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ESSAY ON RIGHTEOUSNESS BY FAITH - Benjamin Jowett, Essays on The Epistles of St. Paul 
The Epistles of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, Galatians and Romans. Vol. 2 Essays and Dissertations by the late Benjamin Jowett, M.A. (3rd edition, edited and condensed by Lewis Campbell) (London: John Murray, 1894). Vol. 2.
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ESSAY ON RIGHTEOUSNESS BY FAITH
No doctrine in later times has been looked at so exclusively through the glass of controversy as that of justification. From being the simplest it has become the most difficult; the language of the heart has lost itself in a logical tangle. Differences have been drawn out as far as possible, and then taken back and reconciled. The extreme of one view has more than once produced a reaction in favour of the other. Many senses have been attributed to the same words, and simple statements carried out on both sides into endless conclusions. New formulas of conciliation have been put in the place of old-established phrases, and have soon died away, because they had no root in language or in the common sense or feeling of mankind. The difficulty of the subject has been increased by the different degrees of importance attached to it: while to some it is an articulus stantis aut cadentis ecclesiae, others have never been able to see in it more than a verbal dispute.
This perplexity on the question of righteousness by faith is partly due to the character of the age in which it began to revive. Men felt at the Reformation the need of a spiritual religion, and could no longer endure the yoke which had been put upon their fathers. The heart rebelled against the burden of ordinances; it wanted to take a nearer way to reconciliation with God. But when the struggle was over, and individuals were seeking to impart to others the peace which they had found themselves, they had no simple or natural expression of their belief. They were alone in a world in which the human mind had been long enslaved. It was necessary for them to go down into the land of the enemy, and get their weapons sharpened before they could take up a position and fortify their camp.
In other words, the Scholastic Logic had been for six centuries previous the great instrument of training the human mind; it had grown up with it, and become a part of it. Neither would it have been more possible for the Reformers to have laid it aside than to have laid aside the use of language itself. Around theology it lingers still, seeming reluctant to quit a territory which is peculiarly its own. No science has hitherto fallen so completely under its power; no other is equally unwilling to ask the meaning of terms; none has been so fertile in reasonings and consequences. The change of which Lord Bacon was the herald has hardly yet reached it; much less could the Reformation have anticipated the New Philosophy.
The whole mental structure of that time rendered it necessary that the Reformers, no less than their opponents, should resort to the scholastic methods of argument. The difference between the two parties did not lie here. Perhaps it may be said with truth that the Reformers were even more schoolmen than their opponents, because they dealt more with abstract ideas, and were more concentrated on a single topic. The whole of Luther’s teaching was summed up in a single article, ‘Righteousness by Faith.’ That was to him the Scriptural expression of a Spiritual religion. But this, according to the manner of that time, could not be left in the simple language of St. Paul. It was to be proved from Scripture first, then isolated by definition; then it might be safely drawn out into remote consequences.
And yet, why was this? Why not repeat, with a slight alteration of the words rather than the meaning of the Apostle, Neither justification by faith nor justification by works, but ‘a new creature’? Was there not yet ‘a more excellent way’ to oppose things to words—the life, and spirit, and freedom of the Gospel, to the deadness, and powerlessness, and slavery of the Roman Church? So it seems natural to us to reason, looking back after an interval of three centuries on the weary struggle; so absorbing to those who took part in it once, so distant now either to us or them. But so it could not be. The temper of the times, and the education of the Reformers themselves, made it necessary that one dogmatic system should be met by another. The scholastic divinity had become a charmed circle, and no man could venture out of it, though he might oppose or respond within it.
And thus justification by faith, and justification by works, became the watchword of two parties. We may imagine ourselves at that point in the controversy when the Pelagian dispute had been long since hushed, and that respecting Predestination had not yet begun; when men were not differing about original sin, and had not begun to differ about the Divine decrees. What Luther sought for was to find a formula which expressed most fully the entire, unreserved, immediate dependence of the believer on Christ. What the Catholic sought for was so to modify this formula as not to throw dishonour on the Church by making religion a merely personal matter; or on the lives of holy men of old, who had wrought out their salvation by asceticism; or endanger morality by appearing to undervalue good works. It was agreed by all, that men are saved through Christ—[that men are saved] not of themselves, but of the grace of God, was equally agreed since the condemnation of Pelagius—that faith and works imply each other, was not disputed by either. A narrow space is left for the combat, which has to be carried on within the outworks of an earlier creed, in which, nevertheless, great subtlety of human thought and differences of character admit of being displayed.
