MAN CANNOT JUSTIFY HIMSELF BY SHOWING THAT HIS CONDUCT IS RIGHT.
Rom. iii. 20.—"By the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified."
In the last discourse, I proposed to show from these words, that man cannot be justified by his own righteousness. In doing this, I endeavoured to point out what is meant by justification, and then entered upon an argument to prove that man cannot justify himself before God. I observed that when fl. man is accused of crime, there are two grounds of defence which he may set up, on either of which, if successfully maintained, he will be ncquitted, or will be declared just in the sight of the law. He may either deny the fact charged on him, or, admitting the fact, he may urge that he had a right to do as he has done. I showed that man is charged by his Maker with the violation of his law, and that if he will justify himself, he must either deny the truth of the charge, or show that in the circumstances of the case he had a right to do as he has done. The first of these grounds of defence I proceeded to examine at length, and attempted by the following considerations to establish the position that man cannot deny the truth of the charges brought against him:—that God, who brings them, could not be mistaken, and could not have brought them from malignity; that man, in fact, so far from obeying the holy law of God, has failed of perfect conformity to the lowest standard of morality; that the account of man in the Bible is confirmed by all the facts and all the monuments of history; and that the charges in the Bible are sustained by the decisions of conscience.
The only other ground of defence or of justification which man can set up is, that it was right or proper for him to do as he has done; that admitting the facts in the case to be as they are charged—that he does not love his Maker with a perfect heart ■—that he violates his laws—that he is under the influence of unholy passions—and that he neglects many things which are required of him,—yet that such are the circumstances in which he is placed that it is not wrong for him to do as he has done, or that he has a valid excuse, and ought not to he condemned. His condition, he might be ready to admit, is one that is to be pitied; but his conduct is not such as to deserve blame or punishment. If a man can make this out, he will not be condemned, for God will not condemn the innocent. If man has good and sufficient excuse for what he has done, there is no being in the universe who will look more benignantly on it than God, for there is no one so ready to do justice to the innocent, or to allow its proper weight to all that ought to exculpate. It is necessary, therefore, to examine this ground of defence, or to inquire whether man can set up the plea that he has a right to do as he has done; to live as he is in fact living. Man is soon to stand before his Maker on a high charge of guilt. If he cannot deny the facts charged on him, he must take the ground that he has a right to do as he has done; that he has a valid reason which excuses him ; that he ought to be ^acquitted, and that his deliverance should be hailed everywhere with songs and rejoicing, and that he ought to be received to heaven in triumph. What is this ground of defence ? What is its value ? Will it avail on the final trial ?
Here it may be observed, that man will not set up the plea of insanity, though more insane on the subject charged on him than many who have been acquitted by human tribunals. Man has too much pride, and too much confidence that he is right and that God is wrong, to urge this plea. Nor would he maintain that God has no jurisdiction over the case, for nothing is plainer than that he owes allegiance to the laws of his Maker, and that he cannot go bej■ond the limits of his empire. The points on which the accused sinner must rely, if he would undertake to show that he is not to blame for what he has done and to justify himself, must be such as the following:—either that the constitution of things under which ho is placed is such as to make it inevitable that he should do as he does; or that he is but acting out the nature which God has given him, and that therefore it must be right; or that the law of God is unreasonably severe and stern, and he is excusable for not obeying it; or that the time of preparation for eternity is too short, and that too great interests are made to depend on this brief period of existence; or that the penalty is too severe, and that if a man acts as well as he knows how, though he does not conform to the holy law of God, he ought not to be recompensed with eternal torments. If these points can be made out, man ought to be acquitted. If thoy cannot, has he any other ground of defence on which he can rely?
