WHAT IS MEANT BY THE MERITS OF CHRIST.
John i. 16.—" And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace."
THAT is, all we who are Christians, or who are Christ"s real followers. In the fourteenth verse of this chapter it is said of the Lord Jesus, that he was " full of grace and truth." In the Epistle to the Colossians (ch. i. 19), the apostle Paul says of him that " it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell:" that is, with particular reference to the salvation of men, for he immediately adds (ver. 20), " And having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself." These expressions all refer to an abundance or fulness of grace in the Lord Jesus as sufficient for all that would be saved by him, or such as would supply all their want of personal merit when they appear before God ; and as there is in us a total want of merit towards God, the sense of the whole must be, that we can be saved only by the merits of Christ. I propose to endeavour to explain what that merit is.
In the previous discourses on the subject of justification, I have endeavoured to demonstrate that man cannot justify himself before God. In the last discourse I aimed to prove that man has no merit of his own on which he can rely for salvation, or that he can do nothing which will make eternal life a fair equivalent or compensation for his service, or which will bring the Almighty under an obligation of justice or equity to save him. I propose now to show that there is One who has ample merit which can supply all our defect, and which may be so available to us as to secure our salvation.
There are few phrases in more common use than the merits of Christ; few declarations that are repeated more frequently by ministers of the gospel and others, than that men can be saved only by His merits; and few things that are more frequently uttered in prayer than that we plead His merits only for our salvation. The frequency with which this expression occurs, and the bearing which it has on the general subject now under consideration, makes it proper that we should attempt an explanation of it. Common as the use of it is, a formal attempt to explain it is not often made, and it is to be feared that it is often used without an intelligent apprehension of its meaning.
The phrase does not occur in the Bible, but the idea which is intended to be conveyed by it exists there as a vital and central thought in the whole plan of justification by faith. In the prosecution of this subject it will be proper, I. To explain what is meant when we speak of the merits of Christ; and, II. To show in what his merits consisted.
I. What is meant by the merits of Christ f The general idea is expressed in the text:—" And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace." There was an abundance or fulness in him of which we might partake; that is, there was a completeness—,irX■qpwfia—which in our conscious want or deficiency, could meet all our necessities, so that we could receive " grace" corresponding with that which was in him. When we speak of the merits of Christ in connexion with our salvation, it is meant that there was an amount of merit in his services which he did not need for any personal advantage or for himself ; which had been secured with a special purpose to supply the great and undisputed deficiency of man; and which can be made available to us, on certain conditions, and in the way which God has revealed as the ground of our acceptance. The main object is not now to prove that there are such merits treasured up in Christ, but to explain the language. Whether the doctrine be true, and if there is such merit in him how it may be available to us, will be the topics of future inquiry.
(1.) In the explanation of the subject I would then advert, first, to the doctrine respecting merit laid down in the last discourse. A man merits a reward when he has earned or deserved it; when he has fully complied with the terms of tho bargain; when his services are worth as much to you as you pay him. We may recall the illustrations of the day-labourer, the soldier, the physician, in each of which cases it was said that the service rendered was fully equal in value to the pay which was given. The service measures the pay ; the one is equal, or is supposed to be equal, to the other. To withhold the compensation is injustice, or is palpably wrong. This is the ordinary and proper sense in which the word merit is used among men, and it was in this sense that I endeavoured to show that m ■ii cannot merit salvation.
(2.) I observe, secondly, that cases may arise where much more may be done for you than one who is in your employ is strictly bound to perform. A reference to some of these cases will enable us to explain the subject before us.
(a) You have a man in your employ engaged under the ordinary conditions of service as a labourer, or clerk. Without any special agreement with him, or without anything being said about it in your contract, he is to do what is commonly understood to be required in that condition of life; what is usually done by those in the same employment. He is to be at his post at a certain hour in the morning, and to remain until a certain hour in the evening, and is to be faithful to his employer's interests, and diligent in the prosecution of the business entrusted to him. On these conditions, without anything more specific, the contract is usually made with clerks, and bookkeepers, and day-labourers, and journeymen-mechanics, and lawyers, and ministers of the gospel. It is not deemed necessary to be any more specific than that they shall be faithful to the interests of their employers, and render the amount of service which is usually expected in their occupation. But it is very possible to conceive that one may go much beyond that He may be engaged at a much earlier hour than is usual, and may prolong his toils far into the shades of night. He may evince uncommon tact and sagacity in the management of affairs entrusted to him, and such may be his skill and success, that his services may have a value far beyond anything which you had anticipated in the contract. You would not feel yourself at liberty to turn him off or to complain if he had not done this. You would not feel that he has a legal claim on you for anything more than you promised to pay him, for you did not contract with him for this special service ; but you would be likely to feel that he has a claim of honour on you, and if, when he leaves your service, you know of any situation of special advantage that can be obtained, you would feel yourself under a sort of moral obligation to endeavour to secure it for him. Here is something merited, since more has been done than he was bound to do.
