« PreviousContinue »
ed from a religion of mere form and ceremony; and had set forth the Lord Jesus Christ, received in the heart by faith, and in exclusion of every other plea, as the strong foundation of the sinner's hope. In order to add force to these representations, he now proceeds to shew, that it was not because of his own inability to point to works of righteousness which he had done, that he thus maintained the inefficacy of human performances; for that, on the contrary, if such a ground of acceptance could be admitted, he was ready to establish, beyond power of contradiction, the superiority of his individual claims to the favor of God. Let us see the manner in which he proves this point, by reference to the history of his own life and conduct.
In the description which he now gives, of his external privileges, and unimpeachable rectitude of life, he evidently intends to meet an objection which might be raised, by his enemies, against his doctrine of the inadequacy of man's works to procure everlasting salvation. While he was thus depreciating the merit of every other righteousness but that of Christ, the reply would immediately be made, that he acted upon the same principle with those who rail against advantages, of which they happen to be not themselves the possessors. Thus it is frequently found, that men to whom Providence has denied the blessing of earthly riches, attempt, in an unqualified manner, to lessen its real value. So, likewise, they who decry human learning and accomplishments, are mostly those who, through the divine appointment, or their own culpable neglect, are destitute of these excellent and useful gifts. It holds equally true with respect to every other privilege, that what we have not, we are prone to underrate; and it and it was, accordingly, of great importance that the Apostle
able to shew, that, if there were indeed any meritoriousness in outward deeds and services, this he possessed to the very fullest extent. "Though I might also," he declares, "have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more." Thus boldly he advances his claims; and then goes on to prove them by an enumeration of particulars.
In the first place, he was an actual Jew; not a mere proselyte from the Gentiles: having been "circumcised the eighth day," instead of receiving the rite, like heathen converts, at the period of adult age. He was "of the stock of Israel;” that is, deriving his origin from Abraham in the line of Jacob; and not, like some other descendants of the patriarch, springing from him through Ishmael, the son of Hagar. In addition to all this, he was "of the tribe of Benjamin." Several circumstances combined to render this tribe peculiarly honorable, in the eyes of the Jewish people. Among these may be mentioned the fact, that, when the ten tribes of Israel revolted, this continued firm in its allegiance, and true to the religion of its fathers.* Besides this distinction, it had another which gave it considerable claims to regard; being that tribe in whose lot Jerusalem was situated, according to the original grant of Joshua when the promised land was divided.† He calls attention, next, to the fact, that he was "an Hebrew of the Hebrews;" meaning by this expression to say, that he counted among his ancestors no persons of foreign race, and that his blood was perfectly unmixed: so that the words might, perhaps, be more properly rendered, "an Hebrew from Hebrews." Having thus described the privileges of his birth, he now
* See I. Kings, xii.
+ See Josh. xviii. 28.
passes on to circumstances which, being the result of his own choice, were still more deserving of commendation. "As touching the law," he was "a Pharisee." Of the two prominent Jewish sects, he had embraced that which was held in greatest estimation, and which drew after it the largest proportion of the people. To this distinction the Apostle alludes, in his defence of himself before Agrippa. "My manner of life from my youth, which was at the first among mine own nation at Jerusalem, know all the Jews; which knew me from the beginning, if they would testify, that after the most straitest sect of our religion, I lived a Pharisee.”* In connexion, however, with the strong devotion to the traditions of the elders, so characteristic of the members of that body, he could boast of another ground for exultation. "Concerning zeal," he says, "persecuting the church." If it was any reason for obtaining the favor of God, that a man had been notorious for his rage against the enemies of the Mosaic ritual, then he had, more completely than all others, established his justification. The manner in which Saul of Tarsus ravaged the church of Christ, is recorded, in clearest language, upon the page of sacred history. He is described, in the Acts of the Apostles, as "consenting unto" the death of Stephen;† as "making havoc of the church;"‡ as breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord:"; and, from what is there related, it is evident that nothing could exceed his ardent endeavors, for the maintenance of the faith and worship of his fathers. He concludes his summary by stating with confidence, that, so far as an outward conformity, of the most rigid character, to the letter of the divine commandment, could give him a title to acceptance, + Acts, viii. 1. + Acts, viii. 3. § Acts, ix, 1.
*Acts, xxvi. 4. 5.
he possessed an indisputable claim. "Touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless:" being without spot or blemish; having fulfilled the very least requirement; and, by nothing that he had done, and nothing that he had omitted, liable to the just reproaches of his fellow-men.-It is thus triumphantly that St. Paul demonstrates the fact, that if righteousness came by the deeds of the flesh, then he was entirely sure of salvation; and that, therefore, it was from any other cause rather than his own poverty of outward fruits, that he had been exposing the worthlessness of all human deeds, and the efficacy of Christ alone. He could fearlessly look his opposers in the face; and say to them, in the same words which he employed upon another occasion, "I speak as concerning reproach, as though we had been weak. Howbeit, whereinsoever any is bold, I am bold also.”*
Before proceeding to consider the estimate formed by the great Apostle, of these various works of external obedience, as he himself has stated it in the verse that follows, permit me, my brethren, to draw a passing inference from the enumeration just offered to your view. You perceive St. Paul, for the purpose of answering the sneers of his opponents, recounting, in successive order, the deeds of his correct and moral life. You perceive also, that this description, rich and abundant in performances as it is, comes immediately after a declaration of the insufficiency of every plea of human righteousness, to merit life everlasting. Let me be allowed, then, simply to hold up the catalogue of excellencies here furnished, and to say to every individual within these walls; If such a man could find nothing in his walk and conduct, deserving of a recompense from *II. Cor. xi. 21.
the Lord Almighty, how shall any of you, with better reason, pretend to claim the favor of God upon the ground of blameless rectitude of life? Had St. Paul, after having declared the inefficacy of the works of the flesh, presented us with a meagre summary of actions in his own past career, you might, with some color of justice, have plumed yourselves upon your own superior worth: but, as the facts stand, every refuge of selfrighteousness is withdrawn, and you must all perceive your guilt and poverty before God. The Apostle had been subjected to the enjoined rite of circumcision: what is there more meritorious in the regularity of your Christian baptism? He was born of believing parents: can you find any thing better in your own distinction, as children of those that have trained you, from earliest years, "in the nurture and admonition of the Lord?"* But let us grant that, in these respects, you are superior to the great Apostle of the Gentiles: yet what can you advance in regard to your moral obedience, which shall evince your stronger title to the favor of heaven? Do you pay a more complete regard than he exhibited, to every precept of the decalogue? Is your course through the world more unexceptionable, in one single respect, than that which he pursued during his unregenerate days? Can you pretend to any thing, in the way of outward service, that can place you above the scrupulous Pharisee; full as he was of justice and virtue, and walking, as he did, "in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless ?" Such a claim, my brethren, the best among you in morality of life cannot venture to assert : and, indeed, the real truth is, that the greater portion of those who rest with confidence upon their personal rectitude, are far
* Eph. vi. 4.
+ Luke, i. 6.