I. The first of these grounds of defence is derived from the Constitution of things under which we are placed. Our minds, when we set up this defence, go back to the arrangement with Adam, and the effect of his sin on his posterity. The form of this defence is, that his fall, by the Divine arrangement, placed us in far more unfavourable circumstances for salvation than those in which we should otherwise have been ; that his apostaey made it certain that all his descendants would sin; that it made it certain that the first act of each moral agent on earth would be wrong; that there was a strong probability thus created that all his posterity would be lost; and that all our strong propensities to evil, and our exposure to ruin, are to be traced to this arrangement. If they who rely on this ground of defence were disposed to take shelter under the declarations of Scripture, the defence would be found in the following statements of the apostle Paul:—"Through the offence of one many are dead." "The judgment was by one to condemnation." " By one man's offence, death reigned by one." " By the offence of one, judgment came ■ upon all men to condemnation." " By one man's disobedience, many were made sinners." " The law entered, that the offence might abound," Rom. v. 15—17, 20. If these things are so, how can man be held to be guilty for conduct thus rendered certain and inevitable ?
The question now is, whether this can be regarded as a vindication of the undisputed facts in the conduct of man. Will it be admitted as a sufficient reason for what we have done in violation of the holy law of God, when we stand at his bar ? The fact is undeniable, that man early goes astray, and that he continues to wander farther and farther unless he is restrained or reclaimed. Is it a sufficient excuse for this that Adam fell, and that we live under such a constitution that his sinning made it certain that we should sin also ?
Now in examining this question we may admit two things:— one is, that our circumstances in consequence of his fall are in many respects less favourable than they would otherwise have been; or that incalculable evils have come upon us in consequence of his apostaey; and the other is, that there is much about it which neither revelation nor human philosophy explains. But these are different points from the one before us, whether that act of our first father is a sufficient excuse or apology for our crimes; or, whether we can take shelter under that constitution as a vindication from the charge of guilt. In reply to this, two or three remarks may be made.
The first is, that we are responsible not for his sin, but for our
own. The sin which is charged upon us is not his, but ours. The question is, not whether his acting as he did will free us from accountability or ill-desert, on account of his act—which is plain enough ;—but whether it will free us from ill-desert on account of our own sins. We could not be held guilty, that is, blameworthy, for his sin; and if this were the charge, the defence set up must be conclusive. No reasoning has yet shown that man either is or can be regarded as blameworthy on account of the crime of his first father.
Again, the fall of Adam, and the constitution under which we live, compel no one to sin. All sin is voluntary, and there is nothing in which man more consults his own pleasure than in the course of life which is charged upon him. Every profane man means to be profane; every dishonest man prefers to be dishonest; every sensual man has pleasure in moral corruption. It is a great law of our being that where freedom ends, responsibility ends, and there is nothing more universally true than that a wicked man does only what he prefers to do. Nay, the sins which are charged on him are very often the fruit of long and deliberate plan ; and so attached is he to a course of iniquity, that no argument or entreaty is sufficient to induce him to attempt to change his method of life. So voluntary are men in their sins, that there is no argument or topic of persuasion which will induce those living in sin, of themselves, to break off their transgressions and turn to God. A man must take the ground that he is compelled by the act of Adam to do what he would otherwise not do, before that apostacy can be_a vindication from the charges alleged against him. Further, this plea would neither be urged nor admitted by man himself in any other case. In all the numerous charges brought against men before human tribunals, in different lands and ages, it is probable that this has never once been alleged as a vindication. To no murderer, thief, pirate, or traitor, has it ever occurred to urge this in his own defence. The state of the world has never been such that it would be tolerated for a moment; nor has the consideration that Adam fell, and that we are under a constitution where all sin, probably ever modified, even in a single instance, the verdict of a jury. There have been men on the bench, and in the jury-box, who have held this as a theological dogma, or as an excuse for their own sins before God; but in a court-room nature speaks out, and no man would venture to apply such a dogma of theology to a decision of the bench. What would it avail on a charge of murder before any court in the world ?
