THE only consolation of those who have learnt the sinfulness and weakness of their own hearts rests in the belief--a belief which they are convinced is founded on Scripture authority--that their salvation is effected and secured by the death of Christ, and this in consequence of the eternal and unalterable decree of God; that the same power which discovered to them their need of a Saviour, and led them to that Saviour, will keep them to the end.
This is indeed our only resting-place, and the more we feel our wickedness and weakness, our helplessness and fickleness, the more do these truths seem necessary to us. Therefore we find it very harassing to have continually brought forward against us, by those who consider ours as delusive and dangerous doctrines, a class of texts which, according to their first apparent meaning, and according to the interpretation usually put upon them, roll back the responsibility from Christ on us, and which take away from us all ground of security, inasmuch as they make our salvation dependent on our faithfulness instead of God's.
These texts have in their time greatly exercised our own minds, but now cease to trouble us much, as we have learned that they must and do harmonize with the truths on which our hopes are grounded; but what we now suffer from is that we find them so firmly maintained by a large body of earnest men who constantly array them against us. We ask ourselves, What if these men should be right after all? If they are, all our hopes are dashed.
Our opponents acknowledge indeed that we have much to say on our side; but their reply is that God's truth has two sides, and that our finite minds cannot view the whole at once. But this will not stand, for the points in question cannot be different sides of the same truth, because they are contraries, they are not parallel lines, they are cross lines; they contradict one another, and therefore cannot both be true.
For instance, it cannot be true that all men have it in their power to come to Christ, and yet that no man can come to Him except the Father which sent Him draw him. It cannot be true that we are saved wholly by grace and yet partly by works. It be true "that God forsaketh not His saints; they are preserved for ever;" and yet that He does forsake them, and that they are not preserved under certain circumstances. It cannot be true that they are "kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation," and yet that they may fall from grace. It cannot be true that none can pluck Christ's sheep out of His hand, and yet they may be plucked out. These assertions cannot both be accepted in the ground that they are two sides of a truth which our finite minds cannot grasp, because they contradict and cancel one another; there are many things in all God's works that are beyond our reason, nothing that is contrary to it; there are many difficulties, but no absurdities.
And yet there are passages which seem at first sight to countenance both the views we have alluded to, and the great majority of thinkers, or at any rate of speakers, writers, and talkers on religious subjects, adhere to those texts which throw the responsibility on man, and either deny, ignore or put in the background those texts which uphold God's sovereignty and unchangeableness.
Now how are we to account for this contrariety of opinion? I think the following illustration will help to explain the difficulty:
Suppose we were to receive a letter of which every other line was legible, while the alternate lines were at first unintelligible, the writing being difficult or in cipher. On first reading such a letter we should gather our ideas of its general meaning from the lines we could read; but in time we make out the difficult writing between or we get the key to the cipher, and then we find that the intermediate lines quite alter the purport of the whole letter; they do not, indeed, contradict the parts which we had formerly in our ignorance thought we understood, but they simply show them in a new light, the newly-discovered context changing their meaning. We should not then wonder that any who were unable to read the difficult parts should hold a different opinion to that which we now hold, nor would their maintaining their own views in opposition to ours shake our faith in our own interpretation.
Now God's Word is such a letter. There are alternate lines which the natural man can to a certain extent understand, and thinks he understands better than he does: they are those texts which speak of man's duty and responsibility, and apparently of man's free will. They are the practical parts; but there are also alternate lines of a spiritual nature, and these he does not understand: "The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him; neither can he know them, for they are spiritually discerned."
