The Gospel and its Ministry - ch 11 - JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH

CHAPTER Xl. JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH.

JUSTIFICATION by faith is a divine truth; and yet every thoughtful person revolts against the idea that eternal blessedness depends upon apprehending aright a formula or creed respecting Christ, or upon assenting to certain facts concerning Him. No one represents this to be the doctrine of Holy Scripture, save those who do so in order to discredit it. But there are many who, though in a sense lovers of truth, suppose this to be the view of evangelical Christians, and who, in rejecting it, reject also the teaching of Scripture respecting faith. To such, therefore, a plain statement is due of what in fact we deem to be the truth in this matter. And I venture to think, moreover, that among Christians generally there exists a great deal of confusion of thought, and somewhat of error too, with respect to it. 'The gospel will bear the test of the severest metaphysical inquiry, but it is addressed to plain people, and not to metaphysicians; and we may be certain that the doctrine of faith is not a subtle difficulty, but a truth within the reach of all. Now, as I have sought to show, the attempt to solve the question by declaring trust to be the true and only faith recognised by God is utterly wrong. Trust is a fruit of faith in its simplest phase, but not necessarily a part of it. Suppose in a money panic I am in fear of ruin, and I receive a letter telling me that the bank in which my fortune is invested is absolutely safe, it is faith of the simplest kind to believe that testimony; and, simply believing it, I dismiss my fears. But, it will be answered, such faith, simple though it be, depends entirely on the confidence I repose in my informant. Undoubtedly it does. The words of the letter, as it lies before me, are like counters that may stand for anything or nothing. These counters become gold in my estimation, because I import into them the element of pre-existing trust in the writer. It is clear then that, between man and man, faith, apart from proof, assumes trust, and is inseparable from it.

But is this true also as between God and the sinner? Believing the Bible as a book merely, or even as a book recognised as true, is no doubt governed by the same principle. But when God speaks to the soul, His message is a living word, a word of power, and that quite independently of evidences, or of the condition of the hearer, It finds the sinner morally incapable of trust in God, for the essence of his nature is distrust of Him - "the carnal mind is enmity against God." And spiritually he is no less incapable of trust, for he is spiritually dead. But the gospel itself brings life to the dead soul, and masters the enmity of the carnal heart. It brought forth fruit among the Colossians; "from the day they heard it." By nature man is fallen and apostate, and the gospel is itself the instrument for his recovery and conversion; in no sense, therefore, and in no degree, does it rely for its acceptance upon any preexisting quality or condition of heart.

In speaking thus, however, we must guard against the folly of supposing that any set of words in Greek or Hebrew, or their more or less accurate counterparts in English, have inherent power or virtue to bring salvation to the person who believes them. And if the words themselves can work no charm, the belief of them will not help the matter. Nor can we consent to fall back upon distinctions between " faith about Christ'' and "faith in (or on) Christ," as is sometimes done - distinctions which pertain either to language or to metaphysics. The one question is interesting, and I will deal with it for any who have leisure and inclination to follow me; but the metaphysical inquiry I must decline to enter on here, For, as I have said, the gospel is for those who are incapable of such a study; and, moreover, the distinction is based upon the assumption that, of the various "sorts of faith" (to use a popular expression), one is efficacious, and the other not ; thus attaching merit to faith itself, and coming under the almost ironical remonstrance of the Apostle James, (can faith save?)

If by "faith about Christ " be meant the belief of facts concerning Him, to say that in Scripture this is not connected with salvation is a statement so glaringly false as to need no answer. It is certainly inadequate as a definition of the true faith of the gospel, as I will presently explain ; but changing the preposition will in no way supply the defect. The distinction assumes that the form of words translated in the Authorised Version "to believe in" (or on) implies trust in the person who is the object of the faith. But this is quite untenable. In saying I believe in any one, I may mean that I thoroughly rely upon him, or I may merely intend that I acknowledge him to be the person he claims to be. Every one will admit that the expression has this elasticity of meaning in our own language; and it needs no scholarship to ascertain for oneself that it has equal scope in Greek, and notably in the writings of the Apostle John.

Having thus cleared the ground of difficulties and distinctions which are both irrelevant and unworthy of the subject, I fall back upon the main inquiry, What is the element which connects faith with salvation? It is not owing to any virtue or charm in the text of the message received, nor does it depend on any merit or vitality in faith, in what sense soever faith be understood. Still less is it to be accounted for by some fitness or worth in the recipient. If then it depends neither upon the message, nor yet upon the faith, nor upon the character of the faith, nor upon the condition of him who exercises the faith, there is but one more alternative remaining. And here, as the result of a circuitous inquiry, we reach once more a conclusion which every true believer will enthusiastically accept. It is not that the sinner believes, nor yet that he believes the gospel, but that he believes GOD. The belief of the facts of Christianity, however great and true, or even of the inspired record of them, can never bring life to a dead soul, or change a sinner's destiny. But that which makes the gospel a word of power and life to some, and links blessing with the faith of it, is that to such it comes as a divine voice by the Holy Ghost now present upon earth to that end. "Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God"; not by the Bible as a volume purchased at a book shop, but by those sacred words when through them a present God speaks to the soul.

If it be objected that this is transcendentalism, the ready answer is that it is Christianity. Grace is boundless, but it is sovereign; and if God has brought salvation within the reach of all, it is not by making men independent of Himself, but by giving the Holy Ghost to bear witness to the finished work and glorified person of a Saviour. In apostolic days, the gospel was preached "with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven," and this is still its only power. It is not as a true record merely, but as a living word from God, that it is indeed "the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth."