MAN CANNOT MERIT SALVATION.
Job xxxv. 5—8. "Look unto the heavens, and see; and behold the clouds, which are higher than thou. If thou sinnest, what doest thou against him ? or if thy transgressions be multiplied, what doest thou unto him ? If thou be righteous, what givest thou him ? or what receiveth he of thine hand ? Thy wickedness may hurt a man as thou art; and thy righteousness may profit the son of man."
These are the words of Elihu, who, though not inspired, has expressed a sentiment which the Spirit of inspiration has regarded it as important to preserve. The general idea is, that God is so great and independent that the conduct of men can neither injure nor profit him; that though man may he affected in his interests by the treatment which he receives from his fellow-men, no such treatment, whether good or evil, can affect the great and eternal God—the God that made the heavens, and that dwells in regions beyond the clouds. The evil conduct of man cannot mar His happiness, or otherwise injure Him; nor can man's acts of righteousness so benefit Him as to lay Him under obligation. " If thou be righteous, what givest thou him? or what receiveth he of thine hand? Thy wickedness may hurt a man as thou art; and thy righteousness may profit the son of man." It is one part of this general sentiment only that I here design to illustrate—that our acts of righteousness cannot so profit God as to lay him under obligation to us.
In the two previous discourses I have endeavoured to prove that man cannot justify himself either by denying the facts charged on him, or by showing that he had a right to do as he has done. The inquiry at once presents itself, How then can he be saved 1 There are but two ways conceivable—one by his own merits, that is, that he somehow deserves to be saved ; the other, by the merits of another or of others. If it be in the latter way, it must either be by the merits of Christ, or it must be because certain eminent saints have done more than was demanded of them, and that their merits, garnered up and deposited in certain hands, can be made over to others. It is not proposed to inquire now whether this latter method be in accordance with truth, but whether men can merit salvation for themselves. They can do it if their lives are such that they deserve to go to heaven, or if it would be wrong for God to punish them for ever, for " God will not do wickedly, neither will the Almighty pervert judgment," Job xxxiv. 12. The importance of this inquiry will he at once perceived; for the great mass of mankind are depending on their own righteousness for salvation, and the grand issue between Christianity and the world lies just in this point. There are two subjects of inquiry, which, if they can be made clear, will conduct to the truth in this case :—I. What is meant by merit? and, II. Can man merit heaven ?
I. What is meant by merit? The word is in common use, and the common use is the correct one. We speak of merit when a man deserves a reward for something which he has done, or when it would be wrong to withhold it. He renders to him who employs him an equivalent, or what is of as much value as is paid him for his services. Two or three simple illustrations will make the common use of the word plain, and show its bearing on the question before us.
You hire a day-labourer. You make a bargain with him at the outset; he complies with the terms on his part, and at night you pay him. He has earned, deserved, or merited that which you pay. He has been faithful to his part of the agreement, and the service which he has rendered is worth as much to■ you as the wages which you pay him. You could have done the work perhaps yourself, but you preferred to hire him, for you might yourself be more profitably or pleasantly employed. At all events, what he has done is worth to you all which you pay him, and it would be wrong on every consideration for you to withhold it. If you choose to give him anything more than was specified in the agreement, it would be a gratuity; but that which you agreed to give him he has a right to demand, and you are not at liberty to withhold it. He has deserved or earned it, for he has rendered you a full equivalent, according to the terms of the contract.
A man enlists to defend his country as a soldier. It is supposed, in the contract which is made with him, that his service will be of equal value to his country with the pay which he receives. By fighting its battles; by guarding its sea-coasts, villages, towns, and hamlets; by keeping its fields from being trod down by an enemy ; by protecting the lives of aged men, helpless women, and children; and by defending the flag of the nation from insult, it is supposed that his services are worth full as much to the country as he receives in his pay. The pay is graduated in part by the test estimate which can be made of the value of the service which, a man can render in this calling, and the nation would he no gainer hy dismissing him from its service. He complies with the contract, and when he comes and shows his scars, and tells of his perils and privations, his weary marches, and his risk of life, and his separation from home and friends in the cause of his country, his country will not grudge him the pittance that he receives, for he has earned it, and merited it, and it would not he right to withhold it from him.
