by James W. Alexander
The believer sustained by the strength of Christ
A sense of weakness is one of the first impressions of which the convinced soul is conscious. There was a day when the believer fondly imagined that all things were possible to him, by his own unaided endeavors. Therefore it was, that he put far off the day of repentance, believing that at any moment of alarm or illness, or even at the time of death, he might gather his powers and cast himself by a happy effort into the kingdom of God. Practically denying the need of divine assistance, he deferred until a more convenient season that work which multitudes have never performed to the entire satisfaction of their souls, even during a lifetime. But no sooner is anyone convinced that he is miserable, and not only miserable—but guilty; that he is condemned, and not only condemned—but dead in trespasses and sins, cut off from all support, and absolutely helpless and undone—than he begins to see the meaning of such declarations as these, "No man can come to Christ, unless the Father draws him." He acknowledges indeed that the barrier is his depravity, his sin, his alienation from God, the abscense of a holy nature and disposition; and he feels himself on this account justly condemned; yet just as strongly is he impressed with the insurmountable greatness of this hinderance. The change of heart which he knows to be necessary is a change which no human philosophy can persuade him is within the power of himself or any creature; and the more he enters into the solemn reality of this his entire helplessness, the more will he cry out with unutterable anguish of spirit, "Lord, be merciful to me a sinner!"
"This heart of mine," he says, "is too hard to be melted into love by any influence but the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit—yet am I not thereby justified—for as a matter of right I dare not ask of God to rescue me. I am an enemy of the ever blessed Jehovah. My chains are the chains of sin; and sin is in its very essence alienation from God or opposition to God, and cannot be my excuse. I lie at the mercy of Jehovah, and even though I pray and strive, I do but see more and more this plague of my own heart—I do but feel more and more my own weakness. If I am ever saved, it must be by the very energy of the Almighty. I am unholy. I partake with devils in that abominable thing which God hates. I must be born again or perish. I must believe on the Son of God—or remain condemned. The condemnation is just. I have no excuse for not loving supremely the most blessed and glorious and beneficent Jesus, no apology for not relying upon his offered mercy. I lie athirst by the fresh fountain of the water of life—still I cannot stoop and drink; and this very reluctance is my sin—the sin of obstinately rejecting Christ and his salvation. Where shall I look for help? No power can remedy my disease—but one which can reach this stubborn principle of depravity—and there is no such power but that of God."
These are common exercises, and this struggle is more or less protracted in all cases of conviction. In order to feel that salvation is all of grace, it is just as necessary to be convinced of our dependence on God for every right thought, as to be convinced of guilt and condemnation. The work of our regeneration is not, in any part of it, man's work. For although man is active in believing and repenting, and loving and obeying, yet the primary and effectual operation, is of God. When the withered hand was stretched out at the command of Christ, the poor sufferer was active, yet we all know that it was Divine energy which wrought in and by this volition. No man can say at his conversion, "I will do thus much; I will go so far; I will meet the advances of God on some middle ground—and then—when I have done my utmost, in my own strength, God will accomplish the remainder, and come to the aid of my weakness." No, my brethren, when a perishing sinner is most in earnest in working out his own salvation, he does it with fear and trembling. And why this fear and trembling? Because he knows that a sovereign and holy God holds his very being at his own pleasure, and may or may not, as he will, work in him both to will and to do of his own good pleasure.
We are now able, in a measure, to account for the length of this agonizing struggle in certain minds—and to give one reason why a heavy-laden soul cannot at once come to Christ, when the free overture of salvation is made. It is mainly because the person convinced of sin, is still unconvinced of the perfect freeness of the offered gift. He is still desirous of arriving at some deeper conviction—some more poignant grief—some terror or earnestness—of being melted into greater floods of tears or fixed in firmer resolutions. He is, in short, not yet convinced of his dependence on God for every right thought, feeling, and action. He will come to Jesus when he has made his heart better, and he even dreads to believe now, to cast himself now upon the open arms of Christ, lest it should be too soon. His struggles are allowed by the wisdom of God to continue, that he may find his own weakness, and, after having wearied his soul in going about to establish his own righteousness, may submit himself to the righteousness of God.
