THE IMPORTANCE OF THE INQUIRY, HOW SHALL MAN BE JUST WITH GOD?
Job xxv. 4.—"How can man be justified with God?"
These are the words of Bildad—one of the sages who had entered into controversy with Job in regard to the government of God. They were uttered in view of the majesty and holiness of the Most High; and the meaning is, " When the greatness and glory of God are contemplated, how can man be regarded as holy before him ?" " Dominion and fear," says the Shuhite, " are with him. Is there any number of his armies ? How, then, can man be justi°,ed with God ? or how can he be clean that is born of a woman ? Behold even to the moon, and it shineth not; yea, the stars are not pure in his sight. How much less man, that is a worm ?" The same sentiment had been twice before expressed by the speakers in this controversy. It was first uttered by Elihu in perhaps the most sublime account ever given of a vision of God to men :—" A thing was secretly brought unto me, and mine ear received a little thereof. In thoughts from the visions of the night, when deep sleep falleth on men, fear came upon me. and trembling, which made all my bones to shake. Then a spirit passed before my face; the hair of my flesh stood up: it stood still, but I could not discern the form thereof: an image was before mine eyes, there was silence, and I heard a voice, saying, Shall mortal man be more just than God ? shall a man be more pure than his Maker ? Behold, he put no trust in his servants ; and his angels he charged with folly: how much less, in them that dwell in houses of clay ?" Job iv. 12—19. The same sentiment was expressed also by Job himself as a doctrine by no means new to him, and as one which had received his careful thought, and to which he freely expressed his assent:— " I know it is so of a truth:—how should man be just with God?" Job ix. 2. The question thus propounded by these eastern sages, in the earliest debate among men of which we have any record, may be regarded as^an inquiry proposed by man—by human nature. It expresses the deep workings of the human
soul in all ages on one of the most important and difficult of all subjects. The question means, How shall man be regarded and treated as righteous by his Maker? What methods shall he take to secure such treatment ? What can he do, if anything, to commend himself to the favourable regards of a holy God ? What can he do, if anything, to make amends for the past ? What can he do, if anything, to turn away future wrath ? Can he vindicate himself before the eternal throne for what he has done ? If not, can he see how it is consistent for God to treat him as righteous ? This question meets us everywhere, and enters into and moulds all the forms of religion on the earth. Let us contemplate it with the interest which becomes so grave a question, and one which is so identified with our everlasting welfare. The inquiry, as illustrating and expressing the feelings of human nature, may be considered with reference to two points—its importance, and its difficulty. I. The importance of the inquiry.
(1.) Its importance will be seen by this consideration—No one can be saved unless he is just or righteous in the sight of God. Unless there is some way by which God can consistently regard and treat us as just or righteous, it is impossible to believe that we can enter heaven when we die. Unless man is personally so holy that he cannot bo charged with guilt; or can justify himself by denying or disproving that charge of guilt; or can vindicate himself by showing that his conduct is right; or can appropriate to himself the merit of another as if it were his own, no one can believe— no one does believe—that he can enter heaven. Probably there is no conviction of the human mind more deep and universal than this; and every man, whether conscious to himself of acting on it or not, makes it elementary in his practical belief. If any one is disposed to call this proposition in question, or if he is not conscious of acting on it, he will see that it must be true, by looking at it for a single oment. The proposition is, that no man can be saved unless he is just or righteous in the sight of God. Can God save a wicked man as such, and in view of his wickedness*? Can he hold him up to the universe as one who ought to be saved ? Can he take the profane man, the scoffer, the adulterer, and the murderer to heaven, and proclaim himself as their patron and friend ? Can he connect a life of open wickedness with the rewards of eternal glory ? Nothing can be more clear than that if a man is made happy for ever in heaven, there will be some good reason for it, and that reason cannot be that he was regarded as an unrighteous person. There will bo a fitness and propriety ill his being saved; there will be some reason why it will be proper for God to regard and treat him as righteous. This view, which is perhaps sufficiently obvious, may be illustrated by a reference to human government. No just government could become the patron and friend of the pirate and the murderer, or bestow its rewards on one who in all respects deserved to meet the penalty of the law9. On this belief, also, every man acts in reference to his own salvation. Each one has a firm conviction that no man can be saved unless he is just in the sight of God. A man, when he thinks of being, saved, always thinks either that he has kept the law of God, or that he has a good excuse for not complying with it, or that he can make reparation by penances, pilgrimages, sacrifices, or fastings, or that he can appropriate to himself the merit of another. He never thinks of finding favour with God as a transgressor, or on account of his crimes; he never supposes that his iniquity can be the foundation of his salvation. God made the human soul, and he so made it that it never could believe that he would save a man because he was wicked, or unless there was some way in which he could be regarded and treated as righteous.
