By George Wright, Beccles, U.K.
Published January, 1847
What man can do, and what he cannot do, are points which have been much disputed; but one testimony of Jesus decides the controversy, “Without me ye can do nothing.” These gracious words were not intended to signify that we cannot act as rational creatures, by the application of the understanding and reason for the attainment of knowledge, nor that we cannot perform the moral duties which we owe to one another, nor that our impotence is such that we cannot wait upon God in the public ordinances of his house; for if we can go to the shop or market to transact worldly business, we can also go to the place where his name is recorded and his word is proclaimed. But our Lord meant that without him we cannot bring forth fruit to the glory of God.
Without Christ we cannot believe. Salvation, with every thing which accompanies it, is promised to them that believe in his name. “He that believeth shall be saved.” “He that believeth hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation.” Faith is not that which saves us, but that by which we receive and trust in Christ Jesus alone, “In whom we have redemption, through his blood, the forgiveness of sins;” and by whose obedience, imputed to us, we are justified and made without fault before the throne of God. The work of Christ, which he completed on the cross, has been justly called a “finished salvation;” for such it is. Faith confides in it, but adds nothing to it. It is free for sinners, as such; and when the soul, convinced of its guilt and pollution, comes to, and relies upon him, we are sweetly assured that we are saved in him; and, as the immediate result, we are filled with peace and joy in believing. From this favoured moment we walk in the light of God’s countenance, and while we continue looking unto Jesus, our comforts, hopes and joys abound more and more. The fruit of Christ is sweet to our taste. After trying all other means of happiness, we now find that all happiness is comprehended in Jesus, and we enjoy it by faith. Nor can any thing be put in the place of faith, or combine with it as the means of realizing that “eternal life” which is the sum of all holiness, joy and glory. It is not by works of righteousness which we have done, nor by works and faith together, that we enjoy it, but by faith alone. This shews the exceeding riches of God’s grace, and the absolutely gratuitous nature of salvation. It is a gift which we possess by receiving it; it is a feast to which Christ, the great Master, invites us to come, and eat and drink abundantly, without money and without price. Pardon, righteousness, peace, and the earnest of the heavenly inheritance are ours by believing. Peter calls faith “precious;” and precious it must be, because we obtain all we need by faith. It is precious too, because it cannot be purchased at any price. Nature is too poor to buy a single grain; all our labour cannot produce it. It is grace flowing to us from the fulness of Christ, who is the author and finisher of our faith. It is the work of his hand, and without him we cannot believe. The same adorable person who redeemed us, makes us believers.
As we cannot believe, so neither can we obey the gospel without him. Evangelical obedience is the obedience of faith, consisting of a holy walk and conversation, springing from faith as its principle, and regulated by the gospel as its rule. The gospel is the “law of faith,”—” the perfect law of liberty;” and they who are called by the gospel to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ, are delivered from the law of works, and made subject to the law of faith, that they may “serve God in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter.” Being no longer under the law, but under grace, they fulfil the law of Christ, not that they may be saved, but because they are saved. Their obedience is not mercenary, but free; they are not actuated by self-love, or the interested motive of earning wages by their service, but their aim is to do the will of him who redeemed them, and whom their souls love, that he may be glorified. Such is the disinterested motive of gospel obedience; and as believers are freely and fully justified by the righteousness of their Lord, and have an inalienable title to everlasting life in him, pursuant to the settlements of grace in the everlasting covenant, they are willingly subject to his authority, and cheerfully bear his yoke. But without him they cannot do this. They cannot take a single step aright in the path of his commandments, but as he guides and draws them; they can bring forth no acceptable fruit of righteousness, but as he worketh in them both to will and to do of his own good pleasure. “0 Lord, thou wilt ordain peace for us; for thou also hast wrought all our works in us.”
This inability may be accounted for, in one respect, by what we are in ourselves. The sin that dwelleth in us, and prevails in every part and faculty of our being, renders us impotent to all that is good, and disposes us to turn from every thing spiritual with aversion and distaste; nor can we be persuaded to be or do otherwise. Neither the threatenings of God’s eternal wrath, nor the sweet promises of his grace, will change our minds. Sin hath dominion over us, and we obey it; and so far as we are under its influence, we live in the practice of self-idolatry, seeking our own pleasure rather than glorifying God. And though sin has not dominion over the called of God, yet it remains in them, lusting against the Spirit, so that they cannot do the things that they would. The corruption of our nature by sin, may then be considered as one reason why Christ’declared, “Without me ye can do nothing.” “For who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? Not one.” We neither know ourselves, nor what sin is, if we are not convinced that we are impotent and helpless. But must we not believe or perish? We must. But precious faith is not produced by human choice or power; it rather implies our weakness, and is part of God’s new creation in the soul, where it did not before exist, and in which there was nothing from which it could be formed.
If, however, our inability may be accounted for from our total and entire depravity, yet the principal reason for our Lord’s declaration is to be found in what he is made to them that are his, according to the good pleasure of the Father’s will, to the praise of the glory of his grace. He is to them what the vine is to the branches; and it is in allusion to this figure that he said, “Separate from me ye can do nothing.” When God purposed to form a people for himself, he chose them in Christ, as their head, and ordained that all the spiritual blessings they should enjoy, with all their gracious principles, affections, exercises, and fruits of holiness, should be derived from his fulness, and manifest the grace he had given to them in him. In order to do this more effectually, God, in the unsearchable depth of his counsel, permitted them to fall in Adam, and lose all their original righteousness and excellence. The purpose of his love to them, in Christ, was made known by their redemption through his blood; and it is, and will be further shown, to its final consummation, by the communication of grace to them from his fulness. Just, then, as the branch must be fruitless if severed from the vine, so, separate from Christ, we can do nothing. Union to him precedes all spiritual fruitfulness, and is necessary before we can believe and obey the gospel. Christ-exalting, grace-honouring truth! He is precious to those who feel their own impotence. All we want is in him. Believers, it is your blessedness to be ever dependant on Jesus for all things. Think not so much of what you are to do, as what he will work in you. Consider his word your law, but trust in him to enable you to keep it. In every required exercise of faith, obedience and submission, look to him as engaged to work in you that which he requires. This is the way to be fruitful and happy, and to honour him who is ” all and in all.”