On this narrow ground the first question that naturally arises is, how faith is to be defined? is it to include love and holiness, or to be separated from them? If the former, it seems to lose its apprehensive dependent nature, and to be scarcely distinguishable from works; if the latter, the statement is too refined for the common sense of mankind; though made by Luther, it could scarcely be retained even by his immediate followers. Again, is it an act or a state? are we to figure it as a point, or as a line? Is the whole of our spiritual life anticipated in the beginning, or may faith no less than works, justification equally with sanctification, be conceived of as going on to perfection? Is justification an objective act of Divine mercy, or a subjective state of which the believer is conscious in himself? Is the righteousness of faith imputed or inherent, an attribution of the merits of Christ, or a renewal of the human heart itself? What is the test of a true faith? And is it possible for those who are possessed of it to fall away? How can we exclude the doctrine of human merit consistently with Divine justice? How do we account for the fact that some have this faith, and others are without it, this difference being apparently independent of their moral state? If faith comes by grace, is it imparted to few or to all? And in what relation does the whole doctrine stand to Predestinarianism on the one hand, and to the Catholic or Sacramental theory on the other?
So at many points the doctrine of righteousness by faith touches the metaphysical questions of subject and object, of necessity and freedom, of habits and actions, and of human consciousness, like a magnet drawing to itself philosophy, as it has once drawn to itself the history of Europe. There were distinctions also of an earlier date, with which it had to struggle, of deeper moral import than their technical form would lead us to suppose, such as that of congruity and condignity, in which the analogy of Christianity is transferred to heathenism, and the doer of good works before justification is regarded as a shadow of the perfected believer. Neither must we omit to observe that, as the doctrine of justification by faith had a close connexion with the Pelagian controversy, carrying the decision of the Church a step further, making Divine Grace not only the source of human action, but also requiring the consciousness or assurance of grace in the believer himself: so it put forth its roots in another direction, attaching itself to Anselm as well as Augustine, and comprehending the idea of satisfaction; not now, as formerly, of Christ offered in the sacrifice of the mass, but of one sacrifice, once offered for the sins of men, whether considered as an expiation by suffering, or implying only a reconciliation between God and man, or a mere manifestation of the righteousness of God.
Such is the whole question, striking deep, and spreading far and wide with its offshoots. It is not our intention to enter on the investigation of all these subjects, many of which are interesting as phases of thought in the history of the Church, but have no bearing on the interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistles, and would be out of place here. Our inquiry will embrace two heads: (1) What did St. Paul mean by the expression ‘righteousness of faith,’ in that age ere controversies about his meaning arose? and (2) What do we mean by it, now that such controversies have died away, and the interest in them is retained only by the theological student, and the Church and the world are changed, and there is no more question of Jew or Gentile, circumcision or uncircumcision, and we do not become Christians, but are so from our birth? Many volumes are not required to explain the meaning of the Apostle; nor can the words of eternal life be other than few and simple to ourselves.
There is one interpretation of the Epistles of St. Paul which is necessarily in some degree false; that is, the interpretation put upon them by later controversy. When the minds of men are absorbed in a particular circle of ideas they take possession of any stray verse, which becomes the centre of their world. They use the words of Scripture, but are incapable of seeing that they have another meaning and are used in a different connexion from that in which they employ them. Sometimes there is a degree of similarity in the application which tends to conceal the difference. Thus Luther and St. Paul both use the same term, ‘justified by faith;’ and the strength of the Reformer’s words is the authority of St. Paul. Yet, observe how far this agreement is one of words: how far of things. For Luther is speaking solely of individuals, St. Paul also of nations; Luther of faith absolutely, St. Paul of faith as relative to the law. With St. Paul faith is the symbol of the universality of the Gospel. Luther excludes this or any analogous point of view. In St. Paul there is no opposition of faith and love; nor does he further determine righteousness by faith as meaning a faith in the blood or even in the death of Christ; nor does he suppose consciousness or assurance in the person justified. But all these are prominent features of the Lutheran doctrine. Once more: the faith of St. Paul has reference to the evil of the world of sight; which was soon to vanish away, that the world in which faith walks might be revealed; but no such allusion is implied in the language of the Reformer. Lastly: the change in the use of the substantive ‘righteousness’ to ‘justification’ is the indication of a wide difference between St. Paul and Luther; the natural, almost accidental, language of St. Paul having already passed into a technical formula.
These contrasts make us feel that St. Paul can only be interpreted by himself, not from the systems of modern theologians, nor even from the writings of one who had so much in common with him as Luther. It is the spirit and feeling of St. Paul which Luther represents, not the meaning of his words. A touch of nature in both ‘makes them kin.’ And without bringing down one to the level of the other, we can imagine St. Paul returning that singular affection, almost like an attachment to a living friend, which the great Reformer felt towards the Apostle. But this personal attachment or resemblance in no way lessens the necessary difference between the preaching of Luther and of St. Paul, which arose in some degree perhaps from their individual character, but chiefly out of the different circumstances and modes of thought of their respective ages. At the Reformation we are at another stage of the human mind, in which system and logic and the abstractions of Aristotle have a kind of necessary force, when words have so completely taken the place of things, that the minutest distinctions appear to have an intrinsic value.
