How the Gospel Makes Men Holy
By John A. Broadus
O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me out of the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. — Romans 7:24, 25.
The language is intensely passionate, — “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me out of the body of this death?” Then with the sudden transition of passion, “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
“How shall I be good?” is a question that used sometimes to rise in your mind when you were a child, sometimes when nobody would imagine you were thinking of such things as that. “How shall I get,to be good.” And it is a question which, amid all the commotion of this runaway life of ours, comes back to us very often, comes back even to people whom you would not suppose to be thinking of such things at all. The grossly wicked men, the men who are the slaves of vice, many of them, perhaps all of them, have their moments when there is a sort of longing that rises in their souls to be good, and when the hope returns, indestructible, that somehow or other they will get to be good after all. It became a sort of jest a few years ago, I know, to speak of “the wickedest man in New York,” but I wonder sometimes if the wickedest man — whoever he might happen to be, considered as God considers — does not sometimes want to be good.
For many of us it has been much more than a vague longing that comes back again and again. It has been an earnest effort, sometimes a fearful struggle, when we have been trying to be good, and we have wondered whether something would not come in the course of the varied experiences of life, that would render it easier for us to conquer in this struggle, easier to become good. As a man lives on, he cannot help thinking — it is so hard now — he cannot help thinking it will become easier to be good. And when changes occur in his outward life he hopes now to find it easier. He sets up a new home, it may be, and has a vague feeling that there he will be able to be good. He marries a pious woman, may be, and although he may not say a word about it, he has a sort of notion that perhaps that will be blessed to him, and he will become pious too. He loses a parent whom he leaned on, maybe he loses a little child that lay in his bosom, and amid the strange feelings that rise up then, and which he would not tell any one about, he thinks, “Now surely I shall become good.” And so, as the experiences of life come and go, men still hope to be good. Who is there here to-day that does not hope to be good? Who is there here to-day that at this solemn moment, when we are thinking about the soul and its immortality, does not feel that to be good is the loftiest human aspiration and the best earthly attainment? O tell me, do you not feel it?
Now I have something to say about this great question; not to cite my own experience nor to give my own ideas, but I want to get your attention fixed on the apostle Paul’s account of this matter, including some details of his own experience about it. Let us see how he treats the question. Here, in the Epistle to the Romans, the early chapters of the Epistle are occupied with what we call justification by faith, telling how, by believing in Jesus Christ, a man may be justified — that is, may be regarded and treated in the sight of God’s law as if he were a just man. And then the next question that will arise to any reflecting mind, and which the apostle at once thought of, is, Ah! but how does this bear on the matter of making a man good, in his real personal character? It looks at first like a sort of legal fiction, the idea of considering a man as just in the sight of God’s law, though he is not just, because of Jesus Christ in whom he believes. And then remains the question how a man is to be made righteous in his own character, how he is to be made holy. Many persons say that this is the weak point of the Gospel, that the Gospel tends to lessen the inducements to seek personal holiness, by undertaking to make a man just simply upon believing, by offering him amnesty. They talk as if the Gospel offer of free pardon for somebody else’s sake, yea, and of title to everlasting life for somebody else’s sake, were an encouragement to do wrong. There are many men holding the subject at arm’s length who maintain that the Gospel tends to prevent us from trying to do right by thus offering salvation gratuitously.
Now the apostle Paul goes on to show in the first place the absurdity of such an idea; to show that when men talk as if it were a small thing to believe in Jesus Christ the Lord, they don’t understand what they are talking about. He shows by several different illustrative arguments that if a man believes in Jesus Christ that means something; that it means a power in his life, that it involves a change in his inner character. He says first that if we are believers, we are dead to sin and have risen to a new life. He reminds his readers that this great thought was symbolized by that affecting ceremony in which they entered upon the professed life of a Christian. “Know ye not that so many of us as were baptized unto Jesus Christ were baptized unto his death?” Our baptism referred to Jesus Christ, and don’t you know that it referred especially to his death and resurrection? “That like as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” Do you not know that your baptism, at the outset of your Christian life, meant that you had died to sin and risen up from a grave like the symbolic grave in the waters, and that you were henceforth to walk in newness of life?
