Philippians 4, 13.—I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.
Christ is revealed to us in various characters; that is to say, the relation he sustains to his own people is presented under various figures. Sometimes he is represented as their redeemer, who sets them free from bondage; sometimes as their prophet, who instructs them; sometimes as their king, who protects and governs them; sometimes as their priest, who makes atonement for them; sometimes as the sacrifice itself, which is offered for them; sometimes as their friend, sometimes as their physician, sometimes as their provider, sometimes as their strengthener. It is in this last character that he is presented by the text, which may be considered as expressing not only the personal experience of Paul, but of all who are partakers of the " like precious faith." In this character it well becomes us to contemplate Christ. ■ We all need strength; we all need one to strengthen us. Whether conscious or unconscious of our weakness, we are weak. Our very strength is weakness. We may trust it, but the more we trust it, the more completely shall we be deceived. This is a defect which no effort of our own can supply. We have not strength enough to be strong. The exertion of weakness cannot produce strength. Imbecility, nay, impotence, in spiritual matters, is a part of our hereditary curse. We must look out of ourselves for its removal. And to save us from a vain search in forbidden and unsatisfying quarters, the word of God sets Christ at once before us as our strength, our strengthened What Paul says, every true believer, in his measure, has a right, and is disposed, to say: I can do all things through Christ enabling me. Of myself I can do nothing; but through Christ I can do all things, all that is obligatory, all that is necessary, either for my own safety, for the good of others, or for the honour of Christ himself.
In further considering this gracious aspect of our Saviour's character and work, as a source of spiritual strength to those who have no strength in themselves, it may be conducive to the clearness and distinctness of our views, if we inquire (1) how he strengthens us, and (2) for what he strengthens us, i. e., in what particular emergencies, or in reference to what specific objects.
First, then, in what way, and by what means, does Christ strengthen us? I answer, negatively, not by miracle or magic, not by acting on us without our knowledge or against our will, but through our own intelligent and active powers. I answer positively, and particularly, in the first place, that he strengthens by instructing us, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of himself and of ourselves, and especially by making us to feel our weakness and to understand its causes. He shows us that it is a moral weakness, and connected with a uersal moral depravation, involving all our powers and affections, from the supreme control of which the Christian is delivered, but not from its entire influence. He shows us our dependence on God's mercy for relief from this debilitated helpless state, and teaches us to seek it in himself. Thus the Lord Jesus Christ, as our prophet, or infallible instructor, strengthens us.
Again, he strengthens us by his example. It is not by precept or by doctrine merely, that he works this necessary change upon us. He has not merely told us what is right. He has shown us how to do it. He has done it himself. He has embodied in his own life what might have been inoperative if set forth only in theory. This is one of the unspeakable advantages arising from our Saviour's incarnation, the community of nature which exists between us. He has set us an example; he has gone before us. When we hesitate, or go astray, or stumble, we not only hear his voice behind us, saying, This is the way, walk ye in it, but we see his form before us, sometimes nearer, sometimes further, sometimes more, and sometimes less distinct, according to the keenness of our vision, and the clearness of our spiritual atmosphere. But even when our eyes are dimmest, and our heavens are haziest, if we are believers, we can still see something. Through the mist, and smoke, and dust, and over or between a thousand intervening objects, we can still discern a form, like that of the Son of man, not merely pointing out the path, but often breaking it, clearing away obstructions, opening unexpected passages,, surmounting obstacles, transforming difficulties into helps, levelling mountains, filling up valleys, bridging streams that seemed impassable. Oh, what a blessed work is this in which the Son of God condescends to be employed for our advantage. How can our hopes sink, or our fears prevail, while this forerunner is in sight; and even when he ceases to be visible, because we fall so far behind, or drop upon the earth exhausted, we can still trace his footsteps where we lie, and sometimes track him by the tears and blood with which the path is moistened. At the sight of these, the fainting Christian often breathes afresh, recovers new strength, and starts up to resume his painful journey, willing even to take up his cross in imitation of his Master, who has left us an example that we should follow his steps. Brethren, Christ strengthens us by his example.