(6) A second case:—A man in your employ may be placed in circumstances where he may have an opportunity of doing something for your special advantage, though of a nature which was not distinctly specified in your contract with him. He may have great sagacity, and may watch the changes and chances in the market, and enable you to make important and advantageous purchases; he may be in possession of intelligence respecting coming changes in the markets, which may be of great service to you; or he may, by uncommon tact in business, be enabled to save you from inextricable bankruptcy. Now if he is a mere bookkeeper, or salesman, you could hardly claim as a matter of right that he should bring his sagacity in these things into your service; perhaps you would hardly blame him if he took advantage of it to advance his own interests, provided he did not injure you. His specific business is to keep your books correctly, or to sell your goods in the manner in which you shall direct him, and his sagacity and tact in these departments you have a right to require should be employed in your service. But your contract and your claim extend no farther. Yet if he chooses to go beyond this, and actually, while he incurs no possible risk, is the means of great advantage to you, as an honourable man you would feel that he deserved an appropriate acknowledgment. Many instances of this kind might be referred to, but these will illustrate the point under consideration.
(3.) It is necessary to make but one other remark in order to see the bearing of these illustrations on the case before us. Reference has been made to " abounding merit;" to cases in which service is rendered beyond what was in the contract ; to that which was wholly voluntary, and yet where there would be a claim in honour at least for a suitable acknowledgment, or where an honourable man would feel himself under obligation to bestow a reward. The remark which is now to be made is, that he who has this extra claim on you may do what he pleases with the reward which you may feel willing to give. It may not be needful for him, or he may not choose to make use of it for himself; but he may be disposed to make another use of it which will develope some trait of mind that will by no means diminish your respect for his character. Suppose some such cases as the following in the application of the instances referred to:—that he should ask you to aid a younger brother of his who was just beginning business, and who was greatly in need of credit; or, in the event of his death, to show kindness to his aged father or mother; or to appropriate the gratuity which you designed for him to some young man who was struggling to obtain an education. Or suppose that the faithful servant should ask you to release from bondage his wife or child, in consideration of the extra and quite equivalent services which he had rendered to you. Or to take another case:— Suppose a friend of his had, in an unhappy moment, defrauded you, might he uot ask you to "set that to his account?" In either case, would you not feel that what he asked he had a right to ask ? And would you not be the more deeply affected with respect for his character by this request? He did not perform the extra service for reward. He did not expect it. Ho did not mention it to you. He did not claim any reward. But when you felt that he had a claim to it, and pressed it upon him, and would not be refused, he looked not for gorgeous or gay apparel for himself, or for a purse of gold, or a splendid house, nor did he ask you to trumpet his fame; but he looked round on those struggling with poverty, crushed and enfeebled by age, bound in affliction and iron, or burdened with debts which they could never discharge, and asked you to forget him and to remember them. The developments of such a character would fill your mind with new conceptions of its beauty, and your heart would be insensibly knit with his.
It will be perceived that these illustrations bear on the explanation of what is meant by the merits of Christ. His merit was of this extraordinary or superabundant kind. It was beyond what could have been demanded of him, and was such that, if lie chose to ask it, or so designed it, it could be made available to others. This leads us to the second general inquiry—
II. In tchat did His merits consist f Keeping in view the remarks already made, it will be necessary to show that all that he did when on earth was of this extraordinary character; that he rendered real service to the universe for which the rewards given him will be no more than an equivalent; and that his merits were of such a nature that they may be made"available to others.