The belief of our dependence on God, as the source of all spiritual strength, grows with our Christian growth. The newly converted person may, in the wonderful path of God's most wise discipline, be permitted for a season to walk in his own strength, and left as the tottering infant is left by the parent to prove its own limbs; but he is soon made to cry out, "I am not sufficient of myself so much as to think a good thought—but my sufficiency is of God." The believer does not receive at his ingrafting into Christ, a supply of vital energy sufficient to influence him in a holy manner all his life long. The branch must abide in the vine. There must be a union, not only formed—but kept up. New streams of grace must flow, hour by hour; and if for a moment this communication is interrupted, he begins to languish; like the twig or the bough which is robbed of its life-giving sap and moisture. "Without me you can do nothing." This is the lesson which we are constantly learning. God is glorified when we are apt scholars in this school.
It is true there are habits of piety; but not such habits as render us independent of the divine influences. If God withholds his hand, the habit ceases. If he hides his face, we are troubled. The most experienced Christians are most aware of being themselves unable to stand a moment, and of the danger of self-dependence. They are taught of God that the glory must not only be—but appear to be of Him. If they are faithful, it is because Christ by his Holy Spirit replenishes their souls with his grace. They live by faith, and not only so—it is by constantly renewed acts of faith that they live. The child of God is no more able to put forth acts of faith now, than he was when he first passed from darkness to light, except so far as he has divine aid.
The life that he now lives is the same life which was communicated at his effectual calling. Though an abiding principle, it is not an independent principle. He cannot say, I live now because God once raised me to newness of life, and then left me to keep my own soul alive. No, "I live, yet not I—but Christ lives in me; and the life that I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God." We live, my brethren—but not independently; "our life is hid with Christ in God." God is the author of the vital action, Christ is the vital center, the very heart of the system, from whom, and in correspondence with whom, every pulsation of spiritual being is made.
It is important that those who profess godliness should be led to consider this peculiarity of true religion. They that are Christ's feel that they are in the exercise of grace, only so long as Christ lives in them; that the true method of cultivating piety is to cultivate a sense of dependence on Christ; that if we desire to grow in grace and to glorify God, we must look above and beyond all means, all instrumentality, all ordinances—to Jesus Christ as our living head. To the believer Christ says, "Because I live, you shall live also." There are some who have a name to live while they are dead. They are numbered among the people of God—they are punctual in the outward performances of religion. They have felt some sorrow and tenderness and compunction, and subsequent to this, some peace and joy, and they believe themselves safe in the ark—though it may have been very long since they knew what it was to experience any near communion with their Redeemer; and though they are seen by the world to "mind earthly things" and to love the world, and to be ashamed of Christ—and though they bridle not their tongues—and speak evil of brethren—and indulge in pride and hatred, in ambition and avarice in folly and levity.
Now such people, though they are frequently so much blinded by their sin as to think that they are rich and increased in goods and have need of nothing—are really poor and miserable, and naked, and actually in need of the principal thing in religion. The great attainment they have not reached. They do their works and attend their duties without Christ. Their sufficiency is never felt to be of God. The mystery of union with the Redeemer, abiding in him, being complete in him, feeling strong in him, walking, living, and triumphing by faith in him—this delightful mystery of godliness has never been revealed to their souls. Such religion as this is a mere shell, without the kernel. It is legal—it is Christless—and however great the zeal, or bustling the activity of those who possess it—it is such as will not honor God, or give comfort in the hour of death.
Now the faithful servant of God owns at every step that if having been once blind he now sees—it is all of the Spirit. "By the grace of God I am what I am." Not one movement can be made towards the end of his course without assistance. "Looking unto Jesus" the author and finisher of his faith, he runs with patience the race that is set before him.
