by John Angell James, 1834
Suppose a number of the subjects of a wise and good king were, without any just cause, to rebel against him, and take up arms to dethrone him, they would by that act forfeit their lives. But suppose that the sovereign, in clemency, is disposed to pardon them, and for that purpose, sends out a proclamation, declaring that all those who, before a fixed time, would come to him, lay down their arms, confess their offence, and sue for mercy, should be spared, and restored to all their privileges as citizens; but that all who would be found under arms, and did not come and cast themselves upon the mercy of their sovereign, should be put to death. What, in this case, is the state of mind and act required in those who would be saved? Faith. They must believe the proclamation to have been issued by the monarch, and that he will really fulfill his word; they must not only believe the edict itself, but they must confide in the monarch; this is faith in him. What is their warrant or encouragement to go to him? His proclamation of mercy, and that alone; and not any convictions or desires of their own. If any of the rebels were desirous of returning, he would not say, "I am greatly encouraged and truly warranted to go and expect forgiveness, because I am very anxious to be forgiven;" for his desire of pardon of itself, is no warrant to expect it; but he would say, "My sovereign has bade me return, and promised me pardon—I have his word, and I can trust him—I will go, therefore, and confidently expect mercy." He goes, and although he knows that he has forfeited his life and deserved death, and brought himself under condemnation; yet he is assured he shall be spared, because the King has promised it, and he trusts in his veracity. This is faith. Does his faith merit forgiveness? No, but it insures it. Can the man boast that his works have saved him? No—he is saved by grace, through faith.
But suppose when he heard the proclamation of mercy, he was merely convinced of his sin, and in some measure sorry for it, and desired forgiveness, but did not go to his sovereign; suppose he were to say to himself, "I am afraid to go; the prince is powerful, being surrounded by his guards who could destroy me in a moment, and I have been such a ringleader in the rebellion that I cannot hope for mercy, although I long for it, and would do anything to obtain it." The time of mercy expires; the man is taken with weapons in his hands; and he is put to death. Does he deserve to die? Yes, twice over, first for his rebellion, and secondly for his unbelief. His lack of faith, not his rebellion, was the actual cause of his death. His sin would have been pardoned, had he believed. His convictions, his sorrow, his tears, his desire after pardon, could not save him—he had insulted his sovereign afresh, by doubting his truthfulness, and disobeying his command.
Awakened sinner, take heed that this is not your case. It is the case of many. They are rebels against God, they are guilty of innumerable sins. "God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." "It is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners." Thus runs the proclamation of mercy—"Repent of sin, believe in Christ, expect salvation." Many do believe, and are saved—but others, and they are multitudes, get no further than conviction; they know they are sinners, they desire pardon, and seem even willing to forsake some of their sins; but they do not believe in Christ, they do not return to God by faith in his Son, indulging a confident hope of forgiveness—they are afraid to go, saying their sins are too great to be forgiven; or they are contented to remain in a state of conviction; or before they have trusted in Christ, and experienced a real change of heart through faith, some earthly object or other draws off their attention from the Savior, and they sink into a state of carelessness, and gradually go back again into the world.
You are never safe, reader, until you have faith. Whatever may have been your tears, convictions, prayers, or exercises of mind, you are under the sentence of the law, and exposed to the wrath of God until you believe. If death come upon you before you have faith, you will as certainly and as deservedly perish, as the rebel, who, though he had expressed his sorrow for his treason, had not come in and cast down his weapons, and accepted the royal mercy. You are within the flood-mark of Divine vengeance until you have confided your soul to Christ. Can we be saved if we are not justified? No! But we are "justified by faith, and have peace with God." Can we be saved unless we are the children of God? No! But we are "all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus." Can we be saved without sanctification? No! Then "our hearts are purified by faith."
But the jailor at Philippi asked, with fear and trembling, the question, "What shall I do to be saved?" Paul replied, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved." When our Lord sent out his disciples, he said unto them, "Go into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature—he who believes and is baptized shall be saved, but he who believes not shall be damned." It is also said in another place, "He who believes on him is not condemned; but he who believes not, is condemned already, because he has not believed on the name of the only begotten Son of God. He who believes on the Son has everlasting life; he who believes not the Son, shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him." "He who believes on the Son of God has the witness in himself; he who believes not God, has made him a liar; because he believes not the record that God gave of his Son." See then the importance, the tremendous importance, of faith in Christ. It is the hinge on which salvation turns; it is that, without which all knowledge, and all impressions, and all convictions, and all duties, will leave us short of heaven at last. Fix it deeply in your mind, therefore, that faith is the saving grace; or, in other words, that it is the state of mind with which salvation is connected; being brought into this state, you would be saved though you died the next hour; and without it you would not be saved, even had you been for years under the deepest concern for your soul.
But you will probably wish to know a little more about this transcendently important state of mind; and I shall, therefore, set before you,
1. WHAT you are to believe.Faith, in general, means a belief of whatever God has testified in his word; but faith in Christ means the belief of what the Scripture says of him; of his person, offices, and work. You are to believe that he is "the Son of God;" "God manifest in the flesh;" God-man, Mediator—for how can a mere creature be your Savior? In faith you commit your soul to the Lord Jesus. What! into the hands of a mere creature? The Divinity of Christ is thus not merely an article of faith, but enters also into the foundation of hope. You are required to believe in the doctrine of atonement; that Christ satisfied Divine justice for human guilt, having been a propitiation for our sins; and that now his sacrifice and righteousness are the only ground or foundation on which a sinner can be accepted and acquitted before God. You are to believe that all, however previously guilty and unworthy, are welcome to God for salvation, without any exception, or any difficulty whatever. You are to believe that God really loves the world, and is truly willing and waiting to save the chief of sinners, and that he therefore is benevolent to you. And thus, instead of dwelling in the idea of a mere general or universal love, you are to bring the matter home to yourself, and to believe that God has goodwill towards you, has given Christ to die for you; that you are a part of the world which God loved, and for which Christ died, and you are not to lose yourself in the crowd. You are not to consider the scheme of redemption for anybody, or for everybody, but yourself; but you are to give the whole an individual bearing upon yourself. You are to say, "God is well disposed towards me; Christ is given for me; died for me as well as for others—I am invited; I shall be saved if I trust in Christ; and I am as welcome as anyone to Christ."
Faith is not a belief in your own personal religion, that is the assurance of hope; but it is a belief that God loves sinners, and that Christ died for sinners, and for you among the rest. It is not a belief that you are a real Christian, but that Christ is willing to give you all the blessings included in that term. It is the belief of something out of yourself, but still of something concerning yourself. The object of faith is the work of Christ for you—not the work of the Spirit in you. It is of great consequence you should attend to this, because many are apt to confound these things. If I promise a man alms, and he really believes what I say, and expects relief, I, in the act of promising him, am the object of his faith, and not the state of his own mind in the act of believing. If, therefore, you would have faith, or, possessing it, would have it strengthened, you must fix and keep your eye on the testimony of Christ, which you find in the gospel
2.I will now show you HOW you are to believe. But is this necessary? There is no mystery in faith when we speak of believing a fellow-creature. When the rebel is required to believe in the proclamation of mercy sent out by his sovereign, and to come and sue for pardon, or when the beggar is required to believe in the promise of a benefactor who has promised him relief, does it enter into his mind to ask how he is to believe? What, in each of these cases, does faith mean? A belief that the promise has been made, and a confidence in the person who made it that he will fulfill his word.
Behold, then, the whole mystery there is in faith! It is a belief that Christ really died for sinners; that all who depend upon him alone shall be saved; and a trust in him for salvation. Yes, it is, if we may substitute another word as explanatory of faith, 'trust' in Christ. Faith, and confidence in Christ, are the same thing. "I know whom I have believed," says the apostle, "and am persuaded he is able to keep that which I have committed to him." Believing, being persuaded, and the act of committing, are the same act; they all mean faith. It is to rest upon the word and work of Christ for salvation; to depend upon his atonement and righteousness, and upon nothing else, for acceptance with God; and really to expect salvation, because he has promised it. If there is no expectation, there is no faith; for faith in a man's promise necessarily implies expectation of its fulfillment. This, then, is faith; looking for or expecting salvation for the sake of Christ's work alone, and because God has promised it.
If you want another illustration, take the case of the serpent-bitten Israelites. The people who were stung were commanded to look on the brazen serpent. Those who really believed the promise, that such an act would be followed with healing, went out and looked at the appointed means of relief—their looking was their believing; and what did that look imply? Expectation. Those who did not look did not expect healing, and those who did look expected relief. If, therefore, you are not brought to expect salvation, you do not believe; for as soon as you really believed you would indulge the expectation of salvation. "Faith is the substance [or confident expectation] of things hoped for." Faith being the expectation of salvation for Christ's sake alone, and because he has promised it, it may be said to be weak or strong in proportion as our expectation is more or less confident, and free from doubt and fears.
3. But WHEN is a sinner to believe?Strange question! And yet one that it is necessary to answer, because it is sometimes asked. Suppose, when you promised alms to a poor starving beggar, or forgiveness to a person that had injured you—he were to ask, "When am I to believe your promise?" Would you not feel some surprise at the question? The very nature of the case suggests the propriety and necessity of immediate faith. Your veracity is as great at that moment as it ever will be, and therefore demands instant confidence. Suppose the beggar were to say, "I do not yet sufficiently feel my poverty, to believe you now; but when I am more pinched with hunger, I will take you at your word and come." Would not this be exceedingly preposterous? And yet this is the very conduct of many people in reference to Christ, and faith in him for salvation. They know that trust in him alone is necessary to salvation; that they must at length come to him; but they seem to regard it rather as an exercise or state of mind, to which they are to be brought at some future time, and by some means they know not how, than as a duty to be immediately performed. Their inward feeling is, a hope that they shall have faith some time or other, without ever imagining that they are required, at once and without delay, to commit their soul to Christ.
Reader, reflect upon this matter, this necessity of instantly believing. Are you now a sinner? You know you are. Can you do anything now or hereafter to save yourself? You know you cannot. Is Christ now a Savior, able and willing to save you now? You know he is. Will he be more able or willing to save you a month or a year hence, than he is at this moment? Certainly not. Does he say, "Come unto me, not now, but at some future time; believe me, but not yet; trust in me after a while?" You know he does not. Every invitation, every promise, every encouragement, relates to the present moment. The words of Scripture are, "Today if you will hear his voice, harden not your hearts. Now is the accepted time, now is the day of salvation. Come, for all things are ready. He is waiting to be gracious."
What prevents you, why should not you, as you read this, believe in Christ? What, except your own unwillingness, hinders you from this moment trusting in the Lord Jesus for salvation? What, now? you say, still startled at the idea of instantly taking to your anxious bosom the sweet and soothing hope of salvation. "Why not now?" I ask. "Would God," you are ready to say, "I could; for I have no peace of mind! I feel that I am a sinner, and yet am distressed, at times, that I do not feel this enough. I am agitated and perplexed, for I have no reason to hope my sins are forgiven. I cannot approach God as a reconciled Father; on the contrary, I am afraid of him, and fear, if I were to die, I should not meet him in peace."
Permit me here to remind you, that you never can be at peace until you have faith—peace is the fruit, and the first fruit of faith. Observe what the apostle has said—"In whom, though now you see him not, yet believing, you rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory." It is said of the Philippian jailer, "he rejoiced, believing in God." You never can, until you believe in Christ, have settled peace of mind, except it be a false peace; you are seeking it in various ways, and occasionally obtain a short pause in your solicitude, by prayer, by hearing sermons, by dwelling on what you suppose are evidences of your conversion, by fully purposing to leave off your sins, and to serve God more entirely. But notwithstanding all this, you are not in possession of settled comfort. Your joy is more like an occasional flash from a candle in a dark night, than a steady sunshine—so that sometimes you are ready to give up religion altogether, and turn back again to the world; for you seem to be as far from comfort as ever. But stop and ask this question, "Am I seeking peace in the right way? Have I ever yet really, fully, and entirely believed in Christ? Have I truly committed my soul to him, and expected salvation according to his promise?" No! for if you had, you would not be in your present state of agitation.