You employ a physician; the service which he renders you, you regard a full equivalent for what you pay him. What you receive from him in his care, attention, skill, and sympathy, you consider to he fully equal in value to the compensation which you give him. Your relief from pain, your recovery of the use of your hodily powers, or the restoration to your affectionate emhrace in sound health of a wife or child, you consider as an ample equivalent for all which he asks you for his services ; and were an election to be made, you would much prefer to pay the amount of the physician's fees to going through thctse sorrows again. What he receives from you, you feel that on every account he deserves or has earned, and it would he wrong for you to withhold it.
In each of these cases, that is true which the apostle Paul affirms, " To him that worketh, the reward is not reckoned of grace, hut of debt." These illustrations will explain the proper sense of the word " merit." In each instance, there is an equivalent for what is paid; in each instance, what is demanded could bo enforced as a claim of right. There is no other sense in which the word merit or desert can be used. All besides this■U favour or rjracc. If you choose to give the day-labourer, the soldier, or the professional man more than you agreed, or more than his services are worth to you, you have an undoubted right to do so, but von would not put it on the ground of his merit or desert. You would feel that it was a gratuity which could not be enforced by justice, and that no blame would ho attached to you if it were withheld. If his perils, or services, or self-denials and sacrifices, were greater than you anticipated when the contract was made, or if the service rendered was really of more value to you than the amount which you are pledged to give him, you may consider yourself bound hy equity to give him more, for you feel that he has earned or merited it. Thus you would be glad to compensate, if you could, the wounded soldier who has perilled all in your defence; and on the same principle, if you could do it, you would wish to recompense the man who at the risk of his life should save your child from the devouring flame, or from a watery grave.
II. We come now to apply these principles to the case before us. Keeping this explanation of the nature of merit in view, we approach the inquiry, whether man can merit heaven ? Can lie be saved because he deserves it? Can he be so profitable to God that he can advance a just claim to an admission into tho world of glory ? If he can, then his salvation follows as a matter of course ; if he cannot, he should lose no time in endeavouring to ascertain whether there is any other way by which he may be saved. In reference to this inquiry, the following considerations may be submitted:—
(1.) Man can render no service to his Maker for which the rewards of heaven would be a proper equivalent. Or, in other words, the amount of service which he can render is not such as can be properly measured by the reward of everlasting life. His service to his Maker and to the universe is not of so much value that he «an claim eternal life as an equivalent. We have seen that this does exist in the case of the day-labourer, the soldier, and the physician. We can see a correspondence between the service rendered and the compensation in these cases, which makes us feel that there is propriety and equity in the reward. But in reference to any connexion or correspondence between the service which man can render his Maker and the rewards of heaven, we can see no such propriety and equity. The one does not measure the other. The universe is not so much benefited by the service of man, that everlasting life and infinite happiness would be only a fair equivalent, or such that wrong would be done if that reward should be withheld. Yet is it not a fair principle, that this must be the case if man deserves or merits salvation ? Must there not have been such an amount or value of service rendered that it would be injustice to.withhold the reward—injustice such as would occur in the case of the faithful day-labourer, the soldier, the physician, if their pay were withheld ? That must be extraordinary service rendered to the universe, or to God, which deserves the glories of an eternal heaven as its reward. That is extraordinary service rendered to you if a stranger rescues a child from impending death, and restores him to your transported bosom, and you feel that no compensation which you can make would be more than an equivalent. That was extraordinary service which was rendered to their country by the heroes of the American Revolution; and as the results of their patriotism and perils are seen in the unexampled prosperity of the land which they rescued, we feel that the pension of the old soldier is a very inadequate recompense. That was extraordinary virtue which led the father of his country through the trials, perplexities, and perils of that time, and which he evinced when, having laid the foundation of our liherty, he voluntarily retired to private life, leaving the people in the enjoyment of freedom ; and we feel that no wealth which the nation had to ofler, no monument of marble or of brass which art could rear, would equal the measure of his praise. But has man any such extraordinary service to render to his Maker and to the universe ? Has he done anything, can he do anything for God, and for the empire which he rules, which would make the wealth of heaven and its everlasting glories only an equitable recompense? Obviously, there ■is no congruity, no fitness, no correspondence between the one and the other; and when men talk about meriting heaven, or when they feel that they deserve to be saved, they have not well considered the import of language. They use it correctly in common life. Is it not right to ask that it may be used with the same exactness in religion?