Now when we have nothing beyond the light of nature, it is only to be expected that we should form our opinion of the general meaning of revelation from those parts which it seems to us we can understand, and we pass over the others, hardly looking at or even thinking of them; but at length the Spirit shines upon the Word and brings the truth to light: "God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness shines in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." Then we decipher the more spiritual parts, God's Spirit helps us to make out the alternate lines which were before unintelligible, and gives us the key to the cipher. These new truths, we find, quite alter the whole tenor of God's revelation to us; they do not contradict the practical parts which we once thought were alone deserving of our attention, but they put an entirely new sense upon them, the newly-discovered context changing their meaning. Now why should we wonder that those who are still unable to read the difficult parts should hold different opinions to ours--that they should ignore and put in the background texts they do not understand? Their maintaining their own views in opposition to ours should not shake our faith in our interpretation. We have learned this moreover--that the new truths are grand and unalterable truths, to which the other statements must bend and do bend, so that the whole revealed Word is in perfect harmony, the apparent contradictions being only apparent and not real.
But when we attempt to show this our opponents tax us with setting up a system and bringing the Bible down to it. Thank God we have a system, it is our glory, our hope; but we don't make it, we find it: it is not our system, but God's. If there is not a system in the Bible, we can only say it is the only one of God's works in which there is not. If we go out on a starry night and look at the heavenly bodies they seem all in inextricable confusion, but they really are in perfect order; the harmony is so great in that apparent tangle of stars that we speak of the "music of the spheres;" our sun and his satellites are called "the solar system," and so perfect is the system that the date at which eclipses will take place thousands of years hence--should the world stand so long--can be calculated to the fraction of a second.
Then look at the system there is in God's providence: we can indeed hardly recognize this; everything seems at cross purposes or dependent on chance, on man's energy or idleness, on his good or evil aims. But consider a fact or two. Jesus was to be born at Bethlehem of Judea, and therefore "there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed." It was prophesied of Christ our Passover that "not a bone of Him should be broken;" therefore in order that the bones of Jesus might not be broken by His being stoned to death, according to the Jewish mode of execution, the Jews were by God's providence a subject people when Jesus was sacrificed, and were obliged to say, "It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death." The Son of Man was to be lifted up as the serpent in the wilderness, His enemies were to pierce His hands and His feet; Jesus, then, was to die by the Roman death of crucifixion, and so, by God's providence, Jesus "was crucified under Pontius Pilate," the Roman governor.
These are glimpses of God's system in providence; but, generally speaking, His providence is like a piece of tapestry of which we now only see the wrong side, with its confusion of colors and cross threads; but in heaven we shall look down upon the right side, and admire the beauty and symmetry of the pattern.
Again, we are said to be "fearfully and wonderfully made." And what is the word used to express our complex and complicated frame?--it is the word system: we say, "My system is out of order." Shall God, then, have a system, in the material heavens and not in heavenly truth? Shall there be a system in providence and not in grace? Shall we acknowledge that the first man who is "of the earth earthy" is systematically made, and deny that in the construction of the new man who, after God, is created in the image of God, there is system also? Impossible. We may be sure that if that which is emphatically called divinity is to correspond with other Divine works, it must have a system, and so it has. Here it is in few words: "Whom He did predestinate, them He also called: and whom He called, them He also justified, and whom He justified, them He also glorified." (Rom. 8:30)
Be sure of this--divinity is an exact science if ever there was one; but the view we have noticed of there being two orders of truth, instead of allowing God's covenant to be "ordered in all things and sure," would reduce everything to confusion, disorder, and uncertainty. If man's fickleness can come in as an element capable of altering God's purpose, a system is impossible.
There is one text especially which is often quoted as supporting the double-doctrine creed: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure." (Phil. 2:12,13) It was once quoted against me with the following remark: "That our salvation is like an arch which rests on two columns--man's responsibility and God's sovereignty--and that we have nothing to do with the latter." My reply was that I fully agreed with the idea of the two columns, but that the column of man's responsibility rests only on the sandy foundation of a fallen nature; that it is built up of duties imperfectly performed,, that the whole column, disjointed and full of flaws, is totally incapable of supporting its own end of the arch, and that instead of doing so it is simply crowned with a capital, and that capital is damnation; that man is responsible, and as a responsible being he fails in every duty, and fails every minute; but that the other column is founded on God's firm and unalterable decrees: its pedestal or basement is Christ, its shaft is composed of the holy and obedient actions of His holy life, which forms a perfect column of unbroken duties in which neither the scrutiny of God's holiness nor Satan's malice can find a single flaw, and this column is crowned with the capital of salvation--the salvation of the Church of Christ. I added that, as for the text in question, it neither supported the double-doctrine creed nor established his theory of the two columns.
