The “Ifs” Of Scripture

The word of God always maintains the responsibility of man; indeed it must, for no morally intelligent creature can be other than responsible. Grace and redemption may introduce principles and facts which modify the operation of the principle, but the principle remains true. But I think that the word casts a more definite light on the place responsibility holds in connection with the grace that is revealed in Christ, than many are aware of.

I would lay down a principle evident to every one, and incontestable in human relationships, but forgotten in divine ones (and with one only exception not based on relationship, which I will state in its place), that as a general principle, responsibility is based on, and measured by, the relationships in which we are. Parent and child, husband and wife, master and servant—evidently in all these the responsibility is based on, and measured by, the relationship. The one exception is where God, or one having competent authority in the case, claims the recognition of another in any given position or authority. Thus, if Christ, Moses, or a prophet be sent, adequate testimony being given, we are bound to receive them. The mission is, in fact, an instituted relationship.

Now our original responsibility is no longer a question for those who know the truth. It is no longer, “if thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted?”—always abtractedly true; we have sinned, and on that ground are guilty and lost. But the great truth of Christ and redemption has come in. If I call myself a Christian, I place myself on this ground—the ground of redemption. The question is, to put responsibility in its place, where this is owned. Now redemption is a work of God, and not responsibility on our part. Yet they are constantly mixed up together, and uncertainty introduced where all is perfect, and confusion where all is clear. But there are two things generally in the position of the Christian— redemption wrought by grace for him, and his actual attainment of glory. Now “if”—that is a condition, is never connected with redemption. It is always connected with our course towards the glory, and here it is of continual occurrence.

In the purpose of God there is no variation or uncertainty. In His government He may set conditions, and in fact does so: it is connected with our conduct, but in purpose—not so; and in redemption even, taken in its application to us there is no uncertainty. In Ephesians you have no “if”: “We have redemption through his blood.” In Titus, it is “Not according to works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy, he saved us.” “By grace ye are saved.” The value of Christ’s work admits of no “if,” nor its application even to every believer. “He hath saved us, and called us with a holy calling, according to his own purpose and grace, given to us in Christ Jesus before the world began.”

So in type Israel stands still, and sees the salvation of Jehovah, who led forth the people He had redeemed, and guided them by His strength to His holy habitation. And again, “Ye have seen… how I bare you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself.” The whole was absolute and complete redemption. So we have no more conscience of sins, but are accepted in the Beloved. He hath by one offering perfected for ever those that are sanctified. Here it is the application to conscience. But not only is a full title made in righteousness, not only are the sins blotted out, and we are justified from all things, accepted in the Beloved, and our consciences purged, but we are made meet [fit] to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light. Nothing lacks in completeness. Hence the thief could go straight to paradise, fit, through the travail of His soul, to be Christ’s companion there. Yet ordinarily we are left to tread longer or shorter time our pilgrimage here.

Now this, as in Deuteronomy 8, is to humble us, and prove us, and know what is in our hearts. We enter on it on the ground of redemption. All Christendom stands on this ground, may little realise its value, but it is Christendom because redemption is accomplished. The first thing tested is—is it realised? Are we really so? If not, we perish in the wilderness in unbelief. On this point I do not enter. But the question remains then—Shall I arrive safe in Canaan? for we are not yet there. And here come in all the “ifs”: if I hold fast the beginning of my confidence firm to the end: if ye continue in the faith, and the like.

I believe there is a full answer given to what is in question, practically realised, in Philippians 2 and 3; in others it is doctrinally set forth. But the answer is not redemption—a finished work. This is the basis of all, and if one imbued with the mind of God had seen one drop of blood sprinkled on a door-post, he might have been certain on to Solomon’s, and yet far better, Christ’s millennial glory, but it was not accomplished, and God teaches us by what is revealed, whether historically as to His ways, or prophetically in His word, as to things to come, and all His counsels given us in the New Testament.

But the wilderness was not redemption, and God would have us to look at redemption as complete. He suffered, the Just for the unjust, to bring us to God. We are complete in Him (Christ). But, as I said, whatever exercise of conscience we may have had before knowing the value of the blood of Christ, or what the lingerings of unbelief cradled by self to make out our own righteousness, it is usual in God’s ways to have a practical wilderness course after redemption, when the knowledge of ourselves, and of God and His ways in grace and government, are developed, to humble us, and to prove us, and to do us good in our latter end.

