The Sermon On The Mount
It may appear to some of our readers that the preceding chapter of this series had no connection at all with Matthew 7:15, that instead of giving an exposition of the verse we wandered off to an entirely different subject and entered into a lot of technicalities which few are capable of understanding. Then let us remind such that we gave an exposition of Matthew 7:15, in the previous chapter, at the close of which we asserted that it is particularly in the matter of the relation of good works unto salvation that the false prophets fatally deceive souls: one school or class of them teaching that salvation is by works, another insisting that it is entirely without works. The issue thus raised is such an important and vital one that it would be wrong to dismiss it with a few peremptory statements. Moreover, there is now such confusion of tongues in the religious realm, and the method followed by even the orthodox pulpit is so dreadfully superficial-"preaching" having quite supplanted teaching-that the Lord's own people are in real need of instruction thereon, and such instruction demands diligence and study on the part of the one imparting, and concentration and patience from those who would receive. Truth has to be " bought" (Prov. 23:23).
In the preceding chapter we sought to define and explain the relation of good works to salvation. First, we pointed out that they possess no meritorious value: by which we mean, they deserve nothing at the hands of God, that in no sense do they earn aught or contribute one mite to our redemption. Second, we insisted that they are necessary, yea, that without them salvation cannot be obtained. Not that any well-doing on our part is required in order to obtain acceptance with God, nor that they can atone for the failures and sins of the past. But rather that the path of obedience must be trod if the realm of unclouded bliss is to be reached. The doing of good works is indispensable in order to the securing of full and final salvation, that is in order to an actual entrance into heaven itself. We are well aware that such language will have a strange sound to some of our friends, that it will savor of "legality," yet if Scripture itself expressly declares that Christ is "the Author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey Him" (Heb. 5:9), need we hesitate to employ the same plain language and press the force thereof?
That which we are here advancing is no departure from genuine orthodoxy, but the doctrine propounded by the soundest of God's servants in days gone by. In the last article we quoted from Goodwin and Manton. Hear now the testimonies of other of the Puritans. "If we consider every gracious work of patience, love, meekness, we shall see blessedness is promised to them. Not that they justify, only the justified person cannot be without them. They are the ordained means in the use whereof we arrive at eternal life. It is faith only that receives Christ in His righteousness, yet this faith cannot be separated from an holy walk" (A. Burgess, 1656). "Freedom from condemnation, from sin, for all the elect, which God Himself so plainly asserts (Rom. 8:32, 33) doth not in the least set thee free from the necessity of obedience, nor free thee from contracting the guilt of sin upon the least irregularity or disobedience" (John Owen, 1670). "Christ will save none but those who are brought to resign themselves sincerely to the obedience of His royal authority and laws" (Walter Marshall, 1692). Alas, that there has been so widespread a departure from the teaching of such worthies.
It is just because there has been such a grievous turning away from the Truth as it was formerly so faithfully and fearlessly proclaimed, by men not worthy to blacken their shoes, that so many today are ignorant of the very first principles of Christianity. It is because the pulpit, platform, and pamphlet hucksters of the nineteenth century so wantonly lowered the standard of Divine holiness, and so adulterated the Gospel in order to make it palatable to the carnal mind, that it has become necessary to labour what is really self-evident. Oh, the tragedy of it that at this late day we should have to write chapter after chapter in the endeavour to purge some of God's people of the antinomian poison they have imbibed. As well may writer and reader hope to reach heaven without Christ as without good works: "Whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after Me, cannot be My disciple" (Luke 14:27). Did the Lord Jesus work so arduously that His followers might be carried to glory on flowery beds of ease? Was the Saviour so active that His disciples might be idle? Did he become obedient unto death in order to exempt us from obedience?
Though it will retard our pace, yet because it is necessary to remove stumbling stones out of the way of those anxious to be helped, we must seek to resolve two or three difficulties which may arise in the minds of the Lord's people. (1) It is likely to be objected that by such teachings we are making man in part at least his own savior. But need we be afraid to go as far as the language of Holy Writ goes? Was the apostle legalistic when he cried, "save yourselves from this untoward generation" (Acts 2:40)? Was the chief of the apostles derogating from the glory of Christ and the grace of God when he bade Timothy, "Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee" (1 Tim. 4:16)? But was not Timothy already a saved man when thus exhorted? Regenerated and justified, yes: fully sanctified and glorified, no. Because we press the perseverance of the Christian (as well as his Divine preservation) do we make him his own keeper? Suppose we do, are we going beyond Scripture? Did not David say, "By the word of Thy lips I have kept me from the paths of the destroyer" (Ps. 17:4)? Did not Paul say, "I keep under my body" (1 Cor. 9:27)? Does not Jude exhort us, "keep yourselves in the love of God" (v. 21)?