I now propose to consider this text more closely, as it will serve as a specimen to illustrate the foregoing remarks, being, as we have said, a favorite one with those who oppose our views.
We may notice in it:--
(I.) THE POSSESSION SPOKEN OF--"your own salvation."
(II.) What the Apostle says is TO BE DONE WITH THIS POSSESSION--it is to be worked out with fear and trembling.
(III.) THE POWER BY WHICH THIS WORK CAN BE DONE--"for it is God that worketh in you."
The possession--"Salvation." We must consider this first, because it is impossible to work out or at anything until we have it; a man cannot wind his own watch until he has a watch of his own to wind; a man cannot work out a hank of cotton until he has the hank of cotton to work upon; nor can a man work his passage on a ship until he is shipped on his passage. Therefore it is taken for granted in the text that the persons addressed have the possession which they are to work out, and that possession is "Salvation."
What a glorious word it is--what a possession! There is nothing equal to it; there are other great and glorious things that accompany salvation and that result from salvation, but they may all be included in this one word. Yes, it includes rescue from death, entrance into life, the gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit, the love of God, the friendship of Christ, the special protection of God's providence here and an eternity of glory in heaven hereafter! All these things are included in the one word--Salvation. Must it not then be a blessed possession?
Consider too, what the word means. A person who is in a state of salvation is in a saved state--a state of safety. Now there can be no words more opposed to one another than the words salvation and danger; therefore those who are in a state of salvation, who have this possession--if words mean anything--must be perfectly free from danger. This corresponds with other passages of Scripture which speak of believers in Christ as saved persons: Rom. 8:24; 1 Cor. 1:18; 2 Cor. 2:15; Eph. 2:5; 2 Tim. 1:9.
We may notice, also, that the salvation here spoken of is linked with a person--it implies a Saviour, even Jesus, who came "to seek and to save that which was lost." Not to try to save; not to help to save; not to half save, and leave the work unfinished. "Jesus Christ" is God's appointed Saviour, for that is the meaning of the words--Jesus "a Saviour," and Christ "anointed," and therefore appointed. Being God's appointed Saviour, we may be sure He is a full and complete Saviour, not simply a crowner of the conqueror, not merely the rewarder of the successful, but the rescuer of the lost.
Suppose a boat at sea were upset, and that a man who was a strong swimmer, and who had safely reached the shore, were then to stand upon the beach, and seeing another man feeble and exhausted, a weak swimmer, battling with the waves, were to say to him, "Keep your courage up, strive manfully, strike out strongly, keep your head above water; I am watching you, I have been through it all before, and here I am to welcome you if you can only manage to struggle on till your feet touch the ground." Would that man deserve the name of a saviour? Would he obtain a medal from the Royal Humane Society for saving life? If they were to offer him one, would he not think it was a mockery, or that it was only done to taunt him for not having plunged in to the rescue of his drowning fellow-creature? It would be a satire and reproach to call such a man a saviour.
And yet this is exactly such a Saviour as thousands describe Christ to be, who profess to preach salvation through His name. He has been through the waves of this troublesome world, He knows their buffetings and their violence, He has left us His example to follow, and now He stands on the shore to encourage us with words of exhortation and promises of welcome, if we can only hold on to the end. If that is all that Jesus did for sinners, what claim would He have to the title of Saviour? We have seen that such a title would be looked upon as simply an insult to a mere man who had only done thus much. Thanks be to God, we have to do with a Divine, and therefore a real Saviour, one who is "mighty to save:" "God hath laid help upon One that is mighty." Jesus has not only passed through the waves of this troublesome world Himself, but He upholds His people with the right hand of His righteousness, brings them through all dangers and trails, and lands them safely upon the happy shore. He is a complete Saviour, He leaves not His work unfinished; He is "the Author and Finisher of our faith."
