Professors do not like to be told that they are "dead in trespasses and sins." They turn this assertion of the apostle into a mere figure of speech. They will not have it that they are as really "dead" to all spiritual good, and are as incapable of a spiritual act, as one naturally dead is to perform a physical act. They say, "Go to the heathen and tell them they are 'dead in trespasses and sins;' but, as for us, we were regenerated at our baptism; we are not dead, we are living Christians." But to such, we reply, The unbelieving Jews to whom Christ spoke in the text and context were manifestly dead in sins, though they had been regenerated at their circumcision, just as much as you were regenerated at your baptism, and could no more do a spiritual act than you can. Do you all see the force of this? It is universally conceded by Church of England people that baptism has superseded circumcision. It must follow, then, that whatever benefits arose from circumcision must also arise from baptism, or, in other words, that if a person be regenerated at baptism, one must have been also at circumcision. But here we meet with persons who had been circumcised who were not regenerated, for they were "dead in sin." Consequently it must follow that a person may be baptized, and yet "dead in sin." It is as clear as light that the parties in the text were dead in sin, otherwise Christ would not have said they were "void of life." (John 5:40) It is objected, "Ah, but this does not prove that they had not life to begin with. They had it at their circumcision, but they frittered it away." I answer, first, eternal life cannot be frittered away; secondly, taking you on your own ground, this does not establish your case, for thus it may be with you. We are then justified in affirming that certain professors are "dead in trespasses and sins." The Jews whom Christ addressed were to all intents and purposes religious professors, just as thousands of Christians this moment are religious professors. The first were "dead in trespasses and sins." The second may be likewise. Rely upon it that it is no uncommon thing, much less an impossibility, for high-sounding professors amongst Christians to be as devoid of spiritual life as those wretched Jews we read of in the text and context.
John 5:40. This text suggests many questions:
1. Why men will not come to Christ.
2. What is implied in coming to Christ?
3. What is involved in the life Christ can give?
4. How does this text find us?
And may the Spirit of Christ be with us whilst we discuss these questions.
1. Why men will not come to Christ.--"Ye will not come to me, that ye might have life." I do not take this as a complaint or a lamentation of Christ; I take it rather as a mere statement of fact in which I think there is a slight irony. Christ had been arguing with the unbelieving Jews upon their inconsistency and prejudice. He had been reminding them of the testimony that John the Baptist had borne to Him--of the works that He Himself had done in witness of His mission, and of their own parties; which was to search the Scriptures, for in them they thought that they had eternal life, and they "are they which testified of Christ." And yet, says Christ, "ye will not come unto me, that ye might have life." As much as to say, "Is it not extraordinary that ye can be so dull and stupid, so stolid and so blind, as not to come to me under these circumstances?" Mark you, Christ knew well enough why the unbelieving Jews would not come to Him (for He knew all things that were in men;) but He is here, as elsewhere, taking men on their own ground, fighting them with their own weapons, just as He did with the young ruler who thought to go to heaven by his works. "Ye will not come to me, that ye might," etc. Why? Christ answers the question in the context. (ver. 42,44) But these reasons are deeper than the superficial can understand. They mean this, "If God had revealed me to you, you would have loved Him, and would have thought of no honor but that which cometh from Him; but, as He has not revealed me to you, you do not love Him or believe in me. Ah, there is great depth of meaning in Christ's words here."
But to be as plain as possible. Why will not men come to Christ? (1) Because they do not believe they are dead, and consequently they are in no need of life. (2) Because they think they have a righteousness of their own, and have no need to be beholden to the righteousness of Another. Thus men honor one another, or give one another credit for their respective righteousness, and cannot be content with the honor that comes alone of free grace or of God. (3) Because they cannot trust God, and renounce the world, which everybody must do who comes to Christ. (4) Because men hate Christ. They really want to have nothing to do with Him. This is why men will not come to Christ. You may depend upon it that many Christian professors have no more come to Christ for life, than those Jews of old, though they are ever talking about Christ; but we shall see more of this presently.