(2.) The importance of the inquiry is seen from the testimony of man everywhere. Man is apparently greatly indifferent to religion, and it often seems impossible to arouse his attention to the great and momentous questions connected with it. But taking the race together, he is not so indifferent to the subject as he appears, and could we know all the secret thoughts and feelings of each individual, we should find that his indifference is often in appearance only. There are workings of the soul which are carefully excluded from public view. There are thoughts which every man has, which he would not wish others to know of. There are deep, agitating, protracted inquiries resulting in settled conviction, or tossing the soul upon a restless sea, which men would wish to hide from their best friends. There is often a deep interest in a man's mind on the subject of religion, when his whole soul seems to the world torpid and inactive, or when he would repel your inquiries, or when he would seem as "calm as summer's morning."
A very slight acquaintance with the human mind or with the history of opinions is all that is needful to see the importance which the inquiry on the subject of justification has assumed in the view of man.
(a) It was seen in the investigations of ancient philosophers and sages. " How shall man be just with God," was the question which pressed itself on the minds and hearts of the speakers in the book of Job, and was a question which was echoed and re-echoed in the whole heathen philosophic world. Many who are profound and patient inquirers on other subjects, often regard investigations on the subject of religion as unworthy their attention. They think them appropriate inquiries for contending theologians ; for disputatious and subtle schoolmen ; for the feeble in intellect, or for the dying ; but they regard them as having only slight claims on a philosophic mind. Yet were they to go and take lessons of the masters of science and of profound thought, they would think differently. Will such men tell us what points of inquiry have most occupied the attention of the intellects of other times ? Will they refer to the volumes which contain the results of the investigations of past ages ? Will they let Socrates once more speak, and Plato give utterance to his views, and Cicero and Seneca declare what most engrossed their attention ? One thing they will find in all the past—one grand absorbing question they will meet with everywhere—one inquiry to which all physical science was made subservient. It was the subject of religion; the question of man's acceptance with God; the grounds of his hope of future blessedness. The real inquiry among thinking men of all ages and lands has been, " How shall man be just with God ?"
(b) The same earnestness of inquiry we find still in the heatnen world. From the recorded views and religion of the heathen, we may learu much about man when he utters his sentiments without disguise; and what we find universally among them, we may regard as the language of human nature. Now there is no one thing expressed with more uniformity or more earnestness all over the pagan world than this question, " How may we be just with God ?" It was the foundation of all sacrifices, penances, pilgrimages, self-inflicted mortifications. All these things were intended so to make expiation for sin, or so to appease the anger of the gods, that they who thus performed the rites of religion might be regarded and treated as righteous. Take this inquiry away, and their sacrifices and penances would be unmeaning. Take this away, and the earnestness of their religion would soon cease, and degenerating into an empty form, would of itself soon expire.