One other remark. It remains yet to be shown, that the facilities for obtaining the Divine favour by men in their fallen state"are less than they would have been had they entered the world in the condition of their first parents. Are any sent to hell for Adam's sin ? That remains yet to be proved. Are any infants lost? Not a particle of evidence has ever yet been furnished of this. Is it beyond the capacity of children to/please God ? Let the remarks of the Saviour about the hosannas in the temple answer. Is it less easy for us to obtain the Divine approbation, and to be saved, than it would have been if Adam had not fallen ? That remains to be proved: for if a choice were to be made, it would seem to be easier to believe on Christ, and to trust to him for salvation, than to keep a holy law unbroken for ever. And if these things are so, then man cannot put his defence on the ground that he is brought into the world under a constitution which made it certain that he would be a sinner.
II. A second ground of defence to which man resorts in selfvindication, akin to this—but more common and more plausible —is, that he is but acting out the propensities of his nature. He did not make himself. He is as God made him. He is but indulging inclinations which his Creator has implanted in his bosom, and the indulgence of which, therefore, cannot be attended with blame, or followed by his displeasure. Can it be wrong for him to look upon the light of the sun ? Can it be wrong for him to be charmed with the beauty of a sweet landscape, or the pleasant music of a waterfall ? Can it be wrong for him to allay the demands of hunger and thirst, to protect himself from cold, and to provide a shelter from the storm? The innocence of these things being admitted, as it must be, he applies the concession to all the propensities and inclinations within him, to all that has led him to do what is charged upon him as wrong, and says, " I am as God made me, and for that I cannot be held to be guilty: I ought, therefore, to be acquitted of the charge of guilt." Let us inquire whether this will answer as a ground of defence before God.
The most obvious remark in regard to it is, that if it is a valid excuse in reference to religion, it is in reference to human conduct generally. For why may not any man accused of crime urge the same thing in self-defence ? Has Jie done anything more than act out certain propensities which he found in his nature ? When Csesar crossed the Rubicon, Hannibal the Alps, Alexander the Granicus, or when Napoleon poured his armies on Italy, Egypt, Austria, or Russia, did they do anything more than follow out the inclinations of their nature ? Hid they not find stirring within them a spirit of ambition which urged them on to trample down the liberties of mankind ? Did Robespierre or Diderot, Alexander VI. or Cnesar Borgia, do anything more than act out certain propensities in their souls? Did Torquemada in the inquisition, or Cortes in the butcheries of Mexico, do anything but act out what they found within theirs? And the assassin, the duellist, the murderer, what does he do more ? Is he not following out his natural impulses, as much as the sinner who urges this plea? And would not this plea be as good for the one as the other ?
But further, this plea is contrary to the convictions of common sense, and the universal judgment of right among men. If it were well-founded, then the true course for man, if he would please God, would be to give unrestrained indulgence to every inclination in his bosom. Nay, then it would be wrong for him to check any of his passions, and his duty would be to give them the rankest growth, and the broadest indulgence possible; for should not man cultivate all that God has implanted in his bosom ? Then all the restraints on the passions of children must be displeasing to God ; all the lessons of order, morality, and religion, are a contravening of his wishes; all colleges, schools, and churches, are a nuisance; all court-houses and prisons are a violation of human liberty. Then the great benefactors of the race, and those who have been especially the friends of God, and have obtained the highest seat in heaven, have been those who have proclaimed the innocence of universal licentiousness, or who have furnished the greatest facilities for the indulgence of passion. From the preachers of religion—from pious princes— from the dispensers of justice—from the patrons of order and of law—from Paul, Aurelian, and Hale,—the crown is to be transferred to such moralists as Paine, such princes as Charles II., and such judges as Jeffries. But who is prepared to take this ground ? This view goes against the common sense and the common judgments of men. There are things in man to be restrained in order that he may be virtuous. It is not sufficient to secure the meed of virtue to say, " I am as God made me, and am but acting out the propensities of my nature." What then is the mistake which is made in this plea ? What fallacy is there in it, for it seems to have plausibility and truth ? An answer may be readily given to these questions by making a distinction, which the young man may apply through life to the noblest purposes of self-improvement. In the plea set up, two things are confounded, which are wholly distinct, and which are to be dealt with on different principles:—our constitutional pro