It has been said (and the remark admits of a peculiar application to theology), that few persons know sufficient of things to be able to say whether disputes are merely verbal or not. Yet, on the other hand, it must be admitted that, whatever accidental advantage theology may derive from system and definition, mere accurate statements can never form the substance of our belief. No one doubts that Christianity could be in the fullest sense taught to a child or a savage, without any mention of justification or satisfaction or predestination. Why should we not receive the Gospel as ‘little children?’ Why should we not choose the poor man’s part in the inheritance of the kingdom of heaven? Why elaborate doctrinal abstractions which are so subtle in their meaning as to be in great danger of being lost in their translation from one language to another? which are always running into consequences inconsistent with our moral nature, and the knowledge of God derived from it? which are not the prevailing usage of Scripture, but technical terms which we have gathered from one or two passages, and made the key-notes of our scale? The words satisfaction and predestination nowhere occur in Scripture; the word regeneration only twice, and but once in a sense at all similar to that which it bears among ourselves; the word justification twice only, and nowhere as a purely abstract term.
But although language and logic have strangely transfigured the meaning of Scripture, we cannot venture to say that all theological controversies are questions of words. If from their winding mazes we seek to retrace our steps, we still find differences which have a deep foundation in the opposite tendencies of the human mind, and the corresponding division of the world itself. That men of one temper of mind adopt one expression rather than another may be partly an accident; but the adoption of an expression by persons of marked character makes the difference of words a reality also. That can scarcely be thought a matter of words which cut in sunder the Church, which overthrew princes, which made the line of demarcation between Jewish and Gentile Christians in the Apostolic age, and is so, in another sense, between Protestant and Catholic at the present day. And in a deeper way of reflection than this, if we turn from the Church to the individual, we seem to see around us opposite natures and characters, whose lives really exhibit a difference corresponding to that of which we are speaking. The one incline to morality, the other to religion; the one to the sacramental, the other to the spiritual; the one to multiplicity in outward ordinances, the other to simplicity; the one consider chiefly the means, the other the end; the one desire to dwell upon doctrinal statements, the other need only the name of Christ; the one turn to ascetic practices, to lead a good life, and to do good to others, the other to faith, humility, and dependence on God. We may sometimes find the opposite attributes combine with each other (there have ever been cross-divisions on this article of belief in the Christian world; the great body of the Reformed Churches, and a small minority of Roman Catholics before the Reformation, being on the one side; and the whole Roman Catholic Church since the Reformation, and a section of the Protestant Episcopalians, and some lesser communions, on the other); still, in general, the first of these characters answers to that doctrine which the Roman Church sums up in the formula of justification by works; the latter is that temper of mind which finds its natural dogmatic expression in the words ‘We are justified by faith.’
These latter words have been carried out of their original circle of ideas into a new one by the doctrines of the Reformation. They have become hardened, stiffened, sharpened by the exigencies of controversy, and torn from what may be termed their context in the Apostolical age. To that age we must return ere we can think in the Apostle’s language. His conception of faith, although simpler than our own, has nevertheless a peculiar relation to his own day; it is at once wider, and also narrower, than the use of the word among ourselves—wider in that it is the symbol of the admission of the Gentiles into the Church, but narrower also in that it is the negative of the law. Faith is the proper technical term which excludes the law; being what the law is not, as the law is what faith is not. No middle term connects the two, or at least none which the Apostle admits, until he has first widened the breach between them to the uttermost. He does not say, ‘Was not Abraham our father justified by works (as well as by faith), when he had offered up Isaac his son on the altar?’ but only, ‘What saith the Scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness.’
The Jewish conception of righteousness was the fulfilment of the Commandments. He who walked in all the precepts of the law blameless, like Daniel in the old Testament, or Joseph and Nathanael in the New, was righteous before God. ‘What shall I do to inherit eternal life? Thou knowest the commandments. Do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness. All these have I kept from my youth up.’ This is a picture of Jewish righteousness as it presents itself in its most favourable light. But it was a righteousness which comprehended the observance of ceremonial details as well as moral precepts, which confused questions of a new moon or a sabbath with the weightier matters of common honesty or filial duty. It might be nothing more than an obedience to the law as such, losing itself on the surface of religion, in casuistical distinctions about meats and drinks, or vows or forms of oaths, or purifications, without any attempt to make clean that which is within. It might also pierce inward to the dividing asunder of the soul. Then was heard the voice of conscience crying, ‘All these things cannot make the doers thereof perfect.’ When every external obligation was fulfilled, the internal began. Actions must include thoughts and intentions—the Seventh Commandment extends to the adultery of the heart; in one word, the law must become a spirit.
But to the mind of St. Paul the spirit presented itself not so much as a higher fulfilment of the law, but as antagonistic to it. From this point of view, it appeared not that man could never fulfil the law perfectly, but that he could never fulfil it at all. What God required was something different in kind from legal obedience. What man needed was a return to God and nature. He was burdened, straitened, shut out from the presence of his Father—a servant, not a son; to whom, in a spiritual sense, the heaven was become as iron, and the earth brass. The new righteousness must raise him above the burden of ordinances, and bring him into a living communion with God. It must be within, and not without him—written not on tables of stone, but on fleshy tables of the heart. But inward righteousness was no peculiar privilege of the Israelites; it belonged to all mankind. And the revelation of it, as it satisfied the need of the individual soul, vindicated also the ways of God to man; it showed God to be equal in justice and mercy to all mankind.