This dependence is felt very sensibly by the believer, while engaged in the active duties of life. Is he a parent? He knows that his teaching and correction and discipline can in no way avail to the salvation of his household without the blessing of Christ. Is he a minister? He sows the seed and administers the truth, as one who can do nothing efficaciously toward the increase. He feels that all his sufficiency is of God; and while he plants in many soils, and waters with many tears and prayers, he lifts to heaven his eyes, which often fail for grief, and says, "My soul, wait only upon God, for my expectation is from him." Is he using those means which lie within the reach, and belong to the duty of every member of Christ's body, to promote true religion? He depends on the arm of Jehovah. The battle here is not to the strong; whatever his zeal, his talents, his assiduity—all the increase must be of God. He acknowledges that he is nothing—feels that he is nothing—desires to be nothing—delights to be nothing—that Christ his Savior may be all in all. His longing desire is to set the crown of all blessing, honor, glory, and power, upon the head of Immanuel.
When the Apostle Paul says, in writing to the Philippians, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me," there is in his words a total renunciation of all dependence on his own strength. Though he could say, with regard to his brethren, that he labored more abundantly than they all, yet he thus speaks; "Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think anything as of ourselves—but our sufficiency is of God." And he elsewhere states the reason of this to be, "that the excellency of the power may be of God and not of us." Whatever employment or labor, my dear brethren, you may be called to undertake, whether within or without, of soul or body, for yourselves or for your fellow-men, great or small, new or accustomed; whatever burdens, temptations, or afflictions, you have to endure; whatever pleasures or sins you are commanded to deny yourself or forbear—in every case, and at all times acknowledge and feel that you are without strength.
Yes, so true is this, and so important, that you cannot feel it too strongly. You may, indeed, cherish a false and counterfeit impression of your own weakness—a sentiment which is wrong in kind, which is sinful and hateful to God. You may say in your hearts, "I can do nothing, and therefore I will do nothing. I am helpless, and therefore I will not seek divine help, God calls me to duties—but I am unable to perform them, and I will sit still, fold my arms, and wait upon the Lord." This is rebellion, for it is in effect saying, "The Almighty is a hard master, reaping where he has not sown, and I will not attempt to obey." This is the form of depravity which rages in the souls of those who are unconverted. Because they profess to believe that they are dead, they will not come unto Christ, that they may have life. And very often these very people have less genuine belief of their impotence than all others.
But you who believe that the law of God is holy and just and good; you who delight in it after the inner man, and desire to obey it, and strive to be holy, and at the same time render to God the praise of every right thought, every momentary view of the truth, every contrite sigh; you who lament that when you would do good, evil is present with you, and groan being burdened, because you cannot do the good you would, and sink into nothing in the consciousness of your feebleness and corruption—you, beloved, cannot too much encourage such renunciation of your own strength.
You are taught already by your daily experience that the belief of this truth does not make you listless. Never does the believer work for God with so much confidence, and activity, and perseverance, and zeal, and success, as when he knows that all his works are wrought in God—that God is fulfilling in him all the good pleasure of his goodness, and the work of faith with power.
Are any ready to say, If we have no strength except in Christ, we might as well make no efforts until the energy of God falls upon us and bears us away irresistibly to the performance of duty? To such we reply—This might be reasonable, if man were a mere machine operated upon by the Holy Spirit, as the ship is moved by the wind. But no. Man is essentially active. How God works in us and by us we know not; neither do we know how an act of our will sets in motion the muscles of our bodies. This, however, we do know, that God works and that we work also. The only revealed connection between the two operations is such as we just stated. We are to put forth strong efforts—as strong as though there were no aid required; but at the same time feeling that every such act is spiritual and acceptable and useful, only so far as Christ strengthens us. These efforts are as truly our own as anything conceivable is our own. God in great mercy rewards us for them as our own. They are as truly effects of God's agency as the creation is such.
Observe the order of the ideas in the words of Paul already cited.
First. I can do all things. This is the expression of a resolution to work, to attempt all duty. He does not say, I will wait until I see and feel the breathing of the Spirit of Christ, I will be inactive and supine until I can be so no longer. No; I will arise and confidently do every act which is commanded—endeavor the utterance of every good word—the performance of every right action.
