Sermon 26. Human Responsibility

"To sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give; but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared of My Father." Matt. xx. 23.

{320} [Note] IN these words, to which the Festival of St. James the Greater especially directs our minds, our Lord solemnly declares that the high places of His Kingdom are not His to give,—which can mean nothing else, than that the assignment of them does not simply and absolutely depend upon Him; for that He will actually dispense them at the last day, and moreover is the meritorious cause of any being given, is plain from Scripture. I say, He avers most solemnly that something besides His own will and choice is necessary, for obtaining the posts of honour about His throne; so that we are naturally led on to ask, where it is that this awful prerogative is lodged. Is it with His Father? He proceeds to speak of His Father; but neither does He assign it to Him, "It shall be given to them for whom it is prepared of My Father." The Father's foreknowledge and design {321} are announced, not His choice. "Whom He did foreknow, them He did predestinate." He prepares the reward, and confers it, but upon whom? No answer is given us, unless it is conveyed in the words which follow,—upon the humble:—"Whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant."

Some parallel passages may throw some further light upon the question. In the description our Lord gives us of the Last Judgment, He tells us He shall say to them on His right hand, "Come, ye blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world." Here we have the same expression. Who then are the heirs for whom the Kingdom is prepared? He tells us expressly, those who fed the hungry and thirsty, lodged the stranger, clothed the naked, visited the sick, came to the prisoners, for His sake. Consider again an earlier passage in the same chapter. To whom is it that He will say, "Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord?"—to those whom He can praise as "good and faithful servants," who have been "faithful over a few things." These two passages then carry our search just to the very point which is suggested by the text. They lead us from the thought of God and Christ, and throw us upon human agency and responsibility, for the solution of the question; and they finally lodge us there, unless indeed other texts of Scripture can be produced to lead us on further still. We know for certain that they for whom the Kingdom is prepared are the humble, the charitable, and the diligent in the improvement of their gifts; to which another {322} text (for instance) adds the spiritually-minded:—"Eye hath not seen the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him." [Matt. xxv. 21, 34-36. 1 Cor. ii. 9.] Is this as far as we can go? Does it now depend ultimately on ourselves, or on any one else, that we come to be humble, charitable, diligent, and lovers of God?

Now, in answering this question, religious men have for many centuries differed in opinion; not indeed in the first and purest ages of the Church, but when corruptions began to steal in. In the primitive times it was always considered that, though God's grace was absolutely necessary for us from first to last,—before we believed, in order to our believing, and while we obeyed and worked righteousness, in order to our obeying,—so that not a deed, word, or thought could be pleasing to Him without it; yet, that after all the human mind had also from first to last a power of resisting grace, and thus (as the foregoing texts imply) had the ultimate determination of its own fate committed to it, whether to be saved or rejected, the responsibility of its conduct, and, if it was rejected, the whole blame of it. However, at the beginning of the fifth century, when shadows were coming over the Church, a celebrated Doctor arose, whose name must ever be honoured by us, for his numberless gifts, his diligence, and his extended usefulness, whatever judgment may be passed on certain of his opinions. He is known in the Theological Schools as the first to have given some sort of sanction to two doctrines hitherto unknown in the Church, and apparently far removed from each other, as indeed are the {323} modern Systems in which they are found. The one is the Predestinarian Hypothesis; viz. that, in spite of the text, it is God and Christ with whom the ultimate decision concerning the individual's state depends; that His grace does not merely suggest, influence, precede, and follow, but forms in the soul a new character, not by the soul's instrumentality, but immediately by Himself, and is effectual with some, not with others, at His own will, not at the individual's. The one, I say, is this Predestinarian Doctrine; and the other is the doctrine of Purgatory. With this latter I am not now concerned; and I mention it, only as a remarkable fact, that the same Teacher, highly to be venerated except where he deviates from Catholic doctrine, should have first sanctioned certain characteristics of two Systems, which lie on either side, as of the primitive, so of the present Anglican Church. Dismissing the coincidence with this remark, I proceed to make some brief observations on the ground of argument on which the Predestinarian Doctrine rests.

