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The term justification is used in two senses:
(a.) In the sense of pronouncing the subject blameless:
(b.) In the sense of pardon, acceptance, and treating one who has sinned, as if he had not sinned.
It is in this last sense, that the advocates of this theory hold, that Christians are justified, that is, that they are pardoned, and accepted, and treated as just, though at every moment sinning, by coming short of rendering that obedience which the moral law demands. They do not pretend that they are justified at any moment by the law, for that at every moment condemns them for present sin; but that they are justified by grace, not in the sense that they are made really and personally righteous by grace, but that grace pardons and accepts, and in this sense justifies them when they are in the present commission of an indefinite amount of sin; that grace accounts them righteous while, in fact, they are continually sinning; that they are fully pardoned and acquitted, while at the same moment committing sin, by coming entirely and perpetually short of the obedience which, under the circumstances the law of God requires. While voluntarily withholding full obedience, their partial obedience is accepted, and the sin of withholding full obedience is forgiven. God accepts what the sinner has a mind to give, and forgives what he voluntarily withholds. This is no caricature. It is, if I understand them, precisely what many hold. In considering this subject, I wish to propose for discussion the following inquiries, as of fundamental importance.
This must be an inquiry of infinite importance. If we may wilfully withhold a part of our hearts from God, and yet be accepted, how great a part may we withhold? If we may love God with less than all our hearts, and our neighbor less than ourselves, and be accepted, how much less than supreme love to God, and equal love to our neighbor, will be accepted?
Shall we be told, that the least degree of true love to God and our neighbor will be accepted? But what is true love to God and our neighbor? This is the point of inquiry. Is that true love which is not what is required? If the least degree of love to God will be accepted, then we may love ourselves more than we love God, and yet be accepted. We may love God a little, and ourselves much, and still be in a state of acceptance with God. We may love God a little and our neighbor a little, and ourselves more than we love God and all our neighbors, and yet be in a justified state. Or shall we be told that God must be loved supremely? But what is intended by this? Is supreme love a loving with all the heart? But this is full and not partial obedience; yet the latter is the thing about which we are inquiring. Or is supreme love, not love with all the heart, but simply a higher degree of love than we exercise toward any other being? But how much greater must it be? Barely a little? How are we to measure it? In what scale are we to weigh, or by what standard are we to measure, our love, so as to know whether we love God a little more than any other being? But how much are we to love our neighbor, in order to our being accepted? If we may love him a little less than ourselves, how much less, and still be justified? These are certainly questions of vital importance. But such questions look like trifling. Yet why should they? If the theory I am examining be true, these questions must not only be asked, but they must admit of a satisfactory answer. The advocates of the theory in question are bound to answer them. And if they cannot, it is only because their theory is false. Is it possible that their theory should be true, and yet no one be able to answer such vital questions as these just proposed? If a partial obedience can be accepted, it is a momentous question, how partial, or how complete must that obedience be? I say again, that this is a question of agonizing interest. God forbid that we should be left in the dark here. But again,
2. If we are forgiven while voluntarily withholding a part of that which would constitute full obedience, are we not forgiven sin of which we do not repent, and forgiven while in the act of committing the sin for which we are forgiven?
The theory in question is that Christians never, at any time, in this world, yield a full obedience to the divine law; that they always withhold a part of their hearts from the Lord, and yet, while in the very act of committing this abominable sin of voluntarily defrauding God and their neighbor, God accepts their persons and their services, fully forgives and justifies them. What is this, but pardoning present and pertinacious rebellion? Receiving to favor a God-defrauding wretch! Forgiving a sin unrepented of and detestably persevered in! Yes, this must be, if it be true that Christians are justified without present full obedience. That surely must be a doctrine of devils, that represents God as receiving to favor a rebel who has one hand filled with weapons against His throne.
3. But what good can result to God, or the sinner, or to the universe, by thus pardoning and justifying an unsanctified soul? Can God be honored by such a proceeding? Will the holy universe respect, fear, and honor God for such a proceeding? Does it, can it, commend itself to the intelligence of the universe? Will pardon and justification save the sinner, while he yet continues to withhold a part, at least, of his heart from God, while he still cleaves to a part of his sins? Can heaven be edified, or hell confounded, and its cavils silenced, by such a method of justification?
4. But again: Has God a right to pardon sin unrepented of?
Some may feel shocked at the question, and may insist that this is a question which we have no right to agitate. But let me inquire: Has God, as a moral governor, a right to act arbitrarily? Is there not some course of conduct which is suitable to Him? Has He not given us intelligence on purpose that we may be able to see and judge of the propriety of His public acts? Does He not invite and require scrutiny? Why has He required an atonement for sin, and why has He required repentance at all? Who does not know that no executive civil officer has a right to pardon sin unrepented of? The lowest terms upon which any ruler can exercise mercy, are repentance, or, which is the same thing, a return to obedience. Who ever heard, in any government, of a rebel's being pardoned, while he only renounced a part of his rebellion? To pardon him while any part of his rebellion is persevered in, were to sanction by a public act that which is lacking in his repentance. It were to pronounce a public justification of his refusal to render full obedience.
5. But have we a right to ask forgiveness while we persevere in the sin of withholding a part of our hearts from Him?
God has no right to forgive us, and we have no right to desire Him to forgive us, while we keep back any part of the condition of forgiveness. While we persist in defrauding God and our neighbor, we cannot profess penitence and ask forgiveness without gross hypocrisy. And shall God forgive us while we cannot, without hypocrisy, even profess repentance? To ask for pardon, while we do not repent and cease from sin, is a gross insult to God.
6. But does the Bible recognize the pardon of present sin, and while unrepented of? Let the passage be found, if it can be, where sin is represented as pardoned or pardonable, unless repented of and fully forsaken. No such passage can be found. The opposite of this always stands revealed, expressly or impliedly, on every page of divine inspiration.