Formalism not Faith

I take for granted that the reader of these lines is a professing Christian; that is, one who has been trained in the truth of Christianity, and who is acquainted with the letter of Scripture, and that if he were asked for an explanation of God’s way of salvation he could readily give it. That his privileges have, in this respect, greatly exceeded those of a man brought up outside the circle of Christendom cannot be denied. It is foolish to ignore the immense difference between the nominal Christian and the heathen, or to deny the vastly superior privileges of the one over the other.

But then, privilege involves responsibility; and, in a similar proportion, the professing Christian has that for which he must answer, which the heathens have not.

I write of the professor. It is grace which alone makes any vital or saving difference; but, even when grace has not yet reached the heart, the light of the truth shines, with all its clear and brilliant lustre, carrying favours and privileges on the one hand, and, necessarily, imposing responsibilities on the other.

Now, let me ask you, dear reader, what has this favour done for you? What have your profession of Christ, your knowledge of the letter of the Word, your many opportunities—what have these things done for your soul? Are you conscious of any saving effect flowing out of them? Have they proved themselves matters of life and death importance to you? Have they been allowed to sink down deeper than the ear or eye, and to affect the heart? These are important questions, especially in a day when external forms are urged, with growing vehemence, as being in themselves sufficient, and that, if only the worshipper be covered with a fair and respectable amount of ceremonial and religions clothing, he needs nothing more.

We are told, for instance, by many that baptism makes us children of God, and that if, in after years, we do not break our baptismal vows, but yield true and proper deference to them and to their solemn consequences, we are spiritually qualified for heaven. Well, baptism has its place in the Christian economy as the rite which introduces to the profession—for “there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism”—and wherever the Lordship of Christ is owned, there, too, is the “one baptism.” But to say “Lord, Lord” is one thing (it will be said by many to whom He will reply, “I never knew you”), and to be a child of God, as born of Him, is quite another. The one is external, the other internal. The one is administrative, as performed by man; the other is vital, and the work of God’s Spirit.

And how can that which is material, affecting only the outside, reach the essential, or touch that which is spiritual? Impossible!

True, God may quicken the soul at any moment—that of baptism or any other—but it is God’s quickening, and not baptism, that communicates the life. Hence it is neither baptism nor any outward form or ceremony whatsoever that can make us God’s children; and well it is for each true servant of God that he should, by all means, by pen and by word of mouth, seek to expose the terrible snare, to break the subtle spell, and do all he can to warn the unwary of the sad delusion. It is well for him to urge on their attention that which the Lord urged on Nicodemus—the new birth—to be “born of the Spirit,” yea, to be “born of water and the Spirit”—where “water” cannot mean actual water, otherwise birth must mean actual birth; but where “water” clearly symbolises the Word by which we are “born again” (1 Peter 1:23).

This cannot be too much insisted on. It is evidently necessary, then, to go beyond outward forms in order to obtain that which saves.

Salvation is God’s work, and, blessed be His name, it is also His “gift” (Eph. 2). “As many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13).

Now here we have the truth balanced. Belief in the name of the Son of God is the condition on which we become children of God. That is our part, and the whole of our part (without baptism or any outward form whatever) in the wondrous work of introduction into the divine family—simple faith in Christ—a faith that is no merit, but which is in itself the negation of all merit. This is our total ground of blessing—receiving Christ by faith in His blessed name. The full relationship of God’s children is there, then, and for ever our inalienable portion.

But, notice the equipoise, they are “born of God”! This guards the truth, and precludes the flesh from laying claim to a relationship so distinguished, so ineffably blessed, by a mere assertion of faith—a mere assent of the unrenewed heart—a mere acceptance, intellectually, of the facts of Christianity.

No; they are not only “born of God,” but—observe most particularly the triple cordon of defence against such intrusion—they are born not of blood; again, nor of the will of the flesh; and again, nor of the will of man!

How impregnable does the Spirit of God make this fortress! How carefully He fortifies the truth of sonship in God’s family against all the ritualistic attempts of all ages, by this threefold line of outwork. First, it cannot be reached by blood—no pedigree from any spiritual ancestor avails—be it “father Abraham” or any other father.

Second, “nor by the will of the flesh.” No rite of circumcision, nor baptism, nor penance, nor good works, nor product of the flesh is of any use at all. Thirdly—“nor of the will of man.” This settles the matter definitely—“man” has nothing to do with it. He may reform you, educate, civilise, make you religious, but he cannot touch this question. This is God’s exclusive prerogative.

They are “born of God.”

But what is it to be “born of God”? Does He act upon us apart from all sensibility on our side? Does He, in the sovereignty of His grace, fashion us as though we were but clay in the hands of the potter?

Far otherwise. The process of the new birth often leads the soul through exercises of the deepest kind. All the sensibilities are called into play, and such searchings of heart abound as could be produced by no other means. The discovery of self—of a nature radically and essentially inimical to God—of the total absence of self-recovering power, of sin, of impotence—a discovery which may plunge the soul into profound depths of anguish until grace is known and the truth of God’s love—a love that provided salvation for such when the heart turns to God penitently, like the prodigal to the Father—and peace is sweetly enjoyed. All this in degrees greater or less is experienced. So that instead of a mere mechanical operation acting externally there is the most intense exercise whilst the soul is thus “born of God.” “Horrors of great darkness” often precede “the glory of that light,” and such experience is most wholesome, nay, it is necessary. For “except you repent, you shall all likewise perish” was one of the terms placed by Christ before the moralists of Jerusalem (Luke 13).

But how could baptism, or any outward rite, produce such feelings? if “the wind blows where it lists,” the sound thereof is heard, and that sound is anything but soothing. It is heard in mighty blasts that shatter the rocks of self-confidence and the ramparts of self-righteousness to pieces. The soul is wrecked on the shores of saving grace! Happy place! What will be the judgment befalling the deceivers? What the doom of the deceived? Blind leaders of the blind—they shall both fall into the ditch!

It may be as to the former that the Lord bids us let them alone. They sin against light. They know better. They can refer to that gospel whereby the truth is fully revealed. Persistency in this course of deception is the display of unpardonable self-will. They must answer to their Lord.

It is with the deceived we have to do—with the wide multitudes who are deluded by sacramentalism, and allow themselves to become the sport of their spiritual jugglers. Souls yet unconverted, though nominal Christians; yet unrenewed, though professors; yet unsaved, though possessors of privilege; yet without peace, though surrounded by ceremony. It is such for whom we tremble and over whom we would yearn.

With stealthy step and velvet paw, though with her fang carefully concealed, Superstition is creeping over an unsuspecting and sleeping Christendom. Anything like noise or outward cause of alarm is withheld, and never, until the victim has been secured, will the deadly snare be detected.

We therefore earnestly warn the reader to distinguish the real from the unreal, the life from the mere name, the truth from theory, and Christ from form.

It is “being justified by faith that we have peace with God,” and by that means only. Whatever denies that truth, let it be eschewed.