(2.) This general principle, which appears so obvious, may bo illustrated with particular reference to the religious services which men render to their Maker. If man merits heaven, and is to be saved on account of his own deservings, it will be conceded that the service must be in some way connected with religion, or of such a nature that it can be regarded as the service of God. You would not feel yourself bound to pay a day-labourer if, instead of working for you, he worked all day for your neighbour, or were idle; you would not think of recompensing a soldier if he slept at his post, or fought under the standard of the enemy.
There are religious men upon the earth—men who are honestly engaged in the service of God, and who, in connexion with their religious services, are looking for the rewards of heaven. Our subject, in its progress, demands that we inquire just here whether the service which they render is of such a nature that they merit eternal life ? Is it because they are so profitable to God and his cause that the rewards of heaven would be only an equivalent for the services which they render ? Let us look a moment at this matter.
A man who is truly religious renders a real and a valuable service to the cause of virtue and of God. His existence is a blessing, and not a curse. The universe is made better and happier because he lives. It would be a loss to society and to the universe, if his example, his conversation, his plans of wisdom, his experience, and his generous deeds, were annihilated or had not been. When the "rewards" of heaven are bestowed upon him, it will not be without some reference to a fitness or propriety that they should be so bestowed. There will be a sense in which every man will be "rewarded according to his works." I3ut in reference to the bearing of this indisputable fact on the case before us, there are two or three things that deserve to be considered.
(a) One is, that your individual existence is not necessary to secure the service which is now actually rendered. God is not so dependent on you that he could not accomplish his purposes without you, or that if you should be removed, service of equal value might not be secured in some other way. By the great law of his kingdom, the agency of man is to be employed in the accomplishment of his purposes, but your individual agency is not indispensable. The services of a minister of the gospel who is eminently useful, and who is at a time of life, and has a measure of experience and learning, that seems to fit him for an important station, can be supplied by some one that God can place in his stead. When he is taken away, a mighty chasm indeed seems to be made; but his withdrawal soon ceases to be felt, for others rush in to fill his place : as the surface of the ocean soon becomes smooth, and it seems to be as full as it was before, though the waterspout has lifted up and carries away a portion of the mighty deep, or the sun has caused it to ascend in vapours; for streams and rivors all the while pour into that ocean, and keep up a constant supply. The man that was so learned and wise that it seemed as if no one else could supply his place at the head of a college, or so sagacious and prudent that it seemed as if some vast plan of benevolence depended on him, is removed; but the chasm is soon filled up—just as in storming a city, when the leader falls, some subaltern steps into his place, and leads on the conquest with the freshness of youth, and with wisdom and valour that had been in training for this very breach which God foresaw would occur. Let us not, then, suppose that our services are indispensable to God. Let us not imagine that he is dependent on us, or is under obligation to us. In the bosom of society, there are undeveloped powers, which will more than fill our places; in the church, there is piety maturing which can do more than we can do : and the very purposes of human advancement cherished in the Divine Mind may demand our removal.
(b) The religious man will reflect, further, that his best services do not deserve heaven. A man who is truly pious, and who has any proper sense of his own imperfections, and of the glory to which he is looking forward, never feels that there is any proportion between the services which he renders to God here, and the immortal blessedness to which ho hopes to be elevated hereafter. He renders no service to the cause of truth and virtue which in his own estimation is an equivalent for the rewards which he trusts are in reserve for him ; and after all his toils he feels that those rewards will be not of " debt," but of grace, and tbat be is an " unprofitable servant." God bas taken effectual care of tbis in bis plan of salvation; and whoever he may be that expects heaven on the ground of his own merit, it will not be be who gives evidence that he is truly a devoted and faithful servant of God.
