GRACE AND WORKS OPPOSED TO EACH OTHER AS GROUNDS OF SALVATION
Rom_11:6. If by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.
IN reference to the doctrines of grace, St. Paul maintained a most watchful and “godly jealousy.” On points of a less vital nature, he was ready to concede as far as possible; but on the point of salvation by grace through faith he was firm and immoveable. He would not give way for a moment, even though all the college of Apostles had opposed him [Note: Gal_2:5.], or an angel from heaven had professed to have received a commission to proclaim any thing that was inconsistent with it [Note: Gal_1:8-9.]. In the superstructure of our religion there might be errors, yea, considerable errors, as he tells us, and yet our souls be saved. Injurious indeed they would be, extremely injurious, to our welfare; but still they would not be utterly subversive of our hopes. But if the error affected the foundation of our religion, he declared it to be utterly incompatible with our final salvation [Note: 1Co_3:11-15.].
This jealousy of his is peculiarly visible in the words which we have just read. They were not necessary to the Apostle’s argument. In the preceding context he is shewing that God has among the Jews, as well as among the Gentiles, a chosen remnant: but having called them “a remnant according to the election of grace,” he lays hold on the opportunity to confirm his favourite position, that salvation is altogether of grace; so entirely of grace, as absolutely to exclude works altogether from having any share in meriting or procuring it.
The observation thus introduced deserves the deeper attention; because it shews how near to the Apostle’s heart the truth was that is contained in it. Let us then, in considering this observation, attend to,
The truth of it—
The observation is simply this, That salvation must be altogether of grace, or altogether of works; for that the two cannot possibly coalesce; since each of them excludes the other as much as light and darkness. Now,
This observation is true—
[The Apostle has before drawn the distinction between “a reward of grace, and a reward of debt [Note: Rom_4:4.].” And it is clear, that if a thing be a gift, it cannot have been earned; and, on the other hand, if it have been earned, it cannot be a gift. It is true, the sum required may bear no proportion to the blessing bestowed: but still, however small the sum be, it is, as far as it goes, a price paid for the thing obtained: and whether that be more or less, it equally destroys the notion of a free gift. We readily concede, that all the works that Paul himself performed would be as nothing in comparison of eternal life: but yet, if it be only a thousandth part of his works that has been paid for eternal life, that life is so far earned by works, and ceases to be a gift of grace: and though we may admire the goodness of God in giving heaven for so small a consideration, the person to whom it is given will have to boast that he paid for it the consideration that had been demanded of him.]
It is true in reference to every part of our salvation—
[It is true in reference to our first election of God. If God chose us on account of some good works which he foresaw we should perform, those works must to all eternity be acknowledged as the true ground of our salvation; and our salvation must therefore be of works, and not of grace.
We are not now inquiring, whether any such works as would be proper to influence God’s mind, can be performed by man, by man too in his fallen state, and unassisted by his God: (these are points which at the present we leave untouched:) we are only shewing now, that, supposing such works to be wrought, and God’s election to be determined by them, election would be of works, and not of grace.
In like manner, if our justification be on account of any work of ours, we may boast that it has been not a mere act of grace and mercy for Christ’s sake, but a debt paid to us for something done by us. As to the comparative value of the work and the reward, we again say, that it is nothing to the purpose: it may serve to illustrate the goodness of God in annexing so great a reward to so small a work; but still the reward so conferred bears, and must ever bear, the character of a debt, and not of a gift.
To this it may be objected, that good works are represented in the Scripture as objects of reward, nay more, as forming the measure of that reward. This is true: but it does not in the least degree militate against the position before stated. Let us bear in mind what the Apostle’s statement is: it is this, that if, in any part of our salvation from first to last, our works form the meritorious ground of our acceptance with God, our salvation is not of grace, but of works; and that consequently, if salvation be of grace, all works of ours must be excluded as forming the ground of our acceptance with him. But this is not contradicted by any thing which God may do after we are accepted of him. The whole case is then altered:
The works done, are done, not in our own strength, but by the operation of God’s Spirit within us.