But there is another question connected with this word Salvation which we must not omit to notice--namely, Who are the possessors of it? Can we say this salvation is our own? This is the most important point of all for each of us individually. Let us then consider who are the owners of salvation; and here we must remember that the Gospel is good news, and anything that is not good news is necessarily not the Gospel. Now the good news of the Gospel is that this salvation is for all who want it--for all who feel their need of it--that is, for those who feel that, unless Jesus saves them, they must perish, because nothing that they can ever be or do will deserve well of God. When we long to be saved in God's way; when we think, "Oh, would that Jesus would take me in hand, for unless He does so there is no hope for me!" when we are brought thus to despair wholly of ourselves, and to see that there is "none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved;" when we see there is salvation in no other--then I believe that the salvation we desire is ours! Faith in Christ is not necessarily to believe that He has saved us: this will come in time, probably; faith in Christ is to believe that none other but He can.
It may be said this is bringing faith down very low; and so it is, but it is also to sweep away much rubbish that goes by the name of religion: it is to overthrow every system that sets up human righteousness as a recommendation to God, from Popery down to Wesleyan Methodism; and it is very necessary to dwell upon this view of faith in Christ, for multitudes are in trouble because they do not know whether they believe or not; they cannot by analyzing their feelings arrive at any certainty as to the quality and result of their faith in Christ.
In spite of the foolish cry of some, "I do believe, I will believe," there is nothing that we have less control over than our faith. If a man were told that he would certainly go to heaven if he were to cut off his right hand, or to give up all his property; if he were perfectly sure that the statement was true, he might very likely make the sacrifice. But if he were told he could not go to heaven unless he believed Jesus died in his stead, he might say, "I am now told to do an impossibility; this is a mental process over which I have no control, and I cannot make myself believe it, however much I wish to." Now how many are trying to see whether this mental process of believing in Christ as their own Saviour has been satisfactory in their case and cannot determine?
It is much easier to determine whether we feel the need of Christ, whether we desire Him for our Saviour, whether we believe that He must save, and He alone; if we have got thus far we do believe in Him, for we cannot have advanced so far without having gone one step further, and cried (not perhaps in the very words but in the spirit of Peter), "Lord, save me: I perish!" and none were ever brought thus to cry to whom Jesus turned a deaf ear. "Him that cometh unto Me I will in no wise cast out." These, then, are the owners of salvation; these are the persons addressed by Paul in the text as the proprietors of this great possession. It is their own--their very own--more their own than their bodies; their bodies will decay, but this treasure will survive the breaking of the earthen vessels which hold it.
We consider, secondly, What we are to do with this possession. We are to work it out with fear and trembling. Mark, to work it out--not to work for it; if it had said work for it, there might have been some ground for those who stand up for two sides of truth to rest on. There might have been a real difficulty in reconciling this passage to God's system as revealed in Romans 8:30, above quoted, but it is not said work for, but work out--that is, simply go through with your salvation--live your saved life with fear and trembling. In heaven we shall work out our salvation just as much as we do here, only it will be there without fear and trembling, and in heaven we cannot possibly be working for salvation; but now we have to do with our time state, and it is to us now that the injunction is to work out our salvation.
I am not going to shirk the word work. There is, undoubtedly, a new work connected with a new life, for though our character cannot affect our salvation, our salvation will affect our character, and there will, in the new, saved life, be a working more or less for God. But none can act really for God until they have ceased to work for salvation. While they are working for salvation they are working for self and not for God. The working for God, too, is quite distinct from the being "cumbered about much serving;" it is distinct from working for a reputation--for the sake of people saying "What a worker so and so is!" The work is first in the heart, and the next work should be in one's own daily domestic life. It is said that the candle is to be put on a candlestick "to give light to them that are in the house."
