An Introduction to MacDonald's Unspoken Sermons

The following is an excerpt from Consuming Fire: The Inexorable Power of God’s Love 
edited by Onesimus

In his sermon entitled The Mirrors of the Lord, George MacDonald states that “of all writers I know, {the apostle} Paul seems to me the most plainly, the most determinedly practical in his writing. What has been called his mysticism is at one time the exercise of a power of seeing, as by spiritual refraction, truths that had not, perhaps have not yet, risen above the human horizon.” Just the same could be said of MacDonald himself, and nowhere more so than in the three volumes of his Unspoken Sermons, in which he explores profound theological ideas—but all for the purpose of bringing even the simplest actions of our daily lives into the service of Christ.

Although volume I was published in 1867, volume II in 1885, and volume III in 1889, the 36 sermons form a marvelously unified whole. Even a casual reader will note that within each volume, the concluding line of every sermon but the last introduces the principal subject of the next sermon. But the deeper unity of this masterpiece of Christian thought is based on the compelling way MacDonald interweaves and develops several major themes, which are summarized briefly in the paragraphs below.

The second sermon of volume I, inspired by a verse from Hebrews, introduces the powerful motif of God asTheConsuming Fire. God is one, and God is love; he is not sometimes a God of wrath and other times a God of love. Do we then teach that men have nothing to fear from God? By no means! “For Love loves unto purity,” and is oft experienced as wrath, as the consuming fire that will not be content until our sinful nature, everything that separates us from God, is burned away. Twenty-two years after the publication of volume I, MacDonald developed these ideas at length in what may be his most influential sermon, Justice. “God’s anger,” MacDonald wrote, “is at one with his love;” so, too, God’s mercy and his justice are one and the same. Mercy and punishment are not opposed; for punishment—the consuming fire—is a means to an end, that we might be the creatures he intended us to be. God’s punishment, his justice, can be his most merciful act.

Many Christians think of salvation as synonymous with going to heaven and avoiding hell. But the Son has called us to be perfect, even as our Father, and in The Hardness of the Way, MacDonald affirms that “salvation is perfection.” We are perfect when we are one with God. In Abba, Father! he writes, nothing will satisfy {God}, or do for us, but that we be one with our father.” Many there are whose goal is to live forever in heaven; but in The Way, MacDonald writes “without oneness with God, mere existence would be but a curse.” Eternal life itself is oneness with God, is perfection, is salvation.

And how to achieve this salvation? The consuming fire will not do all the work for us; “we must choose to be divine,” MacDonald exhorts us in The Creation in Christ, “to be one with God.” But a monster bars our way: the willful, prideful self. “The self is given to us,” the Scottish seer points out in Self-Denial, “that we may sacrifice it.” But this would be impossible, he reminds us, were it not for Christ. MacDonald rejects the notion that Christ took suffering meant for us upon himself—that would be injustice to him and to us alike, for God’s punishment, his consuming fire, is essential to our salvation—rather, Christ “died that I may be like him,“ he writes in Justice, “{and} die to any ruling power in me but the will of God.” Sixty years later, C.S. Lewis would lay out a similar theory of the atonement inMere Christianity.

MacDonald has no patience for mere doctrine, no matter how clever, how insightful, how correct; the thing that matters is not to hold a set of beliefs about Christ, but to live as he lived, to “take the will of God as the very life of our being.” “To follow him,” he says, “is to leave one’s self behind.” We are not saved through beliefs about Christ, interpretations of why he died on the cross, or faith in what he accomplished, but through faith in him. And what does it mean to have faith in Christ Jesus? 

In a word: obedience.

If we seek first to puzzle out a system of belief, a scheme of salvation, we are lost; obey first, and understanding will follow. In The Truth in Jesus, MacDonald writes that “it is the one terrible heresy of the church, that it has always been presenting something other than obedience as faith in Christ.” The essential truth of Jesus is his absolute obedience to the Father. As disciples, as followers of Christ, we do as he did, for “the doing of the will of God is the way to oneness with God.” The Lord’s words to us are clear; the example of his life is clear; if we have faith in him, it means we do the things he has told us to do, live as he lived.

But shall we then despair? For who can obey what Jesus asks of us in the Sermon on the Mount? “Obedience,” explains MacDonald, “is not perfection, but trying.” God “knows that you can try, and that in your trying and failing he will be able to help you, until at length you shall do the will of God even as he does it himself.” “Ever aiming at the perfection of God,” MacDonald writes in Righteousness, is the very meaning of obedient faith in Christ. Put our whole heart into this, and, as MacDonald describes in The Mirrors of the Lord, Christ “works upon us, and will keep working till we are changed to the very likeness we have thus mirrored in us; for with his likeness he comes himself, and dwells in us.”

We could never be satisfied with the legal fiction of imputed righteousness, while holding on to our sins; our goal is the perfection of God. So we take the Lord at his word; we endeavor to love our neighbor, to love our enemy, to leave all behind and follow him. He has asked these things of us because they are possible, and the obedient faith shown by striving steadfastly after them is “called by God as righteousness in a man.” Only in this way can we achieve the joy we are constantly searching for and failing to find. “Our relations with others,” says MacDonald, “God first and then our neighbor, must one day become the gladness of our being.”

George MacDonald is known today as a “universalist,” or believer in universal reconciliation, which holds that all souls will ultimately be reconciled to God. While MacDonald never to my knowledge used those terms himself, he certainly believed that God would never abandon any of his creatures. In The Last Farthing, he paints a picture of what hell might be like, a grotesquely bleak vision of man alone with his own self, utterly bereft of the presence of God, which, unbeknownst to him, had been all that had ever made life bearable in the past. It is similar to the hell that C.S. Lewis imagines, in which the gates are locked from the inside; but where MacDonald differs is in his belief that such an existence would be impossible for any man to abide. At some point, the faintest glimmer of repentance would lighten the utter blackness of the prison of self. And so MacDonald imagines “a thousand steps up from the darkness, each a little less dark, a little nearer the light—but ah, the weary way! He cannot come out until he will have paid the uttermost farthing! Repentance once begun, however, may grow more and more rapid! If God once gets a willing hold, if with but one finger he touches the man’s self, swift as possibility will he draw him from the darkness into the light.”

I conclude this introduction by considering the theme which MacDonald chose for the very first sermon of volume I: The Child in the Midst. “He who receives a child in the name of Jesus,” he writes, “does so perceiving wherein Jesus and the child are one.” Why is this so significant? Because we must know God “as he is. To know him is to have him in us.” We must understand the childlike nature of Father and Son to be one with them, and we must grasp how this nature should be manifest in us.

What is the childlike nature? “The child sees, believes, obeys—and knows he must be perfect as his father in heaven.” The child who obeys is far ahead of the learned scholar, with his grand theological systems, but who does not do what the Lord has asked. MacDonald observes that the Lord’s parables “are addressed to the conscience, and not to the intellect;” and so “many meaningless interpretations may be given by the wise, while work goes undone, while the child who uses them for the necessity of walking in the one path will constantly receive light from them.” “And so “it is the heart of the child that alone can understand the Father.”

In The Voice of Job, MacDonald describes Job as “bemoan{ing} himself like a child—a brave child who seems to himself to suffer wrong.” Job’s continual complaints “are but the form his faith takes in his trouble.” As a true child of God, he trusts in the Father, “and looks to him as the source of life, the gladness of being.”

Ah, dear reader, God willing, so shall we all!