Early Church Fathers
John XV. 22, 23.
1. The Lord had said above to His disciples, "If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also. But all these things will they do unto you for my name's sake, because they know not Him that sent me." And if we inquire of whom He so spake, we find that He was led on to these words from what He had said before, "If the world hate you, know ye that it hated me before lit hated] you;" and now in adding, "If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin," He more expressly pointed to the Jews. Of them, therefore, He also uttered the words that precede, for so does the context itself imply. For it is of the same parties that He said, "If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin;" of whom He also said, "If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also; but all these things will they do unto you for my name's sake, because they know not Him that sent me;" for it is to these words that He also subjoins the following: "If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin." The Jews, therefore, persecuted Christ, as the Gospel very clearly indicates, and Christ spake to the Jews, not to other nations; and it is they, therefore, that He meant to be understood by the world, that hateth Christ and His disciples; and, indeed, not those alone, but even these latter were shown by Him to belong to the same world. What, then, does He mean by the words, "If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin"? Was it that the Jews were without sin before Christ came to them in the flesh? Who, though he were the greatest fool, would say so? But it is some great sin, and not every sin, that He would have to be understood, as it were, under the general designation. For this is the sin wherein all sins are included; and whosoever is free from it, has all his sins forgiven him: and this it is, that they believed not on Christ, who came for the very purpose of enlisting their faith. From this sin, had He not come, they would certainly have been free. His advent has become as much fraught with destruction to unbelievers, as it is with salvation to those that believe; for He, the Head and Prince of the apostles, has Himself, as it were, become what they declared of themselves, "to some, indeed, the savour of life unto life; and to some the savor of death unto death."1
2. But when He went on to say, "But now they have no excuse for their sin," some may be moved to inquire whether those to whom Christ neither came nor spake, have an excuse for their sin. For if they have not, why is it said here that these had none, on the very ground that He did come and speak to them? And if they have, have they it to the extent of thereby being barred from punishment, or of receiving it in a milder degree? To these inquiries, with the Lord's help and to the best of my capacity, I reply, that such have an excuse, not for every one of their sins, but for this sin of not believing on Christ, inasmuch as He came not and spake not to them. But it is not in the number of such that those are to be included, to whom He came in the persons of His disciples, and to whom He spake by them, as He also does at present; for by His Church He has come, and by His Church He speaks to the Gentiles. For to this are to be referred the words that He spake, "He that receiveth you, receiveth me;"2 and, "He that despiseth you, despiseth me."3 "Or would ye," says the Apostle Paul, "have a proof of Him that speaketh in me, namely Christ."4
3. It remains for us to inquire, whether those who, prior to the coming of Christ in His Church to the Gentiles and to their hearing of His Gospel, have been, or are now being, overtaken by the close of this life, can have such an excuse? Evidently they can, but not on that account can they escape damnation. "For as many as have sinned without the law, shall also perish without the law; and as many as have sinned in the law, shall be judged by the law."5 And these words of the apostle, inasmuch as his saying, "they shall perish," has a more terrible sound than when he says, "they shall be judged," seem to show that such an excuse can not only avail them nothing, but even becomes an additional aggravation. For those that excuse themselves because they did not hear, "shall perish without the law."
4. But it is also a worthy subject of inquiry, whether those who met the words they heard with contempt, and even with opposition, and that not merely by contradicting them, but also by persecuting in their hatred those from whom they heard them, are to be reckoned among those in regard to whom the words, "they shall be judged by the law," convey somewhat of a milder sound. But if it is one thing to perish without the law, and another to be judged by the law; and the former is the heavier, the latter the lighter punishment: such, without a doubt, are not to have their place assigned in that lighter measure of punishment; for, so far from sinning in the law, they utterly refused to accept the law of Christ, and, as far as in them lay, would have had it altogether annihilated. But those that sin in the law, are such as are in the law, that is, who accept it, and confess that it is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good;6 but fail through infirmity in fulfilling what they cannot doubt is most righteously enjoined therein. These are they in regard to whose fate there may perhaps be some distinction made from the perdition of those who are without the law: and yet if the apostle's words, "they shall be judged by the law," are to be understood as meaning, they shall not perish, what a wonder if it were so For his discourse was not about infidels and believers to lead him to say so, but about Gentiles and Jews, both of whom, certainly, if they find not salvation in that Saviour who came to seek that which was lost,7 shall doubtless become the prey of perdition; although it may be said that some shall perish in a more terrible, others in a more mitigated sense; in other words, that some shall suffer a heavier, and others a lighter penalty in their perdition. For he is rightly said to perish as regards God, whoever is separated by punishment from that blessedness which He bestows on His saints, and the diversity of punishments is as great as the diversity of sins; but the mode thereof is accounted too deep by divine wisdom for human guessing to scrutinize or express. At all events, those to whom Christ came, and to whom He spake, have not, for their great sin of unbelief, any such excuse as may enable them to say, We saw not, we heard not: whether it be that such an excuse would not be sustained by Him whose judgments are unsearchable, or whether it would, and that, if not for their entire deliverance from damnation, at least for its partial alleviation.
5. "He that hateth me," He says, "hateth my Father also." Here it may be said to us, Who can hate one whom he knows not? And certainly before saying, "If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin," He had said to His disciples, "These things will they do unto you, because they know not Him that sent me." How, then, do they both know not, and hate? For if the notion they have formed of Him is not that which He is in Himself, but some unknown conjecture of their own, then certainly it is not Himself they are found to hate, but that figment which they devise or rather suspect in their error. And yet, were it not that men could hate that which they know not, the Truth would not have asserted both, namely, that they both know not, and hate His Father. But such a possibility, if by the Lord's help we are able to show it, cannot be demonstrated at present, as this discourse must now be brought to a close.