It is against a dishonest one-sidedness that we so often protest in these pages. The singling out of certain passages and then closing the eyes against others has wrought untold damage. "Is there any doctrine which you almost think is a truth, but your friends do not believe it, and they might perhaps think you heretical if you were to accept it, and therefore you dare not investigate any farther? Oh, dear friends, let us be rid of all such dishonesty. So much of it has got into the church that many will not see things that are as plain as a pikestaff. They will not see, for truth might cost them too dear. They cover up and hide away some parts of Scripture which it might be awkward for them to understand, because of their connection with a church or their standing in a certain circle." If C. H. Spurgeon found it necessary to raise his voice against this reprehensible method of picking and choosing from the Word of God, how much more so is such a condemnation called for in this generation of dishonesty and hypocrisy.
(2) If good works be necessary in order to salvation, is not this putting us back again under the covenant of works, the terms of which were: "Do this and thou shalt live"? No indeed, nevertheless the fact must not be lost sight of that it has pleased God in all ages to deal with His people by way of covenant, and in the same way He will deal with them to the end of the world. It is very largely because covenant teaching has been given no place in modern "evangelism" that so much ignorance now obtains. How few preachers today could explain the meaning of "these are the two covenants" (Gal. 4:24). What percentage of Christians now living understand the "better covenant," of which Christ is "the Mediator" (Heb. 8:6) and wherein lies the difference between the "new covenant" (Heb. 12:24) and the old one? How few apprehend the blessedness of those words, "The blood of the everlasting covenant" (Heb. 13:20). But let it not be overlooked that there are covenant duties as well as covenant blessings: there is a covenant for us to "make" with God (Ps. 1:5) and a covenant to "keep" (Ps. 25:10; 103:18).
The new covenant or covenant of grace was in its original constitution transacted between God and Christ as the Head of His people. That covenant is published in the Gospel, and the application of its benefits is made when we submit to its terms and fulfil its duties. It is worthy of note that the self-same thing which the apostle calls the "gospel" in Galatians 3:8, he terms the "covenant" in verse 17. Now a covenant is a compact or contract entered into by two or more parties, the one engaging himself to do or give something upon the fulfillment of a stipulation agreed upon by the other. Thus in the Gospel Christ makes known His readiness to save those who are willing to submit to His Lordship. Hence conversion is termed "the love of thine espousals" (Jer. 2:2), when the soul as it were signed the marriage contract, vowing to love none other than the Lord and to be faithful to Him unto death. This giving of ourselves to Christ to serve and love Him is designated a "taking hold of the covenant" (Isa. 56:6). And that covenant must be kept if we are to receive its benefits.
When defining the essence of the controversy between himself and his opponents, John Flavel stated it thus: "The only question between us is, Whether in the new covenant some acts of ours (though they have no merit in them, nor can be done in our own strength) be not required to be performed by us antecedently to (before) a blessing or privilege, consequent by virtue of a promise; and whether such act or duty, being of a suspending nature to the blessing promised, it have not the true and proper nature of a Gospel condition." Mr. Flavel affirmed, his opponent (Mr. Carey) denied. In proof of the conditionality of certain of the new covenant blessings Mr. Flavel said, "We know not how to express those sacred particles, "if not," "if," "except," "only," and such like (Rom. 10:9; Matthew 18:8; Mark 11:26; Rom. 11:22; Col. 1:22, 23; Heb. 3:6, 14), which are frequently used to limit and restrain the benefits and privileges of the new covenant, by any other word so fit and so full as the word conditional."
In considering the new and better covenant, we must distinguish sharply between the first sanction of it in Christ and the application of its benefits to His people. Few men more magnified the grace of God in his preaching and writings than did the Puritan, Thomas Boston, yet we find him saying (in his View of the Covenant of Grace): "He gives the rewards of the covenant in the course of their obedience. He puts His people to work and labour: but not to work in the fire for vanity as the slaves of sin do. They are to labour like the ox treading out the corn, which was not to be muzzled, but to have access at once to work and to eat. The service now done to Zion's King hath a reward in this life as well as a reward in the life to come. By the order of the covenant there is privilege established to follow duty as the reward thereof, the which order is observed by the King in His administration. Accordingly He proposeth the privilege of comfort to excite to the duty of mourning (Matthew 5:4), the special tokens of heaven's favour to excite unto a holy tender walk (John 14:21); in like manner to excite to the same holy obedience He proposeth the full reward in the life to come (1 Cor. 9:24; Rev. 3:21)."