As the symbol of this inward righteousness, St. Paul found an expression—righteousness by faith—derived from those passages in the Old Testament which spoke of Abraham being justified by faith. It was already in use among the Jews; but it was the Apostle who stamped it first with a permanent and universal import. The faith of St. Paul was not the faith of the Patriarchs only, who believed in the promises made to their descendants; it entered within the veil—out of the reach of ordinances—beyond the evil of this present life; it was the instrument of union with Christ, in whom all men were one; whom they were expecting to come from heaven. The Jewish nation itself was too far gone to be saved as a nation: individuals had a nearer way. The Lord was at hand; there was no time for a long life of laborious service. As at the last hour, when we have to teach men rather how to die than how to live, the Apostle could only say to those who would receive it, ‘Believe; all things are possible to him that believes.’
Such are some of the peculiar aspects of the Apostle’s doctrine of righteousness by faith. To our own minds it has become a later stage or a particular form of the more general doctrine of salvation through Christ, of the grace of God to man, or of the still more general truth of spiritual religion. It is the connecting link by which we appropriate these to ourselves—the hand which we put out to apprehend the mercy of God. It was not so to the Apostle. To him grace and faith and the Spirit are not parts of a doctrinal system, but different expressions of the same truth. ‘Beginning in the Spirit’ is another way of saying ‘Being justified by faith.’ He uses them indiscriminately, and therefore we cannot suppose that he could have laid any stress on distinctions between them. Even the apparently precise antithesis of the prepositions ἐν, διά varies in different passages. Only in reference to the law, faith, rather than grace, is the more correct and natural expression. It was Christ or not Christ, the Spirit or not the Spirit, faith and the law, that were the dividing principles: not Christ through faith, as opposed to Christ through works; or the Spirit as communicated through grace, to the Spirit as independent of grace.
Illusive as are the distinctions of later controversies as guides to the interpretation of Scripture, there is another help, of which we can hardly avail ourselves too much—the interpretation of fact. To read the mind of the Apostle, we must read also the state of the world and the Church by which he was surrounded. Now, there are two great facts which correspond to the doctrine of righteousness by faith, which is also the doctrine of the universality of the Gospel: first, the vision which the Apostle saw on the way to Damascus; secondly, the actual conversion of the Gentiles by the preaching of the Apostle. Righteousness by faith, admission of the Gentiles, even the rejection and restoration of the Jews, are—himself under so many different points of view. The way by which God had led him was the way also by which he was leading other men. When he preached righteousness by faith, his conscience also bore him witness that this was the manner in which he had himself passed from darkness to light, from the burden of ordinances to the power of an endless life. In proclaiming the salvation of the Gentiles, he was interpreting the world as it was; their admission into the Church had already taken place before the eyes of all mankind; it was a purpose of God that was actually fulfilled, not waiting for some future revelation. Just as when doubts are raised respecting his Apostleship, he cut them short by the fact that he was an Apostle, and did the work of an Apostle; so, in adjusting the relations of Jew and Gentile, and justifying the ways of God, the facts, read aright, are the basis of the doctrine which he teaches. All that he further shows is, that these facts were in accordance with the Old Testament, with the words of the Prophets, and the dealings of God with the Jewish people. And the Apostles at Jerusalem, equally with himself, admitted the success of his mission as an evidence of its truth.
But the faith which St. Paul preached was not merely the evidence of things not seen, in which the Gentiles also had part, nor only the reflection of ‘the violence’ of the world around him, which was taking the kingdom of heaven by force. The source, the hidden life, from which justification flows, in which it lives, is—Christ. It is true that we nowhere find in the Epistles the expression ‘justification by Christ’ exactly in the sense of modern theology. But, on the other hand, we are described as dead with Christ, we live with Him, we are members of His body, we follow Him in all the stages of His being. All this is another way of expressing ‘We are justified by faith.’ That which takes us out of ourselves and links us with Christ, which anticipates in an instant the rest of life, which is the door of every heavenly and spiritual relation, presenting us through a glass with the image of Christ crucified, is faith. The difference between our own mode of thinking and that of the Apostle is mainly this—that to him Christ is set forth more as in a picture, and less through the medium of ideas or figures of speech; and that while we conceive the Saviour more naturally as an object of faith, to St. Paul He is rather the indwelling power of life which is fashioned in him, the marks of whose body he bears, the measure of whose sufferings he fills up.
