Righteousness Without Works: Part 1

I believe it will be found that the first and simplest truths of the Gospel become of growing value to our souls as we advance onward along the narrow road which leadeth unto life. Truths which are at first received authoritatively, because of the evidence of Scripture for them, become commended to us by their own beauty. And what we received at first, as it were by force of our own necessity, becomes in our progress that which manifests the glory of Christ; so that we are able in a measure to contemplate it apart from selfishness, and to see it in the light in which God Himself sees it. I think I discern this feature in apostolical teachings; while they unfold mysteries, or develop practical truth, they also designedly connect all with the primary truths of the Gospel—thus bringing them into constant prominence.
And this marks the teaching of the Holy Ghost. It is human to handle a particular truth as a subject; but the object of the Holy Ghost is to hold up prominently to view the Person and Work of the Lord Jesus Christ. The soul becomes unsettled from its steadfastness when the mind takes the lead in learning even the truth of God. The Spirit who leads into all truth, connects everything in His teaching with those great primary truths, the Person and Work of the Lord Jesus Christ. The mind may get hold of something new, and be interested in it, as if it were more wonderful than the truth already received. I do not wonder at the apostle saying, " so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God "- there he saw the deepest truth; or, in after-times, saying to Timothy, " Do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry; for I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand." It is an unhealthy symptom, when the simple gospel is not relished. It shows that the mind is rather at work than the conscience exercised before God, or the affections engaged with Christ. There are indeed wonderful discoveries made to us of the grace and purpose of God, and this too as that in which we are specially interested; yet when all is manifested and enjoyed without hindrance, then the primary truths of the gospel will be seen in all their brilliancy, even the Person and Work of Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, the Object of adoration, admiration and praise throughout eternity. It is with these thoughts I now turn to the great fundamental truth of the gospel -"righteousness without works"—a doctrine we know which has not only been controverted by Christians, and sneered at by the wise and the moralist-but which many who hold it, have only become settled in, after much bitter experience of themselves. It is indeed needful for all to learn it in this school of experience. But we may also learn its beauty by looking forward to that day, when the righteousness of the one Man, as the Fountain of all blessedness to the redeemed, shall be as illustriously displayed in heaven and in earth, as the sin of the one man as the source of all misery has been sorrowfully displayed in the history of this world. But there is another light in which the doctrine of " righteousness without works" may be regarded, namely, as leading us into present intercourse with God, and enabling us to walk in His presence. It is the bearing of this great truth as a present influential principle, which the Spirit of God Himself has carried out in the Thirty-second Psalm. And the blessedness predicated of the man to whom the Lord imputeth righteousness without works is a blessedness, not confined to the wondrous truths of " transgression forgiven, sin covered, and iniquity not imputed; " but this blessedness is carried on into the exercises of soul, which result from being freely and fully justified. I would now turn to the Psalm itself.
First, the great oracular declaration—" Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven; whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity." On this statement the Holy Ghost Himself, by the apostle Paul., has thus commented: "Even as David describeth the blessedness of the man to whom God imputeth righteousness without works" (Rom. 4:66Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, (Romans 4:6)). "The blessedness "—we almost need to have this English word translated to us; so slow of heart are we to believe His goodness, when God Himself proclaims it to us. Happiness, "our being's end and aim," is proclaimed by this oracle; and yet men are deaf to it. " Happy is he whose transgression is forgiven! " This is happiness—the alone happiness of which man as a sinner is capable; because nothing but this can bring a sinner to God, in whose presence there is fullness of joy. There is indeed a happiness proclaimed in the first Psalm, " Blessed is the man who bath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seat of the scornful." But where is such a man to be found? This blessedness only attached to the righteous One, the Holy One of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. It was what He did; because He is what He is. But as for us, it is not anything that we can do which can make us happy, but that which God does for us. It is man's impossibility to make himself happy; it is God's possibility to make a sinner happy. And this oracle is the declaration of a sinner's happiness by means of the work of God Himself.