(1.) All that he did was of an extraordinary character, or was service which could not have been demanded of him. This remark is based on the fact that he was Divine, and has no pertinency except on that supposition. When it is said that his service or work was such as could not be demanded, it is meant that there was no law or obligation which could bind the Divinity to become incarnate, to be an humble teacher of mankind, to minister to their wants with his own hands, or to make an atonement for their transgressions. The entire transaction was of a kind which could be enforced by no law. If he was equal to the Father and one with him, he was under no law but the infinite and eternal law of his own Divine nature. There was no obligation on him to become a man, a priest, a sacrifice; to toil, to weep, to die.—Another illustration may be introduced here. There is an heir-apparent to a crown. Every consideration of propriety, (and perhaps a statute-law of the realm,) requires him to perform the duties of a son in the palace, and to appear and act on all occasions as becomes the first man in the realm next to the throne. But there is no law which requires him to become a day-labourer, or a menial, or that makes it his duty to go into some peasant's cottage and watch the long night by the cradle of a dying child. There may possibly be no law against it, if he chooses to do it; hut it cannot he demanded of him. The Son of God in heaven would appear there always in a manner appropriate to his unequalled relation to the Father; but what law was there requiring him to come down to earth, to be a man of sorrows, to take part in our sadnesses and woes, and to die ? If he did this, the service was altogether of an extraordinary character, and was entirely a work of merit. This remark is obvious. Its hearings, if conceded to be true, are of great importance. The force and pertinence of this reasoning, as has been already remarked, proceeds on the supposition that he is Divine. If he is not, however exalted as a created being he may be, it does not appear how he could have any extra merit, and consequently how the doctrine of justification by his righteousness could be held. If Christ be a mere man, or an angel, or an archangel, or creature of any rank, no such extraordinary service could be rendered—none could be made available to us.
We have seen that man may acquire extra merit from his fellow-man, merit which may be made available to others. The question is, why a creature may not do this in reference to the service of God; and why, if the Saviour were less than Divine, he might not do the same thing for us ? The answer to this question is obvious. When you employ a man, you contract for a certain amount of service or of time. You do not contract for all that he has. You contract for what is usual, or what you specify. All beyond the limits of that contract remains his. But there is no such contract, understanding, or stipulation, expressed or understood, between a creature and God. All a man's powers, his time, his talents, his service, his skill, his learning, his influence, belong to his Maker. Of every creature God demands " all the heart, the mind, the might, the strength." There is not a moment of time in which a creature can feel that he is released from the claim of his Maker; there is not a power or faculty of mind or body which he possesses which is beyond the range of the demand of the Divine law ; there is not a service of prayer, or praise, or sacrifice which he could render, which is beyond the limits of his duty; there is not an act of benevolence to the poor, the needy, the sinful, or the dying, which he can perform, which is beyond the all-comprehensive grasp of the Divine command to do good. Can a creature of the Almighty put himself into the midst of a service acceptable to God which he may feel was not required of him ? Can he love with an ardour beyond what God requires ? Can he maintain a degree of fidelity in temptation beyond what is demanded ? Can he stoop to some scene of woe, and do good to a sufferer in a way which the law that hinds him to God did not make his duty ? C■nn he evince compassion for the sinful and the sad beyond what the law of his nature and the commandment of his Maker demand ? If he cannot, how can there he such extra merit that it can be made available to others ? And if the Lord Jesus were a mere man, as one class of Socinians tells us; or an angel of exalted rank, as another class assures us; or the highest created intelligence, as the Arian affirms,—how could he have wrought out any merit which can be available to us ? How could he have done anything beyond what he was bound as a creature to do ? How could he so have stepped beyond the limits of the Divine law as-by abounding merits to save a world ? It is difficult to see, therefore, how he who denies the Divinity of the Lord Jesus can hold to the doctrine of a meritorious sacrifice on his part, or to the doctrine of justification through his merits at all: and there is a melancholy consistency in the philosophy and practical faith of those who deny his Divinity, in yielding up the doctrine of the atonement, and then the whole doctrine of justification by faith. Hut admit that Christ is God, equal with the Father, and all is clear. Then, being under no obligations to become incarnate, being bound by no law to leave the throne of heaven, and seek a home in a manger, a lodging-place without a pillow, a death on a cross, and a burial in the grave destined for another, all this is the work of extra merit, and may all be available for others. "We see him in our world, not as a mere man, and thus bound by law to render every service to the cause of God ; but as Immanuel—God with us—the voluntary messenger from heaven—the equal with God—performing a service to which no law bound him, and to which no other powers were adequate, and which therefore may constitute a fulness of merit that may be available for those who have none.
(2.) The second remark is, that Christ rendered real service to the universe by his work. His coming, his teaching, his death, his resurrection, were an advantage to the cause of God and of virtue, to the full extent of the reward which he will receive. The universe has been so much profited by his voluntary and wonderful service in the cause of virtue and salvation, that there is a propriety that he should be rewarded for it ; and the reward which he will receive is no more than an equivalent for the value of the scrvice rendered. It will be asked, What has been the advantage of his work to the universe ? In what way is it to be measured or estimated ? It may be replied, We do not know fully yet, nor are our minds in a condition now, if they trill ever be, to estimate what is appropriate to " satisfy" him for the " travail of his soul." But the general answer, whoever can appreciate its meaning;, will be, that the value or worth of his voluntary services is to be estimated by all the evils which his coming has arrested or prevented, and by all the happiness in this world and in heaven of which it has been the cause. If we could ascertain this, we could estimate the amount of his services to the universe, and of course the amount of the reward which is due to him, or the amount of his merit. No attempt can be made by us to gauge the amount of this merit. All that can be done is to submit a few hints to illustrate the real nature of the service which he rendered.