When in the Gospel it is said, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved,’ this is substantially the same truth as ‘We are justified by faith.’ It is another way of expressing ‘Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ Yet we may note two points of difference, as well as two of resemblance, in the manner in which the doctrine is set forth in the Gospel as compared with the manner of the Epistles of St. Paul. First, in the omission of any connexion between the doctrine of faith in Christ, and the admission of the Gentiles. The Saviour is within the borders of Israel; and accordingly little is said of the ‘sheep not of this fold,’ or the other husbandmen who shall take possession of the vineyard. Secondly, there is in the words of Christ no antagonism or opposition to the law, except so far as the law itself represented an imperfect or defective morality, or the perversions of the law had become inconsistent with every moral principle. Two points of resemblance have also to be remarked between the faith of the Gospels and of the Epistles. In the first place, both are accompanied by forgiveness of sins. As our Saviour to the disciple who affirms his belief says, ‘Thy sins be forgiven thee;’ so St. Paul, when seeking to describe, in the language of the Old Testament, the state of justification by faith, cites the words of David, ‘Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.’ Secondly, they have both a kind of absoluteness which raises them above earthly things. There is a sort of omnipotence attributed to faith, of which the believer is made a partaker. ‘Whoso hath faith as a grain of mustard seed, and should say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea, it shall be done unto him,’ is the language of our Lord. ‘I can do all things through Christ that strengtheneth me,’ are the words of St. Paul.
Faith, in the view of the Apostle, has a further aspect, which is freedom. That quality in us which in reference to God and Christ is faith, in reference to ourselves and our fellow-men is Christian liberty. ‘With this freedom Christ has made us free;’ ‘where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.’ It is the image also of the communion of the world to come. ‘The Jerusalem that is above is free,’ and ‘the creature is waiting to be delivered into the glorious liberty of the children of God.’ It applies to the Church as now no longer confined in the prison-house of the Jewish dispensation; to the grace of God, which is given irrespectively to all; to the individual, the power of whose will is now loosed; to the Gospel, as freedom from the law, setting the conscience at rest about questions of meats and drinks, and new moons and sabbaths; and, above all, to the freedom from the consciousness of sin: in all these senses the law of the spirit of life is also the law of freedom.
In modern language, assurance has been deemed necessary to the definition of a true faith. There is a sense, too, in which final assurance entered into the conception of the faith of the Epistles. Looking at men from without, it was possible for them to fall away finally; it was possible also to fall without falling away; as St. John says, there is a sin unto death, and there is a sin not unto death. But looking inwards into their hearts and consciences, their salvation was not a matter of probability; they knew whom they had believed, and were confident that He who had begun the good work in them would continue it unto the end. All calculations respecting the future were to them lost in the fact that they were already saved; to use a homely expression, they had no time to inquire whether the state to which they were called was permanent and final. The same intense faith which separated them from the present world, had already given them a place in the world to come. They had not to win the crown—it was already won: this life, when they thought of themselves in relation to Christ, was the next; as their union with Him seemed to them more true and real than the mere accidents of their temporal existence.
A few words will briefly recapitulate the doctrine of righteousness by faith as gathered from the Epistles of St. Paul.
Faith, then, according to the Apostle, is the spiritual principle whereby we go out of ourselves to hold communion with God and Christ; not like the faith of the Epistle to the Hebrews, clothing itself in the shadows of the law; but opposed to the law, and of a nature purely moral and spiritual. It frees man from the flesh, the law, the world, and from himself also; that is, from his sinful nature, which is the meeting of these three elements in his spiritual consciousness. And to be ‘justified’ is to pass into a new state; such as that of the Christian world when compared with the Jewish or Pagan; such as that which St. Paul had himself felt at the moment of his conversion; such as that which he reminds the Galatian converts they had experienced, ‘before whose eyes Jesus Christ was evidently set forth crucified;’ an inward or subjective state, to which the outward or objective act of calling, on God’s part, through the preaching of the Apostle, corresponded; which, considered on a wider scale, was the acceptance of the Gentiles and of every one who feared God; corresponding in like manner to the eternal purpose of God; indicated in the case of the individual by his own inward assurance; in the case of the world at large, testified by the fact; accompanied in the first by the sense of peace and forgiveness, and implying to mankind generally the last final principle of the Divine Government—‘God concluded all under sin that he might have mercy upon all.’
We acknowledge that there is a difference between the meaning of justification by faith to St. Paul and to ourselves. Eighteen hundred years cannot have passed away, leaving the world and the mind of man, or the use of language, the same as it was. Times have altered, and Christianity, partaking of the social and political progress of mankind, receiving, too, its own intellectual development, has inevitably lost its simplicity. The true use of philosophy is to restore this simplicity; to undo the perplexities which the love of system or past philosophies, or the imperfection of language or logic, have made; to lighten the burden which the traditions of ages have imposed upon us. To understand St. Paul we found it necessary to get rid of definitions and deductions, which might be compared to a mazy undergrowth of some noble forest, which we must clear away ere we can wander in its ranges. And it is necessary for ourselves also to return from theology to Scripture; to seek a truth to live and die in—not to be the subject of verbal disputes, which entangle the religious sense in scholastic refinements. The words of eternal life are few and simple, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.’