They are done, not in order to purchase heaven, but to manifest our love to God, and promote his glory.
They come up to God, not as claiming any thing on account of their own intrinsic excellence, but as washed in the Redeemer’s blood, and perfumed with the incense of his all-prevailing intercession.
They come, not as demanding a recompence on the footing of justice, but as owing all their hope of acceptance to God’s free and gracious promises.
They come, not to set aside the grace of God, but to illustrate, adorn, and magnify it.
If any one of these works were to arrogate to itself the office of recommending us to God, its value would be lost; and so baneful would be its influence, that it would destroy the value, and prevent the reward, of all the other works that the person had ever done.
Hence then it is evident, that though God may, for the magnifying of his own grace, bestow gifts upon his children, that can be no reason why man, whilst an enemy to God, should, on the footing of justice, for the gratifying of his own pride, demand of God a reward of debt. God is at liberty to give what, and when, and to whom, he will: and whatsoever, of his own free grace, he has promised, he most assuredly will perform: but this gives no right to man to claim what God never has promised, and what he has in ten thousand places declared he never will give.
We again therefore revert to our position, and say, that, if salvation be by grace, it cannot in any respect, or any degree, be of works: and, consequently, works must be for ever renounced as a ground of our acceptance with God, and we must look for every thing from grace, free grace, alone.]
The truth of the Apostle’s observation being established, we proceed to shew,
The importance of it—
We have already called your attention to the way in which the observation is introduced, and which, we conceive, marks very strongly the importance of it in the Apostle’s mind. And we may notice the same from the very pointed way in which the observation is made. The Apostle seems determined that nobody shall misunderstand him: and he has effectually secured his object in that particular.
To shew the importance of his observation then, we say, that,
It establishes beyond all doubt the freeness and fulness of the Gospel salvation—
[In many places, both in the Old and New Testament, does God guard his people against arrogating any thing to themselves. He warns the Jews by Moses, that they would be ready to indulge this propensity, but that his mercies to them had been in no respect the fruit of their own goodness, but wholly of his free and sovereign grace [Note: Deu_9:4-6.]? The only thing which they could behold on a retrospect, and which they ought to look back upon with never-ceasing shame, was, one continued scene of wickedness and provocations [Note: Deu_9:7. Compare Eze_36:31-32.]. Thus St. Paul again and again reminds us, that it was “not by works of righteousness which we had done, but according to his own mercy that God had saved us [Note: Tit_3:5.]:” and still more plainly in another epistle, that “he had 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 [Note: 2Ti_1:9].” But the words of our text are so strong, that no one can attempt to get over them, without shewing, that he is manifestly “wresting” them from their proper, and obvious, and only meaning. Be it known then, that salvation is, and ever must be, of grace, from first to last. Our election from eternity, our justification in time, and our glorification when time shall be no more, are all the fruits of God’s free and sovereign grace: the foundation was laid in grace; the superstructure is raised by grace; and “when the head-stone shall be brought forth, we must still cry, Grace, grace unto it [Note: Zec_4:6-7; Zec_4:9.].” There is not a soul in heaven that must not to all eternity say, “By the grace of God I am what I am.”]
It secures against all invasion the honour of God—
[Men are ever attempting to rob God of his glory: they cannot endure that all the honour of their salvation should be given to God alone. When they see the crown placed on the Redeemer’s head, they feel as if they themselves were injured and dishonoured. They think that some part of the glory belongs to them; that their works must be considered, in part at least, as forming the ground of their justification; and that God’s election of them was determined by his foresight of their superior goodness. But, when they come to these words, and see what an insuperable obstacle they oppose to all such vain conceits, they find that there is no alternative left them, but to earn salvation by a perfect obedience to the law, or to accept it as the free gift of God in Christ Jesus. They see, that, to blend the two is impossible; and that, if they do not accept salvation wholly by grace, they are forced altogether upon the covenant of works, and are cut off from all hope in Christ Jesus [Note: Gal_5:2-4.]. This alternative they dare not for a moment to adopt; and therefore they are constrained to give to God the glory due unto his name, and to acknowledge Christ both as “the Author, and the Finisher, of their faith [Note: Heb_12:2.].” In a word, they are made willing to “glory in Christ alone.”]