2. What is implied in coming to Christ?--It cannot possibly mean coming towards His person, or coming to see Him or hear Him preach, for He rebuked the very people who were looking at Him and listening to Him, for not "coming" to Him. It cannot possibly mean coming to the sanctuary, or coming to the ordinance, or coming to Christ with our formal prayer or services, for thousands have thus come, who are dead in trespasses and sins. But coming to Christ is believing in Him for salvation, believing in Him as our Righteousness, our Sanctification, our Wisdom, and our Redemption. Coming to Christ means trusting Him for all we want and all that God wants. And, O my soul, what infinity is there in that! Tell me, poor sinner, what do you want? What does an all-holy God want? You want acquittal from your guilt, you want pardon sealed home upon your conscience, you want peace, you want promise, you want prospect of eternal happiness, you want comfort and consolation and assurance of undying love. Well, coming to Christ is coming to Him for all this, trusting Him for it. And what does God want, think you? God wants holiness and purity and perfection; not a jot will He abate in His demands. And oh, how can you satisfy His claims? Impossible, impossible! But Christ has done this for every one of His people. Coming to Christ thus is trusting Him as the Doer of this. Mark you, too, poor sinner, you must not take a rag or a shred of your own righteousness along with you when you go to Christ. No, not even your graces. They have nothing to do with your salvation. Christ is first, Christ is midst, Christ is last in that. Graces are merely ornaments that a loving Christ hangs round the neck of those who come to Him, and have no more to do with their eternal life than have your golden chains to do with your natural life. Ah, how few have really come to Christ!
3. What is involved in the life that Christ can give?--I might answer in a single sentence, All the blessings of a converted state. But what are they? Why, never-ceasing union with Christ. "What," say you, "will not sin after conversion sever the union?" No, I answer; never, never. It is an indissoluble union, a union formed between Christ and the soul, with God to witness it, a union made fast with oaths and promises and blood. Oh, what foolish, soul-saddening notions are there abroad about Christ and His relationship to the souls of His redeemed! People think that the covenant of grace is no better than the covenant of works. They think that when Christ and the soul are brought into covenant, that it holds good as long as the soul keeps from sin, and it is broken when the soul breaks down. Alas! this would be no good news. This would not be as gracious a covenant as God made with our father Adam, for Adam had power that we have not. But, thanks be to God, we have better news than that to tell you. Christ is our Covenant-keeper with God, not Adam, not you or I. Well, do you all know now what is involved in the life Christ gives? All the blessings of a converted state, all the blessings of the everlasting covenant, the very life that a poor criminal wants, a life of liberty, of restored position, a life of freedom from condemnation, a life of confiding love. Besides, it is eternal life, "I give to them" (my sheep, them that come to me, them that trust in me) "eternal life, and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand." (John 10:28)
4. This is glorious news, my hearers, yet news that no self-righteous or natural man in the world can receive or avail himself of. It is true to this hour, that this sort of people will not come to Christ that they might have life. How could they, when they fancy they already have life, or are not in such woeful need as Christ represents them?
But here two questions present themselves, (1) How is it possible for fallen man to come to Christ? (2) Have we come to Christ? I answer to the first, Totally impossible without miraculous interference. We have both Scripture and our own convictions arising from our observation to confirm this. "No man can come to me," says Christ of Himself, "except the Father, who hath sent me, draw him." (John 6:44) "Except a man be born again [or from above] he cannot see the kingdom of God." (John 3:3)
(1) These are all-sufficient to establish the point, and our observation assures us that no argument, no moral suasion, no warning, no appeal to the human heart, has the slightest effect in making people come to Christ. We may move them for a brief period; we may alarm and terrify them; but, as it is but human work, it is not enduring. People consent for a time with their heads, but their hearts are untouched. Some of the greatest scholars and philosophers are amongst the most hardened of the human family. The greatest scoffers and atheists have come from the most learned of men. What folly is it, then, to tell us that man may begin with God! My hearers, it is God the Holy Ghost that must begin and carry on the work. It is He, and He only, who can draw us to Christ. We must be made willing in the day of God's power, (Ps. 110:3) or we shall never come.
(2) Have we come to Christ for life? If we know our need of Him, if we understand His use, and are not only submissive to God's plan of salvation, but rejoice in it, we may be certain we have come to Christ, and, having come to Him, we have eternal life; for it is written, "he that believeth in me hath everlasting life, and shall never come into condemnation." O happy souls, look up and bless God for His unspeakable gift, a gift that is not presented to you as the world giveth, to be grudged and recalled, or to be retained as long as you deserve it; but a gift that is given freely, and preserved jealously for you by Christ Himself, for ever and ever.