With Man, Salvation is Impossible, But Not With God — Charles Hodge
[An] essential characteristic of genuine conviction is the persuasion that our own good works are entirely insufficient to recommend us to God, or to be the ground of our acceptance before him. Since the Scriptures declare that we are justified freely, not by works, lest any man should boast, but by faith in Jesus Christ, our experience must accord with this declaration. We must have such views of the holiness of God, of the extent of his law and of our own unworthiness as shall make us fully sensible that we cannot by our own works secure either pardon or acceptance. It is easy to profess that we do not trust to our own righteousness, but really to divest ourselves of all reliance upon our supposed excellence, is a difficult task. When a man is roused to a sense of his guilt and danger, his first impulse is almost always to fly to any other refuge than that provided in the gospel. The most natural method of appeasing conscience is the promise of reformation. Particular sins are therefore forsaken, and a struggle, it may be, is maintained against all others. This conflict is often long and painful, but it is always unsuccessful. It is soon found that sin, in one form or other, is constantly getting the mastery, and the soul feels that something more must be done if it is ever to make itself fit for heaven. It is, therefore, ready to do, or to submit to any thing which appears necessary for this purpose. What particular form of works it may be which it endeavours to weave into a robe of righteousness, depends on the degree of knowledge which it possesses, or the kind of religious instruction which it receives. When greatly ignorant of the gospel, it endeavours by painful penances, self-imposed, or prescribed by priestly authority, to make satisfaction for its sins. Experience teaches that there is no extremity of self-denial to which a conscience-stricken man will not gladly submit as a means of satisfying the demands of God.
If heaven were really to be gained by such means, we should see the road crowded by the young and old, the rich and poor, the learned and ignorant, in multitudes as countless as those which throng the cruel temples of the Hindoos, or which perish on the burning sands of Arabia. This is the easiest, the pleasantest, the most congenial of all the methods of salvation, taught by the cunning craftiness of men. It is no wonder that those who teach it as the doctrine of the gospel, should find submissive hearers. If men can be allowed to purchase heaven, or make atonement for past transgressions, by present suffering, they will gladly undertake it. This is so congenial to the human heart, that men who are well informed, and who pride themselves on their independence of mind, are scarcely less apt to be caught in the meshes of this net, than their more ignorant brethren. We see, therefore, statesmen and philosophers, as well as peasants, wearing sackcloth, or walking barefoot, at the bidding of their religious teachers.
In Protestant countries, where the Bible is generally accessible, it is rare to see any such gross exhibitions of the spirit of self-righteousness. The Scriptures so clearly teach the method of salvation, that almost every one knows that at least mere external works of morality or discipline cannot avail to our justification before God. We must have a finer robe, a robe composed of duties of a higher value. Prayers are multiplied, the house of God is frequented, the whole routine of religious duties is assiduously attended to, under the impression that thus we shall satisfy the demands of God and secure his favour. Multitudes are contented with this routine. Their apprehensions of the character and requirements of God, of the evil of sin, and of their own ill-desert are so low, that this remedy is adequate for all the wounds their consciences feel. The performance of their social and religious duties seems sufficient, in their view, to entitle them to the character of religious men; and they are satisfied. Thus it was with Paul, who considered himself, as touching the righteousness which is of the law to be blameless. But all his strictness of moral duty and religious observance, was discovered to be worthless, so far as satisfying the demands of God is concerned. And every man, who is brought to accept the offer of salvation as presented in the gospel, is made to feel that it is not for any thing which he either does or abstains from doing, that his sins are pardoned and his person accepted before God. Nay, he sees that what men call their good works are so impure, as to be themselves a ground of condemnation. What are cold, wandering, selfish, irreverent prayers, but offences against God, whom we pretend to propitiate, by services which are but a mockery of his holiness? And what is any routine of heartless observances, or if not heartless, at least so imperfect as to fail of securing even our own approbation, in the eyes of him before whom the heavens are unclean? What approach can such services make either towards satisfying the present demands of God, or atoning for years of neglect and sin. It requires but little insight into the state of his own heart, or the real character of the divine law, to convince the sinner that he must have a better righteousness than that which consists of his own duties or observances.
