There are times when the relating of personal experience may be helpful, and part of the time allotted to this morning's service I desire to use in giving just a bit of personal experience.
I have been a believer in our church's message for about a quarter of a century. I started out to preach it nearly twenty-one years ago, and I have been preaching it without a break ever since. My work has been the public presentation of the teachings of the message in various cities of the East and the South. I accepted the message with a very earnest, fervent sincerity. I believed in it, as I do now, with all my heart, and I gave to it all the energies of my life. I studied for a number of years what seemed to me to be the best method of presentation with convincing speech. In my ministry I was able, by the help of God, to convince people of the truth of the great message that I believe. And many of them were persuaded to unite with our churches and join us in this movement.
In those years of activity and of preaching the message here and there, I felt that the most important thing I could learn would be how to make convincing presentation of the message of God. I studied, therefore, not only to familiarize myself with all the teachings of the prophecies and the great doctrines, but also to learn how to meet objections, how to answer questions, and how to remove from the minds of others anything that would hinder them from accepting this message as the truth.
During those years of ministry, at least during the earlier part, my standing with God never concerned me very much. There were times when I would think of it, but not in any seriousness or for any length of time. I believed, when I thought of it at all, that everything must be all right between God and me because I was engaged in His service—I was doing His work, I was preaching His message and bringing people to believe it and accept it. Those were years of great activity, and the activity itself crowded out of my mind any conscious sense of my own personal need. I found that I had a degree of convincing speech and an earnestness of presentation that persuaded men to believe what they were told. It seemed to me that God accepted me and that my hope of eternal life was based on absolute assurance. I was preaching the second coming of Christ to others; I thoroughly expected to meet Christ in peace when He came.
Some eight or ten years ago I became concerned regarding my own experience in Christ. I found that explaining the prophecies of Daniel, the 1260 days, the 2300 days, the truth of the Sabbath, signs of Christ's coming, and the preaching of the unconscious state of the dead had nothing in it—at least, the way I was doing it—that could enable me to conquer my own rebellious will or bring into my life the power to overcome temptation and sin. I became concerned, and there was pressed into my conscience the question as to whether I really was accepted of God.
I reviewed my seeming success. I looked back over the experiences that God had given me, and I was inclined to conclude again that because of what I had done and was doing, I was safe. I tried to dismiss the questions that pressed themselves upon me in connection with my defeat when sin overcame me. But I could not avoid these questions. They pressed upon me harder and harder. I then felt that the thing to do was to throw myself with new energy and more ardent endeavor into the preaching of the message. I became more rigid in my adherence to the faith. I straightened up some things in connection with my observance of the Sabbath. Some things that I had allowed myself to do on the Sabbath I quit doing. I was a little more scrupulous in my obedience to God. I preached with greater energy. I threw myself into all the activities of the ministry, hoping that by so doing I would find the peace that I had once had, and dismiss and drive out of my heart the fears that were taking possession of me with regard to my own standing before the Lord. But the harder I worked, the more this thing troubled me.
I do thank God today that there is a Holy Spirit that pours light into a darkened heart and darkened mind!
My activities did not help me in any way. They only brought me into greater difficulty, for I found that I had no power in my life to oppose all the temptations of the devil, and that again and again and again I was defeated. That question of personal victory—the lack of it in my life, and the need for it—began to burn in my soul, and there was a time when I questioned whether there was power in the threefold message to enable a man to live a victorious experience in Christ Jesus. And I came into great trouble—so great that I cannot describe it to you adequately. But I was finally brought by this spiritual distress to a place where it was good for me to be, but where I hope I shall never be again—face to face with the profound conviction that, preacher as I was, and had been for fifteen years, I was lost—completely lost. I shall never forget my distress of mind and heart. I did not know what to do. I was doing everything I knew how to do. I had made a supreme effort to live as I thought God wanted me to live; I was not doing anything consciously or intentionally wrong; but in spite of it all the conviction came that I was lost in God's sight. And very nearly I felt that there was no way of salvation.
But through the mercy of God and the blessing of the Spirit that never brings us to such a place but that He desires to carry us beyond that place, I was suddenly awakened to the fact that in all my association with God and His work, I had neglected the first simple childlike step of coming to Jesus Christ for myself and, by faith in Him, receiving pardon for my own sins. All through those years I had hoped that my sins were forgiven, but I never could feel sure of it. God brought me back, after fifteen years of preaching this message, to the foot of the cross, and there came to me the realization of the awful fact that I had been preaching for fifteen years and yet was an unconverted man. I hope you don't have such an experience. But if you need it, oh, I hope you get it!
