"Though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, if any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed." (Galatians 1:8,9)
This is very strong language. If Martin Luther had spoken it or written it we should have been startled, and perhaps some of us would have been ready to attribute it to his natural boldness and fearlessness, or rashness; but when the inspired Paul has employed it, ordinary speculation is silenced, and we may well inquire, do we, or our teachers, come beneath this anathema? The language is terrific. The consequence involved is awful. Our souls quiver as we attempt to realize Paul's earnestness and vehemence in this matter, and we are led to ask ourselves, is the gospel that Paul preached the gospel we have received?
Whatever may be the conscientious answer of the readers of the apostle's words, and of my question, I am convinced as I am of my existence, that the great bulk of professing Christians are under the Apostle's curse! The gospel (so-called) preached in the present day from the majority of pulpits is not the gospel Paul preached. We all know that the Roman Catholics and Greek Christians form the great masses of the Christian community. They openly deny the doctrines of Paul, and are as vehement in denouncing "justification by faith," as the Apostle was in maintaining it. And although our own church distinctly puts her article upon this peculiar feature of the Christian religion, it is an astounding, and a melancholy fact that vast numbers of her clergy and laity completely ignore it. But these are not the only parties who evade, or attempt to explain away this great foundation-doctrine of the Christian Church. The Non-Conformist body are alike culpable, for although they speak much of Christ and His righteousness as the ground work of justification, they are ever rearing a superstructure of the works of the law upon Christ for this purpose.
The false teachers whom Paul denounced in the awful language cited above, were guilty of the very same error, and the very same jesuitry. They did not deny Christ, but they added something to His work for the justification of sinners, and this brought down the apostle's curse! I tell every man who dares do this that he occupies a fearful position, and that unless God interferes to teach him the gospel of His grace, he must lie down for ever in sorrow! O that every bishop and every deacon, every presbyter and every minister had Paul's solemn language in this connection brought home to his conscience, or that the laity of the Christian churches had such light given them as to enable them to say, "We have more understanding than our teachers!"
Without further preface I would lead my readers to a solution of the question, what was the gospel Paul preached that he was so vehement in upholding!
I. The epistle to the Galatians affords us an unerring answer. For the sixteenth verse of the second chapter to the end of the epistle, Paul lays down, with much clearness and earnestness, the great doctrine of justification by faith only. "The law," he totally discards in this business. Let us listen to his language:--
"Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified." (Gal. 2:16)
"For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, cursed is every one who continueth not in all things written in the book of the law to do them. But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident, for the just shall live by faith. And the law is not of faith: but the man that doeth them shall live by them. Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us." (Gal. 3:10,13)
"This I say, that the covenant that was confirmed of God in Christ, the law which was for four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect. For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise, but God gave it to Abraham by promise. Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgression, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made." (Gal. 3:17,19)
But here an objection is made. It is a very old one, but a very dishonest one. It is, that "the law to which Paul alluded is the ceremonial law, but not the moral law." The design of the objectors is to uphold their own fond notion of good works having something to do with justification. An eminent living divine thus writes upon this dishonest gloss:--"Few would think it too much to say, that if so audacious a misrepresentation did not spring from gross ignorance of the Bible in him who made it, it at least relied upon finding those upon whom it was pressed but slenderly acquainted with the sacred volume. When the Apostle speaks of law in connection with justification, he sometimes means the whole Jewish law, both ritual and moral; sometimes the moral part of it especially, and sometimes all divine law both natural and revealed." This must be apparent to any candid and careful reader of the passages I have quoted from this epistle to the Galatians; but when we call in the testimony of the epistle to the Romans, the matter is put beyond the pale of controversy. True, Paul alludes to the ceremonial law in Gal. 2:16; but it is clear from the following context that he did not confine his exclusion of "law" from justification to the ceremonial law, for he speaks of "the law not being of faith." (Gal. 3:12) Now the ceremonial law was made expressly for faith: for it exhibited the Messiah, the great Object of faith, and preached up justification through the atoning blood, or righteousness, or purity of Another. Again, he speaks of the law by which no man is justified, as having been "given four hundred and thirty years after" God's covenant with Abraham. (Gal. 3:17) Now that this law was the moral law is manifest, for the law of circumcision was as old as Abraham, and the law of sacrifices was nearly as old as Adam. Indeed I think it must be manifest to every thoughtful reader of the Apostle's argument here, that it is two-fold, first showing the impossibility of being justified by the works of the law; and secondly, that because the law was long after the promise (the promise of salvation by free grace) it could not possibly supersede that promise. True, again, Paul distinctly denounces the practice of circumcision in this epistle, and hence dishonest commentators might insinuate that the Apostle meant that it was by this law no man could be justified, but not by the moral law: but this evasion is met by the arguments above, and also, by the Apostle's own words:--
"Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ Jesus shall profit you nothing. For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is debtor to do the whole law." (Gal. 5:2,3)
Now the unstrained meaning of these words is manifestly this, Circumcision cannot be separated from the other parts of God's law, by him who would be justified by it. You cannot make a Saviour of circumcision without the aid of the moral law; and if obedience to these laws is to justify you, of course you are independent of Christ, but remember, it is written, "Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things written in the book of the law to do them." (Gal. 3:10) Who then can be saved! In short, and in fact, the design of the Apostle is to drive at the root of the soul-destroying heresy of justification by works of any kind, whether moral, ceremonial, or judicial. He sets aside obedience to every law as having anything to do with justification, and holds up the righteousness of faith, in opposition to the righteousness of the entire law throughout the whole epistle.