The new covenant requires obedience as really and truly as did the old, and therefore does God write the laws of the covenant on the hearts of those with whom He makes the new covenant (Heb. 10:16). Those who enter into this covenant with God do approve of the whole Divine Law so far as they know it, declaring, "I esteem all Thy precepts" (Ps. 119:128). They have an inclination of heart towards the whole of God's Law so far as they know it, saying: "I love Thy commandments above gold" (119:127). They heartily engage to conform to the whole of God's Law so far as they know it, exclaiming, "O that my ways were directed to keep Thy statutes!" (119:5). Where the Law is written on a person's heart he will write it out again in his conversation. Their souls lie open to what of God's Law they as yet know not, praying "Make me to understand the way of Thy precepts" (Ps. 119:27).
But now if many (we say not all) of the blessings and benefits of the new covenant are made conditional upon our obedience and fidelity, wherein does it differ from the old, or Adamic covenant, the covenant of works? Why, in these respects. First, under the old covenant, works were meritorious, entitling to the inheritance: had Adam kept the Law, he and all he represented would have entered life by legal right, whereas under the new covenant Christ purchased the inheritance for His people before a single thing was asked of them. Second, under the old covenant man had to work in his own strength alone; but under the new all-sufficient grace and enablement are available to those who duly seek it. Third, under the covenant of works no provision was made for failure: the obedience required must be perfect and perpetual (Gal. 3:10): whereas under the covenant of grace God accepts imperfect obedience, if it be sincere, because the blood of Christ hath made atonement for its defects and disobedience is pardoned when we truly repent of and forsake the same.
(3) If good works be necessary in order to final salvation, how is a poor soul to ascertain when he has done sufficient of them? Such a question is not likely to issue from a renewed heart, rather does he bemoan his unfruitfulness and unprofitableness. He feels he can never do enough to express his gratitude unto God for the unspeakable gift of His Son. Instead of begrudging any sacrifice he is called upon to make, or any hardship to encounter, by virtue of his being a Christian. he deems it the highest honour conceivable to serve such a Master and endure for His sake. But to the carping objector, we would say, Scripture declares: "For we are made par-takers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence stedfast unto the end" (Heb. 3:14). The soldiers of Christ are not granted any furloughs or "leave" in this life: they cannot take off their armor until the battle is over. They know not at what hour their Lord may come, and therefore are they required to have their loins girded and their lamps trimmed without intermission.
But it should be pointed out that it is not quantity but quality which God requires. A cup of cold water given to one of His little ones in the name of Christ is infinitely more acceptable to the Father than a million pounds donated by a godless magnate to social institutions. On the one hand it is written, "that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God" (Luke 16:15), on the other, "man looketh on the outward appearance but the Lord looketh on the heart" (1 Sam. 16:7). That which issues from love to God, which expresses gratitude for His goodness, is what is well pleasing in His sight. Quality, not quantity. Is not this the point in that saying of Christ's, "if ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove" (Matthew 17:20)? What is smaller than a mustard seed and what larger than a mountain? the one seemingly feeble and paltry, the other ponderous and mighty. Ah, but the former is a living thing, the latter but a mass of inert matter; the former is energetic and growing, the latter stationary. It is quality versus quantity.
(4) If good works be necessary in order to final salvation, is there not ground thereon for boasting? Yes, if they be perfect and flawless, performed in our own strength, and we bring God into our debt thereby. Before giving the negative answer, consider the case of the holy angels in this connection. When Satan fell he dragged down with him one third of the celestial hierarchy, the remainder remained steadfast in their loyalty to God: did such fidelity puff them up? Throughout their entire history it could ever be said of them that they "do His commandments, hearkening unto the voice of His word" (Ps. 103:20), yet nowhere in Holy Writ is there so much as a hint that they are proud of their obedience. On the contrary we find them veiling their faces in the Divine presence and crying one unto another, "Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts" (Isa. 6:3), and falling before the throne on their faces and worshipping God (Rev. 7:11). How much less then may hell-deserving sinners, redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, find anything in their own performances to afford self-gratulation.
Is there any danger that the doing of good works in order to final salvation will lead to boasting? No, none whatever, if we bear in mind that our best performances are but filthy rags in the sight of Him with whom the very heavens are not clean. No, not if we bear in mind that we are not sufficient of ourselves to think a godly thought (2 Cor. 3:5), still less carry it out into execution; apart from Christ we can "do nothing." No, not if we squarely face and honestly answer the question, "What hast thou that thou didst not receive?" (1 Cor. 4:7). No, not if we heed that word of Christ's, "So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you [which none of us ever did], say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do" (Luke 17:10). Yes, "unprofitable servants" so far as making God our Debtor is concerned. The very man who wrought more miracles than any for his Master declared. "yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me" (1 Cor. 15:10).
Again, the reader may be inclined to ask, But what bearing has all of this on Matthew 7:15? We answer, Much every way, as we shall (D. V.) seek to show in our next. Suffice it now to say that what we have been stressing in this and the preceding chapter is expressly repudiated by the "false prophets" of our day. They blankly deny that good works have any part or place whatever in our salvation, that believing the Gospel is all that is needed to ensure heaven for any sinner.