The distinction between transgression and sin is made sufficiently clear by the statements of the apostle in the fifth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans: "Nevertheless, death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam's transgression." Adam sinned by transgressing a positive commandment of God; and thereby incurred the penalty of death. Others were liable to the same penalty who had never sinned by transgressing a positive commandment of God; therefore, there may be sin where there is not such transgression. And the Holy Ghost announces this oracle, according to the usual order of the awakening of conscience. In most cases, it is awakened to a sense of positive acts of sin against the known commandments of God. And so the apostle, in the first chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, adduces proof of the practical ungodliness and immorality of both Gentile and Jew, before he opens the source from whence it all proceeds: original and indwelling sin. Man may draw out a theory of christian doctrine; but the divine way is, not to teach a theory, but to grapple with the conscience, and to make man sensible of his wretched condition as in the presence of God, and that nothing short of God's own provision of Christ can meet his necessity. "Every man that hath heard and learned of the Father cometh to Me," says Christ. The oracle before us regards man as he is, ''an enemy to God in his mind by wicked works." Repentance and remission of sins were to be preached in the name of Christ among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. " Beginning at Jerusalem " shows the character of transgression which the Divine remedy can reach. There was acted out "the great transgression." The testimony against them was, that they had denied the Holy and the Just One, and had killed the Prince of Life. Yet, in the name of Jesus, whom they had crucified, whom God had raised up, there was forgiveness even for this great transgression. Who need despair of finding forgiveness in the same name, in which alone there is salvation? If we turn to a different and more frequent character of transgression, we find it written, " Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor adulterers, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God." It is to man, therefore, as a proved and convicted transgressor before God, as already condemned by the righteous judgment of God, and when awakened by the quickening power of God condemned in his own conscience, that forgiveness of transgression in the name of Jesus is proclaimed by God Himself. And blessed, by God's own testimony, is the man who has an ear to hear it.
I much question if the bare idea of forgiveness of transgression, apart from the solid groundwork on which it rests, viz., the infinite atonement of Christ—" forgiveness in His name "-would ever satisfy the conscience. The groveling thought of escape is, indeed, the careless thought of the unbelieving mass; without one just thought, either of the character of God, or of the evil of sin. But if such a manner of forgiveness were possible, it would leave the recipient of it in that state of uneasiness which a man feels who finds himself in the presence of one whom he had injured, yet who had forgiven him. He would be under the conscious sense of degradation. Such a condition would be the very opposite of being " blessed." It is the mode of the forgiveness, bringing the person forgiven to stand at ease in the presence of God, declared to be just, while He is the Justifier of him that believeth in Jesus, which constitutes the blessedness. The atonement of Christ is indeed the remedy, the only remedy, the divine remedy for the forgiveness of transgression; but it is more, it is the great medium of the display of the moral glory of God. " Angels look into these things," and learn the glory of their God by means of His, dealings with sinners. And it is a wondrous thought, that man's necessity as a sinner and the manifestation of the divine glory, find their one and only meeting point in the cross of Christ. Yea, blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven; and so forgiven as that God is glorified. Oh, what riddance of anxiety to the soul, when its salvation is thus taken from off its own responsibility, and it is no longer the question, Shall I be saved? but, Shall God be glorified? Blessedpeace, indeed, surpassing all understanding, when God and the conscience are all alike satisfied!
" Blessed is the man whose sin is covered." It is not the manner of the Holy Ghost to use redundant expressions. We often use many words where few would suffice. But "the words of the Lord are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth purified seven times." And man " liveth by every word which proceedeth out of the mouth of God."
Now, I believe as the conscience becomes alive to God, and exercised before God, it necessarily draws the distinction between transgression and sin. Outward reformation is seen by others, but the soul itself cannot rest on this. There is a very wide difference between reformation of character and conversion to God. Reformation of character will necessarily follow conversion to God; but for a soul "to believe and turn to the Lord" is something far more deep than outward reformation of character: it brings us to Him with whom we have to do, before whom all is open and naked. And there it is that we learn the difference between transgression and sin. In human thought sin is an act; in divine judgment it is a principal. And this discovery is so appalling that transgressions appear thrown into the shade by the discovery of what sin really is—viz., a settled principle of insubjection to God; a desire to do what God has forbidden, because He has forbidden it, even when there is no positive act of disobedience; a reluctance to do what God has commanded, because He has commanded it. Yes, we have a will contrary to the good, perfect and acceptable will of God, and this is very experimentally known after we are made willing, by the grace of God, to come to Christ; so that to do the will of God is more or less connected with denying self. " Whose sin is covered." Who would not faint under the struggle, if it were not so? God Himself has covered sin up, out of His own sight. This is what we need. How man tries to cover the evil of his heart from his fellow-man; yet, even human sagacity can often pierce through the hollow covering. And man himself is ill satisfied with it; witness his round of religious duties to try to cover it, and his natural proneness to superstition. But it is the atonement of Christ which covers sin before God. It is God Himself who has set forth Christ as a propitiation through faith in His blood. Here, when we discover sin, we can yet meet God, not in anger, but in mercy; for the sin which we have discovered is covered up before Him. I do not believe that there can be settled peace on the soul, till, taught of the Spirit, it finds the emphatic meaning of such texts as these: " Our old man has been crucified with Him "-" God sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin condemned sin in the flesh "—God "hath made Him to be sin for us who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him." The mighty moral necessity of the Son of God becoming the substitute for a sinner alone meets the case of the conscience alive to what sin is. And I have admired the wisdom of divine teaching, as well as the infinite grace, that it is after shewing sin in the shape of transgression, sin in connection with death, sin as dwelling in us, the announcement follows-" There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus." Let the conscience be ever so alive to what sin is in its various phases, the moment Christ is regarded as the object held out by God Himself to faith-" No condemnation," is the answer.
