"For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God, sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit." Romans 8:3, 4.
It is not by persuasive eloquence, clear reasoning, appalling sights, or by thrilling appeals to the natural feelings, that people are converted to God. No. It is by the word of truth. Our Lord taught this. He said, "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead;" as much as to say, They have the Bible, they hear sound gospel-preaching, and if the truth does not move them, nothing else will make them flee from the wrath to come. Christ is the truth. The Holy Ghost is the Spirit of truth; and it is the truth that He uses in converting souls. It is the Spirit's office to guide into all truth; and surely in these days we are made to hear the voice of God very peculiarly, saying, "Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord of hosts." At a time like this, when we see men using human appliances, and contending for expediency; when we so often hear of such sad statements as "handmaids of the gospel," "stepping-stones of the gospel," etc., it is most important to see that it is the truth alone which really accomplishes the work of God. We find this often brought before us in the Scriptures. Peter informs us that we are "born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever." James says, "Of His own will begat He us with the word of truth." Paul declares, "In Christ Jesus, I have begotten you through the gospel." And our Lord's promise to His disciples was, "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." These inspired testimonies should be carefully pondered, because they show us the immense value that God puts on the truth, as well as our deep responsibility in relation to it. And oh, how thankful should we be for the Bible! How blessed to have such an unalterable standard of truth! What condescension of the Holy Spirit to come down to reveal and apply the truth to us! How careful should we be to ascertain what the truth of God is! How prayerfully should we search the Scriptures, in dependence on the Spirit's teaching, for the truth How important that those who preach should "preach the Word;" and how necessary that those who listen should take heed to what they receive, so that their faith may not stand in the wisdom of men, but on the word of the living and true God, which will never pass away!
Perhaps nothing has so corrupted the truth of the gospel as the common practice of blending the law with it. Few things are more dissimilar, and kept more distinct in the Scriptures, yet they are often so mingled together in the present day as to destroy the simplicity and truth of both law and gospel. It was in this way the truth of Christ was so corrupted among the Galatian saints, that the apostle faithfully told them that Christ had become of no effect unto those who were justified by the law, for they were fallen from grace. It is, then, a matter of great importance to be able clearly to distinguish between law and gospel; for the believer is not under the law, but under grace.
In pursuing our enquiry after the truth of God concerning these subjects, it will be well to consider 1. What we are to understand by the law. 2. What were its effects 3. What is grace, and its effects? 4. Notice some points of special contrast between the law and the gospel and lastly, make some application of the subject.
1. What are we to understand by the law? — "What the law could not do." By the law in this text is evidently meant the commands given to Israel on Mount Sinai four hundred and thirty years after the call of Abraham. (Gal. 3:17.) It made righteous demands upon man, promising life to those who fully obeyed — "This do and thou shalt live;" and pronouncing a curse on those who were disobedient in any degree — "Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them." Thus we see that the law knew nothing of mercy, but its demands were so strict that an offender in one point was held guilty of all. (James 2:10.) It is therefore vain and delusive for persons to try to shelter themselves under the idea, that because they are not conscious of having broken all the laws of God, they are not exposed to His just condemnation. Nor is it reasonable. Man's sense of justice towards his fellowman is, that the breaker of one of the laws of the country has committed an act of rebellion, and is therefore deservedly exposed to punishment. It is not necessary for a man to have perpetrated robbery twenty times before he is pronounced guilty but if in one instance he is proved to have committed an act of robbery, he is liable to punishment as a breaker of the law. And is God less just than man? Certainly not. He is just in condemning and executing vengeance on all breakers of His holy law. The question of the law is not, how much have you transgressed, or how many breaches of the law are you guilty of? but have you sinned at all? for "the soul that sinneth, it shall die." God has only one character of condemnation for sin, that is, death — eternal death. "The wages of sin is death."