I made up my mind that I could take no further risk in a matter of such supreme importance. I came to Christ just as if I had never known Him before, as though I were just beginning to learn the way to Christ—as I was, in reality. I surrendered my sins to Jesus Christ, and by faith I received His forgiveness. And I am not in any confusion about that matter now!
I found that something else was necessary. I had the same old problems: the same passions, appetites, lusts, desires, inclinations, and dispositions— the same old will. I found it necessary to abandon myself—my life, my body, my will, all my plans and ambitions—to the Lord Jesus and receive Him altogether. Not merely as the forgiver of my sins, not merely to receive His pardon, but to receive Him as my Lord, my righteousness, and my very life.
I learned the lesson that the Christian life is not any modification of the old life. It is not any qualification of it, any development of it, not any progression of it, any culture or refinement or education of it. It is not built on the old life at all. It does not grow from it. It is another life entirely—a new life altogether. It is the actual life of Jesus Christ Himself in my flesh. And God has been teaching me that lesson. I don't think I have learned it altogether yet, but there is nothing on earth I want to learn so much as that. Years ago I used to browse around in old bookstores and seize upon dusty old historical books as supreme treasures, trying to find something that would throw light on some dark prophecy. Today, while I am no less interested in the prophecies, I am much more interested in my union with Jesus Christ and in the development and growth and progress of His life in me.
And now I am going to do something that I don't usually do. God has enabled me to express myself, not merely by word of mouth, but by writing as well. There are some things I can express most effectively verbally; there are other things I can express most effectively in writing. Somehow, as I have thought of what I wanted to present to you, knowing the weakness of my preaching, fearing I may wander and repeat, I have not dared to attempt to set forth the principles that I want to bring to your attention this morning except in writing. I will read to you some paragraphs that I have prepared covering the principles of righteousness in Christ. I trust that my reading them will not divert your interest. I would like to have you catch the thought in every sentence.
Man cannot attain to righteousness
The true purpose of man's existence and the source of his true happiness is in enjoying the favor of God. Aside from God's favor, there can be no true life for man.
God's favor is attained through righteousness. The righteous alone can be at peace with God and enjoy His favor. Therefore, the chief purpose of man must be to obtain righteousness.
But man is not righteous. And man has a nature out of which righteousness cannot grow. A corrupt and fallen nature cannot produce righteousness, nor can it ever, by any development, or refinement, or education, or evolution, attain to righteousness. In Adam the whole race fell, and from him all inherited a nature too feeble for the gigantic task of attaining righteousness. Human nature is carnal, not spiritual, and is, therefore, not equal to this supreme spiritual achievement.
God gave man the law, but the law could not alter man's nature or impart any righteousness. It has no creative power to change carnal into spiritual. Rather it aggravates the evil. It multi plies offenses. And this was God's intention in giving it—to make sin exceedingly sinful, and to demonstrate man's helplessness and doom.
So man cannot attain to righteousness. He cannot lift himself into God's favor. He is lost.
God reveals the secret of righteousness
Man's extremity is God's opportunity. When the demonstration of man's helplessness is complete, God brings forth His method. When man has proved that he can never attain to righteousness by his own efforts, and when man's righteousness has demonstrated itself to be a failure, God reveals His secret—the righteousness of God in Christ.
This is Christianity. This is the whole purpose, the fullness, and the blessed result of the coming of Christ into the world—the conferring upon man, the sinner, as a free gift, that which is altogether indispensable to man's blessedness, but which he could not attain to himself.
This was solely and altogether God's work. It is of grace, entirely unmerited. And the sinner obtains it by recognition and acknowledgment of his failure to attain it, and by accepting it from God. He does this solely by faith. It is "the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe" (Rom. 3:22).
Man's double heritage
Adam's children derive from him a double heritage, or curse: the debt of guilt, which, instead of being able to reduce, they are constantly increasing; plus a fallen, corrupt, carnal nature that is utterly incapable of righteousness. Out of these grow all the woes of humanity.