pensities as God made them, and our corrupt propensities which have another origin. The former are to be cultivated, and carried to the highest pitch of perfection possible; the latter are to be checked, restrained, subdued. The former are innocent, noble, and ennobling; the latter are debasing and degrading—" corrupt, sensual, devilish." There are propensities of our nature, and laws of our being, which God has implanted, and which, if kept within proper limits, are harmless, or which may contribute to our highest elevation in the scale of existence. To eat, to drink, to sleep, are laws of our animal being, harmless if restrained, debasing if indulged in contrariety to the just rules of temperance. To aspire after knowledge, to seek a " good name," to rise to the fellowship of higher intelligences, to bring out and cultivate the benevolent affections, is to follow nature as God has made us, and never betrays or debases us. But to follow out the inclinations of ambition, and pride, and vanity, and lust, and revenge, is a different thing. These debase and sink to a lower level than that of■ brutes; for in proportion as we may rise, so may we descend. The star that culminates highest, may sink the lowest; and as woman, if vile, sinks lower than man can, so man, if debased, sinks beneath the brute.
Men mistake then in this. When they indulge in these things, they are not in any proper sense acting out their nature. They are not as God made them. They are sunken, debased, fallen. Let men act according to the great laws which He has impressed upon their being, and they will be noble, holy, godlike. Thus acting, man would have met the approbation of his Maker, and might have pleaded innocent to the charges of guilt. But let him not give indulgence to corruption, and then seek shelter in the plea, " I am as God made me."
III. A third ground of defence would be, that the law of God is stern and severe, and that his requirements are of such a nature that man has no power to comply with them. The position which would be taken is, that there is no obligation where there is no ability, and that as man now has no power to yield obedience, he cannot be held to be chargeable with guilt. The principle here stated seems to be one that is based on common sense, and that must ever command the assent of all men who are not blinded by theory or by prejudice. It is impossible for man to feel himself guilty, or blameworthy, for not doing what he had no power to do. He may count it a misfortune, or he may experience calamities and surfer losses, because he has no greater power, but it is not possible for him to feel on this account the compunctions of remorse. With the limited powers of man, it is impossible for him ever to feel himself guilty for not creating a world, or not guiding the stars, or not raising the dead; and he cannot conceive that by any revelation whatever, or any course of reasoning, or any requirement laid on him, he should ever feel himself blameworthy for not doing these things. If then it were so, that God has required of man more than he is
in any sense able to perform, the nature which he has given us
and which in that case would be a very strange and unaccountable endowment — would teach us two things: one, that his government was a tyranny; and the other, that man could not be to blame. Such a creature under such a government might be made to suffer, but could not be punished; he might experience pain of body, but he never would know the pangs of remorse. But is this so? The law itself is the best exponent of the views of God on this subject, and that law is clear and explicit. " Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets," Matt. xxii. 37—40. Could anything be more reasonable than this ? God asks nothing which we have not; nothing which we have no power to render. He asks " all" the heart, the mind, the strength, and he asks no more. He does not require for himself the service claimed of angelic powers, but that adapted to our own; he asks no love for our neighbour which we do not feel that we are abundantly able to show to ourselves. To take shelter from the charges against us, under the plea that our Maker has required services beyond our power to render, is therefore directly in the face of his own requirements; is to charge him with tyranny, where his requirements are as clear as noonday, and as equal as they can be, and where he has expressly told us', that the plea cannot, and will not be sustained:—" O house of Israel, are not my ways equal ? Are not your ways unequal ? Therefore will I judge you, O house of Israel, according to your ways, saith the Lord God. Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions ; so iniquity shall not be your ruin," Ezek. xviii. 29, 30.