But precept and example are not all. We might have these in perfection, and lie motionless. There must be something to excite and prompt, as well, as guide. We may hear Christ's precepts, and yet not obey them. We may see his example, and yet not follow it. With both in full view, we may still be impotent to spiritual good, unless some new spring of activity be set at work within us, just as a machine may be complete and well adjusted, yet without effect or use until the movjng power is applied. But when it is applied, when all is set in motion, how distinctly do the parts perform their office and harmoniously contribute to the aggregate result! In one particular, this illustration does not hold good. "VVe are not machines, propelled by an external force, without a conscious co-operation on our own part. We are active and spontaneous in our spiritual exercises; but we have no such exercises until set in motion. If we can imagine a machine composed of living, conscious parts, but perfectly inert, till started by an impulse from without, and then performing its appointed functions with entire precision, we may have an idea of our spiritual state. Or, to drop the questionable figure of machinery, imagine that you see a living man, set down to the performance of a given task, with his materials, his instructions, and his models, all before him, but completely paralyzed, unable to move hand or foot. He is a man; he is a living man; he knows, he understands, the work before him, and he has within his reach whatever is required for the doing of it; yet he neither does nor .can perform it. That paralysis as utterly prevents it as if he were dead or absent. But suppose that fatal spell to be dissolved by skill, or chance, or magic, or a sudden divine interposition, and see how instantaneously the mind and body move in concert, how they act and react upon each other, till their joint exertion has accomplished in an hour what before seemed likely to remain undone forever. Such is our condition, even after we are taught, both by precept and example. We are still not strong to any practical effect, until we are constrained to move by some new principle of action. And such a principle is actually set at work in every renewed heart. "The love of Christ constraineth us." If love be wanting, all is lost; we can do nothing; we are practically just as weak as ever. But let the love of God be shed abroad in our hearts, and all the knowledge and the motives which had long lain as an inert, lifeless mass, begin to move, and in the right direction. All the powers and affections are aroused, and at the same time checked and regulated. What seemed impossible, is now felt to be easy. He who once could do nothing, is now able to "do all things." Brethren, the power of Christ strengthens us, when the love of Christ constrains us.
Again: Christ strengthens us by working faith in us, and by making himself known to us, as the object of that faith. In this life the most favoured have to walk by faith, and not by sight. Christ is to all of us an unseen Saviour. His word and his example are indeed before us. But the reason and the purpose of his requisitions and his dealings with us may be wholly unaccountable. We admit our obligation to obey him, and to follow him through evil and through good report. But when our minds are filled with doubt and wonder as to the reality, or meaning, or intent of his commands, how can we energetically do them? Such a state of mind necessarily produces weakness. We delay, we vacillate, we stop short, we begin afresh, until our strength and patience are expended. And as we cannot hope to see these difficulties all removed at present, we can only become strong by trusting, by confiding, by believing what we do not see, by looking forward to what is not yet revealed. Now "faith is the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen." Faith therefore strengthens. To be strong, -we must believe, confide, and trust. The reason of this fact is obvious. If we wait until we see and comprehend the solution of all difficulties, we shall never begin to act, and such inaction is, of course, a state of weakness. If we refuse to take any thing for granted, or to receive any thing on trust, prompt and energetic action is impossible. The emergencies requiring it will pass away before we have put ourselves in motion. The corrective of this weakness is a well-placed trust in something out of ourselves. A blind capricious trust is worse than weakness; but a firm trust in something or some person that deserves it, is a source, a never-failing source of strength.
!N"ow Christ permits us, and invites us, and enables us to trust in him. And what can be a more secure foundation upon which to build? His almighty power, his omniscience, the perfection of his wisdom, truth, and goodness, and the infinite merit of his saving work, all warrant an implicit and unwavering trust. Belying upon him, we may dismiss our doubts and fears, collect our wandering and distracted thoughts, concentrate all our energies on present duties, and do wonders of obedience, encouraged by the testimony and example of " so great a cloud of witnesses," "who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, and turned to flight the armies of the aliens." Out of weakness were made strong—precisely what we want, and faith accomplishes it; faith in Christ, both as its object and its source; that faith of which he is the " author and the finisher." Christ strengthens us by working in us faith.
Once more: he strengthens us by union with hmself. This is the office and effect of faith. We trust an unseen, not an absent Saviour. He is not afar off, but at hand. "We should seek the Lord, if haply we might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us, for in him we live, and move, and have our being. This is not more true of the natural relation we sustain to God, than of the spiritual relation we sustain to Christ. If we are true believers, it is in him we live, and move, and have our spiritual being. He is indeed not far from every one of us. Nor are we merely near him. We are united with him. We are ingrafted on him, we are inserted in him. The nature of the union thus denoted by strong figures is to us inscrutable. We only know that they express a great and glorious reality, of which we can judge by its effects; and its effects are such as these, that the life we now live is no longer ours but Christ's, that the spiritual strength we now exert is, in the same sense, His; that hia strength is made perfect in our weakness; so that when we are weak then we are strong; and instead of despairing, we can glory in infirmities. This new, transcendent, real, though mysterious strength, is the fruit of union with the Saviour; and the union which produces this strength is itself produced by faith. In giving faith then, Christ gives union, and in giving union, he gives strength. No wonder that the same .soul which desponded when cast upon its own resources, should feel strong as it grows conscious of its' union, its identity with Christ. In itself it could do nothing. In him it can do all things. This is the true sense of Paul's language. I can do all things, not merely through, but in Christ enabling me, not merely by his help, but by spiritual union and incorporation with him, so that he lives in me and I live in him. Brethren, Christ strengthens us by uniting us to himself.
