On last Sunday morning I related to you a most interesting case of a clergyman suffering under deep conviction of sin, or rather I should say of unbelief; for, though unbelief is the chiefest of sins, many people do not understand it so; and, when we say such or such a person is laboring under deep convictions of sin, they fancy we allude to compunction, or remorse of conscience for some gross act of immorality. Such, however, is not the case in this instance. The subject of my remarks has been one of the most moral and amiable of beings. This makes the case the more interesting. Well, during the past week I have had a most touching letter from him, in which he candidly states the difficulties of his position. Without reading the letter to you, I will condense the substance of it, in the hope that it, together with my reply, may be of use to some of you, and then I would discuss the following questions, namely: First. When may we consider ourselves believers? Secondly. Are believers always faithful to their privileges? Thirdly. Are the most advanced believers above the reach of sin?
I. The difficulties of the gentleman's position. First of all, he has a dreadful fear lest his convictions should prove to be head-work and not heart-work.
Secondly. Though he has the fullest confidence in the atonement satisfying for all his sins, he does not find that complete change of life within him to warrant him in saying he has had a victory over the world, the flesh, and the devil.
Thirdly. Though he believes "there is now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus," all his hopes are dashed by the following clause of the verse, "Who walk not after the flesh," &c.
Fourthly. Matt. 5, he conceives, intimates that faith in Christ is accompanied by such a holy life as he never can attain to.
Fifthly. The moment he gets a word of encouragement from the Epistles, he meets with the word "if," and then all is blank and dark again.
Such is an outline of this case, and I for one regard it with much hope. I think, too, that my aged brethren in the Lord will be inclined to regard it in a similar light.
1. Here we have distrust of self, fear lest the thing should not be genuine. Did a hypocrite ever fear anything of the kind? Never! The hypocrite invariably jumps to conclusions. It is all joy, all peace, all delight, just like the stony-ground hearers. But here is fear, lest he may be deceived. Oh, I cannot but hail with pleasure this mark!
2. We have the fullest confidence in the atonement as all-sufficient for sin; that itself is a blessed sign. And then we have him looking within for a complete change of life. How like the young convert, is not it? Dear brethren, in our first beginnings in Christian life, we expect wonders, such as will never be realized; we expect to be like angels, pure and spotless. We do not know then that our old Adam nature is unchanged, and ever will be, and that our troubles in this life are to emanate from that nature struggling against grace. As our friend advances in the Christian life, he will find this out.
3. He believes there is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus, but, being young in the way, he is but a poor interpreter of Scripture, and fancies that the second clause of Rom. 8:1, is a condition that is to be fulfilled by him if he would remain in Christ Jesus. Oh, how like is this to my own impressions long ago! I used to read the first clause with delight, but the second used to dash all my pleasure. Now, as I have many a time explained this passage to you, the second clause is not a condition, but an explanation of what it is to be in Christ Jesus. They who are in Christ Jesus do not walk after the flesh either in spirituals or naturals. They have flung aside their fleshly notions of saving themselves, and adopted the spiritual plan. Neither do they hanker after, as they used to do, carnal things, but their delight is in spiritual things. I regard this very mistake of our friend as a good sign, for it shows he reads his Bible and thinks.
4. We have his bewilderment about Matt. 5, and the whole of Christ's Sermon on the Mount. In replying to this portion of his letter, I said to him, "I am so thankful to learn that this sermon has brought you in guilty before God. What thousands of professors have read it, and never understood it! and, what is worse, never have had the honesty to confess that they did not observe its precepts."
Our friend, you see, has but imperfect conceptions of God's plan of salvation. He does not yet see the beauties and glories of free grace, and of Christ's finished work. He has not yet the spiritual acumen to detect the key that unlocks all the difficulties of that sermon. It is in chap. 5:20: "Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven." What is that righteousness that exceeds? The righteousness of God, of course, wrought out by Christ Jesus. Here, again, we have a good sign in the mental workings of our friend. In some time to come, he will be able to understand Paul in Rom. 7, and see that the law is spiritual, but he himself is carnal; and to will is present with him, but how to perform that which is good he finds not.
5. Again. We find the little conjunction "if" a stone of stumbling in our friend's way. And has it not been so to every one of us in days past? "The moment I get a little encouragement from the epistles," says he, "I meet with the word 'if,' and then all my peace is dashed again." How like a genuine case! "If," you know, implies a condition, and conditions are awful things for a poor helpless sinner's salvation to depend upon. We must interpret these "ifs" thus. Either the original word may be translated "since," and then all difficulty vanishes; or as "ifs" of evidence, but not of condition. By which I mean, as the epistles were written to visible churches, in which doubtless there were many formalists and hypocrites, these "ifs" were inserted here and there to test who was not a recipient of grace. The "if" does not imply that our salvation depends upon something we do, or shall continue to do; but upon the evidences of certain graces within us. As much as to say, "If we have grace within us, we may conclude we shall be saved. If we have not, we have no right to suppose we shall be saved."
Such, brethren, was the substance of my reply to our friend. I humbly pray God to bless it to the comfort and enlightenment of his soul. And also that the repetition of it may not be altogether unprofitable to you. I have great hopes of this case.
II. I now come briefly to discuss the three interesting questions which this case has suggested, viz:—
Thirdly. Is the most advanced believer secured from sin?
First. Some fancy that none are believers but those who have received Gospel truths with clearness and power. I think, indeed I am certain, this is a great mistake. There are and have been thousands of quickened souls very ignorant of some of the great truths of the Gospel, which are meat and drink to you and me. They never had the opportunity of being taught them. What did the dying thief, for instance, know about the theory of electing love, though he was the subject of discriminating grace? What did he know about the theory of the Holy Spirit's quickening power, though he was the subject of it? What did he know about the theory of God's purpose of saving His people from all eternity, though he must have been an object for God's love from before the world began? There is no evidence to show that he knew anything of these things in his understanding, and yet he was a believer in Christ Jesus. Divine life and light were darted into his soul in a moment, by whom he knew not, or did not inquire, and that man was taken to paradise, to learn, for the first time, most likely, what you and I have been taught for a great part of our lives. Is it impossible, then, that such cases occur now, or have occurred often before and since that time? Surely not. Then we come to the conclusion that it is quite possible to be a believer without receiving the great truths of the Gospel with clearness and power. But mark you, I am speaking of those who have never had the chance of learning. Not of those who have had, and have deliberately kicked against them to the last. Besides, the apostle to the Ephesians draws a distinction between belief and sealing (Eph. 1:13), by which it is manifest that it does not require reception of the great truths of the Gospel in clearness and power in order to be a believer. No, my dear hearers, let me hope some of you are as much believers as myself, though you have not been as deeply and as clearly taught. I make no question about it, that the gentleman whose case we have been considering is a believer as well as I.
Our text speaks volumes upon the point. "Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted" (Matt. 5. 4). Who is a mourner amongst you? I mean a mourner in Zion—one who mourns over his darkness and deadness, his ingratitude and sin? You are a believer to all intents and purposes. "The more I read the Scriptures, the more I am convinced that desires rather than attainments are the tests by which God's people are to be tried" (Newton). (Matt. 5: 3,9; Luke 18:12,13; 1 Peter 2:7.
It may be worth while to observe that the Lord does not say in any of the beatitudes that one character is more blessed than another. He does not say either. Blessed are they that mourn, but more blessed are they that are comforted: but simply, "Blessed are they that mourn." They that are comforted, I grant you, are more happy; but their blessedness does not consist in their comfort. I think this is a precious truth. Oh, what consolation for those who do not always feel that warmth of heart or that glowing of love which they would experience! Dear mourning children of God, you are as much believers, and blessed believers, as any who rejoice "with joy unspeakable and full of glory."
Secondly. Is a believer always faithful to his privileges? "Why do you ask such a foolish question?" you say; "no man who knows his own heart will dare say he has been ever faithful." I quite agree with you. But I put the question for two reasons: namely (1), in order that our friend whose case we have been considering, and you too, may be comforted during your mourning over your shortcomings. And (2) in order to discover where that man is, who could declare in public the other day, "In none of the eighty-three years of my life have I passed a melancholy hour." Oh, what a terrible condition must that man be in: no mourning, no sighing, no longing, no regret, no consciousness of sin for eighty-three years! Verily, Paul was not this man's inferior; and was he uselessly harassed with a thorn in the flesh that made him so unhappy as to force him to the throne of grace in agony no less than on three several occasions? God forbid that I could say as that deluded preacher has said.
Thirdly. Are the most advanced saints at all times secured from the prevailing power of sin? No, most certainly not, without the special interference of God. Witness Moses, David, and Paul. "Blessed are they that mourn:" for they are believers.