Second. Through Christ who strengthens me. This is the expression of faith in Christ's strength, of actual belief that Christ does strengthen. This is being strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. When Paul thus spoke, he felt that he was strengthened with all might according to His glorious power.
We learn this truth, then, as to the order in which these ideas arise in the mind of a Christian. First, We set ourselves about the work of piety. Secondly, The Spirit of Christ makes this work effectual. So, also, in another passage the same order is observed—first, Work out your own salvation. Second. It is God who works in you to will and to do.
I have endeavored to set forth in all its fullness the doctrine of human dependence, in order to show that it is not only consistent with human agency—but is an incentive to it. For who will so readily undertake the Lord's work as he who expects the Lord's assistance?
The words just cited express a desire and purpose to be intensely active. This is the man who felt that in him, that is in his flesh, dwelt no good thing. Yet now he exultingly says, "I can do all things; I can act; I can suffer; I have learned in whatever state I am, therewith to be content; I know both how to be abased and how to abound; everywhere and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need; yes, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."
And how consoling to hear from Paul an expression of humble confidence, that Christ will strengthen. I am ready to attempt without delay whatever my Master calls me to undertake or to endure. However mortifying or afflictive the trial, here am I, Lord, send me. However uncertain the prospect of what is to be demanded, I am ready, "Lord, what would you have me to do?" Is it to rebuke an Apostle? He is withstood to the face. Is it to enter again the persecuting seat of Jewish malice? "Behold, I go bound in the Spirit unto Jerusalem, not knowing the things that shall befall me there; except that the Holy Spirit testifies in every city, saying that bonds and imprisonments abide me; but none of these things move me." Is it to publish the news of a crucified Galilean in the imperial metropolis? "I am ready to preach the gospel to you that are at Rome also." Is it by his apparent enthusiasm to risk being thought insane? "Whether we be beside ourselves it is to God, or whether we be sober, it is for your cause, for the love of Christ constrains us." Yes, brethren, this was the motive, and the strength of Christ sustained the Apostle, and sustains in the same manner all that are true believers.
"Through Christ who strengthens me." From whatever part of the world of grace the believer looks, his eye will always fasten itself upon the great Sun of Righteousness. As it is only in Christ that we see and know the Father, so the supplies of divine aid are all conveyed to us through the mediation of Christ. The Holy Spirit is the gift of Christ. His influences are bought for us by the blood of Jesus. And our great High Priest, who bears our names upon his bosom, looks from heaven to see us toiling here with manifold trials, and obtains and sends down upon us the strengthening influences of this adorable and glorious Teacher and Comforter. The operations of the Spirit are invisible and secret, and known only by their effects. These effects are various. They are not always elevated emotions, or sensible raptures, frames of sorrow or of joy. There is reason to believe that the blessed Sanctifier often works by immediate impulses to Christian action, without at such particular times, filling the soul with self-evidencing pleasure. We may grieve the Holy Spirit of Christ if we defer our duty, if we neglect the doing of any enjoined act until we feel that we can do it joyfully, until every feeling of mortified pride, or spiritual cowardice, or sloth, or unbelief is expelled. This would be to look for the triumph before conflict. If we love Christ, we shall do his will so far as it is known to us, now, without delay. Are we destitute of the proper feelings? This aggravates but cannot excuse the sin of disobedience. To believers, and also to unbelievers, the command is, Do the will of God; do it now; do it with such strength as you have. Christ gives strength while we are in action. It can scarcely be necessary to prove this. You do not surely expect a dormant stock, or storehouse of graces, a hoarded capital of piety in your souls, sensibly manifesting its presence before you begin to do those acts which make these graces necessary. Put the slumbering muscles in action—not until then can you know whether you have or have not strength. Stretch out the withered hand—not until then shall it be made whole.