It makes clear the path of the true penitent—
[Persons in the earlier stages of repentance are apt to be much perplexed. They think they ought to have something of their own to unite with Christ’s merits, or at least something to recommend them to his favour. But this they cannot find: and the more they discover of the evil of their own ways, the farther they appear to be from possessing any of those qualifications which they desire. This greatly alarms them; and makes them fear it would be presumptuous in such unworthy creatures as they to hope in Christ. But when they see the force of the Apostle’s observation, they are convinced, that hitherto they have proceeded on wrong grounds, and that the only true way of going to Christ, is, to go with all their sins upon them, and receive salvation from him as the purchase of his blood, and the gift of his grace. This, when once seen, dissipates all the clouds and darkness that have obscured their way, and makes their path to life as clear as the sun at noonday. They see themselves in the predicament of the wounded Israelites, when directed to look to the brazen serpent; or of the jailor, when bidden to believe in Christ. They believe; they look; they live.]
On the observation thus explained we ground a few words of advice—
Accept with gratitude this free salvation—
[Do not suffer the pride of your hearts to rise against it. Do not grudge unto God the honour of saving you by his own grace. Were you sinking in the midst of the ocean, would you refuse deliverance, unless you were left to earn it, or some of the honour of your preservation were to be assigned to you? Be not then such enemies to yourselves as to reject a free salvation from death and hell. You know full well, that you did nothing to induce God to send his only Son into the world: you know also that you contributed nothing to Christ, to give perfection to his obedience, or virtue to his sacrifice. You must know too, if you are not blinded even to infatuation, that you can do nothing which does not need mercy on account of its own imperfections. Be prevailed upon then to accept with thankfulness a free and full salvation: you can add nothing to what Christ has done and suffered for you: and the consequence of attempting to add any thing will be inevitable and eternal ruin. Let Christ have all the honour of his own work, and you shall have all the benefit.]
Give no occasion for the objections that are raised against it—
[Those who are averse to the doctrines of grace, always represent the favourers of those doctrines as embracing them in order the more quietly to live in sin: and if they can find a person who turns the grace of God into licentiousness, they will not be contented with blaming him, but will cast the blame on the Gospel itself, and represent such conduct as the natural result of such principles: and one such instance of hypocrisy will be made a subject of great notoriety, when a thousand instances of blameless and exemplary piety will be overlooked. Be careful then, brethren, to give no occasion for such observations. Be careful not to cast a stumbling-block before the ungodly world; for, if there be a “woe to the world because of offences,” there will be a ten-fold heavier “woe unto him by whom the offence cometh.” Be watchful against the incursions of sin, and the temptations of Satan; “that he who is on the contrary part may be ashamed, having no evil thing to say of you.”]
Recommend and adorn it by a holy conversation—
[Shew by your lives what the proper tendency and effect of grace is. We are told that “the grace of God which bringeth salvation, teaches us, that denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live righteously, and soberly, and godly in this present world.” Shew then, by all your dealings with men, what true righteousness is: shew, by your perfect self-government in all your tempers, dispositions, and habits, what true sobriety is: and shew, by the spirituality of your minds and the heavenliness of your lives, wherein true godliness consists. This will recommend the Gospel more effectually than all the encomiums that can be lavished upon it, and will operate more strongly to convince men of its excellence than all the arguments that can be urged. Let it be seen then, that whilst you magnify and extol the grace of God, you are the truest friends of good works; for that, though you exclude them from your foundation, you display them in your superstructure, and, in fact, raise them higher, and of a nobler quality, than any other people in the universe.]