Remaining, then, within the circle of the New Testament, which we receive as a rule of life for ourselves, no less than for the early Church, we must not ignore the great differences by which we are distinguished from those for whom it was written. Words of life and inspiration, heard by them with ravishment for the first time, are to us words of fixed and conventional meaning; they no longer express feelings of the heart, but ideas of the head. Nor is the difference less between the state of the world then and now; not only of the outward world in which we live, but of that inner world which we ourselves are. The law is dead to us, and we to the law; and the language of St. Paul is relative to what has passed away. The transitions of meaning in the use of the word law tend also to a corresponding variation in the meaning of faith. We are not looking for the immediate coming of Christ, and do not anticipate, in a single generation, the end of human things, or the history of a life in the moment of baptism or conversion. To us time and eternity have a fixed boundary, between them there is a gulf which we cannot pass; we do not mingle in our thoughts earth and heaven. Last of all, we are in a professing Christian world, in which religion, too, has become a sort of business; moreover, we see a long way off truths of which the first believers were eye-witnesses. Hence it has become difficult for us to conceive the simple force of such expressions as ‘dead with Christ,’ ‘if ye then be risen with Christ,’ which are repeated in prayers or sermons, but often convey no distinct impression to the minds of the hearers.
The neglect of these differences between ourselves and the first disciples has sometimes led to a distortion of doctrine and a perversion of life; where words had nothing to correspond to them, views of human nature have been invented to suit the supposed meaning of St. Paul. Thus, for example, the notion of legal righteousness is indeed a fiction as applied to our own times. Nor, in truth, is the pride of human nature, or the tendency to rebel against the will of God, or to attach an undue value to good works, better founded. Men are evil in all sorts of ways: they deceive themselves and others; they walk by the opinion of others, and not by faith; they give way to their passions; they are imperious and oppressive to one another. But if we look closely, we perceive that most of their sins are not consciously against God; the pride of rank, or wealth, or power, or intellect, may be shown towards their brethren, but no man is proud towards God. No man does wrong for the sake of rebelling against God. The evil is not that men are bound under a curse by the ever-present consciousness of sin, but that sins pass unheeded by: not that they wantonly offend God, but that they know Him not. So, again, there may be a false sense of security towards God, as is sometimes observed on a death-bed, when mere physical weakness seems to incline the mind to patience and resignation; yet this more often manifests itself in a mistaken faith, than in a reliance on good works. Or, to take another instance, we are often surprised at the extent to which men who are not professors of religion seem to practise Christian virtues; yet their state, however we may regard it, has nothing in common with legal or self-righteousness.
And besides theories of religion at variance with experience, which have always a kind of unsoundness, the attempt of men to apply Scripture to their own lives in the letter rather than in the spirit, has been very injurious in other ways to the faith of Christ. Persons have confused the accidental circumstances or language of the Apostolic times with the universal language of morality and truth. They have reduced human nature to very great straits; they have staked salvation upon the right use of a word; they have enlisted the noblest feelings of mankind in opposition to their ‘Gospel.’ They have become mystics in the attempt to follow the Apostles, who were not mystics. Narrowness in their own way of life has led to exclusiveness in their judgements on other men. The undue stress which they have laid on particular precepts or texts of Scripture has closed their minds against its general purpose; the rigidness of their own rules has rendered it impossible that they should grow freely to ‘the stature of the perfect man.’ They have ended in a verbal Christianity, which has preserved words when the meaning of them had changed, taking the form, while it quenched the life, of the Gospel.
Leaving the peculiar and relative aspect of the Pauline doctrine, as well as the scholastic and traditional one, we have again to ask the meaning of justification by faith. We may divide the subject, first, as it may be considered in the abstract; and, secondly, as personal to ourselves.
I. Our justification may be regarded as an act on God’s part. It may be said that this act is continuous, and commensurate with our whole lives; that although ‘known unto God are all his works from the beginning,’ yet that, speaking as men, and translating what we term the acts of God into human language, we are ever being more and more justified, as in theological writers we are said also to be more and more sanctified. At first sight it seems that to deny this involves an absurdity; it may be thought a contradiction to maintain that we are justified at once, but sanctified all our life long. Yet perhaps this latter mode of statement is better than the other, because it presents two aspects of the truth instead of one only; it is also a nearer expression of the inward consciousness of the soul itself. For must we not admit that it is the unchangeable will of God that all mankind should be saved? Justification in the mind of the believer is the perception of this fact, which always was. It is not made more a fact by our knowing it for many years or our whole life. And this is the witness of experience. For he who is justified by faith does not go about doubting in himself or his future destiny, but trusting in God. From the first moment that he turns earnestly to God he believes that he is saved; not from any confidence in himself, but from an overpowering sense of the love of God and Christ.