Then he takes a second illustration. We were slaves to sin; but now, by believing in Jesus Christ, we have changed masters; we have become, so to speak, the slaves of holiness, the slaves, as it were, of God. We have a new Master, and we shall render service to him. If a man is a believer, it means something. It means that he has changed masters. And yet again he says the case is like that of a woman whose husband died, and who is now married to a new husband; the children she now bears are no longer the children of the old husband, but of the new. If we are believers, we are indeed dead to the law; but we are married to Christ, and the fruit of our life is to be borne to him.
So, then, if anybody ever tells you that this Gospel of free grace is an encouragement to men to do wrong, tell him it cannot be so for a man who believes this Gospel, for that means something.
But the apostle by no means stops at that. Not only is it absurd to say that salvation by grace will encourage a man to do wrong, but justification by faith, salvation by grace, furnishes the only way in which a man can really become holy. The apostle shows this negatively and then positively. In this remarkable passage in the seventh chapter of Romans, over which so many religious controversies have been waged, and over which — what is ten thousand times better than religious controversies — have bent many troubled, yet trusting hearts as they found themselves exactly portrayed — in this passage the apostle first points out what is the best that the law can do to make a man holy. What is the best that a man can do in the way of becoming holy, by just trying to do right, simply trying, in his own strength, to do what he learns from God’s law to be right? There are people who are trying to do that, some of them honest in it, some of them very earnest. They have got their notion as to what is right, and are trying to do right. Some of them look in the word of God; they push aside what they call its mysteries and all matters pertaining to doctrine, and take out of it only its rules of right, and they say: “Now I am trying to live according to these rules of right.” What is the best they can do? Here is the apostle’s answer.
In the first place, he says, God’s law, which is holy and just and good, will make a man see how bad he is. The child yonder will perhaps know what is meant by a plummet, and may have seen a man building on a wall and hanging down his plummet to see if his wall was perpendicular. “And judgment I have set to the line, and righteousness to the plummet.” God’s word applied to a man’s life will help him to see whether he has been upright. Or the law of God is like a carpenter’s straight edge, and, laid on his character, will enable him to see where his character deviates from rectitude. Ah, me! whosoever will honestly apply this test, the result will be a deep and painful consciousness that he does not come up to it.
But more than that happens. By the strange perversity of human nature, through the terrible sinfulness of sin, God’s law not only makes us see how bad we are, but actually makes us worse. This is the thought that startles us here. God’s law makes us worse instead of making us better. It stimulates sinfulness by restraint. Have you not often observed how restraint stimulates men to act contrary to it? Not long ago a lad of my acquaintance was talked to by his father about smoking, with an earnest request that he would not form the habit. Afterwards he said to his mother, “I am so glad that papa did not say I must not smoke, for if he had said I must not smoke, I could not have kept from it, but he simply said he wished I would not; I am so glad.” There was a great deal of human nature in that.
There is a story of an old woman in one of the German towns who had lived to be seventy years old without going outside the ancient wall of the city. The fact was told to the Grand Duke, who sent the old lady word that he wished the fact to go down to history and begged she would be sure and not go out during the rest of her life. You may know what would happen. She got to thinking about it, and in a short time she went out. But, alas! not merely in ludicrous ways does this propensity of ours show itself, but in terrible earnest. The more a man knows something is wrong, sometimes the more it seems he cannot help doing it. If you should go into a darkened room, that had long been shut up, and with a broom should begin to clean it out, there might be a nest of vipers in one corner lying still in the darkness, but when you disturbed them they would thrust out their forked tongues and hiss and threaten to destroy you. So when God’s law comes with its demand upon us to clean out the sin from our souls, how our sinful propensities, that were asleep maybe, will wake up and threaten us! The apostle says, “I was alive without the law once — I thought I was leading a true spiritual life and that I was a good man — but when the commandment came to me, sin revived (came to life again), and I died. I saw that all my spirituality was nothing, I was not a good man at all.”
