by William S. Plumer
Our own merits are of no avail for salvation. Man never deserves the favorable regard of God. The more self-righteous any one is, the worse it is for him. He, who is found with a little counterfeit money on him, may be suspected; but he, who knowingly carries much of it, may be convicted. Self-righteousness is spurious coin. Whoever relies on his own goodness for salvation will surely perish. He puts darkness for light and bitter for sweet. He turns judgment into wormwood and righteousness into hemlock. Self-righteousness is a condemnation of God’s law and an impeachment of his justice.
There are but two ways in which man ever had solid peace with God. The first is by having a heart and life free from sin. When Adam was holy, his peace was unbroken. But we have all sinned, and this door is forever closed against our race. Of all that have been born of woman, but one entered heaven by his own merits. That one was Jesus, the Son of God. The other way for us to have peace is to flee to Christ who is our peace, and has made peace for all who believe on him. Those who receive him shall never come into condemnation. Their peace shall be like a river, which widens and deepens the farther it flows.
The way in which some secure a false peace and destroy themselves, is to shut their eyes on their offences, sear their own consciences, and persuade themselves that they are not truly and fearfully guilty, and have not grievously sinned against God. They spend their days in framing excuses, perhaps vindications of a life of rebellion and sin; or they boldly deny their guilt in every particular, as did the Jews in the days of Malachi, and of our Savior.
Self-righteousness seems to be born with sin, and to grow with its growth. A disposition to deny criminality is universal among men. Nothing but divine grace can effectually cure the habit of self-justification. One honest confession is a better sign of amendment, and promises more good than all excuses and denials. Indeed no saving mercy can come to him who will not confess his sins. The reason is that to him, who thinks he has no malady—all medicine is offensive. “The whole need not a physician.” He who thinks he knows—will not inquire. He who says he sees—will not ask for a light. How can he wish to be better, who is already in his own esteem good enough? How can he who believes he has done no wrong, ask for pardon? Forgiveness to the ‘innocent’ is impossible. To absolve the guiltless is an absurdity. The very offer of mercy to the sinless is an indignity.
Nothing in human nature seems to be more obstinate, or more difficult to eradicate than a self-righteous spirit. Without the grace of Christ going before, no man ever sought or desired a new heart, or a gracious pardon. Left to themselves, men will live in sin, die in sin, and lie down in eternal sorrow, rather than renounce their own goodness and abandon their self-righteous hopes.
It tends greatly to strengthen these delusions when men can plead natural amiability of temper, or a fair standing with the world for truth, justice and honor, or a decent and serious attention to the ordinances of religion. Christ said to the most exact observers of the Mosaic ritual, “the publicans and harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.” “There are many who think they are safe, so long as they can find others worse than themselves. As if the fox should thank God that he is not a bear; or the wolf that he is not a lion; or the swine that he is not a wolf; whereas all this is nothing to the purpose, because God has called his children to be sheep, neither shall any species of unclean beasts be tolerated in the Christian society, unless they become sensible of their sinful disposition, and put it off as fast as they can by repentance and conversion.”
All observation goes to show that there is not a more hopeless class of offenders than those who trust in themselves that they are righteous. “All our righteous acts are as filthy rags.” “If I wash myself in snow-water, and make my hands ever so clean, yet shall you plunge me in the ditch and my own clothes shall abhor me. For he is not a man as I am, that I should answer him, and we should come together in judgment.” Job 9:30-32. “If you, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?” Psalm 130:3. See also Job 4:17-20, and 15:15, 16, and 9:2, 3. How wisely did David plead, “Enter not into judgment with your servant, for in your sight shall no man living be justified.” Psalm 143:2. It is the part of wisdom for every mortal to say “If I justify myself, my own mouth shall condemn me: if I say, I am perfect, it shall also prove me perverse.” Job 9:20. Let us confess, “all we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way.”
Peter has forewarned us that “God resists the proud, and gives grace to the humble.” Here is the secret of the difference of the treatment received by the pharisee and the publican, the one with unhumbled heart pleading his own goodness, the other crying “God be merciful to me a sinner.” Indeed it is the unvarying law of God’s government that “whoever shall exalt himself shall be abased, and he who humbles himself shall be exalted.” “Christ came not to call the righteous,” he came to call “sinners to repentance.”
All this is well summed up in the Heidelberg Catechism:
62. But why cannot our good works be the whole or part of our righteousness before God? Because that the righteousness which can be approved of before the tribunal of God, must be absolutely perfect, and in all respects conformable to the divine law; and also, that our best works in this life, are all imperfect and defiled with sin.
63. What! do our good works merit nothing, which yet God will reward in this and a future life? This reward is not of merit, but of grace.
64. But does not this doctrine make men careless and profane? By no means; for it is impossible that those who are implanted into Christ by a true faith, should not bring forth the fruits of thankfulness.
The effect of all God’s saving dealings with men’s souls, is ultimately to bring them to remember their ways, and all their doings wherein they have been defiled; and to loathe themselves in their own sight for all their evils that they have committed, and to know that God is the Lord, when he has wrought with them for his name’s sake, and not according to their wicked ways, nor according to their corrupt doings. Ezek. 20:43, 44.
From all that has been said it follows that man needs the grace of Christ. Where evil exists—a remedy is called for. He who is sick—needs a physician. It would be better for the blind—if their eyes were opened; for the deaf—if their ears were unstopped; for the halt—if their lameness were taken away. The unclean need washing; the condemned, pardon. Those who are not holy should be renewed. To the diseased even painful remedies are a kindness. The perishing need mercy; the guilty need grace. The lost should be sought and found. The starving require bread; the thirsty, water; the wounded, oil and wine; the cold and naked, raiment and shelter.
The truth is, we are dead in trespasses and sins, yes, twice dead. How strong this language, and yet how just! If any man fights against it, his quarrel is with God, not with those, who by divine command preach the doctrine. The Bible is a sober book. It never mocks us. It never trifles with any man’s feelings. It gives no idle alarms. It scatters all needless fears, and cuts up superstition by the roots. Yet it says, we are dead, twice dead, dead by nature; dead by actual transgression; dead by the law; dead by a willful, ungrateful, unbelieving rejection of Christ. What a death! Men are dead, like a very dry tree, which is ready to be plucked up by the roots. If a spark touches it, it is soon all in a blaze. There is in unconverted men, no spiritual life, no warmth of affection, towards God and holiness. They have no good hope through grace. The life and love of God are not in them. Separated from God, they cannot live. For as the branch severed from the vine, or the arm from the body; or the body from the soul is dead, being alone, so the spirit of man without God is dead also.
Surely man in this state needs a Savior. Never were necessities so extreme. If God intended to do something, “which angels would desire to look into,” what would more surely gain his end, than to provide a Savior for lost men? It is no insult to offer grace to such rebels as we are. A little humility, faith and love, would make us all adopt as our creed, the words of Peter: “We believe that through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, we shall be saved even as they.” At least we should say, that we never can be saved otherwise, and should greatly desire to be saved in this blessed way. If not thus saved, we are forever undone. Our true wisdom is to cry, “We do not present our supplications before you for our righteousness, but for your great mercies.” Dan. 9:18.
This brings us naturally to the consideration of the amazing grace, actually shown to men in their salvation by Jesus Christ.