The works of the Spirit (given in Gal. 5:22; and Eph. 4:24 to the end; Eph. 5, 6, the whole chapters) are not the showy works such as would suit many of the notoriety-mongers of the present age of religious high-pressure. Those works are worthy the attentive consideration of all who wish to enter into the spirit of what the Apostle meant when he said "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling." Why with fear and trembling--fear lest they should forfeit their salvation? No, that would be first to mistrust their Saviour; and, secondly, it would be to have the ineffable conceit of imagining that anything we were, or did, or thought, was the cause of our being in God's favor--that the favor we were in was the reward of our merits, and would be forfeited when we ceased to be meritorious.
Thus, fairly analyzed, pride and not humility is the root of the doctrine that God's people can fall from grace. Why then are we to live in fear and trembling? Fear: what of? The answer is easy to anyone who knows the sinfulness of his own heart and the weakness of his own strength. Fear of bringing disgrace on our faith, fear of dishonoring the standard of Christ, of which every Christian man is a bearer, fear lest by inconsistency of conduct we should cause the way of God to be evil spoken of, and give occasion to the enemies of God to blaspheme, lest we should put a stumbling-block in the way of others; fear lest we should cause a cloud to rise between us and God, fear lest we should make Satan triumph.
We are not to say, "I never shall do this"--"I never shall do that"--"I have made up my mind never to offend in such or such a way again." We are to remember the weakness of our nature and the strength of temptation, and to see the necessity of being upheld lest we should fall if left to ourselves, even into some scandalous sin. This I believe is to work out our salvation--to live our saved life--in fear and trembling. Neither with presumption nor despondency, for the Philippians were to remember (which brings us to our third point)--
By what power they were to be able to do this; "for," says the Apostle, "it is God that worketh in you, both to will and to do of His good pleasure." They were not to be proud of what they were able to do for God, for it was God who wrought all their works in them, and to Him should be the glory, not to them. And then, though they were to work with fear and trembling, it was not to be with despondency, much less with despair of not being able to hold on to the end, because God did work and would work in them. This is the secret of the Christian life--the mainspring--God's Spirit that worketh in us.
Motive is a good thing to induce action, principle is a better thing, but power is better than both. A man when his house is on fire has a strong motive to fly from it, but the motive is useless if he is a cripple. A man of principle may wish to pay his debts, but what if he has not the money to pay them with. In both theses cases it is power that is wanted.
Now there are many who urge to a Christian life by enlarging on the motives--a hell to be escaped and a heaven to be reached. There are others who appeal to principle. See, they say, what we owe to God; what love and obedience and service it is our duty to render Him. Now motive and principle are both good in their way; but, as in things temporal so in things spiritual, they are useless without the power. What an encouraging promise there is here given us that the Christian shall not want the power: he will be made to will, and made to do, of God's good pleasure.
But it may be objected that, if this is the case, it brings men down to the level of mere machines, and that all the rules and regulations laid down throughout the Word of God are useless. It may be asked, What was the use of Christ leaving us an example that we should follow His steps?--what the use of the Apostolic precepts? We answer: Before a locomotive engine can travel it must not only have the steam to propel it, it must have the rails to run upon and to guide it; the grace of God in the heart of the Christian is the motive power that corresponds with the steam in the engine, the precepts of the Bible are the rails--the rules for his guidance.
The commandments of God, under every dispensation, bring the whole world in guilty, and so in the first place show the necessity of being sheltered, in Christ; and then, for those that are sheltered, they show the direction their grateful return for His mercy is to take: "If ye love Me keep My commandments."
The passage itself proves, however, that even this keeping of Christ's commandments--this very working out of our salvation--is provided for in God's system of salvation; it is not left dependent on man's gratitude: it is God what worketh in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure. The grace of God propels the Christian on his course. As the Apostle said, "The love of Christ constraineth us:" he found himself that necessity was laid upon him to preach the Gospel. "We are God's workmanship created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them." Thus, from first to last, is God's salvation like all His other works--"order in all things and sure:" in other words, it is a system and a certainty.