From this foundation of sand the convinced sinner is, therefore, soon driven, but he betakes himself to another refuge nearer the cross, as he supposes, and which seems to require more self-renunciation. He ceases to think of establishing his own righteousness, but he still wishes to be made worthy to receive the righteousness of God. He knows that he can never cancel his debt of guilt, that his best services are unworthy of acceptance, that with all his circumspection he never lives a day in full compliance with the just demands of the law, and consequently that his salvation must be of grace, but he still thinks he must in some way merit that grace, or at least, be prepared by some observance or some experience for its reception. The distressed soul imagines that if it could be more distressed, more humbled, more touched with sorrow or remorse, it might then find acceptance. It sees that its long course of disobedience and ingratitude, its rejection of Christ, its disregard of mercies and warnings, its thousand sins of commission and omission, if forgiven at all, must be gratuitously pardoned, but this hardness of heart, this want of due tenderness and penitence, is a sin which must first be got out of the way, before the others can be remitted. It is, however, only one of the long, black catalogue. It can no more be separately conquered or atoned for, before coming to Christ, than any other sin of heart or life. It is often long before the soul is brought to see this, or to feel that it is really endeavouring to make itself better before applying to the physician; to accomplish at least some preparatory part of salvation for itself, so as not to be entirely indebted to the Redeemer. At last, however, the soul discovers its mistake; it finds that Christ does not save sinners for their tenderness or conviction, that tears are not more worthy of acceptance, than fasting, or almsgiving; that it is the unworthy, the hard-hearted, the ungodly, those who have nothing to recommend them, that Christ came to save, and whom he accepts in order to render them contrite and tenderhearted and obedient. These graces are his gifts, and if we stay away from him until we get them ourselves, we must perish in our sins. To this entire self-renunciation, this absolute rejection of every thing in itself as the ground, or reason of its acceptance, must the soul be brought before it embraces the offers of the gospel.
It is included in what has been said that a consciousness of our own weakness is a necessary ingredient, or consequence of true conviction. There is not only a giving up of our own righteousness, but of our own strength. All that is necessary here as on other points, is that we should feel what is true. If it is the doctrine of the Bible that the sinner can change his own heart, subdue his sins, excite all right affections in his heart, then genuine religious experience requires that this truth should be known, not merely as a matter of speculation, but as a matter of consciousness. But if the Scriptures teach that this change of heart is the work of the Holy Spirit; that we are born not of the will of man but of God ; that it is the exceeding greatness of the divine power that operates in them that believe, quickening those who were dead in trespasses and sins, creating them anew in Christ Jesus, so that they are his workmanship, created unto good works; if from one end of the Scriptures to the other, the internal work of salvation is declared to be not by the might, or power of man, but by the Spirit of the Lord, then is this one of the great truths of revelation of which we must be convinced. Our experience must accord with this representation and we must feel that to be true in our case, which God declares to be true universally.