Christ is the second Adam, the new head of the human race. Those who by faith are united to Him become heirs of a double heritage of an exactly opposite kind. Born of the flesh, we are entangled in Adam's guilt. Born of Christ, we become involved in an illimitable heritage of merit that Christ has made the common property of all the members of the family of which He is head. This extinguishes the debt of our guilt, cancels the record of our sins, brings pardon for all our transgressions, removes the sentence of death hanging over us, and makes us rich in the righteousness of Christ (chap. 5:19).
More than that, as Adam conveyed to his posterity a carnal, fallen, corrupt nature, separated from God and inherently unfit for righteousness, so the second Adam transmits to the race, of which He is the head, an entirely new nature, a spiritual nature, akin to God, partaking of and delighting in righteousness.
When, therefore, a man turns away from his own works and looks alone to Christ for salvation, God declares that man just. This declaration of God is grounded on the finished work of our Lord. This is the very heart of Paul's argument in Romans. The passage that makes this most clear is Romans 3:21-26. Analyzing this passage gives us this result: 1. All people, without exception, are sinners. 2. All stand in need of a justification that they cannot of themselves provide. 3. God has set forth Christ to be the propitiation for the sins of all. 4. On the ground of this propitiatory work of Christ, we are declared to be just, or reckoned as just. 5. This act of God in declaring us just is entirely by grace and on condition of our faith in Christ. 6. Last, this work of Christ is necessary in order that God might Himself be just, as well as being able to justify him who believes in Christ.
The gospel, then, is God's arrangement by which He brings sinners into a new relation to Himself by faith in Christ. In this new relation God justifies the ungodly without effort on their part (chap. 4:4, 5). The sole basis of this justifying act of God is the atonement of Jesus Christ.
Faith the condition of justification
This declarative act of God in justifying the sinner is on condition of faith. This is not merely stated many times in the New Testament, but the Old Testament is appealed to as proof of the fact that faith has always been the condition of justification. The great typical illustration of this is Abraham's faith. (See verse 3; Gen. 15:6.) A long list of Old Testament saints is given in Hebrews 11, all of whom lived by faith. A terse but comprehensive statement of this principle is found in Habakkuk 2:4. The idea of faith as contrasted with the works of the law as a ground of justification is clearly set forth in Galatians 2:16, 20. Justification is never on the ground of works (see Eph. 2:8; Rom. 4:3, 9). If a man seeks to earn salvation by works, the fundamental principle of the gospel is destroyed (Rom. 4:4). To him who believes in Christ and renounces works as a ground of salvation, his faith is imputed to him for righteousness (see chaps. 4, 5).
When God pronounces us just, we are freed from condemnation and restored to His favor. A new standing before God is bestowed upon us. We are pardoned. The penalty of death for the transgression of the law is remitted. We are received into God's favor. His grace now flows out actively to us and imparts every spiritual blessing. And the basis of all this is Jesus Christ and His finished work.
In comprehensive terms Paul sets it forth in Romans 5:1, 2. Here is the ground of justification—"through our Lord Jesus Christ." Here is the condition of justification—"therefore being justified by faith." Here is the remission of the penalty—"we have peace with God," which means the broken law no longer menaces us with death. And here is the new standing in the divine favor—"by whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand."
A new nature imparted
Standing in this new relation to God, God imparts a new nature to us and builds an entirely new character in us. The old nature is crucified, a new life is implanted by virtue of a new birth. And this too, equally with justification, is entirely on the ground of the finished work of Christ, solely by grace without works, and on the one condition of faith. Indeed, all that God does for us in salvation, every development of character, all progress in holiness, every step of growth, is God's work through Christ, and is all of grace, on the condition of faith.
The life of the Christian, therefore, may be summed up in one phrase, union with Christ. In repentance we turned away from sin and turned toward Christ. Then we trusted Christ as Redeemer and Lord. Then we assumed the life and duties of a follower of Christ. God's regenerating power then reproduced in our souls the image of Christ. The new life thus implanted is the life of Christ Himself.
What is Christianity?
Becoming a Christian, then, is not the acceptance of a body of teachings, or a mental assent to a set of doctrines, or believing the truth of the Bible in a merely intellectual way. It is not joining the church and partaking of the ordinances. It is entering into a new personal relation to Christ.