In his epistle to the Romans, what Paul means by "law," and "the deeds and works of the law," is even more apparent. The argument of the Apostle from the beginning of that epistle to the twentieth verse of the third chapter, is to prove that no man can be justified by works of any kind. Whether he be Jew or Gentile, man has no hope whatever if he is to be judged by his works! "All have come short of the glory of God." (Rom. 3:23)--"There is not a righteous man upon the earth!" (Rom. 3:10) This is the sweeping verdict of inspiration. So, how can any man be saved by his works or his obedience to any law?
That "the law" here referred to is the moral law, no honest man can deny, for though circumcision is here, too, alluded to, it is abundantly clear that circumcision was not written upon the hearts of the Gentiles, (Rom. 2:14,15) and it is as clear that the Jews did not break this law." (Rom. 2:23) Furthermore, Paul, to prevent all mistakes in this matter, positively quotes from "the law" to which he was referring--the moral law (Rom. 2:21-23) to bring the Jew in guilty as well as the Gentile, and thus to prove the utter hopelessness of those who would cling to their supposed or attempted obedience to that law for salvation or justification.
In the 25th verse, the Apostle pursues the Jew into his last retreat--circumcision. This was the Jew's stronghold. He believed that as he was circumcised, he was justified, and safe! "Wretched and deluded man!" says Paul, "circumcision in the letter is only of use to him who keeps the whole law without a single breach of it throughout his life. It would then have been a matter of congratulation to you that you had been circumcised, but as you have broken the moral law, it is of no use whatever to you!"
The Apostle's meaning may thus be put in a simpler form:--Circumcision is a precept of the written law; but it is only one of the precepts. What of the others? If you have broken down in any one of the others your circumcision is become uncircumcision--valueless!
I trust I have now made all clear upon this point. The gospel Paul preached--that gospel which he guarded with an awful curse--was justification by faith only. The declaration of inspiration is, that no works, no obedience to any law, no acts of morality, goodness, piety, self-denial, or of any creature-righteousness whatever, can ever justify a soul in the sight of God, and simply because every man has broken down in his obedience to God's "law," and is continually breaking down in his efforts to fulfill its requirements.
So that it comes to this: Though our hearts did melt like wax, though our tears for ever flowed, though our repentance were in sackcloth and ashes, though we gave all our goods to feed the poor, and our bodies to be burnt, justification before God by anything man can do is an impossibility. We must look elsewhere for that!
This is Paul's gospel. And who will now dare say that the majority of Christendom is not under the apostolic curse? O, reader, we live in an awful day! Nearly every man is "sacrificing to his own net, and to his own drag," and resting his salvation upon a prop that God has cursed! I, for one, lift up my voice against the terrible delusion! Would to God that an abler man were found to stand in the gap! The thing is forced upon me, and I must speak out! Expediency I cast to the dogs. Self-interest I trample under my feet. Lying I anathematize, and mummery and popery, and all carnal, fleshy folly I denounce as Paul denounced a false gospel!
