The Sermon On The Mount
First a brief review of our last chapter. This warning against false prophets or preachers of error forms an appendage to our Lord's teaching on the "strait gate" and "narrow way" in verses 13 and 14. The danger from these false prophets appears in the character they assume-their "sheep's clothing" being thoroughly calculated to deceive the unwary. They are to be found in the circles of "the most orthodox" and pretend to have a fervent love for souls, yet they fatally delude multitudes concerning the way of salvation. It is because there has been so little instruction upon the relation of good works to salvation that people fall such easy victims to these emissaries of Satan. At one extreme there are those (like the papists) who insist that salvation is procured by works, at the other extreme are those (boasting most loudly of their "soundness in the Faith") who affirm salvation may be secured without works, and rare indeed is it to find anyone today who occupies the middle and true position. That middle position shows that Divine grace does not set aside human responsibility, that the Gospel is no opposer of the Law, and that the "finished work" of Christ has not rendered unnecessary or non-imperative good works on the part of those who are to reach heaven.
Are good works necessary in order to the obtaining of salvation? We answer-and are satisfied the Scriptures warrant our so doing- no and yes. In order to solve that paradox or remove the seeming contradiction we must first define the "good works," then explain carefully what is meant by "necessary" and, last but not least, show what is connoted and included in "salvation." To some of our readers it may appear that entering into such details as these is really a waste of time, as well as rendering complex and difficult that which is really simple and easy. Such people would answer our opening inquiry with a plain and emphatic No, concluding nothing more was required. They would cite "By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast" (Eph. 2:8, 9), and say that ended the matter. Yet it is one thing to quote a passage and another thing to have a right understanding of its terms. Nevertheless, the language of Ephesians 2:8, 9, appears to be so unambiguous and decisive that there seems to be no need to enter upon a laborious study of the subject of which it treats. Why then do we insist upon pressing the inquiry any further?
Why? Because many of the saints are confused thereon and need to have expounded unto them "the way of God more perfectly." Why? Because there is a balance of Truth to be observed here as every-where, and if one half of it be ignored then the Truth is perverted and souls are deceived. Why? Because it is at this very point that the "false prophets" get in most of their pernicious and destructive work, and unless we are forewarned we are not forearmed. Why? Because it is required of the Christian minister that he should declare "all the counsel of God" and not only favorite portions thereof. Why? Because if on the one hand the exaltation of good works to an unwarrantable place is to repudiate the grace of God, on the other hand the excluding of good works from the place Scripture assigns them is to turn the grace of God into lasciviousness. Why? Because what the Word of God designates "good works" have well-nigh disappeared from Christendom and therefore there is an urgent need for pressing the same. Why? Because vast numbers of professing Christians are fatally deceived thereon, going down to hell with a "lie in their right hand."
The first answer we returned to the question, Are good works necessary in order to the obtaining of salvation? was No. Let us now proceed to explain and amplify. Most emphatically we affirm that no descendant of Adam can possibly perform any works which entitle him to God's favorable regard. He can no more merit heaven by his own performances than he could create a world. Sooner might the sinner build a ladder which would obtain for him access to the dwelling place of the Most High than he could do any deeds of charity which earned for him an eternity of bliss. He enters this world a fallen and depraved creature and from earliest infancy he has defiled and befouled the garments of his soul: more readily then could he make white the skin of an Ethiopian than cleanse his garments from their stains without having recourse to the blood of Christ. Turning over a new leaf will not erase the blots on the previous pages: if I could live sinlessly today that would not cancel the guilt of yesterday. I am a ten-thousand-talents debtor to God and have not a penny with which to discharge it, and therefore unless His sovereign grace takes pity upon me and gives me everything for nothing there is no hope whatever for me.
No doubt all of our readers would subscribe heartily unto the last paragraph, saying, That is just what I believe; and possibly a few would add: I trust you will not bring in something further that jars against it. Ah, suppose we were writing upon the righteousness of God, and dwelt on His equity and justice. How glorious the contrast between the Lord and most of earth's potentates and authorities: they can be bribed or influenced unto dishonesty, but God is no respecter of persons, giving to each his due, ever doing that which is right. But then I must point out that pertains to His office as Judge and His administration of the Law; but He is also sovereign anti distributes His favors as He pleases, bestowing a single talent upon one, two on another, and yet five on another. At once the Arminian protests and says I have contradicted myself. Or, suppose I wrote upon the wondrous mercy and love of God, as displayed in creation, in providence and in grace: that His goodness and loving kindness are manifested on every side. But I must also point out that God is holy and hates sin, and will yet consign to the everlasting burnings all who continue defying Him; and at once the Universalist says, Now you have spoilt the whole thing. Probably some will bring the same charge against the remainder of this chapter.