(c) If, however, at any time tbis feeling of merit or claim should arise in the mind of a truly pious man, it is effectually checked by a moment's reflection on the way in which he has been disposed to engage in the service of God at all. It is not by any native inclination or tendency of mind; it has been solely by grace. Whatever service he may render, the origin of it is to be traced back to that distinguishing mercy which led him to seek after God, when be was disposed to pursue his own ways; which recalled him, when he was a wretched wanderer from the paths of truth and salvation. The case is like this:—You go into a "market place," and find a man " idle," and inclined to be idle. You reason and remonstrate with him, and by persevering entreaty, and the offer of reward, arouse him from his indolence, and induce him to spend his time in your service. Now, however faithful he may be, or however valuable may be the services which he may render you, he will never feel that any merit is to "tie attributed to himself. He owes to you bis industrious habits, and all which he can ever secure by his labour. Or to take a case more in point:— You go into a miserable hovel, and find a wretch in the lowest stages of vice and misery. He was once a man in heart as well as in form, but now he has wholly lost the manhood of the one, and almost of the other. He is loathsome by vice and disease, and is a wretched outcast. He has no wish to oc, a man again ; he baa no energy to arouse him from bis condition ; be has no friend to take him by the hand, or even to pity him in his vices and woes. You take compassion on him. You clothe him in decent apparel. You remonstrate with him on his evil course. You remind him of what he was, and tell him of what he may be still. You rekindle the dying spark of self-respect; show him that he may yet forsake the paths of vice and again be respectable ; breathe into him gradually the wish to be virtuous and pure and happy; give him a comfortable home to dwell in, and a piece of land to cultivate as bis own. You speak kindly to him when he is discouraged; shield him when he is tempted by bis old companions ; offer him ample rewards for any services which ho may render you,■—and he returns to the ways of industry, and rises to a condition of competency and respectability. Perchance, doing this, you have lighted on a "gem of purest ray serene"
in that rubbish, and the unhappy wretch whom you have rescued had a genius which takes its place among the brightest constellations of talent, and its light beams afar on the nations. Yet how w^ll he feel in these circumstances ? Will he feel that this is to be traced to his own merit, and that the wealth or honour which may gather around him is the measure of his desert ? He will feel that but for you he would even now have been occupying that wretched hovel, or more likely would have been in the drunkard's grave. Whatever he has of moral worth, influence, or reputation, is to be traced to you. Thus it is with the Christian; and feeling this, he cannot regard himself as so profitable to God as to merit the rewards of heaven.
(3.) If it were conceded that the rewards of heaven were a proper recompense for the religious services which man can render to God, yet they would not be the suitable reward of those who are commonly expecting heaven on the ground of their own merits. The truly religious man, as we have seen, expects heaven, not on the ground of his own deserts, but through the grace of God. We may therefore lay the case of such out of the question in the inquiry whether men can deserve salvation by their own merits. The other class, embracing the mass of mankind, expect to be sared because they deserve to be saved, or, ,which amounts to the same thing, because they do not deserve to be damned. The ground of their claim is not that they are religious ■—for that they do not profess to be ; and not that they render such service to the cause of God that the rewards of heaven would be an equivalent for their services—for they do not profess to be engaged in his service at all. What, then, is it ? It is, that they are honest, true, faithful to their contracts, honourable in their dealings, disposed to aid others in their distress, and courteous in their treatment of their fellow-men. One who leads such a life, they suppose, does not deserve to be cast off and made miserable for ever; or, what is the same thing, they suppose that in all justice and equity he ought to be made happy in a future state— that is, that he may be saved on the ground of his own merits. What is now the value of this claim ? With the principles before us which have been laid down, let us endeavour to answer this question. The inquiry is, Is heaven the appropriate reward of such a life ? An illustration or two will make this plainer than abstract reasoning would do. You hire a man as a day-labourer. He comes to you at night for his pay. If he has been industrious according to the contract, and faithful to your interests, the case is a plain one, and you do not hesitate. But you put the interrogatory to him, " Did you go into my vineyard, and spend the