It is doubtless a great mystery, how it is that one man believes, and another rejects the Gospel. It is altogether a mystery; we cannot get at all beyond the fact, and must be content with our ignorance. But men of reasoning, subtle, and restless minds, have within them a temptation to inquisitiveness; they cannot acquiesce in the limits of God's revelation, and go on to assume a cause for the strange things they see when they are not told one. Thus they argue that a man's self cannot be the ultimate cause of his faith or unbelief, else there would be more first causes than {324} God in the world: as if the same reasoning would not show that God is the Author of evil; or as if it were more intelligible, why the Divine Will should choose this man and reject that, than why an individual man should choose or reject good or evil. When then they see, as is constantly seen in life, two persons, in education the same, in circumstances the same, both baptized, both admitted to full Church privileges, one turning out well, the other ill, astonished at the mystery, they hastily say, "Here is God's secret election! God has decreed life to one, and has passed over the other; else why this difference of conduct?" when they should bow the head, and wait till the day of the revelation of all secrets. Again, they assume that the will is subjected to the influence of the reason, affections, and the like, in the same uniform way in which material bodies obey the laws of matter;—that certain inducements or a certain knowledge being presented, the mind can but act in one way; so that, its movements varying, on a given rule, according to influences from without (whether from the world or from God), every one's doom must be determined, either by the mere chance of external circumstances (which is irrational), or else certainly by the determination of God. Such are their reasonings; and it is remarkable that they should trust to reasoning, and in so special a way, considering they are commonly the men who speak against human reason as fallible and corrupt, when it is brought to oppose their opinions. Such grounds of argument, then, we may dismiss at once, except in philosophical discussions; certainly when we speak as Christians. {325}

Next, let us inquire whether there be any Scripture reason for breaking the chain of doctrine which the text suggests. Christ gives the Kingdom to those for whom it is prepared of the Father; the Father prepares it for those who love and serve Him. Does Scripture warrant us in reversing this order, and considering that any are chosen to love Him by His irreversible decree? The disputants in question maintain that it does.

1. Scripture is supposed expressly to promise perseverance, when men once savingly partake of grace; as where it is said, "He which hath begun a good work in you, will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ;" [Phil. i. 6.] and hence it is inferred that the salvation of the individual rests ultimately with God, and not with himself. But here I would object in the outset to applying to individuals promises and declarations made to bodies, and of a general nature. The question in debate is, not whether God carries forward bodies of men, such as the Christian Church, to salvation, but whether He has accorded any promise of indefectibility to given individuals? Those who differ from us say, that individuals are absolutely chosen to eternal life; let them then reckon up the passages in Scripture where perseverance is promised to individuals. Till they can satisfy this demand, they have done nothing by producing such a text as that just cited; which, being spoken of the body of Christians, does but impart that same kind of encouragement, as is contained in other general declarations, such as the statement about God's {326} willingness to save, His being in the midst of us, and the like.

But let us suppose, for argument's sake, that such passages may be applied to individuals; for instance, as when Christ says, that no one "shall pluck His sheep out of His Father's hand." Now, I would maintain that here a condition is understood, as is constantly the case in Scripture, as in other writings; viz. that while the sheep "follow" Christ, and keep within the fold, none can pluck them thence. God proclaims his name to Moses, as "forgiving iniquity, and transgression, and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty;" [John x. 28. Exod. xxxiv. 7.] but what would be thought of a commentator who hence inferred that the impenitent might be forgiven, and the repenting sinner fail of pardon?

Again, "It is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure." [Phil. ii. 13.] What is this but a declaration, that on the whole all our sanctification is from first to last God's work? how does it interfere with this, to say that we may effectually resist that work? Might it not truly be said that the cure of a sick person was wholly attributable to the physician, without denying that the former, had he so chosen, might have obstinately rejected the medicine, or that there might have been (though there was not) some malignant habit of body, which completely baffled the medical art? Does the chance of failure make it less the physician's work when there is not failure?

In truth, the two doctrines of the sovereign and {327} overruling power of Divine grace, and man's power of resistance, need not at all interfere with each other. They lie in different provinces, and are (as it were) incommensurables. Thus St. Paul evidently accounted them; else he could not have introduced the text in question with the exhortation, "Work out" or accomplish "your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God which worketh" or acts "in you." So far was he from thinking man's distinct working inconsistent with God's continual aiding, that he assigns the knowledge of the latter as an encouragement to the former. Let me challenge then a Predestinarian to paraphrase this text. We, on the contrary, find no insuperable difficulty in it, considering it to enjoin upon us a deep awe and reverence, while we engage in those acts and efforts which are to secure our salvation from the belief that God is in us and with us, inspecting and succouring our every thought and deed. Would not the Jewish High Priest, on the Great Day of Atonement, when going through his several acts of propitiation in God's presence, without and within the Veil, "exceedingly fear and quake," lest he should fail in aught put upon him? and shall not we, in our more blessed Covenant, knowing that God himself is within us, and in all we do, fear the more from the thought that, after all, we have our own part in the work, and must do it well, if we are to be saved? What, on the other hand, is the meaning of saying with the Predestinarian, "Work anxiously, because, in reality, you have no work to do?"