When a man is brought to feel that he is a sinner, that his heart is far from being right in the sight of God, he as naturally turns to his own strength to effect a change and to bring himself up to the standard of the law, as he turns to his own works as a compensation for his sins, or as a ground of confidence towards God. His efforts, therefore, are directed to subdue the power of sin, and to excite religious feelings in his heart. He endeavours to mortify pride, to subdue the influence of the body, to wean himself from the world. He gives up his sinful, or worldly associates; he strengthens his purposes against evil; he forces himself to discharge the most ungrateful duties and exercises himself in self-denial. At the same time he tries to force himself into a right state of mind, to make himself believe, repent, love and exercise all the Christian graces of meekness, humility, brotherly kindness and charity; that is, he tries to make himself religious. He does every thing in his own strength and to save himself. Sometimes this course is pursued to the end of life. At others, it is continued for years and then found to be all in vain. Wesley tells us this was the kind of religion which he had, until his visit to America and his intercourse with the Moravians. This is the religion of ascetics, which may be persevered in, through stress of conscience, or fear of perdition, with great strictness and constancy. Almost every man makes trial of it. He will be his own saviour, if he can. It is found, however, by those who are taught of God, to be a hopeless task. The subtle evil of the heart is not to be subdued by any such efforts. If we force ourselves to forgo the pleasures of sin, we cannot destroy the desire of forbidden joys. If we refuse to gratify pride, we cannot prevent its aspirations. If we relinquish the pursuit of worldly things, we still retain the love of the world. If we force ourselves to perform religious duties, we cannot make those duties a delight. If we compel ourselves to think of God, we cannot force ourselves to love him, to desire communion with him, to take pleasure in his service, and to delight in all his requirements. No one can tell the misery arising from these painful and ineffectual struggles; these vain attempts to subdue sin and excite the Christian graces. If any thing could be taken as a substitute for them; if making many prayers, or submitting to any suffering, could be taken as an equivalent, it would be gladly acceded to. But to change the heart, to delight in God, to be really spiritual and holy, is a work the sinner finds to be above his strength and yet absolutely necessary. Repeated failures do not destroy his delusion; he still thinks that this is his work and that he must do it, or be lost. He, therefore, struggles on, he collects all his strength, and at length suddenly discovers it to be perfect weakness. He finds that if he is ever renewed and made holy, it must be the work of God and he cries in the depth of his distress, Lord save me, or I perish. He gives up working in his own strength and sees, what he wonders he never saw before, that the Christian virtues are really graces, i. e. gifts; that they are not excellencies to be wrought out by ourselves; but favours bestowed through Christ and for Christ’s sake; that it is the Holy Spirit purchased and sent by Him that is to change the heart and convince of sin, righteousness and judgment; that faith, repentance, joy, peace, humility and meekness are the fruits of that Spirit, and not the products of our own evil hearts; that if we could make ourselves holy we should scarcely need a Saviour; and that it is the greatest of all delusions to suppose that we must be holy before we come to God through Christ, instead of holiness being the result of our reconciliation. While we are under the law, we bring forth fruit unto death. It is not until we are free from the law and reconciled to God by the death of his Son, that we bring forth fruit unto righteousness. This great truth, though written on every page of the Bible, every man has to learn for himself. He cannot be made to understand it by reading it in the Scriptures, or by being told it by others. He must try his own strength until he finds it to be nothing, before he submits to be saved by the grace of God, and bowing at the feet of Jesus, in utter despair of any other helper, says, Lord if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.
The man, therefore, whom the Holy Ghost convinces of sin, he causes to understand and believe what God has revealed on this subject. He makes him feel that what He declares to be true of all men, is true of him; that he deserves what God declares all men deserve; that he has no merit to recommend him to God and no strength to change his own heart. This knowledge the Spirit communicates through the law, which by presenting the perfect rule of duty, shows us how far short we come of the glory of God, and how often and justly we have incurred its penalty; which convinces us that we are entirely unable to comply with its righteous demands, and that no mere objective presentation of what is holy, just and good can change the heart, or destroy the power of indwelling sin; since even when we see the excellence of the law we do not conform to it and cannot do the things that we would, but ever find a law in our members warring against the law of our minds and bringing us into subjection to the law of sin. It is thus that the law is a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ ; to drive us from every refuge of our own righteousness and strength, to Him who is made of God, unto those that believe, both justification and sanctification.
— taken from: The Way of Life, Charles Hodge, 1841
Charles Hodge (1797-1878) was a Presbyterian minister, theologian, and a seminary professor at Princeton Theological Seminary where he taught for most of his life. A man of God and staunchly orthodox, Hodge taught in the areas of Oriental and Biblical literature, exegetical, didactic and polemic theology. He was also Princeton’s principal from 1851–1878.
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