day in cultivating it for me, and in a careful regard to my interests 1" " No," is the honest reply; " but I have spent the day diligently. I have not been an idle man. I have attended to the cultivation of my own vineyard, and been faithful to my family, and I may appeal to all my neighbours for my general courtesy and honesty of life." If you now say that this is a case which is so palpably absurd that it never could occur, it may be replied, that it has been made absurd on purpose. Such a man would be only speaking out in the honesty of his heart what is the secret claim of every one who is not engaged in the service of God, and who yet feels that he ought to be saved. He does not even profess to be attending to the interests of his Creator, or engaged in his service.—You send a clerk to some distant town to collect your debts. He returns. " Have you been diligent and successful in the duty assigned you f" " I was diligent. I travelled much. In all my journey I injured no one; I treated no one roughly; I addressed no one in any other manner thaa in the language required in refined life. I also acquired valuable lands for myself, and have a prospect of rising to affluence and respectability." " But what has this to do with the reward which would be appropriate for one employed in my service V " Nothing," a child would reply. But has it not just as much to do with it as the claim of a man who does not profess to serve his Maker, and. who lives only to regard his own interests, has to do with tho rewards of heaven ?—You have a servant or an apprentice, whom you have a right to punish if he does wrong. You enjoin on him a specific duty—a duty of much importance to yourself, and one that is clearly reasonable in its nature. At the proper time you call him to account. The duty is not discharged; the service is not rendered. He pleads, however, that he does not deserve punishment. He has been steadily engaged all the while; he has been entirely honest and upright in his dealings with his fellow-servants; he has treated them with perfect courtesy, and has even acquired an enviable reputation for amiableness of manners; nay, he has more than once relieved a fellowservant that was poor and sick and dying. All this is very well, i t would be said in reply, but how can this constitute a claim for the particular reward which was offered ? How can it show that lie who has wholly omitted a known and specific duty does not deserve the punishment which was threatened ? With what face could such a servant claim the reward due to faithful service in the cause of his master?
These plain and obvious principles are as applicable to religion as they are to the common transactions of life. God requires of us n specific service. It is not general and indefinite, or left to our choice as to what it shall be. It is, that we shall serve him; that we shall obey his commands; that we shall seek his glory; that we shall love him, honour him, and treat him as our God; that we shall he penitent for our past sins, and he willing to accept his favour on his own terms ; that we shall be serious, religious, prayerful, believing, holy. If this is done, he promises heaven. But it is not done. Those now referred to do not even lay claim to any of these things. Oae of the last things that they would claim, or that their friends would think of claiming for them, is, that they are religious, or that they act habitually from reference to the will of their Creator. They claim to be moral, honest, true, urbane, kind; but how can this lay the foundation of a claim to the appropriate rewards of piety ? How in these things, when they do not even intend it, can they render any service to God which would be the proper basis of his rewarding them in heaven ? No more than the day-labourer, the clerk, and the servant, carefully attentive to their own interests, but wholly regardless of the interests of their employer, can expect a reward.
Having thus stated these arguments to show that man cannot by any services which he can render make himself so profitable to God as to merit salvation, or he of so much advantage to His cause as to render an equivalent for the rewards of heaven, it remains only to remark,
(4.) That if he cannot do this by a life of obedient holiness, he cannot by any offering which he has it in his power to make. The reasons for this are so obvious as to make it needless to dwell on them. One is, that no offering which we can make can be of any advantage or profit to God. He is made no richer by any oblation of silver and gold which we can bring him; he has no unsatisfied wants which can be supplied by our ministrations? " If I were hungry," says he, " I would not tell thee; for the world is mine and the fulness thereof. Will I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats?" Psa. 1. 12,13. Another reason is, that all that we possess is his, and we can give to him nothing to which he has not already a prior and supreme right. " Every beast of the forest," says he, " is mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills. I know all the fowls of the mountains, and the wild beasts■of the field are mine," Psa. 1. 10, 11. Another reasou is, that nothing that we could offer would be a compensation for our past offences, or repair the evils which we have done by our neglect of duty and by our open sins. " Wherewith shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the high God? Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves of a year old ? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil ? shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?" Micah vi. 6,, 7. And how shall a man profit God; how lay him under obligation to save him; how render such service as to be au equivalent for heaven? Shall he flagellate his own body? Yet how will that profit God ? Shall he gird sackcloth on his loins, or wear an irritating haircloth garment to torment himself? Yet how will that benefit his Maker? Shall he go on a pilgrimage to some distant shrine ? How will his Maker be advantaged by that ? Shall he shut himself up in a gloomy cell, and withdraw from the light of the suu and the moon and the stars, and from the society of living men, and doom himself to wretchedness and woe ? But will his God be made more rich or more happy by his austerities ? Shall he seize upon the objects dearest to his heart, and destroy before bloody altars the lives which his Creator has given? But will it profit God if we kill his own creatures, and pour out their blood before him ? If none of these things will do, with what plea of merit can we come before him? How can we render such service as to have a claim on heaven ?