This distinction between transgression and sin helps to solve a phenomenon not infrequently brought under the notice of those who are watching for souls. The deepest sense of sin is by no means always found where there has been the greatest amount of transgression. The transition from a state almost of remorse on account of transgression, to peace with God through faith in Christ, may well lead the soul to put its Amen to the apostolic declaration-" This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief." Now, when such are led on in exercise of conscience before God, to know sin as a principle, they find that the outward conduct has but too faithfully represented the inward principle. They find, too, the need of not trusting in the outward reformation; and that the heart, from whence all evil proceeds, has to be diligently watched. But when persons who have been happily kept free from gross vice, gentle, kind and amiable, are awakened by the Spirit of God to a sense of sin, the judgment they form of sin is not so much by its injuriousness to themselves and others—which may, even apart from the quickening power of the Spirit of God, affect the conscience—but they measure sin by its contrariety to God; and instead of being able to rest complacently in the blamelessness of their lives, or in the praise bestowed on them by others, their very lives appear to them as one act of hypocrisy; the motives of action and conduct being now judged in the light of God's presence. And the result often is such self-loathing of sin, and needs the fullest application of all that Christ is to the conscience. There may be a measure of loathing oneself on account of transgressions committed, even from a generous impulse of nature; but to loath self because we have discovered what it is before God, marks the quickening power of the Holy Spirit, and will be found a deepening work as we go on.
" Blessed is the man to whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity." How needed is this clause for the peace of an awakened soul. There is the consciousness of iniquity; and the announcement is, that although the Lord knows iniquity to be there, He does not impute it. And wherefore? Surely, because God bath imputed it to Jesus: " He hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all." He hath seen it there, and judged it there. " The chastisement of our peace was upon Him (Jesus), and by His stripes we are healed." It is the greater wonder that God should have imputed iniquity where He only saw righteousness, than that He should not impute iniquity where He sees it to be. And I repeat again, that nothing short of the truth of the actual substitution of Christ for the sinner, gives full relief to an awakened conscience. The cross of Christ is to us the marked expression of the love of God towards sinners. God is love. “ In this was manifested the love of God toward. us, because that God sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins " (1 John 4:8-108He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. 9In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. 10Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:8‑10)). The Cross, further, is the declaration to us of the righteousness of God. " Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation, through faith in His blood, to declare His righteousness " (Rom. 3:2525Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; (Romans 3:25)).
Again, it shows the infinite hatefulness of sin in the judgment of God. The cup could not pass away from Jesus. He bowed His head and drank it. And God hid His face from Him, and made Him to know on the cross, in bitterest experience, what sin was—" God made Him to be sin for us " (2 Cor. 5:2121For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. (2 Corinthians 5:21)).
The Cross is both the way for God to come nigh to man as a sinner without destroying him by His presence,—"And having made peace by-the blood of His Cross, by Him to reconcile all things to Himself" (Col. 1:2020And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven. (Colossians 1:20)) -and the Cross is also the way for man as a sinner to come near to God." Ye who sometime were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ "' (Eph. 2:1313But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ. (Ephesians 2:13)). All these several aspects of the Cross, deeply important and interesting as they are, would fail of giving settled peace to the soul; if the truth of the actual substitution of Christ for the sinner were kept out of sight. "He loved me and gave Himself for me " (Gal. 2:2020I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)). Here we find such solid ground on which to rest our souls -the wonder of the Holy One of God being made sin on the Cross, is far greater, than the wonder that any measure of guilt should be answered by it to God.
( To be continued, D. V.)