"And he said, Lord God, whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?" — Genesis 15:8.
We read in the Gospel by John that "the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ;" and while it is blessed to contemplate the glorious testimony of divine grace coming in, after man had proved himself so helpless and guilty under the law, yet we must not suppose that the gospel was not preached before Christ came. It was preached to Adam, after he had fallen beneath the power of sin and Satan, in the promise that the Seed of the woman should bruise the serpent's head. It was also preached to Abraham four hundred years before the law was given, when God said, "In thee shall all nations be blessed." (Gal. 3:8.) It is important to see this, and to consider how God's grace abounded to man, as a sinner, long before the law came. In fact, the Scriptures everywhere teach, that it has only been in the way of grace that God has ever established man in blessing since the fall. When, therefore, the apostle Paul, in the New Testament, treats of the subject of justification, he usually takes us back to Abraham, as having lived long before the law was given, to show that a sinner is reckoned righteous before God only in the way of faith. This is very important, as it clears from the mind all questions of law-fulfilling as a ground of justification, it leads the soul away from the common thought of creature-fitness to come up to God's standard, and prepares the anxious enquirer to receive the peace-speaking fact, that God has come down to man while a sinner, with present forgiveness and eternal redemption, in the death of His beloved Son.
God's verdict long ago went forth, that "by the deeds of the law no flesh shall be justified in His sight." The law made demands on fallen, sinful man, such as he was unable to fulfil — it demanded righteousness from man to God in the way of works; it therefore proved all to be guilty, and under condemnation. The question, then, with a soul truly sensible of his guilt is, Can man be accounted righteous by God in any other way? Can a sinner have any ground of assurance in any other way? The answer is, Yes; God has come down to man, when a ruined, helpless sinner, in Christ, and brought a perfect and everlasting righteousness to him in the way of faith. This, as I have said, has been always God's way. He made coats of skins, and clothed Adam and his wife. Abel obtained witness that he was righteous by faith. Noah became heir of the righteousness which is by faith: God said to him, "Thee have I seen righteous before me." "Abraham also believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness." All these are examples of righteousness in the way of faith before the law was given. But did the law alter this ground of assurance and confidence in God? No; for David, who lived under the law, describes the blessedness of the man unto whom the Lord imputeth righteousness without works, saying, "Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man unto whom the Lord will not impute sin." And Paul's fervent language, when coming to the close of an unparalleled life of devotedness to his Master, was, that I may be "found in Him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith."
But some may ask, Why by faith? Is not faith an act of creature-merit? We reply, No; faith is not a work of the flesh, but a fruit of the Spirit. Faith is the gift of God. Faith is always self-renouncing; it brings a broken, empty heart to receive and welcome God's gracious gifts. Faith, therefore, gives all the glory to God. As another has said, "Believing in Christ, we come to Him for all, employ Him in all, trust Him through all, look to Him under all, hope in Him to do all, and to Him ascribe the glory of all."
To return to the chapter before us, we find that Abram "believed in the Lord, and He counted it to him for righteousness." And so now every broken-hearted sinner that believes in the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation is justified before God. He may have seasons of conflict and temptation, yet he is justified. "By Him all that believe are justified from all things, from which they could not be justified by the law of Moses." They are justified by the blood of Christ. By His death Christ put away their sins, that they might be made the righteousness of God in Him. Hence we are further told, that "Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth." This is blessed. This is the true grace of God wherein we stand, and the reception of this glorious truth into the heart gives assurance. Here is ground for unwavering, unceasing assurance; for it springs from God's sovereign grace; it is manifested in Christ's perfect work, and based not upon our frames, feelings, or even our measure of apprehension of it, but on the perfect righteousness, unchangeable love, and never-failing faithfulness of God. "The work of righteousness is peace, and the effect of righteousness, quietness and assurance for ever."
"Unchangeable His will,
Whatever be my frame,
His loving heart is still
Eternally the same;
Our souls through many changes go,
His love no change can ever know."
But all believers have not this happy assurance. Some, because they do not know the blessed truth, that the righteousness of God is unto all and upon all them that believe. Others, because carelessness of walk grieves the Spirit, and dims the eyes of their understanding and faith. Moreover there are various characters of faith. We read of "little faith," "great faith," and "the full assurance of faith;" but the weakest in the faith is not less justified, not less accounted righteous, than the strongest in the faith. We do not get pardoned at one time, justified at another, sanctified at another. No; receiving Christ crucified, risen and glorified, for salvation, we have all at once. We are washed in His blood, justified by His blood, sanctified by His blood. All things are yours," said the apostle; "for ye are Christ's." The Father "hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ." This, I say, is the present portion of the most feeble-minded believer in Christ; but the personal enjoyment of this wondrous grace will be just as we, by faith, abide in the Lord Jesus.