IV. A fourth ground of defence on which man charged with guilt is secretly relying in self,justification is, that the penalty of the law of God is_. unreasonably severe, and that no consideration can make it right to recompense the errors and crimes of this short life with eternal punishment. The ground here taken is, that it would be wrong for God to punish man in this manner, and therefore that man has a claim to eternal life. The inference which the sinner charged with guilt draws is, that if the penalty is unreasonably severe, he cannot be held to be guilty, and has a right to disregard the law of his Maker. Now it is not my design to attempt a defence of the doctrine of eternal punishment, or to show that the impenitent sinner will suffer for ever. It must ba admitted that there are mysteries on that subject which the human powers at present cannot explain. All that the subject demands is, to examine this reasoning which the sinner sets up in his defence. Is the severity of a penalty, then, even supposing it to be wholly unreasonable, a valid excuse for violating law, or for doing wrong ? It is possible to conceive—for such things have been—that the penalty for the crime of treason may be entirely too severe; that its execution may be attended with barbarous cruelty ; and that it may be followed by a taint of blood, and by inflictions on the family of the traitor wholly unjustifiable by any principles of equity. But would this be any justification of the act of treason ? Does it make the betrayal of the state a matter of duty or of innocence ? Is it such a meritorious act, that he who performs it has a claim on the * offices and emoluments which a sovereign has to bestow on deserving subjects ? So in the matter before us. If there are things which we cannot explain about future punishment,—if it has a degree of severity which we have no means of vindicating,— is it fair to infer that it is right to violate the law of heaven ; and has he who does it a claim on the crown of glory ? Yet this seems to me to be what is involved in this ground of defence which a man charged with sin sets up. Would it be reasonable or proper for him to suppose that God would admit a plea drawn from his own alleged injustice and cruelty, as a reason for the habitual violation of his law ? But the plea has no force in another respect. Our relations to the administration of justice are not only concerned with the question what the penalty is, hut with the question whether it is practicable to avoid it. There may be reasons operating in the appointment of a penalty which we do not understand. All that is necessary for us to know is, what the penalty is, and to have such freedom that we can avoid it by a correct life. They who live in England now, or they who lived under the administration of the laws in times of greater severity, can have no reason to complain, so far as appears, of the punishment affTxed there to treason. It can be readily seen, indeed, that there would be much that would be painful and disgraceful in being drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution ; in being quartered, and publicly exposed; in the confiscation of property, the degradation, of a family, and the taint of blood ; but why should a good citizen, who did not design to commit treason, complain of it ? It would be easy to avoid it, and his knowing the severity of the punishment should only make him the more cautions to do his duty to his country. Least of all, knowing what the penalty was, could he when he had betrayed his country set up a plea of innocence on the ground that the penalty was severe ? Without pursuing this reasoning any further, may it not be asked here whether it is not just as applicable to the government of God aa to a human administration ?
V. There is but one other ground of defence, or self-justification, which the accused sinner can be supposed to set up: it is, that too great results are made to depend on the present life ; that life is too short, that our days are too few and fleeting, that our continuance here is too uncertain, that we are liable to be too suddenly called away, to make it proper to suspend so great interests on anything that we can do here. The accused sinner would take the ground that eternal consequences demand a longer probation, and that the longevity of the antediluvian patriarchs was a period quite circumscribed enough to make it proper to suspend so great interests upon life. Much might be said in reply to this, but reference might be made to the instances which occur in the life of an individual or in a state, where the most momentous and far-reaching results are made to depend on the action of a moment. But without dwelling on the numerous illustrations which occur on that point, two remarks may be made in reply to this ground of defence. One is, that, as experience has in millions of cases shown, the time allotted to man is ample for a preparation for eternity. Countless hosts before the throne have found it so, and millions are on their way to join them, who find the period of probation abundant to enable them to prepare for heaven. That all others are not with them in the same blissful path is not because life is too short to enter it, but is to be