Is this the fault of the law of God? Paul says, No; the law of God is all right; the commandment of God is holy and just and good — the law is just as good as it can be, it is God’s own law. It is not the fault of the law, it is the fault of sin. And this shows what a terrible thing sin is, that it takes the very rule of God that is given to direct our life, and perverts it into the occasion of doing worse — “that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful.” Ah, when God has reached down to this sin-ruined world of ours and given his own rule of what is right, men take that and pervert it and become worse than they would have been without it. Does not sin thus show itself to be exceeding sinful? So the result is that man finds in himself a struggle which the apostle himself describes; there rise up desires to do right, and then there arise sinful dispositions, contrary to God’s law; and these stimulate one another until sometimes his whole bosom is a battle-field.
Ah ! the battle-fields in human bosoms! Do you know what it means? Don’t you know? That is what the apostle proceeds to describe. “What I want to do,” he says, “I do not do, and what I don’t want to do I keep doing. I am fighting against myself; there are good tendencies in me, but there are evil tendencies in me, and I war, and I struggle, and I wrestle — O wretched man that I am ! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” That is the climax; that is the highest that ever soul of man reached on earth in trying to be good in his own strength — to come up to such an intensity of fearful, painful struggle that he would cry out in the agony of utmost desperation, “O wretched, wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me?” Does any one sit coolly here to-day and say there is a touch of extravagance there? Well, it is the apostle’s extravagance. And oh, the more a man strives to be what he ought to be, while losing sight of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the more he will find himself in sympathy with that wild, passionate cry of a struggling, tortured soul.
There has been a good deal of controversy between what are called Calvinists and what are called Arminians, as to whether this passage I have just been speaking of gives the experience of a renewed man or of an unrenewed man. I think the truth is, as some recent writers have been showing, that it does not really give either, but gives the experience of any man, either renewed or unrenewed, who is looking to the law to make him holy. Renewed men often fall back upon that. They lose the firm hold on justification by faith, and they get to thinking to save themselves, to make themselves holy by their own merit. Then no wonder they fall down in despondency and almost in despair. Unrenewed men, on the other hand, are often trying to do right according to what they see to be right — according to their own knowledge of God’s word. And any man who tries to be holy in his own strength, this is his experience. Such a conflict there is in the bosoms of men, and of the best men, yea, a battle-field in every bosom here on earth. Nowhere is sin completely triumphant, and nowhere, yet, has holiness completely triumphed. But, oh! the difference between those beaten back on the field of battle, beaten back and ever back, who can see no hope of aught but destruction, unless something strange they cannot anticipate should occur, and those who triumphantly rely on the help of God, and are certain of success. O the difference! And so Paul breaks forth, “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Let us then turn to the other thought of the apostle, as to what the gospel can do towards making a man holy. He makes three points about this.
First, the gospel sets a man free from condemnation, because of his past sin. “There is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus.” The first thought of a man who begins to think of leading a new life is, “What am I to do with all these sins I have already committed?” But the gospel of Jesus Christ frees us from the guilt of sin, from condemnation because of our sin. There is now no condemnation. The gospel comes to the ruined debtor to pay all bis debts in a moment; it comes to the prisoner to break the bonds that bound him and to open the doors of his prison and set him free.