(c) There is another method by which we may learn the views of the human soul about the importance of this inquiry. It is by contemplating the soul when under conviction of sin, and reflecting on its prospects about the future world. Then there is no inquiry so momentous in the view of the mind as this—" How shall a man be just with God ?" There are many more persons in this state than is commonly imagined. There is probably no one who reaches the years of mature reflection, before whose mind this inquiry has not at some period assumed an engrossing importance. With almost no danger of error, you may assume of every man whom you meet, that his mind either has been, or is now, deeply interested on the subject of his salvation, and that in his life there are periods when no inquiry appears so momentous as this. In his moments of solitary musing, or in a time of bereavement, or under the preaching of the gospel, or when remembered truth seems to come with newarmed power to his soul, or when the recollection of guilt seems recalled to him by some invisible agency, or when lying on a bed of languishing, this great inquiry has come before him, How may he be justified before his Maker ? How may the guilt of his sins be washed away ? How may he be regarded and treated as a righteous man ? To those who have been in this state (and who has not ?) it is needless to say that then no inquiry seems more momentous than this. In times of revival of religion, the student in a college loses his relish for his ordinary studies, and almost the capacity to pursue them, absorbed in the more important study respecting salvation; the merchant loses his relish for his gains, engrossed in the greater inquiry how he may obtain everlasting life ; the farmer, the mechanic, and the mariner feel that they can hardly pursue their wonted employmen ts, for a more momentous subject has engrossed the soul. The eye may be on a passage in Horace or Livy, but the thoughts shall be elsewhere; and the hands may be employed in labour, but it shall be performed with a heavy heart, and the toil pursued with scarcely any consciousness of what is done. The calm, fixed, steady, contemplative eye of the student, and the readiness of the man of business to leave his counting-room and place himself under religious instruction, show with what intensity this inquiry has seized on the soul. The busy, the studious, and the gay often become absorbed in the great inquiry, and then no honour of scholarship, no amplitude of gain, no brilliancy of pleasure or amusement, seems comparable in value to the solution of the question, " How shall man be just with God ?" We need not pause here to consider whether this is a just estimate which the soul thus puts on the magnitude of this inquiry. We are concerned only in getting at the language of man himself when in his sober moments. It will at least be conceded, that in those moments of profound absorbing thought,—those moments when men of all classes are willing to turn aside from their usual pursuits ; those times when the great inquiry can make the pleasures of the ball-room and the scenes of splendid amusement
tasteless, and can loosen the hold of the votaries of gold on their gains, and cause the ardent student to turn aside from his books, —then it is that the human mind is as likely as ever to judge correctly of the importance of what has come before it. Yet there is but one sentiment then—that this question absorbs and annihilates all others.
(3.) There is another consideration which shows the importance of this inquiry: it is, that the views that are entertained of justification modify and shape our views concerning all the other doctrines of religion. It is the central doctrine in the whole system, and spreads its influence over every other opinion which man holds on the subject of salvation. The opinions entertained on this subject distinguish respectively the Protestant and the Papal communities ; divide Protestants themselves into two great parties, evangelical and non-evangelical; separate heathens from Christians; give form to all the systems of infidelity and Deism, and constitute the peculiarity of every man's individual faith. "When it is known definitely what a man thinks on this one point, it may be known whether he is a Papist, or a Protestant; a Christian, or an infidel; a heathen, or a friend of the Saviour ; a formalist,"or a devoted servant of God. Luther did not say too much when he said of this doctrine of justification, that it was the article on which depended the permanency or ruin of the church; and with a sagacity equal to that of Tallyrand, when from a very slight matter he predicted that the throne of Fiance would be overturned, Luther saw that the doctrine of justification would meet every corruption of the Papacy, and eventually overturn the system.
The fabric of ■the Papacy is an ingenious .attempt, originated and arranged under the auspices of a higher than human intellect, though fallen, to delude man with the belief that there is some other way by which he may be justified with God than by faith in the Saviour. The whole system of heathenism is an attempt to answer the question how man may be justified with God. The systems of infidels, and of men who arc depending on their own morality, or relying on penances and pilgrimages, are another answer which is given to the question. If the observations now made are correct, it will be conceded that this doctrine has an importance which cannot be over-estimated. If it be so, that no man can be saved who is not justified in the sight of God,—that the ruce everywhere, in the anxious inquiry of sages, in the systems and sacrifices of the heathen, and in the deep workings of the soul rendering every other pursuit tasteless and valueless, has shown a sense of its importance,—and that it spreads its influence over every form of belief,—the importance of the inquiry will be admitted.