Look back upon what your own experience has taught you, and you will find that these statements are correct. You remember the time when you have been awakened to see that some great Christian duty had been neglected, such as the duty of confessing Christ before men; of defending his truth; of reproving sin; of warning your impenitent friends; of confessing your faults to those whom you had offended; of obeying Christ, by casting out of your soul every unkind or unforgiving temper, and making advances of reconciliation towards those who had offended you. Have you not struggled long with your rebellious heart, before you could be persuaded to do what you seemed to hear God so plainly commanding? perhaps, until you were alarmed to think that, continuing in known sin, you could no longer consider yourself as anything more than a self-deceived formalist? Have you not dreaded to attempt the duty; and have you not at length, with unutterable distress, taken up the cross; and then, in the very moment at which you thought to fail, found a pleasure, a delight, a peace of conscience, a holy joy, an ease and satisfaction, in this dreaded duty? Is it not so? At that moment Christ, by his Spirit, was strengthening you; and thus it will ever be. "Draw near unto God, and he will draw near unto you." Go forth in his name, and he will reveal himself as present with you when you are least of all expecting it. Begin now, I earnestly beseech you, to do those things which you see to be your manifest duty.
This is an exhortation which brings false professors to a safe test. Whatever you may feel of soft emotions, whatever you may do, or forbear to do, you are in danger of condemnation if your heart can turn away from the light of the law, or your soul rebel against known duty. Your faith, if it does not teach you to do the will of God, so far as you know it, is dead, being alone. It is a glorious truth, that we are not saved by our works; but it is as salutary and as certain a truth that, "he who says I know him, and keeps not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him."
Your dependence on the Spirit of Christ will never be so great as when you are actively employed in his service. Then you will feel, when in labors most abundant, that you can do nothing. Yet, my brethren, we must receive into our minds the whole of the idea, without separation. Dependence on God does not mean simply a doubt of our own strength; but further than this, and principally, a belief in the promised strength of Christ. You may have your minds filled with worldly thoughts, and your lips with worldly conversation, and your lives with worldly pursuit; thinking, saying, doing nothing for Jesus Christ, and may still cry out, "We are poor, weak, dependent creatures."
This is not Christian dependence. Such feelings do not tend in any degree to holiness, while there is no looking to God for help. Such is not the dependence of Paul. Hear him—"I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." It is as much your duty to trust in Christ's strength—as to distrust your own. You attempt nothing for the honor of God and the good of your neighbour; and why?—Because you are weak, and of yourselves far from all good. True; and such you will ever be until, with a pure heart, you address yourselves to the joint work of prayer and action. Christ will not give strength to any man to lie unapplied in his bosom. He gives grace when it is needed, and it is needed in the hour of action. Continue to do nothing, and you shall, in all probability, die as you have lived—waiting, waiting for the moving of the waters, when Christ stands ready and says, "Will you be made whole?"
Again, let every reader be exhorted to contemplate this Christian paradox—When most active, most dependent. When most sensible of weakness, then most abundant in labor. When stretching every power to honor Christ, then sinking most deeply into the lowliness of self-distrust, and rising most triumphantly in trust upon the Lord. When convinced that without God's immediate agency no duty can be performed, no soul converted; then attempting, with unwearied effort, to come up to the help of the Lord against the mighty. Let us pray for large measures of this grace of dependence on Christ—let us seek it by laboring for Christ. This is the secret of being useful and yet humble. Would to God that we could acquire it.
There is an awful solemnity in the thought that our strength is of God; that our acts, if Christian acts, are wrought by the Holy Spirit.
When I am weak then am I strong. Let us be encouraged to undertake whatever we consider our plain duty, with holy boldness, knowing that God calls us to nothing in which he is not ready to assist us. No man ever undertook a duty, in reliance on Christ's aid, who was left to struggle in his own strength. Those only are ignorant of this who have no knowledge of the aid of the Spirit. Those are most ready to attempt new enterprising and hazardous services for religion, who have been oftenest upon the forlorn hope of the Christian army; or rather—as the expression applies not to Christ's army—none can do more for Immanuel than those who have hazarded the most. Dare we cast ourselves on the simple word of divine promise—"Commit your way unto the Lord, and he will direct your steps."
Let us leave this discussion with the belief that there is no service or suffering so great or trying, that Christ cannot and will not strengthen his people to enter upon and accomplish. We are complete in him.