The law of Moses consisted of two tables, one containing laws relating to man's conduct toward God, and the other to his conduct toward his neighbour. "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself." These were the demands of the law. There was nothing unholy or unjust in it, and a person coming up at all times, and in all things, to this standard, would prove himself a righteous person, and would live. We may try to modify the law, or to pare down its sweeping demands, or endeavour to excuse ourselves for not complying with it, in order to meet the exercises of conscience; but the law permits nothing of the kind. If the law is broken, curse must follow. Neither did all the ordinances and sacrifices offered under the law alter this or remove the guilt; because it is impossible that the blood of bulls and of goats could take away sin: the most these things could do was to give ceremonial cleanness, and to point to that future sacrifice, which would make an end of sin, and bring in everlasting righteousness. The law was a rigid test to try and make manifest. If there were no laws in the country, there could be no transgression, and, consequently, no punishment; but if laws were made, the offenders would be made known, and its demands executed, for such is the nature of law; therefore it is written, "The law worketh wrath; for where no law is, there is no transgression." (Rom. 4:15.)
2. The effects of the law. "It was weak through the flesh;" that is, it was unable to meet man's need, because he was a fallen, helpless sinner. Scarcely had the terrible thunders and terrors of Mount Sinai passed, and the people put themselves under the obligations of the law, when they were found dancing round a golden calf, exclaiming, "These be thy gods, O Israel, that brought thee out of the land of Egypt!" thus violating the first sentence of the law, which said, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." (Ex. 20:3.) The law, then, at once proved man a transgressor, and justly called for the execution of the sentence of death; accordingly we are told, that "there fell of the people that day about three thousand men." (Ex. 32:28.) The subsequent history of those under the law was very similar, consisting chiefly of a succession of rebellions and judgments, so that instead of life and righteousness coming by the law, it wrought condemnation and death; no one was justified by it, but every one proved guilty. The demands of the law served to show what was in man, as Paul said, "I had not known sin, but by the law; for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet." Thus, holy, just, and good as the law was, it proved an insufficient instrument to meet man's necessity, by reason of the weak and corrupt character of the flesh. A man might be a most efficient sculptor; but if the marble was not able to bear the touches of the chisel, the work would be very imperfect. Another man might be an elegant writer, but the paper and ink might be most unfit for him to carry out his design. Every touch of the sculptor's chisel, and every stroke of the artist's pen, would thus only show the worthlessness of the marble, and the inferior quality of the paper. So man, shapen in iniquity, and by nature a child of wrath, with a heart alienated from God, when tried by the standard of God's holy law, is made manifest as coming short, and "found wanting." "Therefore," saith the apostle, "by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight; for by the law is the knowledge of sin."
No persons, therefore, were saved by the law. Even those who lived under the law were saved by grace; for instance, "David describeth the blessedness of the man unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin." The Lord Jesus was the only law-fulfiller; He obeyed every jot and tittle of it; but we have all sinned, and become subject to the wrath of God. The law could only make sin known, but could not put sin away.
The blindness and ignorance of the human heart is seen in the readiness with which men put themselves under law. Though the trials the children of Israel had experienced after they left Egypt had so proved their weakness, and brought out such murmuring, yet directly the law was given, notwithstanding the dreadful terrors of Sinai, they unhesitatingly covenanted to fulfil all its demands, and said, "All the words which Jehovah hath said will we do." It was an easy thing to say this; but, alas! their subsequent history proved them to be "a disobedient and a gainsaying people." And is unregenerate man less so now? Is he not the same still? Hath the Ethiopian changed his skin, or the leopard his spots? Has fallen man changed his own heart, or proved himself otherwise than a breaker of God's law? Where is the man that can say, I have loved the Lord my God with all my heart, and with all my soul, and with all my strength, and with all my mind, and my neighbour as myself? Oh, it is well to see what the law is, and what its workings have always been; for perhaps, the deadliest cup of poison ever put into the hands of sinners is a mixture of law and gospel, calculated to deceive, because it is truth perverted, and to leave the soul in the fatal snare of being neither consciously guilty nor pardoned — neither a sinner nor a saint; thus, blinded by tradition and mere nominal religion, they hasten onward to the great white throne to be judged every man according to their works, where they will, when too late, prove that "as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse." How very solemn is this!