II. The second point proposed to be noticed is, the difficulty of the inquiry. By the speaker in our text it was evidently felt that it was not easy to furnish an answer to the question proposed. Bildad, Eliphaz, and Job were agreed in one point: it was, that man could not be pronounced free from sin before a holy God. The evidence of his depravity was too manifest to admit of this. In the sight of God, too, they held that the very heavens were not pure, and that the angels were chargeable with folly, Job iv. 17; xv. 15. So bright was his holiness that the moon was shorn of its beams, and the stars were not pure, ch. xxv. 5. How, then, could man be pure ? How could he be just with God ?
But what is the difficulty? Why has the human mind been so much perplexed in relation to it? Why may not God admit man to heaven, and regard and treat him as if he were righteous ? These questions can be answered in a single remark, and the whole difficulty may then be seen at a glance. It is, that man is in fact not righteous. The difficulty is, to see how God can regard and treat him as if he were. It is easy to see how, if he were righteous, God could treat him so; or how he could treat him as a sinner—that is, according to his real character. But how shall he treat him differently from what he deserves, or as if he had a character which it is known he has not ? Whatever theories may be embraced by men, or whatever opinions may be entertained on the subject of religion, it is true as a matter of fact that these perplexities have been felt by men,—that they have given rise to grave and agitating questions,—and that man has not felt that he could give a solution that was wholly satisfactory. There is no inquiry which has taken hold on man everywhere, under all forms of government and opinion, and in every climate, and amidst every degree of progress, which has not had some real foundation in the nature of things. The race in its soberest moments does not busy itself with trifles, and especially will not allow itself to be troubled and tortured by inquiries that are of no importance. The difficulty which has been felt on this subject, therefore, is not imaginary; but from the fact that the inquiry has been so universal, and so beyond the human powers satisfactorily to explain, it is clear that God meant it should be regarded by man as a point to be solved only by Divine revelation. The real difficulties in the case, and the state of the human mind in regard to them, may be illustrated by the following observations:—
(1.) There was the impossibility of man's vindicating himself from the charges of guilt brought against him. If he could do this, all would be clear, for God will not condemn the innocent. But it could not be done. These charges were brought in such a way, and enforced in such a manner, that man could not so meet them as to escape the conviction of their truth. They are brought where there is a revelation by God himself in his word; and where there is not, as well as where there is, by conscience. Man is told, in the word of God, that he is a sinner ; his recollection of what he has done assures him that it is so; the dealings of God with him convince him that there must be some cause of alienation between himself and his Maker; and every sick bed, and every grave, and every apprehension of future wrath, confirms the conviction. If man were to undertake to convince himself that he is not held to be guilty, the argument could not be derived from the dealings of God with him in this world. It is not easy for a man to satisfy himself that he is not a sinner, when the earth is strewed with the dying and the dead; when his best friends are cut down all around him; when he himself is to die, and when he is so made that he cannot but tremble at the apprehension of the judgment. If any one wished to construct an argument to prove that he is not a sinful man, and that man can be just with God, he would need to be removed to some world where he would not see so many things that seem to be mementoes of human depravity, and so many evidences that his Creator regards him and his fellow-men as guilty. Men have everywhere felt this difficulty. There is no one sentiment in which men more uniformly agree than in this. Every man regards every other man as a sinner, and puts himself on his defence against him, for his locks, and bolts, and notes, and bonds, and securities all demonstrate this ; and every man knows that he himself also is a sinner. There is nothing of which he is better apprized, nothing he believes more firmly than this. There is not a living man that could bear the revelation of his thoughts to others for a single day ; and that not merely because others have no right to know what is passing in his mind, but because he feels that those thoughts are wrong. Confusion, blushes, shame, and shrinking would diffuse themselves over every assembly, and through every crowded thoroughfare in the streets of a great city, and in every lonely path where stranger should meet stranger, if each one knew that another was surveying closely the thoughts of his heart, and saw what was passing there; and if every man felt that his bosom were so transparent that all the workings of his soul could be observed by others, no one ■would venture out of his chamber; no one would move along the pathways where he might encounter a fellow-man; the thronged places of business would be deserted, and our great and crowded cities would become like the cities of the dead. No man would venture at midnight on the mountain top, or on the lonely prairie, to stretch out his hands to heaven, and say, " I am pure as the stars that shine upon me, or as the God that made them." So universal is the consciousness of guilt, and so certain does every man feel in his sober moments that he cannot vindicate himself before God. " How then Shall man be just with God ?"