A man's good works have no more to do with his justification than his bad works. And whosoever cannot understand this, reads Paul's epistles, and Christ's sermons, and the Prophet's warnings to no purpose! All, all is dark to him, a dead letter, incomprehensible, unfathomable mystery! O may the Lord be pleased to open the eyes of many readers of these pages, and bless this humble but sincere effort to promulgate God Almighty's truth!
"What is the use of the law, then?" asks some one. The Apostle anticipates and answers the question, Galatians 3:19-24. But in order to simplify the matter, I would thus comment on his words:--The law was publicly proclaimed to keep before men's minds their transgressions, and thus to show them what hopeless sinners they are, if they are not to be justified by some other plan. The law, both moral and ceremonial, was to act in the capacity of a "schoolmaster" to bring men to Christ. The fact was, the law of God, originally written in men's hearts, began to be forgotten. It was getting defaced or obliterated, and hence men began to believe they were not as bad as they really were. Hence, too, they did not see the necessity of justification by faith. God, seeing this, proclaimed the law by Moses, and wrote it on tables of stone that there might be a perpetual remembrancer before men's minds of the mind of God, and of the state of man. The Apostle makes a similar statement in his epistle to the Romans: "The law entered that the offence might abound" (Rom. 5:20) that men might see through it what enormous offenders they were, and that consequently there could be no hope for them in that quarter. In short, the moral law was of use in showing how awfully man had fallen. The ceremonial law was of use in being in an especial manner--"a schoolmaster to bring to Christ;" but since, "Christ, who is the end of the law for righteousness" (Rom. 10:4) has come, the demands of the moral law have been fulfilled, and at the end of the ceremonial has been answered, and so it has been abrogated. Here is the use of the law, as far as justification is concerned. It is a looking-glass for men to see their depravity in. It is the voice of thunder to drive men to a shelter; and not, as many fancy, a set of rules by obedience to which men may justify themselves before God.
II. We now come upon two other important questions in this connection. They are--
1. What is Justification?
2. What is Faith by which man is justified?
I answer to the first question, Justification means a declaration by the judge of the discharge of the prisoner brought before him. To be justified implies three things:--
2. Pleading to the charge.
3. Discharge by the judge.
(a) A justified person must have been charged with guilt. The guilt charged upon us is breach of the moral law. We all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God. We all have broken the commandments of God either in thought, word, or deed. We all are consequently under the curse, by nature.
(b) A justified person must have pleaded guilty to the charge; for, to refuse to plead, is to abandon one's self to punishment. The pharisee in the parable would not plead guilty, consequently he was unjustified.
(c) A justified person must have pleaded for mercy. If the plea were granted on the score of sheer mercy, he would be a pardoned man, but not a justified one, for there would not be a particle of justice in the transaction. But if he has pleaded for mercy on the score of satisfaction made to the justice and honor of the law, and he is discharged, he is a justified man.
Now every justified sinner obtains his justification thus: He pleads for mercy on the score of Christ's satisfaction made to the justice and honor of the law, and he obtains his discharge.
One or two texts of Scripture will throw more light upon the meaning of justification than all arguments, "Enter not into judgment with thy servant, O Lord, for in thy sight shall no man living be justified," i.e. clears from guilt. (Ps. 143:2) Who shall lay anything to the charge of God's elect? It is God that justifieth," i.e. clears from the guilt of all charges. (Rom. 8:33) Hence it is plain that Justification means a clearing from the charge of sin or guilt. The very instant we believe, we are justified. And, glory be to God, this is a permanent act. If we are once justified we are justified for ever. (Rom. 5:1; 8:1)
But now the second question proposed above demands an answer, What is faith by which a man is justified? I answer, faith in Christ Jesus. But as this, though true to the very letter of Scripture, is not, and cannot be understood by unexercised minds, I feel called upon to explain it. The faith in Christ Jesus that justifies cannot possibly mean a mere assent of the understanding as to Christ's existence, or as to the purpose for which He suffered; for then, every reprobate in Christendom would be justified. Neither can it mean belief in Christ Jesus, as a sort of help to justification, or a groundwork from which man might rear his justification, for this is the very heresy Paul is so earnest in denouncing (a heresy fearfully prevalent amongst "religious" people in the present day;) but the faith in Christ Jesus which justifies involves four things:--
1. Conviction of sin and ruin.
2. Knowledge of Christ's atonement.
3. Trust in that atonement alone for justification; and,
4. An acceptance of Christ in all his offices, as Prophet, Priest, and King; a prophet to teach, a priest for sacrifice, and a king to rule.
