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Divine authority, and yet to either it may be said, one thing thou lackest, without which thy religion is vain.
This is a far-reaching truth. It ought to be borne in mind by us in our self-examinations. I think of it on various occasions. I think of it when I see persons affected with religious emotions. I think of it amidst scenes of religious revivals, and am led to ask, has this awakening been produced, or has its character really been modified, by a clear perception of the truths of the Bible? I think of it on entering an inquiry room, and there beholding those whose sensibilities are aroused, and who, following some new impulse, have come to ask, "What shall we do?" I think of it in scrutinizing my own religious history, while I ponder the question, have I any inward experience which is something more than the stirrings of a natural sentiment,-something which proves the presence of the regenerating Spirit, and bears the seal of his workmanship? It becomes us all to think of it, and to see whether all we know about religion can be traced to this great spring of action; for if it can be, then we know nothing in reality of that state of which Paul spake when he said, "If any man be in Christ he is a new creature; old things are passed away and all things are become new ;" of which Christ urged the necessity when he declared, "Except a man be born again he cannot enter into the kingdom of God."
II That religion is vain which consists in the cultivation of mere natural goodness. To show this, I am not now about to insist on those passages of Scripture which teach the doctrine of human depravity, which assert that all have "gone astray, that there is none that doeth good-no not one." Many there are who, when they hear these declarations applied universally, seem to imagine that the Scripture doctrine, as we hold it, confounds all distinction between what is amiable and what is unlovely, between decorum and dishonor, between the just and the unjust in our social relations. But this is far from being true, for the religion of the gospel includes the social virtues; it only discards the idea that these may be SUBSTITUTED for all that God in the first table of the law demands of us. I would by no means deny that in popular language and in various connections it may be justly said that natural goodness pertains to man, but with my eye upon the Bible, I would by all means deny that he has any natural goodness which can save him. Let us seek distinctness in our use of terms. You apply the term GOOD to any object in nature or art which was made for a right or useful end, and which answers the purpose of its formation. A
good house is one which protects you from heat and cold, and which is conformed to your ideas of beauty or of comfort. A good ship is one whose capacity and fleetness combined answers the end of the merchant in her structure. A good painting is one which by a just and happy combination of color, light and shade, gives forth a strong and natural expression of character. In view of a particular relation, you apply the term GOOD to any human being whose conduct is conformed to the design of that relation. Thus you speak of a good neighbor, a good citizen, a good parent, or a good child; but what do we mean strictly, when we speak of a GOOD MAN? That depends upon our
idea of the true end for which man was made. And what end was that? In answering this question, the wisdom of the world looks not beyond the world, but heavenly wisdom regards man's spiritual nature, his high capacity to know, love, adore and obey God, and declares that "the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever." By the light of this principle, can he be regarded as truly a good man who habitually forgets God, prefers the friendship of the world to his, breaks his law, then slights the pardon "bought with mercy's proper blood," delights not in the study of his word, in prayer or praise, and lives for earthly interests and relationships rather than those which pertain to God and eternity? No, that cannot be. He may have an all-absorbing interest in honoring the relations which are temporal, without one spark of love to God; and without that his religion is a "vain show," a "sounding brass, a tinkling cymbal," a meteor gleam which will expire at the valley and the shadow of death, and leave him involved in a starless, hopeless, endless night.
III. That man's religion is vain which leads him to trust in the efficacy of mere repentance to save him. The Scriptures do undoubtedly speak of repentance as essential to salvation. So, too, do they speak of the spirit of obedience; but they no where imply that either the one or the other is, or can be, the ground of our justification in the sight of God. On the other hand, they assert that our salvation is not of works lest any man should boast, and not only that by the deeds of the law no flesh can be justified, but to those whom he had already addressed as penitents the apostle declares, that if Christ had not risen from the dead, they were YET
IN THEIR SINS.
Touching this important point, however, it has been asserted by a theological writer, that "repentance, genuine and effectual repent
ance, secures the Divine favor by a NECESSARY ACTION. But he whom God regards with favor cannot carry about with him a load of unforgiven sin. The supposition that the death of Christ was necessary as a means of procuring pardon for the penitent is therefore gratuitous, and founded on a misapprehension of the nature of forgiveness." Again, it is remarked of the Divine government, "by accepting the obedience of the contrite offender, it accomplishes its end, verifies its purpose; the law is made honorable by the fidelity of its requisition, and the welfare of those for whom the government was constructed, is secured as it could be in no other way. The forgiveness of the sinner upon his repentance, upholds the authority and promotes the end of the Divine government."
