Leon Morris 1914 – 2006
Leon Morris is remembered most for his timely work on the atonement. But the story of his early ministry is also immensely helpful in getting to know this excellent scholar.
A Shy Leon
While teaching at a public school, a shy Leon began earnest study of Nunn’s Elements of New Testament Greek. That same year, 1935, he moved to a secondary school, close to Moore College, where he also gave himself to part-time study. Then, Archbishop Mowll ordained him, despite his bond to the Education Department. He served as rector at Campsie, in Sydney, where he began external study with London University.
Next, he moved with Bush Church Aid, to the extremely isolated Minnipa, a little town in the Eyre Peninsular of South Australia. At first, he practically lived in ‘Arriet, a ten-year-old De Soto sedan. There was a congregation of two for his first service! A railway line ran through the parish and Leon Morris was responsible for a section about 210 km. long. Farms were scattered over the district, mostly of 3000-5000 hectares. A door of opportunity opened for him to visit the twenty-seven public schools every month. Some students did not know what a Bible was. He set up a system of lessons to keep students interested in digging in the Bible between visits. Friends back in Sydney supplied crayons, pencils and Bibles. In one centre, a militant, atheistic teacher sent a ten-shilling note to provide further scripture lessons for his students.
St Patrick’s Van
Supporters of Bush Church Aid in Ireland sent money to buy St. Patrick’s Van (a GMC panel van). It was around this time that the Lord provided just the right partner, Mildred, to help him. His wife was a triple-certificated nurse. As well as her dedication to all Leon’s work, her tending the sick, her parenting two motherless girls, Mildred found time to give home nursing and first aid lectures and she trained the local Country Women’s choir. Leon’s responsibilities grew to visiting many remote sheep stations. The “roads” were through deep sand and across dry (usually) salt lakes. Services were very small and informal. Those who attended came in working clothes. Leon explains:
You realise that people still want to hear the message of Christ and His atoning death, the only message that can save
· a person
· a nation
· a world torn by war.
But after five years, this hardworking pastor received a letter from Bishop Baker, the Principal of Ridley College, Melbourne, asking him over as Vice-Principal.
The years at Minnipa prepared this scholar to train future missionaries and pastors for the remainder of his working years. His many commentaries on almost all of the New Testament are, without exception, very useful to laymen, theological students and all Christian leaders.1
God’s Continually Efficacious Answer
Morris is particularly capable in highlighting the relevance of the death of the Lord Jesus. When explaining the word crucified (Matt.28:5), a perfect participle, he makes it clear that the Cross is more than just a past event in history.
It is that, but is also something that has permanent significance, which is permanently relevant. It is God’s continually efficacious answer to man’s deepest needs. That’s why none of us should be afraid, even in the most terrifying of situations. The Christ who went to the Cross for us is not going to forsake us in any need in which we find ourselves.2
Judgment is Inescapable
Morris writes extensively on unpopular biblical subjects like judgment. He explains Heb.9:27 and insists that judgment is as inescapable as death.
Indeed, it is even more so. Fearful or not, men will not escape judgment. This aspect of Jesus’ teaching is unpalatable to modern man. So man simply rejects it. Man has largely dismissed the thought of final judgment from his mind. Man does not think of himself as accountable.3
Only Too Well
Then, Morris is a wise pastor as he shows us our need. Romans 3:23 is arresting as he points to the present tense for the words “come short”.
Paul is saying:
1. all at some time have sinned.
2. day by day we all come short of God’s glory
Paul is laying it down that we all still come short of God’s glory. It is a reality of the present life which we know only too well!4
The function of law was not to do away with sin but to show it up for what it is. Law was brought in in order that the trespass might increase (Rom.5:20). Paul uses the singular for trespass. He is not saying that the law caused more trespasses, but that it brought out clearly what trespass is. Morris then becomes memorable and vivid as he introduces a picture:
A magnifying glass does not increase the number of dirty marks, but it does show up more plainly the ones that are there and it enables us to see some that we would not see with the unassisted eye. The function of the law is similarly to make clear what sin is.5
The Theme of Romans
Men degrade themselves when they reject God. But Morris keeps his focus on God Himself when he teaches Romans. He insists that, throughout the letter, Paul is concerned with man’s Godward relation. It is the glory of God that men reject and the truth of God that they abandon. Morris prepares us well to see our need of a Saviour. He puts the wrath of God to the forefront. He admits that in days like our own we have come to see that love of God is overemphasised to such an extent that God’s wrath is excluded. He handles objections to God’s wrath with sound reasoning, resting on the Bible as his authority. To exclude God’s wrath, he says, is not to grapple either with the teaching of Romans or with the facts of life.
Because Morris helps us to see that the theme of Romans is God Himself, he can then develop the biblical doctrine of propitiation more clearly.
Those who reduce the truth of propitiation to a mere expiation do not, generally, face the questions expiation raises:
Why should sin be expiated?
What would be the consequences to man if there were no expiation?
Would the hand of God be in those consequences?
Expiation can be given intelligible meaning only when we move into the realm of personal relations between God and man. Unless we give real content to the wrath of God, unless we hold that men really deserve to have God visit them with the painful consequences of their wrongdoing, we empty God’s forgiveness of its meaning. There is no room for grace if there no suggestion of dire consequences merited by sin. In both Old and New Testaments, the means of propitiation is the offering up of a gift, the gift of life yielded up to death by God’s own appointment. The Bible is clear that the wrath of God is visited upon sinners or else the son of God dies for them. Either we die or He dies.6
Clearly in Trouble
When drawing our attention to 1 John 2:2, Morris points us to our Advocate.
If we need this kind of help, then clearly we sinners are in trouble. Of course, we do not hesitate to speak of the love of God. However, we do not measure God’s love by human love. In the same way God’s anger should not be measured by that of humans.
Morris further develops the case by explaining that the opposite of love is not anger.
God’s wrath is His love blazing out in fiery indignation against every evil in the beloved.
We do not like the concept of the wrath of God and we are happy to accept any argument that enables us to get rid of it. But the wrath of God is real. We must reckon with that wrath. Unpalatable though it may be, our sins, my sins are the object of that wrath. But we have nothing to fear, for Christ is the propitiation for our sins.7
It Still Hangs Over Me
Morris often speaks in terms that remind me of his years with shearers and students. As he insists on the necessity of the substitute for my sins, he deals with each one of us personally:
To put it bluntly and plainly, if Christ is not my Substitute, I still occupy the place of a condemned sinner. If my sins and my guilt are not transferred to Him, if He did not take them upon Himself, then surely they remain with me. If He did not deal with my sins, I must face their consequences. If my penalty was not borne by Him, it still hangs over me.8
- Bush Parson.
- The Story of the Cross, p. 115.
- The Biblical Doctrine of Judgment.
- Glory in the Cross, p. 28.
- New Testament Theology, p. 61.
- Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, pp. 211f.
- The Atonement, pp.172-176.
- The Cross in the New Testament, p. 410.
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