What is to give peace to a sinner feeling the burden of guilt upon his conscience? What is to relieve him from his distress? Nothing but faith in Christ; not the faith itself, but the object which faith looks at, which is Christ. Many are saying, "If I did but know that I had faith, or if I could feel my faith stronger, I could then rejoice." But this is seeking peace in faith itself, instead of seeking it by faith in Christ. Faith is not our Savior, but only the eye that looks to him, the foot that goes to him, the hand that receives him. Take an illustration—Imagine that when you were afflicted with some dangerous disease, and anxious for recovery; in the midst of your solicitude, and after trying all kinds of remedies without effect, a physician came in, and said, "I have brought you an infallible cure for your illness; it has cured thousands, and will most certainly cure you." What would be the effect of this communication upon you? Just according to the state of your mind in reference to the report which the physician gives of his medicine. If your concern about recovery, and your fear of not obtaining a cure, were greater than your faith, you would gain no peace; the lack of confidence in the medicine would keep you in deep solicitude.
But suppose you were to believe the statement of your medical friend, and had full confidence in the remedy, what then would be the effect of the report? You would immediately rejoice; you would not wait until you had taken the medicine, and until you felt yourself cured, before your solicitude was relieved; no, but as soon as you believed in the efficacy of the remedy, you would say, "Joyful news! I am to be healed and restored to health." Now what in that case would relieve you from your solicitude, and give you comfort? The statement of your friend, or, in other words, faith in that statement. The good news of a coming cure, believed by you, would make you glad. It would not be the act of believing that you would rejoice in, but the statement believed. You would immediately take the medicine; and when you experienced its healing influence, you would rejoice still more. Your joy in this case would be of two kinds—the first the joy of faith, in the assurance that you would be cured; the second the joy of experience, in finding that you were cured.
Apply this to the case of a sinner who feels his miserable condition under the power and guilt of sin. In his concern he tries various methods to obtain relief; he leaves off sin, and tries to be good; but a sense of unpardoned sin still lies upon his heart, and he is far off from settled comfort. In this situation, Christ, the physician of souls, comes to him in the message of the gospel, and says, "My blood CLEANSES from all sin, and my Spirit can renew and sanctify the hardest and most polluted heart; look to me, and you shall be saved!" What is the duty of the sinner in this case? Immediately, fully, and at once, to believe, and as the evidence and necessary fruit of his faith, to rejoice. If he really does believe, he will rejoice; and if he does not rejoice, it is because he does not believe. He is not to wait until he is saved, before he takes comfort; but he is to take comfort, in the first place, in believing that there is a Savior, and that he may be saved. He is not to wait for his comfort until he feels that he is justified, renewed, and sanctified; for how can he come to this state unless he believes? His first comfort must be the joy of faith; and this he must take to himself at once; the joy of experience comes afterward. He must first rejoice in the promise of spiritual healing, and then afterwards he will rejoice in the sense of healing.
When the Jews, who were pricked to the heart by Peter's sermon, cried out in agony, "What shall we do?" he replied, "Repent, and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins—then those who gladly received the word were baptized." They gladly received the word, that is, they believed the promise and were made glad. There was immediate faith producing instant joy—they did not wait until they felt they were saved, but rejoiced at once. Now observe another case—Paul, in one of his epistles, says, "Our rejoicing is this, that in simplicity and godly sincerity, not with fleshly wisdom, but by the grace of God, we have lived our lives in the world." There was the joy of experience. It is the peace of believing, that the inquirer has to do with. And is it not cause enough of delight that God has loved the world, and you, as a part of the world, so as to give his Son for your salvation; that you are invited; and that Christ is able and willing to save you? But still you cling to the idea, if you could be sure you believed, you would be comforted; if you had evidence of faith, you would take peace. Then it would be those evidences that would comfort you, and not the work of Christ.
It is also of importance that you should clearly understand, that you are never in a state of faith, if you are not brought to some degree of comfort; if you still feel the load of guilt upon your conscience, and all its tormenting fears in your mind; if you are still anxiously asking the question, "What shall I do to be saved?" If you are still afraid of God, if you still are without any hope of forgiveness, you do not believe; for genuine faith, even though it were not full assurance, would in some measure relieve you from this concern. It is very common for people to say they believe, and yet have no comfort; and then they are asking, "Why am I not at peace?" Because you do not really believe in Christ; you are deceiving yourself. It is faith, genuine faith, you need—you have not yet really trusted in Christ; you have not believed the glad tidings of salvation; for can any man believe glad tidings concerning himself, and yet not be made glad by them? Believe then, believe truly, believe now—and enter into peace.