It is impossible there can be any true faith where there is no conviction of ruin, or no knowledge of the work of the atonement, or not trust in that atonement, or no acceptance of Christ as the hope of glory into the heart, which acceptance manifests the receiver to be a new creature. Any other sort of faith is either the faith of devils or of self-deluders; but whosoever has this faith, no matter what his sins may have been, he is justified from all things from which he could not be justified by the law of Moses. (Acts 13:38,39)
Let no one say I am hampering the glorious work of justification by appending to faith anything superfluous, or anything God has not attached to it. I am not adding anything to it, but clearly and honestly stating the case. Faith is a pure and simple grace, and is all efficacious for justification; but before it is given a man, the Holy Spirit has a preparatory work to carry out in that man's soul. He has to convince him of sin; He has to teach Him that Christ is the end of the law for righteousness; He has to make the man willing to receive Christ in his offices. When this work has been accomplished, and faith is given, then the man is justified, or free from all charge of sin and guilt for ever and ever!
The free-willers, the modern evangelicals, and the sandimanians, whose views upon the question the Plymouth Brethren have adopted, and a host of nondescript heretics, are all at sea upon this vital point, and are either in the abyss of darkness or soaring upon the crest of giddy presumption. I most solemnly warn my readers against a free-will belief, or a mere intellectual assent to Scripture truths as being one and the same, with the faith that is the gift of God and that justifies from all charges. There must be a day of power before any man can believe unto justification.
Here I would explain two difficulties that often perplex young believers. They are, that a failure in the Christian walk forfeits a justified man's position, and that faith and assurance are one. With reference to the first I would observe, that even inspiration grants that "in many things we (believers) all offend, (James 3:2) that we (believers) are "encompassed with infirmities," (Heb. 4:15; 5:2; Rom. 8:15) and that it is possible for a justified man to sin. (1 John 2:1) The experience of all exercised believers is, that they often come very far short of gospel holiness, and are sometimes so beleaguered by the devil that strong crying and tears hardly deliver them from the enemy. Poor, dear children! babes in grace! remember, that He who has given you justifying faith is an unchangeable Being--that the reason He has drawn you to Himself is, that He has loved you from all eternity, (Jer. 31:3) and that sooner shall the woman forget her sucking child, than your adopting Father will forget you. (Isa. 49:15)
With regard to the second difficulty, that arising from the supposition that faith and assurance are one, let me tell you this is a great mistake. Assurance sometimes crowns true faith: but it is the exception, not the rule. For one that enjoys assurance, there are thousands who are nothing but "Mourners in Zion." It has been beautifully said by Toplady, that "Faith is the ring that marries us to Christ, Assurance is the jewel in the ring." O let us take care not to distress the souls of the poor weaklings in the Covenant of Grace, by obtruding upon them crude notions about sinfulness, or assurance, or uninterrupted joy!
I now come to speak upon another error, the making faith into a work. "True," some professors say, "we are justified by faith, and not by works, yet faith is a work which is imputed to us for righteousness," and to prove their point they bring forward the passage, "Abraham believed, and it was imputed to him for righteousness." (Rom. 4:22) In reply, I would observe, it is impossible that this passage can mean what the objectors insinuate, for then it would contradict many other Scriptures asserting that Christ is our righteousness. And then, again, the Apostle would have contradicted himself in opposing working to believing as he does all through this epistle, and especially in this fourth chapter. If faith were a man's righteousness as a work, then it would follow that he that believeth would be he that worketh, and his work would be accounted to him for righteousness! The manifest meaning of the passage is--"because Abraham believed God, notwithstanding all contrary appearances, his faith was imputed to him unto righteousness."
"But," asks some one, "was not a work of Phineas's accounted to him righteousness?" (Ps. 106:30,31) I answer, the Psalmist speaks of the righteousness of this particular act of Phineas, not as having anything to do with his justification, but as having been approved of by God--"it was accounted by God as a righteous deed, though others might have censured it as a rash and unwarrantable one. This case has nothing whatever to do with the question.
Now, we come to our opponent's stronghold. Let us see if we can carry it!