Now, if there was no such thing as a revelation from heavenif the Great Teacher had never come with a message from the Father to man, all this might have seemed as reasonable for aught we could tell, as anything else which human wisdom could suggest. From the lips of Socrates it might have seemed graceful; yet he very sensible of the dimness of nature's light, modestly expressed his doubts about the conditions of salvation. But then the great aim of the Gospel is not only to teach us that there is a Saviour, but, also our need of one; and to do this it shows us that the law of God, which, reaching to the heart, demands supreme love for him as the main-apring of action, can be satisfied with nothing short of a perfect obedience; and that if we have failed in that, to present to God the imperfect work of our own repentance as a substitute is to bring a "vain oblation." For-overlooking the ill-desert of all past sin, in view of which, the Gospel, as it meets the sinner, tells him that he is condemned already-repentance, it is obvious, does not secure to the law a perfect obedience for the future. It leaves the sinner "with a law in his members, warring against the law in his mind," even though his conscience consent unto the law of God that it is good. The more enlightened and holy he becomes the more clearly he discerns those secret faults and sad defects which call for a fresh repentance, so that he is forced to say, as did one of old, with stronger and stronger emphasis, "who can tell how often he offendeth?" "Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean;" purify my soul with the blood of a Divine atonement.
If, then, the law of God requires a perfect obedience, and the repenting sinner is still very imperfect, how can he be justified and saved by the necessary action of repentance? It is impossible. A hope of salvation, based on the natural effect of repentance, is ut
terly vain, and must leave the soul without support in the trying hour, unless it can be shown, that although repentance have no such necessary action on the government of God, yet he has promised to forgive sins simply on account of it. But to say that God has promised this, would be to contradict all those testimonies which assert pardon to be indispensably connected with faith in the atoning Saviour. Among the last words which Christ uttered on earth, was the message, "He that believeth shall be saved, and he that believeth not shall be damned;" and when his apostle afterwards wrote, "Without shedding of blood there is no remission," it was no more than what Christ himself had taught, when he said, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you."
A partial and defective view of the plan of salvation may be fatal to any man, and in no case is it more needful to remember that maxim of Christ, "What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder." This rule is violated by those who, in teaching their doctrine of forgiveness, quote some passage which insists on the necessity of repentance, and then assert that repentance will of itself reconcile us to God, without any faith in the atonement of Christ. As well might a reader, in view of Paul's declaration, "We conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law," infer that the apostle thought that a sinner could be saved without repentance, or any good works at all. Sometimes repentance is mentioned alone, and sometimes faith alone, and at other times hope alone; (Rom. 8: 24;) but according to the true idea of a saving conversion, one cannot exist without the rest. Even under the old economy, when the prophet lifted up his voice and cried, "If the wicked man turn from his wickedness he shall surely live," the people knew that no repentance would be accounted genuine which did not lead the penitent to bring his sacrifice to the altar-to offer there the propitiation which God had appointed as the symbol of a better sacrifice, which was to be revealed in the "fulness of time." The feelings of the true penitent could find repose only in such a faith, and hence we cannot but see the justness of the remark of Bishop Butler, that "though the efficacy of repentance alone to prevent what mankind had rendered themselves obnoxious to, and recover what they had forfeited, is now insisted on in opposition to Christianity, yet, by the general prevalence of propitiatory sacrifices over the heathen world, this notion of repentance alone being sufficient to expiate guilt, appears to be contrary to the general sense
of mankind." How clearly then, does this great doctrine of the gospel find its echo in the bosom of humanity! Far and widely throughout the earth, in lands illumined by revelation or covered with pagan darkness, we find the idea of propitiation enshrined in all the splendor of ritual worship; and at whatever point we commence the investigation of its origin, history or tradition traces it up to that spot where the second father of mankind, saved from the flood which overwhelmed his race, erected his altar and offered his sacrifice in the exercise of a pure and acceptable faith; and thus we see, that while the word of inspiration declares to an apostate world its need of the atonement of Christ in order to receive the pardon of sin, the voice of every nation and every age gives back a deep and solemn response to the truth of the Spirit's testimony.
IV. That is a vain religion which does not induce a practical submission to the authority of God. The history of the world shows that, ever since the fall of man, much effort has been made to institute religions which treated the authority of God very lightly. Even in Eden, the tempter would fain persuade our first parents that they could be religious, notwithstanding their disobedience; "Ye shall not surely die," said he, "but your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods." The eating of the fruit of a certain tree seemed to be a small thing in itself, but when made the test of submission to God's authority, what a train of momentous consequences followed!
And ever since that day, the controversy between all true and all false religion has turned on a question which involved the principle of obedience to God's authority. This has marked the difference between the really converted and the unconverted. We see this developed in the family of Adam. It was the obedience of faith which distinguished the character of Abel from that of Cain; for notwithstanding Cain's transgressions, he seemed to be religious, inasmuch as he brought his offering to the altar. This principle was inculcated on the antediluvians, and by them rejected, for they walked in the way of their own heart. It was inculcated on the descendants of Noah and rejected, for by them idolatry was spread through the world. It was inculcated on the seed of Abraham, and often rejected, for how sadly at times did they prove themselves to be a recreant race, who "feared the Lord and served their own gods." And even within the pale of Christendom, how many have taken upon them the name of Christ, while they have rejected those very doctrines whose main support is his authority. How many have treated with reverence the outward forms of service; have