There are some believers who are so weak in faith, and so uninstructed in divine things (perhaps because they do not daily read and prayerfully meditate on the Scriptures), that they stagger at being told that they have life and righteousness in Christ; while they believe in Christ for the forgiveness of sins, they shrink from crediting the glorious reality that God has made Christ to be unto them "wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption." Such, however, lose much joy, as well as strength for service and conflict, and are often filled with gloomy and distressing thoughts; they doubt, and fear, and brood over self and circumstances, because they do not look away from every other object straight to Christ at God's right hand, and believe God's infallible word, which assures them of their completeness and security in the glorified Saviour of sinners. In some respects they are like Abram was in the Scripture before us; for although God had told him that He had brought him out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give him the land to inherit it, he seemed to doubt whether God really meant what He said — whether He would keep His word and fulfil His promise. Abram was righteous by faith, yet he had doubt and mistrust, like many in the present day. God told him that He brought him from Ur to give him the land. This should have been enough to have warranted assurance and confidence; but it was not. He therefore said, "Lord God, whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?"
This leads us more particularly to the subject of assurance. What is it? Is it spiritual attainment? or is it equally the portion of the babe in Christ, who simply takes God at His word? We reply, It is resting, as a sinner, on God's promise in Christ. This many babes in Christ enjoy. God has given His word of truth, shown us His work in Christ, and revealed Himself as the faithful and unchangeable God. He tells us that "He so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life." This should be enough; but, alas! it often is not. It is an awful thing to doubt God's word; and yet this is the chief reason why many believers have not the full assurance of faith. Abram was mistrusting God about the land when he said, "Whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?" What was God's reply? Did He tell Abram that it depended upon his experience, or duties, or feelings? No; He taught Abram that blessing comes to fallen man only through sacrifice, that God's eternal blessings are made sure to us by sacrifice; therefore God sent him to the sacrifice to realize assurance. God's reply was, "Take me an heifer of three years old, and a she-goat of three years old, and a ram of three years old, and a turtle dove, and a young pigeon." There, at the sacrifice, Abram was to learn God's character and mind, whereby he might have the assurance that he would inherit the land.
It seems to me that we learn from the case before us that there are two things needful for any one to enjoy assurance: — 1. Self-renunciation; 2. The apprehension of God's thoughts of Christ. Let us consider them a little.
1. Self-Renunciation. It is wonderful how thoughts of creature-righteousness cleave to us. It is hard indeed habitually to take the place of "no confidence in the flesh;" that "all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags;" that in our flesh dwells "no good thing;" and that no measure of devotedness can make the promise of God in Christ more secure. But these things the Spirit of God teaches. He convinces of sin, and testifies of Christ; and God's declaration must be carried out, that "no flesh shall glory in His presence." It is often a very humbling process to learn by the Spirit's teaching, that being born anew does not improve the flesh; that the believer has two natures; that there is no similarity in "the flesh" and "the Spirit;" that "the flesh" always remains the same, only that it is kept under by "the Spirit." "That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit." Do we not gather from the fact, that while Abram was before the sacrifice, and "an horror of great darkness fell upon him," he was taught by God Himself the humbling lessons of self-loathing and unworthiness, that he might be the more thoroughly convinced that he could inherit the land only on the ground of God's free grace? And when the Holy Spirit opens up to us our history before God, and discloses to us the real character of the thoughts and intents of our hearts, the iniquity of our most holy things, the pride of our humblest doings, the self-love and unbelief that are associated with our most devoted hours, do we not know something too of a horror of darkness? We often need, as well as Abram, humbling exercises, that we may lean wholly upon God, and know how to ground all our expectations of good on a source entirely outside ourselves. And where shall we learn these lessons so effectually as in the presence of God, in the contemplation of what He has done for us, and has made us in Christ? So long as thoughts of creature-merit or sufficiency are allowed by us, doubts and fears will distress the soul, because the eye will look within, instead of wholly to God in Christ. Or, if thoughts of our own doing be mixed up with our standing before God, we shall slide away from grace, get under law, and lack assurance; or if we set up some standard of experience and walk, as evidences, so long as we come up to our imagined measure, will there be quiet self-complacency; but when we come short, our fancied evidences will be gone, and gloom, and fear, and perhaps despair, will follow. There must be the sense of our total ruin and vileness in the flesh, to look wholly to God, through Christ, with quietness and assurance. I will refer to an anecdote which remarkably illustrates this point. "An Indian and a white man were both brought under conviction by the same sermon. The Indian was soon brought to rejoice in pardoning mercy; the white man was a long time under distress of mind, and at times was almost ready to despair; but at length he was also brought to experience forgiving love. Some time after, meeting his red brother, he thus addressed him: How is it that I should be so long under conviction, when you found comfort so soon? 'Oh, brother!' replied the Indian, 'me tell you. There come along a rich prince; he purpose to give you a new coat; you look at your coat and say, I don't know, my coat pretty good; I believe it do a little longer. He then offer me a new coat; I look on my old blanket; I say, this good for nothing — I say, this good for nothing; I fling it right away, and accept the new coat. Just so, brother, you keep your righteousness for some time, you loath to give it up; but I, poor Indian, had none, therefore I glad at once to receive righteousness, the Lord Jesus Christ!' "
2. The Apprehension of God's Thoughts of Christ and His Work. Let none suppose that they will have full assurance of faith, if the contemplation of Christ and His cross be neglected. The Scriptures testify of Him. The Holy Spirit testifies of Him. We know we have the earnest of the Spirit, because we look wholly to the Lord Jesus Christ for acceptance with God; and it is to the person and work of Christ that the Spirit continually leads us. The victims Abram was commanded to take for God were in their prime, to represent the perfection of the "Lamb without spot." The fowls came down on the carcases; but he drove them away, because it was God's sacrifice, and should be honoured. He divided some into pieces, and laid each piece one against another. Here he remained, before the sacrifice, under divine instruction; and when all around was dark, and a horror of great darkness was within, when every earthly hope and confidence were gone, then a burning furnace and a smoking lamp passed between the pieces — the former, to teach that divine wrath could be expended on the victim, and all the rivers of eternal love flow without obstruction to the sinner that believes; and the latter, to show that divine light had searched the sacrifice, and rightly estimated its value. We are then told that "the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land;" and we do not read that the patriarch had another question on the subject. The threefold cord of his assurance and confidence was the promise of God, the redemption-work of God, and the faithfulness of God. And surely this is the secret of assurance with us. It is not based on what we are, but on what God is; and we know our personal interest in His eternal blessings, by being led by His Spirit to renounce ourselves, and look to the one only sacrifice for sin, the alone ground of acceptance with God.