traced to other causes. Men require length of days to amass wealth, or to perfect their schemes of earthly aggrandisement, but the purposes of salvation do not need it. The giving of the heart to God in sincerity through Jesus Christ—an act which may be performed in the briefest period during which a moral agent lives—is enough to secure salvation. Wealth or honour could not be secured in so brief a period, but the salvation of the soul may. The other remark is, that this vindication is set up in circumstances which painfully demonstrate that it cannot be sincere. Not time enough to secure salvation ! Too great interests suspended on this brief period of existence! Unreasonable to make eternal results depend on the fleeting hours of this short life! And f«om whom do these objections come ? From those on whom the hours of life hang heavily, and " who are often wishing its different periods at an end ;" from those who are impatient for some season of festivity or enjoyment to arrive, and who chide the slow-revolving wheels of time ; from those whose days are weariness and sadness, for thej ■ have nothing to interest them, nothing to do ; from those whose principal study is the art of killing time, and all whose plans have no other end; from those who waste the hours that might be consecrated to prayer in needless slumber, and from whose lips each morning, while they now are locked in repose, there might proceed the earnest breathing of a penitent heart that would ensure salvation; from those who, over worthless or corrupting verse, or in the perusal of romances, or in day-dreams, or at the toilet, waste each day time enough to secure the redemption of the soul. From such lips and hearts, from those who live thus, and to whom life puts on these forms, assuredly the objection should not be heard, that too great results are made to depend on this short life, and that therefore they are blameless in neglecting God.
If these are correct views, then the sinner cannot justify himself. It has been shown that he cannot deny the reality of the facts charged on him, and the grounds of defence which the human heart is disposed to set up in self-vindication have been considered. It is not improper, at this stage of the argument, to make a personal appeal to my readers, and to ask them to look at the ground which we have gone over as a personal matter. To my mind it seems clear beyond the shadow of a doubt, that the position which has been taken is correct as an argument, and that it is clear that man can neither deny the truth of the charges alleged against him, nor vindicate himself for what he has done. But whatever may be thought of the argument, attempted as an argument, on one point there can be no difference of opinion—that the conclusion which we have reached is in accordance with the Bible. That conclusion is, that the unpardoned sinner is a lost and ruined being ; that he is under condemnation ; that he is held to be guilty in the sight of God ; that he is soon to be arraigned on charges involving the question of his eternal welfare; and that unless he is in some way acquitted of those charges, they will sink him to ruin. The views which have been thus expressed lie at the foundation of the system of salvation by grace. They are such as when felt lead to the conviction of sin, and to that sense of helplessness which is preparatory to the reception of pardon and salvation by the grace of the gospel. If these views produced the effect they are fitted to work, they would leave the impression of guilt, helplessness, and danger on the mind of every one who is not converted and pardoned. Sooner or later every one will feel this. The sinner may be unwilling to admit the force of these arguments now; for no one, if he can help it, will be overwhelmed with the conviction of guilt, or have his mind unsettled and harassed by apprehensions of danger. But not always can he put this subject far from him. He will lie down and die; and there are sad feelings which the dying sinner has, when he reflects that his life has been spent in sin, and that he is dying under condemnation. He will, from the bed of death, look out tremblingly on the eternal world—on that shoreless and bottomless ocean on which he is about to be launched; and it will be sad to feel that he is about to enter that vast and fearful world an unpardoned sinner. He will tread his way up to the bar of a holy God; and little as he may be concerned about that now, it will be sad to tread that gloomy way alone, and to feel as ho goes that he is under condemnation. He will stand and look on the burning throne of Deity, and on his final Judge ; he will await, and with what an agony of emotion, the sentence that shall fall from his lips, sealing his eternal doom! Oh, how can he then be just with God ? How vindicate his ways before him ? How stand there and justify his neglect of the Divine commands, his neglect of prayer, his neglect of the offers of mercy, his neglect of his own soul ? How, then, can he show his Maker that it was right not to love him; not to pray to him; not to thank him; not to embrace his offers of mercy ? How can he show that it was right for him to live without hope and without God in the world ? How can he be saved ?