"As many as received him," to them God gave power to become sons. "He that hath the Son hath life." "As ye ... received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him." Barnabas exhorted the saints to "cleave unto the Lord."
The central glory of the gospel, therefore, is not a great truth, or a great message, or a great movement, but a great Person. It is Jesus Christ Himself.
Without Him there could be no gospel. He came, not so much to proclaim a message, but rather that there might be a message to proclaim. He Himself was and is the Message. Not His teachings, but Himself, constituted Christianity.
And in this is the great difference between Christianity and all other religions. Buddha, when he was about to die, said to his disciples, "Never mind what happens to me; you have my teachings." But Jesus did not say to His disciples, "My teachings are the way." He said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6).
He came to a lost world, a sick world, a dying world, a doomed world. And He set forth a remedy. That remedy was Himself. Not a system of teaching, but Himself. Not a code of laws, but Himself. Not a body of doctrine, but Himself. Not a message, or a blessing, or a truth, or an experience, but Himself. Jesus Christ, the meek, the gentle, the humble, the unselfish, the self-denying, the self-renouncing, not only revealed Himself as the pattern of life, but also set Himself forth as the object of faith, hope, love, obedience, loyalty, devotion, adoration, and worship.
Christianity, then, is not a set of doctrines, a body of teachings, or a statement of creedal expressions. It is a Person, and that Person is Christ. He is Christianity.
What is the gospel?
The gospel is many things: It is a revelation of the redemption of men by the work of Christ.
It is a message of unutterable mercy regarding the pardon of human sins.
It is a proclamation of the amnesty of the Holy One for the guilty sinner.
It is the good tidings of the death of the Just One for the unjust, His becoming the propitiation for our sins.
It is the bringing of life and immortality out from the shadows into the light and a revelation of the glorious possibilities of benefit and blessing for this present life as well as for the life to come. But the gospel is infinitely more than all of this. It is God giving Himself to men. It is man's union, and then communion, with God in Christ.
It was for this that prophecy was given, that preparation was made, that patriarchs, priests, and kings witnessed and wrought. It was for this that Bethlehem, and Nazareth, and Calvary, and Golgotha, and Joseph's tomb, and the hill of the ascension, and the fiery tongues of Pentecost entered scriptural history. It was for this that He has imputed His righteousness, imparted His holiness, and revealed the coming glorification of the body. All the saving process, the entire scheme of salvation, centers here. That God might give Himself to man, dwell in man, walk in man, manifest His glory in him, shine out from him, and bring him at last to Himself—for this was the gospel instituted. All this God does—in Christ.
Condition of receiving salvation
Jesus bids us, "Believe ... in me," "Learn of me," "Come unto me," "Follow me," "Abide in me." Personal acceptance of Him as a personal Saviour is the condition of salvation, and the only condition. Surrender to Him, repentance toward Him, confession to Him, acceptance of Him, believing Him, faith in Him, following Him, learning of Him, trusting Him, knowing Him, abiding in Him, resting in Him— these are the indications and blessed privileges of Christian experience.
To be a Christian, then, is to enter into relationship with a Person—a Per son who loves you, cherishes your friendship, deals tenderly and gently with you; who guides you in the way of righteousness and obedience, teaches you the truth; who has strength for all your needs and supplies it to you; who walks with you as a friend and communes with you; who shares His own eternal life with you; who comforts you in trouble, solves all your problems and perplexities, meets every crisis of life with you; who stands by your side always, smooths your pillow in sickness, goes down into the dark valley of death with you, and with whom you are safe. Knowing Him as a friend and a Saviour, you feel assured in leaving all the future in His hands, just as you commit all the present to Him.
Imparting His own life to you, He will fulfill all His commandments in you. Yours will be a commandment-keeping life because it is His life. There will be no failure in obedience, because He is our obedience. Trusting Him, relying on Him, abandoning ourselves to Him, giving ourselves clear away to Him, we will be brought into full harmony with every requirement of God because of His life in us.
This is the glorious message to be taken to all the world in this generation.
Christ only, Christ crucified, Christ risen, Christ ascended, Christ interceding, Christ coming again, Christ the only Saviour from sin, Christ our righteousness, Christ our obedience, Christ our coming king. Let us not cease "to teach and preach Jesus Christ"—"the chiefest among ten thousand," and the One "altogether lovely" (Acts 5:42; S. of Sol. 5:10, 16).