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Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ.
In addressing you on these important words, I shall first state what is the doctrine which they contain ; secondly, show you what reception it ought to meet with from sinful man; and thirdly, declare the effects which when rightly received, it will produce. And on this and all other occasions, may it please God to direct us to a correct understanding, a thankful acceptance, and a practical improvement of the truth which he has vouchsafed to reveal, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
First, - What is the doctrine conveyed in this short sentence, “a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the law ?”
The eleventh article of our church explains it very clearly in as few words as could have been used on the subject. “We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merits of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, by faith, and not for our own works or deservings ;”-i. e. if we truly believe in Christ, God will, in consideration of his obedience and sufferings, forgive us our sins, regard us as holy, and accept us into his favour; but we cannot raise ourselves from the depths of sin and condemnation in which we are sunk, to the exalted rank of beings approved of by God, by any efforts which we are capable of making, by any goodness, which we may think it in our power to exercise or to acquire.
I do not commend the practice of comparing one doctrine of scripture with another, and of saying, “this or that is more important, more essential, more necessary,” to the disadvantage and undervaluing of any, for we should be very cautious, lest through the error of our own weak judgment, we detract from the importance of what God has revealed. The Jews did wrong, when they indulged themselves in discussions about " which was the great commandment of the law;” and our blessed Saviour wisely corrected them, when to set this important question at rest, he reminded them of two commandments as most important,
which pecessarily involved all the others, “ these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” I will not therefore presume to substitute a comparison between the great and leading doctrines of the gospel, to ascertain the estimation in which they should be respectively held, when all ought equally to be believed, equally to be revered, and equally to influence our hearts and lives. But I may be allowed to say, that if any one is more peculiar to the gospel, , more characteristic of it, than another, it is this of justification by faith. Other systems have taught (not indeed with authority and certainty, but still they have taught) doctrines essential to all religions, as the omniscience and omnipresence of God, a future state of rewards and punishments, the moral responsibility of man, the necessity of spiritual aid, the duty of prayer, and such like; but christianity alone has informed mankind, that by reason of their own sinfulness, they can only be saved through the merits of another, and that it is by faith those merits are to be applied to their own benefit. And therefore this doctrine stands forward as the most conspicuous and prominent feature of christianity; it is that one, without which all the rest are to no purpose, for if this is the way, the only way of salvation, what will all other belief and practice avail without it? I wish to insist on this point at the very outset, and to press it strongly upon your attention, because it most highly concerns you to know what is the true foundation of your hopes, lest you should entertain them without warrant, and strive to secure the object of them by a method that must end in disappointment. People so often begin at the wrong end in religion, altogether misunderstanding the condition in which they are, and endeavouring to restore themselves to the favour of God, when they can do absolutely nothing of themselves towards the accomplishment of that purpose, that it is necessary frequently to call them back to an explicit consideration of the first principles upon which they ought to proceed :—“What encouragement have you to trust in the mercy of God? Upon what grounds do you hope to be saved ? What is your motive to holiness and obedience ?” How many would answer these questions, not as christians, but rather as heathens ! as persons, who depended entirely on themselves for justification in the sight of God! as men, ignorant of the very rudiments of christian knowledge! I do not speak at random; I assert what will be readily granted by all, who have well considered what christianity is, how it differs from any other religion; for is it not a kind of heathenism, is it
not self righteousness, is it not utter ignorance of the gospel, to aim at being our own saviour upon the merits of our endeavours to comply with the laws of God? and are there not many even of those who, I do not deny, are very sincere in their religion, as far as it goes, who have no other idea than that they are to “ work out their own salvation,” which they hope for as a reward of their own labours ?
It is not perhaps that they seriously think the very imperfect services of a very frail creature, and performed in a very brief life, in themselves deserving of so vast a recompense as eternal happiness in heaven, though the presumption of some may carry them even to such an extent as that; they may think that it is an instance of mercy and not of justice in God, to propose a reward so much beyond the value of what they can do to attain it, yet still it is a reward, a reward (however much beyond their just expectation,) to be bestowed on them in return for their own actions, that they seek; and therefore with them, salvation is of works, and not of grace; a purchase, not a gift.
Now this is not christianity, it is overthrowing the very foundation of christianity; for what is the tenor of the language which the gospel addresses to us all ? “ You are in yourselves sinful, unworthy, reprobate creatures, you deserve nothing,