Above we have said that the language of Ephesians 2:8, 9, appears to be so unambiguous and decisive that there seems to be no need to enter upon a critical examination of its terms-the same may be said of John 3:16, with like disastrous consequences. Every verse of Scripture requires prayerful and careful consideration, without which no man may expect rightly to apprehend it. "By grace are ye saved" does not stand alone as an absolute statement, but is immediately qualified by the clause "through faith," and thus the salvation there referred to is no more extensive than what is received through faith. This at once shows that "saved" is not used in this verse in its widest latitude. Faith itself is a part of God's "so-great salvation," yet faith is not received "through faith." Regeneration is also an essential part of salvation, yet so far from its coming to us through faith, faith is impossible till the soul is born again, Divinely quickened. Again, observe the restriction "by grace are ye saved," not "by grace are ye and shall ye be saved through faith." The tense of the verb necessarily limits the salvation here contemplated to that which the believer is in present enjoyment of-it does not include his future glorification and entrance into heaven itself.
What has just been pointed out evidences the importance of showing what is connoted and included by the word "saved" or "salvation." First it should be pointed out that it is not used with one uniform sense and scope throughout the New Testament; sometimes it is employed with a wider signification, at others with a narrower. For instance, when we read, "God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation, through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the Truth" (2 Thess. 2:13), the term "salvation" is to be understood in its widest latitude as comprehending all the benefits which pertain to redemption, all the gracious works of God toward and within us. But when we read, "Who hath saved us and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works but according to His own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began" (2 Tim. 1:9), the word "saved" must be regarded in a more restricted sense, for it is distinguished from our effectual call. "Salvation" is both relative and personal, legal and experimental, what God has done for His people and what He works in them: the former takes in election, adoption, justification, acceptance in the Beloved; the latter embraces their regeneration. sanctification, preservation, and glorification.
As we must not confound what God has done for His people and what He is now doing in them, so we must distinguish between the Christian's having a right or title to salvation and his actual possession of salvation. Faith in Christ secures an interest in all the benefits of salvation, whether in this world or in the world to come, but it does not convey a present participation in all of them. There is a salvation "in hope" (Rom. 8:24), which is a legal right to that which is yet future in realization: and there is a salvation which is "obtained" now (2 Tim. 2:10). There are certain benefits which the believer has not only a title to, but which he as fully possesses now as he will in the future; such is his justification: he is as righteous now in the sight of the Divine Judge as he will be in heaven, only then there will be a fuller enjoyment of it. Even now we are "the sons of God," but it is not yet made manifest all that favour carries with it (1 John 3:2). Perfect sanctification is prepared by grace in election from all eternity, yet none of the elect now on earth are fully sanctified in their experience. Thus we must distinguish between what is the believer's by title and that which is accomplished by degrees and made good to him in time.
Once more, we must learn to distinguish sharply between the various causes and means of salvation. The original cause is the sovereign will of God, for nothing can come into being save that which He decreed before the foundation of the world. The meritorious cause is the mediatorial work of Christ, who "obtained eternal redemption" (Heb. 9:22) for His people, purchasing for them all the blessings of it by His perfect obedience to the Law and His sacrificial death. The efficient cause is the varied operations of the Holy Spirit, who applies to the elect the benefits purchased by Christ, capacitating them to enjoy the same and making them meet for the inheritance of the saints in light. The ministerial cause and means is the preaching of the Word (Jas. 1:21), because it discovers to us where salvation is to be obtained. The instrumental cause is faith, by which the soul receives or comes into possession of and obtains an interest in Christ and His redemption. Such distinctions as these are not merely technicalities for theologians, but are part of the faith once delivered unto the saints, and unless they apprehend the same they are liable to be deceived by any Scripture-quoting false prophet who accosts them.
The Christian's title to salvation, that is to salvation as a whole and complete as it lay in the womb of God's decree, is entirely by grace, for he has done and can do nothing whatever to earn the same. We are not saved for our faith, for since it also is the gift of God, wrought in us by the Spirit, it possesses no meritorious worth. We are saved by grace through faith because faith let in salvation, being the hand which receives it. Yet there is no salvation without faith: no one is saved until he believes. It is by grace through faith that we obtain deliverance from the curse of the Law and receive title to everlasting life and righteousness. As Thomas Goodwin pointed out in his masterly exposition of Ephesians 2:8: "We are saved through faith as that which gives us the present right, or that which God doth give us as a Judge, when we believe, before faith hath done a whit of works; but we are led through sanctification and good works to the possession of salvation." It must not be lost sight of that Ephesians 2:8, 9, is at once followed by, "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them." It is sometimes said, because God has ordained it we shall walk in good works. That is true, but it is equally true that we must do so if heaven is to be reached.