And then, in the next place, the gospel comes with a new moral power. The apostle speaks of a third law that comes in like a reinforcement: “But the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath emancipated me from the law of sin and death.” This new reinforcing power is the Spirit of God. He calls it the law of the Spirit. The law of God and the law in our members are in fierce conflict, and there comes a new moral power to give us the victory. My brethren, we do not preach as much as we ought, nor think half as much as we ought, about the Spirit of God. I do not want you to talk less or think less of the atoning death, or the interceding life, or the tender sympathy, or the beautiful example, or the divine power of the divine Redeemer; not less of that, but more of the Spirit of God. Why, Jesus himself said a very remarkable thing about the Holy Spirit when he was just taking leave of the disciples. On that night he said: “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth.” Now, when a dignified, self-respecting person condescends to say: “I am telling you the truth,” there must be some very special occasion for it. He knew he was about to say something hard for them to believe: “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth; it is expedient for you that I go away; for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come to you.” He himself says you are better off as it is with the Holy Spirit, the great Counsellor and Guide and Comforter, in his special mission, than if he had not come, and Jesus himself were still on earth. Think of that; cherish the Spirit’s mission; pray, above all things, when you pray, that your Heavenly Father will give the Holy Spirit to you, that you may be strengthened. I say again, we think too little about that great idea and element of the gospel. We go struggling on, forgetting that mighty reinforcement that our gracious God offers us in our life’s battle, “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus.” The next time you are specially tempted cry out mightily for the help of the Spirit of God. And when you are despondent, and fancy you can never get to be what your soul longs for, remember what the Spirit of God can make out of even such materials as your character and your life.
One more point. The apostle mentions a new and mighty incentive which the Gospel presents, when he says, a little further on: “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.” My friends, there are four ways in which it is conceivable that a man should serve God. One of them is practically impossible, that you should serve God with fear and trembling as a subject serves a tyrant. There are people who look upon God in the light of a despot; but they cannot really serve him thus. Again, are we to serve God as a poor, cowering slave serves a hard master, from fear of punishment? Nay, no man would truly serve God, simply from fear that God would punish him if he did not. The third way a man may conceivably serve God is in the hope that he will reward him. But nobody would ever truly serve God, if it were simply and alone from a desire of reward, not even from a desire to reach the blessed heaven. The other way to serve God, of which the apostle speaks, is to serve him out of filial love; to serve him, not as the subject serves a tyrant, not as the servant his master, not as a hireling for pay, but to serve him as a loving son serves a kind father, out of filial love. That is the great idea which Christianity brought into the world on this subject. That is the new motive which Jesus Christ brings to bear on the souls of men, to try to do right out of filial love to their Father. And so Paul proceeds to speak of the ” Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.”
The apostle’s heart is very tender here. He has been depicting those terrible struggles which he himself had had in other days with his own sinful propensities; his heart is now very tender, and so he falls back upon his mother tongue. He is writing in Greek; but he uses the Aramaic word, Abba. If you were talking French or German, and were beginning to speak of things that very much touched your heart; if you began, for instance, to speak of your dead mother, whose very name makes you quiver, you would not then speak in French or German; you would not say mother in French or German; you would use the word you used when a child. So the apostle here uses the Aramaic language he had spoken in childhood: “the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba.” This is what he used to say when he was a boy, and he translates it afterwards, — “Abba, Father.”
I met a young man not long ago, a friend of mine, who told me his father had recently died, and a little after his wife’s father. My young friend was talking about it until he could not talk. He broke down with emotion as he told me how lonely he felt now that both were gone and he had no one to lean on, no one to look up to. Even some old men, when they get into trouble, think about the father they used to go to, and say, “I wish I could ask him what he thinks about the matter.” The Scriptures take hold of that thought and tell us we are not to look to God simply as a master who will punish, not merely as one who will reward, but to look to God as our Father, Father, Father in heaven.
So, then, if a man looks to the law to make him holy, the highest result will be a cry of anguish, “Wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me?” But turning to the gospel, he sees hope of being delivered and becoming holy, and may say, “I thank God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” – John A. Broadus, Sermons and Addresses, 1896, pp. 97-109.
Soli Deo Gloria!