(a) He did voluntary good through his life. He healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and vigour to the lame ; he restored the maniac to his right mind, and brought back the poor outcast who " dwelt among the tombs" to the comforts of home. All this was doing good to the world, which, if he had not come, would not have been done.
(b) He set a most holy example of virtue to mankind. He showed what true virtue is—how man should live, and how he should meet the temptations of the great enemy of the soul. All this is so much gained to the cause of virtue, above what would have been if he had not come; and the value of having one perfect example in a world where there had been no such standard, and amidst the conflicting opinions of men on the subject of morals, cannot be estimated.
(c) He taught man by his example how to hear trials. He himself went through all the usual forms of woe and grief, and showed in each one of them how man ought to endure calamities, and how in them consolation might be found. But who in a suffering and dying world can estimate the value of such an example ?
(d) He taught man the true character of God; the nature of his law; the kind of worship that would be acceptable to him, and the way in which the throne of mercy may be approached. But who can estimate the value to a sinful world of the knowledge of the way of pardon ?
(e) He introduced a religion which has contributed everywhere to the promotion of industry, purity, chastity, truth, honesty, intelligence, and liberty; which has raised one sex from the deepest degradation, and softened the asperities and removed the tyranny of the other; which has led to the founding of hospitals and asylums, and which will ultimately put an end to all the forms of evil and vice that tyrannize over man:—and who can gauge the amount of service which He has thus rendered to man and to the universe?
(/) Ho made an atonement for sin—his greatest, noblest work. He vindicated by his death the honour and the law of God, and solved the question which has everywhere confounded the human intellect, how justice and mercy can meet together, and how righteousness can be maintained, and yet the sinner go free. He secured to the universe by his death all the advantages which could have been secured by the everlasting punishment of the sinner himself, and all the advantages which now result from admitting to heaven countless millions who but for his sacrifice would have been eternally wretched:—and what finite mind can estimate the value of His service rendered to the universe ?
(ff) He checks evil by his gospel and his grace, and turns the disobedient to the paths of virtue. Take one single example as an illustration of the amount of service thus rendered,—the case of Saul of Tarsus. Think of what he would have been with his extraordinary talents, his uncommon learning, his vast energy of character, and his restless ambition, and his proud and selfconfident heart, if there had been no atonement ; and then of what he was after he was converted to the cause of truth. Think of his influence, while he lived, in meeting the evils and corruptions of idolatry; in closing temples of polluted worship; in purifying the fountains of morals; and in diffusing abroad the principles of pure religion. Think of the good which has been done since his time, by his incomparable writings, in maintaining the truth, and imparting consolation in a world of sorrow; and see in the conversion of that man an instance of the kind of service which the Lord Jesus rendered to the universe. Then reflect that the case of Saul of Tarsus is but one of many hundreds of millions—individually less bright, but in the aggregato outshining his,—as the mingled light of the galaxy is of greater glory than the twinkling of a single star,—and then ask, Who can estimate the amount of service which the Son of God has rendered to the universe ? All that has been done by His holy life and example; all that has been accomplished on earth by the influence of His religion; all that His death did to honour the Divine law; all that has been or will be done by arresting evil and staying the desolations of sin; all the additions which have been or will be made by redemption to the numbers of the heavenly host; and all the immortal songs and joys of the redeemed in heaven,—all these things are to be taken into this estimate, and will be the measure of the voluntary service rendered to the universe by the Son of God. It remains only, in order to a complete explanation of the subject, to add—
(3.) That all the merit of Christ's work—all the reward which he deserved—is available to others. It is that superabounding service which has been before referred to, which can be appropriated in any way that he shall ask. Not needing it for himself, for he dwells in " the glory which he had with the Father before the world was," it can be appropriated to those who are poor, and needy, and destitute of any claim of merit. The reward for all his extraordinary services may be such as he shall wish, and his heart will not ask augmented glory for himself in heaven as Divine, but will seek it in the elevation and immortal felicity of the poor and lost upon the earth for whom he died. By such a reward the universe will lose nothing, but will on every account be a gainer; and the benevolent heart which rendered these extraordinary services may be abundantly satisfied by asking that the " lost may be saved." It was on grounds like these that it was said in the promise, " Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession," Psa. ii. 8. Thus too the promise was, " He shall see of the travail of his soul"—the fruit of his wearisome sorrow—"and shall be satisfied,"Isa. liii. 11. Thus too, in asking in his parting prayer that his work on earth might be remembered, he could use with propriety the strong language, " Father, I will that they also whom thou hast given me be with me where I am, that they may behold my glory which thou hast given me," John xvii. 24. To secure their salvation, and the universal spread of his gospel, he can urge the extraordinary claim of the service which he has rendered by his life of spotless virtue; his pure example; his relief of human woes; and the sorrows which he voluntarily endured in order that the law of God might be maintained, and eternal justice asserted, even when salvation was offered to men.