(2.) It must have been early apparent to men, and any one can see now, that it would involve a difficulty, if the guilty were saved, or if they were regarded and treated as righteous. How could this be done ? Man does not do it himself in reference to those who are guilty, and how could God ? No father feels that it would be proper to regard and treat an offending child as if he were obedient; no friend acts thus towards one who professes friendship; and no government acts thus towards its subjects. All order and happiness in a family would cease at once, if this were to occur; and government on earth would be unknown. There is a great principle of eternal justice which seems engraved in the convictions of the soul, that every one ought to be treated according to character, and that there ought to be a difference in the Divine dealings towards the good and file evil. But what if God treated all alike ? What if he made no distinction in regard to character ? AVhat if he admitted all to favour, punished no one, and rewarded piety and impiety, fraud and honesty, vice and virtue, reverence and blasphemy alike, with the same immortal erown? "What if the murder of the innocent, and the highest deed of benevolence, were equally a passport to his favour ? What if he met the licentious, and those of virgin purity of soul, when they came before him, with f the same smile of approbation ? Would not the universe feel that he was regardless of character ? Would it be possible to correct the impression ?
But it will be said, perhaps, might he not pardon the guilty, and the fact of pardon constitute a ground of distinction which the universe would understand ? True, if it would be proper to pardon in this state of things. But are there no difficulties attending the subject of pardon ? Can it always be granted ? Can it be granted to an unlimited extent? Does a father feel that it is safe and best to adopt it as a universal rule that he will forgive all his children as often as they may choose to offend him, and without any condition ? Any one may easily see the difficulty on this subject. There are thousands of men confined in penitentiaries. Many of them are desperate men, regardless of all the laws of heaven and earth. Would it be* felt to be safe or proper at once to open their prison doors ? Who would wish to be in the neighbourhood, when they should be turned impenitent and unreformed upon the world ? If the community is scarcely safe now with all the precautions and guards of justice, what would it be if they were all withdrawn ? These difficulties must occur to any one when he asks the question, How can the guilty be justified ?
(3.) It is a matter of simple fact that men have felt this difficulty, and the methods which have been resorted to, to devise some way of justification, show how perplexing the subject has been to the human mind. We may learn something of the embarrassments which men feel by the devices to which they resort to overcome them. Look, then, for a moment, at some of the methods to which men have resorted in order to answer the question satisfactorily, How can man be just with God ?
(a) One class have denied the charge of guilt, and these have endeavoured to convince themselves that they are righteous, and that they may safely trust to their own works for salvation. If this could be done, all would be well. But the mass of men have felt that there are insuperable difficulties in the way of doing this. We shall hereafter inquire whether it is practicable.
(b) Many have endeavoured to excuse themselves for their conduct, and thus to be justified before God. They are sensible that all is not right; but if they can find a satisfactory excuse, that is, if they can show that they had a right to do what they have done, or could not help it, they feel that they would not be condemned. And they are right in this. To do it they lay the blame on Adam, or on ungovernable passions, or on a fallen nature, or on the power of temptation, or on the government of God. They attempt to show that they could do no otherwise than that they have done; that is, they have a right to do it in the circumstances, and of course are not to blame. We shall inquire hereafter whether this position can be made out.
