example. Hence, on regular worship days, which occur at least four times every month, the people are accustomed to assemble together for worship before the pagodas and the idols, and at the monasteries; and, the priest leading them, they all in reverent posture repeat after him in concert, "We worship God; we worship the law; we worship the priesthood." And, universally, they are accustomed to speak of their God in the most respectful language, "The excellent God."
As it respects their duties one toward another, the law prescribes five cardinal commands:
1. "Thou shalt not kill."
2. " Thou shalt not steal."
3. "Thou shalt not commit adultery."
4. "Thou shalt not lie."
5. "Thou shalt not drink intoxicating liquors."
In all their regular assemblies for worship, the priest is accustomed to pronounce these commands, one after the other, in the most formal manner; and the assembly repeats them in concert after him. So, throughout the length and breadth of the land, every one, men, women, and children, are familiar with them. It is perfectly manifest, therefore, that when the Buddhist lies, or steals, or commits adultery, or takes life (whether human or animal), or drinks intoxicating liquors, he knows that he violates the command of his God.
Not only so: he has been instructed with respect to the many degrees and kinds of sins, with minute discrimination, so that he is accustomed to classify them into three principal divisions, sins of the body, sins of the lips, and sins of the mind and heart. It is not true, then, that when he sins he does not know better. Like men in Christian lands, his knowledge is better than his practice; "he knows his duty, but he does it not."
3. The Burmans have extreme views of the authority of moral law.
Gautama evidently regarded it, like the law of gravitation, as one of the fixed laws of the universe, invariable in its operation. He taught, not only that actions are right or wrong, and that right actions will be rewarded, and wrong actions punished, but that these consequences are as certain, as that the "cartwheel follows the tracks of the ox that draws it; "that there is, indeed, no power in the universe competent to sever the connection between actions and their consequences.
Hence the system of transmigrations, to give scope for the action of that law; the endless succession of births and deaths (until annihilation comes to the relief of the meritorious few), being necessary, to reap the rewards, and to suffer the penalties, inseparable from the actions which have been performed.
Hence it was that Gautama passed through innumerable periods of enjoyments and of sufferings, sometimes on earth, sometimes in one or another of twenty-six heavens, sometimes in one or another of four hells, before he could reach the goal of divinity.
In one hell alone, for destroying a widow's house, which jutted inconveniently into the street of the city in which he reigned, notwithstanding he built for her another and a better house in another part of the city, he was obliged to pass eighty thousand years in punishment for his sin. Despite all the virtue which he had attained, he could not escape the penalty due to one of his sins; so that even in the state of divinity he was obliged to bear the punishment of twelve or sixteen sins which had not yet been expiated.
Thus, in the estimation of the Buddhist, moral law is before God; seeing God is but a man who has attained to divinity by keeping the law, which, of course, he must first have known, in order to keep it. Moreover, the law is above God, seeing he is subject to it; so that he has no authority over it, and is not competent, therefore, to forgive any violation of it.
From this extreme view of the authority of the moral law, although the Buddhist ever assigns in worship the first place to God, and speaks of the law as the word of God, and the law which they observe as the word of Gautama, the law is Gautama’s only in the sense in which we speak of the law of gravitation as Newton's law; the law which he discovered and expounded, while he himself, as all others, was subject to that law.
Such Knowledge Furnishes A Basis of Guilt
From the facts above presented, derived from the Burmese books, and from constant reasoning and disputing with people and with priests for many years, in endeavors to turn them from idolatry to Christ, we think it must be evident, that the Buddhists are not so much in the dark in the matter of religion, as many have supposed. It is plain, that they know so much of God and of his law, that they must be counted "guilty before God;" and, in the language of the apostle, are exposed to that "wrath of God, which is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness" (Rom. 1:18).
Nor is this true of the Buddhists alone. It is true of the Hindus, and it is true, in different degrees, of the heathen generally. Paul, in the first chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, uses very comprehensive language, when he declares them "without excuse," and, gives his reasons for what he teaches.
To his reasoning on this subject, we be to call the earnest attention of the reader, and as him to remember, while perusing the apostle's words, that Paul was not only inspired to teach the mind of God, but was an intelligent and eminently benevolent observer of heathen character and manners. For he lived and labored long among them, and had the best reason to say, "We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen."
The Consequent Argument For Missions
We see, then, the demand for missionaries to the heathen. Not to make known the law of God; for of that they already know more than they are careful to obey, so that they are "condemned already." It is to take to them the gospel, which is the gracious announcement from God, of pardon for the guilty. We have seen that Buddhists know that they are guilty, and are expecting punishment; ay, punishment in hell, and for thousands of years at least.
To this conclusion they admit themselves shut up by the teachings and the history of their God. He, by his vain philosophy, in ridding himself of God the eternal, the Creator and Lawgiver, and deifying man instead, has excluded from man the possibility of escaping the penalty due to transgression, and has doomed him to innumerable ages of suffering, as the just and inevitable demerit of sin.
For the Buddhist, therefore, the missionary is needed, to undo this part of the work of Gautama, by showing that God is not of man, but man is of God; that God is none other than the Eternal First Cause, "of whom and by whom and to whom are all things; " who made man, and gave him the moral law; to , whom man, therefore, is accountable; to whom pertains the prerogative to pardon; and who has so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him shall not perish, but have everlasting life. And this is just the knowledge which all heathen need.
Shall not compassion, therefore, as well as regard for the authority of our divine Master, urge us to haste with the gospel to the dying heathen? They are perishing, and they know it; but know not how they may escape the penalty due to their sins.