In all these ways, then, by instruction, by example, by his love constraining them, by faith uniting them to himself, the Saviour strengthens true believers, even the weakest, till at last in the assurance of this strength they lose the sense of their own weakness altogether, and can face the most appalling dangers, and the most gigantic difficulties, saying, I can do, not merely this or that, but all things, not merely one thing, or a few things, or many things, but all things, in Christ enabling me.
Let us now consider more particularly what is comprehended in the general expression " all things." We cannot add to its extent of meaning, which is already uersal; but we may give additional distinctness to our own conceptions, by observing separately some of the detached particulars summed up in the collective phrase, "all things." And as the very strength of this expression makes complete enumeration impossible, we must be contented to distinguish a few classes, among which the particulars may be distributed. When the Apostle or the humblest Christian, in the triumph of his faith, exclaims, " 1 can do all things," he means, of course, all that is re■quired or necessary. He may, therefore, be naturally understood as saying: "I can do all duty." Christ came not to destroy but to fulfil. The Christian is no longer under the law as a way of salvation, but he is under law as a rule of duty. The Saviour freed men from the heavy yoke of legal, ceremonial bondage, but he did not free them wholly from restraint. For he invites them to take Ms yoke upon them, and assures them that his yoke is easy and his burden light. The believer still has duties to perform, and the remainder of corruption often makes them hard indeed. He knows not how to go about them. He shrinks from them. He would gladly evade them, or persuade himself that they are not obligatory, but in vain. As soon as his sophistical reasoning is concluded, he reverts, as if by instinct, to his old conclusion. He admits the obligation. He attempts to discharge it. But a thousand difficulties spring up in his way, until at last, despairing of escape, he manfully resolves to brave them, in reliance on divine grace. And no sooner is this resolution formed, than all his difficulties vanish. He beholds with astonishment the mountain levelled to a plain. He is ready to ascribe the change to outward causes, but ho soon finds that the change is in himself. He is conscious of strength, but not his own, and knowing whence it comes, he is ready to cry out, in the presence of the very obstacles and perils which before unmanned him: "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me." We may safely appeal to the experience of every Christian, for the truth of the assertion, that nothing so effectually overcomes the hinderances to duty, and supplies the want of strength for its performance, as the teaching of Christ by his 'word and spirit—the inciting influence of his example—the consciousness of love to him as an impelling motive—the active exercise of faith in him as the foundation of our hope —and, above all, the controlling sense of oneness with him—from the joint operation of which causes, the most fearful and infirm of his true followers, who, abandoned to himself, could do nothing, absolutely nothing," can do all things," in the way of duty.
Taking "duty" in the widest sense of which the word admits, what has now been said may be considered as including all emergencies. For if the Christian can do all he ought to do, nothing more can be demanded or desired. Thus explained, this is not so much a special case to which the text applies, as an additional description of all cases. But if we take the doing of duty in a more restricted sense, as signifying active compliance with a positive command, there are other cases left to which the doctrine of the text may be applied. For they whom Christ thus strengthens, are not only qualified to do his will in the specific sense just mentioned, i. e., to perform the acts which he requires, as pleasing in his sight, but also to resist the evil influences which assail them from another quarter. The believer is not only called to the performance of duty; he is also tempted to the commission of sin. He is therefore in danger of offending God, both by omission and by positive transgression.
This two-fold danger is enhanced by his own weakness. As he has not spiritual strength to do Vol. ii.—9
what is right, so he has not strength to resist or avoid evil. This arises from the nature of our fallen state. That state is not one of mere indifference or even of repugnance to what God requires, but of inclination and attachment to what God forbids. When left to ourselves, therefore, we cannot remain in equilibrio. The scale of evil instantly predominates. Our native dispositions and affections are not neutral, but enlisted on the wrong side of the controversy. This is the case, even with true converts, just so far as their corruption is permitted to control their conduct. That control is no longer, and can never again become paramount, much less exclusive. But it may continue and extend so far as to make resistance to temptation one of their severest trials—so severe that they are sometimes ready to despair of being able to withstand. And yet, if such be truly the desire of their hearts, their own experience shall effectually teach them that what is impossible with man is possible with God. The same voice that says to them in tones of solemn warning: "Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall," (1 Cor. 10, 12,) shall also say to them in tones of merciful encouragement: (1 Cor. 5. 13.) "There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able, but will, with the temptation, also make a way of escape, that ye may be able to bear it."