II. It is an old problem in philosophy, What is the beginning of our moral being? What is that prior principle which makes good actions produce good habits? Which of those actions raises us above the world of sight? Plato would have answered, the contemplation of the idea of good. Some of ourselves would answer, by the substitution of a conception of moral growth for the mechanical theory of habits. Leaving out of sight our relation to God, we can only say, that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, with powers which we are unable to analyze. It is a parallel difficulty in religion which is met by the doctrine of righteousness by faith. We grow up spiritually, we cannot tell how; not by outward acts, nor always by energetic effort, but stilly and silently, by the grace of God descending upon us, as the dew falls upon the earth. When a person is apprehensive and excited about his future state, straining every nerve lest he should fall short of the requirements of God, overpowered with the memory of his past sins, that is not the temper of mind in which he can truly serve God, or work out his own salvation. Peace must go before as well as follow after; a peace, too, not to be found in the necessity of law (as philosophy has sometimes held), but in the sense of the love of God to His creatures. He has no right to this peace, and yet he has it; in the consciousness of his new state there is more than he can reasonably explain. At once and immediately the Gospel tells him that he is justified by faith, that his pardon is simultaneous with the moment of his belief, that he may go on his way rejoicing to fulfil the duties of life; for, in human language, God is no longer angry with him.
III. Thus far, in the consideration of righteousness by faith, we have obtained two points of view, in which, though regarded in the abstract only, the truth of which these words are the symbol has still a meaning; first, as expressing the unchangeableness of the mercy of God; and, secondly, the mysteriousness of human action. As we approach nearer, we are unavoidably led to regard the gift of righteousness rather in reference to the subject than to the object, in relation to man rather than God. What quality, feeling, temper, habit in ourselves answers to it? It may be more or less conscious to us, more of a state and less of a feeling, showing itself rather in our lives than our lips. But for these differences we can make allowance. It is the same faith still, under various conditions and circumstances, and sometimes taking different names.
IV. The expression ‘righteousness by faith’ indicates the personal character of salvation; it is not the tale of works that we do, but we ourselves who are accepted of God. Who can bear to think of his own actions as they are seen by the eye of the Almighty? Looking at their defective performance, or analyzing them into the secondary motives out of which they have sprung, do we seem to have any ground on which we can stand; is there anything which satisfies ourselves? Yet, knowing that our own works cannot abide the judgement of God, we know also that His love is not proportioned to them. He is a Person who deals with us as persons over whom He has an absolute right, who have nevertheless an endless value to Him. When He might exact all, He forgives all; ‘the kingdom of heaven’ is like not only to a Master taking account with his servants, but to a Father going out to meet his returning son. The symbol and mean of this personal relation of man to God is faith; and the righteousness which consists not in what we do, but in what we are, is the righteousness of faith.
V. Faith may be spoken of, in the language of the Epistle to the Hebrews, as the substance of things unseen. But what are the things unseen? Not only an invisible world ready to flash through the material at the appearance of Christ; not angels, or powers of darkness, or even God Himself ‘sitting,’ as the Old Testament described, ‘on the circle of the heavens;’ but the kingdom of truth and justice, the things that are within, of which God is the centre, and with which men everywhere by faith hold communion. Faith is the belief in the existence of this kingdom; that is, in the truth and justice and mercy of God, who disposes all things—not, perhaps, in our judgement for the greatest happiness of His creatures, but absolutely in accordance with our moral notions. And that this is not seen to be the case here, makes it a matter of faith that it will be so in some way that we do not at present comprehend. He that believes on God believes, first, that He is; and, secondly, that He is the Rewarder of them that seek Him.
VI. Now, if we go on to ask what gives this assurance of the truth and justice of God, the answer is, the life and death of Christ, who is the Son of God, and the Revelation of God. We know what He himself has told us of God, and we cannot conceive perfect goodness separate from perfect truth; nay, this goodness itself is the only conception we can form of God, if we confess what the mere immensity of the material world tends to suggest, that the Almighty is not a natural or even a supernatural power, but a Being of whom the reason and conscience of man have a truer conception than imagination in its highest flights. He is not in the storm, nor in the thunder, nor in the earthquake, but ‘in the still small voice.’ And this image of God as He reveals himself in the heart of man is ‘Christ in us the hope of glory;’ Christ as He once was upon earth in His sufferings rather than His miracles—the image of goodness and truth and peace and love.
We are on the edge of a theological difficulty; for who can deny that the image of that goodness may fade from the mind’s eye after so many centuries, or that there are those who recognize the idea and may be unable to admit the fact? Can we say that this error of the head is also a corruption of the will? The lives of such unbelievers in the facts of Christianity would sometimes refute our explanation. And yet it is true that Providence has made our spiritual life dependent on the belief in certain truths, and those truths run up into matters of fact, with the belief in which they have ever been associated; it is true, also, that the most important moral consequences flow from unbelief. We grant the difficulty: no complete answer can be given to it on this side the grave. Doubtless God has provided a way that the sceptic no less than the believer shall receive his due; He does not need our timid counsels for the protection of the truth. If among those who have rejected the facts of the Gospel history some have been rash, hypercritical, inflated with the pride of intellect, or secretly alienated by sensuality from the faith of Christ—there have been others, also, upon whom we may conceive to rest a portion of that blessing which comes to such as ‘have not seen and yet have believed.’