(c) Many have endeavoured to make expiation by blood, and have sought to be justified in this way. Hence the sacrifices of the heathen—the flowing blood and burning bodies of lambs, and goats, and bullocks, and prisoners of war, and slaves, and of children offered to appease the anger of the gods. Thousands of altars smoke in this attempt, and the whole heathen world pants and struggles under the difficulty of the inquiry, How may a guilty man be justified with God ?
(d) Many have sought the same thing by pilgrimages and ■ penances ; by maceration and scourging; by unnatural and painful postures of the body; and by wounds which their own hands have inflicted on themselves. The victim of superstition in India lies down beneath the car of his idol, or fastens hooks in his flesh, or holds his arm in one posture till ifc is rigid. Simeon, in Syria, on an elevated column, spent his years in misery. Antony, in Egypt, went and lived in a cave ; and Benedict originated the monastic system in Italy. Mecca is crowded by pilgrims, to acquire righteousness by a visit to the tomb of the prophet; and the shrines enclosing the bones of the saints are encompassed by throngs in Italy for a similar purpose. The garment of hair frets and tortures the body, and the sound of the lash is heard in the cells of the convent, to gain the same end ; and the whole system of penance and self-inflicted torture, all over the world, is just a commentary on the question, How shall man be justified with. God?
(e) To crown all this, another device has been resorted to. It has been held that there were extraordinary merits of saints who lived in former times; that they performed services beyond what were required ; and that these merits were garnered up in a sacred treasure, and are placed at the disposal of the head of the Papal community, to he distributed at his pleasure to those who are conscious of guilt,—and this is the answer some have given to the question, How shall man be justified with God ?
From these remarks will he seen what men have thought of the difficulty of this question. In these various ways, human nature speaks out and reveals what is passing in the bosom. They are the methods to which men have resorted, as the best answer which they can give to this inquiry. To see the real difficulty, however, we should be able to go down into the depths of the soul; to gauge all the agonies of guilty consciences; to look at the woes and sorrows which men are willing to endure that they may be justified ; and then to see how one and all of these plans utterly fail—how they leave the conscience just as defiled as it was before, the propensities to evil unchecked, the grave as terrific as ever, and the judgment-bar as full of horrors. When we stand and survey these things, we ask with deep concern whether any one of these is the way by which man can be justified with God ? If not, is there any other way, or is there none ?
I shall have accomplished my object in this discourse if I have secured one thing—if I have been enabled to turn your attention to the subject as a personal matter. I have sought to show you the importance of the inquiry, and the difficulties which encompass it. I have wished to awaken the mind to it— to excite a spirit of inquiry which may he allowed to occupy the mind in hours of leisure. I aim to make an impression which will not pass away like words which vanish in the utterance. Assuredly, I need not say that this inquiry is one in which every man has a personal concern, and is one from which none should turn away. It is clear that unless a man can be justified with God he cannot be saved, and the question then comes up at once whether we know of any way, or whether we have embraced any method by which we can be thus justified. Can any one of us over-estimate the magnitude of this inquiry ? Can we attach too great importance to a question which is to throw its influence for ever onward into that vast eternity on which we are soon to enter ? Am I asking an unreasonable thing of each one of you, when I ask you to allow the full pressure of this inquiry to come upon your hearts this day, How can I be justified with God ? Is it unreasonable to entreat you to review the method on which you have been relying, and to ask yourselves whether that method will answer in the great day ? I will propose one other question. There is one Book that professes to answer this inquiry. It has a simple object. Its laws, and poetry, and prophecy, and proverbs, and history,—more pure, sweet, and sublime, than can be found in any other book,—all bear on this one subject. It is the scope of the Book—the beginning, the middle, and the end. It proposes to answer the question which human reason cannot answer; to furnish instruction where philosophy fails; to reveal a great sacrifice, where all other oblations are ineffectual; and to give peace to the conscience, when everything else leaves it like the troubled sea. Am I in error in saying that each one of you has that Book in your possession ? Am I unreasonable in asking you to open its holy pages, and to kneel down and say to the Father of lights, " Teach me, O my God, how I may be justified with thee ?"