I say this, not so much by way of argument against {328} him, as to show that a text which might be adduced in his behalf chances (so to say) to be implicated with an exhortation, such as proves that it, and therefore similar passages, cannot really be explained as he would have it; proves, that his argument from it, "The whole work of salvation is of God, therefore man has no real part in securing it," in fact runs contrary to the Apostle's own argument from his own words, "Man must exert himself, because God is present with him." It is quite certain that a modern Predestinarian never could have written such a sentence.

Another instructive passage of this kind is our Lord's declaration, with St. John's comment upon it, in the sixth chapter of his Gospel, "There are some of you that believe not. For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were that believed not, and who should betray Him. And He said, Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto Me, unless it were given unto him of My Father." Here, in the plain meaning of the words, God's foreknowledge of the issue of free will in individuals is made compatible (though the manner how is not told us) with electing grace. "Whom He did foreknow, He also did predestinate."

Take again another passage. "I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly;" "I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show forth all long suffering." [John vi. 64, 65. 1 Tim. 13, 16.] It appears that the Apostle saw no inconsistency in preaching that no sinner can claim forgiveness, yet that those who are less guilty than others obtain it. These two doctrines do not seem to have come into {329} collision in his mind, any more than in our own; but it is quite plain that a Predestinarian never would have introduced the first while descanting on the second.

2. In the next place, there are many passages of the following kind, which are sometimes taken to favour the Predestinarian view, and require explanation. "God hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ, according as He hath chosen us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will." Here certainly an election is spoken of, irrespective of the conduct of the individuals who are subjects of it. Again, "By grace are ye saved through faith; and that salvation not of yourselves, it is the gift of God:" [Eph. i. 3-5; ii. 3.] and the like. But in such passages let it be observed, neither heaven nor the grace of sanctification is spoken of, but the present privilege, high indeed and peculiar to the Gospel, but only a privilege, of regeneration. This great Christian gift of course includes in it the communication of a sanctifying grace; but such a grace may be, and under circumstances has been, given without it. The Jews were aided by the Spirit of Sanctification, not of Regeneration. They were not the sons of God, as we are; whereas in every age "the just have lived by faith," and the like fruits of Sanctification. Now, where are we told that this sanctifying Grace is irrespective of the free-will of individuals? for this is the point. On the other hand, {330} we readily grant that the grace of Regeneration is such; indeed, we grant that it is more than all that certain teachers hold Sanctification to be. It is a definite and complete gift conveyed, not gradually, but at once; or at least it has not more than a second degree, in the rite of Confirmation, wherein what is given in Baptism is sealed and secured; and moreover, it is a state distinct from every other, consisting in the Sacred Presence of the Spirit of Christ in soul and body; and lastly, it is bestowed on this man, or that, not by any rule which we can discover, but at the inscrutable decree of Him who calls into His Church whom He will. But faith, together with the other gifts of Sanctification, is not thus bestowed. In its nature it is independent of Regeneration, and, in the formal scheme of the Gospel, it is antecedent to it. It is the antecedent condition for receiving the Ordinances which convey and seal Regeneration,—Baptism and Confirmation. Hence, St. John says, "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." And St. Paul, "Believing in Christ, ye were sealed with that Holy Spirit of promise, which is the earnest of our inheritance, until the redemption of the purchased possession." [John i. 12, 13. Eph. i. 13, 14.]

It avails not, therefore, to enlarge upon the characteristics of the Christian Election, with a view of proving the irreversible decrees of God concerning the final salvation of individuals. {331}

3. Lastly, there are passages which speak of God's judicial dealings with the heart of man; in which, doubtless, He does act absolutely at His sole will,—yet not in the beginning of His Providence towards us, but at the close. Thus He is said "to Send" on men "strong delusion to believe a lie;" but only on those who "received not the love of the truth that they might be saved." [2 Thess. ii. 10, 11.] Such irresistible influences do but presuppose, instead of superseding, our own accountableness.

These three explanations then being allowed their due weight,—the compatibility of God's sovereignty over the soul, with man's individual agency; the distinction between Regeneration and faith and obedience; and the judicial purpose of certain Divine influences upon the heart,—let us ask what does there remain of Scripture evidence in behalf of the Predestinarian doctrines? Are we not obliged to leave the mystery of human agency and responsibility as we find it? as truly a mystery in itself as that which concerns the Nature and Attributes of the Divine Mind.

Surely it will be our true happiness thus to conduct ourselves; to use our reason, in getting at the true sense of Scripture, not in making a series of deductions from it; in unfolding the doctrines therein contained, not in adding new ones to them; in acquiescing in what is told, not in indulging curiosity about the "secret things" of the Lord our God.

I conclude with the following text, which, while it is a solemn warning to us all to turn to God with a true heart, states with a force not to be explained {332} away, what the revealed Will is, and what we are to hold respecting it. "As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways: for why will ye die, O House of Israel?" [Ezek. xxxiii. 11.]

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