I allude to the well-known passage in St. Jame's Epistle--"A man is justified by works, and not by faith only." (James 2:24) In allusion to this, I would observe that it is strange, after all the clear, and logical, and dogmatic teaching of St. Paul upon the question of justification, there should be found professing Christians ready to seize upon any passage of Scripture to overturn the great Apostle's positive assertions and arguments. Paul has spent his best force in two elaborate arguments to prove the doctrine of justification by faith only; and, surely, men ought to bow to this in submission, and say, "though James seems to contradict Paul, it is evident we don't understand the former, for it is impossible for two inspired men to contradict each other," rather than make James into an opponent of Paul's. But the reason is obvious. Men in general "cannot receive" the doctrine of justification by faith only. It is in direct antagonism with their natural, and preconceived notions, and so they lay hold of any scripture that seems to support their views, completely regardless of all consequences. But let me tell those parties that they might work all the works of James, and yet be unjustified, notwithstanding the seeming insinuation of that apostle to the contrary; for it is a demonstrated truth that there can be no justification but by faith, or trust in or reliance upon the righteousness of God; the Lord Jesus Christ's Work. Of this, James must have been as confident as Paul, for they both had the one infallible Teacher; but here was the difference between the two apostles--Paul had to do with those that didn't understand God's plan of salvation at all; James had to do with those who had an intellectual conception of it, and merely that, those who mistook human belief for Divine faith. These latter had got into their heads that a mere assent of the understanding was the faith that justified. The former had conceived that without their own works it was impossible to be justified. To the one party, James says--"Your mere assent to the truths connected with the atonement can never justify you; wherever our brother Paul's 'faith' is, a change has been carried out in the possessor;" To the other party, Paul says--"All the works you can do, can never justify you; if you are not justified by faith in the righteousness of God, and that alone, you are under the curse."
The Bishop of Ossory, from whose invaluable work on justification by faith I have already quoted, and which I wish were studied by every clergyman in the kingdom, has thus written upon the point in hand: "The persons whom St. James addressed were careless or immoral professors, who were destitute of faith though they pretended to it; and who, in fact, mistook the speculative conviction of religious truths, which may be arrived at by the natural exercise of the understanding, for that trust in the Redeemer which is grounded upon such convictions, but is the work of the Spirit upon the heart." And again, "Read all that St. James says, remembering that he employs throughout the language of those whose errors he is seeking to remove; using faith to express their notion of it--not the true one--and in the same way, suffering justification by faith to stand for their false view of the process, and you will see that it really contains nothing which you might not expect to hear from St. Paul under the same circumstances."
In short, James was writing against Antinomians, whilst Paul was writing against Pharisees. The one separated faith from regeneration; the other added human merit to God's righteousness. Each a fatal error. Each, too, fearfully rife in the present day, notwithstanding the great profession of "pure religion," and the self-complacency of ignorant enthusiasts who would persuade us that "the knowledge of the Lord is covering the earth as the waters cover the sea!"
Before I leave this subject, I would have it distinctly understood, that, albeit, James seems to hold out hope to workers, works are not an infallible evidence of faith. A man might do everything that Jesus speaks about, might feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the fatherless, and the widow, keep himself unspotted from the world, throw the mantle of charity over a multitude of his neighbor's sins, and yet be unjustified and under the curse! "How can this be?" some ask. "Are you not contradicting Scripture?" inquire others. I answer, I am merely stating a solemn fact. Everybody who knows human nature, and is conversant with the Scriptures, can see the truth of all this as clearly as he can see his own hand in the light. Thousands of the most decided enemies of justification by faith are the most indefatigable workers, and thousands more have such confused notions about Paul's teaching, that there is not the slightest difference between them and the "foolish Galatians," whom the apostle so severely rebuked! What Paul taught, and what James taught, I believe in my very heart, but I know that it is possible for a man to work his life out and be damned; and I also know that it is possible for a man to say he has faith, and be damned too!
The faith that justifies is never seen apart from knowledge and contrition, and submission to the counsel of God." And yet, neither the knowledge, nor the contrition, nor the submission that I speak of, nor all three together, could justify any man. Faith, that is the gift of God, complete trust in Christ for all that is needed, acting in the individual in whom this knowledge, contrition, and submission have been produced is the great grace that justifies.
From beginning to end, it is the work of God. God prepares the heart, and God creates the faith, and God puts it into the heart which he has so prepared for its reception. All other faith is but the creature of man's imagination, or the faith of devils, and all other work than that which emanates from this faith, instead of being acceptable to God, partakes of the nature of sin."