In view of this train of thought, two additional observations may be made :—
(i.) We see the falsehood of that system of religion which speaks of human merit, of the treasured and garnered merits of the saiuts of former times. If the principles now suggested are correct, how can there have been any such extraordinary and superabounding merit in past times that it may be available now for men ? If there were such treasured merit left by the saints of other days, it might still he a question what claim of right any man has now to distribute it to others; but any such claim of superabounding merit is alike at variance with the Bible and with every just principle of reason. Yet this doctrine is one of the principal supports of the Papacy, and is one of the dogmas that demand credence in our land and of this generation. It will be shown, hereafter, that in Him who died to atone for our sins there is ample merit to supply all our deficiencies, and that the results of his atonement may he ours. The claim that superabounding merit has been wrought out by the saints, derogates from and almost annihilates this; and the claim that his merits and theirs are lodged in human hands, to be dispensed or withheld at pleasure by a priesthood, is one of the chief supports of the most appalling and terrific systems of spiritual despotism that have ever tyrannized over man. Thanks to Him who has bought us our pardon—the disposal of the merits of Lis sacrifice is committed to no human hands, and can be interrupted by no human power!
(2.) This subject is one of direct practical interest to all. If we are ever saved, there will be a good reason for it; for nothing is merely arbitrary in the matter of salvation. There are but two ways possible of being saved—the one by our own merits, the other by the merits of another. If in regard to the latter there are no merits of the "saints" on which we can rely; no merits of parents or pious friends of which we can avail ourselves, then the merits of the Lord Jesns constitute the only foreign dependence which we can have. The whole question is then just this :—Do we rely on our own merits for salvation, or the merits of the Redeemer? Here the world is divided; the Christian, on the one,side—the Pagan, the Mohammedan, the infidel, the moralist, on the other. This single question separates the inhabitants of the globe into two great parties never to be united. But if the principles in this discourse are correct, the question may be put to every man—to his reason, his conscience, his heart—whether he has any merit on which he can rely as a ground of salvation. Has he done anything for which the equivalent is to be found in the rewards of an eternal heaven ? Has he so deserved the rewards of life, has he rendered such service to his Maker, that he can stand at the final bar, where we all must soon stand, and claim an admission to heaven? Can he demand it as a right that heaven's portal should be thrown open to him, and he be welcomed there ? If so, on what ground ? What is the basis of the claim ? Religion? The unconverted sinner makes no pretension to it. Repentance ? He has never shed a tear over his sins. The love of God ? He has no spark of love to that glorious Being in his heart. Sacrifices in his service ? He has made none. An honest endeavour to do his will? He has never made this the rule of his life. What is the service which he has rendered ? What has been the life which he has led ? What is the state of his account with God? What is the condition of his heart? Oh, let him look at the broken law of God, His violated sabbaths, His rejected | goBpel, His grieved Spirit, His neglected word; let him look at his own life of thoughtlessness, selfishness, and vanity, his neglect of prayer, his pride and opposition to God; let him look at the sins of childhood and the worldliness and wickedness of riper years; let him look at the times when God has called and he has refused, when the Saviour has stretched out his hands and he would not regard it; let him look at his broken vows and promises—the times when he resolved that he would be a Christian if ho reached a certain period of life, the solemn covenant which
he made when he was sick, that if God would spare him he would be His;—let him look at these things, and then see whether ho has a claim to an admission to heaven, and whether he can he received there because he has been profitable to God. Oh, if you saw these things aright, you would hail with transports of unspeakable joy the announcement which we make to you, that there is One whose merits can cancel all your sins, and give you a title to salvation. Then, oh! with what joy would you, as thousands have done before you, cast away the " rags of your own righteousness," that you might be clothed in the robe that is " made white in the blood of the Lamb !"