3. What is grace? — "God, sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh," etc. Grace is the wondrous love of God in saving man, when a sinner, by the death of His only-begotten Son. Man had been responsible for fulfilling the law, and man must obey; man had sinned, and man must be made a curse; therefore the Son of God became man. God sent forth His Son made of a woman, not in sinful flesh, but in the likeness of sinful flesh; thus the holy and just One could fulfil and suffer, in the stead of the unjust and unholy, so as to bring us to God. Thus the grace of God brings salvation to the chief of sinners. Sin having been condemned in the flesh by the cross, God can justly pardon the sinner; and the Righteous One having fully obeyed unto death for us, we are "made the righteousness of God in Him." Thus we see that grace was manifested in the cross, by God condemning our sin in His own Son, and making us righteous in Him whom He raised from the dead, thus doing what the law could not do. The work of Christ's cross, then, is the ground of our peace and confidence in God. It is in the cross we see that God is the God of all grace, and that Christ's death is the ground of our life and peace.
"From the cross our hope we draw,
Tis the sinner's sure resource;
Jesus magnified the law,
Jesus bore its awful curse;
What a joyful truth this is!
Oh, how full of hope it is!"
The grace of God in Christ exactly meets the sinner's necessities. It needs a sinner to display itself upon. A spotless holy angel before the throne may be the subject of Jehovah's love, but cannot taste that the Lord is gracious; it is for man, sinful, rebellious man, that the throne of grace is established. Other creatures of God will behold its wonders, but man realizes eternal redemption through the blood of the Lamb.
"For man, O miracle of grace!
For man the Saviour bled!"
With regard to the effects of the grace of God on our souls, eternity itself will only be long enough to unfold but suffice it to say at present, that grace, not law, gives life and peace, and produces godly walk and conduct. Grace brings life to the dead in trespasses and sins: "I am come," said Jesus, "that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly." Or, as elsewhere expressed, "None eye pitied thee, to have compassion upon thee; but thou wast cast out, to the loathing of thy person, in the day that thou wast born. And when I passed by thee, and saw thee polluted in thine own blood, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, LIVE yea, I said unto thee when in thy blood, LIVE!" It is life, everlasting life, the soul receives, not by doing, but by believing; not as a future expectation, but as a present blessing: "He that believeth on me hath everlasting life;" "Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day." This life is Christ in us, and we in Him: "He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in Him." As we have before seen, grace, not law, is also the sole ground of peace with God; for He hath made peace through the blood of His cross. Hence the order of the apostolic writings is not peace and grace, but grace and peace — "grace unto you and peace be multiplied." Those only have the enjoyment of peace with God who are looking simply as the ground of it to the grace of God to us in the death and resurrection of Christ. Many sincere souls have not peace, because they are looking within for it instead of to Christ. Believing the grace of God, we also bring forth the blessed fruits of righteousness, and are led by the Spirit to be imitators of Christ; hence the righteousness of the law (not the law as law, but the righteousness of the law) is fulfilled in us; and more too, because, in following Christ, we go further than the law, though not under it as law. The practical Christian does not break the law; he loves and serves both God and his neighbour. He also follows Jesus inside the rent vail, and worships the Father as standing in grace, and accepted in the Son of His love. He claims not an eye for an eye, or a tooth for a tooth; but returns blessing for cursing, and loves his enemies. Thus, more than the righteousness of the law is fulfilled in those who walk after the Spirit; for their aim is to exalt Christ, and follow Him who has redeemed them with His own blood, fulfilled the law for them, delivered them from condemnation, and given them eternal life.
"Rebels, we broke our Maker's laws;
He from the threatening set us free —
Bore the full vengeance on the cross,
And nailed the curses to the tree."
Besides this, we have a higher character of righteousness than if we had perfectly obeyed the law, because Christ Himself is our righteousness — He is made of God unto us righteousness. It is more than legal righteousness imputed to us — it is Divine — "the righteousness which is of God by faith;" thus giving us a standing of completeness before God, a nearness to Himself, that nothing could have given but the sovereign grace of God.
4. Let us now notice some points of contrast between the law and the gospel. 1. The law kept persons at a distance from God. At Sinai, the people were commanded "not to go up, or touch the borders of it; whosoever toucheth the mount shall be surely put to death." The gospel is a message of "glad tidings of great joy," it preaches "forgiveness of sins," invites men "to come and take the water of life freely," and brings the far off nigh to God in Christ, and through His blood. 2. The law said, Do and live — "this do, and thou shalt live;" the gospel says, Believe and live; "I give unto them eternal life." 3. The law demanded righteousness from man to God in the way of works; the gospel brings righteousness from God to man in the way of faith. 4. The law required man to love God perfectly; the gospel proclaims God's "perfect love" to man in his guilt and ruin. God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." 5. The law spoke of remembrance of sins without remission; the gospel gives full remission without any remembrance. "Their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more." 6. The law made nothing perfect; the gospel declares that Christ has, "by His one offering, perfected for ever them that are sanctified." We might enlarge, but this is enough to show how wide the contrast is between law and grace, and how important it is to "rightly divide the word of truth."