VII. In the Epistles of St. Paul, and yet more in the Epistle to the Hebrews, the relation of Christ to mankind is expressed under figures of speech taken from the Mosaic dispensation: He is the Sacrifice for the sins of men, ‘the Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world;’ the Antitype of all the types, the fulfilment in His own person of the Jewish law. Such words may give comfort to those who think of God under human imagery, but they seem to require explanation when we rise to the contemplation of Him as the God of truth, without parts or passions, who knows all things, and cannot be angry with any, or see them other than they truly are. What is indicated by them, to us ‘who are dead to the law,’ is, that God has manifested himself in Christ as the God of mercy; who is more ready to hear than we to pray; who has forgiven us almost before we ask Him; who has given us His only Son, and how will He not with Him also give us all things? They intimate, on God’s part, that He is not extreme to mark what is done amiss; in human language, ‘he is touched with the feeling of our infirmities:’ on our part, that we say to God, ‘Not of ourselves, but of thy grace and mercy, O Lord.’ Not in the fullness of life and health, nor in the midst of business, nor in the schools of theology; but in the sick chamber, where are no more earthly interests, and in the hour of death, we have before us the living image of the truth of justification by faith, when man acknowledges, on the confines of another world, the unprofitableness of his own good deeds, and the goodness of God even in afflicting him, and his absolute reliance not on works of righteousness that he has done, but on the Divine mercy.
VIII. A true faith has been sometimes defined to be not a faith in the unseen merely, or in God or Christ, but a personal assurance of salvation. Such a feeling may be only the veil of sensualism; it may be also the noble confidence of St. Paul. ‘I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor death, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ It may be an emotion, resting on no other ground except that we believe; or, a conviction deeply rooted in our life and character. Scripture and reason alike seem to require this belief in our own salvation: and yet to assume that we are at the end of the race may make us lag in our course. Whatever danger there is in the doctrine of the Divine decrees, the danger is nearer home, and more liable to influence practice, when our faith takes the form of personal assurance. How, then, are we to escape from the dilemma, and have a rational confidence in the mercy of God?
IX. This confidence must rest, first, on a sense of the truth and justice of God, rising above perplexities of fact in the world around us, or the tangle of metaphysical or theological difficulties. But although such a sense of the truth or justice of God is the beginning of our peace, yet a link of connexion is wanting before we can venture to apply to ourselves that which we acknowledge in the abstract. The justice of God may lead to our condemnation as well as to our justification. Are we then, in the language of the ancient tragedy, to say that no one can be counted happy before he dies, or that salvation is only granted when the end of our course is seen? Not so; the Gospel encourages us to regard ourselves as already saved; for we have communion with Christ and appropriate His work by faith. And this appropriation means nothing short of the renunciation of self and the taking up of the cross of Christ in daily life. Whether such an imitation or appropriation of Christ is illusive or real, a new mould of nature or only an outward and superficial impression, is a question not to be answered by any further theological distinction, but by an honest and good heart searching into itself. Then only, when we surrender ourselves into the hands of God, when we ask Him to show us to ourselves as we truly are, when we allow ourselves in no sin, when we attribute nothing to our own merits, when we test our faith, not by the sincerity of an hour, but of months and years, we learn the true meaning of that word in which, better than any other, the nature of righteousness by faith is summed up—peace.
‘And now abideth faith, hope, and love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.’ There seems to be a contradiction in love being the ‘greatest,’ when faith is the medium of acceptance. Love, according to some, is preferred to faith, because it reaches to another life; when faith and hope are swallowed up in sight, love remains still. Love, according to others, has the first place, because it is Divine as well as human; it is the love of God to man, as well as of man to God. Perhaps, the order of precedence is sufficiently explained by the occasion; to a Church torn by divisions the Apostle says, ‘that the first of Christian graces is love.’ Another thought, however, is suggested by these words, which has a bearing on our present subject. It is this, that in using the received terms of theology, we must also acknowledge their relative and transient character. Christian truth has many modes of statement; love is the more natural expression to St. John, faith to St. Paul. The indwelling of Christ or of the Spirit of God, grace, faith, hope, love, are not parts of a system, but powers or aspects of the Christian life. Human minds are different, and the same mind is not the same at different times; and the best of men nowadays have but a feeble consciousness of spiritual truths. We ought not to dim that consciousness by insisting on a single formula; and therefore while speaking of faith as the instrument of justification, because faith indicates the apprehensive, dependent character of the believer’s relation to Christ, we are bound also to deny that the Gospel is contained in any word, or the Christian life inseparably linked to any one quality. We must acknowledge the imperfection of language and thought, and seek rather to describe than to define the work of God in the soul, which has as many forms as the tempers, capacities, circumstances, and accidents of our nature.