"Without one thought that's good to plead,
Oh, what could shield me from despair,
But this — though I am vile indeed,
The Lord my righteousness is there?"
Let us now seek to apply these truths. Whenever, dear Christian reader, your soul is assailed with doubts and fears, look at once straight to Jesus — the Lamb as it had been slain, now in the midst of the throne. Beware of looking within for righteousness; for "Christ in the glory is your righteousness." (Rom. 10:4.) Beware of looking at the Spirit's work in you as a ground of justification; for we are justified by the blood of Christ. Beware of comparing yourselves with others as a proof of your acceptance; for Christ only is the way to the Father. Beware of looking at your frames or experiences as evidences; for we often change, and our hearts are very deceitful; but the love of Christ changeth not. Oh, like Abram, look at God's sacrifice! Contemplate the perfection, spotlessness, the eternal beauty and worth of Jesus! His fitness, His fulness, His love, His offices! Consider His ways, His sayings, His sufferings, agonies, blood-shedding and death! Behold the Holy One made sin for us, and let the burning lamp, the light of God's truth, shine upon the scene! Hearken to God's testimony! Listen to His judgment of the value of the cross! See sin put away, and righteousness brought in! Welcome the testimony of God, that the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us (yes, us) from all sin; that we are "justified freely by His grace," and "accepted in the Beloved!" Oh, behold your iniquities, transgressions, and sins laid upon Him, your old man crucified with Him, the fierce wrath of Jehovah going over Him, that you might be free. Abiding here, self-loathing will take the place of self-righteousness, self-abasement will displace self-confidence, assurance will banish doubt, and praise and thanksgiving will ascend to the Father of mercies in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
"Jesus bruised and put to shame,
Tells me all Jehovah's name;
God is love, I surely know,
By the Saviour's depths of woe.
"In His spotless soul's distress
I perceive my guiltiness;
Oh, how vile my low estate,
Since my ransom was so great!"
Perhaps my reader is a backslider. You have lost the assurance of your interest in Christ. You were once happy in the Lord, and happy with His people. You took sweet counsel together, and found His ways to be ways of pleasantness and peace. But you grew careless; you neglected secret prayer, you discontinued the daily reading of the Scriptures, you little and little gave up the public and private society of God's children. You became intimate with worldlings, and walked with them. You indulged in sin. Your conscience was at first troubled, but by degrees it became hardened; yet you have not been happy. Your assurance and confidence in God are gone. "O wretched man that I am!" you sometimes exclaim. Be assured, friend, that Jesus loves you still, though your ways have so grieved Him.
"Midst all thy fears, and sin, and woe,
His love will never let thee go."
Return, then, to Him at once; acknowledge your iniquity confess your sins; tell Him all your sad course, and He will restore you; He will pardon, He will heal your backslidings, and love you freely. "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
But perhaps my reader is not trusting in Christ for salvation. You have heard the gospel, but you believe not. If it be so, you have from the Scripture, not the assurance of salvation, but the assurance of eternal damnation — "He that believeth not shall be damned." God has declared it shall be, and it must be; for God cannot deny Himself. His word must be fulfilled. You refuse mercy, and must have judgment. You disobey God, and He must punish. You reject His salvation, therefore you must have everlasting destruction. Oh, unhappy man! This world is your heaven, this life is your best, and at the end of your career you will say, "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and I am not saved!" Not saved! Be astonished, ye angels, that men reject this great salvation! and be assured, my reader, that you are in the broad road to destruction. Every day you draw nearer to the pit of torment, every hour your pleasures of sin become less, every moment you hasten onward to your eternal doom. Is it not so? Can there be a doubt of it, if you remain Christless? Is not His word most decisive? Has not He said, Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish! Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood, ye have no life in you!