If these views are correct, then it follows,
(1.) That we are to look nowhere else than to Christ as the meritorious cause of salvation. Had it been possible for any mere created being to have wrought out sufficient merit to save the soul, the incarnation of the Son of God, and his death on Calvary, would never have occurred. The moment it is maintained that man may merit salvation for himself, or for others, the doctrine of the atonement is denied, and the work of Christ dishonoured; and the doctrine that there are anywhere, or in any hands, garnered up the merits of holy men of which we can avail ourselves, derogates, to just the extent in which it is held, from the Great Sacrifice, and is an attack on the fundamental doctrines of the gospel. In our hopes of salvation we have but one place to which to look. It is not what our own hands have done, or what has been done by holy men of other times; it is the infinite merit of the Son of God.
(2.) The merits of the Saviour are sufficient for the salvation of all mankind. If the view which has been taken is correct, it is clear that the benefits which he has rendered to the universe, by his holy obedience and death, are commensurate with any rewards which he may receive in connexion with the salvation of men. " It pleased the Father that in him," in every respect, " should all fulness dwell;" and alike in his power, his benevolence, his willingness to save, and the merits of his work, there is an ample sufficiency for the wants of all mankind. Needing none of the results of his great work on earth for the promotion of his own happiness, all that he did may be made available to others, and all men may come with equal freeness and confidence. He had the promise of an ample and satisfactory reward, when it was said that he " should see of the travail of his soul, and should be satisfied ;" and on the basis of that promise he himself uses such language as this: " If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink." " Come unto me, all ye that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest;" and " whosoever will, let him come and take the water of life freely." There was no original deficiency in the merits of the Saviour for human salvation, nor has his merit been exhausted by the numbers that have already been saved. Salvation in him is like a copious fountain breaking out in a desert. Such a fountain is free for all who may come. It stands in the pathway where the multitudes move, where the caravans pass along —and no one has a right to appropriate it exclusively to himself. No tribe of men may enclose it, or may obstruct its waters. One company of weary travellers has as much right there as another, and to no one particularly appertains the office of dispensing it to the fainting pilgrim. Any one who will come and kneel down there, may drink freely. And it will never be exhausted. The fountain will pour out its waters from age to age. The present company of thirsty travellers will soon pass on. They will pursue their journey, and go off to die ; but there the stream will flow on, unexhausted and inexhaustible, to the end of time. So it is with the fountain of salvation. As many of the present generation as choose may come and partake, and then as many of the next and the next, and still the fountain will flow on, unexhausted and inexhaustible. It will flow just as fresh and just as full in the last generation that lives, as it did in the days of the Saviour's personal residence on earth—as it does now ; and the last sinner that is to be saved will find it as pure and as life-giving to his soul as it is to ours.
(3.) Finally, let no one then say that he is so great a sinner that he cannot be saved. I know how the troubled sinner feels. I know that his guilt often presses him down as a mighty burden, and that he feels he has no claim to salvation. We do not ask you to come depending on your own merits. We believe that you never will find eternal life, if you make your own deeds your plea. But the sinner sometimes has another feeling. He not only feels that he has no merit and no claim to salvation, but he feels that his sins are so great that not even the merit of the Lord Jesus will be sufficient to cancel his guilt. Here, fellow-sinner, you err. Here you do injustice tp his holy life, to his benevolent heart, to his death. That infinite merit which he secured by his work on earth, he is willing should be available for your salvation. And that is like the illimitable ocean. It is always full; and no matter how many have sought and found salvation there, there will be countless millions more. Come, then, thou who art conscious that thou hast no merit of thine own, and be one of that blessed number who receive of his fulness, grace for grace. " Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price," Isa. lv. 1.