Are good works necessary in order to the obtaining of salvation? Our answer was no and yes. Perhaps the reader is now better prepared to follow us in such a seemingly paradoxical answer. Certainly no works are required from us in order to induce God to show us favour. Nor are they necessary in order to our justification, for they constitute no part of that righteousness which we have before God. Nor do they procure for us a title to heaven. But it is a great mistake to suppose that because good works are not necessary for one particular end they are not indispensable for any: that because they are not meritorious therefore they are useless. Not so. Good works are necessary. They are necessary in order to preserve us from that course and practice which conducts to hell. They are necessary in order to the glorifying of God and the magnifying of His grace. They are necessary in order to keep us in the only way that leads to heaven. They are necessary in order to communion with the thrice holy God. They are necessary in order to prove the quality of our faith and the genuineness of our profession. They are necessary in order to the making of our calling and election sure. They are necessary in order to silence the detractors of the Gospel.
As there is no pardon until we forsake our wicked ways (Isa. 55:7), no blotting out of our sins until we repent and turn unto God (Acts 3:19), so there is no entering into life except by treading the only way that leads thereto, and that is the path of obedience. So long as the Christian remains in this world he is in the place of danger: deliverance from hell is only the beginning of salvation, nor is it completed until heaven is reached. Between justification and glorification there is a fight to be fought, enemies to be conquered, a victory to be won, and the prize is only for the victor. "Conversion is a turning into the right road; the next thing is to walk in it. The daily going on in that road is as essential as the first starting if you would reach the desired end. To strike the first blow is not all the battle: to him that overcometh the crown is promised. To start in the race is nothing, many have done that who have failed; but to hold out till you reach the winning post is the great point of the matter. Perseverance is as necessary to a man's salvation as conversion" (C. H. Spurgeon).
In what sense are good works "necessary" unto salvation-necessary in order to final and complete salvation? First, they are requisite as the way in which that final salvation is attained. As a destination cannot be reached without journeying thither, neither can life be entered except through the strait gate and treading the narrow way: it is via the path of holiness that heaven is reached. Second, they are requisite as part of the means which God has appointed: they are the means of spiritual preservation. The only alternative to good works is evil ones, and evil works slay their perpetrator-sin is destructive: "if ye live after the flesh ye shall die" (Rom. 8:13; and cf. Gal. 6:8). Third, they are requisite as a condition of the possession of full salvation. Not a condition like a stipulation in a bargain, but as a connection between two things. As food must be eaten for the body to be nourished, as seed must be sown in order to a harvest, so obedience, equally as repentance and faith, precede the crowning. Fourth, as an evidence of the genuineness of faith: the fruit must manifest the tree.
Those who deny that good works are in any sense necessary to salvation appeal to the instance of the thief on the cross, arguing that in his case there was nothing more than a simple and single look of faith unto the Saviour. We might dispose of such an appeal by pointing out that his case is quite exceptional-for it is very rarely that God at once removes to heaven him who believes-and that it is not permissible to frame a rule from an exception. Instead, we meet the objector on his own ground and show that his assertion is erroneous. There was far more than a bare looking to the Saviour in his case. (1) He rebuked his companion: "Dost not thou fear God?" (Luke 23:40). (2) He repented of his sins: "we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds" (v. 41)-he condemned himself, owning that death was his due. (3) He bore public witness to Christ's sinlessness: "this man hath done nothing amiss." (4) In the face of a hostile mob, he testified to Christ's Lordship and Kingship: "Lord, remember me, when Thou comest into Thy kingdom."
In his sermon on Ephesians 2:10, Manton says: "Our well-doing is the effect of salvation if you take it for our first recovery to God, but if you take it for full salvation or our final deliverance from all evil, good works go before it indeed, but in a way of order, not of meritorious influence. To think them altogether unnecessary would too much deprecate and lessen their presence or concurrence; to think they deserve it would too much exalt and advance them beyond the line of their due worth and value. The apostle steered a middle course between both extremes. They are necessary but not meritorious. They go before eternal life not as a cause but as a way. Let us now summarize it thus: God has made promise of salvation unto His people: Christ has purchased it for them: faith obtains title thereto: good works secure actual admission into the full and final benefits of redemption, and in order to empower the Spirit renews the believer day by day."