Now what is this way (e/cfiao-is;) of escape but Christ himself, and how shall our weakness and corruption become able to endure temptation, but through Christ enabling us? Here then is another great emergency to which the text applies ; and I put it to yourselves, Christian brethren, whether you have not experienced, in some degree, the efficacy of the means which God has thus provided. Is there no wellremembered juncture in your history—in that of some among you have there not been many—when the conquest of yourselves and the defeat of your spiritual foes seemed as hopeless as the conquest, nay as the creation, of a world; and you were ready, though unwilling, to succumb, in sheer despair of a successful resistance? but precisely at the moment when this self-despair had reached its height, it was transformed, as by a miracle, into a childlike trust in Christ, for which it seemed to be the necessary preparation ; and before that new-born strength, the force of your temptations seemed to melt and vanish, so that, as you looked with a serene contempt upon what a little while before appeared invincible, you could say as Paul says, and as every true believer, in his turn is called to say, I can do all things through Christ enabling me. Yes, through him you can do even that which seems most hopeless; you can endure, resist, subdue, despise, all, all temptation!
In the two cases which have now been mentioned, we have seen the Christian actively performing and resisting through the power of Christ enabling him. But there is still a third case which must not be overlooked ; a case in which the Christian is not active but passive. He is not called merely to performance and resistance, but to patient endurance. This is in some respects more trying than either of the others. Not merely because it involves the painful sense of suffering, bnt because it contains nothing to excite and stimulate, and foster pride. To obey and to resist are active duties which require an energetic exercise of will. But to endure, to suffer, to lie still, to be incapable of action or resistance—this is to many a severer test—it is to all hard, hard indeed. "When this part of God's providential discipline begins to be applied to individual believers, they are sometimes ready to repine and quarrel at its being used at all in their case. They cannot see the need of remedies so painful, when a milder treatment, as they think, would answer every needful purpose. At length, perhaps, they are convinced of their error, and made willing, by painful but wholesome experience, to believe that the evidence of God's paternal favour towards them would have been less clear and perfect if they had not been thus visited. Their minds are satisfied, at least as to this hind of spiritual discipline being adapted to their course. But still they may be ready to find fault with the degree, with the extent, to which the process is continued. They are read/ to say, It is good that I have been afflicted, but they cannot restrain themselves from adding: "How often and how long, O Lord? forever?" Yet even this hard lesson many have been made to learn, and learn it so effectually, that they may be said to have become accustomed even to the long continuance or frequent repetition of some providential strokes, as peculiarly adapted to their case, and perhaps essential to their spiritual safety.
But this familiarity with certain forms of suffering may destroy or at least impair its medicinal effect, and when the Great Physician suddenly changes hia accustomed mode of treatment, and applies some untried, unexpected remedy, the first smart of the new process often forces, even from the hearts of true believers, the expostulating question, Why this new infliction? I had learned to bear the other; I had almost ceased to feel it; but this new stroke opens all my wounds afresh, and reproduces my almost forgotten agonies. In thus saying, or thus thinking, how unconsciously may those who suffer answer their own arguments, and vindicate the very course of which they venture to complain. They little think, at least in the first moment of surprise, that this new form of the divine dispensations may have been adopted for the very reason that the old one had become endurable, and therefore ineffectual. But even this consideration, when suggested and received, is not enough to give the necessary power of endurance. That is still afforded only by the presence of Christ, and the believer's union with him. It is only when that union has been oonsciously effected and has borne its necessary fruit, that the afflicted soul can say with full assurance of its sorest trials, however frequent, various, or protracted, as it said before of duty and resistance to temptation, "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me."
If this view of the strength derived by Christians from their union with the Saviour enabling them to act, resist, and suffer, even in the most extreme emergencies, could be presented clearly to the mind, the belief of those who are still strangers to him, it is almost inconceivable that they should fail to experience a kind of envious dissatisfaction. Even some of yon, my hearers, may be ready to exclaim, All things are possible to the believer, but to me belief itself is the greatest of all impossibilities. If I repent and believe, I can do all things, but I cannot comply with the condition, and I cannot therefore lay hold of the promise. Yes, yes, you can. If you are truly willing, you are able; for the same grace that enables, must dispose. If you are willing, you are able, not in your own strength, but enabled by the same Christ who enables the believer to do all the rest. The first step that he takes in his journey heavenward, he takes leaning on the same arm that supports him to the end. This is one of the mysteries of the gospel, hard to explain but glorious to believe, that a gracious God bestows what he requires, and gives us even that without which he gives nothing. If you would really be saved, that desire is as much his work as the salvation which it seeks, and he who wrought it in you will not suffer it to remain unsatisfied. Look up then, sinking and desponding soul, and put not from you the last hope, and, it may be, the last opportunity of safety. Repent, believe! These are among the "all things" which, through Christ enabling, even you may do, and having done them, you shall then be able to do all things else, until at last looking back upon difiiculties conquered, nay, impossibilities achieved, and forward to the course yet to be run, in time or in eternity, your farewell shout of victory shall still be the same as the first faint, feeble cry of your new-born hope, "I can, I can do all things, through Christ which strengtheneth me."