5. In applying the points we have considered, we may notice, first, a class of persons who, for lack of clear gospel light, have not peace. They see that the law of ten commandments is of God: they put themselves under it, and acknowledge its just claims upon them; they also own that God should be worshipped, and His ordinances attended to. They are conscious of having sinned, but hope, by redoubling their efforts, to attain to some fitness for God. Sometimes they are well pleased with their progress, and at other times the sense of guilt almost overwhelms them. Endeavouring to come up to an imaginary standard of holiness, they live somewhere between hope and despair, only they are astonished that others can speak with confidence of their peace with God and acceptance in Christ. Dear reader I if such is your experience, allow me to say, that you do right in acknowledging the law, and all its stern demands; but it is better to confess your guilt as a transgressor, than go on trying to patch up the old garment. Oh, look at once to Jesus who was crucified; behold Him as the Substitute which God provided to fulfil the law, to bear all its penalties, and give you an everlasting righteousness, in which you can stand justified from all things before Him. You need not hesitate, for God has given you free permission to come; because He says, "Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth." Thus renouncing your own righteousness, and simply believing what God has done in Christ, you will have peace with God, and will be able to say —
"How long beneath the law I lay,
In bondage and distress!
I toiled the precepts to obey,
But toiled without success.
"To see the law by Christ fulfilled,
And hear His pardoning voice,
Changes a slave into a child,
And duty into choice."
There is another class of persons who have known peace, and once tasted the blessed liberty of the gospel, but they did not know the deep importance of trying everything by the Scriptures. At length they were spoiled by the traditions of men, and were persuaded to consider it necessary to add something to the finished work of Christ, by way of making their salvation more secure; which they little suspected overturned the great doctrine of justification by faith, and struck at the root of true Christian peace and joy. At last, prayer became irksome, the Scriptures lost their interest, their sense of the liberty of the gospel declined, and, instead of quiet confidence, bondage, perplexity, and fear possessed them, until they doubted their interest in Christ altogether. They departed from the simplicity of Christ, made a law of something, and got under it, though it might not have been exactly the law of Moses. This was the Galatian error, a type, we fear, of a widespread evil in the present day, when many, instead of growing in grace, have turned from the liberty wherewith Christ hath made them free, and become entangled again with the yoke of bondage. If any who read these pages feel that this describes their case, we earnestly exhort you to turn at once to God, acknowledge your folly to Him, and earnestly pray that, by the power of the Holy Ghost, you may have Christ so revealed to you, through the Scriptures, in all His personal glory, fulness, fitness, and offices, as to draw your soul out after Him, and make you so realize the perpetual efficacy of His finished and all-prevailing work, as to give you renewed rest and peace, and fill you with abhorrence at having thought of adding ordinances, or anything else, to make your salvation more secure.
There are others alas! how many — who seem not exercised either about the law or the gospel. Their thoughts and ways have no reference to God. They are without God; therefore they speak and act as if there were no God, and are consequently alike indifferent about His holy law and His gracious gospel. The world, either in reference to its business, cares, or pleasures, is the all-engrossing topic of conversation, and the great attraction of their hearts; and the elevation of man, instead of God, one of the most powerful means of giving energy and force to their abilities. However, the time is drawing near when Christ Himself will be revealed, as the only Potentate, to whom everything must be brought into subjection; when all those who now despise His laws, and reject His blessed gospel, though perhaps prospering in the world, will be made to feel that He who once died on Calvary's cross is Lord of all; for "the loftiness of men shall be bowed down, and the haughtiness of men shall be made low, and the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day." Now Christ calls chief sinners, and cleanses the blackest, foulest sins with His precious blood; but then He will judge righteously, and put all enemies under His feet. May God the Holy Ghost solemnly impress these truths on many hearts!