When we come to see what we have to lean on at the end, we are brought back to the beginning, though one who has walked faithfully with Christ will surely have a sweeter and deeper knowledge of Him who began and finished all. All Balaam can say is, when the question was, Could Israel enter into Canaan, I can do nothing. There is no enchantment against Jacob, no divination against Israel, as at this time it shall be said of Israel and Jacob, What hath God wrought? But meanwhile, between the two we are in weakness, and in temptation, and real perils. The flesh is in us, and what pleases it is there. Shall I arrive safe in Canaan? is the question. If I mix up this with redemption, all is confusion, all is uncertainty; for while it was said to be finished, and all our sins remembered no more, here all is in question again, and, imputed or not imputed, I.lose heaven by sins which have been borne: if they have not been borne, then redemption is unfinished and incomplete.

Now the government of God, though in perfect love and grace— “whom the Lord loves he chastens”—yet has always a legal principle in it; that is, the ways of God depend on what we are, not in the perfectness of His love, but in His ways with us. Besides, the heart craves holiness, and knows God can bear with nothing else. We would not that He should. He makes us partakers—blessed truth!—of His holiness. Now the mass of Christendom are really unbelievers, and, like Israel, perish in the wilderness, never do get into Canaan. Those fear who are true of heart, and, if there is no distrust of grace, it is a salutary fear, lest any of them should seem to come short.

There will be found in Numbers two great principles (found again in Hebrews) which characterise the position; the red heifer, practically answering to John 13, 1 John 2:1, 2, but here known to believers for restoring communion after they have practically failed; and the priesthood: the former meeting a failure in the wilderness, the latter the sustaining power for weakness— “grace to help in time of need.” In Numbers 19 we have the red heifer out of its place, say the wise rationalists, whereas the essence of its meaning depends on where it is. Then (chap. 20) Aaron dies, and after Sihon (Balaam, as we have seen), comes God’s judicial estimate of His people. In Deuteronomy 9 we find His moral estimate— this, What has Israel done? that, “What hath God wrought?” and the comparison is full of instruction.

The statement, “What hath God wrought?” is an accomplished thing—it is wrought. Now in the wilderness, though redemption was the basis of all, an accomplished work was not what was wanting for the wilderness itself, but living care, guidance, ministry and constant need to be met; and this was what was found, and what we find in that of which this was only the type. They had to reach Canaan, as we have glory, and that where there are spiritual wickednesses on the way, in a wilderness where there is no way, nor bread, nor wine, and we ourselves without strength. And the dangers are real and present. It is not a full and finished salvation—which, thank God, there is—but daily dependence, and a living One who can sustain, guide, and protect us. God, that we may know ourselves and Him, puts us in this place of danger, real danger and difficulty, where by ourselves we could not get through, and gives us to find it out, but with the testing and trial, with the question, “If we hold the beginning of our confidence stedfast unto the end”: all these are most real, and forgiveness itself leaves all vague, but there is the infallible promise for faith to lean on, and divine support: “We are kept by the power of God, through faith, unto the salvation ready to be revealed.”

The well-known passage (John 10) assures everything: “They shall never perish, neither shall any one pluck them out of my hand.” No perishing either; Christ is our life (no greater power to pluck us out), and that according to the divine power of the Father and the Son. So in 1 Corinthians 1:8: “who shall confirm you to the end, that ye may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus”; so “God is faithful by whom ye were called.” There is no uncertainty or doubt, then, in the wilderness; but the kind of certainty is different, and the difference practically important. Redemption is accomplished, and Christ our righteousness, according to all the value of what He has wrought for the glory of God. It is finished, perfect, and accepted of God. But in general the race is to be run, that we may win Christ, be found in Him; we have to hold fast to the end, that He may present us blameless, as in Jude.

This is a never-ceasing work, but as certain as if all was done. “He withdraweth not his eyes from the righteous.” It is constant dependence, in order to get safe to the end, but dependence on what is sure, as God is sure. We work out our salvation with fear arid trembling, but God works in us to will and to do. The wolf seizes and scatters the sheep, but he cannot seize them (the same word) out of Christ’s hand; the faithfulness and the strength are alike, and both divine. The “if” is there, and dependence constant, and diligence in it called for, but God, with whom is no “if,” is there to meet it.

There are uncertainties and questioning experiences of this kind, when all our Christian life and happiness are lumped together, and which are confounded where redemption is not known, but the soul has really to say to God. It will say, “Without holiness no man shall see the Lord”; but this is an abuse of terms; the soul is looking for a certain state as ground of acceptance. Now this is really a question of righteousness. What is said is surely true, but holiness is what is holy—yea, God Himself loved for His own sake. It is not holiness when it is desired with a view to acceptance. That soul does not know redemption, Christ as its righteousness, and is looking at its own state as its ground of acceptance. It has to learn that it is guilty and lost, not something to be desired—right and essential as the desire is—but to learn that it is not what, nor has done what, God desires, and has to be saved, must cross the Red Sea, and that its business is not to wait for what is desirable, but to acknowledge its own sinful state, and that what it needs is redemption, to stand still and see the salvation of God.